Friday 28 May 2010

Kurt Vonnegut: Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Edition: Vintage, 2000 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1402

Even today, Breakfast of Champions is a strange novel, and it would have seemed odder in 1973. It is perhaps even misleading to call it a novel, given the way it is written. Such plot as it has is revealed in the first few pages. It concerns the influence failed science fiction writer Kilgore Trout ends up having on the world. The other main character, Dwayne Hoover, is gradually going mad through the novel, which ends when he and Trout meet. Trout appears in many of Vonnegut's works, including his most famous novel Slaughterhouse Five, and is often the character used to express of the author's ideas - but here Vonnegut also makes himself a character. The plot is not only minimal, it is clearly not the point of the novel.

An immediately noticeable feature of Breakfast of Champions is its format, which is a major part of why it isn't a normal narrative novel. It consists of (mainly) short chapters, each a series of bullet points, rather like an extended Powerpoint presentation. In many of these, Vonnegut ironically describes the writing process for the book, comments on the actions and thoughts of the characters, and what he is trying to do; in others, Kilgore Trout's views and summaries of the science fiction stories are given. As if this isn't unusual enough, Vonnegut has provided a large number of illustrations, few of them particularly to the point; the text will in passing mention the Egyptian pyramids, say, and then continue, "they looked like this", followed by the author's line sketch. The effect, along with the quirky and satirical explanations of references which will be clear to any twentieth century human, is to make it seem that Breakfast of Champions is addressed to an alien race who know nothing of Earth culture. The writing style adopted by Vonnegut for the novel uses very basic and direct English, which reinforces this impression.

So what is the point? Breakfast of Champions is a satirical attack on the culture, ideas, and concerns which shaped America in the seventies; that is clear from the opening pages, which consist of an attack on the American national anthem, described as "gibberish sprinkled with question marks". This may sound like nothing more than a deliberate attempt to offend or shock, and I would agree that the placing of this passage at the very opening of the novel seems to be just that. There must have been many Americans who did not read past page two because of this onslaught. But Vonnegut is making the point that a song abut a flag is not really a sound basis for pride in a nation: without other achievements, the stars and stripes are completely meaningless except to arrant sentimentalists. Throughout the novel, nostalgia, optimism, and even rationalism are attacked.

Vonnegut deals with the major concerns of Breakfast of Champions more conventionally, and to my mind more convincingly elsewhere. The idea that our actions are fixed and meaningless is a major part of Timequake, while here it is conveyed by the continual interjections about the how the author has made the decisions which determine the actions of his characters combined with speculation about whether our actions are similarly controlled by our Creator. Similarly, Galapagos examines the idea that the human capacity for rational thought does not make us happier or the world a better place.

Breakfast of Champions has been compared to Voltaire's Candide, and there are many parallels between the two novels. Both are satirical, attacking prevalent optimistic ideas about the world - in Voltaire's case with the memorable phrase, "All the for the best in the best of all possible worlds", which is the teaching of Candide's tutor's Pangloss. By contrast, Trout thinks that "there was only one way for the Earth to be: the way it was": a pessimistic justification for the same thought, that the world cannot be improved.

In both cases, liberties are taken with narrative: in Candide, terrible things happen to the characters, including death, only for them to appear later apparently unscathed. Both Candide and Trout are quite passive, as the philosophies they hold suggest they should be, Trout relegating himself to a life as a passive observer of the follies of seventies America, from the adult movie theaters of New York, to the signs reminding those entering Philadelphia that its name makes it the city of brotherly love, to the devastation of West Virginia by mining. Both authors use a distinctly ironic style, Vonnecgut more overtly than Voltaire. The biggest difference is that there is no major character in Breakfast of Champions with the naivete of Candide himself, and this ultimately makes Vonnegut's novel far less appealing and amusing.

This is the sort of book which by its idiosyncratic nature and satirical ambitions attempts to walk a narrow path between black comedy and irritating eccentricity for the sake of it. Even though, as a non-American apart from anything else, there is nothing in Breakfast of Champions I would personally consider offensive, I generally found it much more irritating than funny. I like Vonnegut generally, but not this time - 3/10.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Charlotte MacLeod: It Was an Awful Shame (2002)

Edition: Five Star, 2003
Review number: 1401

Of all genre writing, it may be the case that crime short stories are the most difficult to pull off, despite the pioneering example of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes short stories remain among the best of this type. To fit a convincing description of a crime, several suspects, their motives, means and opportunity, as well as the solution, into a few pages is not easy. To make them funny as well is so difficult that to try seems almost like showing off.

And in this collection, Charlotte MacLeod manages to do this without apparent effort. Not only that, she is often able to convey an enviable sense of place: most of the stories are set in a New England clearly dear to her heart. The stories are also rather old fashioned, and portray an upper class New England that almost certainly became extinct before the Second World War (the original publication dates for the stories are between 1963 and 1989, mainly in the first decade).

The quality of the stories is variable, but there are no really poor ones in the collection. However, the ordering of the stories does leave something to be desired for newcomers to the author (as I was when I picked up this book in the library). MacLeod wrote two long series of novels with recurring characters, and fans will be pleased to know that both make appearances in this collection. The problem is that the first two stories here are from one of these series, and don't really stand alone too well, and this is an off putting start for those readers not familiar with the novels. The stories from the second series work much better, appearing later on and apparently coming near the start of the series' internal chronology. These series characters made me think of Dorothy L. Sayers' short stories, which are not particularly distinguished (and certainly not as good as MacLeod's), but which are collected in such a way that Lord Peter stories draw the fan into reading each of the collections. There, too, a certain knowledge of Lord Peter is assumed, but not perhaps as much as MacLeod does in the first two here. The first story, which provides the title for the collection, also deals with the childish rituals of a fraternity lodge, and so seems particularly removed from real life.

Similarly, the level of humour varies between the stories. Some of the best moments, such as the magnificently silly spoof The Mysterious Affair of the Beaird-Wynnington Dirigible Airship and the Wodehouse-style combination of goat, shotgun, helium balloon, trousers and halibut in Fifty Acres of Prime Seaweed, are not likely to be quickly forgotten by any reader.

The old fashioned air occasionally reminds me of O. Henry or P.G. Wodehouse: very old fashioned, and similarly cosy. In no way could MacLeod's stories be described as gritty reflections of the mean streets of modern America. That is not necessarily a bad thing; there should always be a place for expertly written, light and fun reading, even if it occasionally strays into the twee. My rating: 7/10.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Alastair Reynolds: Ternminal World (2010)

Edition: Gollancz, 2010
Review number: 1400

Many science fiction novels are in a way more about their setting than anything else: it is something that non-fans tend to dislike about the genre. The best of them, of course, make the setting the core of a wider, rounded, story. Where this core is an artefact, it is referred to in science fiction fandom as a "Big Dumb Object" or BDO, for which the prototype is Larry Niven's Ringworld (see the article in the TV Tropes WIKI for other famous examples). BDOs are usually alien artefacts being investigated by human explorers, and Reynolds has already written some stories of this type, such as Absolution Gap and his debut Revelation Space.

Terminal World is a slightly different kind of BDO story. Spearpoint is a huge, decaying city, towering over its surroundings. Both the city and its environs are divided into shifting Zones, where different levels of technology can work, including one known as the Bane which is so inimical that not even basic forms of life can survive. Both Spearpoint and the Zones are human artefacts, but not ones which the current inhabitants, not even the nano-technology using "angels" of the upper levels of the city, can now understand.

Doctor Quillon, the main character of Terminal World, is a renegade angel, product of an experiment by these people - already drastically changed from their human ancestry - to modify themselves so that they could live in the lower levels of Spearpoint. When it seems that his past is about to catch up with him, Quillon escapes from the city and begins a journey across the strange fractured landscape outside the city. While the doctor is quite a well realised character, this journey, the main part of Terminal World, is more about making it possible for the reader to see more of the Zones and the different cultures which have grown up with each level of permissible technology.

This is a pity, as it means that the plot is pretty rudimentary, just a framework to illustrate the Zones in a way that is less interesting than it could be: I think that the way they affect life in Spearpoint is more interesting than what it is like outside the city. The image of a sophisticated cyborg effectively chaining himself to a boiler room in order to use steam power, while unlikely, is intriguing; while that of the Swarm, a loose federation of airship fliers, is much less so. Some of the plot doesn't quite hold together: for example, the leader of the Swarm has recently developed a means of producing large quantities of medicine which helps humans deal with the physiological effects of the passage from one Zone to another just at the time when a major humanitarian crisis caused by shifting Zones in Spearpoint means that it is urgently needed. A journey of discovery like this is typical of BDO stories, but I would have preferred a plot which remained in the fascinating city; this would perhaps have made Terminal City seem rather like one of China MiƩville's novels, but that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

The ideas behind Terminal World are connected with quantum dynamics. In each of the Zones, it appears that the basic structure of matter is slightly different, which means that technologies which rely on, say, electricity may not work in some of them. I don't think the rules are applied quite consistently: how different are the electrical currents in the wire connecting a slight switch and a bulb from the signals in animal nervous systems at a fundamental physical level? So perhaps quantum mechanics - which is suggested by one of the characters in the novel as a possible explanation for the Zones - is not actually behind Reynolds' concept at all, but a red herring.

However, it does fit in with something else: the role of the tectomancers. These are characters with some kind of mental connection to the Zones. They can move the Zone boundaries, and are persecuted and feared as witches or dismissed as legends. One of the more mysterious aspects of quantum mechanics is the role of an observer, whose intervention is required to collaps a statistical description of a phenomenon (the probability that a particle is in a volume of space) to a physical one (the knowledge whether or not the particle is in that volume). Tectomancers seem to be a kind of super-observer, able not just to affect the collapse of the quantum state vector but the rules which define it.

In the end, the combination of one or two good characters, an interesting BDO, and some ideas about quantum mechanics are not enough for Terminal World to be a great science fiction novel. Part of the problem is that none of the characters really understand the Zones, so the reader is not left with much information to work out what they really are, and part is the abandonment of the city for the middle section of the novel. Other questions - such as whether Spearpoint is built on the Earth of the far future, or elsewhere - are left undiscussed, perhaps to provide material for a sequel. Terminal World does make an interesting change from the space opera for which Reynolds is most well known, and is well worth reading by fans of the author. My rating: 6/10.