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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Adverbs, by Daniel Handler (Books 2008, 16)

Mr Handler operating under his own name, here, rather than his Snicket nom de plume. As such, this is a novel for adults, rather than children.

Though in fact, is it even a novel at all? It is in fact more of series of short stories, or even vignettes. They are linked, or at least related to each other, but it’s not always obvious how.

The same characters recur throughout, though in different combinations. Or at least, the same character names. It’s not at all clear that, where a name recurs, it is meant to be the same person. Indeed, the author says as much in his blurb.

The main link between them all is that they are all in some way or another about love. In fact, a better title might be something like, ‘A Series of Tales About Love’, or even, ‘A Series of Loving Events’. The title comes from Handler’s assertion that, essentially, “it’s not what we do, it’s how we do it”, and the fact that each of the stories (or chapters) has an adverbal title: ‘Particularly’, ‘Briefly’, ‘Not Particularly’, and so on.

It all gets a bit meta in the middle, where Handler breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly.

And it has a soundtrack album, in two senses: throughout the book, there are references to bands and songs, so you could construct a suitable playlist from that. But given Handler’s alternative career as a musician and member of The Magnetic Fields, the album to play while reading it is undoubtedly their 69 Love Songs. You’ll find many themes in common and overlap between book and album.

All in all it’s thoroughly enjoyable, but doesn’t really go anywhere - it doesn’t have a plot, after all - and is kind of inconclusive.

American Flagg episodes 1-30 (and special 1), by Howard Chaykin and others (Books 2008, 15)

I came upon these when I was digging out some old comics for my son. These are not for eleven-year-olds, but I realised I hadn't read them in years, and I thought I'd see how they had aged (plus, I remembered next to nothing about the story).

The story is not bad, but not that great. In a post-collapse America, corruption and gang violence are rife, and the government (perhaps all the governments of the world) have left Earth, and are still ruling (or trying to) from Mars. On Earth the law - and to some extent, the peace - is kept by the Plexus Rangers. Or rather, as you eventually realise, the PlexUS Rangers, since there are also PlexUSSR Rangers. The Plex is the overall world government. Or something.

Reuben Flagg was a video star (ie TV or movie: there’s a lot about ‘video’ here, but it’s pretty much all broadcast stuff) on Mars. He played the eponymous ‘Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger’. But new technology has made actors unnecessary, and he has volunteered as a Plexus Ranger and been sent to Earth, to Chicago.

He is the one (relatively) good man in a corrupt environment, and with the help of a clumsy android, a talking cat, and various women in their underwear, he tries to keep things under control.

Oh yes, the underwear thing: Chaykin is unable, it seems to draw women wearing anything other than basques, stockings and suspenders. No matter what they’re doing, pretty much. There’s nothing like wearing your fetishes on your sleeve, I suppose. Or, you know, lower down.

Halting State, by Charles Stross (Books 2008, 13)

Posted out of sequence, for reasons unknown even to me.

Writing about this novel is kind of embarassing for me, because I had the chance to make it better than it is, and I, er, blew it because I read too slowly.

See, I was on quite a large list of people who saw a draft version of this, a year or two ago. I read most of it (or all of it, but it was incomplete, I can’t quite remember) and noted some mistakes and flaws.

But I didn’t get them all recorded properly and submitted to Charlie before the deadline. And now, when I read the published version, I find they’re all still there.

There’s nothing dramatic, nothing plot-shattering (although there are one or two places where things could be clearer, and where the cracks aren’t fully papered over: you can see where a section has been moved for dramatic purposes, but the knowledge of the protagonists hasn’t been adjusted to mark the events' new location in the overall plot, for example). It’s mainly just niggles, misuses of terminology (school years called ‘primary third’, and ‘secondary two’, instead of ‘primary three’ and ‘second year’, respectively, for example). So, just some minor distractions. And the spelling of ‘dreich’ as ‘dreicht’ throughout is curious.

But no matter. Much more interesting are the questions of how well the multiple-viewpoint second person narration works; and is the story any good?

On the first point, I had no trouble with the second-person narrative at all, and it being multiple-person is effectively no different from any other book that does that. There is rarely any confusion, not least because each chapter includes the VP character’s name as part of its title.

The story is interesting, and it investigates an area - that of security in our increasingly-networked world - that is very important, and will only get more so in the near future. But I’m not, in all honesty, sure that it really works. The various parts don’t quite gel.

And yet, I enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed being on the trip, I just look back at it and think, “It wasn’t that great."

Lazarus Churchyard: The Final Cut, by Warren Ellis and D'Israeli (Books 2008, 14)

Hmmm, once again I try a Warren Ellis, and find that it's not as good as I expected, or hoped. 'Good', that is, in the sense of 'exciting, dramatic, interesting'. I didn't dislike it, and the story was OK; but it never really caught fire, you know?

Still, it was his debut, so maybe the thing is to try some of his later work (I should also add that, at the time of publishing, if not the time of reading or writing, I am regularly reading and enjoying FreakAngels).

I should probably mention the artwork, not least since I met the artist at Eastercon. It’s similar, actually, in that, while it’s perfectly fine, I kind of hoped it would be better. I couldn’t say that there’s anything wrong with it: you can always tell what’s going on, for example. I think maybe it’s that the style is a bit too cartoonish for the material.

The eponymous Lazarus is four hundred years old, and as far as he knows, immortal and indestructible, by virtue of some large percentage of his body having been replaced with smart plastics. He’s the only one in this condition, though, and he’s not happy about it. The main driver of the plot is his desire to die; or at least, we are led to understand that this will be the main driver. In fact it’s not, and each episode within the overall work has its own antagonism.

There’s a lot of extreme violence and brutality, some interesting ideas, but it’s sadly unmemorable.

Veniss Underground, by Jeff Vandermeer (Books 2008, 12)

I bought this in a second-hand bookshop, and tucked into the back there was a cutting from The Guardian of this review by Michael Moorcock. So go and look there if you want a plot summary: he does it much better then I could.

It’s an interesting, dark story, and I’m not totally sure how I feel about it. It straddles the SF/fantasy divide, at least in the sense that it is set in the far future, there are hints of spaceflight being common, and there is much genetic and somatic manipulation; but there are also talking animals.

Of course, the talking animals (mainly meerkats) are enabled by the genetic engineering, so really it’s unabashedly SF. However, Shadrach’s descent into the literal underworld of the levels below the city are straight out of mythology. And the description of the organ bank, while striking, are just fanciful to the point of unbelievability.

It’s the first thing I’ve read by Vandermeer, and while I enjoyed it, it doesn’t immediately make me want to go out and read more. That said, his City of Saints and Madmen does attract me, if only because it’s such a great title. I keep hearing (well, reading) people referring to him recently, so I don’t doubt that he’s got a lot to offer.

ThiGMOO, by Eugene Byrne (Books 2008, 11)

This is, in effect, a [Singularity]( story, though a rather gentle, slightly comic one.

The AIs that gain self-awareness and seek to achieve independence and change the world, start out as part of an educational project called the Museum of the Mind. In this construct there are a number of simulations of figures from history (mostly fictional, like the victorian prostitute). School pupils, students, researchers and others can interrogate them about life in their time.

It’s interesting that Byrne has them start to gain self-awareness after their systems get infected with a religious program: a virus that tries to ‘convert’ them to Mormonism. I don’t know whether Byrne is trying to tell us that religion is necessary for self-awareness, or if it just seems like a useful trigger to give the programs some extra input and start them asking questions.

Anyway, one of the erams, as they are called (electronic recreation of a mindstate) is based on an early-20th-century socialist activist. Shocked at the apparent absence of socialism in the world he sees outside the computer networks, he organises his fellow erams, and sets out to change the world (and protect their very existence along the way). The title stands for “This Great Movement Of Ours”, which was once a common phrase in speeches by Labour activists, apparently.

It’s good fun, if lightweight. It was published in 1999; I wonder what’s happened to Eugene Byrne since then?

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket (Books, 2008, 10)

This is actually thirteen books, not just one. I've been reading it with my son over a period of several months. He, of course, had already read it, but we like reading together, and I was keen to know the rest of the story, after seeing the film (which is based on the events of the first three books).

Anyway, we finally got to the end, and, while I enjoyed it, I think that Mr Snicket has the not uncommon problem of difficulty with endings.

Or maybe not: he left lots (and lots, and lots) of loose ends flying. But that might be deliberate, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But he seeds so many clues and events throughout the first twelve books that, starting the thirteenth, you wonder how he’s going to bring them all together, and then - he just doesn’t.

Part of the narrative concerns the fact that stories don’t really have starts and finishes, and that a relatively inconsequential moment in your life could be the start or end of someone else’s story, and so on. All very well, but I get the sense that he rather tacked that on to excuse the lack of an ending.

That said, it’s a great story if you’re reading to kids who love language (or if you’re reading it yourself and do); though some, I’m sure, would get annoyed with his repeated “… which is a phrase which here means…” riff, or some of his other running gags. Me, I loved it.

Most importantly, the three Baudelaire orphans are engaging characters: smart, kind, wise (and noble enough) children, caught up in a world of sadness and madness, where almost all the adults who aren’t out to get them are too stupid to help them.

Adults don’t come out of A Series of Unfortunate Events at all well, in fact. Those that aren’t stupid are evil. Those that are neither tend to end up dead, or disappeared. And everyone gets betrayed, and their hearts broken.

Am I telling too much, here? Probably not: Lemony warns us, right from the blurb on The Bad Beginning: if you’re looking for a happy tale, there are plenty of others on the shelves.

While Mr Snicket tries to discourage reading these terrible books at every turn, though, they come highly recommended by me.

A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest (Books 2008, 9)

This is the motherlode of all brains-in-jars/life-is-a-computer-simulation-type stories. Gibson's and the Wachowskis' Matrixes can both trace their origins back to here - or at least, they should be able to. I'm not aware of anything older than this that quite deals with this idea.

At Maiden Castle in Dorchester in the near future (of the time the book was written; it’s now our near past) a scientific research project has been under way for several years. It involves ‘projection’, in which the particpants, their bodies unconscious, enter into a shared, simulated fantasy world. This consensus hallucination was intended to examine a possible future, with a view to suggesting answers to some of the problems of today.

But one of the participants has been stuck in the projection for two years (when the normal period is measured in weeks or a few months at the most); the trustees are getting worried about the costs; and a new participant is about to arrive and change everything.

It is excellent, and (of course) leaves you wondering how many levels of fantasy there are to reality - both the book’s, and ours.

The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest (Books 2008, 8)

What a fine conceit. Take the two great science fiction works by one of the genre's defining masters, mash them up together, and use the result to tell the 'inside' story of both of them.

It’s title is an obvious allusion to The Time Machine, but this is actually much more rooted in The War of the Worlds. And why shouldn’t those two novels take place in the same fictive universe? And why shouldn’t they be linked? After all, Mr Wells wrote both the stories down, so he must have experienced some of the events of both, right?

Priest sustains the tone and style of a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century novel admirably well, and there’s not much to fault in this novel.

Except, perhaps, for the ending. The actual climax and conclusion of the story is well expected if you know The War of the Worlds. It’s just the last page or two; the rationale for the behaviour of one of the characters (a Mr Wells, in fact) in particular is, to my mind, inexplicable. Not that it matters, that late in the story, I suppose, but it does bother me.

I wish I had known about this novel a few years back, when I read both The Time Machine and Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships. It would have sat very well in company with them.

Newton's Wake: A Space Opera, by Ken MacLeod (books 2008, 7)

A scorching, searing cyberpunk space opera. It has _everything_ in it: FTL starships, uploaded minds, nanotech, the Singularity, wormhole gateways... Absolutely stunning stuff.

Though on the downside, I did find it bit hard to follow some of the plot twists and turns. Specifically, it wasn’t always immediately obvious to me why some of the alliances and disputes between the various factions happened. I expect a more careful reading, or retracing of my steps, would have resolved those difficulties. But such was the pace of the plot that I didn’t want to.

I loved some of the terminology. Travelling faster than light, for example, is called ‘fittling’ (from FTL). The technological singularity is called the ‘hard rapture’. I especially like that Ken has grabbed the term ‘Rapture’ from the weirdo fundamentalists christians who believe Jesus is going to come back and sweep them all up to heaven. The Googleplex (for example) becoming self-aware and sucking up everyone’s mindstate is far more likely, if you ask me. Which is not saying a lot about its likelihood…

One of the groupings of humanity that have survived through the hard rapture, and remain players on galactic stage, are called the Carlyles. They started out as a Glasgow gang, basically. They were based in something called ‘The Castle on the Clyde’, which I’d like to hear more about. Then there’s AO: America Offline. They didn’t get uploaded because they weren’t connected to the net.

This means that the two main dialects of the language everyone speaks are called ‘American’ and ‘English’; but the ‘English’ is rendered partly in Scots. Good fun.

I haven’t read any of Ken’s stuff for a while (aside from his blog, obviously). That’s a situation I need to put right forthwith. But first I think I should go back to the start, and dig The Star Fraction out of the attic.

Identity and letdown in The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall (books 2008, 6)

Eric Sanderson wakes without his memories. In short order he starts receiving messages apparently sent by his former self, is told by his psychiatrist not to read any such messages, and starts reading them - in the wrong order, which leaves him unready for the trouble that is about to assail him.

He is attacked by a ‘conceptual shark’: a living, sentient creature that is composed of ideas, of thoughts, of words; and that swims in the sea of information that surrounds us. This is the creature that took his memories. It eats such information, and fixates on a victim, and will keep coming back to attack them again and again.

So the messages from “the first Eric Sanderson” tell him. Fortunately they also give him some tools and techniques to protect himself, and information about someone who might be able to help him.

So eventually he sets out on a quest to find the mysterious Trey Fidorous. That’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot summary (it covers probably a quarter of the book).

It’s an interesting idea, that creatures composed of pure information, of ideas, can exist and can do us harm. We’re well into SF territory here, without wanting to hegemonise, and irrespective of the fact that it’s marketed as mainstream literary fiction (why, I’ve often wondered, don’t people talk about “li-fi”, or “cri-fi”, or even “hi-fi”? Why is SF so special that it gets its own disparaging abbreviation?) There was real justification for including this work in the Clarke Awards shortlist (sadly I haven’t read any of the others on the list). We are plunged into a world of infinite strangeness and difference (even though it stands alongside the world we are familiar with). We have to hang on for the ride and pick things up as we go along. These are standard, recognised characteristics of much SF.

Which may be neither here nor there, really; unless how we classify a work affects how we approach it, how we read it. And I think it’s true that it does: if you approach Iain Banks’s The Bridge, for example, as SF (it’s a ‘non-M’, so it was marketed as mainstream), then you’ll get quite a different effect from the scenes on the bridge, and with the barbarian; at least allowing for the possibility that those events actually happened in some sense, in some reality. As opposed to the assumption that they were ‘only’ the deranged fantasy of a mind in a coma, which is of course the only ‘mainstream’ reading.

We are in a similar situation here. Eric’s psychiatrist thinks that he might be going into a fugue state; and clearly something has happened to his mind. But Eric has experienced the attack of the Ludovician (the name of the particular type of conceptual fish that attacked him) and he believes throughout that what is happening is real. And all through the quest, and the love story and the fight scenes, he believes it. And so does the author, apparently.

And so do we.


Except, except.

Right on the second last page, Hall undermines it all. After the narrative has finished there are a couple of pages of extra material before the ‘undex’ (the point of which I’m not sure about).

The first of these pulls the rug out from under us, and dumps us more or less into “he woke up and it was all a dream” territory. Or didn’t wake up. It’s a bit like Sam Tyler at the end of Life on Mars, except there it was more or less clearly stated all the way through that he was in a coma: you just didn’t want it to be so.

The present work is less honest, in a way, since there really is no suggestion that what Eric is experiencing might not be ‘real’. Sure, it’s always there as a possibility, but I’d have to say,“What’s the point?”, really. Why would you bother to write a story that, in the internal logic of that story, all took place in the head of its protagonist, and didn’t do anything to help the protagonist, or illuminate his life, or help him to come to terms with something?

As such, this is ultimately disappointing: it’s a great ride, spoiled by the ending.

Although, a further twist occurs to me, a couple of months after reading it. If the rug-pulling element were not there, you could say, then we would have a fantasy-happy ending, like the fake ending in Brazil. That’s never a good thing, of course, but the difference remains this: in Brazil, the false ending was tacked on (or it would have been if the ‘real’ ending hadn’t superseded it). Here, the ending grows naturally out of all that has gone before. If everything was in his imagination, then fine, so was the ending. But if everything was ‘really’ happening to him, then the ending is legitimate in that context, and the additional material subverts it for no good reason.

The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R Delany (Books 2008, 5)

Or, 'A Fabulous, Formless Darkness', which was Delany's original preferred title, according to Neil Gaiman (him again?) in his introduction to this edition.

Delany writes twisty puzzle-stories, where it’s not always clear what’s going on, or why. I’m a big fan of his later masterpiece, Dhalgren, which matches that description, for example.

This one is more straightforward by comparison. It is Earth’s far future. Humans have gone, and the world is instead inhabited by an alien race. They have taken over, not just the planet, but humanity’s identity, its myths, even its genetics. And they are struggling to be human.

Or that, at least, is what we are told. That is what our hero, Lo Lobey, believes, what the elders of his village have taught him. But personally, I’m not convinced.

See, there’s nothing here that requires that the characters be aliens; they behave just as humans would, in most cases. Far-future, post-fall humans, yes, but still they could be humans. Sure, Lobey has prehensile toes, there are various other physical differences, and there is a neuter (or hermaphrodite, it’s not clear) ‘third sex’; but none of that is anything that a bit of genetic manipulation - deliberate, accidental, or a combination of the two - couldn’t cause. And there are some psychic abilities, but that is well within humanity’s capabilities in thousands of stories, of course.

More importantly, they feel like humans. As Gaiman says, “they are us.”

There is one element that is more alien, though. That is the curious character of Kid Death, and his (and perhaps some other characters') apparent ability to bring back the dead at will. The latter could be illusion, of course, and would then be in keeping with the psychic powers I mentioned above.

Why does this matter, you might ask? Why do I care whether these people are aliens or advanced-and-fallen humans? In one sense it doesn’t matter, of course. You can enjoy the story while taking the explanation for its background at face value. But there is, to me, something unsatisfying about the “aliens who have taken on the characteristics of humans” explanation. It is too unexplained.

Not that we can or should expect everything to be explained in SF (or not at first, at least); and in Delany’s work this low expectation is perhaps lower than in most. Certainly Dhalgren, for example, gives few clues as to what is going on, or how things have got to where they are (it occurs to me, in fact, that it could be set in the same world as the present story).

To have a story about such an alien race, with no examination of what they were like before they took on the role of humanity, or why they did it, seems a curious choice. But I suppose we could see it as a demonstration of true alienness: there is no explanation of why they behave as they do because we simply could not understand their rationale.

And I think that’s the explanation I like best.

British Summer Time, by Paul Cornell (Books 2008, 4)

Paul Cornell wrote some of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who's recent years: 'Father's Day', and the 'Human Nature'/'Family of Blood' two-parter. After the latter, I downloaded and read the ebook of his original novel (on which the episodes were based). So I came to this with some knowledge of his writing.

But not with so much knowledge of his religious beliefs. I had some sense – from reading his blog, presumably – that he was religious, at least in a vague, Church-of-Englandy sort of way; but I didn’t expect, on picking this up, that it would have such a religious heart (or maybe ‘soul’ would be more appropriate).

Though I’m not sure that the Archbishop of Canterbury would quite approve – and I’m absolutely sure the Pope would not – of the theology.

It’s a fine story of a woman who can read the patterns of the world around her, a space pilot from the future (but is it ‘our’ future?), a disembodied head, and four mysterious ‘golden men’, who might be angels, might be the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, or might be something else. It’s an easy read, and I recommend it.

But does the religion get in the way of the story? No, not really; though it was something of a distraction at times for this atheist. It’s by no means preachy; indeed, you could argue that the religious interpretation of the events in the story is a misinterpretation. Though since that interpretation is the author’s, that would depend on where you stand on the whole postmodern thing about the author being irrelevant, and the reader entering into a dialogue with the text.

The question for me on a personal note is, would I have approached it differently - or read it at all - if I had known about the religious content before I started it?

The answer is, I would have approached it differently. And, if I hadn’t known the author’s work, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.

By saying that, I’m convicting myself of being likely to prejudge religiously-inspired fiction; well, yes, guilty as charged. Just as I’m likely to prejudge romantic fiction, literary fiction, heroic fantasy, and so on. We don’t approach anything in a vacuum, after all. Our past experiences, our expectations, colour our understanding and appreciation of any art. And we all have our preferences.

Still, if I had known, and rejected this, I’d have missed out on something worthwhile. So that’s worth bearing in mind.

Old Man's War, by John Scalzi (Books 2008, 3)

I've been reading Scalzi's [blog (Whatever...)]( on and off for a few years, and he comes across as one of the good guys: certainly on the side of light, a good laugh, and someone you imagine would be fun to meet. So I've been meaning to read his SF for a while.

My thanks to his publishers, Tor, then, for making his debut available via their free ebooks programme. I read most of it on the Eee PC, with some bits on my phone (when I was standing up on the tube).

In short, I loved it; though I have some doubts, or reservations.

It’s a curious universe (or at least, galaxy) that he describes: it is teeming with life, intelligent life; but nearly all of it is antithetical to nearly all of the rest of it. Certainly, it is a book about war (the clue’s in the title); but it’s not one war between humanity and another alien race. Instead it’s a series of small wars to defend human colonies from alien attackers, and to attack alien colonies and capture the planets for humans. And once our hero joins up, he is constantly at war; there is no respite, at least that we hear of.

And only one, minor, character questions this state of affairs (though others do express their doubts).

I have a feeling, though, that these questions may be addressed in the sequels, which I’m keen to read (more proof, were it needed, that giving things away can be a good thing for authors and publishers alike).

The ‘old-man’s’ bit is that you can only join up when you reach 75 years of age. You relinquish your Earth-nation’s citizenship and are legally considered dead. Members of the Colonial Defense Force can never return to Earth.

But to make up for that, you get a new youthful body, and (if you make it through your tour of duty) the opportunity to have a new life on a colony planet. The Colonial powers being technologically far in advance of Earth (which has become a bit of a backwater), there is not similar life-extension technology available to those on Earth.

So you can see the temptation. Peaceful soul that I am, I can imagine that I might take up the offer. Life is better than the alternative, you know?

The Hidden Family, by Charles Stross (Books 2008, 2)

Volume 2 (or the second half of volume 1, depending on how you look at it) of Charlie's 'Merchant Princes' series.

It continues the story of Miriam Beckstein and her recently-discovered alternative-universe family of ‘world-walkers’. In this one, Miriam discovers that (not surprisingly) there is more than one alternative Earth, and takes advantage of that fact.

Two things bother me about all this, though. One is that at no point, it seems, does she or anyone else do any investigation into the world-walking ability, or the designs of the talismans that make it work. Though I have reason to believe that that point gets addressed in a later book.

The other problem I have is just how capable Miriam is. She’s a can-do hero in the Heinlein – even in the Doc Smith – mold. Which is all very well, and all kudos to Charlie for making such a figure a woman, rather than the ubiquitous men created by those illustrious earlier writers. But those characters were never very believable, and we live in more sophisticated times now, do we not? So it’s hard to believe in someone relatively ordinary who finds themself in another universe, and who just copes. Indeed, not just copes, but prospers.

On the other hand, I’ve said elsewhere that we don’t read SF for the characters, but for the stories (and the ideas, of course). And this is a great story that I sat up late to finish. And you can’t argue with that.

Matter, by Iain M Banks (Books 2008, 1)

So, the latest Banksie. Always a treat, of course, and especially so when it's a novel of The Culture. This one, though, is slightly disappointing.

It’s not actually bad – certainly not badly written (though he does overuse the phrases “appeared to be”, and “looked like”, when describing things; I was told off years ago (by Lisa Tuttle, no less) for using “seemed” when describing something: “it either is, or it isn’t.” I’ve been painfully aware of that word, and phrases that take its place, ever since). It’s just not as good as we’ve come to expect, which is a disappointment.

The main fault is that he describes too much of the scenery, to the point where it all starts to get a bit much. He didn’t always do that, I don’t think. Or maybe he did, but it was better executed, and so not so noticeable.

It’s the tale of some of the inhabitants of a level on a ShellWorld, and how they come into contact with The Culture, and why, and what follows. All good stuff, with plenty of fabulous tech.

But you know what was the most annoying thing about it? The cover. It shows a human figure in silhouette, walking away from (or it could be toward) our PoV. On the horizon a city is burning. Overhead there are stars. It’s not annoying because no scene remotely like it happens in the book (well, there is one scene a bit like it, but she isn’t on foot).

It’s annoying because of the shadows.

The figure’s shadow shoots out to its left, implying that there’s a strong light source to the right; a rising or setting star. But the burning city is giving off lot of light, too. Enough, it seems to me, that she (if it is a she) should have a secondary shadow, also to her left, but coming towards our PoV.

It’s a small thing, I know, and I don’t usually comment on the covers of books, but I noticed it when I was about two-thirds of the way through, and it bugged me every time I looked at it thereafter.

Still, you know what they say about books and covers.