Sunday 23 November 2008

Michael Stephen Fuchs: The Manuscript (2006)

Published: Macmillan New Writing, 2006

Sir Richard Burton was one of the most interesting Victorians - best known as a linguist and explorer, he translated the Arabian Nights into English and made the pilgrimage to Mecca forbidden to the infidel in disguise as an Arab, and co-led the expedition which discovered the source of the Nile. He is also well known to science fiction fans as the main character of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series. Here, though, he appears as the author of "The Manuscript", a description of a trip he took into the Andes, discovering a remote tribe who possessed the answers to life's questions. Apparently lost when Burton's widow burnt his papers after his death, rumours suggest that The Manuscript is secretly hidden on an Internet server.

So far, so Da Vinci Code. A similar mixture of absurd and unlikely conspiracy theory and treasure hunt with a spiritual secret to be found. This is mixed in with the Internet thriller, along the lines of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and is written by someone who knows what he's talking about. Fuchs also thankfully writes in a far less clunky style than Dan Brown, who for this reader breaks the suspense every couple of paragraphs with some poorly phrased infelicity.

That is not to say that everything is wonderful in The Manuscript. The most glaring problem is the occasional lengthy and poorly integrated "info dump", notably in the early pages where Burton's biography is shoehorned in. It would help the flow of the novel if the details are revealed as characters need to know them, with a much shorter summary at this point, and the presentation would be more elegant than it is. It's excusable because Burton is made to be so important to the story (though the authorship of the Manuscript turns out to be almost irrelevant to both its contents and the treasure hunt: it's just that an origin can be fitted into Burton's already crowded life story).

Although i haven't mentioned any of the characters so far, the central figures are well enough drawn to hold the interest, if rather glamourised. These are nerds as portrayed by Hollywood, people who prefer to work out than watch Star Trek re-runs.

The Manuscript is a successful techno-thriller, even with its absurd premise. Perhaps the geekiness of the Internet content will put some people off, butt you won't need to have heard of awk, sed or perl to enjoy the story. It works: there's tension and suspense, and the rivalry between the various groups searching for the Manuscript is well handled.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Karen Miller: The Innocent Mage (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker Book 1) (2005)

Published: Orbit, 2007

When Asher heads for the city of Dorana to make his fortune, he is apparently like many others. But there the Circle is waiting for him, as they and their ancestors have been for centuries. For their prophets tell them that Asher is the Innocent Mage of the magic-less Olken race, herald of the Final Days. They cannot inform Asher of his destiny before the right moment, or even tell him that he can work magic (hence "Innocent"), so they need to manipulate his life into the path they want him to follow. Asher's own talents and their work mean that he is appointed to the royal stables on his first day in Dorana, and soon afterwards he is asked by Prince Gar to act as his advisor on Olken matters.

The Innocent Mage, as the summary probably suggests, is not groundbreaking, innovative fantasy. The plot elements - young man marked out by prophecy especially - can be seen in many works of the genre, from the well loved (David Eddings' Belgariad) to the unbearable (the truly awful recent TV series Merlin). Here, Miller's take on the standard ideas of the genre works well, partly because of the character of Asher. Asher comes from a fisher family, one of the very small section of the population who go ouut beyond the weather magic controlled by the royal family that covers the land. This means that his background is tough, something which is reinforced by the northern English dialect he speaks, a useful trick from Miller, using a familiar stereotype from the real world to help the reader understand her fictional one. His usefulness to Prince Gar is that Asher has a straightforward attitude, and refuses to be another royal today. This is not always welcome to the prince, and the abrasiveness of their relationship is the backbone of the novel, and provides a great deal of humour. And it means that the characters are well enough drawn and familiar to the reader for them to be cared about when things get darker towards the end of The Innocent Mage (and then draw the reader on to the concluding The Awakened Mage).

Fantasy as a genre is still generally filled with characters from the nobility, one of the traits derived from medieval literature via the novels of William Morris. Even where peasants and other lower class characters appear, of minor importance or there with humorous intent, particularly when they use dialect, or all three (David Eddings' embarrassing yokels being a case in point). (The reality of medieval Europe, with limited travel, would have been that local dialects and accents would have been strong and verging on the mutually incomprehensible.) Asher isn't like this; he is a much more rounded character, important to the plot, and the humour comes from his relationship with the prince not from making fun of a yokel accent.

In terms of marketing, there is something extremely unusual about The Innocent Mage: this edition is completely free of endorsements and review quotations. Any fantasy novel, no matter how poor, seems to be able to find some writer willing to imply it is the most important work in the genre since The Lord of the Rings; I suspect that few readers pay much attention to them any more. So this could hardly be because the publishers could find no one to write something nice about the novel (it is better written than many that are covered in endorsements), and must be a deliberate marketing ploy. I can't quite see where it's trying to go, though.

The Innocent Mage is not a classic, not innovative, but better-than-most genre fantasy.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)

Published: Millennium, 1999

In the military subgenre of science fiction, there are two major classics, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and this, less well known but classic enough to be chosen as the first in Millennium's SF Masterworks series of reprints. Starship Troopers is not a book I like very much, not among Heinlein's best, and with something of an old fashioned feel to it now. It is a novel which is really about comradeship, and which ignores many of the more unpleasant aspects of warfare. The basic plot of The Forever War, describing the training and deployment of soldiers from the first person perspective of William Mandella, is shared with Starship Troopers (and a lot of other military fiction), but the attitude behind Haldeman's novel is very different.

The basic reason for this is that The Forever War has its roots in Haldeman's Vietnam War experiences. While some details are obviously different (even allowing for the science fiction aspects, few sixties US army camps would not only be mixed but encourage sleeping with different partners every night, for example), The Forever War is a more ruthless, brutal novel in which the enemy aliens are far more like us than Heinlein's giant bugs, so that killing them seems more like the death of a person to the reader than the extermination of vermin which is what it feels like in Starship Troopers. Heinlein, whose military service as a naval officer was during peacetime and was thus very different, does not really make any attempt to deal with moral issues, partly because he is so securely convinced of his own personal philosophy, while Haldeman is keen to try to get the reader to feel what he felt. This makes The Forever War far more ambitious than Starship Troopers, and fits in with the trend in literary depictions of war in the twentieth century, following from All Quiet on the Western Front.

The main concept in The Forever War, which gives the novel its name, is that the soldier on active service becomes increasingly distanced from his or her civilian contemporaries. Haldeman uses the idea of relativistic time dilation to give a physical aspect to this psychological affect, one which particularly affected Vietnam veterans because the eventual unpopularity of the war affected the welcome they expected when they returned to the States, and made it hard fort them to be reintegrated into civilian life. From the genre point of view, the use of time dilation makes The Forever War one of a fairly small number of space-based science fiction novels to take build relativistic restrictions into the plot. Each mission lasts weeks to William Mandella, while decades pass on earth. So each time he returns, he is more a fish out of water, and Haldeman gives over more pages to describing this than to the description of the war itself (which is reasonable, as interstellar warfare is going to be pretty confusing to a soldier on the ground). Many of the changes to human society come about because of the massive effort required to prosecute the war, so veterans are an object of curiousity, but as Mandella points out, "The most important fact about the war to most people is that if it ended suddenly, Earth's economy would collapse".

The culture shock goes both ways, too. When Mandella is appointed to a command, the new recruits have almost to learn a new language, the old fashioned English of a four hundred and fifty year old man: as far from them as Shakespeare is from us. Haldeman seems to have thought about this future in some depth, but oddly seems to have missed the possibility that during the next four centuries English may be replaced as the principal world language, say by Mandarin, Hindi or Spanish. And that is perhaps less problematic than changes in technology would be. As a commander, Mandella surely needs to understand something of the changes in technology that have happened during his life in order to be able to fight effectively, but instead of the total incomprehensibility that would be seen by a sixteenth century cavalryman asked to command a modern stealth air bomber squadron using satellite imagery for targeting, he has only to cope with improvements to the basic technology used in the early years of the war.

Space warfare faces some serious difficulties, particularly the space marines style scenarios which form the main part of Haldeman's narrative, where groups of men attack fortified positions on the ground from spacecraft orbiting the planet. (The basic issues stem from the overwhelming advantage that gravity gives to the attackers, an edge which goes away if they land on the planet.) Haldeman brings in a far greater problem with the vast timespan of the war as perceived from Earth, and the resources required to prosecute the war over huge distances. The closest historical parallel is the Hundred Years' War, shorter in duration, far less organised, intermittent rather than continuous, involving far smaller proportions of a far smaller population: yet the economic and political stresses it caused proved a major factor in the formation of the English and French states which proved so influential in the development of the modern world.

By concentrating on one confused individual participating in a remote war, Haldeman increases the impact of The Forever War at the expense of a broad picture of the future of the human race. The resonances with Vietnam perhaps make the novel seem a little dated, particularly with the setting of the initial chapters at a time now in our past (the date being chosen by Haldeman to make it possible for some of the soldiers to be Vietnam veterans). Yet it remains a powerful picture of what it is like to fight a war that alienates the soldiers from the non-soldiers, and it could be argued that with America involved in another unpopular overseas war, it is more relevant than ever.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Yvonne Jerrold: A Case of Wild Justice? (2008)

Published: Troubadour, 2008

The essential idea of A Case of Wild Justice? is fairly simple. It picks on something that has become more and more commonly reported in the UK's national and local papers: an increase in anti-social behaviour in young teenagers, both vandalism and threatening behaviour to adults. Indeed, from some local papers, it would seem that it should be impossible to go out at all without getting hassled. And it certainly seems to residents that the police are helpless, that those responsible are never caught and convicted of any crime (despite the huge numbers of cameras on the British streets today). In the novel, a group of old age pensioners forms, known as the Silver Bees, who booby trap themselves with the intention of taking their tormentors with them if the worst comes to the worst. Not quite suicide bombers (they don't go out of their way to get into situations where they will die) and not quite vigilantes (they don't actively seek to attack the teenage delinquents), the aim is to make delinquents think twice because it is now dangerous to harass pensioners.

I remember going to see the David Mamet play, Oleanna, some years ago in London. The play has two characters, a university lecturer and a student, and concerns accusations of rape made by the student against the lecturer. In this particular production, with David Suchet and Lia Williams, it seemed pretty clear that rape, in the literal sense, did not happen, but in the mind of the student, it had done so in a different sense. During the interval and on the way out at the end of the play, my partner and I were struck at how all the snatches of conversation overheard were about the concept, and not about the play as a play or even the excellent performances (both actors were mesmerising). People did say that it was a good play, but that seemed to be more because they were stimulated by it than by any virtues of the text itself.

A Case of Wild Justice? is a novel with a similar feel to it. As a reviewer, I should really discuss how it is written, but I find myself wanting to talk about the ideas it contains and take issue with some of its positions on its emotive subject. Generally, I was impressed; this is a well-characterised story. However, I do feel that some of what it appears to be trying to do is undermined by the approach it takes.

The story is told from the point of view of one elderly woman, and how she begins to consider becoming a Silver Bee, after hearing about the group and seeing the activities of the children in her village street. The leader of these delinquents is her grandson, a sociopathic individual loathed by all adults except his mother, who thinks he is a perfect angel. A lot of the novel - perhaps actually more than half - is taken up with Hannah's background story, which is given in some detail and makes it clear that the message of the book is not that everything was alright until the current generation of teenagers came along. To me, this is one of the two major problems with the book. It certainly seems that the publisher wants to market the book as a novel about the Silver Bees, but the inclusion of so much of Hannah's life story undermines this theme. The reader wants to get to the bits that they were told the book was about; after all, that is why it was picked up in the first place. I'm not sure how much this is a case of a misleading blurb - a publisher's marketing department picking up the most controversial element of the novel - and how much it is the author becoming interested in the characters and writing a novel about them rather than keeping to the theme.

The second problem is with one of the characters, Hannah's grandson Billy. He is the leader of the local teenage gang, and at the start of the novel is serving a short prison sentence, being released near the end. The problem is his portrayal. I have no general objection to villains being sociopathic, but in this case it surely undermines what Jerrold has to say about the problem of teen violence: not every teenager who vandalises a bus stop or mugs an old lady is a sociopath or influenced by one. My feeling that the way Billy is handled makes it impossible for A Case of Wild Justice? to have a serious point: it effectively makes out that teenage delinquency has no social cause, and so can have no social solution. (Preventing children growing up like Billy would be the only way to stop it.) By not paying attention to what might be causing teenage delinquency in society at large, the issue at the centre of the novel is trivialised.

Despite this, A Case of Wild Justice? is an enjoyable read, well written and with believable characters. After all, it is a novel, not a sociological treatise. To me, Oleanna was not successful as a play; A Case of Wild Justice? succeeds as a novel.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Tobias Hill: The Cryptographer (2003)

Published: Faber and Faber, 2004

In all the history of literature, the number of central characters in novels who are tax inspectors can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. And of these, four will be satirical, leaving The Cryptographer unique as a thriller with a tax inspector heroine. Anna Moore is good at her job, and when the UK Inland Revenue discovers discrepancies in the accounting of John Law, the richest man on the planet, she is chosen to investigate. The novel is set a little in the future, and John Law became rich beyond even Bill Gates' wildest dreams after inventing the electronic money software that caught on. So why has he set up a clumsy accounting scam for what is by his scale peanuts, a few million dollars? Her investigation seems to be successful, the money owed to the Revenue paid, butt with the question about motive unanswered Anna herself is left unsatisfied, and she becomes as fascinated by Law as he seems to be by her.

Billed as a thriller, The Cryptographer is far more gentle than that suggests. While the plot is basically that of a science fiction thriller, it is not really what the novel is about; Hill is much more interested in the characters. This interest is shared by Anna herself. She wants to understand Law to the extent that she loses satisfaction in her work. It is clear from the way the novel is written that the author was an established poet as well as - and indeed before - a novelist. However, The Cryptographer is not as self consciously literary as the work of another author where this is also apparent, Lawrence Durrell; it is actually reminiscent of recent work by William Gibson, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.

The title most clearly refers to the way in which Law made his fortune. The architecture for his software currency is, to someone who works with computers, not particularly convincing, on either the security or usability fronts. There is no provision mentioned, for example, for a portable equivalent to cash, just software that is installed on each user's computer. The software is supposedly kept secure by periodic updates which change the security, distributed from a central server which updates the security without human intervention. This immediately suggests attacking the central server, and finding a way to subvert the update process as a means of breaking the security. Alternatively, work on persuading your own local client software to accept a spurious update, because then you have another way to subvert the updating mechanism. It is unlikely that such a system, when at the centre of something as high profile and valuable as a widely used currency, would stand up to large scale hacking for long.

This literal interpretation of the title is not the only possibility nor the most important. The Cryptographer is not a book about technology, but about the connections between people, like an Iris Murdoch novel. Language is itself a kind of code, a representation of what we mean to say that is decoded by our interlocutor, and this is especially the case when the discussion is not really about what we want to talk about. In this case, both Anna and Law have professional lives intimately connected with money, even more so than is usual, and yet neither is particularly interested in money itself. Their initial contact is entirely professional, yet each is drawn to the other. And they quickly understand each other well, even though there are important aspects of their lives that the other does not know: when Law goes missing, Anna is able to find him even though she doesn't know that he is divorced from the wife he was still living with.

Overall, I found this an impressive novel, though I am at something of a loss to explain why. Gentle, with hidden depths and attractive central characters, it is not a demanding read but still a genuine work of literary art.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

James Wilson: The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense (2001)

Published: Faber & Faber, 2001

The Dark Clue is a sequel, of sorts, to Wilkie Collins' classic The Woman in White. It has the same central characters: artist Walter Harkwright, and his sister-in-law Marion. Rich from his marriage but still relatively unsuccessful as an artist, Walter is approached to write a biography of JMW Turner, as a counterblast from still-living friends of the famous artist to a scurrilous biography raking up scandal (the actual first biography of Turner by Walter Thornbury). But as he and Marion investigate, they discover that Turner did indeed have a dark side, and the truth about the revolutionary painter is at the least going to be more complicated than Walter's initial assessment that his "life of him will be quick work indeed".

The Dark Clue re-uses the narrative technique of The Woman in White, purporting to be a collection of letters and diary entries, with Marion's diary being probably the chief source. While Laura, Walter's beloved in Collins' novel and now his wife, was absent from the stage for most of The Woman in White, she appears only as the author of a handful of letters in The Dark Clue, which mostly are complaints that Walter is neglecting her and their children. Wilson picks up on the feeling that must strike most readers of Collin's novel, that Walter and Marion would be extremely well suited to each other, while Laura is an abstraction for which he unfortunately develops a romantic passion. For Collins, Laura is a personification of persecuted innocent beauty (a very Victorian female character); for Wilson, she is a personification of a dutiful wife and mother. For both, she is a cipher, at best a passive plot device, and not really a character at all.

The differences between the two writers is perhaps best seen in their handling of the relationship between Walter and Marion. Collins, as far as I remember, leaves their interest in each other unspoken, unacknowledged even by the characters themselves. Wilson, more direct, engineers a moment of self revelation for Marion which beings a new dark note to their research together. Writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Wilson can obviously be far more graphic than Collins, about this and other aspects of the novel as well. This makes The Dark Clue more immediate, but much less subtle than The Woman in White. For much of the earlier novel, Collins sets up an air of menace that seems far beyond what Wilson's straightforwardness can do. Even so, he manages to leave the exact nature of Turner's scandalous activities frustratingly unspecified, preferring to concentrate on the effect that learning about them has on Walter's morals; I found this very unsatisfying indeed. The consequent lack of impact makes the subtitle "a novel of suspense" seem rather inaccurate; I assumed that it was one more item inherited from Collins' novel, but this is not the case.

Turner clearly would be a great subject for a biography, whether the biographer believed the more scandalous stories or not. But the structure of The Dark Clue is not really suited to a biography in the way that it is to the unravelling of the murky plots in The Woman in White. This is a novel where the initial idea is more interesting than its execution; it could have been another French Lieutenant's Woman but isn't well enough done to reach anywhere near that level.

While it is fairly obvious to compare a sequel to a classic novel with the original, this is not always something which the reader feels inclined to do. There are, for example, many sequels to Pride and Prejudice which make no attempt to be anything other than humorous romantic novels, and it is perfectly reasonable for them to succeed on that level without approaching the greatness of Jane Austen. But Wilson fairly clearly sets out to write a novel which is a worthy partner to The Woman in White (and the blurb and reviews on the cover reinforce this). This means that, in my view, it becomes reasonable to criticise Wilson because he is not as good a writer as Collins, who is, after all, not himself a master in the class of (say) Dickens or Tolstoy, so a modest target compared with some that could have been chosen. For a "novel of suspense", The Dark Clue is unpardonably dull, for a biographical, historical novel, it is insufficiently focused on its subject.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Arthur C. Clarke: The City and the Stars (1956)

Published: Gollancz, 2001

I had the impression that in my teenage years I read pretty much all of Arthur C. Clarke's output to that date. Yet I managed to miss The City and the Stars, one of his best known novels, until I picked up a copy in a secondhand bookshop recently. (I went off Clarke after a while, which explains not picking up on this omission earlier.)

Far in the future, when humanity's galactic empire has risen and fallen, and alien invaders have pushed us back to the Earth alone. Those who remain live in the eternal city of Diaspar, living lives of everlasting leisure, docile and without interest in the universe beyond the city walls. After a thousand or so years of life, the citizens return their "patterns" to the computer banks while others come back to life from these same memory stores. Diaspar has remained essentially unchanging for millennia, but then Alvin, the central character of The City and the Stars, comes along. Alvin is a Unique, a person who has never before been activated, and he is different from all the other people in Diaspar. He finds that he needs ot know what the outside is like, and eventually finds a way to leave the city.

The story is effectively a polemic for two of Clarke's philosophical positions: that what makes us human is our curiousity about the world, and that organised religious belief holds back our ability to understand the universe. To Clarke, these ideas are related, as he believed that the certainties of faith extinguish the desire to find out. In The City and the Stars, Alvin's quest to escape the city is a version of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, complete with guru figure in the form of the "jester" appointed to shake Diaspar's complacency through practical joking. But Alvin is contrasted so strongly with the other citizens that the hidden agenda becomes blatant, and the story less interesting: it seems unlikely that he would ever have been able to live in the city for as long as he does.

When Clarke died recently, one of the pieces I read about him was by Michael Moorcock, not really an author with whom he might be expected to have had much in common, even if they were both writers in the same genre. However, that they knew each other in Moorcock's early days as a professional writer in London appears not to be the only link between them, for there seem to be definite connections between The City and the Stars and one of Moorcock's best known series, The Dancers at the End of Time, which is also one of my favourites from the whole science fiction genre. Moorcock's trilogy is better, as far as I am concerned, for several reasons. (I should point out that Moorcock says he was unfamiliar with most of Clarke's writing, so may well not have read The City and the Stars.) The decadence it portrays is more convincing than that of the dwellers in Diaspar. Moorcock's characters party desperately to stave off world weary boredom worthy of Huysmans, while the inhabitants of Diaspar are far more conservatively portrayed, as effete artists as opposed to the vigorous Alvin. Given the resources at their control, the actions of the Diasparans are really too rooted in the twentieth century: a little virtual reality on top of conventional art. This is, to me, a major failure of the imagination at the centre of the book when compared to Moorcock's baroque creations. Clarke's attitude to sexuality also causes problems, though of course the limitations placed on genre authors in the fifties were much stricter than those faced almost twenty years later by Moorcock; a book as explicit as The Dancers at the End of Time would never have been published. But even so, prudishness is taken to an extreme. There are just two or three minor female characters, and The City and the Stars is even more male dominated and asexual than The Lord of the Rings, another novel where almost all the significant relationships are about male companionship. Women are pretty obviously excluded from the heroics of scientific discovery about the universe. Moorcock is able to have a more egalitarian background, in which lust (if not love) is commonplace. Moorcock also introduces an extra theme with time travel. But the most important difference is that Moorcock's writing has a sense of humour, a concept which is alien to the earnestness of much fifties science fiction.

The worst fault of The City and the Stars is that the second half of the book, when Alvin escapes the city, is less interesting than the beginning. The thesis that curiousity about the universe is what makes us human, and Clarke's consequent need to make the scientific endeavour heroic, should mean that Alvin's exploration of the universe is made really gripping. Yet the puzzle of how to get out of Diaspar is much more interesting, and told in such a way that it is clear that Clarke found it more interesting himself. Alvin's trip is hackneyed space exploration from the pulp era, complete with outlandish monsters, and would have been old fashioned even in 1956, particularly as it isn't accompanied by character development: Alvin and his companion travel across the galaxy, yet remain just the same as they did before they set out.

The parallels with on of my favourite books make me sure I have not read The City and the Stars before, because the similarities are such that I am convinced that I would remember it. It's not, to my mind, one of Clarke's best, particularly given the second half. What it does remind me is why I had no particular urge to return to Clarke after binging on his stories in the early eighties.

Saturday 24 May 2008

China Miéville: Un Lun Dun (2007)

Published: Macmillan, (2008)

Billed as "the comfort blanket" for "devastated Potter fans", Un Lun Dun is a fantasy novel aimed at older children but with plenty to amuse adult readers. It tells of two normal London schoolgirls' discovery that animals seem to be obsessed with one of them. This leads them to find a way through to UnLondon, where the broken objects from London turn up endowed with a literal new life: broken umbrellas are like large birds, and one of the most endearing characters is a puppy-like milk carton. UnLondon is threatened by "the Smog", a cloud of pollution which has developed an evil mind of its own and which aims to take over the uncity. To the inhabitants of UnLondon, one of the girls, Zanna, is a prophesied champion, the Swazzy, who will lead them to victory over the Smog; but, in the most original touch in the book, Zanna is defeated in her first battle with it, and the UnLondoners turn to a man who can control the unbrellas (as the living, broken umbrellas are called). Zanna, made ill by inhaling Smog, and her companion Deeba return to our world. While Zanna forgets, as most Londoners do when not directly in contact with UnLondon, Deeba continues to be obsessed with the uncity, and when she discovers that things are not what they seem there she seeks to return to warn the inhabitants.

There are digs at Harry Potter here: the prophecies about the Swazzy talk about two companions, the Clever Sidekick and the Funny Sidekick, for example. Rowling has a tendency to use clichéd plot devices of the fantasy genre. For example, there is an element slavish following of accurate prophecy and the necessary tasks that seem like parts of computer game scenarios (you need to complete one to get an item that will enable you to complete the next) in some of the Harry Potter stories. Here, though, such conventions are ignored or satirised: Deeba short circuits this by deciding it makes more sense to go straight for the last one and save time). The idea of battling the Smog in a city of recycled rubbish picks up an environmental theme in fantasy that goes back to Tolkien, of course, but is obviously something likely to interest today's children. The puns and interest in language suggest Jasper Fforde or, perhaps more an influence, Norman Juster (whose book The Phantom Tollbooth may seem a bit dated now, but is one that many fantasy fans my age loved as children). Lewis Carroll is never far away, and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is a major influence, of which more later.

I recently listened to the Brakes 2005 album, Give Blood. It's pretty good, but at least part of the pleasure it gives is in recognising who influences which part: Roxy Music, the Clash, Talking Heads, Blur, or any one of the other influential rock musicians of the last thirty five years. Originality aside, this kind of collage needs to be done very well, or it won't come across to the listener as a unified whole. And of course part of the game is to see how close you can come to a copyright suit - copying a style may not be an infringement, but get too close and lawyers will be after you.

In book terms Un Lun Dun is a bit like Give Blood. It's very good, but indebted to a wide range of other writers, as Miéville indeed acknowledges in the afterword. The list is not precisely the same as I have given, but it is fitting that Neil Gaiman is singled out; indeed, his contribution is described not just as an influence present in the author's library but as an active helper. Un Lun Dun has taken the setting from Neverwhere, lightened the tone and added much more humour, to make a novel not just suitable for children but one which will be enjoyed by adults too. The wide ranging references, environmental message and digs at fantasy genre clichés provide interest for aficionados and the innumerable puns will produce laughs and groans from all readers.

Every other novel that I have read by Miéville, I have appreciated the quality without actually enjoying very much. Maybe because it is more accessible, less relentless and less nasty, I really liked Un Lun Dun, despite being well outside the target age range. (That range is about the same as the early Harry Potter novels, by the way.) It will inevitably be compared to Rowling's work (and I've mentioned the connections several times so far...): no new fantasy for children can escape that now. But at least Un Lun Dun seems to have escaped being compared to the dreadful His Dark Materials. One important thing about Miéville and Rowling is that in this book Miéville doesn't appear to have deliberately tried to be the new Rowling, which is probably a reason for the success of the story. The strengths of Miéville's writing are different, but like Rowling, he has produced an enjoyable, amusing fantasy story.

Thursday 15 May 2008

Douglas Adams: The Salmon of Doubt (2002)

Published: Pan, 2002
Edited: Peter Gazzardi

I remember when I heard about Douglas Adams' death, but I was surprised to realise that it was now seven years ago that it happened. I didn't want to pick up this book when it came out, less than a year later, for several reasons, and it is only now that I am finally reading and enjoying it.

The main reason for not wanting to acknowledge the existence of The Salmon of Doubt before is that I just didn't want Douglas Adams to be dead. I was just old enough to appreciate The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when the novel first appeared (I missed the original broadcast of the first radio series, but caught repeats). By the time I went to university, I could quote large chunks and still can, and own copies of the books, recordings of the radio and TV series and Neil Gaiman's guide. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy played a important role in my life, quite similar to Adams' own discovery of the Beatles which is described in one of the pieces included in The Salmon of Doubt.

The one exception to this is Mostly Harmless. As pretty much the last writing by Adams I read before The Salmon of Doubt, I found it very off putting and didn't want to read more of the same. (Mostly Harmless is now the only book by Douglas Adams which I do not possess.) It was so wilfully downbeat, not just ending unhappily, but seemingly revelling in undoing previous happy endings (notably the relationship between Arthur and Fenchurch). According to information in the Salmon of Doubt, it reflects a bleak time in Adams' own life, and I gathered when I listened to the radio version that he later wanted to change the ending, a wish that was carried out when it was dramatised. Relatively little of The Salmon of Doubt is fiction, so there is little chance that the book overall will give the same impression as Mostly Harmless, but even the fiction that is there clearly reflects a happier time.

The other reason that I didn't rush to read Salmon of Doubt is because some of what I heard about it suggested that it was scraping the barrel. Apart from the incomplete fiction, which always has the potential to be frustrating, the idea of resurrecting a letter sent by the twelve year old Adams to Eagle comic seemed bizarre. (In fact, it is probably the most amusing letter ever written to a comic by a twelve year old.) Fragmentary the pieces in The Salmon of Doubt may be, but they are all uniformly well written (with one exception), often thought provoking, and mostly pretty funny.

The book is divided into three sections: Life, containing autobiographical fragments, The Universe, about Adams' wide-ranging interests, and Everything, fiction. The first section is perhaps the most successful. The second includes a lot of Apple Mac related material, which had to be included because that computer system was one of Adams' best known obsessions, but which is now (and would have been five years ago) rather out of date; at least this means that the Douglas Adams fanatic doesn't need to hoard quite so many back copies of Mac User. His own favourite of his books was Last Chance to See, about endangered animals, and that is well worth reading in his memory, and there is more here from his interest in ecology for those who enjoyed that.

The first fictional piece, Young Zaphod Pulls it Off, was previously published in book form in a collected edition of the Hitchhiker's novels and is a poor piece of political satire, clichéd and obvious. However, the story which gives its title (or, more strictly speaking, one of its titles) to the whole collection is much better. It is one of the most confusing pieces in the whole book, however, as it was put together from three very different incomplete drafts of the story: although the main one used here is a Dirk Gently story, not even this was finalised. For me, the middle draft, which is definitely Dirk Gently, works best. I like the idea that Dirk's philosophy that all things are interconnected leads him to try to solve a case by tailing random people. It's the longest piece in the book, and because it is so incomplete, the most frustrating; Adams' drafts were obviously finely finished and perfectly readable (no notes to self, for example), but he obviously kept getting so far and then becoming stuck and the only indication of how the story would continue is a one paragraph fax to his agent which is not very illuminating.

While it was inevitable that there would be both the desire to produce a book containing Adams' odds and ends, and a desire from fans to read it, The Salmon of Doubt cannot be considered the true legacy of Douglas Adams. It raises the profile of important aspects of both his personality and his writing which were not accessible to most of his fans, particularly the computing articles, but there is nothing in the book to match the classic status of The Hitchhiker's Guide in its many forms.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

William Gibson: Pattern Recognition (2003)

Published: Viking, 2003

One of the oddest feelings when reading (or, even more, re-reading) science fiction from the past is when time has often caught up with it, and you are reading a novel of the future set at at date which is in your past. This is particularly the case with novels which were important to you personally, which were influential, and which contain much accurate prediction, as is the case for me with Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer. Almost thirty years after its publication, Gibson produced Pattern Recognition, his seventh novel and the first which is not really intended to be science fiction. (I would bet that most libraries, like the one from which I borrowed the copy I read, shelve it with that genre, however.) Five years later still, it is Neuromancer which seems to me the more contemporary of the two novels; much of the detail in Pattern Recognition seems to have dated quite quickly.

The novel is an Internet Age thriller, but unlike Neuromancer or most other novels that might be slotted into that subgenre (such as Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, or Jeffrey Deaver's The Blue Nowhere), it is not about hackers, programmers or geeks. Its central character, Cayce Pollard, works as a marketing consuultant, a guru on what is cool who has a phobia about logos. Her hobby is the study of a series of film clips, mysteriously appearing one by one on the Internet, which she discusses with fellow obsessives on the Fetish:Footage:Forum (F:F:F). Where do they come from? Are they meant to form part of a single narrative film? Do they have any particular order? what are the motives and influences which govern their production? Do they have any meaning and if so what? When Cayce realises that someone else has been in the flat where she is staying on a visit to London and used her computer, she begins to feel that there might be a bigger picture behind the film segments. The discussions on the F:F:F don't seem to be dominated by conspiracy theorists, but she finds it hard not to connect the films aand the break in with the disappearance of her father on September 11 2001.

Even though Pattern Recognition is not science fiction, it is still ahead of the pack: this must be one of the earliest treatments of what is now called viral marketing (a term I am pretty sure I hadn't heard myself in 2003). There are people being paid to go round bars and mention products approvingly to strangers: I don't know if this actually happens in the physical world, but there are certainly bloggers who are paid to give good press by marketing departments. However, other details seem behind the times: did people still rely so much on physical media for swapping data as recently as five years ago?

Cayce is quite a passive heroine, but her odd phobia makes her quirky and interesting. A reaction to logos does not seem to me to be a very believable problem, as the processing required to recognise the nature of an image is surely too high level for such a visceral reaction as an allergy. Its origins are left unexplained, which makes it seem more divorced from reality. Clearly it is a satirical element, pointing to the emptiness of modern life, where such banal symbols are held in high regard, whether or not the products they adorn are worthwhile. They are such a clever concept, making customers pay a premium to advertise for the producer. Such manipulation seems miles away from the quirkiness of the film footage: but is it?

The film clips themselves are slightly odd as the focus of a novel which doesn't exist in a multimedia format. Of course, the reader can imagine them, though Gibson leaves the exact content of the clips pretty vague other than to tell you things that they don't do - for example, the clothing and backgrounds are sufficiently generic for it to be impossible to work out when they are set. This vagueness is obviously part of the reason why people want to argue about the clips, but it does make them rather lacking as the central focus of a novel, being both timeless and plotless. The passiveness of the heroine together with this indirect focus means that despite the plot of the novel suggesting a thriller, it is not really in that genre - not necessarily a bad thing, but indicating that my initial assessment of Pattern Recognition was not quite right. Since other novels by Gibson succeed very wel lin this department, the diffuseness of this one must be deliberate. However, I still felt that though Pattern Recognition is interesting and worth reading, it is not classic Gibson by any means.

Sunday 27 April 2008

Olivia Manning: The Great Fortune (1960)

Published: Mandarin, 1990

Olivia Manning's two trilogies featuring Harriet Pringle make up one of my favourite reading experiences of the last couple of years. The Great Fortune is the first book of the earlier Balkan Trilogy, set in Roumania in 1940 during what was known as the Phoney War. The book covers more or less the period from the British declaration of war on Germany to the fall of Paris, during which time Roumania went from being an ally of Britain who guaranteed protection to being a rather reluctant friend of Germany. Naive English newly web Harriet travels to Bucharest with her husband Guy, who teaches English under the auspices of the British Council. She does not speak the language; she has no work; she does not yet know Guy all that well - it was a whirlwind romance. So she is a lonely outsider, standing at the fringes and observing.

Indeed, no important character in the novel is really on the inside. Roumania itself is affected by, but on the fringes of, events in Western Europe; the expatriate British community become more and more isolated as German victories lead up to Dunkirk and the fall of Paris; Guy and Harriet are not really part of the English community, which is split between the British legation and journalists; other characters, such as Prince Yakimov, are excluded by poverty. This last mirrors the condition of the chorus of the Roumanian peasantry, who appear in the guises of mobs and groups of beggars, driven to the city by hunger and exploited by the upper class. (It is the behaviour of the ruling class in the country which provides the novel's title, as they are described as having squandered the "great fortune" of Roumanian natural resources.)

The characters are none of them without faults, naturally - and in some cases, these are what have led to their exclusion from the in crowd. Yakimov is greedy and perpetually whining; Harriet is over-critical. But Guy is portrayed, through his wife's eyes, in the most unflattering way. Charming he may be (and that is a very difficult quality for a writer to portray), but self-centred to an extreme: so much that it is hard to believe that anyone would get to the point of marriage to him without perceiving it and pulling out. The picture is so strong that it quickly becomes clear that part of Harriet's character is involved as well as Guy's: she is an exasperated, bored spouse, tired of being taken for granted when there are new people for Guy to captivate, new projects for him to keep himself in the limelight. Harriet feels that she has a closer relationship with a stray kitten than with the people around her, she is so lonely.

While the theme of exclusion is a major one in The Great Fortune, and indeed flows through the whole of both trilogies, this is not a sad read. The tone of the story is anecdotal, like a memoir rather than a fictional account, despite the third person narrative convention used: this is a woman telling you what she did in the war (even if the fighting is offstage throughout). And Manning is an expert storyteller, putting together a series of set pieces which are amusing vignettes in themselves but which add up to a picture of a lost world - as Roumania under the monarchy in 1940 is far more different from England then or now than any European country is today. The Great Fortune climaxes with a performance of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, directed by Guy, from which only Harriet is excluded (Guy deciding that wives and husbands should not work together, and casting a former girlfriend as Cressida instead). Despite the war situation, and despite Guy's rather naive Communist sympathies, the production is completely apolitical in nature. Even in the amateur dramatic field, it is today commonplace to make productions of plays comment on current affairs, and this particular play is one that lends itself to such treatment, with the very different portrayal of the Trojan and Greek characters. To me, the lack of a political theme in the production is at least as telling a political statement (in the circumstances) as the use of an obvious one would have been, and suggests a lack of involvement which underlines the outsider theme. I don't know whether this would have been Manning's intent, as a straightforward presentation of the play like Guy's would have been more common and certainly expected of a British Council production.

In some ways, The Great Fortune reminds me of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time novels, with the same satirical air; but for me Manning is more successful. The interest provided by the background is sadly lacking in Powell's novels, even the ones set during wartime, and Manning is able to solve the plotting problem Powell had with coincidence (both having a small group of characters constantly running into one another by chance) by setting her work in the small emigré community. The absurdities caused by the culture clash between the English and the Roumanians, particularly during the rehearsals for Troilus and Cressida, are to me much more felicitously reminiscent of some of my favourite humourous short stories, Lawrence Durrell's Antrobus collections.

The Great Fortune lays out the ground for the rest of the series of novels in the two trilogies. Understated in a very British way, it is a rather overlooked classic and an antidote to the more melodramatic portrayals of heroism and extreme suffering in the way, though these too have a place.

Monday 10 March 2008

Iain Banks: The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)

Published: Little, Brown (2007)

My impression on reading The Steep Approach to Garbadale was that it was more a mixture of elements and ideas from Iain Banks' previous non-Culture novels (that is, those published without a middle initial) than a new story in its own right. The Wopuld family are rich on the back of a Victorian boardgame, now a successful computer game, but they are as dysfunctional as the Simpsons. When the novel opens, the protagonist, Alban, whose mother was a Wopuld, is estranged from the family and living on a Scottish council estate, not too close to the family's Highland estate at Garbadale. His problems with the family (and vice versa) started when his uncle and grandmother (the matriarch of the clan) found him having sex with his cousin Sophie, both being underage. The book, half flashback, tells how this happened and how the rest of Alban's life was affected (obviously Sophie's was too, but she is not the centre of the novel), up to the climactic event of the novel, an extraordinary general meeting of the Wopulds (as company shareholders) to decide whether to sell the company to an American corporation that wants to take over the game.

Comparing The Steep Approach to Garbadale to earlier novels, there is the anti-American-Imperialism, anti-Iraq War sentiment of Dead Air, with Spraight Corp perhaps partly a symbol of American domination: the real winner of the game of Empire!. There is a Scottish family with dark secrets, like the one in The Crow Road (and Alban is a very similar character to Prentice McHoan). The tone of the novel, the affluence of the characters and the corporate politics are like The Business. There are even links to Banks' first novel, The Wasp Factory.

There is a balance to be struck by any writer who has a career more than a few novels long, between offering something new each time and retaining the familiar elements which are part of his or her style. Usually, there is a fair amount of variation between Iain Banks' novels (ignoring for the moment the series of science fiction stories with a shared background published with-an-M: challenges for a writer who sticks with a single series are rather different); more at the beginning of his career perhaps, but still some change in recent years. This time, there is nothing really recognisably new, and the re-used old ideas seemed to me to be somewhat too intrusive, almost as though a lack of originality were being flaunted at the reader. One particular problem was that Alban failed to grab my attention as a protagonist: the biggest difference from Prentice McHoan is that he's not as interesting.

So The Steep Approach to Garbadale is likely to disappoint long term fans of Banks' work, but there is much to enjoy in the novel particularly if read in an uncritical spirit.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (An Enquiry into Values) (1974)

Published: Vintage, 2004.

I have been intending to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for over twenty years, but have never got round to it until this February. Though famously influential, there are still surprisingly few books at all like it, with its combination of fictionalised travelogue and philosophical speculation. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, which aims more at teaching the basics of philosophical thought rather than taking a polemical approach as Pirsig does here.

The narrator tells the story of a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California, initially with friends but eventually just with his son Chris. This kind of trip obviously provides a lot of time for solitary thought, and the narrator does just that: musing about how philosophy relates to the world around us. To the narrator, the journey is also about finding and at the same time escaping the person he names Phaedrus (after a character in one of Plato's Socratic dialogues). Phaedrus turns out to be his own self, the university lecturer who suffered a breakdown and had his mind almost wiped by "Annihilation ECS", also (and to me at least, better) known as electroconvulsive therapy.

What fascinated Phaedrus, and continues to interest the narrator, is the difference - indeed, conflict - between two ways of looking at the world. The "Classic" mode is intellectual, analytical, reductionist and concerned with underlying processes; while the "Romantic" mode is emotional, artistic, holistic and concerned with surface beauty. Pirsig seems to overstate broadness of the division between the two: I would say that most people probably use a mixture, depending on context (a sports fan is likely to be more analytical about a football game, for example, but might respond to music on an emotional level, not really sure why particular songs appeal to them). It does seem reasonable that background, education and personality would make most of us use one mode in preference to the other. Phaedrus sought to bring back unity between the two viewpoints by giving the concept of "Quality" pre-eminent status, the idea being that everyone can recognise "good work" on a non-rational level and so gain an understanding of the thought mode which is more alien to their personality. Pirsig spends quite a lot of effort on the argument that Quality is non- (or more accurately, pre-) rational, but does not convince me. I think it probably can be analysed, though any analysis would need to take into account factors such as culture and personality which influence an individual's recognition of Quality on a subconscious level. Leaving that aside, the one thing I did not find clear about the philosophical discussion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is just how the concept brings about a union between the Classical and the Romantic. It's obvious that "quality" is an element of both, but then so are other concepts (beauty, for example).

As the title suggests, much of the philosophical speculation is illustrated with reference to motorbike mechanics. The mechanics is rather more simplified than the philosophy, but it is Pirsig's big selling point and leads to some nice clear exposition. The references also underline a major point of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which is that philosophy should underpin the way we act in everyday life. (Of course, it is easy to argue that it does, albeit unconsciously, but Pirsig obviously means something more deliberate and, indeed, life-changing.) A drawback of the use of mechanics to illustrate his points is that it sometimes makes the key idea of Quality seem very closely related to the Protestant work ethic: put something into everything you do and you will produce Quality outputs.

The most novelistic aspect of the book is the psychological journey made by the narrator, retracing the footsteps of his former self with an increasingly reluctant companion. The tension builds well (even if the philosophy is likely to deflate it every time it is introduced, for many readers) to a final scene which, according to Pirsig's introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition which is reprinted here, has been frequently misunderstood over the years. As Pirsig points out, the narrator of a story has the opportunity to paint himself in a favourable light, which means that nothing he says about himself (or his alter ego, Phaedrus) can be taken at face value. But even if the reader ignores this advice, it seems to me that it would be quite hard to feel that the narrator is a nice person, particularly considering his behaviour to his son. Phaedrus is rather more congenial, though his obsessive search for philosophical truth might make him a rather disconcerting person to spend time with. The ending still feels a little contrived to me, but this is partly because it is the kind of event that seems to mark an end rather than because it is intrinsically unconvincing.

In the afterword, Pirsig describes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a "culture-bearing" book, using a term derived from a Swedish word which has no direct English equivalent. What this means is that it appeared at the time of a cultural shift, and by being a head of the curve, became incredibly successful as a result. I think this is perhaps undervaluing the book: people did find their lives changed by it, and it has continued to find a readership ever since. In other ways, it is a good description of a book which is very much of its time, something which is probably an important reason for my feeling that the philosophy was less than convincing. (The other book Pirsig mentions as a culture-bearer, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is similarly not going to be as effective now as it was when it appeared, because the issues it addresses are less in the mind than they were then.) While it remains a fascinating read, particularly to anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is no longer likely to change your life.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Ursula K Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

Published: Panther, 1974

This short novel by Ursula Le Guin - over 850 pages less than the other book I was reading alongside it, Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star - is quite untypical of the work for which she is best known: her anthropologically based examinations of alien societies such as The Left Hand of Darkness, or the young adult fantasy of The Wizard of Earthsea. While most of Le Guin's science fiction is original and unusual, particularly for its time, The Lathe of Heaven directly recalls two authors that one would not necessarily associate with her. These are Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, both interested in the mind and the nature of reality.

The two major characters in The Lathe of Heaven are psychiatric patient George Orr and his therapist, Dr Haber. Orr believes that his dreams sometimes alter reality, and the effects of dreams produced under Haber's post-hypnotic suggestion convinces the psychiatrist that this is not a delusion. Haber sets out to improve the world, admittedly an unpleasant place: overpopulated, polluted, and violent. Orr becomes increasingly reluctant to dream under Haber's direction, mainly because of the guilt caused by some changes (such as his response to a suggestion that over-population be solved, which leads to the deaths of billions in a plague of environmentally related cancers: an event that only he and Haber remember not occurring some years earlier). He was involuntarily referred to Haber in the first place, so he can't just ask to stop the treatment.

This could very easily be an idea used by Philip K. Dick, touching on his common theme of the nature of reality. This is particularly important here, as the suggestion that the whole of Orr's dreaming might itself be a dream, as the end of the original dystopian world approaches. The lack of the profusion of secondary ideas that fill Dick's work is the main difference.

Zelazny's influence is more obvious, but perhaps more superficial: there is a clear relationship with The Dream Master, which also deals with psychiatric therapy using directed dreaming. However, Zelazny's story is less about the nature of reality - though the psychiatrists are effectively creating their own worlds to share with their patients. The points of view of patient (in The Lathe of Heaven) and therapist (in The Dream Master) make the novels quite different in emphasis. The Lathe of Heaven ends up feeling more like Dick than Zelazny - or, indeed, Le Guin. This last is because it isn't as different from the mainstream of the genre as Le Guin's Hainish novels: it is unusual in her output by not being particularly unusual.