book notes 2006

    The Last of the 2006 "Book Notes" Posts

    Nearly halfway through the year and I haven't finished posting last year's Book Notes? Shocking. Oh well, here are the last few in one bunch.

    26: The Terminal Zone, by Andrew J Wilson

    My friend Andrew wrote this play back in 1993 or so, and produced it at the Edinburgh Fringe. It has now been published as a chapbook by Writers' Bloc, the spoken-word performance group that grew out of the East Coast SF Writers' group.

    In it, Rod Serling, the writer and presenter of The Twilight Zone, appears; or rather, two sides of his personality appear, performed by two actors, and indulge in a dialogue. This is the story, you might say, of Rod Serling talking to himself.

    27: Dicks and Deedees, by Jaime Hernandez

    A collection of Love and Rockets stories by Jaime. I haven’t read any of these for years, but all our favourites are here: Maggie and Hopey, of course, and Penny Century, and HR Costigan, whose story reaches a conclusion of sorts.

    His storytelling technique can make it hard sometimes, to tell where we are chronologically: he’ll tell the history of years in a character’s life in the space of half a dozen or a dozen panels, with nothing other than the pictures and dialogue to indicate that the time has changed. And yet somehow you can work out what is happening, and over what period.

    The artwork is gorgeous in its simplicity, of course, and he always has moving stories to tell.

    28: Tamara Drewe, by Posy Simmonds

    This graphic novel was published in weekly installments in the Saturday issue of The Guardian over a year or so. Actually, most weeks there were two episodes.

    I’m told that it’s based on, or at least strongly inspired by, Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy; he is one of my unfortunate missing authors, so I can’t comment on that myself. I can say, however, that it’s a great story, very moving, and a fine way of bringing graphic fiction to the mainstream reader (not that this is the first time The Guardian has done this: they published Posy’s Gemma Bovary a few years ago).

    If you missed it, you can probably still read (at least some of) it on the website (though personally I find that unsatisfying because of the image quality). But I expect it’ll be out in paperback by now (in fact, I was surprised they didn’t get it out in time for Christmas).

    29: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

    This is an absolute stormer of a book. A family drama, of sorts, set across thirty years and three billion years simultaneously.

    The time is about now, and one night (in North America, at least), the stars go out. And the planets and the moon. But not the sun.

    The Earth has been enclosed, by an entity or entities unknown (or is it a natural phenomenon?) in a membrane that closes off the outside universe, while allowing enough sunlight through for the ecosystem to function normally. Inside the membrane, time is slowed down, so that outside it the universe appears to spin on at a vastly accelerated rate.

    But it’s really all about relationships. Highly recommended.

    Book Notes 25: The Family Trade, by Charles Stross

    Charlie shows that he can write heroic fantasy as well as everything else. Except, of course, it isn't really fantasy. When your hero discovers she can switch at will (or "world walk") between the "real" world (present-day America) and an alternative world (geographically similar, inhabited, but never had industrialisation) then what you are dealing with seems a lot more like SF to me.

    Of course, the alternative world works on a feudal system, and weapons are mediaeval (apart from ones that have been carried over from “our” world). So it has some of the tropes of fantasy, and more may develop. But it looks like there won’t be any magic other than the world-walking ability.

    The main fault with it is that it shows its history as the first part of a much longer book which the publishers decided should be split in two. So just as it’s starting to get really interesting, it ends.

    Oh well, I look forward to reading the second part, and its sequels.

    Book Notes 24: Variable Star, by Robert A Heinlein and Spider Robinson

    These are still the 2006 Book Notes. I'll finish them soon, honest.

    Heinlein used to be my absolute favourite author. Indeed, he is in large part responsible for me developing a lifelong love of science fiction. And I’m also very fond of Spider Robinson. So when I found out that this existed, obviously I had to buy it.

    It seems that, sometime after the death of Heinlein’s widow Virginia, his literary executor discovered an outline that Heinlein wrote in 1955, but never expanded into a novel. If remarks by Heinlein, that Spider refers to in his afterword, are true, then it was John W Campbell who talked him out of doing so. Which seems strange, and rather sad. Still, if Heinlein had written that novel, it’s possible that we wouldn’t have had one of his other ones; and of course, we wouldn’t have this one.

    Would that be a good or bad thing, though? That is what we are here to decide.

    I became intensely irritated by the story early on. The first-person narrator is supposed to be eighteen years old at the start, and he just doesn’t sound like an eighteen-year old. I don’t mean the narrative voice: that would not be a problem, as we can assume that the narrator is supposed to be telling his story in later years. I’m talking about his dialogue, and particularly his thought processes.

    Tied to this is the fact that we are left largely in the dark about the society on Earth where the novel starts. The only thing we learn is that sexual mores have gone backwards by several hundred years, in North America, at least. Our narrator and his beloved can’t move in together, or even just spend the night together (despite living independently from any parents or guardians): they have to get married if they want to have sex. That his how Spider gets round the fifties expectations of Heinlein’s outline, of course, but it doesn’t sound like any eighteen-year olds I’ve ever heard of.

    Except, perhaps, those who subscribe to one of the world’s many anti-sex religions, which these two don’t. In fact, the handling of religion in this work is quite interesting.

    It is slotted into the timeline of Heinlein’s ‘Future History’ stories. In that timeline, the name of Nehemia Scudder appears, but I don’t think there is a story in which he ever appears directly as a character. Scudder is some kind of Christian fundamentalist leader, who becomes, I think, the World President. In this novel we are after the time of the Prophets – Scudder and his successors – and the world is still recovering from the restrictions that were placed on life, on scientific research, by them: “We could have had immortality by now,” one character complains.

    It’s a good story, but not as good as it could be. Robinson has obviously worked hard at “channelling” RAH, but it seems to me that there are parts of the story where things just don’t quite fit together, or totally make sense. Though this may in part due to the speed with which I read it.

    It is, of course, a good thing when a book makes you read it quickly: it usually means that the plot is compelling and you are keen to find out how it will play out. But if it causes you to skim, and miss – or at least, imperfectly absorb – important information, then that’s not so good. Though I don’t think that can really be considered a criticism of a book.

    It’s worth a read, and I suppose I might read it again at some point, to see whether I did just miss some bits; but I’d probably prefer to re-read, say Have Space Suit, Will Travel.

    Book Notes 23: Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

    So I finally start The Baroque Cycle; or you might say, I finally finish the first volume. I started reading this at a campsite in France while on holiday: that was back at the end of August. I finished it on the 9th of November. As I said not so long ago, I don't read that quickly these days (compared, say, to back when I was a student); but this has taken me ages. Which is not surprising, since it's 900 pages long.

    While I’ve been reading it I’ve also read 19, 20, 21 and 22, but they are all graphic novels, and quite short. As well as that I generally read parts of the Saturday Guardian; a few magazines (London Cyclist, Matrix and Vector, occasionally The New Statesman, or one of the Linux magazines); and of course, a rake of blogs. But apart from those, it’s just been this one steadily for about two and a half months. And there are two more volumes to go: each, I believe, of a similar length.

    None of which tells us anything about the content of the book, of course. It is an interesting exercise, apart from anything else: Stephenson cleverly educates us science geeks about history, by linking the doings of kings and lords with those of Isaac Newton and other luminaries of the Royal Society. Or so I first thought. But then I realised that simultaneously, or alternatively, it does the opposite: it teaches humanities geeks (who presumably can be expected to know about the history) something about the science of the time.

    More importantly, though, it’s a damn good story. The first third tells the first part of the story of Daniel Waterhouse, who is the son of a Puritan family that is expecting the apocalypse to come in 1666. Of course, with the Plague and the Great Fire, it seems like it is.

    Waterhouse is a Natural Philosopher, though (or scientist, as we would say). He goes to Cambridge, where he becomes the room-mate and friend of a hick from the country, one Isaac Newton.

    I was reading it at a roaring pace all through the first part, but for me it lagged suddenly when the second part started, and we are introduced to a new set of characters, principally a vagabond called Jack Shaftoe (he has a brother called Bob, but I don’t know whether he is meant to be anything to do with the song) and a young woman called Eliza who was a harem slave to the Turks, and whom Jack frees.

    The pace picks up again as we get to know these characters, and their peregrinations round the courts and battlefields of Europe mean that their paths eventually cross with Daniel and the other Royal Society members from part one. Which takes us to part three.

    Far too much happens to give even a summary here. There are the births of princes and the deaths of kings, war, conquest and betrayal. Almost most importantly of all, the early scientists are probing and extending their understanding of the workings of the universe (of ‘creation’ as they would term it).

    Most importantly of all, there are the lives of ordinary people going on against this backdrop

    It’s a fantastic work, and as the first part of a trilogy, it isn’t marred by Stephenson’s noted difficulty with endings. I look forward eagerly to reading the second and third volumes.

    I don’t know why it won SF awards, though: just being written by an SF author really isn’t enough to make a book SF.

    Book Notes 21: The Sandman Midnight Theatre, by Neil Gaiman and others

    A collection of some of Neil's shorter comics work. All fine and dandy, but far from essential. The most interesting one for me was a Swamp Thing story for which they had reunited the old art team ('old' in the sense of, from the days when Alan Moore was writing it) of Steve Bissette and John Totleben. So that it looked 'right', even for me, who has always paid much more attention to story than artwork. I've never bought a comic because of its artists, but often have because of its writer. That's why it was mainly Alan Moore who brought me back to comics as an adult: he's a great storyteller.

    Indeed, I fairly often find myself annoyed or frustrated with sections of comics where the story is told entirely or mainly visually, and for reasons of poor reproduction, or just the artist(s) not being as good as they think they are, it’s hard to work out what’s supposed to be going on.

    That happened to a small extent in one of the stories here, in which Gaiman uses the ‘old’ Sandman character, who was published by DC long ago, and was in abeyance when he reimagined the character as the Lord of Dreams that we know today. The old Sandman is a masked adventurer in the intra-war years. His mask is a gas mask, and his weapon is a gun that fires sleeping gas.

    This story is a kind of crossover between the two versions of The Sandman. The old one has cause to visit the house in England where an old wizard has the Lord of Dreams captured - as at the very start of Gaiman’s Sandman, in other words.

    All in all, reading this was not time wasted, but it wasn’t that great.

    Book Notes 20: The Complete Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson

    Another old Moore from the 2000 AD days. I've read it before, as three separate volumes, but I totally didn't remember anything about Book 3, in which Halo joins the army. Well, the Space Marines, or whatever you want to call them.

    It’s a great story about an ordinary young woman in a very un-ordinary world. Much better than the last one, and very much more than a curiosity: highly recommended.

    Book Notes 18: Radio Free Albemuth, by Philip K Dick

    Ah, how we love the paranoid fantasies of our Phil. As does Hollywood, considering how many of his works have been made into films.

    Not much chance of that ever happening to this one, mind you (though they’ve done A Scanner Darkly now, so you never can tell).

    This is kind of a prequel or counterpart to Valis, which I read a good number of years ago. In a similar way, Dick himself is one of the central characters, though it is not him who believes that an alien intelligence – the Vast Active Living Intelligence System – is communicating with him.

    We are in an alternative America: instead of Nixon becoming President in 1968, an even more authoritarian, fascist figure called Ferris F Freemont does. His regime quickly takes on an extreme McCarthyite nature.

    Valis sends a message of hope from beyond the stars. Or is it from another dimension? Or is it God? Nicholas Brady does not know, and neither do we. A significant portion of the book consists of him and his writer friend, Phil, discussing possibilities for what it could be that contacts him in dreams, and sometimes lends him lifesaving information and even healing powers. But no real conclusion is reached.

    It’s an OK read, but is largely unresolved by the end: though not without hope.

    Book Notes 17: Vellum, by Hal Duncan

    I finally get to read Vellum, then. I'd been waiting for the paperback for a while, as I said back in Book Notes 7. I've pre-ordered the sequel, Ink, in hardback, though, which should be recommendation enough.

    We are, once again, in the territory of myths walking the Earth. This time they are angels and demons, gods and devils, and their powers extend far beyond Earth, and into the Vellum. This is a kind of multiverse, a visual metaphor for the many-worlds theory, you might say (though the book walks the fantasy line, more than science fiction, the use of nanotech notwithstanding).

    It starts really well, and I loved the whole first half, but the second half loses focus somewhat. The pace slows, and it seems a tad repetitive. Though I may have picked up this last criticism from John Clute’s review of it, which I glanced at while I was reading the book.

    Reading the whole of Clute’s review now, I agree with much of it, though I’m left feeling considerably more positive about the book as a whole than Clute obviously was.

    In a way it feels unfinished: not just that it leaves you wanting more, which is a good thing, but I found myself thinking, on more than one occasion after it ended, that I hadn’t actually finished reading it. However, Hal himself points us at a review which captures the meaning of the ending perfectly, and makes me think I need to read things more closely and think about them more carefully. Though sometimes you just need to have something pointed out to you, to make you realise that you understood it all along.

    It is a great, sparkling debut (though whether it is possible for work to be simultaneously a debut and a ‘masterpiece’, as the blurb has it, is something that caused some discussion in my house), and highly recommended.

    Book Notes 16: The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle, by Catherine Webb

    Catherine Webb is only 19; she had her first novel published at 14. It makes you sick; though it shouldn’t.

    Horatio Lyle is a scientist and investigator in Victorian times. He has a dog called Tate, but there’s a lot more to this book than bad sugar-manufacturer-related jokes. The blurb describes it as “Sherlock Holmes crossed with Thomas Edison as written by Terry Pratchett”, and that’s not a bad assessment; though it’s not as funny as Pratchett. I read it with my nine-year-old son, and he thoroughly enjoyed it: though not so much the descriptive passages, and he was disappointed by the ending.

    I thought the descriptive passages were very well written and incredibly evocative, but there were rather too many of them; and while I enjoyed it at the time, actually the action was on the weak side, and she didn’t make as much of the plot as she could have.

    And that ending: what a letdown. See, the story is that this ancient plate of great cultural significance has been stolen from the Bank of England, and various groups are trying to get it back.

    It turns out that one of the groups consists of some sort of supernatural beings. They are a bit vampirish, but they have the traditional fear of, and vulnerability to, iron, of Faerie. They believe the plate has great power.

    There are investigations and plots; but not really very many of them. It’s very well written, as I say, but kind of lightweight.

    I see that there’s a sequel out already, so in time we might see whether her plotting skills have got any stronger.

    Book Notes 15: Appleseed, by John Clute

    This is a very, very strange book. It's strange in the spacefaring future it describes, but it's probably even stranger linguistically.

    I used to read John Clute’s book reviews in Interzone, years ago, when he reviewed there regularly,1 so linguistic strangeness was exactly what I expected when I picked this up.

    What I mean by linguistic strangeness is this: you used to have to read his reviews with a good dictionary to hand, and if you were diligent you might learn three new words in even the shortest review. His erudition was legendary, and he liked to display it. At first that used to annoy me, because it seemed that he chose willfully obscure words: he appeared to be doing no more than displaying his vocabulary for its own sake. Showing off, in other words.

    But as time went on I grew to appreciate the way he made us stretch, and I moved towards the conclusion that, yes, he had an unfeasibly large vocabulary – or was unreasonably quick to reach for the thesaurus – but he did it in order to achieve precision in meaning: why use a word that is nearly right, when there is one that is exactly right? Plus, it was part of his style, his reviewer’s voice, if you will.

    So to his first SF novel, then. It is strange. It is very, very strange. It’s a space opera set in our galaxy a few hundred years in the future. There are humans and a range of aliens, plus various sentient AIs. Much is made of the fact that humans smell: they have to keep away from other species, and avoid getting emotional when they do meet others, to keep their pheromone production under control. No other sentient species suffers from this problem, it seems. Furthermore, when humans meet each other, it is very unusual – extremely rude, even – to make eye contact.

    I don’t know if Clute is trying to tell us something about our own society, here, but it seems to me that, with the state of technology on display, something would have been done about the smell, if it was really that much of a problem. The eye-contact thing is just bizarre. Maybe (since they exist in a state of close integrations with their computers, intelligent and not) it’s a reference to the lack of direct personal contact that we get from our present interactions on the net.

    Those are relatively minor matters, though: what of the story?

    Our hero is Freer, who is a free trader, with his own ship, the Tile Dance. It is staffed solely by him and run by a sentient pair of artificial Minds: KathKirt. All AIs are bipartite; they manifest through Masks, which are said to ‘face’ ‘Jack’ or ‘Flyte’. I still don’t understand what these are supposed to mean. Did I mention that it’s a strange book?

    The galaxy is in danger from something called plaque, which appears to be a kind of plague causing a dementia-like effect in artificial Minds (and maybe in biological ones, too; that wasn’t clear). As things develop, it turns out that a passenger that Freer Has taken aboard knows the route to a legendary planet which is the source of ‘Lenses’, the only thing that can cure the data plague.

    They have to run from the forces of the Insort Geront, who want to stop them getting the Lenses. These are spacefaring luddites, in the form of multi-bodied (or at least multi-headed) quadrupeds (possibly) who are constantly eating live prey, including the younger members of their own families.

    On the way they dock at an artificial moon, which turns out to be a legendary lost world. Or something.

    There’s an awful lot going on in this book, and I can’t honestly say that I understood all of it. But it’s a fascinating read in many ways, and is worth the effort. Recommended.

    1. He may do so again: I’ve allowed my subscription to lapse in recent years, but in the latter years that I did subscribe, he had stopped reviewing there almost completely. ↩︎

    Book Notes 14: Viriconium, by M John Harrison

    This is a reissue in the Fantasy Masterworks series, of all - or nearly all - of Harrison's 'Viriconium' stories. Four of the collected works are novels (though short ones) and the rest short stories. I had read only one of them before, the last-written and last presented here: 'A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium' appeared in Interzone a long time ago. I don't think I understood it then, though: it doesn't really make much sense out of context.

    Though as it happens, the context of that one story is different from that of all the others. The others are all set in Viriconium, or in the lands that surround it. This final one is set in our world; it tells the tale of some people who dream of Viriconium, who believe that it is real, who believe that they might be able to reach it one day.

    Whether anyone would actually want to get to Viriconium if they could is another matter. It is a sort of dream city at the end of time. It has a constant feeling that the world has run down, that time is running out. Humanity has fallen from the great technological highs of the ‘Afternoon Cultures’, and now survives on scavenged technology - machines so advanced that they are still running after millennia - and on traditional crafts.

    So most of the weaponry, for example, consists of swords, but there are a few prized energy blades, or baans. People travel on horseback, or walk, to get around, especially after the last few aircars are destroyed in the War of the Two Queens, which is part of the subject matter of ‘The Pastel City’.

    Did I mention that this doesn’t belong in the Fantasy Masterworks line? Just because people fight with swords, and the technology is advanced beyond their understanding into Clarke’s (Third) Law territory, doesn’t make a book sword & sorcery. This is science fiction, where the science is breaking down; or at least, the knowledge of it is.

    Despite all the stories having been published before, there are copyright dates for only a few of them, and previous-publication details for none. Which to my mind detracts slightly from the collection.

    Also, the first story is listed as ‘Viriconium Knights’ in the contents and on its own title page, but as Viriconium Nights" (which is the title I recall having heard of before) on the copyright page. This could, of course, be deliberate, as I have a vague recollection of having heard that this is not a simple collection and republication, but that there has also been some reworking.

    It is not easy reading: it is a 500-page book, and it took me over a month to read it. Now, I’m not that fast a reader these days, but that is slow. But at no point was I thinking, “This is heavy going,” or, “I can’t be bothered with this.” Rather, it’s just that some prose styles are denser than others, and Harrison’s is dense. In a good way. Highly recommended.

    Book Notes 13: Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, by JK Rowling

    This, you won't be surprised to hear, was a re-reading. I started out reading it to my nine-year-old son. He, of course, soon zoomed ahead on his own, leaving me to finish more slowly. I think that makes it three times for him. Definitely just the two for me. And he's read it at least once more between me first drafting this post and finally getting round to publishing it.

    So, how is it? In particular, how does it hold up to a re-reading? The short answers are “great” and “really well”.

    I’m a sucker for Rowling’s work, an unashamed big fan. And obviously, I wouldn’t have been reading it again if I hadn’t liked it the first time.

    So, yeah, it’s great. Probably not the best of the series (though I’m not sure I could say what that is), but not the worst, either.

    I have a view on the major plot spoiler, but I won’t go into that here. Suffice to say that I’m largely convinced by the arguments of the site whose very domain name is a spoiler (though I see that it has changed its name, now).

    What with Harry Potter, the Lemony Snicket books, the Artemis Fowl books and others, we are truly living through a golden age of children’s literature (or at least, publishing).

    I was surprised, when I asked my son whether he was more eagerly awaiting “Seven or Thirteen,” that he said, “Thirteen.” Perhaps he sensed that Mr Snicket would be finished before Ms Rowling; and it turns out that he was right: the final adventure of the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans is coming out next month (on Friday the thirteenth, suitably enough.

    Book Notes 12: The Last Temptation, by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli

    The last of my three recent graphic borrowings from the library, and the one I expected to like most. But it's a bit lightweight for Gaiman's work, and for my taste.

    It’s based on work that Gaiman did with Alice Cooper for a concept album that the latter released in 1994. I didn’t know that people still made concept albums, but there you go.

    Also there is one theme in particular that Gaiman was to revisit in American Gods; namely that of the town where children disappear periodically. In American Gods the periodic disappearance (and murder, let’s face it) of the child acts a kind of spell, which protects a town from the encroachment of the rest of the world and the forces of modernity and ‘development’. In this work, there’s no suggestion that the children’s absorption into the ‘Theater of the Real’ brings advantage to anyone other than the the semi-mythical ‘Showman’. Gaiman was perhaps using this work to develop some of the ideas that he would return to later.

    There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but as I say, the work as a whole seems shallow and perhaps incomplete, compared to, say, The Sandman.

    Book Notes 11: The Originals, by Dave Gibbons

    More graphical stuff from the library. Quadrophenia with hover-bikes and -scooters. It’s beautifully drawn, and well-enough told, but really, why?

    There is literally no other technological change. Oh, there might be differences in the materials of the clothes, of the contents of the pills: but the look is pure 1965 – or 1965-as-remade-in-1979. I really don’t see what the point of this was.

    Book Notes 10: Skizz, by Alan Moore and Jim Baikie

    The local library is proving a great source of graphic fiction at the moment. Another early-early Moore, one of which I had heard, but had definitely not read.

    It is Moore’s interpretation of a theme that was then very common, the alien lost on Earth. It wears its debt to ET quite openly: one of the characters even referring to the film for inspiration in how to deal with the alien.

    That said, it’s entirely possible that Moore developed it without prior knowledge of the film: it wasn’t a new idea when ET used it.

    Skizz is a gentle, heartwarming tale of respect between intelligent beings, regardless of difference. A human girl meets the “other”, and finds he is not so “other” at all.

    And it has a genuinely nasty and scary baddie, and reconciliation between generations. Highly recommended.

    Book notes 8: The Complete DR and Quinch, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

    I found this in the local library. I thought I hadn’t read it, but I remember reading the ‘Something something, oranges something’ episode (AKA ‘DR and Quinch go to Hollywood’) back when I was at university in the 80s. I expect they were reprinted by one of the American companies (possibly coloured in?) and I got some of them.

    This is early-early Alan Moore, and of course is nowhere near the quality of his later-early work such as V for Vendetta or Watchmen, or his more recent work like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it’s quite fun.

    As a parent of young kids, though, I now see it as surprisingly violent. Not that I’d censor it, or anything: just that it’s something I’m more aware of. Or aware of in a different way. Back when I was a student I’d probably have celebrated the violence for its wild- and cartoon-ness.

    Indeed, I discovered that the book used — presumably coined — the term ‘napalm dispenser’, which I borrowed for a round-robin work that I was involved in back in my university days, and which had hilarious, and nearly calamitous results. I should probably write a blog post about that one day. It involved cucumbers.