Tuesday 19 December 2006

Justina Robson: Mappa Mundi (2001)

Published: Pan (2002)

After an odd, disjointed start before the plot proper gets going - fifty pages describing formative events in the lives of those to become major characters - Mappa Mundi settles down into familiar near future techno-thriller territory, rather like (say) Neal Stephenson's Zodiac. The NervePath projec is a psychological equivalent to the Human Genome Project: mapping out how the mind and brain structure relate to one another. Natalie Armstrong is interested in the obvious spinoff: software that can alter brain state, something she sees as a major tool in psychiatric treatment (she works in a clinic in York). But she is strangely unable to get funding for her Mappa Mundi project, and a series of bizarre crimes in the US suggests that someone else with a more sinister agenda may already be ahead of her.

The plot proceeds predictably enough - are the people who used the software to attack the village in the Native American reservation really good guys desperate to make it politically impossible for the work on the software as a weapon to continue? who can be trusted? Then, just before the halfway point, there is a huge surprise, the rug being pulled out from under the feet of the complacent reader who thinks that they have read it all before. The western rationalist approach to the mind expected in a hard(ish) science fiction novel is suddenly interrupted by ideas from Eastern religions: the patient who is a test subject for Armstrong's work is accidentally enlightened, and leaves the physical plane, or at least, this is what appears to happen. Such an event would be humorous if Robson had not spent so long persuading the reader that Mappa Mundi is a serious novel. From this point onwards, the novel picks up a gear, and it becomes much less predictable.

Mind altering viruses, akin to the scourges of today's computers, are increasingly common in science fiction. I have written about Amusica, from Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, only recently. It's a frightening idea, that we might be as malleable as a zombie PC is in the hands of today's virus writers.

The difficulties with producing this kind of virus are many: it is quite some way beyond today's knowledge (unless one starts to entertain paranoid notions that of course "they" would want us to think that). It is possible to obtain access to parts of the mind from outside, for hypnotism clearly does just that. But hypnotism, psychoactive drugs and brainwashing do not provide the delicacy of control and the permanent re-conditioning that is required by science fiction writers. They eyes, closely connected to the human brain (indeed, I have read that some scientists consider them and the optical nerve essentially part of the brain) and a principal means by which we, as a species, obtain information about the world, are the obvious means to use to infiltrate commands and programs into the mind (rather in the way that psychedelic patterns were used in sixties TV such as The Avengers). The defences, the biological equivalents to firewalls and virus checkers, seem to be quite weak, as we already have these methods of influencing the mind through the optical system. Breaching the defences, though, is only the first stage.

In order to make it possible to carry out the sort of reprogramming described in Mappa Mundi, the way that the human mind handles abstract concepts needs to be understood in detail. It is not even clear that concepts such as patriotism are implemented in the same way in the brains of different people - after all, patriotism is closely connected to whatever it is you are patriotic about, and even testing individuals to see how such a concept is structured would be hard (how would you stimulate the brains of people from different cultures so that you could scan brain activity for patriotism?). Abstract concepts are quite vague, and hard to pin down; there is a good reason why we don't program computers to be loyal, or jealous even though we know precisely how a computer should work. (Simulating loyalty or jealousy is a slightly different idea.) On the other hand, this feeling that the theory that would underlie the software described in this novel is infeasible doesn't meant that it will never be correctly formulated: after all, a medieval theologian would have considered a single law of gravity describing the motions of the planets to be unlikely, given the belief that an individual angel was responsible for the movement of each one.

Whether or not the vision of the mind control software painted by science fiction is likely, it is a disturbing one. Scenarios like warring factions of zombies (John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century), the musical deprivation of Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, or Robson's government sponsored suppression of discontent are in no way comforting, pleasant pictures of the future. And yet some people think that science fiction is all about escapism!

Mappa Mundi would be thought provoking as a technological thriller even without the wonderful twists. Not a cheerful read, however, by any stretch of the imagination.

Wednesday 13 December 2006

Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Published: Penguin, 1993
Translated: Clarence Brown, 1993

Before 1984, before Brave New World, the first great science fiction dystopia was Zamyatin's We. Written soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, before Soviet censorship became really brutal under Stalin, it was nevertheless impossible to publish in Russia, and first appeared in English translation in the States. This meant it became well known in the West, unusually for genre fiction in translation, and though not now as famous to the English-speaking reader as Huxley and Orwell, it was known to both writers and a strong influence on the latter in particular.

The narrator of We, D-503, is running the project to build a spaceship to carry the philosophy of OneState (previously translated as United State, a version rejected by Brown because of the obvious confusion it causes). He becomes obsessed with rebellious beauty I-330, even though love has been outlawed by OneState hundreds of years ago, and this leads him to doubt the certainties that once underpinned his life, until his erratic behaviour culminates in failing to take part in the last step in the scientific perfection of humanity: the surgical removal of the faculty of imagination.

The parallels with 1984 are obvious; the plots are even quite similar (substitute Winston and Julia for D-503 and I-330). However, Winston becomes a stronger dissident than D-503, who, even at the climactic moment believes that the secret police are a force for good, and that the torture they carry out is different from the work of the Inquisition of history because the OneState torturers are good, while the Inquisition was evil. This inability to ditch early condition seems to me to be entirely believable. However much conditioning is undermined, it will leave a trace, some parts of behaviour and belief will still be influenced or even determined by early training.

Additionally, class was important to Orwell in a way that was irrelevant to Zamyatin: Orwell makes Julia and Winston obsessed by the Proles (as opposed to party members, which is what they are) to make points of his own, while in OneState there appears to be no divide between citizens. This influences the way that they use something common to both writers, and to Huxley as well: the role of the outsider in their dystopia. Huxley's Savage is brought up in a Reservation. Beyond the Green Wall that forms OneState's border is a world populated by (it is believed) savages. It is possible to imagine dystopias where there are no outsiders, where rebellion is spontaneous in some way, but the only example that immediately comes to mind is the much less literary Earth of Blake's Seven, where injustice spurs Roj Blake into action. In 1984 and Brave New World the question of why such outsiders are permitted to exist is a little problematic, though it is less so in We; even here, it is a little odd that a culture that is building a space ship is unable to expand through the Green Wall.

The two topics, conditioning and outsiders, are closely related, as, generally, the seed that produces the idea in the hero which leads to rebellion comes from these people (who more easily prompt thoughts along the lines of "Things would be better if..."), a device which allows the author to concentrate on matters more directly relevant to the themes they wish to develop. The growth of this seed is of course the reason why the perfect citizen of OneState has hadtheir imagination surgically removed. What none of them foresaw, not even Orwell whose dystopia gave a major role to media manipulation, was a world like the West today, where imagination is not stifled but channelled, more interested in the minute details of today's top reality show than the politics driving a war in Iraq described as disastrous by one of its key supporters.

What is particularly powerful about We is the way that the poverty of D-503's life is depicted as the narrator himself moves towards knowledge of this state, and the way that he becomes confused when the basis of his deeply held (if artificially produced) inner convictions begins to crumble. He becomes separate from those around him - the "we" of the title is, as Brown points out in his introduction, not the people as a community, for they have no real community, but the "royal we" of the Benefactor, the ruler of OneState.

We is a fascinating novel, particularly to a Western reader more familiar with Huxley and Orwell.

NOTE: Edited 24/12/2006 to remove a small factual error.

Friday 8 December 2006

Alastair Reynolds: Century Rain (2004)

Published: Gollancz, 2005

The last time I read (and reviewed) a novel by Alastair Reynolds, I felt that it would be good for him to be refreshed by moving to a new setting, separate from the future history he had used up to that point. In Century Rain, he has done just this, renewing his creativity by doing so. (I can't claim any credit: apart from anything else, I didn't discuss this issue in my review.) This novel is a science fiction noir thriller, where time travellers become involved in a murder mystery in an alternate fifties Paris.

Reynolds' future has Earth rendered uninhabitable by nanotech weapons, and the destruction wrought by them makes any artefacts obtainable from the planet's archaeology massively valuable. But when a trip to the Earth's surface organised and lead by archaeologist Verity Auger goes badly wrong, she faces the tribunal which will end her career - if she's lucky. At this point she is offered a choice: take on a mysterious task or be left to face the music. It turns out that the task is to travel through a secret tunnel in space-time (something more exotic than a wormhole, she is assured), the other end of which is in a Metro tunnel just outside a station in an alternate Paris in 1959. A colleague of Verity's was studying this version of Paris, and was killed soon after discovering something important. Verity's task is to obtain papers that this woman had left with her landlord; however, unknown to her, the landlord felt that there was something odd about the death and has hired a private detective to investigate it.

As briefly indicated, this isn't the real Paris: the German invasion in 1940 was beaten back, so the Second World War barely happened, with the result that the fifties seem almost more like the thirties, politically and technologically. The travellers from the future are not sure how this happened. There are several possibilities, ranging from someone taking advantage of the chaos surrounding the destruction of life on Earth to revise the history books and insert the Second World War, to the idea that this alternate Earth is a sophisticated simulation, to the possibility that it really is part of another timeline. For much of the Century Rain it doesn't matter what the truth is, and anyway, it is more enjoyable to soak up the Simenonesque atmosphere. Indeed, the Paris sections work better than the future sections - an observation which seems a bit odd considering in which genre Reynolds made his name! The novel is basically a clash between the X-Files and Casablanca. The reader is clearly intended to make the second comparison, as many of the famous lines are quoted from the film (which of course doesn't exist in the alternate universe). A little ironic touch is that "We'll always have Paris" is missing.

Century Rain also includes a nanotech weapon which is somehow more frightening than the murderous, spectacular and unsubtle ones commonly seen in science fiction. The Amusica virus removes the ability to process music: it becomes just background noise. It is a little unlikely to be possible, particularly if the hypothesis that the role of musical awareness in human evolution was as a precursor of linguistic processing turns out to be true. (This is a hypothesis argued for, convincingly and in detail, in Steven Mithen's recent book, The Singing Neanderthals.) The virus leaves a culture essentially without music, where those few immune to the virus for some reason are envied and hated.

Tuesday 5 December 2006

Kelley Armstrong: Broken (2006)

Published: Orbit, 2006

The sixth of Armstrong's supernatural thrillers in the Otherworld series, Broken again centres on werewolf Elena (the novels alternate main characters). Though pregnant, she agrees to undertake the theft of the famous "From Hell" letter associated with Jack the Ripper from the grandson of the magician who stole it from the Metropolitan Police Ripper files. However, an accident leads to the establishment of a dimensional portal in Toronto by a spell set up to protect the letter, through which come Victorian zombies and various nasty nineteenth century diseases. The bulk of the novel describes the efforts made by Elena and the werewolf pack to close the portal.

This is apparently the last of Armstrong's supernatural novels for a while; judging by the preview of her next one which appears at the end. (This seems to be an obligatory part of American genre novels nowadays.) Armstrong's official site lists another Otherworld novel, but that is also a bit different, as it has a different central character from any of the earlier ones.

It is probably a good thing to make changes like this. The author with whom Armstrong is most likely to be compared, Laurell K. Hamilton, wrote about eight of the Anita Blake novels without such a change, all concentrating on and narrated by Anita, and after about six the quality starts to drop, descending into self parody. The novels now consist almost entirely of Anita finding some amazing new power, and having some violent sex - and it is a fairly good rule that any novel where there are sex scenes over a hundred pages long has something wrong with it. However, it has always been true for me that Hamilton is a guilty addiction, while Armstrong is more of a pleasure to read: better written, but not as intense an experience.

The Ripper connections are interesting, if not really deep - and Armstrong doesn't trawl through the more macabre details in the way that some writers about the killer do. Most readers are going to know something about history's most infamous serial killer, so reminders of the specific details needed in the plot are all that are needed, and are all that we get. This is still a novel drawing strongly on the horror genre, though perhaps "supernatural thriller" would be a better category for it: there are more scary episodes of Buffy. In fact, this whole seriesou would probably be enjoyed by any fan of that show; it is definitely better written than any of the Buffy tie-in novels (not that that would be hard).

Thursday 30 November 2006

Terry Pratchett: Wintersmith (2006)

Published: Doubleday, 2006

This is the third of Terry Pratchett's stories about young witch Tiffany Aching, aimed at a younger readership than the main Discworld novels, with which they share a setting and several characters. This time, she interrupts a ritual in the forest in midwinter, and by doing so attracts the romantic attention of the Wintersmith, the elemental being who personifies the season. While it is flattering to have all the snow fall in flakes which shaped like your profile, having giant iceberg statues killing hundreds of sailors is not so enjoyable. And, worst of all, Tiffany accidentally took the place of the Summer Lady in the dance, and the seasons become so messed up that this winter might never end.

The plot is simple, and hardly original (with echoes of the Greek myth of Persephone at the far reaches of its ancestry). But that is not the point. Wintersmith is entertaining, funny and would cheer anyone up, no matter what age they are. There is not as much in it as Pratchett includes in the main Discworld stories, presumably to cater to the younger readers. In particular, there is virtually none of the parodic references to our own culture that are the source of a lot of the humour of the adult novels, and instead something of an emphasis on lessons to be learned while growing up. I found the latter a little too obvious, but then I am about three times the target age.

As I said, this is the third young adult novel centring on Tiffany Aching, and it gives away some of the plots of the first two, though not too seriously. It would be better to read them in sequence (starting with The Wee Free Men), but not essential. This is a book which would make an ideal Christmas present for a thirteen year old who reads, such as a Harry Potter fan waiting for the final book to appear.

Friday 17 November 2006

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian (2005)

Published: Little, Brown & Co, 2005

Bram Stoker's Dracula kick-started a craze for vampires that has grown and grown over the years, inspiring hundreds of novels, films and TV series. Of course, the Gothic genre was popular for over a century before Stoker, including the odd vampire story (such as Polidori's The Vampyre, created at the same storytelling session as Frankenstein), but there is something about Dracula in particular which really caught the imagination of the modern world. The attraction is obviously the combination of glamour and danger, and altering the relative amounts of these two ingredients makes a huge variety of treatments possible for the aspiring author, from chick lit spoof (MaryJanice Davidson) to serious horror (Bram Stoker himself).

As you will have gathered from these ruminations, The Historian is yet another vampire novel. In fact, it is the most literary vampire novel that I know. It also owes more of a debt to Stoker than to Hollywood, which is quite unusual.

The story centres around a sixties history student at an American university. He is working on his thesis on seventeenth century Dutch trade when he finds a book that he doesn't recognise among the materials in his library carrel. Obviously old, its pages are blank except for the centre ones, where there was a woodcut illustration of an attacking dragon, with the caption 'DRAKULYA'. He takes the book to his supervisor, only to discover that he had found an identical book in mysterious circumstances a generation earlier. The story continues with parallel accounts of investigations carried out by each of them following their discoveries of the books, together with those of the student's daughter, another generation later.

The only major weakness in The Historian stems from this parallel structure: when I was tired I found it confusing, a little difficult to work out which investigation was the subject of a paragraph, at least until I got far enough into the book to become familiar with the characters. Some effort is made to differentiate the narratives typographically, but because they are all in the first person and the difference between the father's and daughter's paragraphs is an initial ", it is possible to miss which of them is speaking.

By setting on of the stories during the Cold War, Kostova is able to naturally introduce elements of the spy thriller, for travel backwards and forwards across the Iron Curtain to Transylvania is difficult, particularly for an American citizen. (This parallels the difficulty of access to Eastern Europe in Bram Stoker's novel, though that is due to the remoteness of the area from the railway network.) It is disconcerting to see the maps of "Cold War Europe" inside this edition's covers: so recent, yet already treated like an unfamiliar period to set a historical novel. Most of my life was during the Cold War - surely I'm not that old yet!

Their journey around Europe in search of information about Vlad the Impaler (the medieval prince who inspired the original Dracula myth) makes The Historian an academic thriller rather like Umberto Eco's early novels. That is the comparison that strikes me on reading this novel - and proves that I really enjoyed it, for the first two novels by Eco are among my favourites, even though I have been unable to finish any of his later work.

While slow for a thriller, The Historian is atmospheric, and in its evocation of the ancient evil of Dracula an acheivment comparable to Stoker's own (lessened of course by the long tradition Kostova had to build on in comparison with the earlier author). This is one of those d├ębuts that announces a writer who is well worth watching out for in the future.

Wednesday 15 November 2006

Dan Simmons: Olympos (2005)

Published: Gollancz 2005

Like The House of Storms just reviewed, Olympos is the sequel to a favourite science fiction/fantasy novel of mine from the last few years; in this case, to Ilium. Unlike The House of Storms, Olympos is a continuation of the earlier novel: very much a traditional sequel. From the start it is clearly going to wrap up the many loose ends of the earlier novel. (This wrapping up extends to the last paragraph of Olympos, which is virtually identical to the last paragraph of Ilium; both are translations of the opening of Homer's Iliad, though from slightly different points of view.)

Since Olympos follow on directly from Ilium, the plot is hard to describe without revealing details which might spoil Ilium for those who have not yet read it. (Though like much science fiction and fantasy, there are many other pleasures in the novel other than the plot.) War continues in the recreated Troy, where post-humans take the place of the gods of Greek mythology and run a simulation of the events described in the Iliad.

This is the main point of both novels. The theory that post-humans will get the most fun out of running simulations so perfect that to the participants it will be like resurrection in heaven is not very convincing and has struck me ever since I first heard it as wishful thinking, a desire by somewhat sentimental atheists to replace Christian ideas of heaven. There should be so many more interesting things to do than pandering to an obsession with the history of far more limited individuals. Personal interactions with other post-humans, investigation of the universe, simulations which are entirely new and alien: these seem to me to be three obvious possibilities. Simmons paints a more believable post-human, a race that has retained many of the less pleasant facets of humanity, with the desire to play cruel and capricious deities the reason for running a simulation. (Imagine what it would be like to be a simulated character in many of today's computer games.) All the post-humans in these two novels are unpleasant, mad or alien; it is only the resurrected humans and the descendants of human beings genetically engineered to live in the outer solar system that are anything approaching sympathetic. Like the idea of entirely benevolent beings, this is surely an over-simplification. If post-humans ever come to exist, they may be in some part incomprehensible to us, but they will surely be at least as varied as personalities. There may be some backing for Simmons' scenario in the idea that power corrupts, but the lack of nice, stable post-humans is for me a weakness in his vision.

Ilium made an impact - being hailed as "a landmark in modern SF" on the cover of this edition of Olympos - by being different and innovative. Since its sequel cannot match these qualities of the original by definition, it is hard to feel that Olympos is as good. It is well written and, of course, fans of Ilium will be keen to see how things turn out.

Saturday 11 November 2006

Ian R. MacLeod: The House of Storms (2005)

Published by Pocket Books, 2006

The follow-up to the wonderful The Light Ages, The House of Storms revisits the same world a century or so later.

The plot describes the machinations of Guildsmistress Alice Meynell, whose pursuit of personal power at any cost eventually leads to a terrible civil war between the east and west of England. This is not the confrontation between king and parliament which happened in the real world, which is now remote enough that it has been romanticised, but a horrific, draining conflict clearly modelled on the Western Front in the First World War.

One of the typical plots of the fantasy genre - which reflects the appeal it has to the adolescent audience - is the underhand "bad guy" adult being opposed and beaten by young teens. The House of Storms looks as though it might follow this storyline, as the first part of the novel describes a love affair between Alice's son Ralph and one of the maids at the house of the title, Invercombe near Bristol where Ralph travels to recuperate from an illness. However (to return to the point), MacLeod decides to reveal the unlikelihood of the standard plot, as Alice easily defeats their plans to flee to the Fortunate Isles; it is only realistic for experience and duplicity to overcome naivety. This leads straight to the strange second part, much of which is told from the point of view of a new character. He is a boy growing up in Einfell, the sanctuary for those whose humanity has been destroyed by over-exposure to aether, the raw material of magic. This was for me reminiscent of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, though not quite at the level acheived in that classic novel.

While The House of Storms is clearly a cleverly conceived and well written fantasy novel, it is not really as readable as The Light Ages. For this, the easy victory given Alice Meynell already mentioned is partly to blame, for it exposes the insipidity of Ralph and Marion as characters with whom the reader is meant to identity: the other main characters are too ruthless (Alice) or strange (Klade). It invites re-reading, though, and doing so is rewarding. The first time through, though, I found it hard to spend more than five minutes reading the novel without putting it down and taking a break. If you want a cute and fluffy, easy read, then The House of Storms is not for you; but for those who want something deeper, especially those who enjoyed The Light Ages, it is well worth making the effort.

Starting New Book Blog

This is the first post as a blog of my book review site. It's been running since 1998, and has over 1300 book reviews. Since blogging became popular, I've realised that this site is basically a blog: so I'm now going to start keeping new updates as a blog. This might encourage me to make entries more frequently: from one a day, the rate has gone down to less than one a month.

The site has now had over 3/4 million visitors (according to Geocities stats, which don't go back to the beginning of the site), so I don't want to just abandon it. So I'll be updating the review listings with links to the blog as I post them.

Thursday 26 October 2006

David Mitchell: Black Swan Green (2006)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006
Review number: 1316

With many considering Mitchell's previous novel, Cloud Atlas, to have been robbed of the Booker Prize a couple of years ago, and with Black Swan Green at one time the bookies' favourite from this year's long list, it was a big surprise when it was left off the short list entirely when it was announced in early September. Every year, I set out to try to read the half dozen novels on the short list, as they should include the best in literary fiction from the Commonwealth, and every year two or three of these novels are ones I find unreadable (or at least, unfinishable). The reasons for this can vary, but usually the problem is that I find them dull and unimaginative. Neither could be charges laid against Mitchell's work; his ideas are interesting, and the writing used to express them draws the reader into the world he describes.

Having said that, Black Swan Green is very different from Mitchell's first three novels. They all have some quirkiness about their narrative structure, like Iain Banks' early novels, that makes them not quite mainstream. Here, though, we have a straightforward first person narrative. In fact, the story of a thirteen year old boy in early eighties England reads like many first novels: it has a distinctly autobiographical feel to it. I don't know enough about Mitchell's life to decide whether or not it is based on his teenage years, but he is at least about the right age.

In fact, narrator Jason Taylor is almost exactly one year younger than myself; I was fourteen during 1982 not thirteen. Although I was also living in England, my circumstances were rather different from those of Jason Taylor, even though we actually shared experiences. While Jason was coping with bullying, learning about girls, discovering his talents as a poet and seeing the end of his parents' marriage, I was dealing with less subtle but more violent bullying (I still have scars on my back), learning about girls in the more restrictive environment of a single-sex school, discovering my talents in mathematics and music and learning to live with my father's disability (which followed a stroke a year earlier). These are fairly obvious similarities in our situations, which makes this book speak to me more strongly than it will to many other readers, but there were also differences. I was much more introspective than Taylor is made out to be, much less interested in popularity with others at school, for example. More of a geek, in other words. However, if I had written Black Swan Green, suspicions that it was semi-autobiographical would be well-founded.

So this is a well written, interesting novel with a believable central character. Why, then, has it been overlooked by the Booker jury? It is more conventional than Mitchell's earlier novels, but that should not matter when many of the books shortlisted in this and other years are as much, if not more, conventional. I have commented before on the attitude of the literary establishment to science fiction even today, but there are no genre elements in Black Swan Green at all. However, authors as well-regarded as Iain Banks have never been shortlisted at all, so it may be that just being a writer associated with science fiction can be enough to taint your name in the jury's eyes.

Wednesday 19 July 2006

Philip K. Dick: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974)

Edition: Voyager, 1996
Review number: 1315

Philip K. Dick was not an author who concerned himself greatly with the scientific plausibility of the backgrounds to his novels in the way that many of his contemporaries (Larry Niven, for example) did. However, there are many contemporary echoes thirty years on of his paranoid tales; he writing is of now in a way that most writers in any genre can only dream about. What we get in this novel, apart from one of Dick's weirdest titles (the policeman is a fan of John Dowland), includes resonances with identity theft and the possibility of unknown celebrities as we see in so many "celebrity" special editions of reality TV shows at the moment. There is also an element of parody of the fairly common science fiction idea of a genetically superior race within mankind, as described in all seriousness by writers such as AE van Vogt (and to which the back story of many superhero comic strips can be related, from Superman to the X Men).

Jason Taverner is a product of genetic engineering experiments - a "Six", because he was produced by the sixth series of such experiments - and host of the world's top-rated TV show. But one morning he wakes up in a sleazy hotel, and discovers that not only is he unable to prove who he is and regain the privileged life that used to be his, but nobody even recognises him or remembers his work. While not precisely identity theft - identity loss would be more like it - this fits in with current fears, in the UK at least, of what might happen with the introduction of identity cards tied to a single central database, obviously due to become the country's biggest hacker target.

As our society continues every day to become more dependent on technology for smooth running, the consequences of any breakdown become proportionately more serious. Increasing complexity makes it harder to ensure the security of even the most crucial systems, as well as taking the technology as a whole beyond the grasp of a single engineer. However, introducing measures to deal with these consequences can compromise the security of the entire system: to put in a "back door" to recover a stolen identity, for example, can provide a new method to steal one in the first place.

In the end, though, Dick ends up copping out. Jason Taverner recovers his identity, but effectively this happens through Dick going outside the system he has used to set up this novel. The story slips into drug taking and the insights it gives into the nature of reality; this time the abundance of ideas in one of Dick's novels undermines the plot. Effectively, it reads as though he paints himself into a corner, but then discovers the ability to walk through walls; frustrating for the reader, who wants to know what clever idea will be used to get round the problems. Both the drugs and the nature of reality (specifically, how we know that what we experience is real and not a hallucination) are long term preoccupations of Dick's, and both are better dealt with elsewhere in his fiction. So this ending is a major disappointment in what could have been a fascinating novel.

Thursday 25 May 2006

Poul Anderson: Time Patrol (2006)

Edition: Baen, 2006
Review number: 1314

The Time Patrol stories of Poul Anderson are classics of the science fiction genre, dealing with the efforts of the eponymous group to maintain the status quo of history against the accidental or deliberate manipulations of other time travellers. This book, sharing the name of the original story which began the series, collects them all (and it is not to be confused with an earlier volume, also called Time Patrol, which contains only the first two or three stories).

The central character in the stories is Time Patrol agent Manse Everard, who is "unattached" - basically, a troubleshooter who can visit any time and place in order to sort out serious problems. (Most Time Patrol agents work in a single milieu, either as researchers studying the period or as officials regulating the activities of time travellers.) Apart from the first story, which is about Everard's recruitment, the basic plot of the remaining stories is simple and consistent: some problem requires Everard's intervention at a particular time and date.

Though the stories were written over a period of five decades and though they vary wildly in length (between about 30 and 160 pages, as reprinted here), they are very similar to each other. Anderson doesn't quite make the different periods and locations all that distinct (though having several stories set just outside the borders of the Roman Empire doesn't really help with this). Everard also remains pretty much the same through the series, maybe a little more world-weary, but basically an action hero. Like many long running series of self-contained stories, the Time Patrol tales work better in relatively small doses rather than by reading them all the way through in one volume.

Given these obvious flaws, why is Time Patrol worth reading, and why are the stories important in the development of the genre? For one thing, there is one story in the series which really stands out, which would be a classic of the genre even without the rest. Delenda Est has Everard returning from a vacation on a base in the prehistoric past to his own time (the mid twentieth century) only to discover that everything has changed. In what is effectively a parallel world, he has to work out what pivotal event has been altered, and then decide if he is morally able to destroy an entire new civilization in order to bring back his own familiar time line (or alternatively destroy the lives of all those living in his own timeline to save the new future). This single story is one of the best of all those ever written about time travel.

For the other stories, the point of this series is really the introduction of adventure to time travel, and particularly to stories involving time travel paradoxes. The fates of nations, of the godlike Danellians from Earth's far future (the beings who set up the patrol to preserve their existence) rest on Everard's capable shoulders: he is a hero who can think as well as act. In the original time travel story, Wells' The Time Machine, the use of time travel is to be a mechanism allowing the main character to see the far future (which is, of course, at least partly a reflection on Wells' present); the machine itself has very little part to play in the story. It is like the visions in The House on the Borderland, or the mental link to the future in Last and First Men: the point is the vision itself, not the mechanism by which it becomes available to the protagonist. Stories of time travel to the future tend to be like this in tone, and it is perhaps the introduction of the possibility of paradox with travel to the past which makes the idea work better as the background of a thriller. (The actual introduction of the famous grandfather paradox came as late as 1947, and even then in stories unlikely to be read by the mainstream English language science fiction fan: French genre fiction, with the exception of Jules Verne, is still considered pretty obscure.) Anderson joined other American writers of his time such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov in bringing adventure to mainstream time travel fiction (The Door Into Summer and The End of Eternity are approximately contemporary with the earliest Time Patrol stories); Anderson's stories are the most epic of these as adventures.

Delenda Est is a must read for any science fiction fan. The rest are interesting in small enough doses, though a bit too similar to each other to make the omnibus a pleasure. So I would recommend seeking out other collections which contain one or more of the stories along with others, rather than investing in the omnibus.

Thursday 20 April 2006

Michael Moorcock: The Vengeance of Rome (2006)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2006
Review number: 1313

After twenty-five years, the final volume of the Pyat Quartet has now at last appeared; it has spent almost all that time listed at the front of Moorcock's publications as "in preparation". The quartet as a whole must rank as one of the most ambitious novel series of the period, as well as one of the most slowly written; not content with being a historical narrative of the first half of the twentieth century, Moorcock has immersed himself in the repellent personality of Maxim Pyat and produced a study of how such a person appears to themselves while making it clear how others perceive them at the same time.

The story of The Vengeance of Rome takes Pyat from a fugitive in Morocco - the ending of the previous volume - to friendship with Mussolini in Fascist Italy, and then close links with the Nazi hierarchy in thirties Germany (extremely close in some cases), through imprisonment in the camp at Dachau to eventually meeting the young Moorcock while running a second hand clothes shop near Notting Hill in the sixties.

Like many historical novels, a lot of the fascination in this series lies in the way in which Pyat's story is threaded into the major events of the time. Though the most obvious counterpart to the quartet may seem to be George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series, the tone here is much more serious, and Pyat's character and role in history are both far more ambiguous. At the heart of the whole series, and emphasised particularly in this final novel, is the conflict between Pyat's anti-Semitism and his appearance: being constantly taken for a Jew is not a good thing in thirties Italy and Germany.

The conceit of the series is that the novels are in fact memoirs edited together by Moorcock from Pyat's papers and memories of conversations the two of them had. There is an introductory page, which suggests that the main task of the (fictional) editorial hand has had to try to harmonise conflicting accounts. One of the usual characteristics of Moorcock's fantasy genre writing is that he positively revels in incompatible versions of stories; this is particularly clear in the recent Second Ether trilogy, each of which treats incompatibility in a different way. So this is a somewhat ironic statement, one of many in The Vengeance of Rome of various different kinds.

One of the most interesting of these, because it reveals a lot about the character and the author's attitude to him, occurs when Pyat is interrogated by the SS about his career as an inventor: "I invented it all", he says, apparently without realising what this suggests about his history; and yet Moorcock also states in the introduction that he found corroborating evidence for many of the incidents that initially seemed most fabulous; this is clearly a deliberate contradiction. The reader, of course, knows that this is fiction, but it is being presented as true as any memoirs - with hints like this that it is at the very least, significantly embellished.

Moorcock fans may have wished to see the quartet completed more quickly, but there are obvious reasons why the novels would be difficult to write (and those obvious reasons may not of course have affected the author, no matter how strongly the novels may suggest them). These are the requirements of historical research and the repellent personality of Pyat already mentioned, together with the difficulty of writing from the point of view of an individual whose opinions in almost every subject seem to be diametrically opposed to those of the author. (Moorcock's own views can be read in the essays in The Opium General, for example, or on his website, Moorcock's Miscellany - currently down after attacks by hackers, an event that is itself something of a commentary on his views.)

It is possible to see the Pyat quartet as a sustained attack on racism. Indeed, the idea that an anti-Semite is so unable to see that Jewish people are just as human as he is leads him to be unable to perceive his own Jewishness is a barbed comment on the stupidity of such a view. But there is much more to it than that, and ranks as Moorcock's literary masterpiece, as The Dancers at the End of Time is its equivalent in the science fiction genre.

Thursday 9 March 2006

Greg Andrew Smith: The Pledge of Three (2005)

Edition: The Lucky Press, 2005
Review number: 1312

Zack Owens, a bored schoolboy waiting for his mother to finish work, is trying to amuse himself in the office of her employer. He picks up a book on medieval history, and a piece of paper falls out. This describes the Pledge of Three, which when recited by three friends together affects their futures: one will become rich and famous, one will be unchanged, and one will die. Rather unwisely, he takes the paper and shows it to one of his school friends, who is excited by the idea and wants to try it. It is only after some disturbing dreams and seeing an odd website that Zack agrees - a few days before his mother wins the state lottery.

Aimed at young teenagers, The Pledge of Three turns out to be quite an intriguing novel. While the idea of young people becoming involved in something they don't understand is hardly original (recent well-known examples including both Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it is handled well, with an X Files-like unwillingness to decide whether it is describing magical events (putting in the fantasy genre) or a complex hoax (which would put it in the crime genre) that marks it out. The other reason why this novel is better than the average is the characterisation of Zack, who is made deeper by the way that his initial reluctance to become involved with the Pledge is overcome. Indeed, despite not being in the target age range by some two decades, I found myself keen to keep reading from chapter to chapter, and would certainly be interesting in reading sequels (The Pledge of Three being the first of a series, the Z.O. Chronicles).

The Pledge of Three is not faultless; there are occasional infelicities in the writing, particularly in the early chapters. For example, "soft-spoken" is not really the most common adjective to apply to people, but the first chapter uses it to describe two characters in the space of a few pages, which gives the reader a little jolt. I have not been a school pupil for a long time, and was never one in the US, but some details struck me as unlikely (is it really that easy to walk out of a class?) - basically, the plot and the setting could be better integrated. Once the reader is drawn into the story, which happens pretty quickly, this sort of issue ceases to matter.

Lucky Press are not a publisher I have come across before, and judging by their list, this kind of fiction, on the boundary between thriller and fantasy and aimed at the teen market, is a new departure for them. I hope that The Pledge of Three receives the success it deserves and that the Lucky Press won't be too strongly stereotyped as purveyors of lurid self-help books to get it into the shops.

Saturday 25 February 2006

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Telling (2001)

Edition: Gollancz, 2002
Review number: 1311

All through here career, Le Guin has been known for her thoughtful social science fiction, as far removed from the "hard" SF which focuses on engineering and physics as anything in the genre. While her earlier novels like The Left Hand of Darkness are classics which helped establish that science fiction doesn't have to be about technology, the more recent The Telling is a comparitively minor novel in much the same vein.

The setting is a technologically primitive planet - a favourite choice of location for Le Guin. Using a familiar device from earlier Hainish tales, the central character is an anthropologist-like observer named Sutty. She is sent to this planet, only to discover it has radically changed from the information she read before her journey (which took seventy years, local time, because of relativistic effects). The society she studied, made up of peaceful beings who had no real concept of foreigner (or at least, so the narrative states, though there is also a suggestion that one group was regarded as "barbarians"), has been overthrown in what must be a deliberate reflection of the effects of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The old books, and even the writing and some of the language are banned as reactionary. Sutty thinks at first that she, an alien, might be the only person on the planet able to read the old letters until she goes away from the cities into the mountain foothills where the remnants of the culture are still clandestinely preserved.

Why is this a minor Le Guin? The main reason is that it re-visits themes previously explored with greater subtlety. It is all too obvious that the reader is meant to sympathise with those trying to preserve the remnants of the old culture, and the details put in to explain why the authorities want to stamp it out are perfunctory and unconvincing. (This is partly because the main motive for doing so is kept for a surprise until the end, which is something of a plotting mistake.) The ideas used in The Telling could have been the basis for something more interesting; theere is more to the real world events than is picked up by the author, and there are additional reasons for cultures to die out in the face of new technology which we see all around us in the world today that could have filled out the somewhat perfunctory plot. No one ever suggests that the (to me rather dull) folk tales that make up the oral culture at the centre of The Telling (and provide the name for the novel) are boring or irrelevant - yet that has been the fate of many traditional ideas in the MTV generation. Those on the side of the authorities are portrayed as humourless ideologues, straight out of Orwell; one of them does have a change of heart, but it turns out that he was brought up in the old ways. There are reasons that persuade people to embrace technology, and to be a fully rounded person does not necessarily mean rejecting anything new; but that is Le Guin's implication here.

There are other aspects of The Telling which could be criticised; too much space is given to expounding the traditions at the expense of plot and character: an equivalent to being a hard SF novel which concentrates on the technical gimmicks at great length and a fault that Le Guin has always tended towards. But I did not actually dislike The Telling. It is beautifully written on a sentence-by-sentence level, and captures the attention. What is frustrating is that it could be much better.

Thursday 2 February 2006

Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass (2000)

Edition: Point, 2001
Review number: 1310

As anyone who has read my reviews of the earlier novels in the His Dark Materials trilogy will know, I am not a Philip Pullman fan. I did feel, though, that I should make an effort to get to the end of this series, as so many people rave about it. I had hoped that this would be a more interesting read, and I would finally begin to care what happened to Will and Lyra.

The novel starts with Lyra in a magical sleep in the power of her mother, while Will (and others, who are more sinister) search for her. Lyra asleep is a much more interesting character than Lyra awake, and this section is probably the best written of all three novels. But soon she is wakened, and from that point she and Will are questing through the worlds accessible with the knife (see The Subtle Knife) and the dullness returns, giving me an almost irresistible urge to skip large chunks (I only didn't because I was intending to write this review).

Pullman has frequently and loudly complained about the Christian symbols in C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories. However, the way that Lewis approaches his symbols seems to me to indicate a much greater writer and storyteller, regardless of his religious convictions. He subordinates the external ideas to the demands of his story (for example, the parallels between Aslan and Jesus are less exact than critics would make out). Pullman's ideas, on the other hand, seem far more important than any story-telling, and his symbols are clunky and irritating. They also tend to be pointed out very directly by the author - as when he describes the meaning of the knife towards the end of this novel. I don't really mind what the purpose symbolic objects hold in a work of fiction, as long as they're well done and their meanings contribute to the strengths of the novel. This is not the case here, and they just become intrusive, making the reader unable to ignore the fact that there is some kind of agenda behind what they see on the page.

My basic objection to this entire trilogy is that it is extremely dull. It certainly reads more like the kind of thing adults expect children to like rather than something that will really appeal to most children - a real contrast to Harry Potter. (I've seen lots of adults raving about His Dark Materials - but not one teenage or pre-teen fan.) I'm certainly not intending to read any more Philip Pullman, no matter how wonderful people think his books are.