Wednesday 30 December 2009

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger (2008)

Edition: Atlantic Books, 2008
Review number:  1392

In my reading of Booker prize short listed novels, I've reached the 2008 winner. While many short listed novels fail to interest me, The White Tiger received reviews which made it sound more likely to be my cup of tea; and this indeed turned out to be the case.

The White Tiger of the title is the narrator of this novel. As a small boy in an Indian village school, he is told that his intelligence marks him out from the rest as the colour of a white tiger does. But he has no real chance to use that intelligence, due to the extreme poverty of his background: his family is so poor that the needs of fighting for survival leave no one with the time to give him a name, so that he arrives at the school just known as Munna ("boy"), and the teacher has to give him a name - Balwan Halwai - to enrol him. However, by the end of the book (as is revealed right at the start, so this isn't giving anything away), he has become a rich entrepreneur in Bangalore, centre of the Indian IT industry's outsourcing boom.

The White Tiger is structured as a series of long emails from Balwan to Wen Jibao, (real life) Chinese statesman about to visit India. The emails are meant to explain something of the reality of life in India, behind the sanitised facade presented to foreign visitors, particularly when they are important politicians. Balwan does this by describing how he developed from the poorest of poor children to a rich businessman. A typical example anecdote is the contrast between India presenting itself as the world's largest democracy, yet when Balwan is eighteen, he is made to sign a piece of paper entitling his village's landlords to use his vote as they see fit for the remainder of his life.

It is easy to assume that this is a satirical novel in which everything is exaggerated for comic effect. Perhaps it is, and I'm pretty sure that at least the events described are unlikely to have ever happened to just one individual. However, Adiga writes in such a way that everything is believable - at the time, at least. Even if I had ever actually visited India, I would have been the kind of foreign outsider - a tourist - who would not have seen the worst side of India's poverty. So it's hard to evaluate the plausibility of The White Tiger. Some things, like the vote anecdote, I think are likely to be true; others, like the issue of Balwan's name, seem much more unlikely.

India figures heavily in the list of Booker winners I particularly like: Midnight's Children, The God of Small Things (also a first novel) are the obvious examples, and would probably be high in many best Booker winner lists. Like those, The White Tiger goes beyond the somewhat simplistic view that many Booker shortlisted novels seem to have about the British Colonial past; there may be plenty of reasons why the British should feel post-colonial guilt, but not everything bad that has happened since independence can be the fault of the colonial administration. The three books also use black humour, to differing extents: Adiga most, then Rushdie, then Roy. And all three are very atmospheric.

No matter how dark things get, The White Tiger is viciously funny. It is an unusually accessible and enjoyable Booker novel, and I would definitely endorse it as a worthy winner - 9/10.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Hal Duncan: Ink (2007)

Edition: MacMillan, 2007
Review number: 1391

Book two of The Book of All Hours continues in the same vein as book one, Vellum. Like that, and you'll like this. Find that incomprehensible (which is quite possible), and this will be the same. (Note that it is a while since I read Vellum, so my description of how the two books relate together might not be entirely accurate.)

The Book of All Hours (the book within the book) describes, controls, or perhaps is, the multitude of universes. In the aftermath of the catastrophic Evenfall, chaos rules; now, everything is fragmented, yet some things remain constant between the different versions of reality. Jack Carter is a revolutionary, everywhere, connected to the metaphysics of the Book. But what is he trying to achieve? Is he even dead or alive?

The story is extremely fragmented, told in an exceptionally allusive style: Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius meets Finnegans Wake. References run from pop culture (The Prisoner, the Sex Pistols, etc.) to ancient literature (a performance of the Bacchae as political satire by a commedia dell'arte troupe forms the structure of a long section of the novel, and one of Virgil's Eclogues is used in a similar fashion in the epilogue) to folklore (Puck, Reynard the fox). Theological discussion rubs shoulders with a thriller set in the thirties Middle East. Overall, it is a scintillating cascade of ideas, images, and styles.

Like other books of this kind, however, the narrative is hard to follow, particularly if you are a reader who wants to have a linear plot. It is also true that parts of the novel work better than others. (At least, it appeared to be the case to me, both here and in Vellum, but is could just mean that my concentration levels fluctuated.) It is likely to make more sense a second time around, and a repeat read is definitely something I will do.

In summary, The Book of All Hours will not be everyone's cup of tea, but I liked it: 8/10.

Monday 9 November 2009

Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)

Edition: Orbit, 2008
Review number: 1390

Investigation of crimes which may turn out to be terrorism has become something of a staple for TV crime shows nowadays, particularly American ones. It's partly because of the public concern over attacks, partly because it will involve higher stakes than a simple murder, and partly because it enables the writers to make some political comment (usually critical of the high-handedness of the Homeland Security forces, in the American case). For similar reasons, it has long been popular in books, with the James Bond series providing several examples, and others I can think of going back much further - thirties Saint stories, and even Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent from 1907.

Ken MacLeod, however, is able to ring the changes on this hackneyed plot through an interesting science fiction background. The motivations for fictional terrorist attacks prior to 9/11 were political, or connected to organised crime. Reflecting public concerns, religious justifications for attacks are now overwhelmingly common in thrillers. The monetary motive is still common (even though it always makes me at least think of camp supervillains and comic book heroes). MacLeod sets The Night Sessions in a not too distant future, where a worldwide secular revolution has purged religious movements of any involvement in politics, leaving (in a generation) the practice of religious belief a private, almost shameful, activity. So it is a great shock to the Edinburgh police when a Catholic priest is murdered in an indiscriminately violent bomb attack, and the feeling that this is a crime which should be extinct is expertly conveyed by the author. It even takes them some time to discover that the victim is a priest, as religious titles are not used in public any more.

There is perhaps a certain implausibility in the idea that religion could cease to matter in politics in the near future, even if there is a huge tank battle at Megiddo (the place which gave us the word "armageddon") where the use of tactical nuclear weapons renders, as MacLeod puts it, the question of who should live in Israel/Palestine moot for decades. After all, religion and politics have been entwined since the earliest written history, of Mesopotamia and Egypt; the first recorded rulers were priests or considered divine. Religion and arguing about religion seem to be a necessary part of human nature, like it or not. The religious theme is well thought out, including a critique of the idea that every word of the Bible is literally true that I had never seen before.

There is a similar implausibility in some of the politics in MacLeod's previous novels, particularly the anarchist states in the Fall Revolution books. But they are well thought through, so as backgrounds to novels they are excellent, giving an interest beyond the more mundane background of those science fiction novels where the setting is just today's world with some futuristic technology. This is less common than it was in the past, when there were quite a lot of stories in the genre which were really just about the tech.

Generally, I read two or three books at once, swapping every couple of chapters or so. The books I was reading alongside this - Mary Stewart's The Gabriel Hounds and Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space are both ones I had read at least twice before, but even so The Night Sessions grabbed my attention unusually strongly: I kept on reading rather than changing to one of the other books. Even with novelty playing a part, this doesn't usually happen. I would rank this novel as one of Ken MacLeod's best, alongside the Fall Revolution series. My rating: 8/10.

Friday 30 October 2009

Mary Renault: The Mask of Apollo (1966)

Edition: New English Library, 1968
Review number: 1389

The Mask of Apollo is one of my favourite straight historical novels (using the word "straight" to distinguish it from crossover historical crime novels, which seem to have taken over fiction set in the past since the sixties).

Set in the fourth century BC, the narrator of the novel is a notable Athenian actor named Nikeratos, who travels to Syracuse (then a Greek city) and accidentally becomes involved with the city state's turbulent politics. Syracuse was ruled by a tyrant, Dionysius, who is dying as Nikeratos approaches the city from the sea, fresh from a triumph in Athens with a play written by the ruler himself. The problem is with his successor. Dionysius had a son, also named Dionysius, but kept him from any semblance of power during his lifetime , leaving him lacking in both judgement and confidence. He also has a nephew, Dion, who is highly respected and who was given many privileges by his uncle (including the right to appear in his presence armed, something no one else was allowed to do). But even so Dion is not likely to be named as the successor over Dionysius' own son, nor (with his suspicious involvement with the foreign "sophist" Plato) popular with other powerful figures in the Syracusan court.

The combination of theatre and politics works well. Renault makes Nikeratos a character based on ideas of what an important actor manager would be like in the twentieth century, a Terry or someone from that kind of acting family. I don't normally like the use of characters with a modern outlook in historical novels, but here it works well.This is partly because nothing is really known about what an ancient Greek theatrical production was like backstage, and it seems likely that the concerns of actors then were similar to those of actors today: gossip about other people in the profession, upstaging and working together, the audience's lack of understanding, and, of course, sex. And in other ways, the character is not at all contemporary. Nikeratos is a proper pagan Greek, who believes that an old fashioned mask of Apollo given to him by another actor is periodically inhabited by the spirit of the god, and treats it as a kind of shrine.

The Mask of Apollo could be considered an archetypical historical novel. It is narrated by an (imaginary) character at the centre of a series of interesting historical events, who knows people the reader may well have heard of (Plato, Dionysius father and son, Dion; Aristotle and Philip of Macedon - the father of Alexander the Great - are also mentioned). Nikeratos isn't interested in politics, and becomes involved with the Syracusan power struggles unwillingly - and this is useful to the story, because he constantly needs things explained to him which would not be needed by a more involved politician but are going to also be unfamiliar to many readers. The history of Greek Syracuse is probably not terribly well known today, but it is eventful and has fascinating characters, so makes an excellent choice of subject for a historical novel. It also balances out the much better known Athenian characters (Plato in particular, as someone whose influence on the development of European culture is immense), even though Nikeratos is himself from that city. And even in the parts of the book set in Athens, Renault manages to combine the relatively unfamiliar with things which are much more likely to be obscure or unknown to a modern reader.

The background is meticulously researched yet made accessible to the reader without becoming a series of lectures on the ancient Greek way of life. In fact, I would say that the novel is one of the very greatest of its type, not just one I like personally. Renault does not indulge in the kind of literary games which can be seen in The French Lieutenant's Woman, almost contemporary, but still achieves a literate power without this postmodern slant.

One of the themes explored by the novel is the nature of personal pagan religious feeling. Nikeratos' attitude to the mask is one of several examples of devotion to a god or goddess to whom an individual worshipper feels a particular affinity. This is striking as it is a major difference to today's largely secular western  world, where even those who attend places of worship tend to separate off their everyday life from their religious observances; the chosen deity was a major part of the worshipper's daily life, with an idol (like the mask) as a focus for the relationship. Evangelical Christians talk about a personal God, but the very fact of monotheistic belief makes this God seem much more remote and unconcerned than who is a patron of your profession, or shares your name; and the Protestant history of deism (a God who is relatively uninvolved with His creation) in their theology makes this remoteness even greater. Ignoring the issue of whether or not either the pagan or Christian gods are real, this seems to me to be less appealing to the imagination.

So The Mask of Apollo is interesting, readable, thought provoking, well researched, and has good characters. I would rate it at 9/10.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

P.R. Reid: The Colditz Story (1952)

Edition:  Coronet, 1972

The Colditz Story is the tale of the British prisoners of war incarcerated in Oflag IV C, Colditz Castle, which was used to hold officers who had already attempted to escape from other camps by the Germans during the Second World War. Reid, as Escape Officer (co-ordinator of escape attempts) helped organise many escapes and was in an ideal position to document them. The book covers the period from Reid's arrival as Colditz was being set up, to his own successful escape to Switzerland a couple of years later.

The story of the ingenious escape attempts from Colditz are almost as famous as that of the Great Escape, and the book was immensely successful, not just becoming a TV series (which this edition was released to tie in with) but a board game which I remember playing in the seventies. The book used to be in just about every library (including school libraries) in the UK. (I don't know if it is this popular today, but it is noticeable that the public libraries I use still have a Second World War section which is much larger than the rest of history put together, so similar tales continue to hold the imagination of the British public.) This means that it will have been read by any voracious male (it almost certainly appeals more to boys) reader of my age or older, and many more will have seen the TV show (I was a few years too young to see it myself.) The story told by Reid is very memorable, and I found myself remembering details I hadn't read for thirty years.

Reid immortalises a particular kind of heroics, which is also one stereotypically associated with the products of the British public school system. It is all about the battle of wits with the Germans, and the game effectively become more important than the ends. Clausewitz is frequently quoted as saying that "War is the continuation of politics by other means." (It is in fact a slight misquotation.) But to Pat Reid and others like him, usually enthusiastic products of an English public school, it would be more correct to suggest that was was the continuation of the sports field by other means. However, the value of an escape (to anyone other than the escapee) was in the end not in the chess game which led to it.

So, is is really the duty of every prisoner of war to attempt to escape? Reid takes it for granted that this is the case, so much so that he doesn't even discuss the officers' reasons for making achingly difficult escape attempts (such as carrying out such a convincing simulation of insanity that the escapee risked suffering mental damage as a result). According to Wikipedia's list, there were 37 successful escapees from Colditz, 10 of them British. This is a vanishingly small number among the war's combatants, and it is not likely that any of them would have been so effective individually that their escape would have made a direct military difference to the outcome of the war. (This argument doesn't hold so well for other nationalities, such as the French and Belgians, whose home countries were occupied.)

The only conceivable benefit to the war effort from a successful escape that I can see would be through morale boosting propaganda. I'm not saying that this would be a negligible benefit, but another thing which Reid doesn't mention is what the escapees did on returning home. First British escapee, Airey Neave, went on to work for MI9, the British secret service in charge of aiding resistance movements in occupied Europe, but he was by a long way the most distinguished of the escapees (and probably the best known British inmate with the exception of Douglas Bader). Reid himself was unable to return to Britain until after the war. Others were killed in action, or their escape remained the major event of their war service. Nothing I can see in Wikipedia entries (not necessarily the most authoritative source, but easily accessible) suggests that the British used escapees for propaganda purposes. Compared to the work of SOE, the activities of Schindler, or the dedication of the Bletchley code breakers, POW escapes were extremely unimportant in the history of the War. If it does  not serve the overall aim of winning the war in any particular way, it is surely not a duty bound on every prisoner of war.

Compared to many prisoners of war, those incarcerated in Colditz were not particularly ill treated. Food was sparse, but that was something fairly commonplace in wartime Germany - and it should be remembered that the Nazi regime was not a signatory to the international convention which governed the treatment of prisoners of war (and yet the regime at Colditz seems to have respected the convention's rules - they had exercise, access to primitive medical care, and even received parcels from home). The imprisoned officers were not forced to work themselves to death, or used for medical experimentation, or killed in large numbers, as Jewish prisoners were. They were certainly very well treated compared those British soldiers captured by the Japanese. And in more modern times; the Americans who suffered sleep deprivation in the Gulf, or the terrorist suspects waterboarded by the CIA were worse off. So bad treatment was also not a big motive for escape.

Another question which occurred to me that passed me by thirty years ago was whether escapes like those detailed here would be possible now. Reid says at several points that he is suppressing details, so that the same tricks could be reused without the authorities in the camp being aware of them in advance - he obviously expects the inmates to be more clever than the guards in terms of reading between the lines. But a lot has changed in almost sixty years. There was no electronic surveillance; in fact, the use of microphones hidden around Colditz to detect tunnelling was probably the first move in this direction. So there were no cameras, no use of biometrics (it was even possible to use handmade plaster statues to hide the absence of inmates at roll calls), no electronic keys on doors, no automatic closing of doors when alarms were sounded, and so on. However, we have all of these in prisons today, and yet there are still escaped criminals, so perhaps it would still be possible to get out of a POW camp.

Reid is a product of his class and time. There are so many details in his writing which indicate this; one which is symptomatic is the way that, whenever he introduces a new character, he lists the school (invariably a public school, which says something about how the British armed forces chose officers sixty years ago) attended by the prisoner. Where the school is not one of the best known (Eton, Harrow, Rugby, etc), this is not going to tell the reader much unless they also went to a public school.

Reid's style is unpolished, not that of a journalist or novelist. He consistently uses unvarying derogatory slang: the Germans are always Gerries, the guards are always goons, and so on. He is an extremely keen user of exclamation marks, something which I find particularly irritating when reading. But on the whole the interest of the stories overcomes all the difficulties and makes The Colditz Story a good read. My rating: 6/10.

Monday 28 September 2009

Richard Morgan: The Steel Remains (2008)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999

From brutal science fiction, Morgan moves to brutal fantasy with The Steel Remains, first in a new series.

The novel doesn't read as the first in a series, and has an extensive back story: the three main characters played important parts in the victory of the Empire over the Scaled Folk (dragons), leading to what is expected to be a period of peace. Each of them returns home, Ringil to living in an inn, trading on his fame for food, a room, and sexual partners, Egar to become clan chief of his remote northern tribe, and Archeth to become a close advisor to the Emperor. Each remains abivalent at best about the Empire and none are really accepted into the new lives they choose to live. But things change, and the three are jolted out of their effective retirement, eventually realising that the Empire is under attack again from the dwenda, thought by most to be a myth.

As the Takeshi Kovacs novels fitted into the flow of science fiction, so too does The Steel Remains fit into the flow of the fantasy genre. It is reminiscent of highly praised work by authors such as Stephanie Swainston and Joe Abercrombie (who provides the endorsement printed on the front cover, and whose First Law trilogy is very close in tone and world building to The Steel Remains). This is not heroic fantasy, but about seriously flawed individuals who just happen to be talented in particular ways that are useful at the time they happen to live. No one is nice, no one is noble, no one is honourable. Of course, because the novel is written from the point of view of Ringil, Egar and Archeth, the reader comes to sympathise with their points of view if not to particularly like any of them.

While the character of Takeshi Kovacs combined with the idea of resleeving to make Altered Carbon a novel with interesting innovations, this cannot be said of The Steel Remains. It fits well into the current fashion without standing out particularly. The writing is good, and I especially like the way that there is so much background that is effortlessly introduced. It will be interesting to see where the series goes, and I enjoyed reading it. As with the other writers mentioned earlier, and Morgan's earlier science fiction novels, The Steel Remains is not for the easily offended or squeamish; nor indeed is it for those looking for gentle fun. My rating: 7/10.

Thursday 24 September 2009

David Lodge Deaf Sentence (2008)

Edition: Penguin, 2009

The title by itself makes a lot of what Deaf Sentence is about clear. That it is about deafness, how it feels to gradually lose hearing, how deafness imprisons the sufferer in a solitary world where old pleasures become impossible or difficult; how there will be humour in the story; and even that the grim pun deaf/death (also, of course, a pair of words a deaf person would find hard to distinguish) will be revisited throughout. The use of part of the definition of the word "sentence" from one of the Oxford English dictionaries in the front matter to the novel also indicates before starting that the various different meanings highlighted in the quotation will form themes in the story.

Desmond Bates, narrator of Deaf Sentence, was a professor of linguistics who took early retirement when a good offer from his university co-incided with the realisation that encroaching deafness was causing obvious and embarrassing difficulties with lecturing and teaching. In the first chapter, he has an entire conversation at an art gallery party with a young woman, Alex, even though he is hears only a tiny part of what she says over the background noise of the party - distinguishing foreground from background being one of the problems which deafness brings. Later, he discovers that he appears to have agreed to supervise Alex's work on a doctoral thesis on suicide notes as a genre of linguistic utterance. But each meeting he has with her is increasingly bizarre, and she seems increasingly unstable...

Deaf Sentence is a typical David Lodge novel (unlike his previous work, Author, Author): funny, clever, full of satirical observation of academic life. There is also sadness, partly because of Desmond's feelings about his deafness, and partly because of his relationship with his irascible nonagenerian father. This is not a novel which paints a pleasant picture of what it is like to be old.

The centrepiece of the novel is not really up to his usual standard, however. This is a set piece description of the ordeal of the family Christmas, made worse by Desmond's hearing difficulties. This seems, unfortunately, to have escaped from a seventies sitcom and is not really imaginative enough to hold the novel together as it should given its prominence.

The main observation that Lodge makes about deafness through the novel is that it's tragic for the sufferers, but can often be comic for those around them, because of the misunderstandings it generates. He makes the contrast with blindness, which evokes pity and sympathy from onlookers, rather than laughter, embarrassment and irritation. And there is something undignified about even the most modern battery powered hearing aids (especially as users find it difficult to ensure that they have replacement batteries and do not let those in use drain too quickly), which there is not to the white stick or guide dog.

Not Lodge's best (Changing Places, Paradise News, or, on a more serious note, Thinks... would be my choices there). But Deaf Sentence is still thought provoking and funny: well worth a read. My rating: 7/10.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Linda Grant: The Clothes On Their Backs (2008)

Edition: Virago, 2008

The 2008 Booker Prize short list has once again proved dull, to the point that this, the fourth I have started, is the only one I have so far bothered to finish. As well as being an enjoyable book from the short list, it also falls into another small category, Booker-short-listed-novel-not-tapping-into-British-post-colonial-guilt. True, it does have immigrants as characters, but they're wartime Hungarian refugees, not from the former Empire at all.

Vivian Kovaks grows up in a central London flat, rented for a song by her parents who originally offered it as charity to a pair of refugees,not expecting them to stay for forty years. She, as narrator of the novel, describes her parents as mice seeking to bring her up as a mouse. A sheltered childhood, followed by study at York University, then marriage.

But there's what might be called an "elephant in the room". Vivian's uncle is Sandor Kovaks, who is a successful businessman; the problem is that his wealth is based on being an exploitative slum landlord, also in London. The character is based on a real person, Peter Rachman, who I vaguely remember reading about (probably in a much later Sunday colour supplement magazine). Vivian's parents won't admit to the relationship, but Vivian remains fascinated by her one childhood memory of her uncle, from the only time he visited their flat. Sandor is imprisoned when she is about ten, but she later meets him again, and the second half of the novel is really about her discovering what the man behind the tabloid horror stories is really like.

The major difference between Sandor Kovaks and Peter Rachman (ignoring the fact that Kovaks is fictional while Rachman was real) is the existence of living, known family members. Rachman too came from Eastern Europe, and after the war was unable to trace his family, though he continued to try to do so until his death in 1962. (Grant also has Kovaks live a great deal longer.) Sandor's brother and his family are useful inventions to the author, as it makes it much easier to explore his character through the complexities of the relationships between him and them - relationships which still exist, even if they have disowned Sandor, even changing the spelling of their surname by deed poll so that strangers will not ask whether they are related.

The story is told in a way which is quite complicated chronologically. The first chapter and the last chapter are set much later than anything else (and are obviously intended to be from the time at which the narrator is telling the story). In the rest of the novel, Vivian apparently adds details from her childhood or illustrative incidents from later in her life as they occur to her, prompted by details in the main flow of the story. And the central part of the novel is taken up with Sandor's life story, which reaches back before the war, long before Vivian was born. But it all rings true, because it is carefully put together so that it mimics the way that people tell anecdotes in real life. Deliberately creating this kind of simplicity through underlying complexity is a skill I admire greatly.

The point of the novel, if there is one, is about the way that people's personalities are reflected in the small details of their lives such as the clothes they choose to wear. (It is exactly the sort of incidental information that creative writing courses suggest using to establish character, because these details are much more telling than a direct description of traits.) Clothe are important in the novel particularly Vivian's trawling of second hand shops to put together a wardrobe of old fashioned but stylish outfits: retro chic long before its time, and the description of how Sandor, forced to work in a slave gang of Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, is never able to change the clothes he was wearing when first conscripted, for months and months.

It's not a happy story; no novel in which the narrator's husband is killed on the second day of their honeymoon could be described as such. But it is a pleasure to read The Clothes On Their Backs, which is in summary an excellent novel, something out of the usual way of things. Both Vivan and Sandor are fascinating characters, and the view of life in thirties and forties Europe is one not often encountered in novels by English writers. My rating: 8/10.

Sunday 30 August 2009

John le Carré: A Most Wanted Man (2008)

Hodder & Stoughton, 2008

Issa is, or claims to be, many contradictory people. A beggar sleeping on the Hamburg streets with thousands of euros in the purse around his neck. A Chechen imprisoned and tortured by the Russians, but with a KGB officer father. A devout Muslim, who doesn't seem to know the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite, or how to show proper reverence to a copy of the Koran. Son of an important (if shady) customer of a small bank in Hamburg to make contact with the current head of Brue Frères, but not to claim the fortune which is his inheritance. An illegal immigrant, wanted by the Swedish police, who makes himself conspicuous to the German intelligence services on arrival in the country rather than lying low, with the result that he is immediately suspected of being a terrorist.

There are two people on his side. Annabel Richter, a young radical lawyer (in the pre-9/11 sense of "radical"), is assigned to Issa's case by Sanctuary, the refugee charity she works for. And Tommy Brue, respectable proprietor of the family bank. Neither entirely trusts Issa, but both feel the need to help him as much as they can.

Le Carré's last three novels (The Constant Gardener, The Mission Song, and this) share a common theme. They all seek to expose something of his view of the institutional immorality of the West's dealings with the rest of the world. Whether or not you agree with him (and to what extent), he makes what he has to say interesting and gripping. And it is sincere: this is a novel byt someone very angry. What angers him here is the American attitude to terrorist suspects. As one of the characters says at the end, Le Carré's point is that "American justice", which the US makes so much of, has become "extraordinary rendition".

I personally would still hope that not every institution is as morally bankrupt as Le Carré portrays them to be. But surely no one can deny that there is something in Le Carré's position, and that the author's anger is shared by many people from outside the privileged Western nations.

Themes which go back further in Le Carré's work are seen here, too. The troubled relationships between father an son, which are important in many of his novels, are seen here in both Brue and Issa's feelings for their dead parents. Issa also exemplifies the author's interest in the untrustworthiness of people's public personas. The tone of world weariness in the prose is common to many, perhaps all, of his novels.

While A Most Wanted Man was enjoyable on its own, I do find that with Le Carré a little goes a long way. If I read several of his novels in quick succession, the depressing tone which is so much a trademark becomes tiring. So I would tend to rate his novels higher when I read them sporadically. My rating: 7/10.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Charles Stross: Saturn's Children (2008)

Edition: Orbit, 2009

What might happen if the human race became extinct in a couple of centuries time? In particular, what would robots, computers, and other intelligent machines left behind do? This question is basically the starting point for Stross' Hugo short listed novel. The central character of Saturn's Children is a particularly obsolete robot, designed as an escort - an intelligent sex toy - for the men who no longer exist. Freya Nakamichi-47 is scraping a living, her unfashiionable body shape an unwelcome reminder to other robots of a subservient past, when she accidentally kills a member of the new machine aristocracy and has to take a dangerous job to escape from Venus.

Apart from the basic idea - it's certainly ingenious to wonder about the fate of an intelligent sex toy when there's no one to sleep with - Stross taps into many familiar themes from the science fiction genre, with a twist each time. For example, this is really a coming of age story, a staple of the genre, but who ever heard of a coming of age story with a central character already two hundred years old? Or the space journey from Venus to Mercury, courtesy of a space pod with an irritating chirpy personality which functions by having sex with its passenger during the whole trip: it has to properly cocoon and pad the internal orifices of Freya's body, and why not make this as pleasurable as possible for both of them?

This is a novel that Robert Heinlein could have written, if hed been able to drop some of his prejudices and sexual obsessions. It has strong parallels with Friday, one of the best of his later novels. And this is not the only Heinlein novel which Stross either parallels or refers to in Saturn's Children. I noticed quick references to (short story) The Green Hills of Earth and The Number of the Beast, and I Will Fear No Evil, among others. Other writers have updated Heinlein, of course: John Barnes' Orbital Resonance is a particularly successful example. But Stross goes beyond just modernising one of the most famous science fiction authors. Heinlein was never particularly interested in robots; the artificial intelligences in his books are larger and fairly sessile: ship's computers, or the computers to run the services of a city. Thinking and writing about the design and built-in limitations of robot brains is distinctly Asimovian, Stross effectively updating the Three Laws of Robotics for today's readers. To bring together two such contrasting authors in this way is no mean feat.

Stross also has something to say about racism, servitue, identity, and theories of sociological evolution through this story. There is more to Saturn's Children than appears on the surface. Given these themes, it is not surprising that another novel he refers to is 1984.

Why the title? The reference is to Roman mythology (strictly speaking, Greek mythology as adopted by the Romans). Saturn, ruler of the Titans, bore a series of children by Rhea (not so co-incidentally the name of the first of Freya's robot model, from whom all their personalities are derived with a small amount of randomisation). When each child was born, Saturn swallowed them, because of a prophecy that one of them would overthrow him as ruler of the universe, as he had his own father. Eventually, Rhea deceived him, giving him a stone instead of a baby and bringing up Jupiter in secret, to eventually fulfil the prophecy. There is clearly a connection with the supplanting of humanity by their robot creations, as well as resonances between the personalities in the myth and the various bodies in the solar system named after them in a story which involves a lot of interplanetary travel.

The biggest problem with this edition is nothing to do with Charles Stross (at least, I hope he wasn't involved in the decision). At the back, there is something which has now become common in genre fiction, the excerpt from a new title, "if you enjoyed this book, you might like...". I am not a big fan of this in general, even when the excerpt is by the same author, and this is a particularly strange example. Michael Cobley''s Seeds of Earth seems from the chapter published here to come from a branch of the science fiction genre extremely remote from Saturn's Children, and I would judge it unlikely to appeal to the readers who enjoyed this: they might do, if they pick it up some other time, but the contrast between the two is jarring. Surely the point should be to encourage the reader to try it, not pick a random entry from the publisher's new releases which is more likely to put the reader of the excerpt off buying it. Perhaps in this case, the excerpt should have been accompanied by, "if you didn't think much of this novel, one you might prefer instead is...".

I was reading this - at home, not attending - during the 2009 WorldCon, Anticipation. So I was in the middle of Saturn's Children when the winners of this year's Hugo Awards were announced, including the best novel, the category for which it was short listed. Did it win? No. Did it deserve to win? I can't actually answer that, as I haven't yet read all the short listed novels. However, I did think it would have been a better choice than the actual winner, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Good though that is, I felt that Saturn's Children has a lot more to say and is a bigger achievement. It renews some familiar, well loved, parts of the science fiction genre for the twenty first century. My rating: 8/10.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Thomas Pynchon: Vineland (1990)

Edition: Voyager, 2000

On opening Vineland, it is almost immediately clear that this is going to be a riotous novel. By the third chapter, the reader has been introduced to a man who makes his living by annually throwing himself through a plate glass window wearing a dress to qualify for mental illness disability benefit, a punk band named Billy Barf and the Vomitones, hired unheard to play at a traditional Mafia wedding by pretending to be Italian, and an FBI agent who may also be an escaped lunatic.

There is a bit of a dip in quality in the middle, once the flashbacks to the early seventies begin to take over, and from that point on Vineland is less funny. I don't think this is just due to my inability to conentrate, though I was extremely tired while reading this section of the novel.

The theme of Vineland is the hippy dream turning sour, and in particular the effects of the US government's attempts to extinguish the counter-culture. The main narrative is set in the mid-eighties, during Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign, and it is clear that Pynchon wants to make two points: first, that the repercussions of this crackdown affected lives both on the hippy side and in the law enforcement agencies right through the next fifteen years; and, second, that it was worth warning his readership about parallels between Nixon and Reagan.

"Vinland" is of course the name used by the Vikings to (almost certainly) mean the American continent, so implies that this is a novel about all of America - in other words, Pynchon intends to write what has been described as "the great American novel". However, reading it suggests that actually he wanted to subvert and satirise the idea of the great American novel. By making Vineland in the book a small (fictional) town in northern California, he is perhaps making a dig at the limited horizons of eighties American culture, and this is doubled by concentrating on hippy culture, never involving anything other than a small minority of US citizens.

Gravity's Rainbow and V. might have a bigger literary reputation, but of the Pynchon novels I have read - not all of them by any means - this is the most accessible, and the funniest. Each chapter in the first half made me laugh out loud at some point, even on re-reading. It has an easier plot to follow than Gravity's Rainbow in particular, which also helps make it an easier read.

I would rate Vineland at 7/10.

Monday 10 August 2009

E.E. "Doc" Smith: First Lensman (1950)

First Lensman coverEdition: Panther, 1972
Review number: 100

The second novel in Smith's Lensman series, First Lensman is a unified narrative (unlike Triplanetary which precedes it). It follows on directly from the events of the first book, detailing the later stages in the fight against drugs and corruption led by Virgil Samms. (Samms plays a comparatively small part in Triplanetary, which was more concerned with the swashbuckling adventures of his sub-ordinates.)

The first half of the novel is an explanation of the origins of the Lens after which the series as a whole is known. Various problems are beginning to dog the Triplanetary Service. Corruption is taking hold, particularly in the fight against drugs; criminals are impersonating officers of the Service, using faked ids. A mysterious conviction grows that answers to these problems can be found through a visit to the planet Arisia, shunned as a "ghost planet" both by legitimate spacemen and by pirates and drugs runners.

Arriving at Arisia, Samms meets an entity who calls itself "Mentor". He is given a mysterious artefact, a Lens; it is a telepathic crystal, tuned to his mind alone and capable of enhancing the powers that his mind possesses. Mentor assures him that no one will be given a Lens who is unworthy of one, and that only the incorruptible will wear them.

Samms is a bit bemused by this generosity, but the reader knows the background to it: the eons-old war between the Arisians and Eddorians, the Arisians continually trying to build up civilisation, the Eddorians to knock it down.

The second half of the book tells of a North American presidential election (Canada, the US and Mexico together forming a single state) fought by the officers of the Triplanetary Service (as 'Cosmocrats') on the right and the pirates and drugs runners on the left. Smith's politics are one of the most difficult aspects of his writing style for a modern European reader to swallow - as they cater rather more for stereotypical American political viewpoints a US citizen may find them easier to accept. He persistently holds the belief that any intelligent person must support the right, with the left only gaining votes through stupidity, corruption and vote-rigging. It is a view perhaps explicable in an American of his time, who had lived through some of the most corrupt scandals of American town-hall politics. Smith's right wing politics were of a reasonably benign kind, characterised by a strong belief in intelligent capitalism most clearly expressed in Subspace Encounter. He was relatively free from racism, particularly when compared to contemporaries, though this is perhaps debatable given the almost complete absence of non-white human beings in his novels.

The first half of First Lensman is easier to read, then, than the second, though the ins and outs of the political campaign are an interesting change from the standard military space opera trappings of the rest of the series. If Heinlein's novels transfer an idealised American small-town background to everywhere in the universe (see review of Rolling Stones), then this novel takes a similar approach with an American large town.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Fred Vargas: The Three Evangelists (1995)

Translation: Siân Reynolds, 2006
Edition: Vintage, 2007

Fred Vargas' only standalone novel so far is an intriguingly different detective story. This is clear from the bizarre opening, in which retired opera singer Sophia Siméonidis wakes one morning to find a new tree has been planted in her garden overnight. After worrying in silence for a month, she approaches her next door neighbours, three effectively unemployed historians (known as the Evangelists because their names are Matthias, Marc and Lucien) and a senior policeman forced into disgraced retirement. She asks them to pose as council workers and dig up the tree, once they suggest that it would be a good way for someone to hide a body.

When nothing is found, it seems as though the whole thing was just a fuss over nothing, until Sophia goes missing. Then the Evangelists begin looking into the mystery in earnest, feeling that their research skills and the fact that they are not policemen might make it possible to discover things that the official investigation cannot. While this latter reason is commonly used in crime fiction to justify amateur investigations, it is not one that would be recommended by police forces around the world!

The Three Evangelists is a character led detective story, with quirky touches like the tree lending extra interest. (I have been told that this sort of whimsy is typical of Vargas, and that to some it might become tiresome after two or three novels.) It has a brilliantly put together ending, where the pace suddenly picks up for the last few chapters and the solution is revealed.

Vargas has now won three of the last four International Crime Daggers, despite other writers translated into English having a higher profile. The Three Evangelists was the first of her winners, and clearly deserved to do so. This is not just a well written detective story, it is different from the usual run of things in the genre and so stands out all the more. I would rate it at 8/10.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Nick Harkaway: The Gone-Away World (2008)

Edition: Windmill Books, 2009

The first chapter of The Gone-Away World describes an unusual post-apocalyptic scenario: the Earth has suffered a complete warping of reality, where places disappear and people turn into monsters, except where the mysterious Pipe pumps Stuff into the air to stabilise normality. The next 350 pages of the novel describe how this disaster came about, through the eyes of a faithful sidekick. Although this sounds like a typical science fiction scenario, much of the noel - almost the whole of the first half - is not really of the genre. The lengthy flashback is a gonzo coming of age story of one of the people who witnessed the catastrophe. This is told in a darkly humourous manner, quite brilliantly evocative of an eccentric background, finding space to parody martial arts film clichés.

Harkaway also has a taste for philosophising, and tackles some big themes: the relationship between physics, philosophy and psychology, and the origin of evil (in particular the immorality of groups which commit crimes their members would never consider on their own). This may not be to every reader's taste, but a thoughtful narrator is something I like. Even the theme of the Pipe and the Stuff has something to say, about the way that imagination is related to the real world around us.

The novel also has a pretty good twist, which is only revealed about two thirds of the way through but which works rather like the twist in the film Sixth Sense, in that many readers might well want to go back to the beginning and reread it in view of the revelation. I don't want to give it away here, so I will say no more about it.

One of the issues in modern literature, the subject of a well known book of criticism The Anxiety of Influence, is how a writer relates to the vast quantity of written words that precede his or her work. Nick Harkaway puts it like this, in the acknowledgments at the end of The Gone-Away World: "I have, as is customary, borrowed from (read pillaged) every story I have ever loved to write my own." None of the writers specifically mentioned (Wodehouse, Conan Doyle and Dumas) seemed obvious direct influences to me. But it is certainly true that I was reminded of other writers continually as I read his debut: Joseph Heller, China Miéville, John Barth, Iain Banks, Evelyn Waugh and so on, though in the end I have decided that the book that it is most similar to in tone and content is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

The Gone-Away World, borrowed from the library, has gone on my wishlist of books to purchase. I would rate it at 9/10.

Friday 5 June 2009

Frederik Pohl: Man Plus (1976)

Edition: Millennium, 2000

Man Plus won the Nebula award the year before his next novel, Gateway, swept the board of science fiction awards. It could be argued that Gateway is the perfect science fiction novel, because in it Pohl does many of the things which the genre is famous for superlatively: big ideas, interesting (if off-stage) aliens, journeys of personal discovery in intriguing environments, extrapolation of current trends and ideas into the future (in a rather dystopian way); and does it with humour using a flawed central character - a cowardly hero all too easy to identify with. But it does stay well within the traditions of the genre, while the now less well known Man Plus is more adventurous, exploring emotional territory outside the usual comfort zone of genre fiction (of any genre, not just science fiction).

Man Plus is set in what would be the 1990s (during the tenure of the forty second US president, who was Bill Clinton in the real world). But this is a world in which the tensions of the Cold War continued to escalate, and it seems likely (either through all out war between China and other nations or through environmental problems) the earth will become uninhabitable in the short term. So the American space program undertakes a new project: Man Plus. The aim is to get man on Mars, and making it possible for the human race to continue there by re-engineering the colonists, starting with one man.

The central character, Roger Torraway, is not just an experienced astronaut butt one of the best known heroes of the space program, after the rescue of some stranded cosmonauts. He is one of the scientists involved in the Man Plus project, but when the man who is being transformed into a cyborg who can live unprotected on the surface of Mars through a long series of operations has a heart attack and dies, he is the alternate choice who becomes the primary candidate. From this point, the novel is about his emotional reaction to the changes made by the surgeons and engineers to his body, to realising that he is going to part from his wife, and to the philosophical (and theological) dilemmas which the transformation suggests.

From the genre point of view, his transformations effectively make him an alien (indeed, one of the most iconic type of aliens in science fiction: a Martian). Writing about understanding the alien has always been one of the most philosophical aspects of the genre, tied up as it is with questions about the nature of intelligence and humanity. Pohl even finds time for a little James Blish-like discussion of some not immediately obvious theological implications of the transformation process, courtesy of one of the scientists involved who is also a Catholic priest.

One major similarity with Gateway is that Pohl's attitude is not "be amazed by the science", but "how would this really feel?". This is something which marks him out from many of his contemporary science fiction authors, and what led Edmund Cooper, one of his colleagues, to say "In his grasp of scientific and technological possibilities, Pohl ranks with Asimov and Clarke, but he has greater originality than either" (as quoted on the back cover of this edition). Like many genre fans, my earliest science fiction reading was Asimov and Clarke (along with Heinlein), and they remain authors I go back too, despite their flaws as writers. Pohl is a more grown-up reading experience, requiring more engagement from the reader, but offering deeper rewards.

Torraway's elite background and the strangeness of the changes make him a difficult character for the reader to empathise with. (Gateway's central character, Robinette Broadhead, is much more sympathetic - indisputably a man of the people.) Pohl works hard to humanise Torraway though a subplot about an affair his wife is having, but this is one of the least successful aspects of the novel. Parts of Man Plus are disturbing, and others are definitely not for the squeamish. Yet Pohl is able to use his story to explore emotional terrtitory outside the usual boundaries of genre fiction, and this is one of the reasons why it is an important novel. It would be possible to argue that Gateway is the perfect science fiction novel, but it stays well within the bounds of the genre, not challenging what science fiction can do in the way that Pohl does here: more ambitious, but in the end less successful. My rating for Man Plus: 8/10.

Monday 25 May 2009

Stieg Larsson: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005)

Translated: Reg Ketland (2008)
Edition: MacLehose Press, 2008

The central character of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist, is an investigative financial journalist who publishes a well-regarded magazine, Millennium. After its latest exposé of a corrupt businessman, he is sued for libel, and, abandoned by his sources, loses, leaving his career and reputation in ruins. But then he is offered a job by another well-known Swedish businessman, to spend a year writing a history of his family and their firm while really working on the mystery which has obsessed Henrik Vanger for forty years. In 1966, Vanger's great niece went missing, and he has mysteriously received a flower each anniversary of the disappearance.

Almost as important is the character who provides the title of the novel. Lisbeth Salander is in her twenties, but not permitted a full adult life by the Swedish state after her refusal to interact with the world around her as a child led to her institutionalisation as mentally deficient. Yet give her a problem which interests her, and she works obsessively on it, which combines with a photographic memory to make her a great investigator.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a gripping novel of investigation into the pastt of a fascinating but awful family, most of whom are nasty pieces of work, many of whom hate most of the others, who were heavily involved with Sweden's Nazi party, which includes drunks and hermits as well as obsessives. But it is actually the characters of Blomkvist and Salander which are the focus of the novel, and their strengths and shortcomings give a depth to it beyond that of most thrillers. It is also quite academic, as the action is mostly in the discoveries made about the past, but that doesn't stop the story being exciting. The background of the author as a financial investigative journalist similar to that of Blomkvist is clear not just from the verisimilitude of the setting, but from the style of writing, even in translation.

A few years ago, there was a short space of time during which I read several great fantasy novels. This year, it seems to be the same with literary thrillers translated from Swedish. But this novel, and its successors in the Millennium trilogy, have made it to English a great deal quicker than The Gentlemen. Cynically, this seems to me to be at least partly because the story of their production - delivered to a publisher by a respected financial journalist who died before publication - gives an added marketing hook to the novels.

This is an excellent translation of an excellent novel, and I look forward to reading the remainder of the Millennium trilogy. My rating - 9/10.

Friday 15 May 2009

Titus Maccius Plautus: The Pot of Gold and Other Plays

Contains: Aulularia (The Pot of Gold), Menaechmi (The Brothers Menaechmus), Captivi (The Prisoners), Miles gloriosus (The Swaggering Soldier), and Pseudolus
Edition: Penguin, 1965
Translated: E.F. Watling, 1965

What makes a "perfect comedy"? The German critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing described one of the plays in this volume, Captivi (The Prisoners) as such, but it is unlikely to be an answer that would occur to many people asked this question today. Even if the field is restricted to stage comedies on the grounds that Lessing lived before the invention of moving pictures (ruling out such contenders as Some Like it Hot and Fawlty Towers), there are many plays which are funnier. Among my favourites, I might suggest Aristophanes' Frogs , Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Orton's Loot, Frayn's Noises Off. My father would have suggested farces by Feydeau or Labiche, I'm sure.

To Lessing, of course, the word "comedy" didn't just mean an amusing drama; it was a more technical term, describing a play with particular components and attributes. But even so, Captivi is an odd choice, as Watling points out in his introduction: for example, the real world geography of the Greek setting makes it virtually impossible for the action of the play to take place in one day, a requirement applied to drama by critics of the time, based on Aristotle's ideas in the Poetics. So why choose this one? Again, Watling makes a sensible suggestion, that the real issue is that the play does not have aspects which Lessing apparently viewed as distasteful in ancient literature (and particularly in the texts which could be used to teach in schools). In particular, there's no sexual content to the play, which is very unusual in ancient comedy, the surviving examples of which usually at least include bawdy jokes. Until fairly recently, there were still versions of Aristophanes which translated passages which were particularly rude into Latin, rather than into English which could be read by the uneducated, considered to have minds corruptible by such things. Instead, Captivi is about the ties between father and son (together with the mistaken identities which occur in almost every plot used by Plautus).

And Captivi is not even the best known of the five plays in the volume. Two of the others served as the inspiration for extremely famous later comedies. Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is based on Menaechmi but takes the plot a step further by adding a second pair of twin brothers, increasing the potential for comic confusion at the risk of making belief in the actions on stage harder. Shakespeare may well be the greatest dramatist who ever lived, but this is an early play, and not one of his best; it has the air of an exercise rather than a drama involving characters based on human beings. On the other hand, Aulularia, the title play in this collection, inspired L'Avare by Molière, one of the greatest works by a great writer in his prime. Like Shakespeare, Molière added more to the plot, which to me suggests something of why Plautus is not as well known today as he used to be. My understanding is that these plays were produced as diversions during festivals - effectively another sideshow - so were not as long and or complex as Greek plays (which were the main attractions of the festivals they appeared were written for) or later plays which were the centrepiece of an evening's entertainment. The plays are short, one theme (almost one joke) affairs, without the subplots and subtlety we have come to expect from a full length three act drama in today's theatre. Perhaps it would be better to compare Plautus' output with one act comedies, like Shaffer's Black Comedy, but they are more like individual episodes from The Simpsons than anything produced for the stage now. Indeed, there are several parallels with the way that the animated sitcom works: plots as variations on standard themes; exaggerated everyman character; improbable events; and a happy ending.

Captivi is also not the funniest or cleverest play in this collection. The final pair here, Miles gloriosus and Pseudolus, are the best Plautus plays I have read. In both, the characters rise at least a little above the stereotypes, the jokes remain funny, and a little bit more length allows some extra complexity. These two are probably the place to start, if Shakespeare and Molière give you and interest in theirt sources of inspiration. (Not the ultimate source, because Plautus took most of his ideas from Greek originals, now mostly lost, but the closest you can get.)

The introduction to this collection states that these translations were made for use on the stage. Now, Penguin Classics translations of drama don't usually have that as their main aim; they are aimed at tthe reader, not the performer and tend to concentrate on being an accurate (if not word for word) translation of the best available edition of the original text. The Penguin Ibsen translations are obviously like this, if compared with the work of Michael Meyer or my father (among others). So, is this collection of Plautus plays an exception, or was Watling mistaken? There are certainly livelier translations of Plautus, while these are in turn livelier than some of the Penguin Classics drama that was published around the same time. I'm not so sure they would work so well on the stage; perhaps they would be good as a dramatised excerpt to liven up an academic seminar, but that isn't quite the same thing. But then I've never found Plautus as enjoyable as the more complex comedies listed at the start of this review, in any translation. There are problems with details. Some of the jokes could be better translated; there must be a better pun to describe cooks who are scoundrels than "rapscullions", for example. I'd give thee plays 6/10, and the translations, also now rather dated, 5/10.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Charles Stross: Accelerando (2005)

Edition: Orbit, 2006

I first read Accelerando soon after it came out, but, although I found it fascinating, I wasn't able to put together a review. It's an incredibly ambitious novel, describing one potential fate of the human race: it aims to be as iconic a part of the science fiction genre as Neuromancer or Snow Crash. The novel is very much in their tradition of speculation about the interaction between computers, human minds, and the universe.

Accelerando follows three main characters, Manfred Macx and his daughter Amber, then her child Sirhan (not forgetting their cat, the most intelligent of all of them) as they explore the developments in computing which Stross suggests will occur during the twenty-first century and beyond. These begin with spectacles which provide a virtual reality overlay on the real world, to implanted computers and networked enhancements to memory and cognition, to the conversion of the solar system itself into a giant molecular computer, in which uploaded post-humans live in simulations. Manfred is pretty recognisable, just beyond the edge of the way that many people live now, with some interesting technological toys and a radical lifestyle (spent registering patents that he makes available for free use and living off favours from those who benefit from them). Amber is stranger, as most of her story takes place as a simulation on a tiny space ship/computer where she is empress over a virtual court based on fifteenth century France. Sirhan is an adolescent who experienced multiple simulated lifetimes as his education yet has not so far decided which gender to be.

While the themes are similar to those explored by Gibson and Stephenson, being a future based on the technology available at the time of writing, I suspect that Accelerando will not prove as influential. Both Neuromancer and Snow Crash proved self-fulfilling prophecies, Neuromancer inspiring developers of the Web and Snow Crash developers of virtual reality environments such as Second Life, the accuracy of their predictions coming as much from this as from authorial prescience. Both novels take place over a fairly short internal timescale, a few weeks during which the IT environment remains effectively static, and this means that they can really serve as models for developers to emulate. Accelerando, as its title indicates, is about the process of change, and this means that the worlds described in it are a moving target, and there is far less space for Stross to go into evocative details.

Apart from the IT, all three books have other things in common. Most obvious is that they all portray the current political realities based around nation states as effectively obsolete. This seemed very far fetched in the mid-eighties, when I first read Neuromancer's suggestion that corporate entities would be the main powers in the world (rather than running things from behind the scene, as has been suggested happened in Bush's America). Stross's post-capitalist world seems more likely now than it did when I first read Accelerando, before the credit crunch. The short sightedness of financial institutions and the consequent loss of trust by their customers, combined with a fairly clear and longstanding inability of governments to understand, legislate and innovate for the Internet seems to me to make the sort of changes that are the background to this novel not just possible but likely. Snow Crash, where the Mafia deliver pizza and Federal organisations are just an embarrassment is obviously satirical and not very likely in the real world; Stross's idea that the Russian Mafia enforce music copyright is less extreme while still satirical.

Any novel which covers three generations is ambitious, and Accelerando also describes a possible ultimate fate of the human race. From a futurological point of view, some aspects are questionable. The timetable, for example, depends on Moore's Law continuing to hold well into the future: it is not a natural law, just an observation, and depends on increasingly fast technological innovation which seems unlikely (at least in the current economic climate). The scenarios which are described in the novel are mostly well known speculation (in particular by Frank Tipler, who is indirectly mentioned through the "Tiplerite" religion, dedicated to bringing about his vision). Stross may well be the first science fiction author to produce a novel which centres around these ideas to this extent: novels dealing with the final destiny of humanity are surprisingly rare in science fiction, except when treated as satire. Accelerando does suffer from one of the major problems of science fiction which deals with big themes: when you have beings who are vastly more intelligent than any human (including the author and his readers), how is it possible to make their actions comprehensible? Stross does this mainly by keeping his narrative centred on those who remain close to baseline human, who stay recognisable to us, even if strange. (I'm not sure the people depicted at the end are quite strange enough, given how different they are to us; they should be more difficult for us to understand than our culture would be to someone from the nineteenth century, and I don't think that they are.)

Accelerando is fairly effective, and manages to remain sufficiently straightforward to be readable right to the end, despite the proliferation of virtual copies, clones and a wide variety of types of post-human with far greater intelligence than those who choose to remain principally flesh and blood, no matter how augmented. There are some lapses of judgement, such as the sudden adoption of an arch tone at the start of the final section. There is perhaps too much explanatory material. Each chapter has a section summarising the present situation, basically a summary of IT developments during a decade of the twenty first century. There is a lengthy, but amusing, FAQ for newly resurrected individuals given in full and taking several pages. And I always find a novel written in the present tense to be constantly mildly irritating. But, considering its ambition, Accelerando is very successful - 8/10.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007)

Edition: Fourth Estate, 2007

Alaskan detective Meyer Landsman is a mess, and the country he lives in is a mess. Following the destruction of the fledgling state of Israel by its neighbours in 1948, the southern part of Alaska, around the town of Sitka, is opened up for Jewish settlement by the American government. Now, after sixty years, the federal lease is about to come to an end, and no one knows what is going to happen when it does. When Landsman's marriage breaks up, he moves into a sleazy Sitka hotel, to drink himself to death. A bad day starts when the hotel manager wakes him up because the man in the next room is dead, not from the expected heroin overdose but because he has been shot, execution style. Then Landsman discovers that his ex-wife, also a police officer, is now his boss, and that the corpse is the missing son of the head of an extreme Orthodox sect, before being ordered off the case. In true "maverick cop" style, this just makes him work harder, to find out who doesn't want him to discover the killer, and why.

Chabon's alternate history is interesting, and reasonably believable. I could easily imagine Israel destroyed in 1948, and with a little more effort the choice of Alaska - not then a state of the USA - as an alternative Jewish land makes sense: the territory was under the control of an American federal government sympathetic to the post-war plight of the Jews, and it was not already heavily populated. The sett up feels as though it should be making the ingredients of a farce, butt the novel is not humorous, apart from the odd one-liner and the exaggeration of the maverick stereotype in Landsman: this is not Woody Allen. For a novel which is described as "a homage to 1940s noir", I'd really expect more sharpness.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel I really expected to enjoy. Other people thought it was really good, I'd enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by the same author, and felt that the idea behind the story would make an interesting setting. But in the event I found it heavy going. The depression of the protagonist, the desperate sense of impending doom over the Jews of Sitka, and the nastiness of many of the other characters are all contributing factors, making it hard to enjoy reading the novel. This is not necessarily a reason for not reading, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union is not the first or the most depressing book I have read, by a long shot. The suggestions for why it is hard going could equally well be said of 1984, though the theme of rebellion against authority there works better at holding the reader's interest - Winston is not as clichéd a character as Landsman. Perhaps Chabon just struck a chord with me, though I can't see what it would be. I am not, after all, a Jewish policeman investigating the murder of a heroin addict.

Often a book which is difficult to read providers other pleasures, but although it is undoubtedly well written, I did not really feel that I gained much from The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Perhaps if more had been made of the chess playing metaphor, or there had been more humour, I would have enjoyed it more. In the end, I would personally rate The Yiddish Policemen's Union at 6/10.

Monday 30 March 2009

Sylvia Brownrigg: Morality Tale (2008)

Edition: Picador, 2008

If someone divorces their spouse in order to get together with you, then you are expected to be happy about it. But one of the problems with divorce is that the old relationship is going to be a part of your new life, likely source of bitterness that could poison every aspect of being together, supposedly the big bonus to the change. The nameless narrator of Brownrigg's short novel Morality Tale is in that position, as a second wife and stepmother. Her life and her marriage are not what she expected them to be; her husband has changed, stressed and irritable, ground down by ceaseless demands from his ex-wife. Then she meets a man who seems to be a kindred spirit, the new representative of the company which supplies envelopes to the stationery store where she works in San Francisco.

Marriages are complicated things, where outsiders don't know enough to understand the dynamics properly while the insiders are too close, often unable to see the wood for the trees. It is not surprising that unhappy marriages have been a staple of literature at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. - Agammemnon and Clytemnestra, Jason and Medea, or even Zeus and Hera. (And I will refrain from quoting Tolstoy.) Morality Tale is firmly in the tradition of novels analysing problems in a relationship, with the twist that it is the previous relationship which is causing the strain. The novel could be described as one which is about the relationship between two relationships - and potentially a third, and the problems in her marriage lead the narrator to consider starting again with another man. Although she doesn't make the connection, the descriptions she gives makes it clear that the narrator thinks that Richard is like her husband when they first met, which shows something about her, or her taste in men, which she doesn't even appear to realise - a clever touch.

In Brownrigg's earlier novels, the protagonists have been intellectuals: a philosopher, a student, and a psychiatrist. The narrator here is a much more normal person, with no university education, working as a shop assistant. Occasionally, this doesn't quite ring true, but generally Brownrigg's portrayal is convincing. In fact, the slight inconsistencies in the narrator's self-portrayal are probably deliberate parts of the author's artistry, suggesting that there is more going on in the story than is apparent in the surface, that the storyteller is not the naive innocent she makes herself out to be. Even so, being narrator strongly loads the dice in her favour: the most sceptical reader will still find themselves blaming her husband for making her unhappy, rather than feeling that she is at fault for starting a romance with another man who calls her his angel. Only on reflection do you start to wonder about the way the husband is portrayed, a combination of neglect and rampant jealousy, as well as the changes after the marriage due to stress. Even those of us who do not work as marriage counselors know that problems in a marriage tend to have faults on both sides; it's one reason why they are such complex relationships. Viewed from a different angle, the narrator has destroyed one marriage - her husband left his former wife when he met her - and now wants to move on to someone else after she realises that the marriage is less than perfect.

There is obviously a reason for naming the novel Morality Tale, but it is not obvious on the surface. Taken literally, it would suggest that the various characters are allegorical virtues and vices, as in the medieval morality plays, and this doesn't seem to happen. There is a parallel between the plot and the usual plots of these plays: in tte plays, the protagonist often meets the vices, who tempt him from the paths of virtue; in the novel, Richard tempts the narrator to leave her marriage. However, the division between virtue and vice is not as clear cut in the novel, particularly given the doubts over the self-knowledge of the narrator. Brownrigg obviously wants the reader to think about what might have caused the problems in the marriage, and I suspect the point is that novels are about people, morality tales about allegorical beings, and the latter are by their nature one dimensional; but that does not prevent morality being discussed through the medium of the novel.

Brownrigg is a writer I really like, and I enjoyed Morality Tale while thinking it the least of her novels so far. Even so, there is a lot more to the novel than the surface might suggest, and I'd rate it at 7/10.

Thursday 12 March 2009

List of literature resources

Here is a short list of links to literature-related sites on the Internet. (A quick update 12 Mar 2009 removing dead links and adding a couple of new ones.)



  • Fantastic Fiction, information about series, forthcoming books, authors etc.
  • Shmoop!, resource to make learning and writing more fun and relevant for students in the digital age



Science Fiction and Fantasy


Saturday 7 March 2009

Gerald Hammond: The Dirty Dollar (2002)

Edition: Severn House, 2002

Despite earning an engineering degree, Jill Allbright is unable to get a job in the chauvinistic oil industry, except as a cleaner in the offices of an Aberdeen subsidiary of a US oil firm. While working in the executive offices in the middle of the night, Jill answers an insistently ringing phone, and is told by the billionaire owner of the company in Florida that she will need to sort out a crisis: a strike at a depot has been called to coincide with a major delivery of pipes. She organises storage with local farms, and as a reward is taken on as a troubleshooter. The British division of the company isn't doing as well as the Americans think it should be, and they want to know if this is incompetence, or sabotage by a rival firm. So Jill is thrust into a difficult and potentially dangerous role, but with the added problems of being a woman in a man's world, being viewed as a spy for the company's owners and a symbol of a lack of trust toward the local management - not to mention antagonism from those who might be shown to be incompetent or corrupt.

The Dirty Dollar is a quirky, enjoyable thriller (even if it could have a more apposite title without too much difficulty). It is well written, though without pretensions to being anything other than what it is. Even though I like the more complex literary novels too, sometimes I just want something to relax with. Jill is a good central character, and is almost one of those onmi-competent heroes found in old fashioned thrillers, except for the diffidence brought on by the rejection she has experienced from chauvinistic oilmen.

At the same time, Hammond has produced something a little different from the well worn (even if less used in recent years) formula of a heroic thriller. The tone may seem to come straight from the thirties, but having a woman as a hero makes The Dirty Dollar very different from the thrillers of that time - even Patricia Holm was just a sidekick to the Saint. Even today, it is still a little unusual in a thriller. Hammond's writing has a light, insouciant touch, to me reminiscent of Leslie Charteris at his best. This is also evident in the other novel by the author that I have read, Grail for Sale. So it is clearly not an isolated example, and suggests that others from his dozens of novels would provide similar enjoyment.

I would rate The DIrty Dollar at 8/10.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Philip Hensher: The Mulberry Empire (2002)

Edition: Flamingo, 2003

What does the First Afghan War mean to people today? Like many colonial conflicts, it is almost totally forgotten, but it had a big effect on the history of British rule in India, and so influenced the formation of one of the great powers in today's world. The purpose of the war was basically to determine whether Britain or Russia would dominate Afghanistan, but it turned out to be one of the biggest military disasters ever experienced by a colonial power. The sixteen thousand men of the army of the Indus marched on Kabul, and one man returned. It has appeared in literature elsewhere, and I am probably not alone in being more familiar with the war from George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman than from Hensher's 2002 novel. The Mulberry Empire is a much more serious affair than Fraser's; The Mulberry Empire intends to be literature rather than entertainment, on the surface a more ambitious aim,

The Mulberry Empire - so called because Pushtu has a multiplicity of words for the fruit - is not so much an analysis of the war as a depiction of several lives caught up in the events which led to the British invasion. The central character is Alexander Burnes, who visited Kabul in the 1830s and wrote a best selling account (raising concerns which partly prompted the fears about Russian intentions which led to the war).

The story is told in the third person, which has the effect of diluting the immediacy of the narrative as compared with Flashman, told by a great character in the first person. (And his blunt judgments of those involved in planning the invasion of Afghanistan as "old women" and "fools" are much more entertaining than a book where the reader is left to try to assess the characters themselves, when they are drawn so sketchily as here.) Indeed, there is a major problem with characterisation here. Reading the novel, it seems to be populated by wraiths moving around a foggy nowhereland: but it is a depiction of some fascinating historical people in fascinating places at a fascinating time. The most interesting character is Bella, an unconventional London debutante who is fascinated by Burnes: but her role in the action is best described as peripheral.

As entertainment, I greatly prefer Flashman's account, for the edge and humour his narration gives Fraser's novel. The artifice here is more obvious (Fraser was a cleverer writer than he appears to be, deliberately). Hensher describes colourful scenes and people (though oddly almost skips the harrowing of the British forces on their retreat from Kabul), but is very detached, and actually manages tt be less interesting than a straightforward non-fictional historical account would be, and certainly less interesting than Fraser, whose zest for life comes over in almost every sentence he ever wrote.

On the face of it, this is an odd impression of the novel with which to end up, because I really enjoyed the first section of The Mulberry Empire, telling of Burnes first visit to Kabul and the fuss made of him on his return to London: this, I thought, was a book which would actually live up to the hyperbole of the reviews. But 150 pages on, it had palled. Perhaps retention of more of the history would have helped, or re-setting the story at a time when there was a less dramatic series of events going on, as that is clearly not his forte as a writer. From what Hensher says in his afterword about the relationship between the events and characters in The Mulberry Empire and what the historical accounts say, there is no particular reason why the novel had to depict any real people or relate to anything that really happened; it is more about the concept of the Afghan kingdom in the first half of the nineteenth century than its actuality. He acknowledges that "this is a pack of lies, though the outlines of my imaginary war occasionally coincide with a real one". Take away the coincidences, and improve the novel, as truth is here not just stranger than fiction, but more interesting and not as monochromatic.

My rating for The Mulberry Empire is 4/10, mainly for the first hundred pages.