Thursday, 19 December 2002

Greg Egan: Teranesia (1999)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 1137

This novel cunningly avoids two clichés of the science fiction genre, something that in itself makes Teranesia an interesting read for aficionados. The first, one which has tended the ghettoisation of science fiction as a genre considered suitable only for adolescents, is the coming of age story of a precocious teenager. Central character Prabir Suresh is certainly precocious, but his adolescent years are omitted - in part one he is not yet a teenager, and in part two and the rest of the novel he is in his twenties. The second cliché is the science fiction novel which is more interested in ideas than people, something which is a problem with other Egan novels. Prabir is an interesting central character not just because a homosexual non-Caucasian hero is unusual in genre fiction, and his personality is made more central than the idea. (This is why it takes almost the whole novel for it to become clear just what its main idea actually is.)

In part one, Prabir is a nine year old child, living on an otherwise deserted Indonesian island with his biologist parents and baby sister; his parents are there to investigate some strange mutations in the butterflies of the region. Political instability becomes civil war, and armed men kill the adults; the children are able to escape and end up in Canada with their aunt (made a figure of fun by Egan for her post-modern relativist ideas). In part two, about fifteen years later, Prabir has a strong emotional reaction when his sister (now a student) wants to join an expedition to that part of Indonesia, where abnormalities are beginning to be observed in a wider range of animals.

The biggest problem that Teranesia has is its ending - which it is not really possible to discuss without giving it away (so you are warned!). Things seem to be heading towards a bleak finish rather similar to Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, when a frankly unconvincing happy ending is suddenly contrived. It undermines the whole novel, leaving the reader unsatisfied. Up until the last ten pages, Teranesia is a most enjoyable read, better than most genre novels.

Saturday, 14 December 2002

John Clute: Appleseed (2001)

Edition: Orbit, 2002
Review number: 1136

Until the publication of this, his début novel, John Clute has been best known for writing about science fiction rather than in the genre, and his wide ranging knowledge shows in Appleseed's cross references. The most obvious link, as far as a reader is concerned, is not within the genre, but to the novels at the more flamboyant end of stream of consciousness, to James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, or to the richness of Borges.

The plot is less important than the imagery and, indeed, is pretty rudimentary; the novel describes a trip to a world on which a cure might possibly be found for plaque, a disease which attacks both machine and organic intelligence. The densely packed allusive style in with Appleseed is written also makes it hard to read, particularly when it comes to picking up the details of the plot. (Stream of consciousness novels are frequently difficult to read, and in each case the reader must decide whether it is worth the effort to decode them; a typical snippet of Appleseed, for instance, reads: "A mask bearing the fist appaumy spoke. 'Queens have died', said the Uncle Sam, 'young and fair.'")

One of the biggest technical challenges in science fiction writing is to find a way to represent the alien, whether it is a non-human intelligence or the effects of new technology on human psychology and culture. (You could in fact argue that this is the very essence of the genre.) This is the purpose for which Clute has chosen to use this style, to render an almost incomprehensible universe (and there is, after all, no particular reason why we should understand the real universe) - home to many aliens and a bizarre mix of reality and virtual reality. It's a clever idea, and often works well (for example, in the humorous description of the rituals following an alien birth, which is the best passage in the novel). In general, though, I didn't feel that Clute was a good enough writer to carry it off, and this combines with the minimal plot to make some sections seem more about flashy prose than substantial content. There are many interesting ideas, particularly the use of this style to convey alienness, so Appleseed is worth a read if you're interested in literary technique. I can't help feeling that CLute would have done better to attempt something less ambitious for his debut.

Tuesday, 10 December 2002

Michael Moorcock: The Dragon in the Sword (1986)

Edition: Millennium, 1995
Review number: 1135

The third John Daker novel appeared after an even longer interval than that between the first two, and seems to represent at least some of Moorcock's final thoughts on the Eternal Champion as the novel of that name had done the first. Both heroics and traditional fantasy appear much less frequently in Moorcock's work after this novel; Pyat may consider himself a heroic figure in Byzantium Endures, for example, but there is little if anything about him to bring admiration from the reader.

The Dragon in the Swoord is also related to the von Bek stories, and follows on directly from the short story The Pleasure Gardens of Felipe Saggitarius, about a failed attempt by a member of the family to assassinate Hitler. This von Bek escapes by travel to another universe, to the one where Daker also arrives after attempting suicide in despair at continuing to be parted from his beloved Ermizhad.

The form Daker takes on this new world is interesting. He is now in the body of a prince with a twin sister; their relationship is not what it is generally seen to be. She wanted to cement her power by marrying him, but then tried to kill him when he refused. Now the rumours she has spread mean that his status among those he first meets changes rapidly from honoured guest to someone tolerated only because of the laws governing hospitality, making his task as Champion yet more difficult.

As a literary idea, the Eternal Champion relies strongly on Moorcock's ability to create multiple variations on the character. In The Dragon in the Sword, he brings two incarnations of the Champion together. This is not the only time he does this (The Quest for Tanelorn is another example), but in this case Daker and von Bek are made more nearly equal in importance. Despite their similar origins (both coming from twentieth century Europe), the two are strongly contrasted, particularly in comparison to other novels involving multiple Champions, which tend to be aiming to highlight the similarities between them.

The Dragon in the Sword also stands out as one of the longest Eternal Champion (in the more general sense, rather than just this particular trilogy) novels, the complexity of the plot being a major reason for this. It wraps up a long chapter in Moorcock's literary life (and does this additionally by including a lot of the lyrics from the album he co-wrote with Hawkwind, Warrior on the Edge of Time, and looks forward to some of his pre-occupations of the next few years as well as backwards.

Saturday, 30 November 2002

William Broad & Nicholas Wade: Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in Science (1982)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1985 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1134

Scientists have generally portrayed themselves as they have perceived themselves: as objective searchers after truth. This is itself not entirely the way things are even at the best of times, and on reflection it could hardly be the case. Scientists are human too; the ideas on which they work are the products of human minds; and total objectivity can only be an ideal to aspire to.

It is the dichotomy between the ideal and the reality which is the subject of this book - the whole spectrum of deceit in science, ranging from outright fraud to massaging of results to bolster a conclusion to subconscious self-deception. Topics touched on also include the relationships between the different people involved in research - such as senior and junior researchers, or co-authors of papers. The authors set out to determine what it is about the (then) current scientific culture which encourages fraud and its cover up, and they are particularly interested in the ways that process supposed to act as checks and balances (peer review of grant applications, refereeing of papers, and replication of results) have been corrupted. Broad and Wade seem to imply that a major source of problems - which are clearly wider than can be seen by examining only those scandals which have become public knowledge - are consequences of the professionalism of science (as it has this century become more of a career and less the province of the dedicated amateur) and the massive increase in the size of the scientific culture (they estimate that 90% of all scientists who ever worked were active at the time of publication, and that many papers and journals are virtually unread, making it easier to get away with plagiarism). This is however balanced by accounts of (relatively minor) fraud by some of the greatest names in science in previous centuries - men like Galileo, Newton and Mendel reporting experimental results unbelievably close to the predictions of their theories. The verdict of the historians of science seems to be that this is OK, provided that the theory turns out to be correct.

I'm not sure that the selection of the professionalisation of science as a major cause of fraud is entirely correct. One of the other interesting things that comes out of reading Betrayers of the Truth is that almost all the recent examples discussed come from the biological sciences, particularly medicine. This is something which the authors put down to the higher mathematics content in physics and chemistry. The twentieth century expansion of science as a whole is disproportionately centred on biology, and in medical research in particular are combined high pressure to produce results and massive rewards (both in money and status) potentially available, and considerable difficulty in designing, carrying out and correctly interpreting experiments. This is something which seems to me to be a basic part of the reason behind modern fraud, and it makes it especially tragic when flawed experiments can be used as the basis for new treatments.

It is now twenty years since the publication of Betrayers of the Truth; have things changed? I can't see that deliberate fraud and self deception will have gone away. One of the most famous episodes in science in the last few years falls pretty definitely into the latter category, for example - the story of cold fusion. That shares many features with cases described here (especially that of N-rays to which it has frequently been compared). One particular common feature is the attitude of the authorities involved, with the attempts of the university to play things up to attract grant money and the use of rhetoric rather than logic to argue the merits of the case. These are aspects that one would expect to have changed, as high profile cases of error would argue caution, but this does not seem to have happened.

Many scientists manage to go through their entire careers without coming across a case of fraud, though I suspect that most would harbour suspicion that some massaging of results has gone on at some point. One of the major surprises to me in this book is the consistent attitude of senior scientists that fraud hardly ever happens; that it is only the sick of mind who attempt it; and that accusations of fraud are best covered up. (This last is a regrettable consequence of the generally positive fact that scientists see themselves as a community.) There was an article in Physics Today (Investigation Finds that One Lucent Physicist Engaged in Scientific Misconduct) in November, which showed that lessons still hadn't been learnt - despite Broad and Wade bringing this up repeatedly twenty years ago, the investigating committee still said that the responsibilities of co-authors to check for fraud were not clear.

One of the most interesting points that Broad and Wade make is that attempting to understand how science works by discussing what ideal science would be like, as philosophers and scientists tend to do, is likely to lead to distortion of the truth and, in particular, to the reluctance to accept the existence of fraud that seems to still be rife. They would argue that the pathology of the scientific culture should be considered as well as its ideals; knowledge of how things can go wrong can help bring understanding of the healthy system. There is something in this, but it can be equally misleading to go too far the other way, basing understanding of the healthy on examination of the sick; this was a problem with the early development of psychiatry.

Betrayers of the Truth is a thought provoking and frequently shocking read, clearly written, in a journalistic style admirably appropriate to the topic.

Thursday, 28 November 2002

Iris Murdoch: The Italian Girl (1964)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1133

All of the Murdoch novels I have read have melodramatic elements to their plots - and, indeed, much of their effectiveness comes from the conjunction of her placid, poetic prose style with the events described - but The Italian Girl is the most fantastical of them all.

The narrator, Edmund - and it's a common trick for Murdoch, though rare in other writers, to have a narrator of the opposite sex - returns to the home where he grew up, following the death of his mother. The family, dominated by the suffocatingly unmaternal Lydia, was what would today be described as dysfunctional, and Edmund has not returned since he was initially able to escape. In doing so, he abandoned his brother Otto and Otto's wife and daughter to their fates, along with the last of the series of Italian girls who had acted as the brothers' nannies. The melodrama basically comes from the relationships between Otto's family and his apprentice, an amoral young man who lives with his sister in the grounds of the house.

A large part of the description of the relationships in the novel seems to act as a symbol for something else. This symbolic aspect of the novel is not attached to some external object as it is in The Bell or The Sea, The Sea, which makes it more difficult to guess at what is signified. The house is some kind of prison, the apprentice and his sister some kind of infection, or possibly a dangerous freedom, and the point of the whole is something to do with morality, but more than that I cannot say.

The Italian Girl is not one of Murdoch's greatest novels, but it catches the reader up like a whirlwind once it gets going. Her best books are fascinating; this one is involving but not that thought provoking.

Friday, 22 November 2002

Isaac Asimov: Foundation's Edge (1982)

Edition: Granada, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1132

Foundation's Edge was the first science fiction novel Asimov had written for a decade, most of which he had spent concentrating on non-fiction. It had a mixed reception, composed on the one hand of the desire to extend a welcome to an old friend long absent (which brought it the Hugo award for 1983), and on the other of the feeling that it was a sequel which failed to live up to the classic Foundation trilogy which it follows.

Reading Foundation's Edge now, after the fuss has died down, and doing so just after revisiting the original trilogy, I am more inclined to the former view, changing my mind after first acquaintance twenty years ago. This is because the earlier books have now come to seem dated, like a lot of Asimov's early fiction.

Foundation's Edge is set about halfway between the creation of the Foundation and its predicted establishment of a new empire a thousand years after the fall of the old one. (This little piece of chronology makes it clear just how large a scope Asimov had left himself for a sequel.) The Mule is long defeated, and the Second Foundation has returned to obscurity, convincing the Foundation that it too has been destroyed. Seldon's plan is back on course - and this eventually provokes suspicion in both Foundations; after so great a disruption as the reign of the Mule, how can centuries old predictions suddenly become minutely valid once again? This prompts both Foundations to begin searching for whoever or whatever has caused this, and this search is what Foundation's Edge is about.

Asimov's science fiction revolves around two great ideas: the laws of robotics and the science of psychohistory. In practice, the main interest of the plots he devises using these ideas is the ways he finds to circumvent their limitations - almost all the robot stories are about attempts to bend or break the laws of robotics, and the Foundation stories are about applying the laws of psychohistory to small numbers of individuals (because novels need to have personalities in them), something explicitly forbidden by the statistics on which the rules are supposedly based. (Alternatively, he allows an individual like the Mule to overturn the predictions, using precisely the justification that it is impossible to apply psychohistory to the actions of individuals.) One of the biggest problems that the original trilogy has, it now sdeems to me, is that the tension this produces is not fully integrated into the plot; in Foundation's Edge, it is handled much more expertly, as befits a writer with thirty years' more experience.

Asimov's characterisation is generally pretty perfunctory (the most obvious exceptions being Elijah Baley and the members of the Black Widowers), but here it is rather better than usual, the personalities of those involved playing an important part in the way that the plot is resolved.

The greater maturity of the writing should ensure that Foundation's Edge dates more slowly than its predecessors (though they, of course, first appeared over four decades ago). However, it is still the idea behind the series as a whole which is of central interest, much more so than the merits of the individual novels. The sweep of galactic history and the interest of psychohistory will probably mean that the original trilogy continues to be read for some time yet.

Saturday, 16 November 2002

Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion (2001)

Edition: Voyager, 2002
Review number: 1131

With The Curse of Chalion, Bujold takes a break not just from her long-running and acclaimed Vorkosigan series, but also from futuristic science fiction; it is a fantasy novel with a background more or less traditional for the genre.

The novel begins with Chalion aristocrat Cazilar returning to the land of his birth; betrayed into slavery by a corrupt general, he has recently escaped from the galleys of Roknari, and now his only ambition is to see if he can persuade an old patron to take him on in a menial position in her household. Instead, he is made tutor-secretary to her granddaughter, and becomes involed in the complex politics of the Chalionian court - where he has to meet the enemy who betrayed him.

The Vorkosigan series has already shown that Bujold excels at the creation of political thrillers, and she uses the same skills here, with different characters and background. She is just as interesting and convincing writing about magic as she is discussing cloning. This particularly story is very self-contained, not only unusual in a genre which runs to trilogies and series, but also in contrast to Bujold's other work. A sequel seems unlikely, but maybe we can hope for more stories set in this world.

A lot of science fiction and fantasy contains depictions of political intrigue, an inevitable part of writing about fictional societies. The problem tends to be that it is easy enough to invent and describe institutions, but rather more difficult to portray plotting and machination convincingly. This actual human interaction behind the scenes is really what politics is about. (This is partly because real world equivalents are usually kept as secret as possible, so that it requires considerable insight to recreate convincingly, particularly in an alien setting.) One fairly common mistake that writers make is to continually describe a character as some kind of political genius, while making them achieve coups which are comparatively simple minded; this may flatter the reader but is not really very impressive when they reflect on what has been described. (Frank Herbert, who is particularly associated with the introduction of politics into science fiction, is sometimes guilty of this error.) Bujold's politicians are much more believable and her strengths in characterisation mean that she doesn't have any need to resort to this spurious trick.

Her novels also always have an exciting plot to draw the reader in. In other words, her novels are top rank political thrillers, and The Curse of Chalion is no exception. Once again, Bujold has produced a novel which tempted me into staying up into the night to finish it.

Tuesday, 5 November 2002

Paul J. McAuley: Child of the River (1997)

Edition: Gollancz, 1997
Review number: 1130

The strange world of Confluence is the setting for McAuley's trilogy of the same name; Child of the River is the first volume. It was created by the Preservers, who populated it with diverse creatures derived from Earth's animals raised to human intelligence, and who then disappeared. Confluence is now considerably decayed, full of machines whose purpose is not understood, whose workings follow the Arthur C. Clarke dictum and are indistinguishable from magic; while the Preservers themselves have been mythologised into a pantheon of gods supposedly watching over the fate of the inhabitants.

The central character, the boy Yama, appears set apart from the beginning; Moses-like, he is found as a baby floating down the great River, not in a reed basket but accompanying the coffin of a dead young woman. He is brought up as the adopted son of a village official, but becomes the centre of intrigue when others start to investigate his "bloodline" - he is not one of the common types found throughout Confluence, and so his heritage is unknown. He finds that he experiences a strange communion with the machines around him which marks him out, and he begins to travel to find out who he is and why he is there.

The plot clearly picks up many ideas from Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but it is the setting and style which are of greater interest. The latter is distincly reminiscent of Gene Wolfe, a writer greatly admired but not, I think, frequently imitated. There are two sequences of novels which Child of the River calls to mind: The Book of the New Sun and, even more so, The Book of the Long Sun (which is more or less contemporary with this trilogy). This similarity is partly because of connections between the backgrounds of the series, but it is mainly because of the way that the background is expressed in the story. (The down side of this, more obviously so in McAuley than Wolfe, is that exposition of the setting and delight in detail get in the way of plot development.) I would not say that McAuley is as good a writer as Wolfe, not that Child of the River is his best work; it is a little too derivative for that. It is, though, an interesting and worthwhile read.

Wednesday, 30 October 2002

Michael Bishop: Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (1987)

Edition: Grafton, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1129

Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas is a direct tribute to the famous science fiction author; not only does it use many themes from his work, but Dick himself is one of the major characters. The novel begins with the death of Dick and the rising of a ghostly form from his body. But this is not the world we know, but an America which won in Vietnam, and where the increasingly dictatorial Richard Nixon is approaching the end of his fourth term in office. This is an America where travel is severely restricted, black people have almost all been "repatriated" to African countries, and the remaining population live in fear of the secret policemen known as "No Knocks". Dick is an almost forgotten author, though his earliest novels are still required reading for the Vietnamese who come to the States and are "Americulturated" - indoctrinated into the American dream. Dick's later work (more like the satirical science fiction for which he is really known) was never published but circulates in photocopied samizdat form, among the remnants of the sixties counter-culture. It is to one of the owners of these dangerous manuscripts, a pet shop employee, that the ghost appears, driving him on a course which both of them hope will change this nightmare reality.

Among the themes that Bishop picks up from Dick's novels are alternative realities, external supernatural intervention, a blue collar central character (rather than the middle class scientists/engineers of the genre before him), the importance of the desire to care for animals (as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and the triumph of American popular culture. Although rather uneven (in this reality, there is a lunar base, and the chapters set there fail to grasp the reader), it must be one of the best homages to another author ever written. Bishop even re-uses something of Dick's style.

To choose this way to memorialise one of the greatest of all science fiction writers - one who (eventually) massively raised the literary profile of the genre - seems entirely appropriate, and this is perhaps the best indicator of how successful Bishop has been in this novel. Genre fiction, like popular culture generally, has a tendency to forget most of its past, and so reminders of just how good some of the earlier masters were serve an admirable purpose.

Saturday, 26 October 2002

Alastair Reynolds: Redemption Ark (2002)

Edition: Gollancz, 2002
Review number: 1128

Redemption Ark is far more closely linked to Reynold's first novel, Revelation Space than is his second, even though all three are set in the same vision of the future. The actions of Sylveste in that novel have awakened an ancient horror in the galaxy; he has unknowingly made the signal that calls it to action. This is a culture of machines, which has the purpose of keeping intelligent life in check to guard against a future catastrophe. This is the reason that human explorers have found the galaxy full of the archaeological remains of extinct alien cultures, but none surviving. Sylveste has for the first time used a technology proving the existence of a new race of intelligent beings with an interstellar cultures, and this has made the Inhibitors swing into action once again.

There are others who notice the use of these tools, for they are doomsday weapons so fearful that not only have they never been used, but the technology used to create them was deliberately forgotten. They were made by the Conjoiners, a faction of humanity which has used mechanical aids to brain function to create a hive mind; and they want them back.

Being the third novel set in this universe, Redemption Ark lacks the "wow factor" experienced in reading the first two. It settles down a bit more to character, and in doing so reveals more definitely that Reynolds is from the same school as Iain Banks' Culture novels. There is more hard science (particularly nanotechnology) and less humour, but there are many similarities. The major difference, that Banks' novels are far less interconnected, imparts strengths and weaknesses to each writer's work. The ending of Redemption Ark really calls out for a sequel; it is nothing like as definite as those of Revelation Space and Chasm City. More additions to this series are, I hope, inevitable. Reynolds is one of the finds of twenty-first century science fiction, amply confirming the promise of his debut.

Saturday, 19 October 2002

Michael Moorcock: Phoenix in Obsidian (1970)

Edition: Millennium, 1995
Review number: 1127

It took a long time before Michael Moorcock wrote a novel which was in the strict sense a sequel to The Eternal Champion. In between, he had firmed up the concept suggested by that novel, the idea that fantasy heroes were aspects of the same individual, and had begun several of the other series which use it. A long wait for a sequel is often a bad sign, but here Moorcock has been spending his time refining the concept.

In retirement with his beloved Ermizhad, John Daker is called once more to travel between worlds and take up the mantle of Eternal Champion. He becomes another ancient hero returned to save his people, yet no one seems to know who summoned him, or to what purpose. The city of Rowenarc is doomed by an approaching Ice Age, and its inhabitants have given themselves over to despair and sado-masochistic orgies, a darker equivalent to the Dancers at the End of Time, who would have been in Moorcock's mind soon after he wrote Phoenix in Obsidian. Many of Moorcock's novels contain pictures of decadent cultures, and he is superlatively good at delineating them (here, for example, the description is remarkably sparse, but conveys a lot by focusing on Daker's feelings of disgust).

The other major feature of Phoenix in Obsidian is the reluctance of Daker to get involved, to become a hero once again. This is a something of a rarity outside Moorcock, but in his fantasy it is a theme on which many variations are played. Here, there are two aspects: Daker's longing to return to Ermizhad, which gives poignancy to the story, and his distaste for the weapon of the Eternal Champion, the Black Sword that he is sure that he has abjured in the past, even if he can't specifically remember doing so or even precisely why he has done so.

Many of the middle books in Moorcock's large number of fantasy series tend to be lacking in interest compared to the first and last instalments; the first volume introduces the ideas, setting and character, and the third provides the resolution while in between there is frequently only an unwinding of the plot. This is not the case here, though, as the combination of maturing ideas and a new setting have produced an enjoyable novel which is more than the equal of the early Eternal Champion.

Friday, 18 October 2002

Michael Bishop: Ancient of Days (1985)

Edition: Tor, 1986
Review number: 1126

After the death of Philip K. Dick, Michael Bishop seemed to be the author most willing to follow in his footsteps. He has written a direct tribute (Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas) but, more importantly, has taken on the question more central to Dick's output than any other, "What does it mean to be human?"

Ancient of Days is explicitly (at least, for a novel) about this question. It concerns a surviving member of the species homo habilis, an ancestor of modern humans thought to be long extinct, who turns up as a refugee on the American coast near Atlanta, Georgia. There, he is hidden and befriended by an artist (RuthClaire Loyd) living on a remote farm; eventually they marry. Taking the name Adam, he sets out to find his identity, embracing theology and art, fathering a child and eventually undergoing surgery so that he is able to speak instead of being forced to use sign language. With his gentle, but slightly alien outlook, Adam is a figure reminiscent of Michael Smith in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

Like Smith, Adam has to face a variety of difficulties and misunderstandings
These include the jealousy of RuthClaire's former husband, the narrator of the novel; intrusive attempts by anthropologists to treat him as a scientific specimen; a tele-evangelist who tries to take advantage of Adam's instant celebrity and interest in spiritual matters; and, most seriously, attacks by the local Klu Klux Klan, who find his marriage to a white woman disgusting. Bishop makes his point by contrasting the actions of Adam and his enemies - it is our behaviour which makes us human, not our genes. Adam is revealed to be human in the ways that matter, with his attackers exposed as lacking in human virtues. (The narrator is mainly just confused rather than having an abiding hatred for Adam.)

The attacks on Adam brigh real tragedy to the novel, especially as it explores the stupid inhumanities of racism. Its major flaw is that Adam is made far too saintly to ever really come alive as a character (something which could also be said about Michael Smith), though the other characters go a fair way to making up for this. It has strangely never been as well known as its companion novel, No Enemy But Time (which features a time traveller joining a group of homo habilis), but to me Ancient of Days is one of the best science fiction novels of the 1980s.

Tuesday, 15 October 2002

Jeffrey Deaver: The Blue Nowhere (2001)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001
Review number: 1124

Jeffrey Deaver may usually be a writer of traditional thrillers, but with The Blue Nowhere he joins the small group of authors who can convincingly depict the world of the computer hacker (Neal Stephenson and William Gibson being the best known of the others).

The basic plot of The Blue Nowhere is a computerised version of the Eddie Murphy film 48 Hours; a hacker is let out of prison to help the LAPD Computer Crimes Unit track down another hacker, who has the screen name Phate, who has turned serial killer. The actual crime plot is pretty hackneyed, but the computing background means that the novel is more than just a run of the mill police procedural. (The style, by the way, is similar to Michael Connelly.)

The one part of the plot which seems unlikely, if not impossible, is the program used by Phate to target the victims, which is named Trapdoor. (Deaver admids in the acknowledgements that the experts he consulted were dubious about the way it is supposed to work.) Phate has cracked one of the major Internet routers, and uses a steganographic (and the proof reader of the novel should note the spelling of the word) method to infect the target machine, sending small sections of the Trapdoor program in individual IP packets which are part of the normal online communication. (Steganographic means "hidden writing" , and is the process of writing a secret message as part of an innocent one, say be using every twentieth character, or altering specified bits of an image file.) To put the information into IP packets, given control of a router, would not be particularly difficult. The problem is that once the data reaches the target computer, it needs to be separated out from the genuine information, re-assembled and then executed, and I can't see any way that this could be done barring serious bugs in the IP stack and operating system of the computer being attacked. This is essentially the same reason that a virus spread as an email attachment is not activated unless the user or operating system is conned into executing (opening) the attachment - computers need a reason to run a piece of software. The reasons that systems are vulnerable to cracking are generally attributable to human carelessness, such things as users writing down passwords or using obvious words, or bugs in software which can be exploited.

Since the Trapdoor program is important to the plot, this is something of a problem; yet the convincing nature of the rest of the setting makes it easy enough to suspend disbelief and enjoy the novel.

Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)

Edition: Little, Brown, 1998
Review number: 1125

Edward O. Wilson is best known as the author of Sociobiology, an early attempt to look at the social structures of human beings alongside those of other animals (he began his career as a researcher into the biology of the ant). The theme of Consilience is related - it is also about extending ideas of a particular kind into areas where they are not common or, to some people, welcome to go. The word "consilience", which literally means "jumping together", has been resurrected by Wilson to mean a unity of knowledge, or, more accurately, of ways to approach problems. The book is a manifesto arguing for the extension of the methods of science into the social sciences and the humanities, even to the interpretation of fine art and to ethics and religion.

This is not, of course, a new idea. Some of the weirder products of the popularisation of Newton's work, for example, were half-baked attempts to derive laws like his in other fields, driven by the idea that once the initial positions of particles were fixed, mathematics would determine their positions for the rest of time. More respectably, many philosophers have tried to base their ideas on mathematical style derivations, most notably Spinoza, Hobbes, and Descartes. However, this is not quite what Wilson means; his manifesto is based on a particular aspect of the way that science works.

One of the most powerful mechanisms in scientific thought is reductionism, which basically means looking at some aspects of a process in isolation from the whole, and in particularly designing experiments to test ideas about these aspects alone. The idea is that once the simplified versions are understood, explanations can be brought together to decipher the more complex. (Wilson points out that critics of reductionism typically ignore the last part, the synthesis back into increasingly complex explanations of the original process.)

There is a hierarchy of reduction in science; biology can (in principle) be reduced to chemistry, which (in principle) can be reduced to physics. (In principle because in many cases a detailed reduction would be too complex to carry out, or some small points are not yet understood; but nevertheless no one doubts the possibility. No one would want to attempt to document every chemical reaction which goes on in a cell, but everyone would expect the processes that happen to be fundamentally chemical in nature.) This relationship between different branches of science is what Wilson means by consilience, and his view is that the social sciences are the next step up in the chain from biology, particularly as the biological underpinnings of brain functionality become better understood. His feeling is that individual psychology will then become reducible to biology, and then that sociology and anthropology will be reducible to psychology.

This is not likely to seem particularly controversial to a scientist, especially given that (as Wilson points out) this kind of reductionism is the most successful kind of explanation known to the human race. However, from the social science side it must come as a shocking attempt to usurp long cherished methods and ideologies (from Marxism to postmodernism). Wilson doesn't soften the blow, ridiculing the achievements of academics in these areas to date - drawing attention, for example, to the evident inability of economists to predict the downfall of the Soviet system. He is clearly knowledgeable about these areas, but frustrated with their inability to move on away from exploded ideas such as those parts of Freudian psychology contradicted by modern studies of the brain. To Wilson, the issue is quickly increasing in importance and urgency, for he suspects that an integration of economic and sociological thought with science will be a necessary part of any viable solution to the world's environmental problems.

Consilience is very clearly written, in a style which manages to combine precision and accessibility. A reader would not need to agree with Wilson's thesis to be impressed, but he is also an able and convincing debater. A fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the future directions of either science or the social sciences.

Friday, 11 October 2002

Janna Levin: How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (2002)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002
Review number: 1123

It is not, generally speaking, usual for modern science books to be concerned with the private lives of their authors, even though it is inevitable that the scientific work that they have done will have been influenced by this. This is a result of the idea that scientific ideas should be valid without any cultural context, but the anecdotes which litter popular science books demonstrate how important some subjectivity is for interesting the reader - few people read textbooks for pleasure. An excellent example is Pais' 'Subtle is the Lord...', which is a biography of Einstein which places equal emphasis on his life story and an explanation of his ideas.

How the Universe Got Its Spots is based on a series of letters written by cosmologist Janna Levin to her mother, which seek to explain her work. I don't know how much Levin's mother already knew, but the letters don't presuppose significant amounts of scientific and mathematical education; which makes even writing the letters in the first place quite a brave thing to do; a parent is a far more difficult audience than some unknown reader. The letters also contain details of her personal life over a two year period, a diary of the gradual breakdown of Levin's relationship with musician Warren.

Levin's work is in the topology of cosmology, trying to come up with possible descriptions of the large scale shape and structure of the universe. This may be discernible as patterns in such measurements as the COBE map of variations in the cosmic background radiation. The ideas which are introduced to explain this include a fair amount of topology, which is one of the more entertaining branches of mathematics. The explanations of the ideas behind Levin's work are clear and simple (though as someone who has studied topology I might well not be a good judge).

It is for the combination of the science and the personal history that readers will pick up How the Universe Got Its Spots, however. The way that the two are put together makes the book reminiscent of a novel which was a bestseller a few years ago, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaardner. That book, though intended to introduce children to philosophy, was enjoyed by large numbers of adults; and if you liked it, you are pretty certain to like this.

Wednesday, 9 October 2002

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio (2002)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2002
Review number: 1122

Although An Instance of the Fingerpost is a great deal more literary than Pears' other earlier novels, it remained part of the crime genre. Now he moves on to something else, an extremely literary idea in an accessible style. The Dream of Scipio is a historical novel, which has three parallel narratives separated by 1500 years but all set in the Avignon region of France. Each story centres around an individual, each a man trying to do their best to preserve what they love as their world falls to pieces around them: villa owner Manlius as Rome decays; poet Olivier de Noyes in the fourteenth century plague; and historian Julien Barneuve under the Vichy government and the German occupation of France in the war. From the start, the reader with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history knows that their efforts are basically doomed to failure, which helps Pears to create the atmosphere of the novel.

As an author, Pears seems to be fascinated by this kind of structure - An Instance of the Fingerpost also features multiple viewpoints on a single issue. In that novel, he used the idea to give weight to a mystery; here, it has a more literary end as it is used to elucidate the characters of men through history. The women in the story, though essential to the plots, are far less completely realised as characters. In fact, they are used to introduce the other major theme of The Dream of Scipio, which is an attack on anti-Semitism. The men's abstract interest in maintaining the culture around them is matched by a personal desire to protect a Jewish woman close to their hearts.

Of the three stories, that of Julien is the most interesting; offered a post in local government, he has to balance his repugnance for the regime against the feeling that if he didn't take it up someone more zealous could be appointed and that he might be able to do some good by accepting. The other major characters have similar choices to make about compromising their ideals, but Julien's is on a larger scale - the earlier anti-Semitism is basically mob violence springing from ignorance, stupidity and fear, while the Nazis went a step beyond that, putting technological organisation behind their killing.

The simple style which Pears uses in The Dream of Scipio (named after a philosophical work by Manlius based on that by Cicero, read by the other two men) makes it seem easy to read; it is rather like his Jonathan Argyll books in the way it is written instead of pretentiously proclaiming itself as a deep work of literature, which is what it really is. (That isn't to say that pretension isn't ever enjoyable, just that this is a refreshing change.)

Friday, 4 October 2002

John le Carré: The Constant Gardener

Edition: Coronet, 2001
Review number: 1121

One of the major issues that faces our generation, one which receives relatively little publicity and which seems quite intractable, is how large corporations can be controlled by public opinion, particularly their operations in Third World countries desperate for money. Stockholders continue to put short term profits ahead of other concerns - such as humanitarian and environmental ones - and are frequently able to exert considerable pressure even on the American government to be allowed to do whatever they want. (The US attitude to the recent environment conference in Johannesburg is a good example, and this year's accounting scandals show that blatant and illegal lying to maintain share prices has been an accepted part of some corporate culture.)

The Constant Gardener is set mainly amoung the diplomatic community in Kenya. There, the British High Commission is hit by a scandal when the wife of a junior diplomat is found with her throat cut while on a drive from a safari resort. What at first sight seems to be a violent robbery soon turns out to be something more sinister; the drive was to visit Richard Leakey, newly appointed to the Kenyan cabinet so that Arup Moi could be seen to be trying to deal with the corruption of the regime, and Tess had been gathering evidence about the wrongdoing of a Western drug company which she wanted to present to Leakey as someone who might be willing to act on the information. Orders rapidly arrive from the Foreign Office in London to drop any investigation of this side of things, but Tessa's husband Justin wants to find out just what she had discovered that was so important that the company involved would consider ordering a "hit" on her.

Le Carré's diagnosis of corruption is not just confined to Kenya, but stretches right back to Europe and North America, exposing such practises as attempts by pharmaceutical companies to take control of university researchers (via large donations) and thus the journals which contain the reports made of drug trials. In the case invented by le Carré, the problem is not that the drug is no good (it is a spectacular cure for TB), but that the proper tests have been hurried and the drug at present has potentially fatal side effects.

John le Carré is not the first writer to take up the theme of corporate sleaze; it is easy to see most cyberpunk as warnings about what might happen if nothing is done, and it is more explicitly addressed in Ben Elton's Stark, a novel which I found almost unreadable. The Constant Gardener is the most convincing and enjoyable thriller I have read on the subject, and feels like a real call to action.

Saturday, 28 September 2002

Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Translation: Frank Davison, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 1120

Catcher in the Rye has been an important novel in the lives of many of its readers, helping to re-define ideas of what teenagers are like in the English-speaking world. To a French person a generation or so earlier, Le Grand Meaulnes, which is also about growing up, might well have had a similar effect. A further similarity between Alain-Fournier and J.D. Salinger is that the one novel amounts to virtually their entire output, though in the case of the French author this was because of his tragic early death on the Western Front rather than the reclusiveness of Salinger's later years.

The narrator of the novel is Francois Seurel, the son of a schoolmaster. He is approaching the end of his education when a new pupil arrives at the school. Augustin Meaulnes quickly becomes the leader of the boys in their wildest escapades in the countryside around the school. On one of these adventures Meaulnes becomes lost and ends up at a ruined country estate which is being prepared for a bizarre wedding. (This is why a filmed version of the novel was entitled The Lost Domain.) There he meets a young woman and falls in love, but once he returns to the outside world he is unable to find the chateau again, even though he becomes obsessed with the search.

There are three things which mark Le Grand Meaulnes out as a classic. The first is its evocation of childhood, particularly the magical nature of some of our experience in that period which often produces nostalgic feelings in later life. The second is in the symbolic nature of the domain itself, which is really the same thing: it stands for that which is left behind on entering adulthood, something which we can never find again no matter how hard we search. The third reason, also connected, is the relationship between Seurel and Meaulnes. This is one of idealistic hero worship on Seurel's part; there aren't quite homoerotic overtones, but it comes close (and of couse, as narrator, Seurel would be able to censor the story as he chooses). It is something typical of adolescence; though one would usually expect one of them to be younger than the other, here Seurel is given a slight infirmity which makes his hero worship of a contemporary more credible.

Le Grand Meaulnes has rather suffered for non-French readers for two reasons. Alain Fournier's untimely death meant that he didn't generate the international reputation during his lifetime that he might well have done; it is easy enough to believe that he might have produced work equalling the front rank of twentieth century French novelists. The other problem is that two key phrases are difficult (if not impossible) to translate. One is crucially the title, because "grand" is being used to carry far more than its dictionary translations, "big" or "great". The choice made here is to keep the French title (also marred for English speakers because the character's name is nearly phonetically equivalent to "moan"); this can only be off-putting. Other titles which have been used are The Wanderer, which is rather vague, and The Lost Domain, which introduces the other untranslatable phrase. This is "domain", used of the run down chateau and (crucially) the world it evokes in itself and as a symbol. The problem is again the baggage which goes with the word; the literal equivalent "country estate" has different connotations in English. For Alain-Fournier, it also designates an unreal world beside our own, like that Faerie of George MacDonald. In this domain the normal rules do not quite apply; once experienced, it is never forgotten, remaining an influence for ever. This is what Alain-Fournier has to say about childhood, and he uses the domain as a symbol to do so.

Salinger provided Holden Caulfield with a mission - to proclaim that adults are not always right, that teacher does not always know best. Alain-Fournier's characters are gentler, less iconoclastic. Even though they do things against the wishes of adults, the novel is from a world long before the kind of cynical teenage rebellion documented by Salinger. Since Salinger's picture of the teenager has gone on to become so dominant in modern culture, Le Grand Meaulnes has something of the air of a period piece. Yet as an evocation of the magic of adolescence, it remains an unsurpassed classic.

Wednesday, 25 September 2002

T. Coraghessan Boyle: Water Music (1993)

Edition: Granta, 1998
Review number: 1119

The Georgian England portrayed in Hogarth's etchings is the inspiration for Boyle's lusty historical novel. Its spiritual home, where its best passages are set, is the gin soaked city of London, its alleys and gutters, whores and thieves. That is also the origin of one of Water Music's main characters, con man, vagabond, grave robber and would-be gentleman Ned Rise. His struggles against a capricious fate - every time he begins to make money, some disaster leaves him worse off than before - make his adventures entertaining reading. He is a comic rather than a realistic character, so the reader doesn't identify with him enough to feel much sympathy when his fortunes fail.

The major part of the novel, however, is set in West Africa, accompanying explorer Mungo Park's expeditions to the Niger river. The inhospitable country - the arid Sahel of his first trip, the jungle of the second - is more a commentary on the London scenes than a contrast with them. The misadventures of Park are reminiscent of Flashman (without the cowardice or a large part of the humour) and, even after Rise joins him, are unsatisfying.

Without Park, Water Music might well have been considered rather derivative of The Rake's Progress (both the sequence of prints and the opera based on them). Neverthess, it could have become the germ of a work which would be more satisfying than the novel as it is. Water Music is also reminiscent of Moll Flanders, though Defoe wrote many years before Boyle's novel is set. (Mind you, Handel's Water Music was also the product of earlier decades of the eighteenth century.)

In a note at the beginning of Water Music, Boyle warns the reader not to expect historical accuracy in the novel. He was interested in the feel of the years around 1800, not in getting all the details right. In many historical novels, though, the effectiveness of the background is a consequence of the author's research. At first sight, Boyle's not might seem to be an attempt to cover up laziness, but he clearly must have done some research, at least reading up on Park. In the end, there is probably little less that is historically inaccurate about Water Music than there is about many novels in the genre, even if it is clear that the London that it portrays is based more on Hogarth's drawings than on more sober descriptions. Boyle's disclaimer made me expect something like a fantasy novel which borrows some of its ideas from a historical setting, something like Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels, or a cavalier treatment of history like the very silly George MacDonald Fraser Pyrates. This sort of freer setting might actually have suited Boyle better, though I found it difficult to see what he intended to say through Water Music, if anything.

I was interested and amused enough to read to the end of Water Music, but not, in the final reckoning, sufficiently impressed to bother looking out for any of Boyle's other novels.

Saturday, 21 September 2002

Anthony McCarten: Spinners (1998)

Edition: Picador, 1999
Review number: 1118

Small towns have provided a fair number of novels with their backgrounds, particularly humorous novels (from Cranford onwards). This is because these places often combine backwardness with an inflated view of their importance and sophistication, and so are easy targets for satire. These novels are usually described as "dissecting" or "laying bare" the absurdities of small town life - unless they are "affectionate".

Spinners, McCarten's debut novel, falls squarely into the "dissecting" category. Set in Opunake, a New Zealand town centred around a frozen meat packing factory, it is about how the town is shaken up when a teenage girl claims to have been abducted by aliens. The problem is, it has all been done before and Opanuke isn't made either real enough or exaggerated enough to become truly comic. Spinners is not so much a dissection of small town life as it is a raking through the stereotypes of small town comic fiction. On the positive side, it does convey the way that small mindedness can constrict people living in a close knit community, but it doesn't really do this in a comic way. McCarten seems undecided whether to be humorous or vicious, and ends up not being either. It is possible to be both (see Main Street, for example, or Lake Wobegon Days), or for an excellent affectionate portrait of a small town try George Sumner Albee's wonderful By the Sea, By the Sea. Even the alien plot is better handled elsewhere; the TV series Roswell High showed the ways that people might react more convincingly.

Tuesday, 17 September 2002

Brian L. Silver: The Ascent of Science (1998)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 2000
Review number: 1117

In the same way that new translations of classic works of literature need to appear for each generation to understand their relevance to them in particular, so too it is necessary for a new explanation of science for the general reader to be published every few years. The title of Brian L. Silver's book clearly invites comparison with Jakob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and the equivalent in my teenage years was Isaac Asimov's Everyman's Guide to Science. The reasons why new books are needed are pretty obvious: as scientific and technological research proceed, the issues of interest to "the man in the street" or what science has to say about them will also change; twenty years ago many current controversies such as genetic modification of crops were futuristic science fiction.

Much of the ground covered is of course the same, but the good writer on basic science will stamp their personality on the material; they will make the story of scientific discovery their own. The particular slant an author takes is obviously going to be dependent on their ideas about science and its practitioners. Bronowski was interested in scientific progress, so The Ascent of Man turned out to be an integrated narrative. Isaac Asimov was interested in the all pervasiveness of science in the modern world, so that his book was a comprehensive general reference book.

The Ascent of Science is not as comprehensive as Asimov's book (which contains details on such things as the measurement of air pressure) and not as development oriented as Bronowski's (it is not, for instance, organised chronologically). What, then, are his concerns? In the last decades of the twentieth century, criticism of science (which includes both the well-informed and the mindless) has become increasingly vociferous, mainly as a result of debate about environmental issues. Silver is interested in this, and presents a lot more of the arguments there have been about scientific theories through history, rather than presenting currently supported ideas as gospel or acknowledging critics only be briefly ridiculing creationism as is done in many books for the general reader (for whom Silver appropriates the phrase "l'homme moyen sensuel"). He generally defends current scientific orthodoxy, while retaining some sympathy with those who attack science. (The penultimate chapter, "What the devil does it all mean?" includes some cogent criticisms of scientists, particularly those who take an overly grandiose view of their own work; he singles out certain enthusiasts for the Superconducting Supercollider and the Human Genome Project.) Above all, he wants to promote reasoned debate, and one of the major purposes of The Ascent of Science is to make it possible for a non-professional to take an informed part in such a discussion. This makes The Ascent of Science more concerned with the philosophy behind scientific thought than most books at this level, yet Silver's writing is always accessible. The well chosen bibliography would provide an excellent springboard for anyone wanting to learn more about the details of some aspect of science covered here.

The Ascent of Science is clear and well written, surely destined to become something of a classic of this genre. It is a real pity that Silver will never be able to update it (he died between completion and publication of the book). It has much to offer even those who know more about science, containing details and viewpoints which were new to me; accounts of the controversies of the past are particularly fascinating.

Saturday, 31 August 2002

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station (2000)

Edition: Macmillan, 2000
Review number: 1116

Miéville has received a great deal of praise for this novel and for his début, King Rat. Personally, I was unwilling to read to the end of King Rat, and found much that I disliked about Perdido Street Station; but it is plain even to me that there is much to admire about Miéville's writing.

The huge and dilapidated city of New Cabuzon is home to a variety of different species, including ones which have the appearance of insects and plants as well as humans. The central character Isaac is a human scientist - in this fantasy steampunk connection, something like a cross between an alchemist and a physicist and naturalist - who is approached by a garuda with a commission. This birdman has had his wings removed as punishment for an alien crime ("choice removal") and he wants Isaac to make it possible for him to fly again. To this end, Isaac collects hundreds of specimens of animals which fly, whether they do this magically or physically; but his work has to be suspended when a mysterious caterpillar turns out to be the young of a slake moth, an incredibly powerful and dangerous creature which feeds on thoughts and dreams. (Coincidentally, the slake moth is connected to an organised crime syndicate, the head of which has just approached Isaac's artist lover to create a sculpture of himself; this is a weakness in the plotting of the novel.)

Perdido Street Station is a very long and ambitious novel, and has space not just for a great deal to happen (far more than in the summary just given), but also for description of the city. This is something Miéville does in a way which makes the novel read like a cross between Irvine Welsh and Mervyn Peake. The story itself isn't particularly great; it is the background which is important and, good writer though he is, Miéville seems to have had some difficulty in extending his ideas over 700 pages. Some of the non-humans aren't particularly alien, the only one which really impressed me being the giant spider known as the Weaver. For me, though, the real problem is the relentless grimy feel of the novel, something which mars King Rat to an even greater extent. (It would be interesting to see whether Miéville is able to produce something different in future.) Ifelt as though I was being compelled to admire the technique in something I didn't actually like very much; a reason that only just kept me going to the end of the novel (together with the faint hope that Miéville would pull some kind of amazing trick at the end). To say that Perdido Street Station is a triumph of style over content would perhaps be going too far, but it is definitely a novel with tendencies in that direction.

Wednesday, 28 August 2002

Michael Moorcock: The Eternal Champion (1970)

Edition: Millennium, 1995
Review number: 1116

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 Erekos&eumlaut;, 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.

Friday, 16 August 2002

Isaac Asimov: The Stars Like Dust (1955)

Edition: Panther, 1958
Review number: 1114

In retrospect, The Stars Like Dust is one of Asimov's most disappointing and dated science fiction novels. I'm not sure, reading it now, whether or not it was originally explicitly aimed at a young adult audience (the one that many people assume still that all science fiction is written for), but it certainly doesn't really have enough to offer to impress a reader who is not a novice reader of the genre.

The Horsehead Nebula region of the galaxy was divided into a large number of smallish aristocratic nations, until they were all suddenly overrun by the banally named Tyranni about a generation before the story is set. The old royal families have been left in place in a ceremonial role; the hero of The Stars Like Dust is the son and heir of the titular ruler of one of these planets. Biron Farrill is studying on Earth - largely ruined in an ancient nuclear war - when his father dies, executed for treason by the Tyranni. An apparent attempt on his own life leads him to flee back to the Horsehead Nebula, to the palace of the Hinriads on the planet of Rhodia. A series of adventures follow, which even at the time must have seemed derivative (they're a poor imitation of A.E. van Vogt or E.E. "Doc" Smith), ending with a stupendous discovery which should mark the end of the Tyranni.

This stupendous discovery is the main problem with The Stars Like Dust, at least for a non-American. It turns out that this is the long-lost American Declaration of Independence, a document whose explosive power is supposed to doom tyrants. It shows, perhaps, a touchingly naive faith in the power of the admittedly inspiring words about freedom and independence (Asimov's background as a first generation immigrant in the thirties makes the alternative possibility, cynical manipulation of the reader, unlikely.) But it can hardly be argued that the example of the US constitution has made the Earth free of dictators, and even the US cannot be considered the epitome of freedom and equality. (Rodney King can't have thought so, in his final moments.) To use the discovery as the climax of the novel is not only a major weakness, it is the sort of twist which smacks of the inexperienced writer at this length - it is typical of the genre's short stories.

Other problems with The Stars Like Dust include the frankly unbelieveable plot - the base of a rebellion which is being gradually stocked up with men and weapons would be hard to hide economically, let alone be kept a secret by the thousands of people involved. The various conspiracies and plots which fill the book are not very convincing, and the people involved have inconsistent characters - to much insight in some areas, not enough in others. There is a romance subplot, but that is based on exactly the kind of portrayal of a female character that is one of the commonest criticisms of the science fiction genre ("it's written by and for geeks who have no idea what women are like").

Friday, 9 August 2002

Jack Vance: Emphyrio (1969)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 1113

The struggle of one person (at least until recently in science fiction usually a man) against tyranny has been one of the favourite plots in the genre since 1984. Emphyrio is one of the better known novels to use this idea, and it is a rather more subtle tyranny than is usual in this sort of story. The planet Halma is famous for its handmade goods and, to preserve its position, the craftsmen who live there have for generations been forbidden to use any of a long list of technologies. (This is to prevent their goods being sullied by any idea that they might be mass produced.) This whole aspect of their lives is controlled by the guilds, who take a strong and conservative line on technology, even if it is not to be used for "duping". (This part of the background to the story is rather reminiscent of the opera Die Meistersinger.)

Amiante and Ghyl, father and son, produce carved screens, but don't fit in terribly well on Halma. They exhibit an independence of thought, which leads them into a series of clashes with the guild officials in their village. When Ghyl stands as a candidate for village mayor using the name of an ancient hero Emphyrio, Amiante secretly produces election posters using a forbidden mechanical duplication process. As a result, he is arrested and "re-habilitated", a mental treatment which eventually leads to his death.

As a writer, Vance is best known for rich and evocative backgrounds. Halma is such a background (with the stifling effect of the guilds particularly well portrayed), but here it is less important than in most of his novels. The adventures of Ghyl are what Emphyrio is really about. This makes it a particularly accessible introduction to Vance's work, as well as an especially satisfying example of it.

Tuesday, 6 August 2002

Ernest Hemingway: Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (1927)

Edition: Vintage, 2000
Review number: 1112

Hemingway is famous as a macho writer, and this is a novel which demonstrates why. It combines exquisite writing with central characters who are not only repellent but who are made more so by the author's evident admiration, and (in the second half) with a subject matter now generally condemned outside Hispanic culture, bull fighting. The human part of the novel is about the relationship between the narrator and wild English aristocrat Lady Brett Ashley, which could be said to resemble a bull fight itself.

It is possible to defend Kipling, another author with attitudes now out of fashion, against those who criticise his pro-imperialist outlook. I would base such a defence on two grounds. First, he was a product of his time, and second, his attitude to the British Empire was more complex and more ambivalent than his critics grant. Hemingway may seem to be in a similar position; both writers are among the greatest creators of pictorial atmosphere in the English language, and both chose to immortalise something which is today viewed with embarrassment, if not repugnance.

Bullfighting is something which has hardly any apologists outside Spanish culture, and I for one was shocked when staying in a Spanish hotel to find that it was shown on prime time TV (I was flicking through the available channels to see if there was anything to watch). On the other hand, many tourists guiltily succumb to the lingering fascination and reputation for excitement it has, and when in Spain go to a fight. Apologists for Hemingway would say that this excitement, savage maybe though it is, is what The Sun Also Rises conveys, as well as his other writing about bullfighting. Such is the vividness of Hemingway's descriptions that even though the fights themselves only take up two or three chapters of Fiesta, they dominate the novel (contrasting with the rather tedious Parisian socialising of the first part) and do convey such excitement even to a reader opposed to what they are reading.

This hints at the difference between Kipling and Hemingway - the latter gives the impression that he is nothing like as ambivalent about the subject of his writing. Kipling's subject in his Indian novels is really the clash of two cultures (even in stories like those in The Jungle Book, which contrast the village and jungle), and the imperialist message is diluted a great deal by his admiration for, and desire to promote understanding of, India. The Sun Also Rises is also about admiration, for the machismo of the bullfight, but there is no opposing idea to counterbalance it. Indeed, you get the impression that the author even admires the rather unpleasant bunch of drunks who are the novel's main characters (albeit contrasted with the simple innocence of the young matador Romero).

In terms of style, Hemingway's elevation of journalistic prose into an art form makes him a great writer. That is true, too, in his greater and more acceptable novel, A Farewell to Arms. The Sun Also Rises perhaps also has some value as a document of Parisian café culture and pre-Franco Spain. As a novel, it is impressive and repellent, and ultimately too one sided to take seriously.

Sylvia Brownrigg: The Metaphysical Touch (1988)

Edition: Gollancz, 1998
Review number: 1111

How can one respond to a catastrophe which destroys the very centre of your life? Emily Piper, Pi to her friends, is a philosopher at Berkeley until the 1991 fire wipes out her home, her books and her cat. She stays with friends and relatives, unable to face anything to do with her former life (including books). Eventually, she moves in with a relative of a friend, a woman herself in the middle of a divorce and with an unhappy seven year old daughter. Pi has been given a computer by one of her friends, and she begins to discover the joys of the Internet. In these days before the domination of the Web, that really means email and BBSs. (This made the novel something of a nostalgia trip for me, as this is what things were like when I first went online in the late eighties.)

On the BBS accessed by Pippa, a bit of a stir has been created by a series of posts called the "Diery". (It reads rather like the wonderful monologues in the radio comedy drama At Home With the Snails.) This is a journal apparently written by a man named J.D. who has lost his job and is dealing with suicidal urges by documenting them. Although he goes to considerable lengths to hide his real identity, he contacts Pi directly after she posts stories based on parts of the Diery.

The Metaphysical Touch is the story of their virtual relationship. It is very well told, the emails that pass between Pi and J.D. are convincing. It is a philosophical novel, and in places requires a fair amount of concentration as a result, but it is worth it.

Wednesday, 31 July 2002

Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)

Edition: Penguin, 1942
Review number: 1110

Orlando is famous as the novel into which Woolf poured her passion for Vita Sackville-West; the character of Orlando is meant to represent both her and her aristocratic family background (her rootedness in English history was one of the things which fascinated Woolf). And yet, even though she is a vitally important part of the novel, it would be quite possible to read it and admire it without being aware of this fact. Orlando is not the only character in the novel inspired by a real person; his early lover Sasha is a portrait of Vita's own Violet Trefusis.

Orlando seems at first to be a (rather whimsical) historical novel about a poetically minded Elizabethan nobleman. However, Orlando remains a young man through the early Stuarts, before he becomes Charles II's ambassador to the Turkish court in Constantinople. This is when things become really strange, when Orlando escapes a massacre in a revolt because he is in a deep sleep and is thought to be dead, and wakes up a woman. She lives through the next two and a half centuries (up until the day in 1928 when Woolf says she is writing) and only in this form is able to find love, with the similarly sexually ambiguous Shelmerdine.

The intimations of homosexuality are actually quite discreet, particularly by modern standards. They have been rather seized upon, making Woolf something of an icon for lesbian pride, and yet they remain unusual for their tenderness.

At least as important to Woolf is the issue of feminism. When Orlando becomes a woman, court cases are brought against her to deprive her of her property on two grounds: she is dead, so that she cannot own property; and she is a woman, which Woolf says "amounts to much the same thing". (This mirrors events in Vita's life, for as a woman she could not inherit her ancestral home when her father died.) Even by writing a novel purporting to be in part a biography of a woman, Woolf was making a point: the Dictionary of National Biography, edited by her own father, was overwhelmingly masculine. Then there is the poetry; in an indirect reference to Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own (published a year later), Orlando writes bad poems as a man (to the derision of Ned Greene, who also appears in the essay). With less opportunity to write after the change of sex, most of the early work is abandoned and destroyed, but what Orlando then writes is of far higher quality.

In Orlando, the reader is constantly aware of a the poetic quality in the language Woolf uses, something she uses to express the slow flow of time in the life of one who seems to be immortal. Its tone is also partly due to the novel being a pioneering example of what is now called magic realism, a method of writing far more familiar than it could have been to the original readers. Among the diverse later writers that the novel brings to my mind are Peake, Rushdie, Jill Paton Walsh and the Moorcock of Mother London. Orlando is the most obviously non-realist Woolf novel of those I have read, and yet it is also the one which is likely to be most accessible to the modern reader, largely because its influence has trickled into much of modern mainstream literature and also into the fantasy genre.

Saturday, 27 July 2002

Poul Anderson: Tau Zero (1970)

Edition: Gollancz, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1109

Tau Zero is about a space ship carrying fifty people to a nearby star; massive acceleration to close to the speed of light and relativistic time distortion mean that the journey will take decades rather than centuries, at least as far as the crew and passengers are concerned. On this voyage, there are even veterans of previous trips to other stars.

What makes this particular jouney of interest is a disaster which occurs about half way through. The plan was to accelerate for half the trip, and decelerate for the rest; but at just about the mid way mark, an encounter with a comparatively dense region of gas damages the ship, making deceleration impossible until repairs can be carried out. Tau Zero is about how the crew of the Leonora Christina cope with the disaster - and in fact it is a science fiction equivalent of the disaster movie.

The physical measurement called tau by Anderson is incredibly important in the theory of relativity. (It was not given a name like this in the lectures I had on the subject as a student; the letter tau was used to indicate a time parameter.) It is a measure of the difference between an object's velocity and the speed of light, and is 1 at rest and approaches 0 at the speed of light. Its vital importance in this particular novel is shown not just by the title but because Anderson makes the extremely unusual step of putting the mathematical formula defining tau in the text. It describes the distortion of various measurements at high: length, time, mass.

In Tau Zero, Anderson has managed to combine hard science fiction with a study of character - not something for which the subgenre is known. It is also unusual because most of the science described in the novel is well-understood, unlike the speculations of writers like Niven and Forward. It is hard science fiction at its very best, presenting the science in an entertaining way as part of a real story. It is not surprising that Tau Zero has become one of the most famous of all novels in the genre.

Wednesday, 24 July 2002

Philip K. Dick: Counter-Clock World (1967)

Edition: Grafton, 1990
Review number: 1108

In general, Dick's novels contain a dazzling multiplicity of ideas; but Counter-Clock World is dominated by just one and careful limits are placed on how fully it is explored. It is in many ways (dictated by its theme) similar to Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake. There, people relive a decade of their lives, fully conscious that they have already experienced what they are going through; here, time has suddenly reversed.

Dick doesn't go to the extent of reversing everything, for a similar reason that Vonnegut's characters' memories are not erased - if everything went backwards, there couldn't be a story distinguishable from a strangely told forwards one. (At the very least, the characters need to be aware of what is going on.) He describes several bodily processes - or, rather, more effectively, he mentions them and leaves the details to the reader's imagination - including shaving, conception and the unpleasant, private affair that is eating. Two of these reversed processes are used as the basis for the plot. Since all that has been created now must be destroyed, the library, which searches out books for this purpose, has become a powerful institution (controlling what knowledge is still available); there can be few novels which make the profession of librarian so sinister. The mainspring of the plot is the resurrection of the dead; undertakers have been replaced by vivariums, companies that seek out those who have recently been revived and want to get out of their coffins. (Dick doesn't go into what happens to those who were cremated.) A small vivarium discovers the lost tomb of Timothy Peak, a religious leader who created a popular cult based around communal drug taking. He is about due for re-animation, and the politics surrounding him make this important and dangerous; those who have control of the cult since his death are not likely to give up their power easily, and the Library doesn't want him to return at all because of the disruption his anti-racist stand caused when he was alive.

The way that Counter-Clock World is written makes me think it was inspired by the striking image of the revived dead trying to get the attention of the living so they can be released from their coffins. The treatment of the time reversal is full of inconsistencies (such as the production of newspapers with current news in a world where all existing literature is being destroyed rather than published). It is an extremely ambitious idea and remains, I think, unique in science fiction; time's arrow is so fundamental in human thought that to conceive of it being any other way is incredibly difficult if properly carried through. It is not, in the end, one of Dick's most successful novels, but it is certainly a fascinating read.

Friday, 19 July 2002

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)

Edition: Headline, 2001
Review number: 1107

The relationship between the existence of gods and people's belief in them has interested several fantasy writers (Zelazny, Cabell and Pratchett among them), and the answers they have come up with are generally similar (when people stop believing, the gods in question dwindle and die). Gaiman has used the same idea to inspire a fantasy on a large scale, one which is really about life in modern America. For behind the scenes America is full of gods - all those brought over by worshippers from overseas: from Ireland, Scandinavia, Egypt and West Africa (and of course the Amerindian gods as well). But now that their worshippers have almost entirely abandoned them, for the new gods of consumer products, TV and technology. The stage is set for one last confrontation between the bloody and visceral gods of the past and the soulless deities of the future.

The central character in American Gods is a man named Shadow. In prison after a bar fight, he is allowed out early when his wife is killed in a car accident. He travels unhappily back to his home town, and on the journey is offered a job by a strange man named Wednesday. He is soon introduced to the strange dark world behind the facade of America. There are inescapable parallels between the world revealed to Shadow and that experienced by Richard Mayhew in Gaiman's earlier fantasy Neverwhere - the same idea that the supernatural is a dark world all around us that we normally ignore - but the two are very different characters.

In the end, American Gods is only partially successful. It comes close to greatness in places, but Gaiman seems to be unable to decide exactly what he wants to say about American culture; his own feelings are presumably ambivalent. This weakens several parts of the novel, even though it could have been made a strength. Echoes of Americana by other writers give a strong sense of place, even if they make much of the novel seem like a homage to Twin Peaks. Gaiman makes the reader feel even though he is a very good writer, he has never actually achieved his potential; he always seems to pull his punches.

On the cover of the Headline edition of American Gods is the rather gimmicky offer "As good as Stephen King or your money back". That marks out the comparison that the publishers want readers to make - so is it that good? I last read King about twenty years ago, in my early teens (probably the best age to read his novels). The fact that I still feel that I remember those I read is testimony to their effectiveness, but I never felt any great urge to read more. What King excels at is surface; his novels are as a result chilling and exciting. Gaiman, to me, has deeper ideas but these are not put over so forcefully - his language is more poetic. I have never felt that King could have gone on to create a classic (particularly since much of his writing seems to be merely an updating of classic horror ideas), but Gaiman clearly could do so.