Thursday, 30 September 1999

S. Schoenbaum: Shakespeare's Lives (1970)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1979
Review number: 343

One of the big problems with Shakespearean scholarship is that so little is known about the man who wrote the plays and poetry. His life is almost a complete blank, the major documentary evidence provided by occasional legal documents in which he is mentioned for one reason or another. Many of these documents were unknown before the second half of the nineteenth century or even later, and the background (knowledge of, say, the financial arrangements through which early seventeenth century theatre existed) less well understood than they are today.

The lack of knowledge combined with an extreme reverence for the works themselves proved a fertile incentive for the invention and elaboration of traditions and theories, culminating in the attribution of the plays to other hands entirely. It is the history of these traditions which forms the subject of Schoenbaum's famous book.

Schoenbaum has a rather enjoyably caustic style, dismissive of the more baseless fantasies. Some of these are pretty laughable, such as those which "prove" that Shakespeare spent part of his life following the same profession as the fantasist - a sailor, for example, wrote a book describing how Shakespeare ran away from home at 13 to sign on as the cabin boy on Drake's famous trip around the world, and carried on a sailing career until wrecked on the shores of Illyria years later. The only evidence for this sort of suggestion is the unimaginative idea that everything Shakespeare wrote about must relate to his own experience; the whole thing springs from a desire to remake Shakespeare in the image of his admirer.

Schoenbaum has more sympathy for those whose 'bardolatry' took them beyond the bounds of sanity, including the rather pitiful forger William Henry Ireland. Ludicrous though his work may seem, it would not be right to deride someone clearly not at all normal mentally.

His most acid dismissals are reserved for those who suggested that other people wrote the plays of Shakespeare. This is inspired by a species of bardolatry, the feeling that the person who wrote the plays must have been more eminent than Shakespeare. Many candidates have been put forward, including Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth I (both dead when most of the plays were first performed), and a committee of eminent Elizabethans, but the most widely espoused causes are those of Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Schoenbaum describes these theories as madness, taking passing delight in the fact that the Oxfordian theory was first put forward by a man named Looney. Certainly, there doesn't seem much to recommend either idea, particularly when connected, as they often are, with some of the more outlandish speculation in another field that has generated much Shakespearean rubbish, the identities of Mr W.H., the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet from the Sonnets. The cryptoanalytical side of the theories (Bacon hiding sentences proving his authorship, or even explaining that he is the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex in the works) is the sort of meaningless speculation common to the sort of esotericism caricatured by Eco in Foucault's Pendulum. Arguments identical to the Baconian cryptology have been advanced in attempts to ridicule the idea, to show, for example, that the works were written by prominent nineteenth century figures.

There is little to criticise about this book. Schoenbaum gives credit where it is due, and its opposite where that is due; no writer is perfect or all bad. His writing is clear, and his critical appraisal of each writer he describes easy to understand. In reading the second edition, I rather miss what has now been left out to make room for an expansion of other material, a discussion of Shakespeare's role in fiction. In the year of Shakespeare in Love, this would have been most interesting to read.

Iain Banks: A Song of Stone (1997)

Edition: Abacus, 1998
Review number: 342

A Song of Stone is about the relationships between people and places. It starts with the nobleman Abel fleeing with his mistress and some of the servants from the castle which has been his home all his life, fearing its destruction at the hands of one of the bands of soldiers pillaging the country as a result of the anarchy following civil war. Intercepted in their flight by just such a band, they return to the castle, which the lieutenant and her followers want to make their stronghold.

The heart of the novel is the contrast between the attitudes of Abel and the lieutenant's group to the castle and its rich artistic treasures. Though Abel has been indifferent to them all his life, to see their slow but sure misuse and destruction affects him deeply. The lieutenant does little to stop her men broaching the wine cellars and rampaging through the castle, despite apparently wanting to preserve its art. Another part of Abel, though, takes a perverse pleasure in the senseless destruction.

The novel is addressed by Abel, as narrator, to his lover - a strange, passive and silent woman who was brought up with him almost as a sister. The consistent use of the second person in a narrative is unusual and unsettling to read, especially because it seems to cast the reader into the role of someone who is so passive. Clearly a deliberate effect, it is extremely successful, if unnerving.

Something else which is unsettling is the setting. The war is in an anonymous country, yet it could be close to home. (The neo-Gothic castle depicted in the cover illustration enhances this feeling, so it could easily be a Scottish stately home, built for shooting parties by a nineteenth century grandee.) The technology is twentieth century, without a doubt so the reader ends up thinking what they would do if a vicious civil war broke out now?

Initially, A Song of Stone seems to have much less depth than most of Banks' novels, though he does make some telling points. (The way Abel and his like treated people as possessions is indicated, for example, by the way that he does not even know the name of his most faithful old servant when this man dies and the lieutenant suggests putting up a gravestone.) Its main flaw is shared with the other Banks novels I like least, Canal Dreams and Complicity: an uninvolving central character.

Wednesday, 29 September 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Final Programme (1968)

Edition: Fontana, 1988
Review number: 341

The Final Programme must have seemed, in the mid sixties, to be the epitome of British New Wave chic. Yet, unlike so much of the literature of the period, it and its sequels have not dated. Like the TV series The Avengers, it contains a distinct vein of self parody, paving the way for Moorcock's attacks on the book in the later Jerry Cornelius novels.

The best cult sixties TV series - The Saint and The Prisoner are other examples - are in fact what come to mind most readily when reading The Final Programme. That is perhaps fitting, since one of Moorcock's aims in the book seems to be to explore the boundaries between high art and popular culture. He picks up ideas and atmosphere from sources like TV and meshes them into structures from the important literature of the century (though this becomes more obvious in the later books in the series).

The background to The Final Programme is the bitter enmity between debonair dilettante man of action Jerry Cornelius and his brother Frank, drug crazed despoiler of their inheritance, an immense French château filled with booby traps by their father. Here drug culture references come into the story, as he was an expert in hallucination, working with drugs and "hallucinomats", hypnotic machines. (Remember how important both these ideas were in The Avengers.)

Frank has barred Jerry from the château, and imprisoned their sister Catherine, for whom Jerry has an incestuous passion. Joining with the mercenary Una Persson, who aims to get her hands on their father's secrets and use them to take over the world, Jerry attacks the castle.

Willa Cather: Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

Edition: Virago, 1997
Review number: 340

Willa Cather's best known novel is one of the gentlest of the major works of twentieth century literature, like the men she writes about. Her subject, like her novel's atmosphere, is unfashionable, against the flow of modern literary concerns. For her subject is the work of pioneering Catholic missionaries in nineteenth century New Mexico, hardly one calculated to appeal in an iconoclastic, anti-religious time. Other unusual aspects of her novel include the depiction of a close friendship free of sexuality, contrary to our century's central obsession.

Her main characters, Archbishop Latour and his associate Father Vaillant, are likeable. Even though imperfect, they still command our respect. They are based on the real first archbishop of New Mexico and the friend of his who later became the first bishop of Colorado. Their sincere faith in God and the church and their obedience to their commands are at the centre of their beings.

More a character study than a traditionally constructed novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop consists of a series of isolated events from Latour's life, as he works to establish the church in New Mexico, and regain contact with the Mexican settles left over from Spanish rule of the territory, who have retained the Catholic faith in almost total isolation from the rest of the world. The title is somewhat misleading, since his death is no more important than any of the other reported incidents.

Tuesday, 28 September 1999

Victor Canning: The Crimson Chalice (1976)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 339

There seems to be something about the Arthur legend which attracts thriller writers. Best known are probably Mary Stewart's books, but other authors who have tackled the subject include Bernard Cornwell and Victor Canning. Canning's trilogy, beginning with The Crystal Chalice, is less a straight retelling of the legend than a story inspired by it - particularly the Holy Grail elements. In The Crimson Chalice, for example, Arthur and Merlin hardly get a mention. Magic is virtually banished, just occasionally appearing here and there. This mainly makes it serve as a reminder that the setting is Arthurian, rather than being a straight fifth century historical novel.

Young upper class Roman girl Tia (short for Gratia) flees from the destruction of her father's villa by a party of marauding Saxons, when she comes upon the body of Baradoc in the woods. Heir to the chieftainship of a British tribe in the far west, he was taken prisoner by Phoenician traders and sold as a slave. He is also escaping the Saxons, but has been attacked and left for dead by his cousin, the next heir. She nurses him back to health, and they continue together to Aquae Sulis (Bath) and the comparative safety of her uncle's villa there.

The self-deprecating postscript effectively disarms criticism of Canning's style; suffice it to say that some of the more romantic and poetic passages are ill advised.

Leslie Charteris: Knight Templar (1930)

Alternative title: The Avenging Saint
Edition:  Hodder & Stoughton
Review number: 338

Following The Last Hero, it must have been quite a challenge for Charteris to know where to take the Saint next. He hardly hesitated, however, before writing the third novel in the saga, Knight Templar. The villain, Rayt Marius, is back, still intent on world domination by provoking a war. Simon Templar follows him to England, seeking revenge for the murder of Norman Kent and overlooking the fact that he has become one of Britain's most wanted men. Marius' reason for going to England is typically devious: Sylvia Delmar and Sir Isaac Lessing are about to get married, and this will lead to a merger between oil companies owned by her father and her fiancé. Marius wants to fragment the oil industry so that he can have more influence there, so he sets out to kidnap Sylvia and force her to marry another man.

The plot is fairly typical of the thirties thriller, but Charteris handles it in what is distinctly his own way, leading up to another surprise ending incredibly audacious for the time.

Monday, 27 September 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Grave Mistake (1978)

Edition: Collins, 1978
Review number: 337

Grave Mistake was one of Marsh's very last novels, published in the late seventies. It forms part of a group of good novels which she wrote at this period, being one of her best village crime stories. Like most of her other novels, its characters are taken mainly from the English upper classes.

When the rich widow Sybil Foster dies in an exclusive nursing home near her home, it at first looks as though she had taken an overdose. But it doesn't take long before medical evidence makes it quite clear that this cannot have been what has happened. Though a foolish woman, she did not have enemies, but there are several people who covet her possessions. These include a stepson from her first marriage, whose father's money she enjoyed for life before it passed to him; her neighbour, Greek oil tycoon Nikolas Markos, who covets the house she will not sell, and whose son is betrothed to Sybil's daughter against her wishes. This mixture is further confused by a mystery over the fate of a rare stamp that belonged to her first husband and disappeared at his death.

Little concession is made to the supposedly seventies setting; other than passing references to motorways and Concorde, this could be pre-war England. That means, at least, that we are spared the embarrassing attempts to be contemporary which mar several earlier novels.

O. Henry: Sixes and Sevens (1911)

Edition:  Doubleday, Doran & Co
Review number: 336

The last collection of O. Henry's short stories made during his lifetime, like the preceding one (Options), is a heterogeneous group of tales typical of the writer. He left approximately as much uncollected material, generally not as high a standard as that which had been published in book form.

My favourite story in Sixes and Sevens is The Champion of the Weather, in which a cowboy from the remote Kiowa Reservation visits New York. He is amazed when no one speaks to him the whole time he is there - this general consequence of modern city life is totally foreign to him. The story is about his efforts to have a conversation about anything with someone, including the weather. It is an inconsequential little tale, but it shows Henry at his amusing best.

Friday, 24 September 1999

Peter Tremayne: Valley of the Shadow (1998)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 334

The Sister Fidelma mysteries seem to be beginning to fall into a familiar pattern as the series grows in length. She goes to a remote corner of her brother's kingdom of Muman (better known by its later name of Munster) to a suspicious and insular community. There, murders happen, often linked to a threat to her brother's rule, and Fidelma overcomes local opposition to solve the mystery. The variety of settings used in the earlier books - different parts of Ireland, Whitby, Rome - has disappeared. The character of Fidelma has settled into an opportunity for Tremayne to repeat again and again his point that seventh century Ireland was an immensely civilised place. Her enlightened attitude is always on display, emphasised by the astonishment it causes in those around her - especially her Saxon friend Eadwulf.

None of these criticisms stop the Sister Fidelma mysteries being interesting and entertaining detective novels, but it is perhaps time that Tremayne made a bit more effort again.

Christopher Stasheff: The Oathbound Wizard (1993)

Edition: Legend, 1996
Review number: 335

Sequel to Her Majesty's Wizard, The Oathbound Wizard continues the story of student Matt after he has been thrust into another world in which he is a powerful magician. The best thing about the first book was the idea of a fantasy novel which took medieval Catholicism seriously, and that is carried over in a diluted form into The Oathbound Wizard. (The power of faith is somewhat lessened, probably to improve the verisimilitude of the plot.)

Matt has been unable to marry his beloved Queen Alisande of Merovence, because she cannot feel it is right for her country for her to marry one not of noble blood. (Because of the idea of the divine appointment of rulers, she usually instinctively knows the right course of action to take for the benefit of her people. Though she does feel that it would be right to marry Matt, her scruples derive from the suspicion that her love for him is overcoming her supernatural knowledge.) After three years, Matt is very frustrated, and in a moment of temper swears an oath that he will overthrow the evil usurping sorcerer holding the throne of the neighbouring kingdom of Ibile. Meaning this as a figure of speech to express his emotion, he has forgotten the spiritual power of words in this world, and so he is committed to a quest.

In this second novel, Stasheff is not quite so careful about the background as in Her Majesty's Wizard. He manages, for example, to get the names of the kings of England wrong. This is in discussion with Robin Hood, conjured up from another parallel universe, and I suspect that the reason that the king following Richard and John is named Edward rather than Henry is related to his background reading on the Robin Hood legend. The tales, now traditionally associated with Richard I's crusading, apparently developed during the reign of Edward III, and it may be that Stasheff assumed he followed the earlier kings.

As the novelty of the first in the series has worn off, the second does not seem nearly as good.

Thursday, 23 September 1999

Anthony Powell: The Kindly Ones (1962)

Edition: Penguin, 1964
Review number: 333

The sixth volume of Powell's Dance to the Music of Time concludes the second trilogy within the series, Summer. Judging solely from internal evidence, this would be hard to see. The first two books deal with the second half of the thirties, the events in the back ground forming the lead-in to the Second World War. In The Kindly Ones, war breaks out, though remaining comparatively distant from everyday British life for the period sometimes known as 'the Phoney War'. The rest of the background is shared with the other books from the first half of the series. The Kindly Ones doesn't seem to be an ending, more a transition between the peacetime and wartime novels.

The title refers, of course, to the euphemistic term used by the Greeks to refer to the Furies, supernatural beings who avenged crimes against the family. (It was believed unlucky to refer to them more directly.) They most famously appear in the third play of Aeschylus' Oresteia, when their legal case against matricide Orestes is the foundation of the Athenian court, the Areopagus. The name was often used to refer to violent women, and I believe was applied to the suffragettes by their opponents. However, there are no appropriate women in the novel to suggest that this is the reason for the title. I found it difficult to see why Powell chose it at all, unless it has a reference to the outbreak of war. (As well as the Second World War, the novel contains a flashback to Jenkin's childhood, to the day on which Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, precipitating the First World War.)

Wednesday, 22 September 1999

Leslie Charteris: The Last Hero (1930)

Alternative title: The Saint Closes the Case
Edition:  Pan, 1961
Review number: 332

This, the second published volume in the Saint series proper, is the first full length novel in which he is the central character, and can perhaps make a better claim to be literature than anything else Charteris ever wrote.

How does The Last Hero differ from other Saint books and, indeed, set itself apart from the thirties thriller in general? The character of Simon Templar is not as central as usual, and Charteris manages to differentiate four different "good guys" and two "bad guys", none of them wholly stereotypical. (Compare this to, say, Dornford Yates, whose characters consist of one good guy and one bad guy, in male and female modes.) The book is very carefully constructed, leading up to one of the best-constructed surprise endings of any thriller ever written. A sombre mood prevails throughout, and this is perhaps motivated by the choice of subject matter.

The Last Hero is in fact an anti-war novel, in which Templar and his followers are not just trying to prevent a newly invented devastating weapon from falling into the wrong hands (as in Buchan) but into any hands, the British government included. Instead of a light hearted adventure for the fun of it - the characteristic nature of most of the Saint stories - this is deadly serious.

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited (1945)

Edition: Penguin, 1989
Review number: 331

For some reason, even though I have read and enjoyed several books by Evelyn Waugh, I have never picked up his best-known book until now; I was slightly too young to want to watch the early eighties' TV adaptation. I wasn't prepared for it to be such a sad story. Other Waugh novels, such as Scoop, have a melancholy vein running through them, but Brideshead Revisited possesses this to a marked degree. Instead of the sadness being a minor part of the book, it is the humour which takes second place.

The book is about the memories brought back to Charles Ryder when he, an army officer during the Second World War, is quartered with his men in the stately home Brideshead Castle. He knew the Flyte family, owners of the mansion, intimately over twenty years, first meeting Sebastian when both were undergraduates at Oxford, then having a long-term affair with his sister, Julia.

There are several sources of sadness in the novel. These include Charles' feelings about his own wasted life, but mainly centre around the Flytes. From almost the first moment that Sebastian appears on the scene, with his eccentricities (including the famous teddy bear, Aloysius), there is a sense that he is doomed. As the years pass and his drinking takes on a more unhealthy character, this feeling is confirmed. None of the Flytes are happy, and there are hints that this is due to the dominant personality of their mother. This is probably most clearly signalled by their different adult attitudes to the Catholic Church, introduced by her to the family. Sebastian comes closest to abandoning the church entirely, while his elder brother, heir to the Marchmain title, and younger sister Cordelia seriously consider becoming a priest and a nun respectively.

One of the main themes of Brideshead Revisited is the suppressed homoerotic side to Charles' admiration of Sebastian. This comes across strongly, as does Charles' unwillingness to admit it to himself. His love affair with Julia is based around her resemblance to her brother; this naturally has a major, if unspoken, effect on their relationship.

As a melancholy evocation of a past which led nowhere (both Charles' personal life, and the optimistic early twenties), Brideshead Revisited is undoubtedly one of the greatest of twentieth century novels. The looking back was probably initially suggested to Waugh by the desire which motivated its writing. In the introduction (from the second edition onwards) he explains that what he wanted to do in part was to draw people's attention to the destruction of England's stately homes, which he viewed just after the war as imminent given the destruction of the country house lifestyle and the indifference of many people to their fate.

Tuesday, 21 September 1999

Leslie Charteris: Enter the Saint (1930)

Edition: Dent, 1983
Review number: 330

Though not the first appearance of Simon Templar (that comes in Meet the Tiger, published two years earlier with a different publisher), Enter the Saint is the first novel in which he plays the leading role. After this, Leslie Charteris never felt the need to create another hero.

Like so many volumes in the Saint saga (as Charteris called it) Enter the Saint consists of three loosely linked stories about Simon Templar. Leslie Charteris happened to like writing the novelette length, stories containing about a dozen short chapters. This is an ideal book to see the early Saint, before Charteris fell in love with the States and Americanised him, and before a certain world-weariness set in. The Simon Templar of the early thirties enjoys life, and gets an immense kick out of the action he experiences as 'the Robin Hood of modern crime'. To the readers of thirties England, he must have seemed immensely different to the established heroes of other writers - to us, he probably recalls the bantering James Bond of the films (rather than the grimmer figure created by Fleming). It is not surprising that he was phenomenally successful.

Thursday, 9 September 1999

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (1881)

Translation: David Magarshack, 1958
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 329

The Brothers Karamazov is often described as Dostoyevsky's masterpiece. It is certainly his longest novel. It unites themes from his other novels: the psychology of murder from Crime and Punishment, the "holy fool" from The Idiot; and, as his last novel, can be seen as a culmination of his treatment of these themes.

The Karamazovs are a supreme example of that currently fashionable object, the dysfunctional family. The consist of the father Fyodor, a drunken scoundrel, and three sons by two (dead) wives, Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan and Alexei (Alyosha). Through a grotesque love triangle in which Dmitri and his father are both courting the same woman, bad feelings come to a head, with Dmitri telling all who will listen how much he hates his father (who has also cheated him of the inheritance due him from his mother) and wants to kill him. Then Fyodor is found dead, in circumstances which point to Dmitri as the murderer.

This plot summary makes Dmitri seem much more important than his younger brothers, and this is the case to the extent that it is his relationship with his father which motivates the plot. Yet both Ivan and Alyosha play vital roles: Ivan plotting to exploit the situation for his own benefit, Alyosha constantly - as the holy fool - seeking to reconcile the rest of his family.

Like all the characters who interested Dostoyevsky, the Karamazovs are passionate, even melodramatic. They seem very Russian, partly because our ideas of Russianness in the West are strongly influenced by the nineteenth century novelists and dramatists. As the events of the novel progress, the two elder brothers become more and more unstable, until driven virtually to insanity. Only Alexei is able to deal with this side of his nature, through the external moral guidance provided through his faith in the church.

The larger than life side of the elder brothers to my mind distorts the novel somewhat. I found Dmitri and Ivan rather difficult to believe in for the first half of the novel, the first seven books. But it is necessary to have them like this in character to motivate their dissolution during the murder trial, just as the lengthy sermonising from Orthodox monks is necessary to make us understand how Alexei escapes the dissolution. The contrast between his piety and the brothers' atheism is made stronger by the incredible scene in which Ivan hallucinates a conversation with the Devil in which they argue about his existence: one of the most powerful scenes, to my mind, in all literature.

Wednesday, 8 September 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman and the Redskins (1982)

Edition: MacMillan, 1983
Review number: 328

This is the seventh Flashman book, though the events it describes follow on directly from the third, Flash for Freedom! In fact, Fraser slightly alters the ending of the earlier book so that Flashman doesn't actually get so far as on board a boat returning to England after his adventures with the Underground Railroad. Instead, he is catapulted into a journey across the West with the 'Forty-Niners, on their way to the California goldrush.

The second half of the novel is about Flashman's return twenty six years later, on what starts as a tourist trip for the benefit of his wife Elspeth and ends with his terrified participation in Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn.

The book generally could be described as typical Flashman. The first part, however, is probably my least favourite of all the Flashman stories; he seems more unpleasant and less charming than usual. As usual, the background has been carefully researched by Fraser, and he skilfully manoeuvres Flashy in and out of desperate scrapes.

John Maddox: What Remains to be Discovered (1997)

Edition: MacMillan, 1998
Review number: 327

John Maddox, having retired as editor of Nature, on of the most prestigious scientific journals, should be in a unique position to evaluate the state of scientific research at the end of the twentieth century and to look ahead to what we may see in the near future. He is not interested in developments in engineering and technology, but in work designed to improve our understanding of the universe around us. This contrasts with, say, the predictions made by Arthur C. Clarke at the beginning of 1999, which are full of technological items such as the date by which he would expect the establishment of a permanent manned base on the moon. The final chapter, which discusses natural and manmade disasters which might bring about the destruction of the human race, is the only place where technology and politics play much part; it makes the chapter seem rather separate from the rest of the book. The conclusion also acknowledges that applied science is important, even though it is not the main concern of the book.

Through the major part of the book, Maddox works through physics, biology, neurology and mathematics in that order, summarising the current position and looking at where profitable avenues for future research may lie. In his discussion, he takes an outsider's view of the particular area of science, sceptical of the enthusiasms which tend to dominate some specialities (the search for a 'theory of everything' in physics, for example) while taking a general pro-science and pro the standard models of science viewpoint. It is this calm appraisal which I felt to be most valuable in the book, and this is best represented in the chapters on physics. It enables him to say in his conclusion - and convince the reader that it is true - that "What stands out is that there is no field of science that is free from glaring ignorance, even contradiction."

I was rather surprised to read in the miniature biography on the inside of the book jacket that Maddox was originally a physicist before moving into journalism. The book gives me the impression that his main scientific interest is biological. (From reading the odd copy of Nature during his editorship, I had the same feeling about the journal.) This feeling is probably at least in part a consequence of my own different interests: physical sciences rather than biological.

This actually has an interesting connection with some of the things that Maddox has to say about the current state of the sciences. I have a tendency to appreciate the theoretical and philosophical, and this is today more the aspect presented by physics and mathematics than biology. Maddox criticises biologists, particularly those studying the mechanisms of the cell, for their dislike of predictive models and theories, describing much of their work as cataloguing rather than true science ("Oh look! This protein has this function in that structure! How fun!"). That is a sign of the comparative immaturity and difficulty of their subject - the cell and the human genome, both discussed at some length, are systems involving the interplay of thousands of mechanisms. (Maddox also points out that the main philosophical idea underpinning biology, the theory of evolution, is not predictive in the same way as, say, Einstein's theory of general relativity is. Given an organism and a change in the environment, it cannot tell you how that organism will adapt to meet that change.)

I felt that the section on mathematics betrayed least understanding, and I think that this is due to it being the subject I know best as well as being less congenial to Maddox.

Tuesday, 7 September 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Quest for Tanelorn (1975)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 326

As with the other volumes in The Chronicles of Castle Brass, hardly any of The Quest for Tanelorn takes place in that location. To find his children, Dorian Hawkmoon sets out on a quest for the city of Tanelorn, which seems to be the only place where the contradictions between his memories and the world he lives in can be resolved.

Hawkmoon's quest joins up with those of other aspects of Moorcock's Eternal Champion, as they are allowed to meet up from different times and universes (two aspects of one soul, as the Champions are, are normally forbidden to meet) for the Conjunction of a Million Spheres. This marks the final, decisive confrontation between the beings who promote Chaos and those who support the Balance between Law and Chaos. (The beings who promote Law have long since been destroyed.)

The Quest for Tanelorn reads as though Moorcock, in the mid seventies, had decided to wrap up his ideas about the Eternal Champion, the Balance and so on. For a writer of Moorcock's ability, it was clearly something of a limiting restriction, and many of the books since this period have seemed freer. Combined with the immense speed with which he worked, the limited plot choices the idea enforced meant than entire novels seem just to be fillers in series (The Mad God's Amulet is an example).

Much of The Quest for Tanelorn also reads like filler, but it is in fact a necessary preparation for the final, climactic scene, designed to mark an end for the Eternal Champion. (Moorcock does go on to use the idea again, but never with the single-mindedness he shows in the early seventies.) Moorcock has some serious things to say here, more so than in most of the books relating to the Champion.

One of these is connected to the prior destruction of the beings promoting Law. ("Prior" is perhaps not a good word, as the Conjunction unites beings and events from many different periods.) Moorcock must surely be making a point about the culture in which we live; we have lost respect for the forces which bring order, and the best we can do is act to preserve the balance between Law and Chaos.

A second idea goes beyond this, for Moorcock seems to have wanted to criticise the way that we put ourselves in subjection to forces outside ourselves that promote chaos (such as rebellious teenage fashions) or law (such as many religions). No one should be single minded about these things for, Moorcock says, we have created them ourselves. I don't read this as being an endorsement of anarchy (after all, the books are about the need for a balance between Chaos and Law), but rather Moorcock is reminding us that we should think for ourselves.

Monday, 6 September 1999

Iain M. Banks: Inversions (1998)

Inversions coverEdition: Orbit, 1998

Iain Banks is fascinated by the idea of a novel constructed from seemingly independent strands which turn out to be connected. Inversions is at least the fourth time he has done this (Walking on Glass, The Bridge and Feersum Endjinn are earlier examples). Inversions is rather simpler than these earlier novels for two reasons: there are only two stories being told in parallel, and there is a prologue in which we are told that there are connections between the stories, instead of having to work it out ourselves from hints in the narrative. (The nature of the connection, though, is something the reader is left to speculate about; Banks gives clues but doesn't specify it exactly.)

Both stories are set on the same world, where a large empire has recently disintegrated into warring kingdoms at a late medieval level of technology (hand guns are new technology, so about the level of fifteenth century Europe). The background seemed to have an Eastern flavour for some reason that I can't quite put my finger on; it is possible that the cover illustration, of some Chinese-style architecture, has something to do with this.

The two stories are set in two warring kingdoms, each telling of the influence of a manipulative stranger on the kingdom's affairs. A heavy hint is given that the strangers - or at least one of them - are agents of the Culture, the advanced galactic civilisation which forms the background of many of Banks' science fiction novels. The one, Vossil, whose access to advanced Culture-style technology shows her origin with a degree of certainty, is acting as physician to the king of one state. The other, DeWar, is bodyguard to the ruler of another. Thus both are protecting life, though DeWar perhaps in a less sophisticated way than Vossil. DeWar tells stories which seem to be about himself and Vossil before they came to their current positions - the stories present the Culture as fairy tales for children, a neat irony. This is the main evidence that he too is from a more sophisticated culture. DeWar is the most interesting character in Inversions, and this interest starts with his name: a multilingual pun in our world not that of the novel's setting, as well as ironically a famous Scottish name.

It is hard to see the exact reason for the title Inversions. Possible ones which occurred to me include that it is a Culture novel set on a low technology world, that it is about a relationship between two people who never interact, that it is something to do with how it is meant to reflect our world, that it is a science fiction novel that appears to be fantasy (though what "magic" there is in Inversions is clearly advanced technology, recalling Arthur C. Clarke's famous saying) or even a historical novel.

Despite being an engaging novel which raises questions in the minds of its readers, Inversions is not as profound as any of the three earlier Banks novels mentioned above. It is more accessible since it is less complex while offering appetising interesting ideas, and so might perhaps serve as a good introduction to his writing for anyone who hasn't read any of his books before.

Wednesday, 1 September 1999

Morris West: Harlequin (1973)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 324

Harlequin et Cie is a family owned bank in early seventies Geneva. They are suddenly hit, simultaneously, by a security audit from computer consultant Creative Systems pointing to embezzlement by chairman George Harlequin, and a hostile take-over bid by Creative Systems' owner, Boris Yanko.

The novel is told from the point of view of Paul Desmond, close friend of George and one of the directors of the bank. He suspects that Yanko has taken advantage of his control of Harlequin's computer services to frame George as an embezzler, in order to force him to sell the bank. West uses this to create a tense thriller, one which is heavily rooted in its time by its dependence on a particular way of using computers.

It seems almost inconceivable today that a bank with offices in dozens of countries should not own even one computer of its own but instead rent time and operators from a firm which specialises in this. In the early seventies, this was not particularly unusual, computers being expensive and cumbersome. (1973 is after all closer to the date of IBM's famous statement that there would never be a market for more than 500 computers world-wide than it is to today.) Computer fraud has to be far more sophisticated in the 1990s than it was then.

West uses this peculiarity of the period as the peg around which his thriller is constructed, but its real strength is in the characterisations he writes. Thriller characters are often ciphers, barely affected by the terrifying events they endure. In this novel, Harlequin and Desmond are horrified by the violence which follows their decision to resist Yanko's takeover attempt, and the stunned grief they feel when Harlequin's wife is killed is particularly convincing.