Friday 27 May 2011

E. Phillips Oppenheim: Last Train Out (1941)

Described in his heyday as "the Prince of Storytellers", the name of E. Phillips Oppenheim was familiar to me pretty much only from the back covers of the Leslie Charteris novels I own in these Hodder yellow jacket editions. When I saw this one - in a book case in the garden of a cottage in the Welsh mountains containing books for sale to support education charities working in Africa - I was keen to take the chance to make my acquaintance with the author. (I would never have thought of searching for it, though; this kind of serendipity is one major reason why physical second hand bookstores are such wonderful places.)

Published in 1941, Last Train Out must be one of the earliest thrillers to describe the build up to the Second World War. Its story is built around the escape of a Jewish banker from Vienna to Switzerland from before the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938 to just after the declaration of war on Germany by Britain in France in September 1939 following the German invasion of Poland.

The hero of Last Train Out, Charles Mildenhall, is an upper class British adventurer, working for the Foreign Office in a role somewhere between a diplomat and a troubleshooting spy. It is he, for example, who travels to Poland to assure the leaders there that Britain and France would indeed honour their treaty commitments and declare war if a German invasion takes place. While Oppenheim's novels are publicised on the back of those by Leslie Charteris, Mildenhall resembles the central characters in books by Dornford Yates more than he does the Saint. Apart from his class background, he is more likely to succeed the liberal use of cash than to be supremely useful in a fight with the bad guys. But there are qualities Mildenhall shares with Simon Templar. Both use intelligence to work their way through a problem while not being as cerebral as, say, Holmes or Poirot; both have a personal charm well portrayed by their respective writers; and both, as a result, have a large network of friends everywhere they go who can be counted on to provide aid as needed.

Despite the soubriquet bestowed on Oppenheim, I felt there were occasional infelicities in the storytelling in the Last Train. The most noticeable is the sudden jump from the eve of the Anschluss to the eve of the invasion of Poland, with Mildenhall's activities during these seventeen months described only later as he describes them to others. Oppenheim clearly wanted to keep most of the action in Vienna and not bring in characters and activities elsewhere in Europe, but it would have made the story flow better to follow his hero's actions chronologically.

Overall, though, the characters are good, the story is exciting (if a little slow compared to more modern thrillers), and Oppenheim carefully builds up the tension towards the final scenes as the last train out leaves for Switzerland. I was pleased to enjoy reading it, and will look out for more of Oppenheim's novels in the future. My rating - 8/10.

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1952 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1423

Saturday 21 May 2011

John Fowles: The Aristos (1964, revised 1980)

The title may suggest "À la lanterne les aristos!", the cry of the French revolutionary mob in The Scarlet Pimpernel. But in fact Fowles is using the Greek word aristos, meaning "the best" without the reference to hereditary privilege it now has in its best known English descendant, aristocracy, or being restricted in application to people, as the same word has it. This is a book which describes Fowles' personal philosophy, which is all about the best (in his view) relative to each particular situation. Most of The Aristos originated when Fowles was in his twenties, but the material was revised for its initial publication and again for this edition.

In the introduction, Fowles - who studied French at university - cites his models as French, particularly Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, and Chamfort (and also mentioning Montaigne). Having only read Pascal and Montaigne from this list, I can see the relationship, but what The Aristos really reminds me of is André Gide's The Fruits of the Earth, also the product of a university student of great literary ability who was a left-leaning amateur philosopher.

Not that literary quality is particularly apparent here - The Aristos is written in note form. Note form is not unknown in philosophy, obviously, and, true to his influences, The Aristos is much more like Pascal's Pensées than, say, Witgennstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The latter is much harder to read, perhaps because it is even more compressed than the other works. Fowles explains to the reader that the form is used so that it acts as a bald statement of a philosophy, not as an attempt to persuade anyone else through its artistry. This is somewhat disingenuous, as he then almost immediately slips in a rhetorical metaphor, which is perhaps more artistically pleasing than illuminating of his meaning. He says that life is like being adrift on a raft in the middle of an ocean, the point of the image being that there is no way to know the shores beyond the horizon might be like, so likewise there is no real way to be sure about what happened before birth or will happen after death.

Fowles' basic argument in The Aristos is based on his reaction to one of the most famous ideas in Pascal's Pensées. This idea is known as "Pascal's Wager", that the rational man should believe in God, because there is nothing to lose in the next life if he is wrong, and everything to gain if he is right. (This doesn't work for me personally, as I don't see belief as something I can turn on and off as this suggests is necessary; but that is off the topic.) But, Fowles says, in the second half of the twentieth century, after the horrors of the two world wars, to choose to believe in a Christian God is no longer as reasonable, as it is harder to accept the concept of a God who loves his creation, making the choice between belief and atheism less balanced than it was in the seventeenth century. Thus the rational person should assume that this life is all there is; and this in turn means that we have a moral duty to make this life as good as possible for as many as possible, which we can do by aiming to reduce social injustice and inequality.

This may not be convincing (it is rather more so in its full form than summarised as drastically as I have done here). The intention is not so much to convert as to give an alternative to both capitalism and communism, neither of which, in Fowles' opinion, provide both "equal access to the chief sources of happiness" and "the maximum freedom [to the individual] to decide what these sources should be". Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that one or other of the two ideologies will collapse in 1989 if they fail to bring greater equality (picking the date as the two hundredth anniversary of the French revolution): a remarkably prescient prediction, as it turned out.

It could be argued that this philosophy seems rather glib for a writer from a comparatively privileged background: born in the West, well educated (at a time when class distinctions mattered more in British universities than they do today, despite all the fuss about the Oxbridge intake from private schools), well respected in his chosen profession, and so on - a "champagne Socialist". Fowles himself recognises this potential problem, and argues that for the good of society, socialism cannot be left as the province of the poorest workers. His response is to call for us to seek to promote greater equality of opportunity (which he carefully differentiates from equality of innate talent); if we don't do so, he says, we are just selfish and ultimately living futile lives.

The inspiration for The Aristos is explicitly the ideas of Heraclitus, one of the earliest Greek philosophers, whose work survives solely in quotations and descriptions in the writing of others; it is his use of the word aristos which Fowles has followed. Fowles ends his book with an appendix containing the major Heraclitan material, in his own translations: four pages in all but a useful background for the philosophically inclined reader (and I am pretty sure that this is a book which will not attract any other kind).

Is Fowles convincing? Overall, not really, though most people will agree with at least some part of what he has to say. There is much food for thought, and the whole of The Aristos is interesting and readable: the layout may look like the Tractatus, but Fowles is much more easily comprehensible. Clearly an important document for deeper understanding of his fiction, The Aristos is more, as an intelligent person's reaction to the modern wold, it is a fascinating byway in twentieth century philosophy. My rating: 7/10.

Edition: Triad/Granada, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1422

Tuesday 10 May 2011

John Varley: The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977)

The Ophiuchi Hotline is one of the great idea based novels of the science fiction genre, but was not even  nominated for either the Hugo or Nebula awards - clearly 1977 was a strong year for SF. The novel is set in a future where human technology is dominated by ideas derived from a stream of data received from an alien civilization (from the direction of the Ophiuchi constellation), hence the book's title. As the back of this edition says, the story is about what happens when the latest message from the datastream turns out to be a bill for the service - a great idea for a science fiction novel.

But the importance of the Hotline is not really seen in the first half of the story. This is about one woman's involvement in a campaign to overthrow the four hundred year old rule of a different group of aliens over the Earth, using the Hotline data to try to match the far superior technology of the invaders. Lilo is an unwilling participant in this revolt, secretly led by a flamboyant retired Lunar politician. She was a genetic biologist who strayed into forbidden areas of research into the human genome, who was sentenced to death as an Enemy of Humanity, only to be rescued by the leaders of the revolution who sent an illegal clone to be killed in her stead. Each time she tries to escape, she is killed and a new clone is grown to take her place, using memory recordings to bring them more or less up to date. Together with other illegal clones Lilo had created when she realised that she was under suspicion, the number of different Lilos could become extremely confusing, but this difficulty is well handled by Varley.

There are some occasional poorly written details, including some transitions between scenes (particularly when one of the Lilo clones ends up on Earth, forbidden to humans since the invasion). The news clips used as headers for some chapters are irritating, less than convincing, tabloid satire; this is a device which has been used better by others, and just seems out of place here. While many elements of the novel would not be out of place in a satire, The Ophiuchi Hotline is mostly serious in tone, which is one major reason why the frivolous news clips are a problem. There are also inconsistencies, such as for example travelling speeds through space. These seem to vary somewhat with the demands of the plot (which is not particularly unusual in the genre). The beam which forms the Hotline seems to be aimed at a particular point outside Pluto's orbit, but this point also seems to be fixed relative to Pluto itself, which is a bit strange. Indeed, though Varley is described as a "hard" science fiction writer, which means that he sticks close to known science and should have meticulously worked out explanations to back up his speculations, he does seem to me to be hard only when it suits him to be so. He is certainly not as interested in physics and engineering as some of the other writers who are considered to be part of this subgenre. Which is a fair enough attitude, but one which contradicts the label he has been given.

The most interesting character, whose treatment is rather less than serious despite what I have just said, is a deep space pilot named Javelin who appears about three quarters of the way through the story. She combines extremely radical body modification - looking more like a snake than a human being - with a conservative environment. (Both these ideas would have been unusual in seventies science fiction). Her ship is named The Cavorite, after the weightless material used to propel The First Men in the Moon in H.G. Wells' 1901 novel. It is designed to look like one of the pictures of spaceships on the covers of pre-spaceflight pulp SF magazine covers, and has a water based recycling system which doubles as an aquarium and an organ in the cabin which doubles as a computer input station.

A clear influence on Varley's début novel is Robert A. Heinlein, combined with something of the inventiveness of Philip K. Dick.Very unusually for someone thought of as part of the hard science fiction subgenre, he has been praised by non-genre writers: the blurb on the cover of this edition is by thriller writer Tom Clancy, describing Varley as "the best writer in America". Although he went on to have several nominations nominations for major awards, his career hasn't really lived up to that kind of encomium. The Hotline idea became a minor variation on the "uplift" described by David Brin and others, though 2001 is more of an influence on Brin than it is here. Additionally, Varley seemed old fashioned once cyberpunk became influential in the 1980s. Never as popular as Heinlein or as hip as Phil Dick, Varley  has perhaps been rather forgotten, but in fact his later novels are also enjoyable and interesting to read: I particularly enjoyed Mammoth. My rating - 7/10.

Edition: HarperCollins, 1994 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1421

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Michael Connelly: The Reversal (2010)

Michael Connelly is a fine writer, and I have read all of his books. He is most famous for his LA cop Harry Bosch, who features in many of his books, including this one. These novels tend to be police procedurals until near the end, when a thriller-style twist leads to an exciting ending. But for me these endings usually come across as contrived and unlikely, a mechanism for avoiding the simple arrest-the-suspect conclusion which is pretty standard in crime fiction (and this disappointment has generally put me off reviewing them). This sort of ending does seem especially likely in American crime writing; Linda Fairstein is another writer whose books I like who does this, for example. All this means that in Michael Connelly's writing I prefer the books which have a different lead character.

In The Reversal the main character is Mickey Haller, even though Bosch does play an important part in the story as well. He is a Californian defence lawyer who has also appeared in several previous Connelly novels, starting with The Lincoln Lawyer. This is the third novel in which he works with Bosch, but there is a big difference here to Haller's past. He has been asked to act as a state prosecution lawyer, in a case where it is important that the work done appears to be independent of the state machinery. (The title in part refers to Haller's crossing from one side to the other in this way.)

The case is a retrial of a child murder, where the man convicted at the original trial has, after twenty four years in prison, been able to have the verdict overturned (reversed, in fact - another reference made by the novel's title) on procedural grounds. The process is that the case needs to be retried, as the Californian justice department still believes in the guilt of the imprisoned man, rather than the prisoner being released as though an appeal had been granted. Since the knowledge that the accused had already been convicted and imprisoned might influence the jury, the whole case is structured as though the first trial had never happened. I'm not an expert on American law, but this all seems rather over-elaborate: more designed to be the background for novels like this than the way a real life legal system would work. I'd certainly not heard of this happening before.

So The Reversal is a courtroom thriller. As such, it confirms to the stereotypes of the subgenre, as laid down a long time ago by Erle Stanley Gardner in his Perry Mason novels: surprise testimony, unreliable witnesses, defence and prosecution tricks, and legal rhetoric with constant se of objections on both sides: all the ingredients which make a thriller out of the tedium which is the norm in most legal trials. Like most of the genre, the reader is firmly encouraged to sympathise with one side; in this case, it is the perhaps less popular choice, the prosecution.

As a courtroom thriller, The Reversal is one of the best. Connelly keeps a fairly tight rein on the plausibility of his plot, while keeping the story engrossing. My rating - 8/10.

Edition: Orion, 2010
Review number: 1420