Saturday, 31 March 2001

Amir Aczel: Probability 1: Why There Must be Intelligent Life in the Universe (1998)

Edition: Little, Brown & Co, 1999
Review number: 795

The question of the existence of extra-terrestrial life is one which has fascinated the human race since classical times. In recent years, various attempts have been made to estimate the likelihood that such life exists, prompted in some part by the popularity of science fiction. This sort of speculation begins with what is known as the Fermi paradox, which is basically that we should already know if there is intelligent life more advanced than we are because they should have contacted us already.

This way of looking at things actually suggests other questions, which are rather more interesting that whether life exists at all; it would be hard to get excited by a universe populated only by micro-organisms other than on our own planet. Basically, these other questions amount to speculation about what form putative extraterrestrial life might take - could there be advanced civilizations? How could we know? They actually lead back to close study of life on earth, to try to see how things could have developed differently.

There is an equation, the Drake equation, which predicts the likelihood of contact by an advanced alien race; this is put together by assigning probabilities and expected values to various events, most of which is guess work - the probable lifetime of a civilization, for example. Aczel's book, after a discussion of some of the issues raised in the previous paragraph, makes an estimate for the first few values in the equation, those which refer to the existence of life itself rather than levels of technology, and infers from this that the probability of life existing somewhere else in the universe is essentially indistinguishable from 1, certainty.

This is done through some elementary probability theory, which essentially amounts to saying that the universe is so big that, no matter how unlikely, life must exist somewhere. This is saved for the end, but much more interesting is Aczel's explanation of why he thinks humanity might well be the most mature civilization in the universe (as a result of the inspection paradox, unfortunately not as clearly explained as most of the mathematics in the book).

The book as a whole is not as successful as Aczel's earlier explanation of Fermat's Last Theorem, at least as far as I am concerned. A lot of it is over-simplified - I ended up skipping a lot of the early part of the book. It picks up in the middle, when nuggets of interesting information start to be included, but unfortunately becomes less interesting again as it starts to concentrate on the existence of life in general rather than intelligent life.

Harry Harrison: Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (1973)

Edition: Orbit, 1976 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 794

As spoofs go, this must rank as one of the most outrageous ever written. Like many science fiction fans, I have a considerable affection for the space operas of writers like E.E. "Doc" Smith, but I would have to admit that they are poorly written, sexist and sometimes - usually unconsciously - racist. (They succeed because of their imagination - things like galaxy destroying weapons - even though written at a time when Mars was as far as most science fiction was willing to travel.)

The parodistic relationship with Smith in particular is very clear at the start, which is based extremely closely on his first novel, Skylark. Two college boys are playing with a particle accelerator and some cheddar cheese when they discover a portable space warp. They set off with this in a Jumbo Jet, with their girlfriend (who can't decide which of them she prefers) and school janitor and Communist spy John, the token black character.

The story is funny in its own right, as well as being a merciless parody of the shortcomings of the genre. It also possesses a wonderful twist at the end which, like many of the jokes, would be spoilt by repetition.

K.W. Jeter: Death Arms (1987)

Edition: Grafton, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 793

In many ways, Death Arms is very similar to Jeter's first novel, Dr Adder. In both novels, an outsider from society with a remarkable father (in this case, an assassin) travels to the ruins of a wrecked Los Angeles where, among the bizarre people that he meets, he is able to come to some sort of understanding of who he is and what legacy his father has left him.

Death Arms is distinctly less successful, and less interesting to read (though in part re-reading it soon after Dr Adder is producing this effect). It is far less violent, but has a creepy element not present in the earlier novel: the best writing in it is the description of the reanimation of the thousands of dead insects around a building by psychic Rachel. This sort of thing again makes it not for the squeamish.

Friday, 30 March 2001

Brian Stableford: Architects of Emortality (1999)

Edition: Tor, 1999
Review number: 792

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.

Saturday, 24 March 2001

Iris Murdoch: The Sea, The Sea (1978)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 791

Charles Arrowby, narrator of The Sea, The Sea, is an egoist; but, as he himself points out, does that make him so exceptional? Much of the novel is about how we control others, and how what we know of others is filtered through our own ideas and desires. Even his profession (theatrical director) is an aspect of this.

Now retired, Charles has bought himself a house by the sea. There, he begins an autobiogrphy, but soon discovers that one of the people living in the small town is his first love, who moved away in his teens and disappeared from his life completely. He becomes obsessed with her as a symbol of his lost youth and innocence, and, convinced that she still loves him, he even goes to the length of kidnapping her.

Like most of Murdoch's writing, The Sea, The Sea is about relationships. Charles is at the centre of quite a complex network of these, as part of a rather "luvvie" group of theatre people, most of whom have at one time or another been lovers. All these past actions affect their current interactions, and in particular Charles' understanding of what they do. (It is not, however, altogether clear that Charles is an honest narrator.)

The novel has other strands to it. Two which are quite closely related are the supernatural and the symbol of the sea. The former just occurs in touches, as when Charles believes his house to be haunted. (Part of this is the activity of an ex-lover, but she refuses to admit responsibility for all the occurrences which lead him to think this.) Even when not being directly mentioned, on the other hand, the sea is present in the novel as something vast, incomprehensible and certainly uncontrollable: sometimes drawing Charles in and sometimes threatening his life. In the context of the novel, its meaning must be connected to the fact that much of what surrounds us is actually beyond our control. This is why the ideas of the supernatural and the sea, as used by Murdoch, are closely related.

The Sea, The Sea is powerfully effective, really catching the reader up in the drama of the relationships it deals with, and leading us to take a new look at how we treat others, and how we understand others. It is a huge achievement.

Thursday, 22 March 2001

Neil Gaiman: Smoke and Mirrors (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 790

In a lengthy, unthemed collection of short stories, it is to be expected that the preoccupations of an author will be more obvious than might be the case in any individual novel. Neil Gaiman's first collection is not an exception, and showcases both his talents and shortcomings as a writer.

The main strengths of Gaiman's writing are unusual imagination and the ability to convey that imagination. This is particularly the case with the stories which are re-tellings of familiar tales - Snow White from the point of view of the stepmother, for example.

The major weakness is that he has too great a desire to introduce an unexpected twist into each story. When one is encountered individually, this will obviously help it to stand out and remain in the memory. In thirty or so all read together, it does become a little tiresome.

A large number of the stories are narrative poems, and some of them are pretty good; but the quality of the poetry is variable, and some of them just seem to be strangely formatted prose. The best stories in the collection are those which are rather different from the others; these include the short short In The End and heavenly crime story Murder Mysteries.

Wednesday, 21 March 2001

Lyndon Hardy: Master of the Five Magics (1980)

Edition: Corgi, 1985
Review number: 789

One of the aspects of the fantasy genre I find interesting is the variety of mechanisms by which magic works. These are rarely as systematic as they are in this novel; Hardy pictures a world with five very distinct magical crafts, with their own uses and methods. Practitioners of one know little about the others, and jealously guard their own secrets in turn.

The main character is journeyman thaumaturge (the branch of magic roughly corresponding to engineering) Alodar; though born of a noble family, he has been forced by circumstances to take up a profession. With the queen and much of the army of Procolon, he is confined in the fortress of Iron Fist by a massive rebellion. As the fortress falls, he discovers a hidden treasure - of the art of alchemy - and a way of escape for the queen and her companions. He also discovers an ambition: to prove himself worthy to be declared a suitor for the hand of queen Vendora and thereby to restore his family's fortunes.

Though the novel is not comic, its tone is reminiscent of Sprague de Camp's Unbeheaded King series. It reads well, particularly given that the author is concerned far more to explain his system of magic than he is interested in plot or character. It is interestingly scientific, but with holes (each craft has a small number of guiding principles, but their origins are obscure and their application somewhat arbitrary; research is not about finding new principles but about developing new applications). Towards the end of the novel, there is an attack on scientific research, which throws some light on the background to the novel. Though awkward in places, Master of the Five Magics is generally very readable when compared to other fantasy novels about a single idea.

Saki: The Unbearable Bassington (1912)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 788

At the beginning of Monro's first novel, the reader assumes that what they are reading is going to be exactly like his Reginald stories, but on a larger scale. Comus Bassington is another of the upper class young men with a cynical outlook on life. The plot is basically that his mother keeps trying to arrange things for Comus - the opportunity for a job as a secretary, or an advantageous marriage, for the Bassington fmaily is not so well off as they appear - only for Comus to spoil things by selfishness or an unwillingness to be guided by another.

The first thing which makes The Unbearable Bassington different is that Comus is not the sardonic observer that Reginald is. There is plenty of dissection of the foolishness of high society, but Comus is not the dissector. He is not sufficiently interested in the world outside himself to comment on it.

What makes The Unbearable Bassington more than social satire is the quite extraordinary power of the ending, which is extremely effective. Saki is famous for his satire; he has a marvellous if sometimes nasty imagination; but here he shows a literary merit quite different from those normally associated with him. The Unbearable Bassington is one of the peaks of his writing.

Tuesday, 20 March 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the Twentieth Century (1976)

Edition: Granada, 1980
Review number: 787

This novel takes two of the characters from the Jerry Cornelius quartet, the mysterious Una Persson and Jerry's sister Catherine, and tries to find more to say about them. It has an interesting structure, with each chapter set in a different alternate version of the twentieth century, but it is not as successful as the later novels of the quartet (The English Assassin, say) which use a similar technique.

There are several reasons why this novel doesn't work. Moorcock may be expert at describing background, but he has used the alternate reality device several times and has difficulty coming up with new and interesting versions of twentieth century history. He also leaves himself little space to describe them. Since some are easier to set up than others, this makes the novel rather bitty, and its central characters are ot sufficiently strong to overcome this. The writing is also rather trendily mid-seventies, containing a lot of not very interesting sex. Read the Cornelius quartet instead.

Robin Hobb: Ship of Magic (1998)

Edition: Voyager, 1999
Review number: 786

Though set in the same world as the Farseer trilogy, Ship of Magic has almost a completely independent background; there are only two or three references to the places and events of those novels. The main part of the action is based in the port of Bingtown, home to the liveships. These are made of wizardwood, and come alive ("quicken") three generations after being built, having a special relationship to the family that commissioned them and abilities as ships which make them extremely valuable.

There are two important liveships in Ship of Magic. The first, the Vivancia, the magic ship of the title, is just on the point of quickening with the death of the current head of the Vestrit family, and will immediately become the focus of bitter feuding. The second is quite a dire warning of what might happen; Paragon is a still living ship which is being allowed to rot in Bingtown harbour because of a reputation for ill luck and madness. He (nicknamed Pariah) is a pathetic character, bitter about his fate and handicapped by blindness (after someone took an axe to the ship's figurehead).

Surrounding theses two ships are a fair number of characters, and the cast is rounded off by a group of pirates who want to capture a liveship. Despite the large number of people in the novel, Hobb manages to bring it alive and keep it from becoming confusing. It does initially seem to be less involving than the Farseer novels, but picks up reasonably quickly to convince this reader, at least, to continue with the series.

Saturday, 17 March 2001

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man (1916)

Edition: Granada, 1977
Review number: 785

The autobiographical elements in this novel perhaps tend to distract the reader from its purpose. As its title implies, it is intended to show something of what it is which makes someone an artist (in this particular case, a poet). The scenes from the life of Stephen Daedalus - the novel is not a continuous narrative but a series of chronologically organised episodes - show a boy who is never part of the world around him, always observing it as a stranger.

The relationship between Stephen and his Catholic faith is a vitally important part of the novel. Like most Irish children of the time, his education was provided by the church, and at one point he seriously considers entering the priesthood. (It is his need to be an outsider which convinces him that he doesn't have a vocation.) A mjor part of the central chapter is taken up by a long talk given by a priest to schoolboys on the subject of hell and its torments, and Stephen's reactions are very revealing of both his character and his background.

The relationship is quite complicated, with Stephen both yearning to be freed from the restrictions of his upbringing and desperate to live the pure life of faith he feels is demanded from him. Neither side is going to have an easy victory and of course internal division is central to Joyce's view of the life of the artist. (He of course spent his life as an Irish author writing about the essence of Irishness while in exile.) Given the Catholic virtual monopoly on education, many boys must have had similar experiences, and I suppose that it is the nature of the artist to be particularly sensitive to it, as Stephen is.

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon (1999)

Cryptonomicon coverEdition: Arrow, 2000
Review number: 784

This novel is usually found in the science fiction section of bookshops, but it is entirely set in the present (more or less) or the past. Its subject matter is the reason for it to be placed in the genre; it is about computing. There is an assumption that books about computing, especially those that, like Cryptonomicon, show a reasonable technical knowledge, are at least going to appeal to the readers of science fiction. This is a bit of a stereotyped assumption, but it probably does make good marketing sense (or else it would soon stop being made).

The story is effectively in two parts. Randall Waterhouse is a computer engineer, engaged on a new project (and in a new company) with an old friend. The initial aim of Epiphyte Corp. is to lay a new data cable into the Philippines, but there is a more unusual and interesting hidden agenda.

The other story, which takes up most of the space in the novel, is about the work of Randy's grandfather Lawrence during the Second World War. Like Alan Turing (a friend), he was one of the cryptanalysts whose work paved the way for the development of the modern computer, as well as heading a unit which had the task of making it look to the Germans as though the Allies were very lucky indeed instead of their codes being broken.

These two strands are brought together skilfully at the end, but in this extremely long novel it is the detail which holds the interest, and the clarity with which quite complex mathematics is described. The characterisation is good, and the background is vivid, though the Second World War chapters sometimes feel as though they are descriptions at a remove from actual events, as if Stephen is describing a gritty war film rather than the war itself.

The review quoted on the cover of Cryptonomicon compare it to William Gilbson and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. There is in fact little in common with Gibson, beyond an interest in computers and a similarity in writing style (and that is mainly the common currency of late twentieth century American fiction). The comparison with Gravity's Rainbow is more apt, though Cryptonomicon is less philosophical, far more prosaic. They share similar touches of humour and of course the Second World War engineering background.

While not attempting to touch on the larger questions of Gravity's Rainbow, Cryptonomicon is an excellent novel, one of the first I have read which seriously looks at contemporary cyberculture.

Thursday, 15 March 2001

Jill Paton Walsh: A School for Lovers (1989)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 783

Cosi Fan Tutti is an opera which has generated an immense amount of discussion over the years, particularly once it made its way back into the repertoire (after years of neglect because it was considered disreputable). Walsh has structured her novel to reflect on several aspects of the opera, with twin story lines about a couple of students studying it and an attempt to recreate its plot for a bet.

The plot of Cosi Fan Tutti is simple. Two young men boast of the fidelity of their betrothed. An older man laughs at them, and eventually they agree to test their boasts. Pretending to have been called up for military service, the two men disguise themselves as Albanian pirates and woo each other's girlfriends. This becomes awkward when, after a while, the two women show signs of succumbing (though they may have just seen through the disguises and be looking to get their own back).

There are a variety of interesting issues about the opera, which are discussed in one plot strand and (sometimes) illustrated by the other. These include the accusations of immorality and (more recently) of misogyny. There is the implausibility - how do the women fail to recognise their lovers in their disguises? There is tension between the libretto and the music, Mozart being more positive about the emotions of the characters than da Ponte requires him to be. There is also the deeper question of whether love can ever be permanent - perhaps more relevant now in an age where so many marriages end in divorce.

The novel is not wholly successful, though interesting. This is because the device to tell the reader the themes of the opera through the studies of Thomas and Anna (including quite long extracts from their essays) is overly didactic, not suited to fiction.

Wednesday, 14 March 2001

Mary Stewart: Touch Not the Cat (1976)

Edition: Coronet, 1977 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number:782

This was the last thriller written by Mary Stewart for quite a considerable length of time, as she concentrated on her series of Arthurian novels. It belongs with the novels she wrote later, rather than with the earlier ones, being lighter in tone (more a romance than a thriller), set in England, and with the paranormal playing an important role.

Bryony Ashley comes from a family with a long history, a beautiful ancient house, and no money. They also have a secret: inherited telepathic powers which have in the past led to accusations of witchcraft. Bryony can communicate with one of her cousins, but even though they have fallen in love he has never revealed which one of them he is. The thriller part of the plot is basically the suspicion that at least one of her cousins is involved in the death of her father in a hit and run car accident and the discovery that several small, valuable items have been removed from the house and sold, contrary to the terms of the family trust.

The focus of the novel is the romance between Bryony and her cousin, and this means that the telepathy works better than is usually the case with the paranormal in thrillers. It is essential to the plot in an interesting way, and the tension between Bryony's feelings and her suspicions of her cousins is very well written. Altogether, Touch Not the Cat is an interesting and unusual novel.

Jonathan Carroll: The Land of Laughs (1980)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 781

The narrator of The Land of Laughs is a young English teacher, unhappy at his job, who has been obsessed with children's author Marshall France since he was a boy. Thomas Abbey requests leave of absence from his school to write a biography of France, with the help of a young woman he meets in a bookshop when both want to buy a rare France volume. They have to travel to Galen, Missouri, where France lived for most of his life, and persuade his daughter to authorise the biography. Galen appears to be a typical mid-Western small town, but soon after Abbey's arrival, strange things start to happen.

As the novel proceeds, the fantasy elements gradually become stranger, until psychological horror takes over. To discuss the main point of the book requires important data to be given away. What Abbey discovers is that Marshall France had an incredible power - the characters he wrote about became real. He first realised this when the person on whom he had based a character died when he killed off the character. After his own demise, Galen had become entirely populated by his creations, their lives ruled by the outlines France had written.

The subject of the novel, then, is the nature of fiction, and the relationship between written characters and their author, given an ironic twist by being discussed through a work of fiction. In what sense is fiction real, and if we imagine that sense to be changed, what might happen? These issues could quickly lead into some deep philosophical waters, and Carrol avoids this, preferring to be thought provoking.

Saturday, 10 March 2001

Ben Jonson: The Alchemist (1610)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1996
Review number: 778

Like several others of Jonson's plays, The Alchemist is very long; in this case the length is used to build up from a slowish start, gradually increasing in pace until the farcical denoument.

A group of three tricksters, Face, Subtle and Dol Common, are using a borrowed house to get money through the pretended practise of alchemy, persuading people to pay to see wonders or to finance the supposed creation of gold from other metals. The major problem that they have is that this works too well, with new customers arriving before they have finished with earlier ones.

Apart from Volpone, The Alchemist is probably the easiest of Jonson's plays to enjoy today. A modern audience will probably be lost with much of the mystical discussion of Face and Subtle, used to convince their victims. It is however apparently genuine, and even so it doesn't need to be followed in great detail. The subject matter, then, has dated; but the structure and characterisation in the play is very well done.

H. Rider Haggard: She (1887)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1953 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 780

Haggard's second most famous novel has many similarities to King Solomon's Mines; they are both about incredible secret nations hidden away from European eyes in the interior of Africa, still at the time almost completely unknown to Westerners.

The basic story is that M.L. Vincey, knowing his death to be imminent, entrusts the care of his young son Leo to his close friend Ludwig Horace Holly, along with a box to be opened on Leo's twenty fifth birthday. This box turns out to contain a collection of documents explaining the ancient origins of the family, as refugees from the anger and jealousy of the queen of a now unknown African civilization. The young man and his guardian set out to visit this country, and there they meet this same woman, who has not aged in thousands of years. Ayesha is given the title "She Who Must Be Obeyed" by the local people, and this is shortened to "She". It is her belief that Leo Vincey is the re-incarnation of her beloved Kallicrates, the man who fled, returned to be united with her forever, and she carries out ruthless and terrible retribution on those who stand in her way.

As an adventure story, She has some unusual features which militate against its continued popularity. Like King Solomon's Mines, it has a vein of racism running through it, and it is not a well constructed narrative. It also attributes unexplained powers to Ayesha - prolonged youth, the ability to kill with her mind. In the earlier novel, the powers of the evil witch Gagool are purely the result of superstition: if she curses someone, they die because they believe it. Here, in the interest of increasing the wonder felt by the reader, no rational explanation is given; the gases from the volcanic vent where she takes Holly and Leo is not an explanation.

A more localised problem occurs early in the novel, with the account of the opening of the box. The documents within it are quoted in full, and not just in English. This is repetitive and dull, even if it adds some badly needed verisimilitude. In the sort of book the novel appears to be, an account of an exploration, it is possible that such documents would be quoted, but even then most authors would relegate most of the material to an appendix. Haggard commits the cardinal sin for an adventure story of making it dull, and this feeling spreads to the novel as a whole.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint Goes West (1942)

Edition: Hodder Paperbacks, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 779

Two of the three stories in this wartime Saint book have nothing to do with the war, and even in the other, the first, it is not essential to the plot. The stories follow on from The Saint in Miami, and are the adventures encountered by Simon Templar as he travels west through Arizona and California, with the titles given by the locations: Arizona, Palm Springs and Hollywood.

Each story is enjoyable, without being among Charteris' best. Palm Springs and Hollywood are both detective stories. The first has a millionaire hiring the Saint as a bodyguard after receiving death threats, and the second has a film producer killed after offering the Saint the starring role in his next film. The investigative technique used in this story leaves a lot to be desired (it is partly a satire of this kind of mystery story); Simon accuses each person in turn of being the murderer - all quite plausibly - until he finds the right one.

Friday, 9 March 2001

Saki: Reginald in Russia (1910)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 776

Saki's second collection of short stories did not appear until six years after the first, and there are significant changes. Reginald was a monothematic collection of extremely short commentaries on the British upper class social scene centred around the ascerbic, effete young man Reginald. Here, he features in only one story, providing the title for the collection, and it is half hearted in comparison with the earlier Reginald stories.

One of the strands in Saki's story telling is to write about something unpleasant behind a facade of apparently normal British life, usually something on the very of the supernatural; Sredni Vashtar in Beasts and Superbeasts is the most famous example. They are from a genre which today includes writers such as Robert Holdstock, and many of them are quite disturbing to read. The earliest of them, Gabriel-Ernest appears in this collection, incongrous alongside the society satire.

Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend (1865)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 777

Dickens' late novel is one of my favourites. It is a satire on hypocrisy and the British class system. John Harmon has made a fortune from the rubbish of others, collecting great mounds of dust which tower over London. On his death, his wealth is to pass to his son, also named John, who is murdered on his return to England. The money then passes to Harmon's foreman, Mr Boffin, who begins to take a new place in society and becomes known as "The Golden Dustman".

The melodramatic plot is more unified than most of Dickens', though it does have some holes. Coincidence plays a large part, with characters from unrelated strands meeting by accident. Occasionally, motivation is not quite clear, particularly for John Harmon's pretense that he has been murdered, and indeed for his changing clothes with the victim in the first place. (The motive might seem to be to test his bride to be, but he as yet knows very little about her.)

There is quite a wide variety of characters, both male and female, which are perhaps created less for grotesque effect than is usual in Dickens. Moreover, all the main characters present a different viewpoint on the subject of class, whether they are in their "rightful place" (as, say, the Podsnaps and Rogue Riderhood are) or out of it (like Headstone, educated out of his background or Lizzie Hexam whose birth is far inferior to her nobility of character). The novel does not posess the same immediate charm of some of Dickens' earlier writing, which may explain why many readers feel that it is well done without loving it, but to me it is right at the peak of his work.

Tuesday, 6 March 2001

Richard J. Evans: In Defence of History (1997)

Edition: Granta, 1997
Review number: 774

It may seem that investigation into the past ought to be a straightforward business, but history has been subject to a crisis of self-definition over a considerable period of time. Indeed, this has been part of the discipline from its very start, at least to some extent, as the notion of historian as interpreter rather than chronicler was defined by Herodotus and Thucydides, who differed quite considerably as to method. (Thucydides famously restricted himself to matters within living memory, but he still differed from modern practice by ascribing imaginary speeches to the people he considered to be important, something which is characteristic of ancient and medieval historians.)

Evans does not range back as far as the Greeks in his discussion of issues in history to day; the question of how a historian should separate truth from fiction and how much interpretation is legitimate may go back that far, but many other issues go back to nineteenth century Germany, when the work of Ranke brought into being criteria which have effectively formed the yardsticks of modern historical study. These caused new issues, such as the legitimacy or otherwise of secondary sources, or whether or not history is a science - the German term applied to the subject has a wider meaning than its usual English translation. During the early part of the twentieth century, developments such as the application of Marxist principles to history and rising interest in social and economic history added new divisions between conservative and radical, and these led to the two classic works in English on the study of history, E.H. Carr's What is History? (radical) and G.R. Elton's The Practice of History (conservative).

These books appeared in the early sixties, and have remained the principal university texts on the subject ever since, despite continuing changes in the academic discipline of history, with feminist history, black history and gay history becoming seriously considered as ways to look at the past. The most serious new movement in these four decades is the advent of post-modernism, which has gone so far as to deny the possibility of writing history at all (on the grounds that the past is a construct of the present).

Evans' aim is to write a new account of the study of history, from (as the title indicates) a fairly conservative position, which looks at the various issues and controversies. He tries to be fair, but cannot help but be critical of much postmodernist history; this is quite easy, as many statements by its advocates verge on the ludicrous. He does see good things in it, including an interest in the biographies of completely obscure individuals to illuminate a period of history (as in Simon Schama's book on the French Revolution, Citizens), and a renewed emphasis on good writing as a virtue.

In recent years, controversy in history has not just been about methodology; there have been several scandals. Evans discusses the cases of David Abraham and Paul de Man at relevant places in his narrative, but gives more space to the most serious, that of holocaust denial. He has little patience with those who seek to defend deniers (on grounds of free speech, mainly), maintaining that to be a historian worthy of being taken seriously, it is necessary to respect the truth. This is also what he feels is the major problem with the relativistic approach underlying post-modernist theory; Evans believes that interpretations may be challenged but not the events of the past themselves.

In Defence of History is a balanced account from a conservative perspective; Evans rejects extreme viewpoints but is happy to praise positive aspects of the various approaches to the study of the past. The use of archaeology, and the relation of archaeology to the written record are issues which are strangely unmentioned, and an account of this and controversies specific to prehistory would have been valuable. They would not, however, fit in any obvious way with the neatly categorised (and well written) argument presented in the book, so that it is easy to see why they are left out.

Saturday, 3 March 2001

Katharine Kerr & Kate Daniel: Polar City Nightmare (2000)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 773

Unlike Palace, Katharine Kerr's previous collaboration, Polar City Nightmare follows on from her earlier solo novel Polar City Blues. Instead of an entirely new scenario, the background and characters are already in existence. This made it harder to believe the claim at the begging (also made in Palace) that this is an "old-fashioned collaboration" in which both partners play a major part, as opposed to the well known author merely lending her name and a little guidance for a novel based on a well known one of her own, as seems to be increasingly common in the genre.

Polar City Nightmare is in fact a direct sequel to Polar City Blues. The Republic of which the planet Hagar is a part continues its precarious existence as a small state between two enormous superpowers. Once again, a problem arises with one of their embassies, this time when a junior attaché and an irreplaceable cultural relic go missing. Once more Bobbie Lacey reluctantly assists the police investigation with her psychic partner Jack Mulligan. In this novel the stakes are higher; the other major difference is that baseball plays a much larger part.

By being such a novel, Polar City Nightmare reads as though Kerr were sole author, though it does lack something of the spark of its predecessor. That may be due to the part played by the sport, which limits the novel's appeal to one who is not American and is not particularly a lover of any kind of sport. Polar City Nightmare is diminished a little by this, but it remains well written, exciting, and an interesting portrayal of the future.

One interesting point, shared with the earlier novel, is made by Kerr in her introductory note. As she says, in most fiction - and, really, in most Western fiction - it is the intention of the author that, unless explicitly stated, the race of a character should be assumed to be white. Here, the opposite holds, and race relationships are generally a mirror image of late twentieth century America - whites in crime ridden ghettos, black and Hispanic people in most positions of power. That this assumption is made by readers (and that it is expected by authors) is a sad reflection on our culture, and is probably a consequence of an unequal distribution of education and prosperity - more white people have jobs which leave time and energy to read novels. It is effectively the same point made in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, and it is a pity that it can still be made. (I suspect that a lack of black TV and film stars of both sexes also contributes to the way that characters in novels are imagined.) I should note that the background to Ursula le Guin's earlier Earthsea novels makes the same assumptions about race as Kerr does here.

Ruth Rendell: An Unkindness of Ravens (1985)

Edition: Arrow, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 772

When a neighbour's husband goes missing, Rendell's detective Wexford is reluctant to investigate. But what seems initially likely to be a case of a man going off with another woman turns out to be more complex, as he is revealed to have been a bigamist and as it becomes clear that no member of either family actually liked him very much.

As a murder mystery, An Unkindness of Ravens is neither particularly memorable nor difficult to solve (though it relies on something which is likely to be very obscure in a few years). As a novel, however, it is principal notable for its distinctly unfavourable portrayal of militant feminism. While Rendell herself was reasonably liberal, she was anti-extremist, and there are several of her novels with similar portrayals of, say, New Age travellers and the like. The issues of feminism pervade the whole novel: the most interesting character is the wife of Wexford's sidekick Mike Burden, who is pregnant and is shocked to find that, despite her belief that women are equal to men, she's really unhappy when an amniocentesis declares the unborn child to be a girl rather than a boy. The conflict between her conscious beliefs and something deeply felt - presumably conditioned by her cultural background - could be made more of, but that would overbalance what is meant to be a murder mystery and Rendell wisely leaves it alone, even at the cost of making the character less believable.

Friday, 2 March 2001

Catherine Fox: Angels and Men (1995)

Edition: Penguin, 1997
Review number: 771

The name Mara, given by Fox to the heroine and narrator of her début novel, means bitterness; it is the name taken by Naomi in the Biblical story of Ruth, when the death of her husband left her effectively a beggar in a foreign land. As such it is a strange name to choose for a child, especially when one of the parents is in the clergy. It is, however, appropriate for the character at the particular time in her life dealt with in Angels and Men.

Mara is a student in a theological college of a northern university, not named but presumably Durham from the descriptions. She has a turbulent background, having rejected the mild Anglicanism of her father for an extreme charismatic cult, and then, rejecting them in turn, cut off from her beloved twin sister Hester who chose to remain with them. The novel basically follows Mara through the college year, as she makes friends despite a desire to keep to herself, which earns her the nickname Princess.

The novel is simply but effectively structured, with each chapter bringing in a new revelation about Mara's background and character. (This means that by the end we have a very well drawn study of a particular person indeed.) The intensity of her recent experiences - she has effectively come out of a mind controlling cult - makes Angels and Men an exciting if uncomfortable read.