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. ↩︎
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.
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.
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.
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.
A retelling of a Japanese folk tale, this. A monk lives alone in a very minor and secluded temple. He falls in love with a fox, who has taken the form of a woman at the time. and who tries to get him to leave the temple with her. When he is attacked via his dreams, she tries to protect him.
Although presented in the physical form of a modern graphic novel, this is actually a prose short story with full-page (and two-page) illustrations.
It’s very fine, but at the same time, a long way from essential, in my humble opinion.
[tags]book notes 2006, books, Gaiman, sandman, comics, graphic novels[/tags]
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.
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.
This is a strange one. Moore (Alan) has,as I understand it, started up his own line of comics, called ‘America’s Best Comics’. A strange name, too, for a guy living in Northampton, but hey, maybe it helps them to sell in Peoria (wherever that is).
Tom Strong is a kind of Doc Savage/Tom Swift figure. The stories are kind of fifties/sixties futurist styled. They’re not that good, unfortunately. In, of course, my humble opinion. Even the ones written by Moore (there are several other writers) aren’t up to his usual high standards.
A curiosity. Though I notice that there is a range of other Tom Strong books, so maybe there’s more to it all than would seem from this.
[tags]book notes 2006, books, comics, Alan Moore, Tom Strong, America’s Best Comics[/tags]
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.
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.
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.
This is a very, very strange book. It's strange in the spacefaring future it describes, but it's probably even stranger linguistically.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I found this in the local library, having never heard of it before. It is a relatively recently-published (2000) collection containing some of his short fiction, some essays, and some interviews he did with people as diverse as Isaac Asimov and Woody Allen.
The title is, of course, a reference to his famous novel The Demolished Man, and appears to have been chosen mainly because the ‘deleted’ prologue to that novel is included here.
The non-fiction is interesting, not least in showing part of what Bester did for a living after he more-or-less dropped out of SF for a long time (he made most of his money by writing for TV).
The fiction, on the whole, is slightly disappointing. I enjoyed it well enough, but it hasn’t aged well: most of it reads as quite dated.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the stories was the one which taught me the meaning of the word “fugue” (both musical and psychological) many years ago. I recalled that I had learned it from a story, but not what story it was: ‘The Four-Hour Fugue’. Who said SF wasn’t educational?
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.
(I haven’t stopped reading, nor writing these notes: I just haven’t got round to posting them, for various reasons).
I actually started reading this back in October last year, but, it being a collection of short stories, I took it slowly, over months. Since I finished it this year, it belongs in my 2006 Book Notes.
Before I get much further I should declare an interest: one of the editors, Andrew, is an old university friend of mine.
So it might come as no surprise that I am more impressed by the very existence of this boook than by its content. Which is not to dismiss or belittle the content. There are some very good stories here, by some top authors and fine newcomers. But the overall sense of it is less than overwhelming.
Perhaps the most surprising letdown is a sin of omission: where is Scotland’s most famous SF author; indeed, probably its most famous living author? No doubt the good Mr Banks has other things to do — I doubt that he writes short stories at all, these days — but you’d think he could have done an introduction or something.
The introduction in fact is by David Pringle, the former editor of Interzone: I had no idea that he was even Scottish. But there you go: we get everywhere.
I’m not going to go through all the stories, just hit a few high and low points.
In a way the most disappointing story is Hal Duncan‘s ‘The Last Shift’. Not because it’s badly written or anything. Rather, because it’s not SF, fantasy, or speculative in any way. It’s a sadly-commonplace tale of the last day of a factory whose company is “outsourcing” or “offshoring” all the work. The fact that the characters all have wings and horns like the demons of our world’s mythology (and that the location doesn’t exist in our world) neither adds anything to it nor detracts from it in anyway: those factors are just irrelevant.
Which is a shame. I’m a keen reader of Hal’s blog, and look forward to reading his first novel, Vellum (I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve so far been put off buying it by the price: it’s a full-price hardback at £17:99, and that just seems a bit too much for an essentially unkown author).
The high points for me are probably ‘Sophie and the Sacred Fluids’ by Andrew C Ferguson (another disclaimer: I also had a passing acquaintance with this Andrew); ‘Deus ex Homine’, by Hannu Rajaniemi; and ‘Snowball’s Chance’, by Charles Stross.
In conclusion, I’m very glad it exists, and I’m glad I read it; but I hope the next volume, if it happens, is better.
[tags]books, book notes 2006, nova scotia, sf, scotland, science fiction, scottish fiction, scottish literature, scottish sf, scottish writing[/tags]
This is an interesting one: another Booker nominee, if I’m not very much mistaken, and a strange and masterful work. It is a portrait of a single day in the life of its protagonist, one Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon.
For a large part of the novel there is essentially no plot as such. Indeed you could probably argue that the whole thing has no plot; though things happen early in the day that have consequences later in the day. But despite the exiling of plot — of story itself, you might say — to the background, this is an immensely compelling work.
Such is the quality of the writing (I can only assume: I can’t honestly say that I understand how he does it) that the small and largely insignificant actions of one man and his family, and the musings of that man (it is a third-person narrative, but with only a single viewpoint; it is exclusively focalised on/through Perowne) command the attention and require the turning of pages.
This is great, really great; and the characters are endearing enough that I want to know what happened to them afterwards: indeed, what is still happening to them now.
Everything I’ve ever read about this book makes quite a big thing of the Saturday in question being the one of the big anti-(Iraq) war demo in London (and around the world). But in fact that is only really a very minor physical background to an early chapter. Certainly it provides fuel for Perowne’s thoughts, and for a heated discussion with his daughter; but the fact of it happening on that day is not really significant. Which makes me wonder whether he only did it as an attention-grabbing device, much as Banksie did when he set the first chapter of Dead Air on the 11th of September, 2001. Still, there’s nothing wrong with grabbing the reader’s attention, as long as the device is integrated fully into the story, and doesn’t jar with the narrative: and such is the case here.
[tags]books, book notes 2006, reviews, this year’s reading, ian mcewan, “Saturday”, booker nominees[/tags]
I read a review of this book in The Guardian years ago (this one, I think). It sounded absolutely fantastic, and I’ve wanted to read it ever since. But I only got round to buying it recently.
I was aware, of course, of the danger of approaching a work with unreasonably-raised expectations, so I tried not to. You can’t make yourself think “This won’t be very good,” when you actually think, “This should be pretty good.” The trick, therefore, is to convince yourself to have a slight seed of doubt. I’m not totally sure how well that can ever work, though.
I did enjoy the book, however: it starts with a light, easy style, and has an endearing central character in Sumire.
The unnamed (though referred to in the back-cover blurb as “K”) narrator is a slightly-annoying, madly-but-unrequitedly in love with Sumire figure. They met at university. Sumire dropped out to write; the narrator went on to become a schoolteacher.
Shortly after the start of the book, Sumire, who has until then seemed largely devoid of any sexual or romantic feelings, falls in love with an older, married, woman; who then gives her a job as her PA. Sumire’s love is also unrequited; indeed, unspoken.
It’s when they go on a business trip to Europe, which culminates in a holiday on a Greek island, that something strange happens.
It is a curious book. It’s hard to work out what is supposed to have happened to Sumire. It is, until then, so much a realist novel that it is hard to believe that the apparently-fantastic, dream world sequence that is all the explanation we get, is meant to be taken literally.
Then when the narrator, having gone to Greece to help find out what happened to Sumire, returns home to Japan, there is an apparently-unrelated section concerning one of his pupils. He has been having a sexual relationship with the pupil’s mother, so when the boy gets into trouble, she calls him to help. This section really appears to have no connection to the rest of the story,, and no bearing on what happened to Sumire.
So while I enjoyed reading it, on looking back over it, it seems that it is deeply flawed. Or maybe I’m flawed, because I failed to fully understand it.
I expected that it would inspire me to read more of his work, but it hasn’t: or not yet, at least.
But I hadn’t actually read the book until now. I had read the first chapter online, and I had an idea roughly what it was about: real gods (maybe all gods) walking the Earth in the present day.
And it’s a stormer of a book. The pages just keep turning, the quotes are quotable (girl-Sam’s “I believe” speech is particularly fine) and myths are mashed up in glorious style.
It’s shortcomings are, perhaps, that it slows down a bit too much in the middle section; and Wednesday and Shadow make perhaps too many visits to down-at-heel gods without anything very specific happening during them. It reads like a road movie in places (which is fine), and it would probably make a good one.
There are surprises right up to the end, though, and I’m sure I’ll read it again in the future.
Cory Doctorow’s third novel is his best so far; and it’s strange. Really, really strange.
It is the story of a man whose father is a mountain and whose mother is a washing machine. These are not metaphors.
Or perhaps they are. If so, though then the whole book is a metaphor, and I’m not entirely sure for what.
Since Alan (or Adam, or Albert, or Aaron) is very different from other people (he doesn’t have a navel, for one very minor thing) it could be seen as about alienation. Alan, however, is not particularly alienated.
His brothers are a different matter, though.
Each of the five is given a name starting with the next letter of the alphabet after the previous brother’s; but they are not called constantly by this name, either by each other or by the narrator. Instead, they are called by a seemingly-randomly-chosen name starting with ‘their’ letter of the alphabet. There seems no real purpose to it. If it is intended to emphasise the brothers’ ‘otherness’, then it does so: but not enough.
As well as that, each brother has a unique characteristic. Billy, Buddy, Bob (etc) can see the future. Charlie is an island. Davey is twisted, damaged and dangerous. And Ed, Fred and George are a sort of composite being, living inside each other like Russian dolls.
Not surprisingly, one of the subplots centres on one of Cory’s real-world interests: building a free, community-supported wireless network across the city (his native Toronto, in this case). In a way, that subplot doesn’t really mesh very well with the fantastical story: but it does provide a backdrop for it, and it shows that Alan has a life outside of his weird family.
And there’s a woman with wings. Read it for yourself. It’s quite amazing, and like his other books, available for free download under a Creative Commons licence.
Yes, and only a day after the last one. It took me a bit longer than that to read it, mind you.
A science-fiction book that was nominated for the Booker: amazing. And have no doubt about it: this is a science-fiction book. Just as Nineteen Eighty Four is; and Orwell’s masterpiece is perhaps the best reference point for Cloud Atlas. The appearance of
O’Brien’s Goldstein‘s book within Winston Smith’s story may well have been a model for Mitchell’s multiply-embedded stories.
And like Nineteen Eighty Four, Cloud Atlas is ultimately a bleak vision, though it contains many life-affirming moments on its way.
The interleaved narratives spread across the history and future history of civilisation, from Victorian missionaries ‘civilising’ the ‘savages’ of Polynesia, to the Hawaian islanders after the fall of civilisation, trying desperately to hold on to the ‘Smart’ of the ‘Old’uns’.
Each story contains a reference to the the one in which it is immediately embedded, and there are echoes and references across various of the layers: probably many more than I got on a first reading.
Mitchell’s command of the different styles is good, though there are one or two places where it slips, and where you wonder how reliable the narrators are.
I found it slow to get going, though: at first I put this down to not being terribly engaged with the Victorian opening section. Then I thought it was just pacing: the speed of the segments increases, it seems to me, as you work towards the centre. But on the way back out I found the final section, back in the Victorian journals, just less interesting than any of the others. I find the idea of historical novels deeply uninteresting, so we probably have a common theme there.
Also related to the “is it genre” question is this curiousity: in the section entitled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, the title character’s dead father is called Lester. Lester Rey. Sounds an awful lot like Lester del Rey, the science fiction writer and editor. Of, course, it may mean nothing: but writers don’t choose characters’ names for nothing, and it sems likely to me that you would at least check that the major characters’ names don’t relate to any real people. So perhaps Mitchell is suggesting something.
But all of this matters little. What does matter is that this is a damn fine book.