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Posts for February 19, 2009

Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson (Books 2008, 17)

Ellis’s Spider Jerusalem is a journalist, based on Hunter S Thompson. At the start he is living in seclusion in a cabin in the mountains, but contractual difficulties drive him back to the city for the first time in five years. Shit happens, and he writes about it.

This volume comprises the first three issues of the comic, and it’s pretty good so far. Interesting characterisation, great artwork; I’m keen to see where it goes.

Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson (Books 2008, 18)

Cayce Pollard has a strange kind of allergy: certain brands make her ill.

Or at least, their logos do; seeing the Michelin Man, for instance, sets her off in a particularly bad way. She has a corresponding - and possibly linked - talent, which is that she can reliably tell whether a new logo, for example, is going to work; and she can spot trends that are developing on the street. Using these abilities she is able to make a pretty good living by acting as a freelance consultant to marketing people, advertisers, and so on.

It sounds like a pretty shallow kind of life, but she’s an engaging character, and Gibson manages both to make her role seem interesting, and to enmesh her in an international plot that keeps the pages turning.

The main weakness, perhaps, is that you never get the sense that she’s in any real danger. And the mysteries that she ends up investigating find their solutions too easily.

I don’t think Gibson has written anything really startling since his debut, but this is a fun enough read.

I always tend to touch on genre here, but I make no apologies for it. The odd thing here is that, while is clearly not SF in terms of setting and content (it’s the very near future of the time it was written, which makes it our very near past, and has some already-surprising spots that feel like anachronisms, but aren’t: like connecting a new laptop to a new phone by wire, rather than Bluetooth; and the only speculative content is Cayce’s curious affliction/ability), it still feels like SF. And I’m not sure entirely why that is. Gibson’s style is no doubt part of it, and the rest must be theme: it does, after all, address the way the world is changing, and the effect those changes are having on the people that live through them.

The curious thing, really, is that such themes should trigger an SF response in the reader (or writer) What does it say about ‘mainstream’ literature if that genre doesn’t address the world today?

The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson (books 2008, 19)

This has been the third year in which I have read a volume of The Baroque Cycle over the summer. I loved the first, despite its dip after the first book. The second was slower - in fact suffering from classic middle-volume longeurs. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, though.

This third volume is the best of the three. I enjoyed it so much that, towards the end (that is, in the last two-hundred-or-so pages) I found myself sometimes avoiding reading it, because I didn’t want it to be over.

The focus is very much back with Daniel Waterhouse, where it started, which is good from my point of view. Jack Shaftoe and Eliza (Duchess of the preposterously named Qwghlm) are in there too, of course.

And, it’s too damn long for me to write much more about it. If you’ve read the first two, you will, of course, want to read this. If you haven’t read any of them, you should.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Books 2008, 20)

Above all, this took me a loooong time to finish. Even when I was reading it steadily and thought I would just carry straight on through, it was slow going.

It’s not that hated it; or even that I didn’t like it. Nor, indeed. was the prose hard or complex. It just didn’t grab me; didn’t interest me that much. I didn’t, in the end, care that much about the characters or what happened to them. The character, really, since it’s mainly about the journalist and poet Ka.

In part, I think that’s because of the overall structure, and one or two narrative devices. It’s a third-person limited-omniscient narrative, focalised on Ka. Except it’s not: there’s a first-person narrator, a novelist called Pamuk, who is Ka’s friend, and is telling his story. He only appears directly in the novel twice, though.

So it starts out as Ka’s story, and eventually becomes a fragment of ‘Pamuk’s’. Along the way, though, while we are in the middle of the story of Ka’s few days in the Turkish border town of Kars, the end of his story is spoiled for us. It is literally spoilered, with a chapter in which is four years later, and ‘Pamuk’ is in Frankfurt, going through Ka’s things after the latter has been murdered.

We’re also told he doesn’t get the girl.

And then it’s back to the main story. And you expect me to care?

I’m not even sure you can call it a novel of character, for there, isn’t the character supposed to grow, develop, learn something? He certainly goes through various experiences, and probably does change; but I’m not sure that we can tell whether he has developed or grown, not least because we are robbed of any final scene with him, of anything on how he leaves Kars, of anything on his life afterwards. All that is only told to us as if second-hand, and in a very fragmentary, incomplete and unreliable form.

It’s partly a novel about Turkey, of course, about its stresses: the ‘headscarf girls’, who want to wear the Islamic garment to college, where it is banned; the epidemic of suicides of girls and young women which plagues Kars; the tension between the urges to democratic, religious and military rule. I certainly know more about (one person’s vision of) contemporary Turkey now than I did before I started.

But I can’t help but wonder: what was the point of it, really? Plot, character, great prose: two of them can sustain a novel; even any one of them, if it’s good enough. But this didn’t really have much of any of them.

Yet this guy has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so he must be doing something right.

I just wish I knew what.

Masks of the Illuminati, by Robert Anton Wilson (Books 2008, 21)

If you had asked me a few months ago whether I had read this I’d have said yes. I thought that I had read most, if not all, of Wilson’s books that are in linked to the Illuminatus trilogy. But I’d have been wrong.

This one features James Joyce and Albert Einstein drinking in a bar in Zurich in 19??. They meet one Sir John Babcock, who has been studying magick (though from a Christian perspective) under the guidance of the Society of the Rose Cross, or Rosicrucians.

Maybe. Unless it’s something else.

Stuff happens. Magic and monsters ensue, or people are made to believe that they do.

It’s not the best or most momentous of his works, but he makes the characters of Einstein and Joyce surprisingly compelling, and Babcock is an affecting innocent abroad, and it all keeps you reading. Good stuff.