If Terry Pratchett's writing could be said to have an over-arching message, it is this:
1. There are better ways to do things than hitting people over...moreIf Terry Pratchett's writing could be said to have an over-arching message, it is this:
1. There are better ways to do things than hitting people over the head. 2. Other people are still people, no matter how different their culture; we should respect them.
His agenda of peaceful toleration is more explicit in this early novel than in most (the first point above is almost a literal quotation from The Carpet People), but has formed the serious content of almost everything he has written.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in October 2005.
Iain Banks latest is an addition to the growing list of his non-Culture science fiction, though i...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 2005.
Iain Banks latest is an addition to the growing list of his non-Culture science fiction, though it has the same flavour as those set in that universe. It is set far in the future, in a galaxy filled with many kinds of lifeforms. These are generally classified as either Quick (those who evolved mainly on rocky planets, including two kinds of humans) or Slow (those who live with much slower metabolisms who often developed in gas giants, which include the other major species we meet in The Algebraist, the Dwellers). The Dwellers are somewhat mysterious and incredibly long-lived beings (some individuals are older than entire races) who have a history dating back to very early in galactic history. They hardly communicate with members of other species, and those who are permitted to communicate with them, known as Seers, are often completely confused by what they are told, especially since the Dwellers are prone to jokes which mean that much of what they say can't be trusted. One persistent story which is widely disbelieved by the galaxy as a whole is that there is a key to a document known as the "Dweller List", which seems to describe a large number of portals (the instantaneous travel mechanism which makes Banks' galactic civilization possible), but which cannot be decoded.
The Dwellers seem to me to be the major conceptual link between The Algebraicist and the Culture novels. They take the insouciant, anarchic way of life of the Culture to an extreme. They are the highlights of the novel, the source of many humorous touches: they are the only aliens I have come across in the whole of the science fiction genre who are given convincing dialogue that is reminiscent of the tramps in Waiting for Godot.
The central character of the novel, Fassin Taak, is one of the most successful Seers, and it is he who brings back from one of his trips to the gas giant Nasqueron a work of literature which is later discovered to have a clue to the Dweller List hidden in an appendix. This is so important that it provokes an invasion of the planetary system by some really nasty villains, which in turn forces Taak to return to Nasqueron to try and persuade the Dwellers to give up the rest of the secret before the destruction of his home world.
The Algebraist is a fun novel, very enjoyable to read, though not really covering new ground for Banks despite the different setting. Indeed, it is now quite some time since Banks has produced anything as innovative as his early novels, and he is now apparently content to write polished variations on the themes that make up his mature style (perhaps this is something that can be said of most authors who have a career of any length). Maybe moving away from the Culture is an attempt to bring back some of the early originality, in which case it has not really succeeded. There are now of course many writers who have been influenced by Banks, particularly by his science fiction; The Algebraist reads in places almost like a novel by yet another admirer than by the man himself. Here we really have the novelist as craftsman rather than artist; very welcome, very satisfying, and only disappointing because the reader knows that Banks is capable of much more.
One very small point: when I studied mathematics, those who concentrated on algebra were known as "algebraicists" rather than "algebraists".(less)
Originally published on my blog here in November 2003.
The Cleve family, at the centre of this novel, has been shaped by events about a decade before i...moreOriginally published on my blog here in November 2003.
The Cleve family, at the centre of this novel, has been shaped by events about a decade before its beginning, when nine-year old Robin was brutally murdered during a Mother's Day family get-together. In all this time, no killer has been found. Robin's memory has been idolised, his mother has become depressive, and his younger sisters have been brought up by their grandmother and her sisters, and by the household servant. (Their father has moved away and lives with his mistress.) The novel itself is the story of his youngest sister Harriet's twelfth year, when she determines to find out the truth about Robin's death, fired up by reading Sherlock Holmes and the adventure stories of Kipling and Stevenson.
The geographical setting of the novel, a small town in the American state of Mississippi, is very strong and atmospheric. The Cleves were once the wealthiest family in the region, but now their fortunes have faded after their big house (with the ill-omened seeming name Tribulation) burnt to the ground. They are still well enough off to keep servants, however, even if only one to each of the sisters' households. The town is divided between three very culturally different groups: the rich whites, the poor whites, and the blacks, the last group playing only small roles in The Little Friend (the Cleves' servants being among the least developed characters).
The chronological setting of the novel seems more undefined. At times, it seems to be chronicling events as far back as the twenties and thirties; other parts seem to be set in the fifties, and occasional references mean that it must be meant to be at least the mid-seventies. This is partly because Harriet and her sister are being brought up by a group of elderly women always looking back to the past - both to the time when Robin was alive and to the glory days of the Cleve family. The American deep south, particularly the poorer rural areas, was also a place which was a bit old-fashioned and conservative. There may also be other reasons why the timing seems indeterminate other than these ones to do with the setting; The Secret History, Tartt's first novel, also had something of an old-fashioned air to it, so she may well be someone who likes that ambiance; and here there may also be something of a desire to evoke some of the famous writers of the South, such as Faulkner and Lee.
The Secret History became one of the biggest success stories of nineties fiction immediately it was published, and its many fans will have been eagerly awaiting the followup for over a decade; Donna Tartt is an extremely un-prolific author. The big question that everybody who was interested would have had, then, was whether it was worth the wait.
When The Secret History came out, it seemed different, original and exciting in a new way. Looking back on it now (as a much more widely read individual), it doesn't seem so original (it could be described as "if John Fowles wrote an American campus novel..."), but that I remember it clearly without having reread it in the interim is a tribute to how well it was written. The Little Friend is just as well written, and is a very good picture of a weird family life as seen through the eyes of a child who doesn't really understand it or what makes it so strange. The detection part of the novel, though clearly a part a satire on books for children which have teenage detectives, doesn't really work and gives the impression that it's not one of the aspects of the story which interested the author (which is a contrast to The Secret History). The sense that Harriet and her friend Hely end up getting swept along by something much bigger than they expected is good, however. The Little Friend is much more mainstream than Tartt's debut, even though it has proved less popular. It is also less easy to think of obvious parallels to it (one, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was published a year later). The Little Friend is a good novel, an interesting read, but it does not stand out in the way that The Secret History did. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in June 2003.
Most people are fascinated by the intimate relationship which exists between identical twins, and th...moreOriginally published on my blog here in June 2003.
Most people are fascinated by the intimate relationship which exists between identical twins, and this forms the basis of the most recent novel from David and Leigh Eddings, one which edges into the horror genre - a new departure for the pair.
Regina and Renata Greenleaf were identical twins, who continued to use a private language between themselves long after most pairs have given it up - right through high school. (I was surprised not to find any references to this cryptolalia - use of a secret language - online; may be it's not as common a practice as the Eddings imply.) Then, on the point of graduation, their car broke down returning from a party and when one of them went to find a phone, she was attacked, raped and viciously murdered. The surviving twin is so traumatised by this, that she reverts to their secret language, and it is only following six months in an asylum that she recognises anyone or returns to speaking English. Even so, she cannot remember the past, making it impossible to tell even which twin she is (or even to tell her that she had a twin sister).
To the chagrin of her parents, the person she recognises is a family friend, Mark Austin - also the narrator of the novel. His is a graduate student at Washington University (the whole novel, like all of the Eddings' non-fantasy, takes place in Washington State). A major part of the novel is about Mark's attempts to help the surviving twin (now insisting on being known, rather nauseatingly, as Twink) rehabilitate to the real world by auditing some of the courses at the university, including the basic English one he teaches. This means that Twink moves away from her parental home to stay with an aunt, who has a job which means that she is out a large proportion of the time - surely a situation which a psychiatrist would be unhappy about for someone only recently released from a mental ward. And then strange things begin to happen...
The main idea is strong, though it could be the basis of a far more bleak novel offering more insight into how it feels to be a twin and the nature of mental illness. (This could be done most easily by improving the essays that Twink hands in, which Mark somewhat bizarrely thinks are brilliant - they're nothing like that good.) Such a tale would be a radical departure for the Eddings, and the impression I got was that his was something they kept moving towards and then shying away from to produce something more lightweight. (After all, they don't want to alienate all their fans.) This desire makes the second half of the novel poorer than the first, and also means that some of the cute phrases and ideas which fill so much of the Eddings' recent writing appear once more. It may also explain an interesting change of attitude: all of the Eddings' fantasy involves the killing or disabling of a god, but here the role of religion as represented by a Roman Catholic priest is overwhelmingly positive.
Regina's Song contains a crime investigation and a (rather unconvincing) courtroom drama as well as the twin psychology and horror elements, and this is something of a mistake from a structural point of view, as it makes the novel seem somewhat overcrowded with strands from different genres. Nevertheless, Regina's Song is consistently entertaining (if you can ignore the cute turns of phrase) and the use of identical twins at the centre of this kind of story is fascinating. (less)
At the end of the twentieth century, there seems to be a vogue for celebrating the end of the second...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 2000.
At the end of the twentieth century, there seems to be a vogue for celebrating the end of the second millennium AD with universal histories of the sort which had been rather out of fashion for some years. This particular work appeared at the time when they were unfashionable, the Pelican version being slightly updated from one printed by Hutchinson a few years earlier with many maps (reduced in number for this edition to keep costs down).
Judging by what I have seen of these millennial histories, The Pelican History of the World gains a great deal by not being sumptuously illustrated, by not aiming to be the only history book ever bought by its readers (to use, in many cases, this term loosely).
Another virtue making it a history which gives a more natural view of the past if not fitting it so well as a reference book, is that Roberts has chosen (deliberately, as he points out in the conclusion) to refrain from sorting events into specific time periods; each chapter deals with a particular aspect of the past, and carries the story through to what seems to be a sensible point in relation to the subject of that chapter rather than to any chronological division arbitrarily imposed across the board. (This is, of course, a particular feature of many of the history books marketed around the idea of the Millennium, most of which are divided by century.)
The value of books like this one to someone interested in history is to provide a wide context to areas of more detailed knowledge. I have, for example, a particular liking for medieval history, and I would not turn to this book for a history of the medieval West, but for information on other periods and areas (particularly China and India) Roberts provides interesting background. He certainly has the ability to select and summarise, even in the most recent periods covered. (Looking back from 2000 to the seventies, you might expect to have a different idea of what was significant, but the only obvious factor missing is any inkling of the economic problems which would eventually bring about the downfall of Soviet Communism - Roberts even manages to point to a growing interest in environmental concerns.)(less)
The first volume of Dance to the Music of Time sets a fairly comfortable tone. After all, narrator Ni...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 1999.
The first volume of Dance to the Music of Time sets a fairly comfortable tone. After all, narrator Nicholas Jenkins and his set have many advantages in the England of the thirties, going from minor public school to Cambridge (with a summer in France in between to improve their French). The book is correspondingly uneventful, as they grow up in an environment where little effort is demanded from them and where, indeed, great effort would be considered rather strange. A Question of Upbringing is about their growing up, from the sixth form to university, and the lack of incident in their lives is perhaps indicated by Powell starting his story at that comparatively late age; no hint is given of their lives in the lower school.
The serene background is a contrast to the sequence of novels to which it is perhaps most tempting to compare Dance to the Music of Time, C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers. There, conflict is introduced through a character who does not fit in, who attends the public school and university despite his class background rather than because of it. The principal impression left by the first novel in Music in Time is one of serenity, despite the crises of adolescence portrayed in it. There is, of course, the depression and then the war awaiting these young men, but they don't know that yet.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in November 2011.
Rivers of London is a police procedural with a difference: Peter Grant is a trainee PC in the Me...moreOriginally published on my blog here in November 2011.
Rivers of London is a police procedural with a difference: Peter Grant is a trainee PC in the Metropolitan Police who discovers that he can see ghosts, and is immediately seconded to a tiny division of the force (tiny, as in - Peter brings the staff total up to two) which deals with crimes which have a supernatural element.
The supernatural unit police story has of course been done before, but not (as far as I know) with so much attention to the minutiae of police work. This juxtaposition of the supernatural and mundane is of course a source of humour, and Rivers of London is very funny in places. It reminded my strongly of Charles Stross' Laundry series, set in the Secret Service rather than the Met, combined with ideas about London mythology similar to those embodied in Neverwhere.
Aside from the narrative thread dealing with Peter's experiences of the early stages of becoming an apprentice wizard, there are two main parts to the crime story. One is a series of apparently senseless, bizarre and very violent murders, the first in Covent Garden being the occasion for Peter's discovery that he can see ghosts when a witness he starts to talk to turns out to be one. The more interesting idea is a territorial dispute between the spirits Father Thames and Mother Thames, the former of whom is not happy about the end of his territory coming at Teddington Lock (where the Thames starts being tidal); Mother Thames covers the part of the river through the city to the estuary and the mouth of the river.
Aaronovitch has been a writer for some time: he wrote one of the serials which made up the original Doctor Who, back in the eighties. So it is no surprise that Rivers of London is well constructed. If you stop to think, some of the details of the killings are rather nasty (enough to make this not a book for the squeamish), but the plot moves forwards fast enough that most readers will not dwell on the unpleasantness.
Enjoyable if not hugely original, well written and very funny. I'm definitely going to look out for the sequel, Moon Over Soho.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in June 2004.
Over the last few months, I have suddenly started seeing and hearing the name of Michael Malone, bas...moreOriginally published on my blog here in June 2004.
Over the last few months, I have suddenly started seeing and hearing the name of Michael Malone, basically out of the blue. Because of this, I assumed that he was a novelist who had taken up his pen relatively recently, and so was a little surprised to find out how old this novel, the first in a series set in Hillston in North Carolina, actually is. Apart from anything else, it is reminiscent of other more recent crime writers, particular Jeffery Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme novels, or Donald Harstad's relaxed Iowa cop.
The narrator of this novel is Justin Savile V, a police lieutenant in Hillston, but also from one of the foremost families of the area, with connections to everyone from the State Governor down. He has turned his back on privilege, finding investigation more interesting than the top-notch legal career mapped out for him (though alcoholism had something to do with this decision as well). His partner, Cuddy Mangum, couldn't be more different, his background being the rundown East Hillston, the wrong side of the tracks.
When Justin's uncle's wife is killed, there is an obvious suspect - one of the "usual suspects", in fact - lined up, but Justin begins asking dangerous questions which threaten those who have run the town for generations, relatives and family friends who consider him one of their own. The detective story works extremely well, with several sources of conflict driving the plot - resentment between the poor and the rich, lack of understanding between the under and over privileged, Justin looking to find the truth rather than cover up a potential scandal. There is also conflict in the narrator; his turning away from his background was to a large extent not a matter of principle but because he wasn't interested in the sort of rewards it could bring him (and many people would agree that investigating murders is more interesting than sitting on the North Carolina state legislature). The characterisation is well done, and makes both Justin and Cuddy interesting (Cuddy is much better realised, in particular, then the usually stereotyped sidekick characters in detective fiction). Uncivil Seasons is an extremely well written novel, with nods to the American noir tradition, without being as angst ridden as Connelly or Deaver. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in January 2003.
Much early American pulp science fiction is extremely chauvinistic, having an attitude to alien r...moreOriginally published on my blog here in January 2003.
Much early American pulp science fiction is extremely chauvinistic, having an attitude to alien races closely related to the worst racist propaganda; aliens are menacing, evil creatures seeking to take over the universe. (It is easy to get carried away by an exciting story, only to realise afterwards that it has an unpleasant hidden meaning of this sort.) Superhuman heroes battle inhuman hordes and win the love of beautiful women; women are kidnapped and rescued in the nick of time from tentacular fates worse than death.
John Brunner has always written novels which were for their time slightly apart from the science fiction mainstream, and in The Long Result he produced one in opposition to the clichés of the genre (even if they were already outmoded by 1965). The main menace in the novel comes from the crackpot Stars Are For Man League, dedicated to putting human beings in a superior position over the various alien races in this part of the galaxy, on the grounds that humanity invented the star drive which enabled them to discover the aliens rather than the other way round. (This is - not coincidentally - similar to nineteenth century arguments to justify colonialism.)
The narrator, Roald Vincent, is a senior official of the Bureau of Cultural Relations, which handles contacts not just with the aliens but also with human colony worlds. He has to handle a rapidly escalating crisis when a ship from Starhome, the first interstellar ship not to be built on Earth, announces when about to land that it carries a diplomatic mission from a newly discovered alien species. This makes them the focus of attacks by the League, and the crisis is also being used in political manoeuvring between Earth and Starhome, a colony beginning to press for independence.
The political ideas are unusually sophisticated for the science fiction of the time, and yet The Long Result is still primarily an adventure story which has a style owing a lot to John Wyndham. It is clearly a milestone on the path of development which led Brunner to Stand on Zanzibar and the dystopias which followed it; well worth reading.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in July 2010.
I borrowed this book from the library expecting to hate it. Even though I didn't like the end of the...moreOriginally published on my blog here in July 2010.
I borrowed this book from the library expecting to hate it. Even though I didn't like the end of the Hitchhiker series as it stood at Douglas Adams' death, I couldn't imagine anyone else continuing it in the way that he might have been able to (if he'd overcome the blocks he experienced in the later part of his writing career). I'd also read Artemis Fowl, which made Colfer's name, and didn't think much of it.
And, when And Another Thing... came out, it was serialised on BBC Radio 4 as an audiobook, and I listened to that and did indeed hate it. Hitchhiker was always hilarious, and the abridged version - 340 pages in 75 minutes which I'd estimate means leaving out 75% of the text - failed to raise a smile. Of course, that could have been the cuts ("let's leave out the jokes to keep the plot comprehensible"), or the way it was read (not Steve Mangan's finest hour and a quarter), or some of the plot decisions (the way Colfer got out of the problems caused by the ending of Mostly Harmless seemed trite and unconvincing to me). Would the book itself be more worth reading? Friends who might have read it turned out not to have done. So, there was only one way to find out...
Initially, my reaction was positive. At greater length, the unravelling of the finality of the ending of Mostly Harmless, while still not very imaginative, worked better and contained some amusing touches. But things do go downhill from there. Some of the issues are with the characters as created by Douglas Adams. I have always found Zaphod Beeblebrox verging on being more irritating than funny, and Colfer makes him a particularly important character here and he becomes an annoying manipulator of the plot: more self-centred than ever. Wowbagger, the immortal being who is insulting every being in the universe in alphabetical order, also turns up and is made a major character: Colfer's attempts to make him more than the brief joke he is for Adams make him at least as unsympathetic and irritating as a dealmaking Zaphod. And finally, Colfer seems to share Adams' interest in Norse myth, and a lot of the book (even more in the radio abridgement) is about Zaphod's dealings with Asgard - all very dull compared to the meeting with Thor at a party in Mostly Harmless.
All this could be forgiven if And Another Thing... had turned out to be as funny as the first few Hitchhiker books were on first reading. In this aspect, I got the impression that Colfer didn't work too hard, settling for the obvious and poor pun rather than thinking hard about exactly what would be funny. (Apparently Douglas Adams used to agonise about individual words for ages, and this shows in the inventive quality of the first three books in particular.) The way that the book-within-the-book of the actual Guide is handled here is partly to blame for the lack of laughs. The "Book" extracts are among the highlights of the original stories, being extremely funny and often explaining how the bizarre situations Arthur and Ford find themselves in arose. Here, they are intrusive, irrelevant and humourless asides (though it is fairly obvious that Colfer thinks them hilarious). Some attempt has been made to make them stand out typographically, something I don't think Adams ever did, and this, like so much else about And Another Thing... is depressingly unimaginative: the entries are printed in italics. So much more could have been done here to indicate their peripheral nature and liven up the presentation of the book.
Colfer is obviously a fan, and this makes him a good choice as a writer of a sequel. But he is not really very funny at all, even when writing his own books. (I've read Artemis Fowl, and it seems like a good idea - a child evil genius - let down by a lack of imagination and lazy writing, though many people seem to think it extremely funny.) In the end, And Another Thing... reads like a not very wonderful piece of fan fiction, of the sort published in vast quantities on the Internet: and I feel sure that there are likely to be better sequels to Hitchhiker available free at fanfiction.net.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in August 2002.
Begun in the fifties, published in the sixties as a novelette before finally being expanded to a f...moreOriginally published on my blog here in August 2002.
Begun in the fifties, published in the sixties as a novelette before finally being expanded to a full novel in 1970, The Eternal Champion contains the earliest version of the idea that is central to most of Moorcock's fantasy, together with the fruits of over a decade's development of the theme. The idea is basically that there is one person, immortal or reincarnated, whose aspects are the heroes of fantasy. It is perhaps influenced by the Hindu concept of the avatar, where important figures in legend are incarnations of the gods, particularly of Vishnu; it is also an ironic comment on the unimaginative sameness of much of the fantasy genre.
The story in The Eternal Champion is of Londoner John Daker, who responds to a summons he seems to hear in his dreams, from a barbarian king and his beautiful daughter. They are performing rituals in the tomb of long dead warrior Erekosëaut;, seeking to bring the return of the hero that has long been prophesied. When Daker responds, he becomes Erekosë, champion of the human race in their desperate war against the alien Eldren. Like the other aspects of the Champion, Daker is tormented by dreams of his other selves, but in this case he is unhappy because, though the humans describe the Eldren as treacherous and wicked, this seems to better match their own actions.
It was a commonplace of science fiction (particularly American science fiction, the major part of the genre's output) in the first decades of the Cold War to mimic that conflict; the best known example is Star Trek, where the Federation represents the West, the Klingons and Romulans the Soviet Union and China. It is rarer to do this in fantasy, which (post-Tolkien) usually uses plots about an individual quest to overthrow tyrrany which makes it not such a good genre to explore political ideas. The Eternal Champion is the only example which comes to my mind. Generally, the rather simplistic and racist assumption is made that the forces of humanity represent the West, and the aliens the Communist Bloc. I don't think that there was generally a conscious desire to write propaganda, more that in the American magazines that defined the genre, writers tended to accept the view that they were the good guys. Young though he was when he wrote this story, Moorcock tries to do something more subtle. The humans keep on spouting rhetoric taken from extreme anti-Communists of the time, justifying treacherous acts on the grounds that that is the only way they can beat the innately treacherous Eldren. What they achieve is to completely discredit their side, showing themselves to be worse even than their portrayal of their enemies, let alone than the Eldren actually are. Even Jolinda, the woman with whom Daker falls in love, eventually reveals herself to be just vain and shallow, and as much prey to xenophobia as anyone else.
The background to the novel is lacking an element which later became an important part of Moorcock's concept of the Eternal Champion: the balance between Law and Chaos. It is a theme that would have probably got in the way of this particular story, which has a different point to make; it is about hypocrisy and hysteria rather than the nature of evil and morality.
The aim of the novel, to make readers think again about the orthodox (Western) view of the Cold War, is unusual in fantasy (though common enough in the more literary spy thrillers like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold). The background is rather dated now, as much of the fiction it is counterbalancing has vanished without trace. Even so, The Eternal Champion has something to say about mob hysteria, which continues to be relevant as the American leadership seeks to renew the war against Iraq.(less)
The central character of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist, is an investigative finan...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 2009.
The central character of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist, is an investigative financial journalist who publishes a well-regarded magazine, Millennium. After its latest exposé of a corrupt businessman, he is sued for libel, and, abandoned by his sources, loses, leaving his career and reputation in ruins. But then he is offered a job by another well-known Swedish businessman, to spend a year writing a history of his family and their firm while really working on the mystery which has obsessed Henrik Vanger for forty years. In 1966, Vanger's great niece went missing, and he has mysteriously received a flower each anniversary of the disappearance.
Almost as important is the character who provides the title of the novel. Lisbeth Salander is in her twenties, but not permitted a full adult life by the Swedish state after her refusal to interact with the world around her as a child led to her institutionalisation as mentally deficient. Yet give her a problem which interests her, and she works obsessively on it, which combines with a photographic memory to make her a great investigator.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a gripping novel of investigation into the pastt of a fascinating but awful family, most of whom are nasty pieces of work, many of whom hate most of the others, who were heavily involved with Sweden's Nazi party, which includes drunks and hermits as well as obsessives. But it is actually the characters of Blomkvist and Salander which are the focus of the novel, and their strengths and shortcomings give a depth to it beyond that of most thrillers. It is also quite academic, as the action is mostly in the discoveries made about the past, but that doesn't stop the story being exciting. The background of the author as a financial investigative journalist similar to that of Blomkvist is clear not just from the verisimilitude of the setting, but from the style of writing, even in translation.
A few years ago, there was a short space of time during which I read several great fantasy novels. This year, it seems to be the same with literary thrillers translated from Swedish. But this novel, and its successors in the Millennium trilogy, have made it to English a great deal quicker than The Gentlemen. Cynically, this seems to me to be at least partly because the story of their production - delivered to a publisher by a respected financial journalist who died before publication - gives an added marketing hook to the novels.
This is an excellent translation of an excellent novel, and I look forward to reading the remainder of the Millennium trilogy.Gentlemen(less)
Originally published on my blog here in August 2001.
Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in three weeks to clear his debts. It is, like many famous nineteent...moreOriginally published on my blog here in August 2001.
Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in three weeks to clear his debts. It is, like many famous nineteenth century Russian novels, partly autobiographical, but it paints a very different picture of that country's soul from any other. Almost uniquely, it is set abroad; the Russian countryside is completely absent.
The theme of The Gambler is addiction; its narrator starts playing roulette in a German resort, just as Dostoyevsky did, and is continually willing to lose everything, always expecting to win. It is an honest portrait of addiction, a precursor to Burroughs' Naked Lunch, but the novel also contains humour. There is a wonderful portrait of a terrible old lady, Antonida Vasilyevna Tarasevichev, who starts out as a background figure whose death will solve everyone's financial troubles, but who suddenly appears without warning in Roulettenburg and herself starts gambling away the inheritance.
Even for someone, like myself, who has never really felt the appeal of this kind of gambling - I would like to win because of intelligence or skill, not because of luck, particularly with the odds are stacked against the gambler, as they are in casinos - Dostoyevsky's novel paints a fascinating portrait. This is especially the case, as in Naked Lunch also, because it is to a large extent autobiographical. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in June 2011.
One of Le Guin's shortest novels is also one of her most effective. The Word for World is Forest is...moreOriginally published on my blog here in June 2011.
One of Le Guin's shortest novels is also one of her most effective. The Word for World is Forest is a telling description of the ecological and moral atrocities committed by a group of human colonists on a peaceful world covered in forest, and how their barbaric treatment of the apparently passive Athshean natives provokes a bloody uprising, leaving the natives changed forever, fallen, as it were, from their state of innocence.
The Word for World is Forest was not quite long enough to qualify for the best novel category in the Hugo awards (which she won twice), but it won the best novella category, before appearing in stand alone book format in 1976 (it originally formed part of the famous anthology sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions).
Like much of Le Guin's work, this novel is inspired by her knowledge of anthropology. Indeed, there is little of the novel which demands a science fictional setting: the "world" could fairly easily be some remote part of Africa or New Guinea. The point of using science fiction, other than Le Guin's established reputation in the genre, is that it enables the writer to create her own background, one which emphasises the points she wishes to make. As a result, the story does sometimes seem rather one sided, but the spiritual effects on the Athsheans which result from their espousal of violence are in the end striking: by becoming as vicious as the humans, they destroy a precious part of their culture forever, knowing that this will be the outcome of their actions.
In one way, Le Guin does undermine the point she is trying to make, as far as I am concerned: she adds a feminist element. The culture of the colonists as she depicts it is extremely male-dominated; human settlements are basically logging camps filled with macho lumberjacks where the only women are prostitutes and concubines. These women have no voice in the story: they don't even have names, being referenced by their measurements; they are objects used by the men for stress relief. They do show that the men can behave bestially towards people far more like them than the Athsheans. In the end, unless her overall point is less than I think it is - unless Le Guin is saying that a culture in which women are less than equal with men is capable of terrible crimes - the women are a distraction and dilute the impact of the story.
In the author's note at the beginning of Knowledge of Angels, Jill Paton Walsh wrote: "A fiction is always, however obliquely, about the time and place in which it was written." The Word for World is Forest is not really about aliens and the future, but about us, here and now - at least, as much as the world has not changed in the last forty years. It is an attack on colonialism, both as practiced in the past and in our own time, as rich western nations grind the so-called third world in poverty and hopelessness - and it could well be intended as a warning to the complacency of the western world. It obviously exaggerates for effect, as no earthly culture has ever been as innocent as the one portrayed here. There is also an underlying criticism of science fiction in general. The theme of the colonisation of an alien planet by humans is a commonn theme in the genre, and usually the author is put firmly on the side of the plucky colonists. But, Le Guin tells the seventies SF community, that is not the only imaginable side of the story. There are often clear parallels between tales of colonisation and westerns, and Le Guin is putting the side of the American Indians.
Re-reading The Word for World is Forest, I was struck by just how much it seems to have influenced a film made almost forty years after the story was published: Avatar. The Athsheans are not hugely similar to the Naavi, but much about the setting and the ecological parts of the message are really close. I'd recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the film.
Though others might choose The Lathe of Heaven or The Left Hand of Darkness, my choice as Le Guin's greatest work would be this compact story. Even so, it has never inspired the affection I still feel for the first of her books I ever read, the Earthsea trilogy. The Word for World is Forest is Ursula K. Le Guin writing uncompromisingly an unpalatable message for adults; it is not a novel the reader is meant to like, but one which is meant to hammer home its point. One of the most effective uses of science fiction.(less)
Instead of the cruise liner so beloved by crime writers, Clutch of Constables takes place on a small...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 1999.
Instead of the cruise liner so beloved by crime writers, Clutch of Constables takes place on a small riverboat cruise, on a river described rather vaguely as 'in the north country' and in 'the fens'. Troy Alleyn, exhausted at the end of a successful one man show, takes a cancelled berth on this trip, while her husband is in the States at a criminological conference.
When her letter telling him this reaches him - the post to San Francisco must have been remarkably quick in those days - he is immediately concerned, for the berth was originally taken in the name of a Mr Andropolous, a London art dealer murdered in Soho. The police believe the murderer to be a dealer in drugs and art forgeries known as 'the Jampot', and Alleyn suspects he might also be on the boat trip.
Troy herself gradually becomes uneasy, several small events possibly bearing a sinister interpretation - a jumpy reaction to the mention of the painter Constable as apparently visible in the landscapes the boat passes through. (The similarity of several points on the journey to his paintings is the reason for the title of the book.) Then a painting very much in the manner of a Constable is found by one of her fellow passengers hidden in a drawer in some antique shop furniture, and then another passenger is murdered.
Considered as a crime novel in isolation, Clutch of Constables would be an excellent example of the genre; it is its position in such a lengthy series of novels which rather lets it down. Troy has such an unfortunate tendency to get innocently involved in a murder - she would be rather a suspicious character but for her husband.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in July 2000.
The Business is a shadowy commercial operation which has been in existence for thousands of years, a...moreOriginally published on my blog here in July 2000.
The Business is a shadowy commercial operation which has been in existence for thousands of years, and which now aims to buy itself a country, so its senior executives can gain the privileges which go with a diplomatic passport. Kate Telman, the narrator, is not quite up to that level, but is one of the rising stars in the Business, and it is not particularly surprising when she is asked to become an ambassador of sorts to the Himalayan kingdom of Thulahn to arrange the purchase of the country from the reigning prince, particularly as he is known to have a strong fancy for her.
The Business is, of course, designed by Banks to be the kind of organisation which attracts conspiracy theories, even if Kate is quite vehement in denying them ("We're not a cover for the CIA. They're the Company, not the Business."). This aspect of the novel is entertaining and unusual: most conspiracy theory novels are written from the point of view of an external investigator, rather than someone closely involved in what could clearly appear sinister to an outsider even if considered relatively innocent by herself. Kate has strong reasons to be grateful to the Business, which lifted her out of the deprived background in which she was born, but she is not entirely naive about the organisation and some of its senior members. She is one of several female point of view characters used by Banks (Canal Dreams, Whit, and Against a Dark Background provide other examples), and is reasonably convincing if a little bland.
The star of The Business is Thulahn, which is an exaggerated version of Bhutan or Nepal, content to remain one of the remotest parts of the world. The people may be poor, but at least they're happy. The questionable benefits of Business sponsored development programmes begin to make Kate think twice about the whole deal, but in the end the country's portrayal is too idyllic for the issues to have real meaning.
If The Business has a message, it is one it shares with Whit. This is that it is possible - and maybe easier - to be happy without the distractions of modern Western culture, without the consumer luxuries with which we are surrounded. (Whit makes this point more effectively, as its narrator is one of those on the outside of consumer culture, while Kate lives a life of corporate luxury.) Banks is surely trying to say that we should look at our own lives to see what in the material world is really important, what really brings us happiness.
This is one of the reasons why The Business lacks the significance of Banks' earlier novels - or other novels about the third world. Compared to, say, The God of Small Things, it has nothing to say; it lacks the brilliance of The Bridge or the immense shock value of The Wasp Factory. Banks seems to have become a bit too comfortable, but is still a good writer and extremely entertaining.(less)
It is clear that the second part of Ford's four novel sequence Parade's End is of pivotal important to the quartet even before starting to read it, be...more
It is clear that the second part of Ford's four novel sequence Parade's End is of pivotal important to the quartet even before starting to read it, because it provides the title for the series as a whole. It covers only a short period, a few days in the middle of the First World War; their importance is that they are a high water mark in Sylvia Tietjens' bad treatment of her husband.
The events of the novel illuminate Sylvia's character more than Christopher's, and show the reader the reasons behind her actions much more sympathetically and fully than in Some Do Not.... What she actually does her it to travel to the war zone in France without papers and attempt to cause a fight between Christopher and one of her ex-lovers, while continuing to spread the baseless rumour that Christopher has a hidden child by another woman. This all takes place at Christopher's unit, behind the Western Front.
The basic motivation behind her actions is to force a reaction from her husband, whose determination to maintain "normal" relations with Sylvia will not even permit him to have a row with her. She obviously causes him a great deal of difficulty and distress, but never has the satisfaction of causing him to break down in public.
If Christopher Tietjens is meant to represent the idea of the English gentleman, an obvious question to raise is what does Sylvia symbolise? It seems to be something like Britain itself, a country which exploited the best of its upper class with the First World War being the final betrayal of any true decency that still existed. (And, despite all the hypocrisy of the Victorian age, there was much to admire.) The title itself could be seen as a reference to this idea. The only way in which the government were prepared for the war, so far as Tietjens knew, was to come up with a ritual to use in demobilisation: after a band played, an adjutant would say, "There will be no more parades". This utterly fatuous way to plan for four years of grisly death, the decimation of the male youth and the overturning of the foundations of society has a deeper meaning that Ford skilfully brings out: things will be changed by the war; pomp and circumstance (the music the band plays is Land of Hope and Glory) will no longer be important as the old order is overthrown. This is a double sided coin, of course, for it does not just mean the destruction of the cruelty and fickleness of Sylvia but also of the virtue and decency of Christopher.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in August 2010.
"Geralt is a a hunter", the front cover tells us. Not only is this hardly the most eye-catching ta...moreOriginally published on my blog here in August 2010.
"Geralt is a a hunter", the front cover tells us. Not only is this hardly the most eye-catching tagline in the history of publishing, it really undersells the virtues of Sapkowski's novel. This is not a simple fantasy novel, though this (combined with the advertising for the associated computer game on the back pages) makes it look as though The Last Wish is just a violent fantasy, the story of a bounty hunter. This is particularly ironic, as Geralt himself is continually telling prospective employers that he is not a bounty hunter.
Geralt is in fact a "witcher"; he is a hunter of supernatural monsters, and The Last Witch describes a series of his adventures in this role. The structure of the novel suggests - and I haven't looked this up to check whether it is true or not - that most of it originally appeared as a series of shorter fiction. It is episodic, with a linking thread provided by interludes between the episodes, which are thus presented as flashbacks. This is a fairly common structure in novels stitched together from shorter fiction, and needs the episodes to be quite uniform in style and quality with the linking story having some interest of its own in order to work: Sapkowski does this at least as well as any other example I can think of.
Although The Last Wish appeared in English in 2007, the story was written in the 1980s. Then, the idea of a hunter of this type would probably have evoked Bram Stoker's Van Helsing in Dracula, rather than Buffy the Vampire Slayer or possibly Anita Blake. But The Last Wish is not really like any of the stories involving these characters; it reminded me most of Jack Vance, particularly the Dying Earth stories. Much of the setting, the tone, and the dry humour are similar, particularly in the way in which Geralt's world weariness is portrayed. Laurell K. Hamilton is less interested in humour and more in the relationships - particularly sexual ones - between the characters in her Anita Blake novels; the humour in the Buffy TV series is generally darker or derived from smart banter between the teenagers; and Van Helsing is deadly serious.
This is an excellent fantasy novel, and I will looking out for more by this writer.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in March 2001.
In most trilogies, each novel continues more or less directly from the previous one, with many of t...moreOriginally published on my blog here in March 2001.
In most trilogies, each novel continues more or less directly from the previous one, with many of the same characters. There is, however, a lengthy gap between Inherit the Earth and Architects of Emortality. In this time, big advances have been made in the use of microscopic robots (nanotech) and genetic manipulation of embryos to increase the human lifespan. Everyone can expect to live two or three hundred years, and this has brought huge changes.
Like Inherit the Earth, this novel is a murder mystery, with very old men being killed by genetically engineered flowers delivered by a beautiful young woman (even by the standards of a time when body image and facial appearance are changed according to fashion). The motives for the murders lie deep in the past, when most of the victims worked on some aspect of the research which moulded the world imagined by Stableford, making them "architects of emortality".
The tone is lighter than in the earlier novel, with little jokes like the names of the investigating police officers, Holmes and Watson., It doesn't have the sense of significance of Inherit the Earth, either. The plot is more important, though the setting is still interesting. The earlier novel is better, but this is still a highly readable piece of speculation.(less)
Re-reading this early Falco novel, I'm a bit surprised by how frivolous it is. I had the impression t...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 2001.
Re-reading this early Falco novel, I'm a bit surprised by how frivolous it is. I had the impression that they were becoming less serious as time progressed, but in fact the tone of this one is remarkably similar to that of the later novels.
Falco is employed by the business partners of parvenu Hortensius Novus to gather evidence against his fiancée, who has a history of marrying rich men who die soon after the ceremony, and ot help them buy her off. The problem is, though, that Novus is killed before the wedding takes place so that the inheritance cannot be the motive for his murder.
This story takes place against the usual background of Falco's chaotic personal life, at a bad patch in his relationship with his aristocratic girlfriend. This injects some seriousness into the novel, but it is mostly enjoyable, funny and very light. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in September 2000.
Dorothy Parker thought that Ford should not have written this novel, which concludes his Parade...moreOriginally published on my blog here in September 2000.
Dorothy Parker thought that Ford should not have written this novel, which concludes his Parade's End sequence, and that he should have just left Christopher Tietjens destroyed, shellshocked at the end of the First World War, as described in A Man Could Stand Up. This book does make a strange ending, notable for the way in which it almost completely ignores the central character of the three earlier novels. Instead, his elder brother Mark, now a tubercular invalid, is most important; much of the novel consists of the interior thoughts of a man who though aware of the outside world and possessing his full intelligence, is virtually unable to move or even communicate. In keeping with this, The Last Post is virtually plotless, the only event it contains being a visit made to mark by Christopher's unpleasant wife Sylvia and the American woman to whom she has let the ancestral Tietjens house of Groby and whom she has encouraged to cut down the (symbolic) ancient oak at the centre of the estate.
Despite this strangeness, it is easy to see why Ford continued his story - it is mainly to do with the symbolic nature of the Tietjens family. Christopher Tietjens is intended to stand for the idea of the English gentleman, and I think Sylvia is meant to be a depiction of the way in which the British government treated these people. (This is clearest in the second novel, No More Parades.) Having destroyed Christopher and vandalised the heritage which formed him, Sylvia must be made to realise something of the enormity of what she has done. Then she will match the way that many in England since 1918 have mourned the destruction of the certainties that were at the basis of Victorian society. The presence of the American and her destruction of the tree also point to post war changes on the old estates, taken over by newcomers who did not understand or value them. Ford, having written about the effect of the war itself, now wants to say something about the effects of peace.
The writing of The Last Post, especially in the sections told form the point of view of the invalid Paul, is masterful. Even the minor characters are all different, each having their own voice - many novelists find it difficult to write even two people with noticeably different voice and thought patterns. Compared to Henry James, a novelist of greater reputation but who bears many similarities to Ford, Parade's End is consistently cooler and more believable; the neurotic side of James is completely absent even from characters like Sylvia.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in October 2001.
Stendhal worked twice on the story of Mina (de) Wangel, writing first a completed, but put away a...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 2001.
Stendhal worked twice on the story of Mina (de) Wangel, writing first a completed, but put away and unpublished, short story, and then, seven years later, beginning a novel (by which time the aristocratic "de" was lost). Both are presented here, in reverse chronological order, just as they were first published in French.
The plot is one which is typical of romantic novels from earlier in the nineteenth century, with Mina, a rich German heiress, despairing of ever finding a suitor who is not after her money, coming to Paris where no one knows her. In the short story, she even pretends to be her own sacked maid. The scenario enables Stendhal to make lots of digs at the hypocrisy of French society (a constant sarcastic refrain in the German scenes is "of course, nothing like this has ever happened in France").
Each version of the story is amusing, but the initial chapters of the novel are much better written, the extra space making it possible for Stendhal to improve the characterisation of Mina greatly. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in September 2001.
It is still usual for different types of historical study to be kept separate. This book, howev...moreOriginally published on my blog here in September 2001.
It is still usual for different types of historical study to be kept separate. This book, however, combines social history with archaeology most successfully. In most social histories, it is pretty much only documentary sources of various types which are used for those periods in which they exist in sufficient completeness. For most of the period covered in Medieval England, these sources are incomplete, fragmentary and usually have a clerical bias, though that doesn't stop historians using them. Platt, however, backs up much of what he has to say by reference to archaeology, particularly to the study of buildings.
This means that the examples illustrating the social history are not the usual ones; instead of passages from the Paston letters, say, Platt uses the ways in which churches were rebuilt in the fifteenth century, or the changes in village settlement patterns. This may be in many cases a rather superficial change, but it gives Medieval England an entirely different feel and gives a good excuse for the profuse illustrations, both photographs and diagrams.
The other effect that the concentration on the archaeological record allows Platt to do is to correct some of the erroneous impressions which tend to be left by history which is more popular in style. The best example of this is a discussion of the fourteenth century crisis, which is usually connected to the effects of the Black Death. Platt traces the fall to processes well under way half a century before the plague, which came as a final blow to an already over-stretched system. The evidence for this is partly documentary - accounts of trailbastons as a response to armed gangs roaming the countryside at the beginning of the century - and partly from the archaeology - such things as dates of abandonment of deserted villages.
This is also the reason that the book continues for so long after the conventional date for the end of the medieval period in England - the accession of the Tudors in 1485 - and even after the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries which perhaps more than any other events could be said to mark the end of an era. There was still continuity in many areas, which can be more clearly seen from archaeology - buildings marrying fifteenth century styles with fashionable continental architectural ideas, for example. By the end of the book, though, it is very clear that the English society being described is in many ways very different from that a hundred and fifty years earlier. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in December 2001.
I would defy anyone to work out the solution to the mystery in this novel, unless they have this...moreOriginally published on my blog here in December 2001.
I would defy anyone to work out the solution to the mystery in this novel, unless they have this particular Pan edition - it has an extremely poorly thought out cover picture which gives the whole thing away. (I hope that Goodreads continues not to have a cover picture for this edition.)
American photographer Leslie Searle turns up at a London literary party, seeking out popular broadcaster Walter Whitmore, with whom he claims mutual acquaintances. Staying with him in the country, Searle makes quite an impression on the local community, especially on Whitmore's fiancée. Despite the jealousy this causes, the two men decide to collaborate on a book about the local river, travelling from its source to the sea by canoe. When Searle disappears, he is thought to have drowned in the river, his body lost; it looks like murder with no shortage of suspects, even if Whitmore is the main contender.
Tey's detective, Alan Grant, is shared between five of her eight crime novels, and is a neglected great of the genre. In this novel, his usual character seems to have been overcome with something of Campion, though this is partly because the setting is very reminiscent of Allingham - an artists' retreat in Suffolk (Orfordshire, as it is called here).(less)
Originally published on my blog here in February 2002.
After almost twenty years, the contents of this book cannot really be described as "new" astrono...moreOriginally published on my blog here in February 2002.
After almost twenty years, the contents of this book cannot really be described as "new" astronomy any more. It is a lavishly illustrated description of the then current achievements and methods in observational astronomy, with an emphasis on the discoveries made by extending this field beyond the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Developments since 1983 include massive expansion in satellite observations with the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, detection of extra-solar planets, work to find incontrovertible evidence of black holes, more sophisticated computer analysis of data, and so on. Most of these are building on the methods described in The New Astronomy rather than being revolutionary and new in themselves.
The illustrations are of primary importance in The New Astronomy; the text is designed to explain the pictures rather than the other way round. It is appropriate that Cambridge have taken the unusual step of giving Michael Marten, the picture editor, a co-author credit. The two aspects of the book are well integrated, but it is the sumptuous illustration which makes the book stand out. I'm going to look out for a more recent equivalent (or, indeed, a revised edition) - it's a book which should be in the library of anyone interested in modern astronomy. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in August 2004.
Harry Potter may have started the current revival in the children's books market, but it is Philip...moreOriginally published on my blog here in August 2004.
Harry Potter may have started the current revival in the children's books market, but it is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (of which this is, of course, the first) which has picked up most of the critical acclaim. Aimed at an older reader than the first Harry Potter stories, this is an imaginative and dark tale of a fantasy world where human beings are accompanied by personal daemons - basically externalised souls - in the form of animals.
Central character Lyra is a young girl brought up (in a neglected kind of way) by the scholars of an Oxford college. When children across Britain begin to go missing, she resolves to save them (after her closest playmate disappears); this decision takes her to fashionable London, a gypsy parliament in the Fens (at Ely under another name), and finally to the Arctic, where the Aurora or Northern Lights play an important part in beginning to resolve the mystery.
Comparison with the Harry Potter stories, particularly the Philosopher's Stone which began that series, is quite a useful way to enumerate some of the praiseworthy and not so praiseworthy aspects of this novel. The first thing that the reader notices about Northern Lights by comparison is that Pullman imagines a far more complex, logically thought out and intricate world, one that is a great deal less like the one in which we live than the one that contains Hogwarts is. Everything we read about seems to have a purpose within the overall scheme of things, while Rowling, at least some of the time, appears to put in details on the spur of the moment. While the Harry Potter books do have a plan - the final chapter of the seventh novel being among the first to be written - many of the background details do not relate to it (what do every flavour beans tell us about how the universe is structured, for example?). Everything here has its place, it all fills out a corner of a master plan. Though this may be in part something Pullman is able to do because he is writing for an older readership, this particular contrast is valid for the later Harry Potter books as well, which are not aimed at such young people.
Pullman's writing is made to seem far deeper and have more to offer on repeated reading by this method. It should be remembered that Rowling's books are meant to be funny, while Pullman wants to deal with big issues.
The feeling that there is more to be gained by repeated reading of His Dark Materials is bolstered by a second difference: the background to Pullman's series is far more imaginative than Happy Potter, which is really just a boarding school story with magic and a villain. The daemons, the cosmology (all the stuff about the Dust), the bears and so on are original ideas; this is not just another post-Tolkien fantasy novel. Pullman wins out on the broad brush aspects of writing a fantasy novel - the general background is far better - but what about the detail? On the character front, the central cast of Rowling's novels all seem to have something individual about them, though sometimes Ron Weasley in particular is a bit of a caricature. It takes a long while here to feel that Lyra has much of a character. His portrayal of her upbringing as a sort of urchin doesn't seem realistic - for that done really well in a book for teenagers, try Leon Garfield's Smith. The characters here seem to be mainly intended as pegs for the background - which is of course a common problem in novels driven by ideas.
Both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Northern Lights aim to make a big impact in their very first pages, with the outlandish idea of a boy living in a cupboard under the stairs in one and Lyra discovering a plot to poison her uncle in the other. Here Harry Potter wins again, but then it does have one of the most attention grabbing openings in fiction. Harry Potter also continues in much the same vein, and the pace really keeps moving; this is not true of Northern Lights. This is not necessarily a case of one being better than the other, however; it is another difference of emphasis.
The differences between the two series could be summed up as Pullman having more intellectual weight (and it is interesting that most of the reviews I have seen are about the underlying ideas rather than the writing itself), but Rowling being more appealing. It's a matter of mind or heart - each appeals more to the one than the other. Considering that they are the two most successful examples of the current revival of the children's book market, they are remarkably different from each other - especially given that they both fall within the fantasy genre.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in April 2000.
Turmoil in Yugoslavia is nothing new. It sparked off the First World War, and was manipulated by bo...moreOriginally published on my blog here in April 2000.
Turmoil in Yugoslavia is nothing new. It sparked off the First World War, and was manipulated by both sides during the Second. That manipulation (at least the British part in it) is the foundation for this thriller, which has the background of the SOE sponsorship of resistance groups. As the war approached its end, several of these partisan groups realised that by eliminating their rivals they could dominate post-war Yugoslavia; the Germans would be defeated whatever they did. It was at this point that SOE switched its support from the royalist partisans to Tito's Communists.
This book is not, as many war novels are, a glorification of the heroics of SOE. It is actually about an operation sabotaged from the start: an attempt to begin an Albanian resistance movement organised by a friend of Burgess and MacLean who wants to use it as a cover to create the potential of a Communist state there. Thus the 'patriot' who is dropped is in fact carrying thousands of pounds in gold, contrary to SOE regulations. However, incompetence leads to the man landing in Yugoslavia instead of Albania, and the gold is hidden in a cache which had been used by a banker to hide a fortune in gems before the war. This is the basic set up for the novel, which is really about this cache and its various uses during the thirty years after the war.
Leap in the Dark is a distinctly above average and unusual thriller, with excitement and comedy (mainly at the expense of SOE). Well worth looking out for.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in February 2004.
The recent BBC poll to find the best loved English novel, the Big Read, chose The Lord of the Ri...moreOriginally published on my blog here in February 2004.
The recent BBC poll to find the best loved English novel, the Big Read, chose The Lord of the Rings, a winner which is almost inevitable in this kind of listing nowadays. But if the poll could have been run a hundred and fifty years ago or more, then The Pilgrim's Progress would have been the runaway winner (so long as we ignore the fact that it is not really a novel). If a family owned one book, it was the Bible; if two, the second would almost certainly be Bunyan, far more likely than Shakespeare. Its popularity was only challenged when the Victorian mass market in novels began to open up, with the success of Dickens particularly. Today, it didn't even feature in the top 100 list. This suggests two questions: why did this book in particular become so popular? and why has its popularity diminished?
Everyone still knows what The Pilgrim's Progress is about, at least its first part: it has become an almost proverbial title. It is an allegory of the Christian life, as seen from John Bunyan's Puritan evangelical viewpoint, and takes the form of the description of a journey made by Christian from the city of Destruction to the Celestial City. The second part (published six years later) describes the subsequent journey made by his wife Christiana, following in his footsteps. Like most allegories, the point is not the story, but lies in the images used to make the point; some of Bunyan's have entered the language, such as the "Slough of Despond".
The reason for the popularity of Bunyan's work cannot really lie in the allegory itself, for his images in general are not particularly imaginative (some are copied directly from ideas which occur in the Bible). Some, like the images shown the pilgrims in the House of the Interpreter, are hardly made part of the story at all. The story itself is unevenly constructed, with at least one character met on the way disappearing from the text without his departure being recorded (this is the Atheist, though it is at least made clear that he is travelling in the opposite direction to Christian). The second part is even more problematic, as it consists of little more than a description of a tour of the places which have already been mentioned when Christian visited them. Both parts include a lot of direct preaching and theological discussion as well as the allegory, but there is also far more of this the second time around.
The popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress must have come more from the timing of its publication, and from its content rather than its quality. The evangelical revival which gave rise to Methodism was just around the corner, and many non-conformists (people who would not accept the doctrine and hierarchy of the Anglican church) emigrated to America in the next few decades. These were the groups who took up Bunyan's book, and they spread it worldwide. It even proved to have cross-cultural appeal, being widely translated and even published in Catholic countries. (For a Puritan work, it is very restrained about Rome, and its references to Catholicism are veiled, but this is still surprising.)
The value of The Pilgrim's Progress to the Puritans was that it is an extremely effective aid to applying an evangelical view of Protestant Biblical theology to the trials faced in life. Through its images and allegorical characters, it was inspirational. The Bible is a confusing document, even for those who profess to believe it literally, and the sort of theology followed by the Puritans was much easier to pick up and understand from a systematic outline; The Pilgrim's Progress is not totally systematic, but it is certainly easier to apply to real life situations than either an abstract summary (like a catechism) or the Bible itself. It picks up one of the big reasons why the parables have always been more popular reading matter than the Pauline epistles - stories are much more entertaining than the direct exposition of theology. Aids to understanding the Bible have always been popular - such aids have been produced to push just about every possible theological position - and The Pilgrim's Progress is one of the most entertaining and is certainly the best known.
So the reason for the initial success of The Pilgrim's Progress was the right content at the right time; if it hadn't been published, I suspect that a Puritan allegory would have come along sooner rather than later (after all, it had been one of the most characteristic forms of medieval literature), and that this might have become as popular. It massively overshadowed all Bunyan's other writing, only Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, his autobiography, coming anywhere near it in popularity even in his lifetime.
The drop in the popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress seems, as far as I know, to have been well under way before the decline in churchgoing which marked the twentieth century West. It may have kept its pre-eminent place in rural areas, but novels like The Pickwick Papers, or alternatively the works of Shakespeare, took over in the urban middle class home.
It seems to me that the change is likely to be connected to the big publishing explosion at the beginning of the nineteenth century. (This is really just a guess; I don't have any facts and figures to back it up.) Apparently, up until then it was just about possible, given a fair amount of luxurious free time, to read every book published in English. Then, when the novel took off, this changed. Even if this isn't actually true, there was suddenly a lot more available to read, and it was also more entertaining. (As journeys go, the Pickwick Club's progress around England may be less edifying, but it's definitely more fun.) Instead of being one of two books in the average literate home, The Pilgrim's Progress became one of dozens.
There are cleverer, subtler and more completely worked out allegories, but none which have had as big a cultural impact as this one. I wonder if today's equivalents in popularity - The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter novels - will prove as long lasting. It is of course noticeable that the criticism that there are cleverer novels of their type around applies just as much to these current contenders; and just as behind The Pilgrim's Progress lies one of the most popular medieval genres, they both build on many precedents. The Lord of the RingsWilliam ShakespeareCharles DickensGrace Abounding to the Chief of SinnersThe Pickwick Papers(less)
Originally published on my blog here in January 2001.
The seventh Sister Fidelma mystery is to be the last, as far as I am concerned. I had hoped that...moreOriginally published on my blog here in January 2001.
The seventh Sister Fidelma mystery is to be the last, as far as I am concerned. I had hoped that with the setting moved away from Ireland the novel would be an improvement on the previous couple in the series, which had got into something of a rut. It is better, but not sufficiently so for me to continue with the series.
Fidelma sets sail for Santiago on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James. This was not the massively important place it would become in the later Middle Ages, after a vision had revealed the presence of the body of the saint, but there are apparently records of Irish pilgrims travelling there at the date when the series is set. (This is mentioned in the rather defensive foreword.) However, one of her fellow travellers goes overboard during a storm, and evidence comes to light to show that this was murder.
Characterisation is sketchy; the background is far too clean. (Tremayne's picture of seventh century Ireland seems to have been strongly influenced by the romanticised picture of Celtic history fashionable in the late nineteenth century as part of the Celtic Revival.) Act of Mercy is poorly written and the mystery is unconvincing.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in February 2004.
Though Dickson himself is keen that the three novels generally known as the Dorsai Trilogy shoul...moreOriginally published on my blog here in February 2004.
Though Dickson himself is keen that the three novels generally known as the Dorsai Trilogy should be considered to be part of the far larger framework of his Chantry Guild future history of which they form part, there are few science fiction fans who would not feel that Tactics of Mistake, Soldier, Ask Not and Dorsai! are far more interesting and readable than their fellows. The reason for this is simple: Dickson later on let his writing become weighed down by some of the mystical ideas which form a relatively small part of these three novels; interesting they may be, but they dominate the other books to such an extent that the reader is put off.
Tactics of Mistake introduces the Dorsai, a race of mercenary soldiers of the future. The background situation is one which is common in a lot of American science fiction of the period - the Cold War extended over a group of colonised planets. In Dickson's future history, many of these planets are home to groups of specialists - scientists on Newton, the mystical Exotics on Kultis; this, under the name of the Splintering, is one of the ideas central to the Chantry Guild series as a whole: for the human race to mature properly, it needs to split into groups which will each develop a specific kind of human, for later re-integration.
The setting is the planet Mara, host to a small war between the Alliance-backed Exotics, the employers of the Dorsai, and the Coalition-backed Neulanders. Cletus Grahame is an Alliance officer recently arrived from Earth, who has come to Kultis to try out some new ideas he as about military strategy, notably the "tactics of mistake", which basically consists of drawing an opponent into a series of errors at the end of which their position becomes untenable.
There are obviously shadows of the Vietnam War in the novel, and implied criticism of American policy in the opportunistic imperialism which marks both the Alliance and the Coalition. Grahame's tactics similarly seem to criticise American attempts to win in Vietnam by brute force methods - more men, better weapons, rather than tactics suited to the nature of the conflict (as those adopted by the Viet Cong proved to be).
Dickson's writing style is nothing if not mainstream science fiction. The influences of Heinlein and Herbert are clearly to be seen in this novel, for example. Dickson shared with Herbert a desire to make his subject matter more sophisticated than in earlier science fiction; he was here attempting to do for the depiction of military strategy what Herbert had done for politics in Dune. The difference can be seen by citing another example. In E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, the strategic decisions consist of the deployment of a sequence of ever more spectacular weapons, combined with small group operations to disable the enemy command structure. I find it hard to see, however, how the tactics Grahame devises based on the (notoriously difficult to assess) psychology of powerful members of the enemy hierarchy, could be generally applicable. (Think about how hard it has been for Americans to find Osama bin Laden - and I think that Grahame's analysis of future actions of people like Dow Castries are on the same sort of level of difficulty.) Yet Grahame's plans always seem to work perfectly; no miscalculations, no unforeseen difficulties, no chance event ruining things. The only exception to his psychological understanding is his inability to read the woman he wants to marry.
The take on the subject matter may be influenced by Herbert, but the writing style is more firmly in the style of Robert Heinlein's earlier novels (before Stranger in a Strange Landd). This is despite Dickson's clear rejection of the type of militarism which is part of Starship Troopers. The Tactics of Mistake is exciting and easy to read. Most serious science fiction fans will probably already have read the Dorsai Trilogy, but if not - anyone who likes writers like Heinlein and Herbert will enjoy it.(less)