Saturday 21 April 2007

Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956) (Tiger, Tiger)

Published: Gollancz, 2006

One of the indisputable classics of science fiction, The Stars My Destination is a novel which has received surprisingly little recognition outside the genre compared with some of the works it influenced. The story of a thirst for vengeance to rival The Count of Monte Cristo, it is a clear forerunner of Philip K. Dick's work, and like Dick it is a formative influence on much modern science fiction, from William Gibson onwards - whether directly or indirectly. This is a novel I have read now for the second time, and I was much more impressed than as the teenager who first picked it up.

Gully Foyle is a failure in a dead end job on a space ship, but becomes the sole survivor of an accident. After 170 days in a tiny airtight piece of wreckage, Foyle thinks he is going to be miraculously rescued when another ship comes so close that he can read the name Vorga on the side; but when he makes a signal the ship bears off - leaving him to die. The massive inhumanity of such an act inspires Foyle; his desperate attempt to save himself is the prelude to a long campaign of vengeance against the person who was willing to give the order to abandon him.

Comparison with The Count of Monte Cristo shows Bester a far more morally ambiguous writer. Yes, what happens to Foyle is outrageous, but so are the crimes he commits during his single-minded pursuit of revenge. There are no solely good or evil characters, with one possible exception (a hospital nurse whose family connections make her a subject for blackmail by Foyle). On the other hand, Foyle is not a particularly subtle character; the thirst for vengeance fills him so completely as to make him as implacable and elemental as Medea or Electra (say) in the Greek tragedies that bear their names.

The Stars My Destination (or Tiger, Tiger, a title that I, agreeing with Neil Gaiman's introduction, think is much better) ends with two chapters which must include some of the most ambitious writing in the science fiction genre before the sixties New Wave. The first is when Foyle experiences great pain, and Bester wants to express that it is beyond description; he uses a whole series of typographical extravagances which it is amazing that any publisher of genre fiction in the fifties was willing to pay to reproduce. Where authors keep up such a style for too long it tends to become wearing, but it works quite well in a single chapter when well done and for a specific purpose.

In the other, Foyle has a meeting with his enemies, a set piece showdown which is satirifcally undermined by the way that the only suggestions Foyle is willing to listen to come from the totally predictable programming of the robot servant in attendance. Satire and irony are never too far away in any of Bester's writing, and though it is possible to read and enjoy The Stars My Destination as a straight novel, the reader will get more out of it and, I believe, be reading in a spirit closer to the author's intentions, if they bear this in mind.

Friday 13 April 2007

Paul Park: A Princess of Roumania (2005)

Published: Tor, 2005

One author who is mentioned several times in the quotations printed on the back of A Princess of Roumania is Philip Pullman. Now, anyone who has read my reviews of the His Dark Materials trilogy will know that Pullman is an author I think massively overrated, and so I found this somewhat off-putting. The praise I had read for A Princess of Roumania in the end persuaded me to give it a try, and I am glad that I did. While I can understand the comparison to Pullman, Park has more interesting ideas, a more atmospheric setting, and, above all, the ability to write convincing characters; while many consider His Dark Materials a classic, A Princess of Roumania is much more deserving of the label.

The story is simple; in fact, it is the ultimate fantasy cliché: the lost heir. Park mixes it with alternative universes, also not especially new: hiding the lost heir in our world is something I planned to use in an abandoned novel I began in 1991, among other uses of the idea. The first slightly unusual aspect to A Princess of Roumania is that our world is the fictional one, magically created solely to hide the princess Miranda from her family's enemies. Park's Roumania is a great power in decline, threatened principally by the Germans; her father was wrongfully accused of betraying Roumania to them twenty years earlier, an event which led to the elevation of one of the Roumanian generals as the power behind the throne. The baby Miranda was hidden by her aunt, an adept of magic, with the aid of a pair of books: each describing the history of a world, one real and one fictional; when both books are destroyed, the spell is broken and Miranda is returned to the "real" world. An odd quirk means she's fifteen even though twenty years have passed: this is not explained (though of course future novels in the series may do so) and suggests that the flow of time in magical worlds is different from that in the real world, an idea which goes back to folk stories where people kidnapped by fairies find that after a single night everyone they knew is dead of old age.

The pace is slow; the point of the novel being to establish the characters and set the stage for their interactions. Quite a lot does actually happen - it just feels relaxed to read it. Park doesn't quite manage the (surely impossible) task of persuading the reader that his Roumania is more real than the world we live in, but he comes closer than a lot of writers. It is the characters which really excel. This makes Park's work reminiscent in truth of one of the other authors to whom he is compared on the back of A Princess of Roumania, John Crowley, who is one of my favourite authors of all. Involving, rather than exciting, is the order of the day; and A Princess of Roumania is guaranteed a place on my reads of the year.