Wednesday 16 November 2005

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys (2005)

Edition: Review, 2005
Review number: 1309

Neil Gaiman's new novel is not a sequel to American Gods, but it shares a setting and many of the ideas behind the earlier story. There is one shared character, in a way: Anansi the trickster spider from African myth, a major source for the stories of Brer Rabbit that might be more familiar to many Westerners. The premise of Anansi Boys is that Anansi is dead, and his son Charlie, a London-based accountant, has to come to terms with who his father was, at the same time discovering that he has a brother who has inherited his father's supernatural powers, yet seems to want to take over Charlie's dull life.

Generally, the tone is quite light - this is Gaiman's sunniest novel to date with the possible exception of Pratchett collaboration Good Omens. This is true even though the original Anansi stories have a definite nasty side. The originals, some of which are retold here, are generally about practical jokes, which can really only be excused because they show the underdog winning by his cleverness - after all, what chance does a spider have against a tiger physically?

Perhaps because it is lacking in good ideas, Anansi Boys does not seem as good as American Gods. It's purpose is less serious, however; it is meant to entertain, and it does so magnificently. It does seem more Tom Holt than Neil Gaiman; not necessarily a bad thing, but not what I expected.

At the end of the book, there is a short series of appendices, explicitly compared to the extras that appear on DVDs. As there, some are more interesting than other; a deleted scene and a short interview with Gaiman add to the novel, while the banal questions for book groups don't. One good thing about the deleted scene is that it shows that Gaiman is willing to cut out good bits if they don't fit in to the flow of the novel, something that many of today's fantasy authors could do well to copy.

Wednesday 9 November 2005

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go (2005)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 2005
Review number: 1308

I have remarked before that frequently when a successful mainstream writer produces a novel with science fiction themes in it, critics overpraise it while it falls flat to long term genre fans. This is basically because both author and critics are unfamiliar with ideas that are commonplace to the fans. Most of the exceptions to the rule come from the early days - Huxley, Orwell, and so on - and succeed because of the strength of the reason for turning to the genre.

The first of the 2005 Booker Prize shortlist I have read, Never Let Me Go is also the first novel by Ishiguro I have read. My previous acquaintance with the author was limited to about the first half hour of the film of Remains of the Day, and that put me off reading his work. Though evidence in the story points to a setting in the recent past (use of Walkmans, for example), it uses ideas from the science fiction genre and reads almost as though John Wyndham were writing today.

The story of Never Let Me Go is about memories: an adult looks back on growing up. But she grew up as part of a group with an unusual destiny; her boarding school is strange, very cut off from the world, and there are occasional hints of a chilling fate awaiting the children. Hailsham is not an orphanage, but a hidden establishment to bring up clones, for later use as organ donors for transplant surgery. This is an idea that turns up reasonably often in science fiction, but I suspect that with this setting, the story would then probably go on to describe how the clones bring down the system through their intelligence, and Never Let Me Go is not like that at all. The characters in the novel never really consider rebellion or flight (except by talking about the possibility of a "deferral" within the rules), even when they reach the point of being selected as donors. The horror of their situation is to an extent understood by them (for example, they use the euphemism of "completion" to refer too their eventual deaths), but it is not what they think about. Indeed, the tone of the narration is reminiscent resignation, almost nostalgic regret, as Kathy looks back on her time at Hailsham. By creating an atmosphere of understated melancholy, Ishiguro has made this a more effective novel than it would have been if he had dwelt unsubtly on the horror of these children's lives.

A lot of the more intellectual science fiction has a purpose beyond the literal meaning of the words on the page - social criticism, a political or philosophical position to attack or defend, the impact of new technological ideas on individuals or society. The use of science fiction ideas suggests that there might be a similar purpose in Never Let Me Go, and there is - but exactly what it is is not made clear until near the end of the novel, at it is more subtle than just suggesting that the use of human clones as transplant organ banks is morally wrong. The reason no one has been willing to end the use of the clones is that they bring immense benefits (curing cancer among them), which mean that most people want to forget that the clones are real people and just think of them as though they were machines manufactured to grow the organs. So the issue that is behind the novel is about how people ignore the more unpleasant aspects of their culture, in order to live a comfortable life; and that this is not right, because there are some things that should not be done, no matter what the benefits are. Ishiguro makes no attempt to discuss where the line should be drawn - factory farming, animal experimentation, suffering in the third world to maintain the lifestyle of the rich nations of the world, or where. The end does not justify the means, and we should be aware of it; that is what Ishiguro is saying.

This is an atmospheric and thought provoking story, and proves that today's mainstream authors can venture into the territory of the science fiction genre without making their ignorance obvious.

Thursday 27 October 2005

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2004
Review number: 1307

The is obviously something of a golden age in British science fiction and fantasy at the moment. For the first time ever, this year's Hugo novels short list was dominated by British entries (though this may be because the 2005 WorldCon, whose delegates vote in the award, was held on this side of the Atlantic). Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was the winner of the Hugo, and is in my opinion more than just the best fantasy novel of the year; it ranks amongst the classics of the genre while comprehensively rejecting the heroic style that has dominated it since Tolkien. Last year, the literary fantasy novel which most impressed me, Iain R. MacLeod's The Light Ages, was clearly heavily influenced by Dickens. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell also harks back to a nineteenth century style, but this time it is George Eliot who is the model. Like MacLeod, Clarke writes well enough for the comparison to be justifiable rather than pure hyperbole.

Again like The Light Ages, this novel is a portrait of an England full of magic; rather than the industrial raw material of MacLeod's story, Clarke imagines it as an art practised by the gifted in learned societies (rather like the scientific groups which were around in the seventeenth and eighteenth century). In the early years of the nineteenth century, during the Napoleonic Wars, the practise of magic has died out, and those who call themselves magicians are either charlatans and conjurors or scholars producing learned treatises on the accomplishments of English magicians of the past. The Middle Ages had been the age of the aureate or golden magicians including the Raven King who once ruled half the land. The novel is the story of the two men who are destined to be instrumental in bringing magic back to England, and they are both more scholars than heroes (though Jonathan Strange accompanies Wellington on his campaigns in Spain).

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a long novel full of detail (which is often amusing). Everything is done to make it read as though it were a real world nineteenth century novel, including the sort of footnotes often found in modern editions, here explaining the references to magical history. In effect, it's meant to seem as though a product of this universe of magic has fallen through somehow to be published in this mundane world. Everything in it is normal - according to its own rules - and the characters in it are normal people, and not valiant paladins or sorcerers steeped in unspeakable evil. (Mr Norrell is distinctly reminiscent of Eliot's Casaubon from Middlemarch, if rather more successful in his scholarly endeavours.)

While very different from most fantasy novels today, I found myself reminded of some of my favourites from the genre: John Crowley's Little, Big and Neil Gaiman's Stardust. It is milder than the latter and more overtly intellectual than either, but really has a similar atmosphere to it as both these stories. Clarke's debut - which is incredibly accomplished - is at least on a level with these two. It should become a gentle classic of a genre not generally known for its subtlety; a truly great novel.

Tuesday 18 October 2005

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2005
Review number: 1306

Most of the Harry Potter books so far have begun with tales of the mistreatment of Harry by the Dursleys during the summer holidays, which provide a comic note even as the novels as a whole become darker. The first exception is The Goblet of Fire, which begins a quite chilling scene featuring Voldemore himself. The Half-Blood Prince is the second, and it begins with a very different scene: the introduction of the new Minister of Magic (the incomptencies of Cornelius Fudge having finally led to his replacement) to the British Prime Minister, who is the only Muggle in the country permitted to know about the existence of magic. It is an odd beginning to the novel, especially when you compare it to The Goblet of Fire - what happens in Voldemort's ancestral home is of great importance to the plot, but the scene with the Prime Minister seems only to be used to introduce the new Minister of Magic, who is a comparatively minor character in the novel, before being completely forgotten. Of course, the two of them may turn out to be more important later on - Rowling has proved to be quite good at picking up details later, and there are several examples of the way that she does this in The Half-Blood Prince.

The plot this time is more to do with Dumbledore's attempts to help Harry understand Voldemort's background rather than the machinations of Voldemort attempting to kill Harry - the focus of the earlier stories. A crucial part is played by memory - Harry watches several episodes from Voldemort's early life which are either Dumbledore's own memories or ones he has collected. They do this because Dumbledore is convinced that these memories are key to understanding what has happened to Voldemort since his attack on Harry's parents: why had his failure to kill Harry as well led to his disappearance and a shadowy half-existence?

However, the main theme of the novel is not so much its plot as the evolvution of the relationships between the characters established earlier in the series, as contrasted to the cold calculation that marks out the manipulation that is the only way that Tom Riddle (the young Voldemort) seems to relate to those around him. This novel is in fact a six hundred page exposition of something Dumbledore tells Harry, that the important difference between him and Riddle is the role that love plays in his life, from the sacrifice his parents made of their own lives trying to protect him to the way he works with his friends as contrasted with the subservient obedience Voldemort demands of his Death Eaters. It also plays to one of Rowlings' strengths as a writer, her characters. Harry at sixteen is not the same as Harry at eleven; growing up and his experiences have developed Rowling's central character. By concentrating on relationships, both he and the lesser characters become rounded out; even Draco Malfoy becomes more than an arrogant bully.

A lot of what happens in The Half-Blood Prince fits in with the things I had guessed would occur or was widely predicted by fans, but the one important event I didn't expect at ll (which occurs near the end, so I won't say anything that gives it away) is possibly not what it seems to be on the surface: in the last magical confrontation, think about what Harry is prevented from doing, and what this may mean.


The intention behind The Half-Blood Prince is sufficiently different from the earlier books that it is not easy to compare its quality with the rest of the series. We learn a lot of background, and this is handled very well indeed; so often this sort of thing becomes a boring interlude between the scenes of action. It has a serious tone, which is reasonable considering the events it follows at the end of The Order of the Phoenix, not least in their effects on Harry's own life. The adventures of Harry Potter have been moving in this direction since The Goblet of Fire, and in this book Harry is being prepared, as he, the other charadcters, and the readers all know, for the most serious confrontation he will ever face. In the end, The Half-Blood Prince is much more dependent on its place in the series than the others, and is the only one (so far) that would really suffer from being read out of context.

Wednesday 12 October 2005

Lawrence Durrell: The Dark Labyrinth (1947)

Originally titled: Cefalû
Edition: Faber & Faber, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1305

In all of Lawrence Durrell's novels, the author combines an apparently realistic story with psychological and spiritual allegroy, so that nothing necessarily means what it appears to signify on the surface. (I wouldn't class them as fully allegorical, because I can't come up with a meaning beyond the surface one for some aspects of each novel.) In The Dark Labyrinth, his first novel, the scaffolding which makes this structure work is much more obvious than in his later work, making it simultaneously easier to understand but less resonant because the cleverness registers consciously rather than being absorbed without noticing. This is basically because the central image - the mythical Cretan labyrinth in which the Minotaur lived - is so dominant.

The plot of the novel hinges round an incredible archaeological discovery on Crete - a complex maze of caves containing ancient artefacts of very high quality; this is immediately hailed as the original of the labyrinth from the myth in the same way that the ancient Cretan culture has been labelled Minoan after the king in the same myth. A group of British tourists become lost in the dark cave after a rock fall kills their guide; they are (with one exception, a man who found his way out) believed dead.

From the symbolic point of view, it is clear that the labyrinth represents a spiritual or psychological crisis in the lives of these people, some sort of difficulty that they need to find their way through. (Thus the labyrinth has three meanings: a set of Cretan caves, the mythological haunt of the monster, and a psychological crisis.) What happens to each of them in the maze after the guide's death has its own allegorical significance, especially clear for the couple who find themselves in a garden of Eden, a lost world - a plateau inaccessible from the rest of the island except through the maze, inhabited only by an elderly British archaeologist who found her way there years previously (importantly, she has not even been aware of the Second World War, and so the plateau has a sense of innocence that has been lost to the world at large).

This is not a Christian allegory, of course. I say this not because the illustration of religious ideas is the most frequent and best known reason for the use of allegory in literature, but because Durrell explicitly uses Biblical images like Eden alongside pagan Greek myth. One of the points of the labyrinth experience is that each person has to work out their own way to return to the outside world, not follow one unique path - compare The Dark Labyrinth with The Pilgrim's Progress, where those who do not follow the correct route to the Celestial City never get there. In fact, Durrell seems to assume that all the ideas that help the trapped tourists escape are true, which may in some cases annoy people. He was clearly extremely interested in mysticism and unusual religious ideas (whether or not he actually believed in them), and spiritualism is treated extremely sympathetically (though less laughably than Arthur Conan Doyle's later Professor Challenger novels); in this novel, real mediums, spirit guides and contact with the dead all exist.

The lack of the subtlety which I would associate with the later work of Lawrence Durrell (and which makes him, to my mind, one of the greatest English novelists of the second half of the twentieth century) marks The Dark Labyrinth as an early attempt at the themes and ideas which fill his mature work. It is not, therefore, his best, but it is definitely of interest to fans of his writing.

Tuesday 4 October 2005

Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist (2004)

Edition: Orbit, 2004
Review number: 1304

Iain Banks latest is an addition to the growing list of his non-Culture science fiction, though it has the same flavour as those set in that universe. It is set far in the future, in a galaxy filled with many kinds of lifeforms. These are generally classified as either Quick (those who evolved mainly on rocky planets, including two kinds of humans) or Slow (those who live with much slower metabolisms who often developed in gas giants, which include the other major species we meet in The Algebraist, the Dwellers). The Dwellers are somewhat mysterious and incredibly long-lived beings (some individuals are older than entire races) who have a history dating back to very early in galactic history. They hardly communicate with members of other species, and those who are permitted to communicate with them, known as Seers, are often completely confused by what they are told, especially since the Dwellers are prone to jokes which mean that much of what they say can't be trusted. One persistent story which is widely disbelieved by the galaxy as a whole is that there is a key to a document known as the "Dweller List", which seems to describe a large number of portals (the instantaneous travel mechanism which makes Banks' galactic civilization possible), but which cannot be decoded.

The Dwellers seem to me to be the major conceptual link between The Algebraicist and the Culture novels. They take the insouciant, anarchic way of life of the Culture to an extreme. They are the highlights of the novel, the source of many humorous touches: they are the only aliens I have come across in the whole of the science fiction genre who are given convincing dialogue that is reminiscent of the tramps in Waiting for Godot.

The central character of the novel, Fassin Taak, is one of the most successful Seers, and it is he who brings back from one of his trips to the gas giant Nasqueron a work of literature which is later discovered to have a clue to the Dweller List hidden in an appendix. This is so important that it provokes an invasion of the planetary system by some really nasty villains, which in turn forces Taak to return to Nasqueron to try and persuade the Dwellers to give up the rest of the secret before the destruction of his home world.

The Algebraist is a fun novel, very enjoyable to read, though not really covering new ground for Banks despite the different setting. Indeed, it is now quite some time since Banks has produced anything as innovative as his early novels, and he is now apparently content to write polished variations on the themes that make up his mature style (perhaps this is something that can be said of most authors who have a career of any length). Maybe moving away from the Culture is an attempt to bring back some of the early originality, in which case it has not really succeeded. There are now of course many writers who have been influenced by Banks, particularly by his science fiction; The Algebraist reads in places almost like a novel by yet another admirer than by the man himself. Here we really have the novelist as craftsman rather than artist; very welcome, very satisfying, and only disappointing because the reader knows that Banks is capable of much more.

One very small point: when I studied mathematics, those who concentrated on algebra were known as "algebraicists" rather than "algebraists".

Saturday 6 August 2005

Stephen Donaldson: The Runes of the Earth (2004)

Edition: Gollancz, 2004
Review number: 1303

For those who have for a long time now been fans of the original Thomas Covenant novels, the announcement of a new chronicle caused a simultaneous quickening of interest and awakening of apprehension. The latter is not so much a fear that the whole series might be ruined by a sub-standard sequel or one which would become an anticlimactic finale. Interest is raised by the high standard of Donaldson's writing, even though this has not stopped him producing an entire series I find unreadable. Apprehension, on the other hand, is fed by the length of time since the previous Thomas Covenant series (why go back to it now, after twenty years?), and by the seeming finality of the ending of White Gold Wielder.

The story of The Runes of the Earth, like the first part of each of the earlier Chronicles, begins in Covenant's home town. Here, Linden Avery, who was Thomas Covenant's companion on his second quest, has for some years run a psychiatric hospital, whose patients include Covenant's former wife Joan. Joan's son Roger turns up out of the blue, as soon as he reaches his majority, requesting permission to take her out of the hospital and care for her himself. Linden refuses, because something about him makes her uneasy, using the excuse that Roger hasn't gone through the necessary legal formalities needed to transfer Joan to his care, only for him to break into the hospital to kidnap Joan, also breaking into Linden's house and taking her adopted son. As she races to try to retrieve them, all four of them are drawn into the Land, where the evil of Lord Foul threatens the life of that world once more.

There are two major changes between White Gold Wielder and Runes of the Earth. Less immediately important (though in the end it has a major effect on the reader's emotional reaction to the story), Donaldson has toned downed the language he uses quite considerably, both in melodrama - emotive words are now far rarer - and difficulty - rare words are sometimes actually explained. The other change is that Thomas Covenant is not the central character any more; being dead, he is present through memory, through the lengthy legacy of his deeds, and through occasional, ghostly hints given to Linden. She is now the main focus, as she began to become during the Second Chronicles. To be honest, Thomas Covenant may be one of the most important characters in the entire fantasy genre, but to a reader it is really something of a relief to be freed from his obsessing about his guilt.

The new crisis in the Land is somewhat contrived, as might be expected; and I actually felt that the part of The Runes of the Earth set in the real world worked better than the section in the Land. It is less melodramatic, but at the same time less compelling than the earlier Chronicles; over the years, Donaldson's writing seems to have lost some of its excitement and passion. All in all, though, it is not as much of a let down as it might have been, and I'd expect to get more involved with The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in the next volume and find at the end of the third that this trilogy will be a worthy addition and conclusion to the series.

Tuesday 26 July 2005

Lawrence Durrell: Mountolive (1958)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1958 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1302


The third novel of the Alexandria Quartet may cover the same events for a third time, but it is quite different from both Justine and Balthazar. Mountolive moves away from the first person narrative by a young poet (whose name, we learn, is Darley, significantly similar to Durrell). It is replaced by a third person tale which mainly follows the point of view of Mountolive, a much older man and British ambassador to Egypt just before the war - a man of huge influence after Egypt had been virtually a British colony for much of the preceding half century. The earlier novels concentrated on Darley's affair with Justine, wife of wealthy Coptic merchant Nessim. While this is almost incidental, Mountolive had a similar affair with Nessim's mother while he was a young man, and this is where this novel begins, with what is effectively a long prologue. However, though the memory of this time is still strongly emotive to Mountolive, his concern with Justine and Nessim is more political, for they are suspected of working with Zionist groups in Palestine in anti-British, anti-Arab terrorism there.

This overtly political side to the plot, which almost puts Mountolive into the thriller genre (the style is too slow moving to allow this), is new in the Quartet. Even the Antrobus stories, which are set in the diplomatic corps, have nothing of this sort (being mainly concerned with humour derived from protocol disasters). However, Durrell witnessed at first hand some of the debacles attendant on the dismantling of the British Empire (his experience in Cyprus being documented in Bitter Lemons), and it is not surprising that a book which appeared at the same time as the Suez Crisis, even if not set at the time, should bring to mind some of the political chaos of the period.

In the last fifty years, John le Carré, Len Deighton and a host of imitators have made careers as thriller writers through books about betrayal and how it feels to suspect a friend. Durrell does much the same, in a way, though his characters have no desire to investigate; they want to find out as little as possible, in the hope - and belief - that the suspicions will prove to be groundless. (This inactivity is one of the main reasons that Mountolive can never be classed as a thriller.) This, of course, also gives an insight into the events at the time a few years before the book was written, the days when the treachery of Philby, Burgess and Maclean became known.

As Justine (who was not a native Egyptian) is partly a symbol of Alexandria, so Nessim's mother in her turn is something of a symbol for Egypt as a whole. In this respect, Chapter XV, in which Mountolive finally meets Leila again, is really the key to the novel. The reality is that Leila's beauty, so vividly remembered, has been ravaged by small pox and age, to the extent that even close up he does not recognise her. The meeeting is immediately followed by a deliberate attempt on the part of Mountolive to re-establish the romantic mystique of Egypt in his mind - Leila's symbolic role is apparent even to the other characters in the novel.

Mountolive and Darley also have symbolic roles to play - Mountolive is British involvement in Egyptian affairs, and Darley is the literary interest in Alexandria. Once you begin to see characters as having wider significance, it is hard to stop assigning such roles to them; the answer is of course to always think about whether doing so adds to the interest of the novel. Characters like Pursewarden and Melissa only have parts to play in relation to Darley or Justine, so even though they are more important characters in terms of the Quartet as a work of fiction, they are not really symbols in the same way as the ones already mentioned.

The earlier novels both have interesting endpieces, as does the final part, Clea; Mountolive has none at all. This has the effect of underlining the finality of the novel: this is the last re-examining of these events (Clea picks up the story of the main characters again some years later), and there is no useful purpose in another collection of bons mots or impressionistic notes; Durrell no longer wants the reader to constantly re-evaluate what has gone before. In some ways, Clea is the end-paper to Mountolive, as well as rounding off the whole Quartet.

Friday 15 July 2005

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Idiot (1868)

Translation: David Magarshack, 1955
Edition: Penguin, 1973
Review number: 1301

Humour is not a quality usually associated with the nineteenth century Russian novel. Generally, people in the West think that they are lugubrious and depressing, if such universal works of literature could be said to express a single emotion. The name most likely to be cited as an exception is Gogol, and certainly not Dostoyevsky, even though the younger author greatly admired and imitated the older in his early years. Yet there is considerable amusement to be had from The Idiot, in which the author pokes fun at society manners in a way that is hardly stereotypically Russian. Indeed, there is one passage, where a mother laments that her daughters remain unwed only to torment her, that a reader encountering it out of context might well assume that it had been written by Jane Austen. Of course, there is also the major irony that the man condemned by polite society as an idiot is the only character that the reader feels they can look up to.

Naturally, humour is not the main, or even an important part of The Idiot. It is, on the other hand, the most surprising - particularly since this is the third time I have read the novel, and it is not an aspect I remember from earlier readings (though they were, admittedly, quite some time ago). Another point to make is that the humour comes through in David Magarshack's translation; it is very easy to lose this when creating a version of a novel in another language. (Apparently the early translations of Dickens into Russian are a case in point.) Magarshack translated many Russian stories and plays into English (as well as non-fiction), including just about all the Russian literature that appeared as Penguin Classics, like this one, and any of his versions can be recommended despite now being quite elderly.

While it is true that in general Dostoyevsky's mature novels are concerned with the psychology of the central character, this is true in The Idiot in an indirect manner. The novel is not about the development of Prince Myshkin himself (which is minimal except for the final crisis), but about how his personality affects those around him. The Prince has grown up in a Swiss sanatorium, under treatment for his periodic epileptic fits. At the beginning of the novel, he returns to Russia, penniless, for the first time since early childhood, and almost immediately inherits an unexpected fortune. While not really the idiot that many think him, his illness has left the prince with a strange diffidence, which allied to his virtuous, simple and open personality makes him stand out as completely different to the polite society around him; in a supposedly Christian country, he is a truly Christlike individual, yet is almost completely alien to those around him - a satirical point if ever there was one, yet not something strongly emphasised by Dostoyevsky. Despite the author's strong political convictions, he does not seem to want to write about the shortcomings of the Russia of his day.

Instead, as I have indicated, The Idiot is about Prince Myshkin's impact on the worldly upper class in St Petersburg and Moscow. Initial reactions include bafflement, rejection and amusement, and through the whole novel most characters regard him with either indignation or affection, often alternating in a single individual throughout. This is one reason why the Prince's character cannot develop, for he is the novel's only stable reference point, the reverse of a much more common literary structure where the background characters remain static and the main ones evolve in the foreground. (This makes The Idiot sound experimental, and it is far more mainstream for that to be a way to categorise it. It does in fact feel very finished, more so than, say, The Devils, and this is an amazing feat, considering the rapidity with which it was written and the motivation behind the composition, as hack work to pay off pressing gambling debts.)

As with all Dostoyevsky's central characters, Prince Myshkin has an autobiographical feel to him, and it is true that the writer shared the suffering of epileptic fits with his creation. Additionally, he was also something of an outsider and certainly an idealist, but there were many aspects to his personality not shared by his creation, such as the compulsive gambling that led him to write the novel so fast and which is documented in the more clearly autobiographical The Gambler. I don't know what it is that Dostoyevsky does, by the way, but he is one of the best writers at the trick of making central characters seem to be the author himself, rivalling the Dickens of Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, or Great Expectations.

The novel is not entirely even in standard. The second half of Part Three is not so good, with the tedious confession and attempted suicide of Ippolit, and the correspondence between two women who admire the Prince. Things pick up again in the final part, but to my mind this must be the most disappointing fifty pages in any of Dostoyevsky's mature novels.

The "holy fool" is not a particularly frequent central character in modern fiction, perhaps because they are a type which it is hard to give a believable internal life, and because they seem rather passive. Outside of Dostoyevsky's writing, the examples that come most easily to mind are from medieval stories or work derived from these (such as the opera Parsifal). Dostoyevsky used the type again, to a certain extent, in Alexey Karamazov, but the only clear literary example I can think of taking a central role is Mervyn Peake's Mister Pye; Forrest Gump might be one from film. I suppose that they are not characters who occur frequently in real life either, and I suspect that if they did they would be just as disconcerting to meet as Prince Myshkin is depicted as being. The hermit is something associated with the true spirit of (pre-Communist) Russia, the solitary monastic life being much more important to the Orthodox Christian tradition than to the Catholic, so it may be that in Prince Myshkin Dostoyevsky idealised himself into a tradition that idealised Russia. Whether he is autobiography or symbol, or both, isn't really important; this is a great novel whatever you decide.

Thursday 30 June 2005

Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth (1964)

Edition: Voyager, 1998
Review number: 1300

There are several Philip K. Dick novels which revolve around conspiracies, about a small minority deceiving the vast majority for some sinister purpose. Of these novels, The Penultimate Truth is the darkest, because of the nature of the deception: the majority live hard lives in underground caverns or "tanks", enduring their situation for the sake of the war that's been raging on Earth's surface for years. Except that it hasn't: the few who remain on the surface live in luxury, spending their time creating fictional evidence of the conflict to keep those below in subjugation.

The idea of a fake war and control of people through control of the media was not of course entirely new even in the mid sixties - the manufactured belligerence between the nations of the world is a major theme of 1984. But there it is news reports of distant conflict that are fakes. Here it is those who think they are almost in the thick of the fighting who are being conned. Of course, such a huge lie cannot continue to be elaborated indefinitely, and the novel takes the natural subject of how the truth begins to come out.

One of the main points Dick wants to make is that deception is a part of any political system (with the arguable exception of anarchy). One of his characters, Lantano (who heads the opposition to corrupt world leader Brose), says: "As a component in his make up every world leader has had some fictional aspect." And this is backed up not only by the Roman examples quoted by Lantano but by the way that the reader becomes aware that Lantano himself is not entirely what he seems. This point about the facades inherent in politics is even more relevant now, in these times when spin and image seem more important than content. As another character says, "The biggest lie is yet to come."

Although Dick was obviously not the first to suspect the honesty of politicians (there are plenty of literary examples as far back as Aristophanes' satirical pillorying of Athenian leader Cleon), The Penultimate Truth was written at a time when people tended to accept what they were told by authority figures more willingly than we do today. After all, the worst of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal were still in the future in 1964. More importantly, the scale of the lie in this novel was unprecedented, and so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, its suggestion that the picture painted by the West's leaders of the Cold War contained lies must have been an inflammatory one. Of course, it didn't make a massive impact, probably because of Dick's position as a science fiction author, the genre being far more of a ghetto than it is today. (It would be quite reasonable to claim that Dick was, and to an extent remains, the most underrated author of the twentieth century.) The Penultimate Truth is not his best or subtlest novel, but it is his most directly and obviously satirical.

Thursday 23 June 2005

Charles Stross: Iron Sunrise (2005)

Edition: Orbit, 2005
Review number: 1299

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Stross' debut, Singularity Sky, even if it did suggest the kernel of some ideas about a mathematical theory of causality that I have been working on, on and off, since I read it. It had enough interest for me to pick up his next novel the Hugo-nominated Iron Sunrise, and I am glad I did. From the very first page it is clear that this is written to a far higher and more individual standard: Charles Stross has found his own voice.

The story has elements which resonate with the history of the science fiction genre and with current events. Pulp fiction space opera is full of "planet busters" and ultimate weapons; in the Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith, perhaps the best known example, these include pairs of planets placed so that they crash into the enemy home world, and worlds of antimatter which reduce a world to a handful of gravel. The human element is so played down that it is barely present; the destruction of evil is much more important than the human suffering of the innocent (something which is a literary parallel to the behaviour of the British and American governments in Iraq, where civilian deaths were not even counted). A similar event, the "iron sunrise" of the title, is the centrepiece of Stross' novel: a supernova induced by a "weapon of mass destruction" that destroys the planet of Moscow. Stross makes the human cost of such a war crime apparent - the short suffering and death of the inhabitants of Moscow, and the more lengthy problems faced on one of Moscow's colonies - taking a much more adult stance than the glib heroics of Smith.

The setting is the imaginary future that Stross invented for Singularity Sky, and the same agent is the central character of Iron Sunrise. Indeed, the weakest aspect of Iron Sunrise is the repetition of the exposition of the background from the earlier novel - by memory, it seems to be made up from paragraphs pasted across almost verbatim, which is not just astoundingly lazy but which fills the early chapters of Iron Sunrise with the kind of clumsy "infodump" rightly derided by detractors of the science fiction genre. There are enough good things about Stross' writing that he really could (and should) have found a more subtle way to do this (particularly since any readers of the earlier novel would know this); even an introduction describing Singularity Sky would have been better.

The infodump and super-weapons are not the only science fiction clichés to appear in Iron Sunrise. There is the independent adolescent of above average intelligence, a staple of the genre since the early days of Robert Heinlein (and one of the main reasons why science fiction fandom is associated with geeky teenagers). In this case, she is named Wednesday, in what is presumably a slightly quirky nod to Charles Addams, and she is one of the refugees from the Moscovite colony already mentioned. Then there are the apparent villains, those who are suggested to be the destroyers of Moscow: the ReMastered, who bear a strong resemblance to the T'leilaxu in Frank Herbert's Dune novels, or to any other science fictional elite who control the proletariat via conditioning: puppetmasters in a lineage going back to the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley. All of these, including the planetary destruction, are far better handled than the infodump, which is sufficiently poor and comes early enough in the novel to seriously impair the chances Iron Sunrise has of winning the Hugo. The nomination is in my opinion deserved - it is, after all, good enough to make me consider re-reading Singularity Sky.

Saturday 18 June 2005

Lawrence Durrell: Balthazar (1961)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1963 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1298

The introduction to this novel, the second in the Alexandria Quartet, briefly explains one of the structural ideas behind the novels. I'm not sure of the extent to which this is meant to be tongue in cheek, because it is the sort of idea often found in satires of intellectual writers who don't understand much science. The explanation given for a quartet of novels the first three of which cover the same events from different perspectives is that they were inspired by the idea of spacetime most famously used in Einstein's theory of relativity - the first three novels corresponding to space dimensions, and the fourth to time.

I particularly like the way that Balthazar is set up, the reason that the narrator is persuaded to revisit the story of his affair with Justine. Having published his novel about the affair (the novel Justine, in other words), he received a packet of papers from his friend Balthazar. These basically tore the novel apart, explaining that although things appeared in one form to the writer, his view was not always terribly accurate, his passion for Justine making it impossible to read between the lines. This naturally prompts a re-examination of his memories - from which comes the novel Balthazar. The narrator is driven to find out to what extent Justine really loved him. What did their friends - and particularly her husband - really think about their relationship?

Since one of the interesting aspects of Justine is the way in which the woman is a symbol for the city of Alexandria, to reassess her and the affair is for Durrell to reassess his view of the Egyptian port. At least, that is apparently the case, because of course Durrell is perfectly aware of the ironies involved and is quite deliberately manipulating them. There are quite a few levels to the narrative, though it reads perfectly straightforwardly - particularly because the main interest in Balthazar is in the change derived from the narrator's altered feelings brought about by the letters which arose because of his fictional counterpart to the real novel Justine (and not forgetting that the real novel may not necessarily be identical to its fictional version) which he also narrated. But it is not all meant to be taken seriously; Balthazar is also meant to entertain the reader. As an endpiece to this novel like the notes that form Justine's afterword, Durrell includes some supposed quotations from novelist character Pursewarden in Wildean vein; among them is a little barb at those who take literature too seriously. This returns full circle to the suggestion that there is something tongue in cheek about the theory of relativity being the inspiration for the structure of the four novels - just one detail from a thought provoking novel.

Tuesday 14 June 2005

Philip K. Dick: The Divine Invasion (1981)

Edition: Voyager, 1996 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1297

Religious experience of one form or another makes its way into most of Dick's novels. In The Man in the High Castle, for instance, there is the use of the I Ching, both in the story and by Dick as he constructed it, and even in the generally secular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the need to care for a pet is described in a way that recalls the religious impulse. In later novels, religious ideas become more central, particularly in VALIS and The Divine Invasion. While Deus Irae (his collaboration with Roger Zelazny) is a fairly straightforward story of a quest to find the divine, these novels are still hard to categorise in any way other than weird.

The story of The Divine Invasion is one that some people might consider blasphemous to incorporate into the standard clichés of science fiction so important to Dick's style: it is blatantly and openly a retelling of the central story of Christianity, the Incarnation, within the genre. A zone of evil has forced the god Yah to leave Earth, to travel to the distant human colony of Fomalhaut. There, he impregnates a virgin, whose illness with MS provides an excuse for her and her husband to travel back to Earth - something not normally permitted for colonists - for treatment.

Up to this point, the narrative is reasonably coherent. The few unusual features are explained by the set up: the narrator is reliving the experience in a dream while in suspended animation - interrupted by the life support machinery malfunctioning, picking up a radio broadcast of Fiddler on the Roof (a typical Dick touch). But the, from the birth of the child, the narrative dissolves into a series of alternate realities, orchestrated by divine (or quasi-divine: some disclaim actual deity) beings with an interest in the outcome of the divine invasion.

Parts of this half of the novel cannot be described as vintage Philip K. Dick. Indeed, some chapters could be skipped, improving the reading experience. (Unfortunately, it's hard to know which chapters to leave out without reading them.) This is partly because the series of alternate realities makes the background feel inconsistent, and partle because Dick doesn't integrate his ideas as well as he usually manages to. Even so, just like with everything he wrote, there are lots of interesting ideas here, allied to a quirky take on religion which may amuse or may offend. It should be noted that it is clearly not Dick's intention to offend, at least not just for the sake of causing a sensation. While irony plays an important part in all Dick's writing and tends to blur his intentions, he seems to have seriously wanted to write about two aspects of religious experience: the way that science fictional ideas can feed into religious ones, as seen in the way some people think about corn circles or UFOs; and in the tension between organised religious institutions and personal religious experience.

As it stands, The Divine Invasion is not a great novel, but for those interested in Philip K. Dick, a fascinating guide to the stranger areas in the author's mind. Like VALIS, it reads as though it were written during an extended LSD flashback. Like VALIS, it pushes at the boundaries of the science fiction genre. Any fan of Dick should read both novels. Anyone new to the author should not start with them (though they are likely to begin with the best known writing, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Man in the High Castle rather than The Divine Invasion), particularly if they haver any strong religious convictions.

Wednesday 8 June 2005

Katharine Kerr: Snare (2003)

Edition: Voyager, 2004
Review number: 1296

Katharine Kerr has long been an author I have enjoyed reading. She is best known for her long running Deverry series, which is basically standard fantasy, albeit well written and with some nice individual touches. I think that her other books, closer to science fiction, are more interesting, but now Snare brings that inventiveness back to a new fantasy world. (A slight caveat about what I've just said - this is fantasy with a fairly remote science fiction background, like Anne McCaffrey's Pern or Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover.)

The world of Snare is divided between four main groups, three human and one native to the planet. To begin with, we seem to be in fairly standard genre territory - the groupings appear to be loosely based on Earth history, with a Persian-like civilization opposed to barbarian steppe nomads. The Great Khan has become corrupt, ruthlessly destroying any threat to his power; at the start of the novel, a small group of cavalry offices set off across the steppe to find the only remaining survivor from the ruling family, who escaped the Khan's murderers. Then invent an excuse (investigating a business opportunity), but fail to allay the Khan's suspicions: he sends one of the Chosen (his secret police force) after them. So far, so similar to innumerable other novels. But soon things become, by almost imperceptible steps, different.

This is achieved through good writing. Most fantasy is pretty melodramatic, featuring a cast of heroes ranged against an unspeakable but one-dimensional evil (this of course follows Tolkien's example: orcs are not characterised beyond being vulgar and unpleasant members of a horde). By building the characters properly, by giving them realistic motivations, Kerr makes the reader simpathise equally with the Chosen and with those he hunts. Very little fantasy makes a credible attempt to humanise both opposing sides, and to do so necessitates something else unusual about Snare, which is that the situation is made more complex than a straightforward black and white division between good and evil. She does this by introducing interactions with the other groups already mentioned, who naturally have their own agendas. Her acheivement is not just unusual within the fantasy genre; very little fiction tries to make the reader sympathise with those who work for evil masters, no matter what the justifications they make for their actions.

Though as long in itself as many fantasy trilogies of earlier years, Snare is truly a standalone novel, as it amounts to a journey of discovery - both generally, as much of the hidden past of the planet is revealed, and for the individual characters. This is Katherine Kerr's trademark construction, and gives her novels a depth which is unusual in writing that seems to be typical of the fantasy genre, because her characters develop as they make discoveries, and the nature of their quest itself changes as a result. This complex novel is a top class piece of fantasy.

Tuesday 31 May 2005

Lawrence Durrell: Justine (1957)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1961 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1295

The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell's most famous work, begins with this story of an obsessive affair, between the young poet who narrates the novel and society woman Justine. The novel is more about the setting of postwar Alexandria, though, and Justine herself is to some extent a symbol of the city, which makes the novel extremely atmospheric even without lengthy passages of description. The groundwork is laid here for themes which become more important later in the series of novels (particularly since the first three cover the same events from different perspectives) - cabalism and gnosticism, for example - but Durrell is careful only to hint at what later volumes hold.

With this novel, Durrell's background as a poet is very clear, perhaps more so than in any of his other prose. There are certain kinds of literature where every word should have a purpose - thrillers are one, where the aim is to advance the action - but it is of poetry that this is most true, as it is an art form where words are almost everything, like the notes in music (rhythm being the most important other component). In most poetry, every word (with the possibly exception of particles like "the" - which may still contribute through rhythm) is there to contribute to an effect. Lawrence Durrell's prose has the same feeling: the position of every word in every sentence seems to be carefully thought out. Sometimes when writers do this, it can have the effect of making what they produce hard to follow: but this is not Finnegans Wake or The Wasteland. And while I'm thinking about Joyce and Eliot, it is clear that both are influences; but the novel's title also indicates a homage to an earlier writer with a different kind of notoriety: to de Sade, who also wrote a novel with the title Justine.

The novel ends with a fascinating little series of notes, apparently made as aids to composition (and I suspect designd to look like this) and entitled "workpoints"; these include translations of Cavafy, the poet of Alexandria whose work is a major influence, and three-word sketches of Justine's characters.

As well as being his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet is the ideal introduction to Durrell. The Antrobus stories, while fun in a Yes, Minister vein, are more like his brother Gerald's writing and are not at all typical, and the travel writing is much more journalistic, as one might expect. It would be safe to say, though, that any reader who enjoys Justine will like the rest of The Alexandria Quartet, The Avignon Quintet and so on; but a reader who dislikes Justine will not find reading any of these other novels worthwhile. They are novels where the pleasure of reading them requires work from the reader; they are not meant to be read at speed but carefully, allowing each sentence to have its effect. I think the effort is well worth it; others may well not.

Tuesday 24 May 2005

Jane Stevenson: London Bridges (2000)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2000
Review number: 1294

Margery Allingham's classic novels are generally set in the most rural parts of Essex and Suffolk or in London. The latter had a particular atmosphere which is more or less gone from the genre: she specialised in eccentric faded gentility. Perhaps there is less of this about than there was in the thirties, and even thoguh there is still a great deal of crime fiction being set in England's capital, it is dominated by the police procedural. In Allingham, this air of eccentricity extended even into the police force - which brings me to the most obvious connection between her work and London Bridges. In one of her later novels, The China Governess, her policeman Luke becomes the father of a baby girl, who is mentioned in passing. Hattie Luke, now grown up, is one of the main characters in this novel, acting as a catalyst for the story.

The structure of London Bridges is simple, but unusual. Basically, the reader knows what is going on and who is responsible, but each major character only knows a piece of it - some isolated, odd, maybe mildly suspicious incident that is easily dismissed as one of the quirky things that happen to an inhabitant of a big city (they're about on a level with the sort of bizarre conversations strangers used to have with me on tube trains when I was a student in London). It is only because Hattie brings them together that one mentions something that strikes a chord with another, and they begin to compare notes.

Of course, this plot device uses something that I frequently object to in crime novels: co-incidence. There are links that might draw these people together (they are all to some extent involved in Greek culture, either academically or through the Greek community in London, or both), but it is still extremely unlikely. However, there is an excuse, in that the co-incidence is the whole point of the novel rather than being used to get over an awkward, poorly thought out, part of the puzzle as is usually the case in the crime genre. There must be crimes which go unnoticed because the people who know bits and pieces are never brought toghether; to do so (once) is an interesting idea for a novel.

London Bridges does not truly belong in the crime fiction genre - I think that not having to puzzle over who commits the murder rules it out. It is much more about character and atmosphere, too, than is usual in the genre, and that is really what makes it worth reading. The atmosphere here (and, indeed, the characters) are reminiscent of Margery Allingham, combined with generous helpings of a writer of the ilk of Iris Murdoch. Altogether, this is an intelligent, fascinating and absorbing read- I wish I'd come across Jane Stevenson five years ago.

Tuesday 10 May 2005

Steph Swainston: The Year of Our War (2004)

Edition: Gollancz, 2004 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1293

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston's debut, does everything a genre novel should: it brings new life to familiar ideas, and has something unusual about it. The unusual aspect is not the plot, which is typical of the genre: the empire under attack from faceless hordes (known as Insects, which on occasion gives the story the air of a fifties B-movie) and can only be saved by the heroic acts of a small number of people. There are some interesting features in the background: the band of potential saviours are immortals, the Eszai, granted eternal life by the emperor because they are the best at some task useful in the fighting - the fastest messenger, the most skilful sailor, and so on - and they have little in common save their immortality and are mostly limited in anything outside their specialisms. While this is not the kind of idea often encountered in a serious fantasy novel, the Eszai are clearly a band of flawed superheroes who could well have come from an Alan Moore comic strip.

The part of The Year of Our War which is basically unique is the central character. Jant is one of the Eszai, plucked from the gangs of a large city because of his unique ability: he can fly. He has a really major flaw, however: he is a drug addict. The drug, known as cat, is an addictive psychodelic, which has effects something between crack and LSD. Being part of a fantasy world means that something can be made of the visions perceived while under the influence; they shift the consciousness into another world. One of the biggest acheivements Swainston pulls off (in, as must be remembered, her debut) is to make the two imaginary settings of the novel quite different in style, and with different derees of versimilitude: the drug world seems more arbitrary and artificial.

There are parts of the novel which could be better. The title is poor; it's punning nature suggests something much lighter than the novel inside the covers. Lifting character building above plotting is not a problem (and makes a change from complicated versions of the hero's journey populated by cardboard cutouts - the clichés of the genre). However, the novel's structure betrays some inexperience; given the lengthy buildup, the denoument is too short and too facile. Even so, this is an enjoyable, well written fantasy novel with an adult grittiness missing from most of the genre.

Drug addiction and the experiences induced by drug taing have long been part of science fiction. The history of this generally seems to lead back to influences from crossover readership in the sicties between the genre and the cult writing of people like W.S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. SF provided some of the important books in hippy culture, such as Stranger in a Strange Land. Novels as diverse as Aldous Huxley's The Island, Stanislaus Lem's The Futurological Congress and Robert Sheckley's The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton all fed into or followed from psychodelic ideas about mind expansion through drug taking. But the darker side of drugs really became part of the SF mainstream only from the advent of cyberpunk in the eighties, though the psychodelia in Philip K. Dick is already less optimistic, and there are hints that drugs might be used for control in dystopian fiction back to Brave New World (which shows how much Huxley's mind changed on the subject over the years). Despite this long SF tradition, there is far less history of serious treatment of drugs in the sister genre of fantasy. It is hard to think of anything before the turn of the millennium which is more serious than the trivial references in (say) the Spellsinger and Belgariad series. (David Eddings created an entire race of addicts in the Belgariad, but the Nyissans are generally minor characters and the consequences of their drug taking are never treated in human terms - it is at best a convenient plot device.) It is really only recent writers like China Miéville how have begun to introduce the sordid to their fantasy worlds: that is one reason why he is an important writer, even though I don't like his work personally.

While it would be possible to put together an academic thesis on the history of drug references in SF and fantasy (and I suspect that someone already has), the interesting question is why it should be so different between the two genres, so similar in terms of their fanbase and use of the fantastic. (Afficionados generally seem to feel that the difference is in terms of the treatment of science - in pure science fiction, it should be possible to justify everything in some kind of scientific terms, though with some traditional themes of the genre, such as time travel, this is more difficult than others.) Both SF and fantasy have a strong tradition of satire and parody, a lightness not so common in other genres; thus, Terry Pratchett is the best known author of fantasy writing for adults today. In science fiction, this tendency has begun to diminish over recent years, as the oft derided amateurish writing style detractors detect in the genre begin to be replaced by more professional and polished work: the association of author and fan is becoming weaker. My suspicion is that this has come about through the huge success of genre films, since Star Wars; the equivalent film for fantasy is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that is too recent for it to have had much of an effect on novels as yet. This has left most fantasy (and certainly the popular end) either light and humourous or epic and cliched. (The biggest exception to this until recently is Stephen Donaldson.) Steph Swainston's debut novel is part of the process of bringing more adult ideas into the fantasy genre, and, whether or not it turns out to be as successful as it deserves, The Year of Our War should be welcomed.

Tuesday 3 May 2005

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)

Edition: Sceptre, 2005
Review number: 1292

Mitchell's third novel was the clear favourite for the Booker Prize in 2004, and when it didn't win, this seemed to catch many commentators by surprise. I like Mitchell's writing, and I have attempted to read several of the other novels which made up the rather lacklustre short list, and I echo this astonishment.

Like Ghostwritten and number9dream, Cloud Atlas shows Mitchell's delight in complex interlinked narratives, exactly the sort of literary puzzles which marked out Iain Banks' early novels. Here, there are six stories, arranged in layers - each one is available to the characters in the next in some literary form (journal, collection of letters, thriller in manuscript, film, recorded interview) moving from the late nineteenth century far into the future. There are other links between the tales, apart from this arrangement, which is rather reminiscent of The Arabian Nights (where tales are often interrupted while a character tells another story). There are hints that at least some of the central characters are reincarnations of others, though the chronology of the stories means that others of them have lives that overlap. A thematic link is much more important: the stories are all about resistence to unjust exploitation of the peaceful and weak by the strong, powerful and aggressive.

The best of the stories is the Michael Moore meets George Orwell dystopia, An Orison of Sonmi~415. Sonmi~451 is a clone, genetically engineered to be the perfect fast food restaurant server, who is "awakened" from her drug- and conditioning-induced acceptance of her life to an understanding of the horrows of the enslavement of a vast army of cheap workers in the service of rampant capitalism. But each of the stories could have been expanded into a full length novel in its own right, one which could have easily held the interest of readers (if not to the extent that Cloud Atlas does, where there is the additional attraction of the enigmas produced by the construction of the novel).

So the question is: why didn't Cloud Atlas win, if it is so good? Of course, not having been on the jury, I can't say for certain. There are several possible reasons that seem plausible to me, that together may have combined to spoil its chances. There is often something of a bias against the general favourite at these events, as people don't want to look as though they've just made the easy, obvious choice. There may have been a suspicion that the interlocking arrangement of the narrative is a bit facile (though certainly no more so than churning out another dull story of a dysfunctional family). There have been two quirkily different winners in the past two years (Life of Pi and Vernon God Little), and perhaps the jury felt that Cloud Atlas was a little too similar to these. Then there is a continuing snobbish attiude to novels (or, in this case, parts of novels) which seem to be genre fiction, no matter how well written: why is it, for example, that Iain Banks has never even been nominated? This applies particularly strongly to science fiction, but affects thrillers and crime fiction to an extent too. To write in a genre may bring popularity, but unless you are already part of the literary establishment will not bring critical success there, unless you are considered to write for children (like J.K. Rowling). If these are the reasons that caused Mitchell to miss out, it's a pity, for the imaginative range and dazzling technique shown in Cloud Atlas would have made it a deserving and memorable winner.

Saturday 16 April 2005

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The House of the Dead (1862)

Translation: H. Sutherland Edwards, 1911 (revised 1962) (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Everyman, 1962
Review number: 1291

Russia has long been known for the harshness of its justice system, and its literature includes several notable depictions of cruel prisons, including much of the work of Solzhenitsyn. A long time before the gulags of Stalin, Dostoyevsky produced The House of the Dead, a work which proved to be the turning point of his career. Before this appeared, just before his fortieth birthday, he had produced several fairly minor works very much in the shadow of Gogol, either parodying or imitating the older writer. After it, he had found his own style, much more realistic and with a new interest in psychology; and he went on to produce some of the most famous and influential novels in any language, from Crime and Punishment to The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoyevsky was sent to prison in Siberia in 1849, after being identified as the ringleader of a group of Socialists. (His punishment was particularly cruel psychologically, as he was sentenced to be executed then reprieved deliberately at the last moment.) Although his sentence was four years hard labour, it was another few years before he was permitted to return to a more or less normal life, and some more again before he was able to write about it. Even then, he toned things down for public consumption; after some of the more horrific or unjust scenes, he took pains to point out that "This practise has now been stopped" (or a similar phrase), and he was less graphic in his descriptions than in a letter to his brother. He also adopted a fairly transparent device, using as a narrator a fictitious prisoner, whose papers were supposedly obtained by Dostoyevsky after his death. Solzhenitsyn would do something similar in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about a century later. He, however, was not so successful in persuading the authorities to turn a blind eye. (As an aside, it has for some time amazed me how transparent fictions like this could pass the censor in the nineteenth century - there are many examples from Italian opera; either those whose job it was to keep control of literature and drama were remarkably naive and stupid, or they were willing to collude as long as appearances were kept up.)

There are some truly unpleasant practices exposed in The House of the Dead, most notably in the descriptions of barbaric corporal punishment and the appalling conditions in the prison hospital. Both these scenes seem more shocking to readers today, when ideas of hygeine are more readily accepted and extreme cruelty rejected. Throughout most of the book, the main impression that the reader gets is that most prisoners stoically accept their lot, and the biggest problems being the psychological ones caused the futility of the life they are forced to lead and their loss of liberty. These seem to me to both be projections by Dostoyevsky onto the majority of prisoners (who continually refuse to accept the narrator as a companion, because of the noble birth he shares with Dostoyevsky) - they must have been part of the normal life of a Russian peasant, tied to the land of the men who (at the time the of Dostoyevsky's imprisonment) owned them. Valid or not, his ideas about the psychology of men under extreme pressure and the nature of good and evil formed the seeds of the central characters in his novels. To today's readers, Raskolnikov and the others may seem rather melodramatic and overdrawn, but they certainly have depth and vitality which goes beyond almost all his contemporaries. Their personalities are rooted in their situations, and change as their circumstances change, something which is true of few other literary creations, of any era. Among other nineteenth century writers, the only one I can think of who did this as consistently as Dostoyevsky is George Eliot.

Dostoyevsky's work is far more melodramatic, more extreme, than Eliot, of course, and part of that is presumably also rooted in the experiences he had in prison. The injustices of the life led there must have helped shape his ideas about good and evil, and moral culpability, which play such an important part in his important novels. This is easy to see, even though we cannot really know how closely his own experiences match the incidents related in The House of the Dead. This means that the book is the starting point for any serious reading of Dostoyevsky.

Iris Murdoch: Nuns and Soldiers (1980)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1290

The Sea, The Sea is one of my favourite Murdoch novels and one of her most famous; its follow-up is much less well known. It doesn't quite equal its predecessor, but it is well worth reading, more so than her later novels.

Nuns and Soldiers begins on a deathbed; Guy Openshaw tells his wife that she should marry again. She is reluctant to do this, feeling that it would be a betrayal, but then, quite soon after Guy's death, Gertrude falls unexpectedly in love with a much younger man, a poverty stricken painter. This horrifies her friends, partly for snobbish reqasons and partly because they assume that Tim Reede is really after Gertrude's money. When they discover that Tim had hidden from Gertrude the fact that he was already in a long term (if informal) relationship when he met her, they feel that their suspicions have been confirmed. Murdoch makes it clear that he really did fall for Gertrude and that he hid the relationship from pure embarrassment, but that is not how it looks to Gertrude's friends or (eventually) to Gertrude, and succeeds in making everybody miserable.

So why the rather strange title? There is a literal nun in the story, Gertrude's friend Anne, who has recently left an enclosed order after losing her faith. On the other hand, there are no real soldiers. The distinction seems to be more between passive and active characters, with nuns and soldiers being traditional archetypes of each. Most characters in this novel move from one to the other end of the spectrum (and back again), and the reader is also shown that the characters' self perception does not always match their position.

Nuns and Soldiers is not a happy novel, but it is a good one. It doesn't have quite the impact of The Sea, The Sea, possibly because it starts with a death bed scene and possibly because a fair amount of philosophical discussion is presented in the early chapters: there are both emotional and intellectual hurdles to get over before a reader can get into the story itself. The transformation of Tim Reede's character throughout the novel is interesting, but on the other hand some of the less characters are either very ordinary or have odd things done to them by the author. The Polish man nicknamed "the Count" is an example; Murdoch seems to vacillate about just how important a part he should play. (This is actually quite clever, as real relationships ebb and flow in ways normally drastically simplified in fiction.) Though it is fairly hard work on the conceptual level, Nuns and Soldies is made accessible by Murdoch's style, which keeps the story flowing along. What I particularly like about the novel are the scenes when characters discuss others behind their backs, which may be incidental to the plot but which say a lot about their relationships and perceptions of each other.

Thursday 14 April 2005

Len Deighton: Violent Ward (1993)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1994
Review number: 1289

One of Robert Heinlein's best known short stories, ...And He Built A Crooked House, begins with a whimsical description of the lunacy of America. This novel, with its tagline "If America is a lunatic asylum then California is the Violent Ward", brings that idea up to date, with a much bleaker view of Lost Angeles set during the Rodney King trial: the amiable eccentricity of Heinlein's early fifties suburbia is long gone.

Mickey Murphy is a shady lawyer, whose clients, though they include a well known film actor, tend to be on the edges of the underworld. He reluctantly becomes involved in something rather more serious than shady dealing, and this comes to a head against the background of increasing tension on the streets - a nice use of the "pathetic fallacy".

Deighton is a vintage writer covering familiar ground - the cynical, tough narrator involved in something he doesn't approve of, who knows a lot more about what is going on than he reveals to the reader is found in many of his novels. Given the LA setting, Violent Ward sometimes reads as though it could be the backstory of an ambiguous character who later turns up in one of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels. A similar background, more or less centred on the film industry, has appeared before in Deighton's work, in XPD and Close-Up, but this is a more straightforward novel than either. It is more successful than XPD in particular because it leaves out the various elements that combine to make that novel one of Deighton's least believable. On balance, Violent Ward joins City of Gold to be Deighton's best work of the nineties, a more fitting end to his career than the comparatively lacklustre final Bernard Samson trilogy.

Saturday 9 April 2005

Robin Hobb: Fool's Fate (2003)

Edition: Voyager, 2003
Review number: 1288

The final novel of The Tawny Man trilogy has a plot which is at its heart a traditional fairy tale, the epitome of a fantastic quest. Even the names of some of the characters could come from a fairy story. Prince Dutiful cannot marry his princess until he carries out the quest she has set him - to kill a dragon and bring its head to lay on the hearth of her ancestral home. On every level except this basic summary, however, Hobb does not follow tradition. The dragon, for example, is not ravaging Ellannia's homeland, but lies entombed alive in a glacier. And the quest is not set merely from a desire for Dutiful to prove his heroic worth, but there is a dark, secret motive behind it. Then, of course, there is the involvement of Fitz, central character of this and the earlier Farseer trilogy, a royal bastard who carries the powers of both kinds of magic known in the Six Duchies, the royal Skill and the despised Wit. Finally, there is the Fool, Fitz's closest friend and now known to be the White Prophet, who sees the attempt to travel to the far north and kill the dragon as the pivotal event in his dreams of the future.

Many of the characteristics that readers of the earlier novels will have come to expect from Hobb are here in full measure - the fascinating ideas, the engrossing storytellers, the believable characters - together with the gentler approach of this trilogy. This is not to say that Fool's Fate is lacking in events that affect Fitz, just that they are not so catastrophic as in the Farseer books which saw him, at one point, taking poison to escape torture and then having his dead body brought back to life. This novel features a Fitz approaching middle age, however, no longer fit or eager for such drastic adventures.

The most interesting part of the novel is the ending, so those who don't want to know should look away now. The general run of fantasy stories keep to the juvenile fairy story ending - bad guys polished off, the good live happily ever after. Usually, the book is made "adult" by arranging for some relatively minor good character to die off on the way, making it possible to claim that the author has produced something more than totally trivial escapism (and even then, the death may not be permanent - see for example David Eddings' Belgariad series). Hobb has an ending which is much more truly adult, with deaths, partins and renewal of relationships - and a lot of sadness. The final words of Fitz's narrative, ending not just this novel but I suspect the whole of Hobbs' chronicle of his life, are simply "I am content". I would say that this is really the closest a mature tale like this can come to happily ever after.

Saturday 12 March 2005

Len Deighton: City of Gold (1992)

Edition: Arrow, 1993
Review number: 1287

Len Deighton is almost as famous for his meticulously researched World War II stories (and non-fiction) as he is for his Cold War spy thrillers. City of Gold is his farewell to this sub-genre, and I think it is the best of his late novels. Like several others of his Second World War stories, it is inspired by actual events; set in Cairo during the North African campaign, it tells of the hunt for a spy who was revealing all the details of the Allied plans to Rommel, thus enabling him to win victory after victory and make the capture of Cairo seem only a matter of time. The investigation is given a twist because the reader knows that investigator Major Cutler is not really who he appears to be; he suffered a fatal heart attack escorting a prisoner to Cairo, and the prisoner, who was an actor before being conscripted, is now pretending to be the major. So as well as having to make an investigation he is not trained for, he is constantly worried about the possibility of discovery.

This twist adds an extra touch of humanity to the story, which otherwise could easily have been dry for a thriller. As you might expect, Cairo is expertly realised (it is as convincing as the setting in Olivia Manning's Levant trilogy, set in the same place at the same time and written by one who was there), and the background details show the research to have been thorough. Cairo, the city of gold, is a corrupt place in the period, and now it is a frightened one, and so the novel is filled with examples of the sordid side of human nature; Deighton keeps this entertaining rather than depressing.

City of Gold is the best of Deighton's nineties novels, the only one to really score near his classics of earlier decades. Thirty years on from The Ipcress File, Deighton was probably not really thinking about gaining new fans and there is little that is new here; but it is far more successful than MAMista, the only one of his late novels which could be described as innovative.

I can heartily recommend City of Gold to anyone who enjoys war stories; it also makes it clear that Alan Furst has turned out to be Deighton's natural successor in this field.

Wednesday 23 February 2005

Len Deighton: MAMista (1991)

MAMista coverEdition: Arrow, 1992
Review number: 1285


Written in between Bernard Samson novels, MAMista is Len Deighton's first attempt to find a new subject for his fiction, following the end of the Cold War in Europe. MAMista ends up being one of Deighton's most radically non-typical novels, most like Close-Up from the rest of his output in lots of ways - and that too was a novel written at a time when he was searching for a way forward as a writer. Another novel which is even more similar, though not by Deighton, is John le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl.

The subject of MAMista seems exceptionally up to date now, rather more so than it did at the time. It is about a terrorist group (or freedom fighters, as they would term themselves) in a poor country in South America where the main economic activity is the cultivation of coca leaves. Three outsiders become either MAMista members or effectively hostages, and the backbone of the story is the description of a terrible trek through the jungle after a raid. At the time, it felt as though Che Guevara was three decades behind the times, but now terrorism is back at the centre of our consciousness, even if not in South America.

The most important thing to say about MAMista is that it is not really a thriller, but a tragedy. There is no hope of a happy ending for anyone but the members of the oppressive regime in this novel, which makes it definitely Deighton's most downbeat. The connection with Close-Up lies mainly in not being in the thriller genre, but the parallels with The Little Drummer Girl are in the storyline, as both plots are about terrorists and hostages. So Deighton's first response to the end of the Cold War was to move out of the thriller genre almost completely, to write a mainstream novel with some of the trappings of a thriller.

It has to be said that MAMista is not one of Deighton's best novels, though it grows on one on repeated reading. None of the characters are particularly engaging, and the tone of the narrative is relentlessly cheerless, lacking the cynical humour usually characteristic of the author. This means that it doesn't hold the attention as this sort of project really should, particularly as the storyline lacks the urgency and forward motion of a thriller (and this slowness is presumably intended, as it mirrors the confusion and pointlessness of the guerilla campaign).

Tuesday 1 February 2005

Chris Verrill: Is For Good Men to Do Nothing (2004)

Edition: XLibris, 2004
Review number: 1286

What was your initial reaction to the September 11th atrocity? Watching it in California at a communal breakfast with other Americans (as Chris Verrill did) is likely to have had a very different feel from the experience I had of seeing it happen in mid-afternoon. To many, it was shock and grief (with perhaps a tinge of guilty thrill at the drama of the collapsing towers - I remember some comments at the time that the news coverage had something of the air of a Hollywood film stunt) or a desire for revenge; in other circles, it was glee at the humbling of American power. For me, too, my reaction was somewhat conditioned by previous near involvement with a terrorist attack: I was within earshot of an IRA bomb in the City of London, and it damaged the church I was attending at the time. As an aside, something that has irritated me since 9/11 is the way that Americans seem to suggest it was the only terrorist attack that ever happened. For Chris Verrill, the first reaction of shock was quickly followed by a burning desire to do something constructive; Is For Good Men to Do Nothing is the story of what he did.

There were two sides to what he did: first, he travelled the world to try to understand how people who were not Americans thought about the attack and the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq; at the same time, he worked to get a Rotary Club sponsored educational project under way in Afghanistan. There is a shared motive for both: the idea that ignorance is one of the main issues which led to the attack and which helped define the American response and the way in which the rest of the world percieved it. Verrill readily admits that education on both sides is necessary; there are still many Americans who have never been outside the forty eight continental states and who live in appalling ignorance of the rest of the world.

Now, Chris Verrill is also happy to acknowledge that Americans have made mistakes, most notably in their flauting of international law (in company with the UK) in the attack on Iraq which was unsanctioned by the United Nations. My feeling is that he perhaps doesn't go far enough in this, though he meets many people who are willing to tell him so far more forcefully than I would. This feeling is partly one that I have in response to George W. Bush, who comes across as the epitome of the stereotypical American: arrogant, dumb, ignorant, loud, and under the thumb of the interests of cynical businessmen. A recurrent theme of the discussions in the book is argument over just how much sincerity there has been in the stated US war aims in Iraq, as opposed to how much the conflict is over control of oil reserves.

A lot of reviews of this book are likely, I suspect, to do what I have started doing: put together a review which is really an essay entitled "What I think about 9/11 and the war in Iraq". While such thoughts may be of interest (and it is important to set out how the reviewer's perspective differs from the authors, if readers are going to be able to evaluate the review), the purpose of a review is not to make a political speech but to help a potential reader decide whether they will like a book. I suspect that there are many people who will be put off by the subject and would not even consider picking up Is For Good Men to Do Nothing, either because they just aren't interested in politics or because they feel that there is nothing more worth reading about 9/11. In fact, this is a really interesting story, mainly because Verrill comes across as genuinely interested in the opinions he hears, even when they are very different from his own. More than that, this book gives hope that there are Americans not caught up in mindless jingoism and above all shows that determination to make a difference is important.

In one way, this is a book which has changed my opinions. Not about Bush or Bin Laden, but about the Rotarians. The Rotary Club is not an organisation I knew much about, but the impression I had was that it was sort of like the Freemasons, but for those who couldn't be bothered about stupid rituals. I thought it was a mutual aid organisation for members of the establishment, the kind of place where the behind the scenes machinations of minor right wing politicians might occur. But now I know more, and it turns out that it is a worldwide charitable organisation full of people who want to make a difference.

There is one thing I feel I need to mention, even though it is rather pedantic. The quotation that supplies the title (in case anyone doesn't know, the rest of it basically says that this is the way for evil to triumph) is popularly attributed to eighteenth century British statesman Edmund Burke (perhaps best known for his protests against the restrictions placed on the American colonies which led to independence), and Verrill follows this. However, if you look it up in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, this is listed under "Misquotations", and turns out to be a popular version of a less memorable statement made by Burke.

This may be just a little piece of pedantry, but there's something else I didn't like much, which comes near the end. It is not that a speech made by George W. Bush is praised; given the quotations, I too thought it admirable. But then Verrill uses the speech as the basis of a patriotic appeal: not only does it make him proud to be an American (fair enough), but it should make the reader proud to be an American. This jarred - because I'm not an American; and it felt as though Chris Verrill was committing the very kind of unthinking chauvinism that he is writing the book to combat. I was unfortunately left feeling uncomfortable for the final twenty or so pages.

Despite this, I enjoyed Is For Good Men to Do Nothing, which is an excellent piece of journalistic writing. It makes the reader think, and in the current climate that can never be a bad thing.