Saturday, 29 June 2002

Iris Murdoch: The Book and the Brotherhood (1987)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1102

The title to this complex novel suggests that it will have a religious theme, like that of The Bell. There is something in this, but it is only indirectly - the narrative reads like it is about religious ideas, but they play only a small part in the story. The book of the title is a political one, which one character, Davide Crimond, has ostensibly been writing for many years. His writing is funded by a group of rich Oxford graduates, described by one of their number as "part of the brotherhood of Western intellectuals". Even though they no longer believe in the ideals that the book was meant to enshrine, the support continues until the year which is described in Murdoch's novel.

What happens in this year, something which shakes up the relationships among the brotherhood and their friends, is that one of them leaves her husband for Crimond. It is the dislocation this causes among the group, their changing relationships, that Murdoch uses to tell us about what each of them is actually like in the first part of The Book and the Brotherhood. In fact, it could be said that all Murdoch's novels are about the way in which relationships evolve, which perhaps accounts for the way that they read as though they have a sea-like ebb and flow to them. Murdoch here also uses the book to create contrast; in between dramatic events come some distinctly intellectual arguments about the politics of the book, defusing tension. It establishes the believability of the characters extremely effectively, and makes it possible for Murdoch to demonstrate the differences between them.

About two thirds of the way through, though, Murdoch springs a surprise. The arguments cease (the book has been completed), and events escalate towards the melodramatic. Because of the way that the first part of the novel has been structured, this section draws in the reader, already committed to the characters, far more easily than would otherwise be the case. It seems far more real because the people who do these things, who have these things done to them, are well established in the mind, as though they are our own friends who have become involved in something out of their depth.

Then, after these hectic pages reach their climax, there is another change in pace. We get to see something of the way in which the dramatic events of the winter lead to changes in the characters themselves and their relationships. Again, the careful structure of the novel (with of course the symbolism of the new life of springtime) serves to heighten its effectiveness.

Perhaps in the end The Book and the Brotherhood is not as gripping nor as thought provoking as Murdoch's very best work (The Bell, say). It is still an excellent novel by anyone's standards, well deserving of its Booker Prize shortlisting.

Wednesday, 26 June 2002

Thomas S. Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

Edition: University of Chicago Press, 1970 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1101

Of the thousands of books written about science during the twentieth century, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is the one which has caused the most controversy. It is a famous account of how (in Kuhn's opinion) science actually works, as opposed to the way in which scientists think that they work, and it acts as a summary of Kuhn's ideas; much of the rest of his writing is basically a series of historical case studies which back up and illustrate this summary.

The general view of science is that it proceeds by accretion, new facts gradually allowing theory to become a closer approximation to reality. Kuhn proposed a different model: a generally accepted paradigm determines not just what questions are investigated but how facts are perceived by scientists. However, anomalies appear and grow in importance, until a period of confusion is ended by a revolution which establishes a new paradigm.

The main reason that this is controversial is basically that it seems to make science a matter of opinion rather than fact, especially because of what Kuhn says about the way that the facts change or appear to change when the current paradigm changes. Summaries of Kuhn's arguments tend to make what he says more alarming than it actually is, and I found The Structure of Scientific Revolutions far more convincing than I expected.

Part of the problem with this kind of analysis of science is that the pattern of scientific communication has changed over time, as private letters and public books gave way to refereed journal articles, which in turn are now giving way to the exchange of pre-prints, electronically or otherwise. This is a factor unconsidered by Kuhn - though he was surely aware of it - and in my opinion makes it difficult to compare scientific practice even across relatively short periods as is necessary for this kind of study.

The major idea that Kuhn has which is difficult to agree with is that there is no such thing as scientific progress, that the paradigms are more or less equivalent as explanations of the universe. He explicitly says that there is no rational reason why, in a time of crisis with a current paradigm, one of the competitors to replace it is chosen rather than the others. (The evidence he gives for this is the frequent inability of a new paradigm to predict even some well known facts accurately, as with the century it took for a correct derivation of the moon's orbit from Newton's theory of gravity.) It is, I suppose, an almost inevitable consequence of Kuhn's feeling that a paradigm embodies its own special world view, as then two paradigms would have concepts far enough apart to make them impossible to compare meaningfully. The standard interpretation of issues like the moon's orbit would be that it can take time for a new theory to be properly understood, especially when, like Newton's, it uses unfamiliar mathematics.

However, it seems to me (and to many who have been involved in the practise of scientific research) that there is one very important property of a paradigm which Kuhn minimises: its explanatory power. By pre-supposing that this is unimportant, he anticipates his own conclusions. A scientist's perception of a paradigm is that it should be a model of the phenomena being investigated, and in particular that it should match with investigations already carried out. Exceptions can be made (as in the case of the moon) but they are just that: exceptions. Kuhn objects to this characterisation on the grounds that problems investigated under one paradigm are quite possibly meaningless under another, but I would expect that many would not be; Einstein's theory of general relativity would be useless as a model of the universe under gravitation if it failed to explain the path of a thrown ball on Earth, or the motion of the moon, as well as the Newtonian theory it replaced. (He specifically objects to the common characterisation of the relationship between these two theories that says that Newton's laws approximate to Einstein's when velocities and energies are low, because they make incompatible underlying assumptions, but to say the predictions of the motions of bodies are approximately correct seems to me to be perfectly valid.) Thus, any paradigm which is a candidate to replace one under crisis should explain almost all the well known facts already explained together with some of the more problematic areas. (Another reason for the word "almost", as well as the difficulties in correctly applying new paradigms is that those pushing them may in their enthusiasm make erroneous measurements, as Galileo seems to have done when he reported that pendulum swings take a uniform time even for large displacements even though this is true only when the angle of swing is small.) This more traditional description has the advantage that it preserves the idea of progress towards the goal of describing the universe (not in the more unfortunate cultural sense in which scientific progress is often taken, and which is probably one of the reasons behind Kuhn's rejection of the concept). Another factor which Kuhn doesn't mention which tends to influence the acceptance of a new paradigm (at least when it is mathematical in nature) is the feeling among researchers that it is elegant and beautiful.

Even after forty years, Kuhn's book is thought provoking - more so than reports of his arguments elsewhere. Most readers are unlikely to agree with all his ideas, but it is definitely better to read them here at firsthand.

Saturday, 22 June 2002

E.R. Eddison: A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941)

Edition: Del Rey, 1978
Review number: 1100

The second of Eddison's Zimianvian trilogy is the most difficult of his novels to read, though it is well worth the effort. It has much more to do with the aims of his writing than Mistress of Mistresses, where the hinds about what is being done can easily be ignored, and the unfinished and in many parts skeletal nature of The Mezentian Gate make the underlying ideas far more obvious. The trilogy as a whole has an extremely unusual and rather disconcerting structure, in that it is more or less in reverse chronological order, with much overlap between the events in the second and third novel (the central event which provides the title here also occurs in The Mezentian Gate).

The fact that the opening chapter contains phrases in French, Italian, Greek and Latin might put a fair number of readers off, but more difficult in actuality is not so much Eddison's theme (time and eternity) as what he wants to say about it. (Eternity is also the theme of Eddison's less obviously related and most famous novel, The Worm Ouroboros, as the worm is a symbol for the concept.) The philosophical introduction won't clarify matters for anyone who hasn't read at least one of the novels in the trilogy already. Eddison could have written an allegorical fantasy, which would have been more familiar as a form to many readers of the genre, but he felt that it would be too easy to do this and would diminish his subject; instead of personifying eternity, he wanted to use all his characters to hint at different aspects of his ideas about time, in the same way that he felt that real world individuals did.

Eddison conveys his ideas as well through the parallels he makes between the real world and Zimiamvia, and by making several of his characters incarnations of gods and goddesses (or, perhaps more accurately speaking, of the ideas behind the characteristics of Zeus and Aphrodite). These ideas, present in the other two novels, appear here in more complicated forms which are explained in less detail, as the earthly story is intertwined intimately with the Zimiamvian, as Lessingham's courtship of Lade Mary Scarnside parallels Duke Barganax's of Fioranda. Then there is the "fish supper" itself, where discussion of how the gods create worlds for their own amusement leads to the act itself, as our "real" world is exhibited as a fantasy of a dinner party in Memison.

The structure is a bit confusing, at least on first reading, but A Fish Dinner in Memison contains much which is inventive and still fresh (especially the idea of our world being a temporary diversion, one which has recently been re-used in The Science of the Discworld as a way to explain scientific ideas through Terry Pratchett's popular fantasy series). It is a philosophical and, like all of Eddison's writing, a poetic novel - the language of the chapter "Night Piece: Appassionato" in particular seemed to me to invoke the eternal. Recommended to anyone with an interest in the more philosophical fantasy novel.

L. Sprague de Camp: A Planet Called Krishna (1949)

Edition: Compact, 1966
Review number: 1099

Any novel which contains the sentence "Thank the pantheon they'd packed his pills and disinfectants, without which he felt half a man!" is worth reading for that alone. Apart from its humour, it reflects the likely attitude of a real Western traveller in a primitive unhygenic environment far better than the vast majority of stories of this type (A Planet Called Krishna basically being a fantasy novel with a thin science fiction veneer).

Victor Hasselborg is a detective who, despite specialising in insurance fraud cases, is hired to find the missing daughter of Syrian businessman Yussuf Batruni. When he discovers that she has fallen for a Casanova and taken an interplanetary trip with him, Hasselborg has to follow, however unwillingly, to the backward planet of Krishna. There, because of the policy of non-interference with the native culture (decades before Star Trek's Prime Directive), he has to abandon his high-tech equipment before having his hair dyed green and a pair of false antennae fitted so he can pass as a native Krishnan. He is at least permitted to retain his pills!

It is Hasselborg's jaundiced reaction to the charms of Krishna which makes de Camp's novel different even now from the usual run of fantasy literature. In style it is reminiscent of Clifford D. Simak, though I think this came first, and it is enjoyable and not particularly taxing. A Planet Called Krishna also began a series of stories set there, now not among de Camp's best known novels but worth seeking out. As Robert Heinlein said, "the reader is left with a pleasant glow, a feeling that life is not so bad after all" when they have read one of de Camp's novels.

Thursday, 20 June 2002

John O'Farrell: Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter 1979-1997 (1998)

Edition: Black Swan, 1999
Review number: 1098

Many tragic events can seem comic in retrospect, and in this book the depression accompanying being a Labour Part supporter in Thatcher's Britain is made very funny indeed. As someone mildly left wing (rabidly so by the standards of the place where I grew up, where even the Conservatives are too left wing to be voted onto the local council), I shared many of the disappointments felt by John O'Farrell, albeit in a less committed way partly dictated by being seven or eight years younger as well as by my own apathy. (I have only once been to a demonstration, against the Tiananmen Square massacre, and even that only involved a forty second walk.)

What Things Can Only Get Better consistently reminded me of was the series of Adrian Mole diaries; I liked this better because all the embarrassing social ineptitude which made me cringe with Sue Townsend's creation is missing. As a memoir of a time which I lived through from a point of view close to my own, it brought back a lot of memories. Of course, it is not altogether a tragic black comedy; all those who read it are likely to know that it will have a happy ending (at least for readers who share O'Farrell's viewpoint). And the story of the Labour victory in 1997 is told in an ecstatic, cathartic way, so the reader relives the triumphal feelings of 1 May over again. This is partly because Things Can Only Get Better was written before the euphoria wore off - after five years, many people are much more cynical about Blair's government. (It is noticeable how little the Conservatives have learnt from the internal difficulties experienced by the Labour party after Thatcher's victory in 1979 - history repeats itself with a vengeance.) I am not entirely sure what I think myself about them now, other than pleasure that the clip of Michael Portillo losing his seat is likely to appear in every TV compilation about nineties politics until the end of time. Any detailed analysis I could come up with would just be a dull catalogue of "on the other hand"s (and there is more than enough prevarication in my writing already).

Most people who are likely to enjoy this book probably already know about it (I've heard it serialised on the radio, for example). But if you have any interest in British politics recounted in an amusing way, particularly if you yourself were a Labour sympathiser in the eighties and nineties, I would urge you to read Things Can Only Get Better.

Tuesday, 18 June 2002

David Mitchell: number9dream (2001)

Edition: Sceptre, 2001
Review number: 1097

It is, apparently, common for children who have never known a parent to weave fantasies about who they might be. Eiji Mayake is no exception, and as his twentieth birthday nears, he sets out for Tokyo to discover his identity through the only clue he has, the name of a lawyer. He is obsessed with John Lennon (which is one reason for the title) and his only skills are guitar playing and fruit picking, neither in much demand in the big city.

At the beginning, the novel is structured so that after a few paragraphs of reality, Mayake's fantasies take over, taking him, for example, into a James Bond world in which he stages a raid on the lawyer's office to get the name of his father. (This of course is another reason for the title.) After a while, it becomes much more difficult to distinguish "reality" and fiction. The nature of truth and fantasy is something which has fascinated many writers, possibly because of the irony inherent in any fictional treatment of the subject, but Mitchell manages to combine an experimental structure with an interesting readable story better (which includes several denunciations of the violence of the Yakuza) than many others who have tried to do this sort of thing. Mitchell has a fascination for playing with and subverting the forms of literature, part of a tradition which goes back to Tristram Shandy. (The final, ninth, section is precisely a case in point, as well as pointing back to the title and out from the story itself to what might happen afterwards.) While it doesn't seem derivative, nuber9dream reminds me of other writers as well as Sterne. I am sure that there are additional Japanese parallels I don't recognise, but I thought of early Iain Banks, John Barth and James Joyce (particularly in the Goatwriter stories) as I was reading number9dream.

Saturday, 15 June 2002

Terry Pratchett: Thief of Time (2001)

Edition: Corgi, 2002
Review number: 1096

There are some Discworld novels in which it feels as though Terry Pratchett has got into something of a rut; this is not one of them. The ideas behind it have sources in real world popular culture, as is common in the series; in this case, kung fu movies are a major one. The plot is also not particularly surprising; it is a continuation of the conflict between Death, Pratchett's most popular character, and the Auditors, who want the Universe to be logical and consistent, and certainly not containing an anthropomorphism who cares. (They first appear in Reaper Man, one of my favourite Discworld novels.) Here, they have decided that Life is the problem, and their solution is to freeze time so that the universe becomes still and orderly. They cannot do this directly, but they can encourage a human being to produce a kind of clock which taps into the basic time pulse of the universe and, by so doing, stops it.

The particular human they choose is an obsessive compulsive clockmaker in Ankh-Morporkh, who spends his time in pursuit of the ultimate clock. Ranged against them are an order of Buddhist-style monks, who practise martial arts and meditate on koans like "There is a time and a place for everything", Death's daughter Susan and the usual assortment of bizarre supporting characters which are the trademark of Pratchett's fiction. The best of these is the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, the one who left before they became famous.

Like several recent Discworld novels, Thief of Time is an exciting rather than a purely humorous narrative, and is the most successful in this line so far. There are occasional very funny moments, but the story was to me more compelling. Pratchett has now definitely broken through the boundaries of the humorous fantasy novel subgenre, and written something much more real - a literary feat.

Thursday, 13 June 2002

David Wishart: Ovid (1995)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1095

This novel introduces Corvinus, who became the central character in Wishart's series of Roman detective stories. He is based on a real person, though Wishart has cut his age by about a decade and invented most of the details of his life and character. The setting is the early first century AD, during the reign of Tiberius (disrespectfully referred to by Corvinus as "the Wart").

Much of the plot is based on actual events, too; in fact, it centres around some of the best known parts of the history of the Empire. It seems to have a small beginning, when rich young patrician Corvinus is approached by the stepdaughter of poet Ovid; exiled by Augustus for immorality, Ovid has died abroad and his family want permission to bring his ashes back to Rome for burial. They approach Corvinus because his family have long been their patrons, and this exertion of influence on their behalf is precisely what a client got out of their relationship with a patron. It seems a reasonable request, but when Corvinus meets with a heavy handed flat refusal for no good reason, he begins an investigation into what is behind it, despite warnings that this is likely to prove extremely dangerous. These predictions are justified as Corvinus begins to dig into plots and treason among the Imperial family and into what really happened in the Teutoburger Forest, when the destruction of three legions commanded by Varus marked the end of Roman expansion into Germany and the natural boundary of the Elbe. Each new discovery made by Corvinus leads to a more outrageous interpretation of events and of how they might be connected to the exile of an apolitical poet.

The story itself is told in a camp and outrageous way, more like Wishart's novel about Petronius, Nero, than his later Corvinus tales. It's an entertaining read, though not to be relied upon as a guide to the history of the period unless you're into conspiracy theories. (From a historical point of view, it's most interesting for highlighting the patron-client relationship, which is quite different from the way that our own society claims to operate and which is rarely emphasised by historical novelists dealing with the period.) Its central characters (Corvinus and Ovid's stepdaughter Perilla) are convincing and easy to identify with, even for those of us who haven't lived the life of a pampered aristocrat. The background conveys a sense of the period despite inaccuracies introduced for the sake of the plot. In short, Ovid succeeds admirably as an escapist piece of light reading.