Originally published on my blog here in June 1998.
As the introduction makes clear, this collection is intended as a companion piece to Shaw's Plays Un...moreOriginally published on my blog here in June 1998.
As the introduction makes clear, this collection is intended as a companion piece to Shaw's Plays Unpleasant collection. Not having read the earlier collection, I'm not quite sure what makes a play pleasant or unpleasant; I guess that it's to do with whether it is trying to impart a non-dramatic message. The four short plays here are not really anything other than fun comedies; there is a hint of a social message here and there (particularly in Candida and You Never Can Tell), but it is incidental to the plays themselves.
The play I liked best from the collection, and the best known of them, is Arms and the Man. This is set in Bulgaria, then an exotic barely civilised location, during a war with Serbia. The main characters are a rich Bulgarian family, the Petkoffs. The spoiled daughter of this family, Raina, is engaged to the dashing young soldier Sergius Saranoff, currently at the front. As Raina is going to bed, a young man in Serbian uniform climbs into her bedroom through the window. She is initially scornful of his cowardice, but she sheilds him when Bulgarian troops arrive to find him. She calls him her "chocolate cream soldier", because he avidly eats her sweets. It is perhaps surprising to read in the introduction that Shaw was criticised for portraying a soldier in an unheroic light; attitudes were so different before the First World War.
Candida is about a man who is a genuine Christian and a genuine Socialist, James Morrell. He and his wife, Candida, are a couple who attract those around them; his preaching and public speaking draws hundreds, and she finds herself the idol of the lovesick young poet, Eugene. Neither of them understands the attraction they, or their spouse, have for others; that is their tragedy. The contrast is made between them with their ideals and Candida's father, Burgess, who is a most unpleasant capitalist only interested in the welfare of his dependents because he can make it pay.
Man of Destiny is virtually a two-hander; the other characters are tiny by comparison with the leads. The main character is Napoleon Bonaparte in his youth, as a young general in the French Republican army invading Italy - his first great success. He is at an inn in northern Italy, awaiting the arrival of dispatches. The lieutenant carrying them arrives, but they have been stolen from him on the way by a youth; he recognises a mysterious lady (whose identity we never discover) as the youth. Napoleon protects her, denying the possibility that she can be the same person. The play develops into a battle of wits between him and her.
The final play, You Never Can Tell, is a fairly straightforward comedy. The Clandon family have been living in Madeira, after Mrs Clandon felt forced to leave England following attacks on her feminist views. Returning to this country with her three children (Gloria, a young woman after her mother's heart; Philip and Dolly, who are young enough not to have quite outgrown their childishness), the family meet up with a Mr Crampton, landlord of a dentist who falls in love with Gloria, and who turns out to be Mrs Clandon's abandoned husband and father of the three children.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in September 2008.
In the military subgenre of science fiction, there are two major classics, Robert Heinlein's St...moreOriginally published on my blog here in September 2008.
In the military subgenre of science fiction, there are two major classics, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and this, less well known but classic enough to be chosen as the first in Millennium's SF Masterworks series of reprints. Starship Troopers is not a book I like very much, not among Heinlein's best, and with something of an old fashioned feel to it now. It is a novel which is really about comradeship, and which ignores many of the more unpleasant aspects of warfare. The basic plot of The Forever War, describing the training and deployment of soldiers from the first person perspective of William Mandella, is shared with Starship Troopers (and a lot of other military fiction), but the attitude behind Haldeman's novel is very different.
The basic reason for this is that The Forever War has its roots in Haldeman's Vietnam War experiences. While some details are obviously different (even allowing for the science fiction aspects, few sixties US army camps would not only be mixed but encourage sleeping with different partners every night, for example), The Forever War is a more ruthless, brutal novel in which the enemy aliens are far more like us than Heinlein's giant bugs, so that killing them seems more like the death of a person to the reader than the extermination of vermin which is what it feels like in Starship Troopers. Heinlein, whose military service as a naval officer was during peacetime and was thus very different, does not really make any attempt to deal with moral issues, partly because he is so securely convinced of his own personal philosophy, while Haldeman is keen to try to get the reader to feel what he felt. This makes The Forever War far more ambitious than Starship Troopers, and fits in with the trend in literary depictions of war in the twentieth century, following from All Quiet on the Western Front.
The main concept in The Forever War, which gives the novel its name, is that the soldier on active service becomes increasingly distanced from his or her civilian contemporaries. Haldeman uses the idea of relativistic time dilation to give a physical aspect to this psychological affect, one which particularly affected Vietnam veterans because the eventual unpopularity of the war affected the welcome they expected when they returned to the States, and made it hard fort them to be reintegrated into civilian life. From the genre point of view, the use of time dilation makes The Forever War one of a fairly small number of space-based science fiction novels to take build relativistic restrictions into the plot. Each mission lasts weeks to William Mandella, while decades pass on earth. So each time he returns, he is more a fish out of water, and Haldeman gives over more pages to describing this than to the description of the war itself (which is reasonable, as interstellar warfare is going to be pretty confusing to a soldier on the ground). Many of the changes to human society come about because of the massive effort required to prosecute the war, so veterans are an object of curiousity, but as Mandella points out, "The most important fact about the war to most people is that if it ended suddenly, Earth's economy would collapse".
The culture shock goes both ways, too. When Mandella is appointed to a command, the new recruits have almost to learn a new language, the old fashioned English of a four hundred and fifty year old man: as far from them as Shakespeare is from us. Haldeman seems to have thought about this future in some depth, but oddly seems to have missed the possibility that during the next four centuries English may be replaced as the principal world language, say by Mandarin, Hindi or Spanish. And that is perhaps less problematic than changes in technology would be. As a commander, Mandella surely needs to understand something of the changes in technology that have happened during his life in order to be able to fight effectively, but instead of the total incomprehensibility that would be seen by a sixteenth century cavalryman asked to command a modern stealth air bomber squadron using satellite imagery for targeting, he has only to cope with improvements to the basic technology used in the early years of the war.
Space warfare faces some serious difficulties, particularly the space marines style scenarios which form the main part of Haldeman's narrative, where groups of men attack fortified positions on the ground from spacecraft orbiting the planet. (The basic issues stem from the overwhelming advantage that gravity gives to the attackers, an edge which goes away if they land on the planet.) Haldeman brings in a far greater problem with the vast timespan of the war as perceived from Earth, and the resources required to prosecute the war over huge distances. The closest historical parallel is the Hundred Years' War, shorter in duration, far less organised, intermittent rather than continuous, involving far smaller proportions of a far smaller population: yet the economic and political stresses it caused proved a major factor in the formation of the English and French states which proved so influential in the development of the modern world.
By concentrating on one confused individual participating in a remote war, Haldeman increases the impact of The Forever War at the expense of a broad picture of the future of the human race. The resonances with Vietnam perhaps make the novel seem a little dated, particularly with the setting of the initial chapters at a time now in our past (the date being chosen by Haldeman to make it possible for some of the soldiers to be Vietnam veterans). Yet it remains a powerful picture of what it is like to fight a war that alienates the soldiers from the non-soldiers, and it could be argued that with America involved in another unpopular overseas war, it is more relevant than ever.(less)
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a time travel novel, a farce around the idea of a professional time traveller sent to a time which is not his specialist...moreTo Say Nothing of the Dog is a time travel novel, a farce around the idea of a professional time traveller sent to a time which is not his specialist historical period - Victorian England instead of the Second World War. A powerful and rich woman is trying to recreate the original Coventry cathedral destroyed in the Blitz after the sixties replacement is turned into a shopping centre. She is able to monopolise the services of the Oxford time travellers, retrieving items believed destroyed by the bombing at the last moment (so their removal doesn't create a paradox). But there is one ornament which is supposed to be there on the night of the bombing, but which can't be found - so operative Ned Henry is sent further back than 1940 to find out what happened to it.
In the 1880s, Henry gets involved with eccentric Oxford dons, a trip down the Thames, an upper class houseparty, and a manic attempt to introduce the right pair of lovers to each other so that the future is saved, even though Henry only knows the identity of one of them and the initial letter of the name of the other.
On top of this manic plot, Willis piles on a huge variety of references to other literature: a wide selection of the more popular English language writers from Jane Austen to P.G. Wodehouse and Robert A. Heinlein via Dorothy L. Sayers are either directly referenced or are clear influences. The book as a whole is a homage to Three Men in a Boat - the title To Say Nothing of the Dog is the subtitle to Jerome's comic classic. (I want to point out that the ending of The Moonstone is given away - so anyone planning to read Wilkie Collins' novel who doesn't want to know what happens beforehand should read that first.) Few of the references need to be familiar in order to follow To Say Nothing of the Dog; the most important after Three Men in a Boat is probably Gaudy Night. However, the more of them which the reader picks up, the more they will enjoy the game. This is a type of meta-novel which appeals to me greatly, and I would put several of them into my all time favourites list, of which To Say Nothing of the Dog is now also one.
Very funny, fantastically clever: To Say Nothing of the Dog leaps straight into my list of favourite science fiction novels. I'm a little surprised I hadn't read it before, as it's a Hugo winner and I have been avidly reading the genre since well before it was published, but now I am very glad I have done.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in June 2002.
It is, apparently, common for children who have never known a parent to weave fantasies about who th...moreOriginally published on my blog here in June 2002.
It is, apparently, common for children who have never known a parent to weave fantasies about who they might be. Eiji Mayake is no exception, and as his twentieth birthday nears, he sets out for Tokyo to discover his identity through the only clue he has, the name of a lawyer. He is obsessed with John Lennon (which is one reason for the title) and his only skills are guitar playing and fruit picking, neither in much demand in the big city.
At the beginning, the novel is structured so that after a few paragraphs of reality, Mayake's fantasies take over, taking him, for example, into a James Bond world in which he stages a raid on the lawyer's office to get the name of his father. (This of course is another reason for the title.) After a while, it becomes much more difficult to distinguish "reality" and fiction. The nature of truth and fantasy is something which has fascinated many writers, possibly because of the irony inherent in any fictional treatment of the subject, but Mitchell manages to combine an experimental structure with an interesting readable story better (which includes several denunciations of the violence of the Yakuza) than many others who have tried to do this sort of thing. Mitchell has a fascination for playing with and subverting the forms of literature, part of a tradition which goes back to Tristram Shandy. (The final, ninth, section is precisely a case in point, as well as pointing back to the title and out from the story itself to what might happen afterwards.) While it doesn't seem derivative, nuber9dream reminds me of other writers as well as Sterne. I am sure that there are additional Japanese parallels I don't recognise, but I thought of early Iain Banks, John Barth and James Joyce (particularly in the Goatwriter stories) as I was reading number9dream.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in August 2009.
On opening Vineland, it is almost immediately clear that this is going to be a riotous novel. By t...moreOriginally published on my blog here in August 2009.
On opening Vineland, it is almost immediately clear that this is going to be a riotous novel. By the third chapter, the reader has been introduced to a man who makes his living by annually throwing himself through a plate glass window wearing a dress to qualify for mental illness disability benefit, a punk band named Billy Barf and the Vomitones, hired unheard to play at a traditional Mafia wedding by pretending to be Italian, and an FBI agent who may also be an escaped lunatic.
There is a bit of a dip in quality in the middle, once the flashbacks to the early seventies begin to take over, and from that point on Vineland is less funny. I don't think this is just due to my inability to conentrate, though I was extremely tired while reading this section of the novel.
The theme of Vineland is the hippy dream turning sour, and in particular the effects of the US government's attempts to extinguish the counter-culture. The main narrative is set in the mid-eighties, during Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign, and it is clear that Pynchon wants to make two points: first, that the repercussions of this crackdown affected lives both on the hippy side and in the law enforcement agencies right through the next fifteen years; and, second, that it was worth warning his readership about parallels between Nixon and Reagan.
"Vinland" is of course the name used by the Vikings to (almost certainly) mean the American continent, so implies that this is a novel about all of America - in other words, Pynchon intends to write what has been described as "the great American novel". However, reading it suggests that actually he wanted to subvert and satirise the idea of the great American novel. By making Vineland in the book a small (fictional) town in northern California, he is perhaps making a dig at the limited horizons of eighties American culture, and this is doubled by concentrating on hippy culture, never involving anything other than a small minority of US citizens.
Gravity's Rainbow and V. might have a bigger literary reputation, but of the Pynchon novels I have read - not all of them by any means - this is the most accessible, and the funniest. Each chapter in the first half made me laugh out loud at some point, even on re-reading. It has an easier plot to follow than Gravity's Rainbow in particular, which also helps make it an easier read.(less)
Margery Allingham's classic novels are generally set in the most rural parts of Essex and Suffolk or...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 2005.
Margery Allingham's classic novels are generally set in the most rural parts of Essex and Suffolk or in London. The latter had a particular atmosphere which is more or less gone from the genre: she specialised in eccentric faded gentility. Perhaps there is less of this about than there was in the thirties, and even thoguh there is still a great deal of crime fiction being set in England's capital, it is dominated by the police procedural. In Allingham, this air of eccentricity extended even into the police force - which brings me to the most obvious connection between her work and London Bridges. In one of her later novels, The China Governess, her policeman Luke becomes the father of a baby girl, who is mentioned in passing. Hattie Luke, now grown up, is one of the main characters in this novel, acting as a catalyst for the story.
The structure of London Bridges is simple, but unusual. Basically, the reader knows what is going on and who is responsible, but each major character only knows a piece of it - some isolated, odd, maybe mildly suspicious incident that is easily dismissed as one of the quirky things that happen to an inhabitant of a big city (they're about on a level with the sort of bizarre conversations strangers used to have with me on tube trains when I was a student in London). It is only because Hattie brings them together that one mentions something that strikes a chord with another, and they begin to compare notes.
Of course, this plot device uses something that I frequently object to in crime novels: co-incidence. There are links that might draw these people together (they are all to some extent involved in Greek culture, either academically or through the Greek community in London, or both), but it is still extremely unlikely. However, there is an excuse, in that the co-incidence is the whole point of the novel rather than being used to get over an awkward, poorly thought out, part of the puzzle as is usually the case in the crime genre. There must be crimes which go unnoticed because the people who know bits and pieces are never brought toghether; to do so (once) is an interesting idea for a novel.
London Bridges does not truly belong in the crime fiction genre - I think that not having to puzzle over who commits the murder rules it out. It is much more about character and atmosphere, too, than is usual in the genre, and that is really what makes it worth reading. The atmosphere here (and, indeed, the characters) are reminiscent of Margery Allingham, combined with generous helpings of a writer of the ilk of Iris Murdoch. Altogether, this is an intelligent, fascinating and absorbing read- I wish I'd come across Jane Stevenson five years ago.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in February 2004.
Cameron is a disillusioned left-wing Scottish journalist, whose hobbies are computer games and d...moreOriginally published on my blog here in February 2004.
Cameron is a disillusioned left-wing Scottish journalist, whose hobbies are computer games and drug abuse. He is contacted by a mysterious source, who promises him revelations about a series of mysterious deaths of men vaguely linked to the security services in the eighties. He is following up leads from the conversations he has with this man when he suddenly discovers that the police suspect he is the killer in a current series of murders, of the type of repellent capitalist that he has spent much of his career denouncing. Whoever the killer is, they obviously know Cameron's routine intimately - he has always been in the area when an attack occurred. The only way he can prove his innocence is to discover the identity of the murderer himself.
It is interesting, re-reading Complicity, to see how much the character of Cameron pre-figures that of Ken Nott in Dead Air; they could almost be to novels about the same person, a decade apart. The similarities start with their profession, but they also share background, attitudes and habits.
As a thriller, Complicity is exciting, though since much of what makes it work is the revelation of the identity of the killer, it is a novel which works much better on a first reading than a second one. (Thinking back, I remember not expecting to like it much, being put off by the blurb on the back, but then found it much more involving.) The technique used in the two narratives - first person from Cameron's point of view, the unusual second person in the sections from the murderer's point of view - is interesting and the second person works well in causing more distaste for the violence than is usual in the thriller genre. (It also makes you wonder how true Cameron's protestations of innocence actually are, and whether he's also the narrator of these sections, using the second person to distance himself from it.
Complicity is one of Banks' most mainstream novels, but is none the worse for that. It would be one of those which provide a good introduction to his work, particularly in this case to people who are wary of his cult status.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in April 2004.
One of the methods satirists use to poke fun at the way we live is to write a novel from the point...moreOriginally published on my blog here in April 2004.
One of the methods satirists use to poke fun at the way we live is to write a novel from the point of view of an outsider of some kind. This is particularly suited to use in the science fiction genre, where an outsider can be literally alien and so question even what may seem to be even the most fundamental of human values. In Whit, Banks doesn't go so far as this, but uses as his outsider a member of a cult who grew up in a commune in Scotland where modern technology - phone, TV, computer - is banned, making her seem completely out of touch with modern British society and giving her an outlook sceptical of the assumptions we tend to live by unquestioningly.
The central character of Whit is Isis, granddaughter of the founder of the Luskentyrans and considered God's Elect by the Cult by virtue of her 29 February birth date. The commune receive a letter from Isis' cousin Morag, who (they think) has gone out into the world to realise here musical potential and become an "internationally renowned baryton soloist" (a baryton is a Baroque instrument rather like a cello). The letter says that instead of being the focus of the Luskentyran May festival she won't be attending at all, having found true faith elsewhere. The decision is made to send Isis out into the world so that she can find Morag and persuade her to return. All is not quite as it seems; Morag, for example, is not a famous musician but is renowned in quite a different field - she is a hardcore porn star.
Isis and the Luskentyrans are portrayed extremely sympathetically; this is not the sort of stereotypical cult which brainwashes followers into following every whim of the leader which tends to be brought to mind by the word "cult". (And note that this was probably particularly true at the time Banks was writing - just after the Waco siege in 1993.) Their self-sufficient way of life doesn't require much money, the land itself being a legacy from an early follower. Banks has thought through their theology quite carefully, and it actually seems to me to hold together more convincingly than some of the absurdities believed by real life cults. Those who live in the commune are at least generally happy, and this is the main point of the satire, that all the technology that we are unable to live without and the leisure time it has brought us has not made us any happier.
Whit is one of Banks' most enjoyable novels; funny, accessible and yet having something to say. It, The Crow Road, and The Business are a trio of his novels with many similarities, including being an ideal way to introduce this important modern writer to those who are yet to catch on to his genius.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in June 2007.
It took me a long time - around two hundred and fifty pages of reading - to get into This Rough Magi...moreOriginally published on my blog here in June 2007.
It took me a long time - around two hundred and fifty pages of reading - to get into This Rough Magic, and yet I ended up enjoying it immensely. I picked this up in the local library, without looking at it too closely, and didn't even realise that it is the second in a series.
The central part of the plot is about a (fictional) siege of the citadel on the island of Corfu in 1539, when it was held by the Venetians. The Hungarians, led by the evil King Emeric and manipulated by the Grand Duke Jagellion of Lithuania who is a demon in human flesh, carry out the attack in alliance with the Byzantines. The Corfu garrison has been regarded as something of a backwater by the Venetians, despite the island's strategic position (controlling the entrance to the Adriatic, at the other end of which Venice herself lies). Among those trapped in the citadel are the main characters, including the wild young Venetian Benito Valdosta who is the hero of This Rough Magic.
The last paragraph makes clear both the alternate history aspect of the novel (the Byzantine empire had fallen to the Ottoman Turks almost a century before the action of This Rough Magic takes place) and the nature of the fantasy it contains (non-human creatures, both good and evil, ranging from fauns and undines to demons and angels). This is a typical sort of scenario for what is becoming known as the "new weird" (a term I think is terrible), but where This Rough Magic scores is by concentrating on people who have some magical power but are not the most potent around, rather as though a superhero saga like Batman was centred on Robin rather than Batman himself. At the same time, Benito Valdosta is sufficiently heroic without the superpowers for readers to be able to identify with his character in an escapist mode, and more interesting than the bland superhero type of central character (as Hans Solo is more interesting than Luke Skywalker) or the hero who overcomes by extreme superpowers (as Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake is tending to become) - ingenuity is more involving to a reader than simple brute force.
The point at which I began to be involved in This Rough Magic was with the arrival of the main characters on Corfu. The background from the first third of the novel, which leads up to this, is quite important, and is particularly useful to those of us who did not read the first novel (the reader is given enough explanation that This Rough Magic can stand on its own), but it is not particularly interesting: judicious editing and dispersal of some of the material to form references to the past in the second two thirds of This Rough Magic would have improved the novel.
While not innovative, This Rough Magic integrates its various elements of medieval folklore and magic well, particularly in the different ways in which various genii loci work. It is an enjoyable read, and well worth picking up - though skimming the first third is probably a sensible idea. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in November 2001.
The central idea of this Miles Vorkosigan novel can be summed up in a sentence from it (also quo...moreOriginally published on my blog here in November 2001.
The central idea of this Miles Vorkosigan novel can be summed up in a sentence from it (also quoted on the back of this edition): "Miles had always dreamed about saving the Empire. He just never expected it to be the Cetagandan Empire." Although currently at peace with his native Barrayar, Cetaganda has long been a traditional enemy, having at one time been an occupying power Miles is a member of the Barrayan delegation to the mourning ceremonies for the Dowager Empress, but the reader will not be very surprised when things go wrong right from the start, when his spaceship is attacked when it docks with a space station orbiting the capital planet of the Empire.
The main aspect of Cetaganda which differentiates it from the other Miles Vorkosigan novels is its portrayal of the bizarre imperial culture. This is clearly modelled around ideas from imperial China - aristocratic, secretive, delicately artistic and at the same time brutal; incomprehensible to outsiders, providing endless opportunities to offend against obscure protocol. Reflecting Bujold's interest in the biological sciences, the Cetagandans have spent decades enhancing the genome of their senior aristocrats, ending up seeming to be hardly human - impossibly beautiful and long lived, committed to incomprehensible goals.
As a well written, exciting and occasionally humorous science fiction thriller, Cetaganda is typical of the series, if less thought provoking than some; and the series is one of the most enjoyable in modern science fiction. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in July 1998.
Re-reading A Ship of the Line is like encountering an old friend; it must be getting on for twenty y...moreOriginally published on my blog here in July 1998.
Re-reading A Ship of the Line is like encountering an old friend; it must be getting on for twenty years since I last read any of the Hornblower series. I was prepared for the book not to appeal, or not to match up to the other Napoleonic navy novels I've read in the meantime.
I was more impressed than ever, and it has become clear why Forester set the standard that every historical naval writer has had to live up to since. He does not ignore the more unpleasant aspects of the English navy of the 1800s, as more trivial writers have done. Hornblower's world is one of poverty, deprivation, violence, ignorance, severe cruelty, seasickness and sudden death. There may be heroism and compassion, but these are not the true reality of life at sea. Hornblower is not the all-perfect action hero of writers like Farnol Jeffery 1878-1952 and Dudley Pope; he has distinct flaws which are made clear to the reader throughout the novel. And the novel itself does not end with a triumph, but with the capture of Hornblower and his ship by the French.
All this raises Forester from the pack in this small genre, and means that he will continue to be read when many of the other authors are gone and forgotten.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in October 2007.
Since Midnight's Children, the legacy of colonial rule has been a popular choice of theme for lit...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 2007.
Since Midnight's Children, the legacy of colonial rule has been a popular choice of theme for literary authors, with at least one novel of this type appearing in most year's Booker Prize short list (and frequently proving less than enjoyable in my annual reading of the books on that list). The Mission Song is le Carré's second novel on this theme, after the interesting The Constant Gardener.
The Mission Song is about the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along the border with Uganda and Rwanda. Congo is, to most Westerners, still Conrad's Heart of Darkness: its colonial and post colonial history among the most troubled on the African continent (see the Wikipedia article on the country). In the east, the Rwandan genocide filled the country with refugees and ethnic tension (there were ethnic Tutsi living on the Congolese side of the border before, during, and after the killing). Remote from Congo's capital Kinshasa, the region seems rife for independence; at least, that is the view of the power brokers who are the subjects of The Mission Song.
The narrator, Bruno Salvador, is (by his own reckoning) a top class interpreter who also happens to come from the region, though his background, as the child of an Irish Catholic priest and a local woman makes him an outsider both in Africa and in London where he now lives. This doesn't prevent him being recruited as a proud member of the British Secret Service - he obviously feels that he is accepted by the establishment and working for the good guys.
It is in this role that he is asked to attend a secret meeting between some of the important regional leaders from the eastern Congo. Bruno, under another name, works as their interpreter, but the meeting's participants are unaware of the full range of languages he speaks, and the organisers also use him to provide fuller translations, including transcripts from bugs planted around the hotel. At the start, he recognises some of the participants and admires the principles they adhere to; but this level of access leads to disillusionment as he is privy to the deals, bribes, and even torture which are used to get final agreement to go ahead with an attempted coup in the region.
It is usual in this kind of novel to dwell on the atmosphere of the country in which it is set (done marvellously in, say, The God of Small Things), but almost the entire narrative of The Mission Song takes place in an anonymous European hotel: this book is about the impotency of those who live in Africa, when the decisions which effect their lives are made in such places. The reader never gets to know the identities of the conference sponsors. Only the early reminiscences of Bruno's childhood are set in the Congo.
While slow moving, The Mission Song grips through the depiction of Salvador, whose name is clearly ironic: he is a passive observer of events, not an actor, and certainly not a saviour. He delights in his job, especially the honour of being asked to join the Secret Service, and le Carré's depiction of his naive enjoyment is entertaining and well done, as is the despair alternating with optimism that is the result of his discovery that men he had previously admired were as venal and self serving as any behind their public image.
There is perhaps not much here for fans of George Smiley, but The Mission Song is an indication of the literary quality of le Carré's work: much better and more thought provoking than most of those Booker shortlisted post-colonial novels.(less)
Of all Joyce's mature writing, his only play is probably the least well known. It is also one of his...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 2001.
Of all Joyce's mature writing, his only play is probably the least well known. It is also one of his least successful pieces, never having had much success on the stage. Displaying an unusual lack of confidence, it shows its influences strongly.
The Exiles manages to simultaneously be dull enough to seem longer than it is and unsatisfying enough to seem shorter. This is because Joyce gives all the real character to the part of Richard; neither he nor any of the others are interested in understanding anyone except himself. But even with Richard we do not come to understand the motivation behind his encouragement of his wife's potential infidelity, the principal dramatic content of the play; hints are made that it springs from some kind of misogynistic impulse, but that is not really a proper explanation (where did the impulse come from?).
The main model for the style of the play is Ibsen, as refracted through George Bernard Shaw's commentary and William Archer's translations. The introduction in this edition cites An Enemy of the People as a particular model, but I found it quite hard to see parallels between the two plays - especially as politics is extremely important in one and hardly mentioned in the other. The main aspects of the play which are copied from Ibsen are the ways in which characters interact (those these are less successful dramatically) and frankness about controversial issues in home life.
Joyce's preoccupation with the relationship of the Irish to Ireland is muted here, but is the reason for the title; the background event of the play is the Rowan family's return to Ireland from life abroad. Perhaps a drama more reflecting his other concerns as a writer would have drawn out more of his genius; as it is, The Exiles is probably his most disappointing work.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in February 2007.
The original Dune is one of my favourite books, as it is for many science fiction readers. (The...moreOriginally published on my blog here in February 2007.
The original Dune is one of my favourite books, as it is for many science fiction readers. (The blurb for this novel claims that it is the bestselling science fiction novel of all time.) Frank Herbert's own sequels, while good, were not in the same class as this classic and, particularly later on, began to introduce elements which diluted the force of Dune itself. So when Brian Herbert (Frank's son) and Kevin J Anderson began producing novels in the Dune universe, expanding on the detailed background to the story, I never bothered to read them, especially after I read some lukewarm reviews. This novel is a bit different: it is a sequel to Chapterhouse: Dune, based on a rediscovered outline by Frank Herbert himself; it will be followed by (at least) two more. This sequel has been something that fans of the series have long wanted to see; Frank Herbert's death made it seem that the loose ends in Chapterhouse Dune would never be cleared up authoritatively.
The novel follows three major points of view, following on from the ending of Chapterhouse Dune. One is that of the community centred round Duncan Idaho, fleeing mysterious hunters in a stolen ship; the second is that of the Bene Gesserits left behind on Chapterhouse led by Duncan's wife, attempting to bring about a union with the Honoured Matres to combat an unknown threat from beyond the worlds of the Old Empire. These two are relatively familiar, involving many already established characters. The third is different, being that of a Tleilaxu geneticist, who has to face the twin blows of the defeat of his people by the Honoured Matres (though he himself was part of a group allied with them) and the discovery that the long time Tleilaxu servants, the Face Dances, have developed into creatures far beyond their original design, with their own purposes at odds with their erstwhile masters. While always present, particularly in the last couple of books, the Tleilaxu have never been as close to centre stage in Frank Herbert's work. They become more important thanks to the discovery of a secret held by the Tleilaxu Masters, which the reader of Chapterhouse Dune knows but the other characters only find out halfway through Hunters of Dune. This is that they have cells preserved from famous people of the distant past which can be used to reincarnate them; these people include the principal characters of Dune itself.
There is not actually very much plot in Hunters of Dune, particularly compared to the labyrinthine twists and turns of Dune (or even, to a lesser extent, most of Frank Herbert's other novels). It is like the middle novel in many fantasy trilogies, there to keep the traditional number of volumes but just describing relatively uneventful activity between the scene setting of the first and the climax of the third. It covers a longer period of time than the other novels, but I feel that everything in this novel could have more effectively treated as backstory for the later resolution of the saga. For example, it doesn't seem to be important to document the details of the attempts to unite the Honoured Matres and the Bene Gesserit, and anything from this story needed for the future plot of the series could be mentioned in passing.
There are problems in this novel which derive from the particular loose ends left in Chapterhouse Dune. It is hard to see just why the characters think that cells from thousands of years in the past are so valuable. I suppose that if someone said they were able to create a clone of Jesus or Mohammed, people would be interested today, and the clones themselves might be made to serve some political purpose. Here, though, the timescales are such that this would be more like resurrecting an Egyptian pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar for their insight into the problems of the Middle East. The Dune universe may be peculiarly static (in the thousands of years that pass during the saga, there are few important technological innovations), but new factions such as the Honoured Matres, and the impossibility of applying the prescience that several of the ancient cloned individuals possess to the majority of the humans alive at this point of the saga make it hard to feel that the contributions the clones could make will be significant. (Obviously the further novels in this conclusion will make a great deal of use of the clones, but it will take a really impressive coup de theatre to convince me that it makes sense.) There are other details which jar as Herbert and Anderson expand on them, which would give things away if I expanded on them.
In the end, the central problem in Hunters of Dune is that the lack of an exciting plot proves a difficulty beyond the abilities of the authors. Since the only interest here turns out to be the way that Frank Herbert tied up the loose ends, I would have preferred just to read his outline as he left it and saved myself the time required to read three or more full length novels. Further novels continuing this story will be ones I skim through, say in the local public library, rather than books I buy for re-reading in the future.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in January 2000.
Tender is the Night is famous for two things: its unusual temporal structure andits masterly depi...moreOriginally published on my blog here in January 2000.
Tender is the Night is famous for two things: its unusual temporal structure andits masterly depiction of mental instability (both Freudian psychosis caused by the trauma of incest, and alcoholism). The two central characters, Nicole and Dick Diver, initiall appear to be a happy couple, the soul of the parts among the rich Americans based on the French Riviera. Their stabillity seems only marginally affected by the young film star Rosemary who falls in love with Dick. However, at the end of the first part the reader sees that the reality behind the facade is rather more fragile, for reasons which become apparent in the flashback which makes up the second part. Dick is an immensely successful psychiatrist, and Nicole was one of his patients, unable to live a normal life after abuse by her father. She developed a crush on Dick, to which he eventually responded by marrying her - a bad mistake, according to Freudian ideas on transference, the process by which a patient's dependence on the psychiatrist is reflected by inappropriate feelings of desire towards him/her. The final part, increasingly blurred chronologically, catalogues Nicole's gradual recovery from trauma and her need of Dick while he pursues a parallel course downwards (as prophesied by his surname) into alcoholism.
While not appearing dated, after over half a century Tender is the Night does not seem as difficult to understand as many critics considered it when it first appeared. It's chronology was a particular source of confusion, but this is not longer something which appears particularly innovative (as the idea of a non-linear chronology is one which underlies much of the literature of the later twentieth century).(less)
Originally published on my blog here in April 2003.
Heller's third novel reads almost as though it were the book of a Woody Allen film. It is about the...moreOriginally published on my blog here in April 2003.
Heller's third novel reads almost as though it were the book of a Woody Allen film. It is about the Jewish experience in the US in the late seventies, and contains much of the same kind of bitter sweet humour so common in Allen's work. Good as Gold centres around a second generation American Jew, Bruce Gold, who is entering middle age and who is desperate to be taken seriously - as a writer, as a family member (particularly by his irascible father and brother), as someone who could make a mark in the world. Most of the story is about his desperate pursuit of a job in Washington, once he hears that the President was impressed by one of his essays. The question is, how much of his principles and his life is he prepared to sacrifice?
It is pretty familiar ground, and much of Good as Gold now comes over as dated. It naturally received the standard Joseph Heller review: someone described it as "his best since Catch-22". Other novels since have taken that title, but Good as Good is still funny and occasionally disturbing as a portrait of a man becoming overwhelmed by ambition.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in June 2003.
An old man lying on his deathbed, barely understanding what happens around him, may seem an unpromis...moreOriginally published on my blog here in June 2003.
An old man lying on his deathbed, barely understanding what happens around him, may seem an unpromising central character for a novel. It may be that this is part of the reason that Bruno's Dream is not one of Murdoch's best novels, but it is certainly a theme which suited her style, which itself has dreamlike qualities, more than it would that of many writers.
Bruno's concerns are those which might be considered typical of someone in his position. He wants to seek a reconciliation with his son Miles, with whom he quarrelled because of his marriage to an Indian woman against Bruno's wishes. He suspects that those who care for him are doing so for the sake of his possessions, principally a stamp collection which is eventually destroyed when his house is flooded. Bruno's illness has affected his mind, so that a lot of the time he doesn't remember who he is talking to; he has more interest in memories of his past than in the people around him, so he misses the dramatic events which occur in the lives of the other characters, prompted by the return of Miles to the fold.
The point is, of course, the reality or otherwise of what's described, as the novel's title signposts. The story may be written in the third person, but is it actually happening or is it Bruno's dream? The reader cannot be sure (though the title for me tips the balance to fantasy). As a dream, it is remarkably lucid for someone in Bruno's condition (one of the reasons why the reader might feel it is not a dream at all), and he is able to consistently invent all kinds of things about people whose names he can't even remember when he (thinks he) meets them.
There are two famous quotations from Jane Austen in which she describes the small scale of the novels she wrote. "3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on", and the limits of her work described as "the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which with so fine a Brush". Of later writers, Iris Murdoch is one of the few who shared this delight in the miniature. There are only seven or eight living characters (a couple of people who die before the start of the novel also have an effect on the plot). In a novel on so small a scale, the author has to work hard to keep the reader's interest, so it is not surprising when the melodramatic creeps in (think of the number of elopements in Jane Austen). Here, melodrama adds to the dreamlike atmosphere - events like the flood and a farcical duel seem to be almost anti-realistic.
Coming to the end of what I have to say about this novel, it seems that there is more to Bruno's Dream than I thought when actually reading it. Even if it is not one of Murdoch's greatest novels, it is definitely worth reading. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in October 2003.
Centuries after the events chronicled in Hyperion, the novel which began the series of which The...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 2003.
Centuries after the events chronicled in Hyperion, the novel which began the series of which The Rise of Endymion is the fourth, human culture in the galaxy has changed dramatically, apparently returning to an archaic form. Through its monopoly of the cruciform, a parasitic, cross shaped piece of nanotechnology which makes it possible to reconstruct a person's personality and memory in a new body after death, the Catholic church has become the dominant power in the majority of the human populated worlds. It has changed to, to an organisation more closely resembling the corrupt church of the early sixteenth century (complete with Inquisition) than the reformed religious movement we see today.
The plot of The Rise of Endymion is fairly hackneyed; it tells of a young girl, prophesied to be a new Messiah, who takes on the might of the Catholic church armed only with her blook, which when drunk by others passes on an extreme awareness of the universe while being incompatible with the cruciform. The Messianic figure is so common in science fiction and fantasy that it is the details which are important rather than the general plot idea, and Simmons is a good enough writer to create a whole series of fascinating environments in which his story can unfold, including a most unusual orbital grown as a giant tree rather than by the more mundane method of constructing it from rock. (An orbital is basically an alternative to a planet, a ring around a star rather than an orbiting ball.)
The most obvious influence on The Rise of Endymion, including the standardised plotline, is Frank Herbert's Dune series, especially the later novels. It is probably the galactic political manoeuvrings as well as the Messianic plot which make this top of the list of related fiction. Simmons includes details which are little nods of homage to other writers, ranging from Asimov (the android characters all have the title 'A.', like the 'R.' given to Asimov's humanoid robots) to Wolfe. It is not all derivative, of course; the vast majority of the details are Simmons' own and the style is all his too. In the end, the novel lacks the visceral impact and originality of Hyperion and could be described as good rather than great.(less)
Despite the literary origins of its title, from The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot, the first of Banks' Cul...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 2003.
Despite the literary origins of its title, from The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot, the first of Banks' Culture novels is his least sophisticated. It is set in a war between the Culture and another major galactic power, the Idirans; even though most of the characters are either neutral or on the Idiran side, Banks' interest and sympathy clearly lie with the Culture. The central character is a Changer named Horza, member of a genetically engineered race who can counterfeit the appearance and mannerisms of humans - clearly based on the Face Dancers of Frank Herbert's Dune series. At the beginning of the novel, he is about to be executed by drowning in a sewer, but is able to escape to take on a mission to travel to the planet Schar's World to try to find a Culture Mind (one of the artificial intelligences which run Culture society) which escaped seemingly certain destruction to take refuge there. For Schar's World is a monument, a commemoration of its native people who destroyed themselves in a holocaust, and it is conserved by a guardian who is very choosy about who is allowed in. Horza has already been there, and so the Idirans hope he will be permitted to land again.
Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction which has had mixed fortunes over the years, often being derided for overblown and ludicrous scenarios and unbelievably heroic central characters. Banks is one of the authors involved in attempts to revive space opera from the late eighties onwards, seeking to add more literary ideas while taking advantage of one of the genre's richest collections of standard ideas and the immense grandeur of scale offered by such fiction. In each Culture novel, certain ideas from the sub-genre are re-used; in this case, huge empires of worlds, linked by faster than light travel, and the quest for some object of tactical significance (many space operas use military scenarios). The main change from older works by authors such as E. E. "Doc" Smith is that Horza is in no sense a heroic figure. In fact, his quest for the mind is more a series of disasters than the traditional crescendo of successes, and the main superhuman aspect of his character is his ability to survive these debacles. (Such changes would form an ideal part of a parody, but Consider Phlebas appears to be more serious in intent than that.)
The novel never really grabs the reader, unlike the space opera it is based on (which tends to emphasise excitement given a sufficient readiness to suspend disbelief) or the later Culture novels. It has some nice touches; the nature of space opera and the fact that a large proportion of the Culture's population is human leads the reader to make the assumption that it is an Earth-derived civilisation, but then the appendix reveals that the events described took place in our thirteenth century - Earth humanity is clearly a less developed offshoot of the species in Banks' scenario. This detail seems quite a neat if slightly contrived subversion of the genre. It is also the only clear piece of humour in Consider Phlebas, which is really the most po-faced of Banks' novels, and that makes it a much less interesting read. Banks turns the genre around, but here doesn't offer a convincing alternative. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in February 2002.
Beckett has a reputation as one of the most difficult twentieth century writers, many finding ev...moreOriginally published on my blog here in February 2002.
Beckett has a reputation as one of the most difficult twentieth century writers, many finding even his most accessible and most famous play, Waiting for Godot, impenetrable. As a follower of Joyce, there is certainly something in this, as is perhaps particularly apparent in the thirty or so short dramtic pieces collected here, which actually make up the bulk of his output.
They stretch the meaning of the word "play" somewhat; originally written for radio, film and TV as well as the stage, they include mimed pieces and pieces without action as well as ones where what is spoken is not in itself important in a traditional way. Some are extremely short (Breath, for example, lasting only seconds), while the longest is about an hour (radio play All That Fall).
What they share, in spite of the diversity of form, are the themes which are common to all Beckett's writing. These are also all present in Waiting for Godot, which can really be seen as the essential Beckett play. These themes are meaninglessness, decrepitude and ageing, guilt, lack of identity, and death. In some plays, this forbidding list is leavened by a Joycean fascination with language. (In fact, the precision of Beckett's use of words - and his prescription of performance practice - are among the most interesting aspects of his work, given his obsession with non-meaning. He clearly found it necessary to specify things exactly in order to get what he wanted.) One cannot help admiring Beckett's cleverness, and many of the pieces come to life in performance, but they could never be described as cheerful. (less)