Saturday, 18 December 2004

David Eddings: High Hunt (1973)

Edition: Ballantyne, 1986
Review number: 1280

David Eddings' first novel is very different from his other output, even from his later thrillers and from The Losers, which was written quite soon afterwards even if not published for almost twenty years. (The vast majority of his writing is in the fantasy genre, of course.) It is an extremely American novel, concerning a deer hunt in the Cascade mountains (later made famous worldwide as the location of Mount St Helens, but still one of the most remote parts of the United States). The narrator is an American soldier returned from the draft; this is during the Vietnam War, but Dan was posted to Germany. He rather reluctantly gets back in touch with his older brother, which leads to Dan accompanying a group of friends on a hunt, one complicated by bad feeling within the group (one man is committing adultery with two of the others' wives). Up in the mountains the tensions only increase, with a major rivalry brewing up over a rare white buck they see, and it starts to look as though deer will not be the only casualties of the hunt.

This covers familiar territory, even for the early seventies, but does it extremely well. The range of characters, for example, is wide and vivid, with both more varied and complex than occur in any other of Eddings' novels - a simplified style has obviously proved popular but I prefer this greater range. Some of the effects of High Hunt are obviously not intended: that the hunt begins on September 11th would be a clever ironic touch heightening the sense of foreboding - if the novel had been written thirty years later.

The obvious, and acknowledged influence on High Hunt is Hemingway. The idea of hunting as a rite of passage, as an activity which sorts the men from the boys, is not something I agree with, so that when this is made the basis for a story it has to be well enough done, as it is here, to provide other attractions to make the tale worth reading. There are other influences, some of which I suspect I do not see since the hunting genre is not one that has made its way across the Atlantic to the extent that the Western, its close relative, has. Rather more oddly, Robert Heinlein is clearly the source of the tone of some parts, particularly the scenes between Dan and his girlfriend. Glory Road is the closest novel to High Hunt in tone, even if it is from a completely different genre. Heinlein and Hemingway live together a little uneasily as influences, but High Hunt works.

Tuesday, 14 December 2004

Len Deighton: Hope (1995)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1995
Review number: 1279

The Bernard Samson story continues, as the waves thrown up by his brother in law George Kosinski's attempts to investigate the death of his wife (Bernard's wife's sister) continue to threaten to reveal all kinds of unwelcome facts about the actions of British Intelligence in the closing months of the Cold War. (Tessa Kosinski had been killed during her sister's escape from East Germany where she had been working undercover - a British agent who was a senior official in the Stasi secret police.) Now George has himself disappeared, apparently either escaping from or kidnapped by Stasi agents. Bernard undertakes a mission to George's family home, a big house in a remote part of Poland, protected from appropriation by the Communists by a series of compromises made with the regime over the years.

While it is clear when thinking about it dispassionately that the whole of the Bernard Samson series is to say the least unlikely, this is the first of the novels where the improbabilities mount up to the point where the reader takes notice before reaching the end. There is a feeling that Deighton has by this point rather run out of steam, that the third re-interpretation of the story behind Fiona Samson's apparent defection has just too little material to work on. The third trilogy was written rather longer after the events it describes than the earlier novels - Hope is set in 1987, but not published until 1995 - and so lacks the immediacy that they had. (This is apparent even reading them years later - Deighton obviously got fired up about describing the Cold War as it happened.) This also means of course that most readers will know what happens next: the rapid collapse of the Soviet bloc at the end of the eighties hangs over this third trilogy (I suspect it was written because Deighton felt that the reactions of a veteran intelligence officer familiar with Berlin to the demolition of the Wall would make interesting reading). Hope is the poorest novel in the whole sequence and what I have said about several of the others applies with more force here: start at the beginning with Berlin Game and you will want to read the whole Bernard Samson story; do not start in the middle or near the end.

Friday, 10 December 2004

Len Deighton: Faith (1994)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1995
Review number: 1277

The third and final trilogy about Bernard Samson follos more or less straight on from the concluding moments of the preceding novels, skipping over only the months of recovery and debriefing on a remote Californian ranch that follow the escape of Bernard's wife Fiona from East Berlin where she has been a highly placed agent of the British Secret Service. (The setting is still in the days before the demolishing of the Wall.) The confusion left to be sorted out is immense - Bernard, for example, had been living with another woman, believing that Fiona was a defecting traitor; Fiona's sister Tess has apparently been killed in the fight on the autobahn linking Berlin to the West that was organised to cover Fiona's escape; rumours are flying round the Secret Service and no one has any idea what Fiona's role will be when and if she returns to work. Deighton left few loose ends at the end of London Match, the final novel in the first trilogy, but little is resolved in Spy Sinker, by contrast - it is much more obvious that the story would have to continue.

There are really two strands to Faith, one of which initially doesn't seem to be connected to the main narrative. This is a mission that Bernard is sent on to East Germany, to make contact with an officer who has secrets to sell to the West. The other is a private investigation into what happened on the night of the fight and to Tessa's body launched by her husband; this is clearly going to make waves by attempting to uncover secrets that others will want to keep hidden.

While the story naturally grows out of what has gone before, there are some changes of emphasis. We are back here with Bernard as a narrator, which works better than the third person used in Spy Sinker. More oddly, there has been an important change in emphasis which has been made without comment. Earlier, the point of the fight was to make it look as though Fiona had been killed, so that the East Germans and Russians don't know that she was working against them all this time. But now she and Bernard are openly living in the Mayfair flat that belonged to Tessa, and she is starting a high profile job in the London office - surely not something that will be overlooked by the Russian and East German agents still in London, no matter how much their respective countries are sliding into the economic chaos that was the penultimate stage in the fall of Soviet Communism.

Faith is one of the more downbeat Deighton novels, even in a series which focuses on betrayal. It is low key because, like Mexico Set in the first trilogy, it is about picking up the pieces after a trauma and starting again.

Thursday, 9 December 2004

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife (1997)

Edition: Scholastic, 2001
Review number: 1278

The scope of the His Dark Materials trilogy widens in this second novel, which is set in three worlds, including our own. The Subtle Knife also introduces the second of the two protagonists, Will Parry. Like Lyra, he is an independent child, in his case because his father was an explorer lost on an Arctic expedition when he was a baby, and his mother has become barely able to function after years of stress. When he discovers that her paranoid fantasies have a grain of truth, and then accidentally kills a man who attacks them, he has to flee, and ends up in another world where he meets Lyra. He has his own quest, to find his father, but it becomes clear that, for a time at least, their purposes will be parallel and that in some way Will will be key to stopping the forcible removal of the souls of children that motivates Lyra.

While the background remains interesting, the faults of Northern Lights seem magnified here. Will is just as poorly animated a character as Lyra is, and the story really lacks the spark of excitement that would be needed for it to really take off. This is made worse by the splitting of the narrative into two; I can see why the book is organised like this (the purpose of the lesser thread, which is mostly very tedious indeed, is to prepare the ground for a surprise in the other), but it does make the novel drag. I suspect that if this had been the first novel in the trilogy, few children would have bothered to read it. (Mind you, I get the impression that this is a series that adults rave about as a fantastic children's trilogy but not one which is really a great favourite with young readers.)

It is in the latter part of the novel that Pullman's controversial twisting of Christian theology really begins. As it appears here, it is basically a reversal of how orthodox Christianity looks at the universe - the side that a Christian would call good is here about regulation and conformity; while the traditional "fallen angels" want to bring freedom and happiness to humanity. This is hardly a new way to attack the Christian religion, particularly as it is based on an institutionalised version of Christianity that has little to do with what the Bible actually says (and attacking it is really a version of what is known as a "straw man" argument - demolishing a misrepresentation of an opponent's position). Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh has a similar message, and that was written over a century ago as an attack on the hypocrisy of the Victorian church. And yet this trilogy has generally been singled out for praise, as though every book that children could read before Pullman began writing were putting the same point of view as C.S. Lewis (whose Narnia stories are, incidentally, better written and more fun.) Christianity is an irrelevance to the majority of people in the West today - there are far more interesting targets that could be attacked truly controversially, from the cult of celebrity, to cultural imperialism, to the morality of today's capitalism. There is no reason to start fighting our grandparents battles over again.

Considering the amount of praise I have heard heaped on this series, it has proved immensely disappointing. I will probably eventually read The Amber Spyglass, but I'm certainly not holding my breath in anticipation.

Thursday, 2 December 2004

Charles Stross: Singularity Sky (2003)

Edition: Orbit, 2004
Review number: 1276

There are several science fiction writers who are particularly fashionable at the moment and whose novels have a fair amount in common. The authors I have in mind include Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan and, pre-eminently, Iain M. Banks. With his first novel, Charles Stross makes a clear bid to add his name to this list. The familiar elements are all here - the post-modern ironic take on traditional space opera clichés, an interest in philosophical ideas (in this case artificial intelligence and time travel), a smattering of references to classic genre stories, the construction of post-capitalist economic and political systems. To me, though, it doesn't quite gel together to become as convincing as the writing of any of the writers I've mentioned.

The background to Singularity Sky is the emergence of a powerful artificial intelligence in the telephone networks of twenty first century Earth; in an event known as the Singularity, the Eschaton basically becomes a godlike figure, transporting nine tenths of the human population to distant planets instantaneously and leaving behind new technologies such as the cornucopia machines, capable of recreating any object and so rendering all economics up to that point null and void.

Several centuries later, the resulting chaos has stabilised, leaving the Earth with an anarchic society in which the only cohesive entity is the United Nations. Elsewhere, in one colony known as the New Republic, the solution to the problem posed by the cornucopia machines has been to create a society apparently modelled on Tsarist Russia in which such technology is strictly prohibited. On one of their outlying planets, a space travelling object - a self replicating machine called the Festival, not in itself intelligent - arrives in orbit, and drops a large number of mobile phones which offer to grant wishes in exchange for information in the form of stories. The New Republic leaders cannot conceive of this type of entity, and assume that this is an invasion from some interstellar power that they didn't previously know of (and in terms of the disruption to the state's power structures, the arrival of the Festival has a similar effect to an attack, so this is not as strange a misconception as it sounds).

This idea seems like a reasonable basis for a story, but the elements never seem to come together. (For me, at least - Charles Stross has plenty of fans). The problem is the writing style; while Banks, Reynolds and Morgan all produce prose which draws the reader in and is full of atmosphere, much of Singularity Sky is dull and leaden. The best bits are the references to other writers; I particularly liked the high-tech version of the Luggage from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. It is nearly not enough - the idea is sufficiently interesting that I wanted to find out the ending, but the temptation to leave out the intervening pages and skip to the last few was strong.

The characters too are a bit of a problem. Some come from the backward feudal New Republic, while others are products of the post-capitalist Earth - and yet they both come across as pretty similar, late twentieth century humans. Even the beings who hitchhike with the Festival, some of which are described as extremely alien, have human characters, by and large. A group of intelligent burrowing animals, for example, are far less convincingly non-human than the rabbits in Watership Down.

This is a novel likely to confirm readers who are not fans of the science fiction genre of the stereotypical view of it that puts them off: strong on ideas, weak on execution, particularly poor in style and characterisation.

Saturday, 27 November 2004

Ivan Turgenev: Smoke (1867)

Translation: Uncredited
Edition: Alan Sutton, 1985
Review number: 1275

Earlier in 2004, it was announced that the United Kingdom divorce rates had risen quite sharply, and one of the causes suggested by commentators was the way that the Internet has made it easier to trace old lovers, causing people to abandon their current partners in something of an attempt to recover lost youth. Though meeting someone from the past after a long time can cause something of a jolt, and people do tend to romanticise their past affairs (because they didn't suffer from the specific flaws that mar current relationships), it is likely that whatever it was that made it not work out the first time will still be there in some form, which means that picking things up where they were left off is probably doomed.

Shorn of the digs at Friends Reunited, this is basically the idea behind Smoke. Many years ago, the central character Litvinov was engaged to the young and beautiful Irina Osinin. Her family was aristocratic but impoverished, but she was offered a single chance to make her name in society. Urged to do so by her father and by Libinov (persuaded by her father that she should take the opportunity), she becomes a great success, and this proves the end of the match between the two young people. Now, ten years later and again on the verge of marriage, Litvinov is visiting the fashionable German spa of Baden-Baden, seemingly populated entirely by Russians, when he meets Irina again. Irina is now married, but clearly despises her husband, and she is still extremely beautiful. Litvinov is tempted to renew their relationship, but is torn by his duty and his desire to remain true to his fiancée - a sincere desire, despite the resurgence of all his old feelings for Irina.

The plot serves more as the hook for a series of satirical portraits of the Russian upper classes abroad, particularly in the first half of Smoke; these seem to be the main point of the novel. They are variously revealed as stupid, provincial, vulgar, superficial and vain - or as combinations of these qualities. The two main characters are more fully fleshed out than this, and much more sympathetically portrayed - and yet Turgenev is careful to make them flawed as well.

Smoke is the novel which first made Turgenev's name outside Russia, though today the earlier Fathers and Sons and the play A Month in the Country are deservedly far better known. This anonymous (and, I suspect, early and hence out of copyright) translation has obvious flaws (details such as the consistent use of the word "thrashing" rather than "threshing" to describe the processing of grain suggest to me that the translator was not a native English speaker, and some phrases use idiomatic expressions which are no longer current), but it does possess a certain liveliness which is presumably derived from the atmosphere of the original.

As a Russian novel about illicit love, Smoke is overshadowed by Anna Karenin - but that is of course true about most novels. It is one of the most accesible nineteenth century Russian novels, with none of the problems cited by some as reasons to avoid them - it is short, has a smallish number of characters with distinct names, and avoids dullness through the use of satire.

Saturday, 20 November 2004

Salley Vickers: Mr Golightly's Holiday (2003)

Edition: Harper Perennial, 2004
Review number: 1274

There have been many novels written about the way in which the settled life of a British village can be transformed by the introduction of new ideas by cosmopolitan visitors. It might be thought that the advent of modern communications and media, particularly the TV soap opera, would have made this an obsolete concept, one that would be restricted to literature with a historical setting, but Mr Golightly's Holiday demonstrates that a successful contemporary novel can still use the theme.

The village in question is a fictional place on the edge of Dartmoor, and the cosmopolitan visitor is the title character (though he is in some ways less sophisticated than the villagers). He is a middle-aged businessman who books a holiday cottage for several months to take some time away from the company he runs and to think about bringing a successful novel he wrote some years ago up to date, maybe by turning it into the basis for a soap opera. This is where his own lack of sophistication comes in; he needs educating about how a soap opera works by a teenager he befriends. However, he certainly challenges the villagers' assumptions about how they run their lives, which is the point of the scenario.

The reviews quoted on the back of Mr Golightly's Holiday generally seem keen to compare it to Cold Comfort Farm. To my mind, there are two many differences between the two novels to make this a useful comparison for a prospective reader (though, from a marketing point of view, it is easy to see why the publishers would quote comparisons to one of the best loved English novels of the twentieth century). The village here is not as strange and over the top as the farm at Cold Comfort, for one thing, and Mr Golightly is nothing like as forthright in his attempts at reform as Flora Poste. These two factors combine to produce a much gentler novel, rather than the madcap satire of Gibbons. I would say that a closer relation is Mervyn Peake's Mr Pye, even if that is a far less well known novel.

This brings me to a major point of similarity between Mr Golightly's Holiday and Mr Pye, the part that religious ideas play in both novels. (This is another important difference between them and Cold Comfort Farm, where the only important religious theme is the description of the Quivering Brethren, ridiculing the more extreme non-conformist sects.) That there will be Christian ideas appearing in the novel is clear early on, when a woman walking her dog on Dartmoor suddenly hears a voice from a burning gorse bush - an incident that rams home just how bizarre Moses' similar experience recorded in Exodus must have seemed when he recounted it to his acquaintances. This particular event is to my mind the most interesting of the ideas in the novel, and even though it could form the basis of an entire plot in itself, it is not made as much of as some of the other Biblical ideas.

There are two Bible-derived ideas which form an important part of the novel. One of these is kept as a well-prepared surprise to the end; it is, unfortunately rather hackneyed and limp (sufficiently so that it forms the setup to several well known jokes). The other is constant reference to the story of Job - Mr Golightly receives a series of anonymous emails quoting one of the most famous pieces of poetry in the Old Testament, from the end of the book when Job confronts God to try to find out why he has been through so much suffering. This, too, is potentially interesting (since after all Job is one of the hardest hitting books in the Bible), but it is also not handled very well. The Biblical Job is an attack on facile reasoning about suffering in which an innocent man looses his family, his property and his health in what seems to be a very nasty and malicious prank on the part of God. Like the burning bush, this is a missed opportunity in a novel which could never be described as hard-hitting. (Robert Heinlein's science fiction retelling of the Biblical story, a novel itself named Job, is far more provocative.)

Though there are missed opportunities, and though Vickers has a distinct tendency to play safe when she has a choice to make, there is still much to enjoy about Mr Golightly's Holiday. It is well enough written, particularly in terms of characterisation, but if it had been more daring it could have been one of the best novels of 2003. Interesting, but could have been better.

Saturday, 13 November 2004

Iris Murdoch: The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1273

A theme which runs through most, and possibly all, of Iris Murdoch's novels is that of love or affection which is misplaced or unequal. In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, it is central to the novel, and it is a feature of all the relationships between the characters. So there is a mother whose teenage son is beginning to strain for independence; a man crippled by grief following the death of his wife; another man who is regretting the affair he has been carrying on for the last eight years, and so on.

The plot of the novel is basically the story of what happens when Blaise is driven to admit his affair - and small son - to his completely unsuspecting wife. This of course leads to dramatic changes in all the relationships depicted, which centre around the couple. There is little more to the novel than this; it is a study of character and relationships, and how they are transformed when this kind of cataclysm shatters their stable pattern. From a philosophical or psychological point of view, it is clear that Murdoch was interested in how character and relationships affect each other, and how circumstance affects them both. (This could also almost be suggested as the principal interest of the novel form itself.) It could be argued that the interplay between character and circumstance determines relationships, but Murdoch's view is a little more subtle, as characters are influenced and evolve through the action of the other components.

Unusually for an Iris Murdoch novel, there is not much discussion of religion in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, despite its title (which is not one of Murdoch's best, in my opinion). I am not sure why this is, though she may well have felt that adding more would detract from the various elements already present. The "Sacred and Profane" of the title would then refer to the different kinds of love in the novel and their varying degrees of what might be termed legitimacy. No relationship which is as one sided as those depicted in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine could be considered totally legitimate; this is a work about the shades of grey that determine our perception of this measure, and about how much this perception could differ from the black and white ideas of legitimacy which tend to be used by society generally.

Initially, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine does not seem to be one of Murdoch's better novels. This feeling is perhaps initially prompted by the sub-hippy culture title, but it also begins in rather a dull way. It becomes interesting immediately on the cataclysmic revelation of Blaise's infidelity. It is definitely worth persevering with, but even so it is not up there with The Sea, The Sea, The Bell or Under the Net.

Wednesday, 10 November 2004

Len Deighton: Spy Sinker (1990)

Edition: Grafton, 1991
Review number: 1272

The final volume of the second Bernard Samson trilogy is absolutely and massively different from the five novels that precede it and the three that come after. Instead of narration by Bernard, with himself as the central character, we now get a (supposedly) objective third person narrative, which takes the setting back again to 1978 contemporary with that of Berlin Game and focuses on his wife, Fiona. (I say supposedly, because occasionally the objective mask is dropped, and remarks like one commenting that Fiona's public school background ideally prepared her for life as a double agent in East Germany are made.)

This sounds like a good idea; all along we have Bernard's not completely hones description of how he began to suspect his wife was a traitor, but then gradually discovered, following her defection, that she might be one of the most daring British agents of the Cold War. His position is as the victim of betrayal in both scenarios (as the husband of the agent, his particular difficulty is that he was left out of the secret). He is also not the central figure in his own drama, though the reader will tend to forget this because of the power implicit in being the narrator of the story. So how different is the picture from the point of view of the betrayer? This is Fiona's story, and it is perhaps to say something about her character that Deighton narrates in the third person, rather than producing a first person story from her side of things - more passive, perhaps.

In practise, it doesn't work as well as it sounds as though it should. Retelling the same story from a new point of view can work very well, when the new central character has something new to being to the tale (as in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example). Here, however, most of what we read either repeats what Bernard has said or is something the reader probably guessed from reading his account. (For example, we don't need to be given an explicit account to know that there must have been a high level meeting at which it was decided to keep the operation secret from Bernard.)

Another problem is that Fiona Samson is not as interesting or as believable a character as her husband. Of course, a large number of Deighton's earlier novels have central characters very similar to Bernard, so he had lots of practise before creating him, while Fiona is his only attempt at a female viewpoint character (barring short stretches from Only When I Larf). He may have been aware that she was less successful, and that is perhaps the reason why a fair amount of Spy Sinker concerns other characters - which in turn is a good reason why Fiona isn't given a first person narration.

As I have said before, to read Berlin Game is almost certainly enough to inspire you to go on and read the rest of the series, and there is certainly some interest here with the gaps that are filled in. But Spy Sinker is definitely the poorest of the Bernard Samson novels.

Saturday, 6 November 2004

Ian McDonald: River of Gods (2004)

Edition: Simon & Schuster, 2004
Review number: 1271

India is, as pretty much everyone says, a fascinating place. Full of the ancient and embracing the modern, united by a colonial power yet, independent, maintaining that unity in the face of massive pressures both internal and external, home to hundreds of millions of people, who believe in thousands of gods and demons and live in conditions ranging between as poor and as wealthy as anyone on the planet. There have been massive changes since independence in 1947 (as chronicled by writers such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roi) - so a natural question is what will India be like in about fifty years time, on the hundredth anniversary of independence? Of course, no one currently knows, but Ian McDonald has given us his image of what the subcontinent might be like at that point, woven into an extremely traditional science fictional plot, the investigation of an alien artefact. The other main plot strand is the development - or, rather, evolution - of artificial intelligences known as aeais many times brighter than human beings, who are sought out and destroyed being considered a threat.

What is immediately interesting about McDonald's future is how little is actually different. Science fiction authors generally emphasise the changes; he gives more prominent to what remains the same. It is mainly the details that have changed - better computing, slicker entertainment (computer generated soap operas, personal aeai DJs to give you a customised soundtrack to the world); water has replaced oil as the resource to fight wars over, especially in a fragmented India where the monsoon has failed three years running; the ability to choose "designer babies" has created a Hindu middle class in which girls have suddenly acquired massive scarcity value, and where there is a neuter subculture vaguely like gay culture in the West today. None of these changes are terribly earth shattering in science fiction terms (compare this novel with Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, for example). And so as a result Indian society doesn't seem to have changed terribly much: most of what we read about would seem reasonably familiar to the characters of Midnight's Children.

While a science fiction fan like myself can definitely find "prior art" for the various elements of River Gods, McDonald has put them together to produce something which is convincing (if a little conservative), interesting and enjoyable to read.

Thursday, 28 October 2004

Robertson Davies: Tempest-Tost (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1270

In some ways, the staging of an amateur theatrical event must seem to be an ideal focus for a satirist. The inflated egos, naked ambition displayed over so small an achievement is an obvious tool to dissect the vanities of the world. Its very obviousness is the problem: how do you use this subject without coming across as trite? Here, then, we see that to choose this as the background for his debut novel Robertson Davies was actually showing a high level of self-confidence. (This was perhaps to be expected in a writer who was already an experienced journalist and playwright.)

So what does Davies do to make Tempest-Tost an interesting variation on the amateur dramatics as satire theme? It's sharper than most, for a start - full of acid yet subtle jokes at the small mindedness of the Canadian provincial. (It would be just about possible to read Robertson Davies without realising that it is meant to be funny.) The majority of the jokes are character based; each member of the cast is exposed in some shortcoming, which usually arises because they are not as good at something as they think they are; in the Aristotelian manner, their downfall comes from hubris and yet this is not made tragic. (This is something which changes somewhat in Davies' later novels. In A Mixture of Frailties, the third novel of the Salterton trilogy of which this is the first, Solly Bridgetower, whose problem is his devotion to a demanding, suffocating and ungrateful mother, has his life made miserable after her death by the malicious provisions of her will.) Bringing in the director of the production - The Tempest, by the way, hence the title (even if it is quoted from Macbeth), from outside also makes this different. Valentine Rich is a native Saltertonian, who has gone to New York and become a success there as a theatre director. She returns as a favour to an old schoolfriend, and causes a great deal of tension because of her outlook, her refusal to admit that things cannot be arranged in Salterton's amateur theatre as they could be in professional New York productions. She has no truck with the idea that some people must be asked to do things for political reasons rather than because of their suitability. The clash between her values and the cosy traditional ideas of the amateur group enhance the satire enormously.

The third way that Davies moves Tempest-Tost out of the common is by the power of his characterisation. Though the various Saltertonians in the novel initially seem to be rather clichéd stereotypes - the popular, pretty young girl, the stuffy schoolmaster, the pedantic university lecturer, the tomboy, the taciturn gardener, and so on - they are almost all gradually revealed to be more complex than that with complicated interactions. Then there is the time and place - the sexual hangups of the mid twentieth century play a big part (especially the innocence of young men and women compared to their successors only a few years later), as do the special insecurities of a backwater town in Ontario (fiction Salterton's greatest claim to fame is that it was at one point considered as a possible capital for the Dominion of Canada). Like the inhabitants of Sinclair Lewis' even more bitter Main Street, the small mindedness of Salterton's inhabitants is quite amazing, and is (paradoxically) greatest amongst those who consider themselves the town's sophisticated elite.

Tempest-Tost is a wonderfully witty satire, full of barbed humour and, more than that, it is a novel full of memorable characters.

Tuesday, 26 October 2004

Len Deighton: Spy Line (1989)

Edition: Grafton, 1990
Review number: 1269

The start of this novel, second in the Hook, Line and Sinker trilogy, marks the lowest point of the career of British spy Bernard Samson, at least during the period documented by Deighton. The first scene is set in a seedy nightclub, from which Bernard goes to the squat where he is living in one of the most sordid areas of Berlin, a derelict housing estate up against the Wall. Here he is hiding from his employers, who have a warrant out for his arrest on suspicion of treason - all part of the events following his wife's defection to the Communists. As it turns out, Bernard is safer on the run than when he returns to the department, to be immediately sent out on a poorly organised and dangerous mission to Austria.

Though this seems to be a typical mid-trilogy novel, just keeping the plot ticking over, it has a huge shock in store. It also contains the beginning of Deighton's response to the changes brought by glasnost. The thawing of the Cold War was obviously a momentous event in the life of anyone who made a living from it, whether the spies who are the characters in Deighton's novels or the writer himself. At the start, he is not too impressed; he has a Berliner tell Bernard a joke in the very first scene of Spy Line - the only difference glasnost has brought to the Wall is that the frontier guards now shoot with silenced guns.

Bernard portrays himself as at the mercy of the machinations of others throughout the entire series (though his self image is clearly not entirely accurate), and this is particularly true in Spy Line. This is presumably because he is not at all happy with his own role at this point in the saga; the time has come when the betrayals are his own and when he has to make a decision that will be hurtful to those close to him whatever he does.

As I have said before in discussing other Bernard Samson books, this is a series to read from the beginning; do not start here, but with Berlin Game.

Thursday, 21 October 2004

Steven Mithen: After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 - 5000 BC (2003)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003
Review number: 1268

In the last few years, the understanding that professional archaeologists have of life in the prehistoric world has advanced rapidly, but the new ideas have generally been quite slow to filter through to the level of the interested amateur, apart from the odd newspaper article when a particularly sensational story has been unearthed, such as the disproving of the "Clovis first" theory about the earliest inhabitants of the American continent, or the exposing of the Philippine's Tasaday tribe as a hoax perpetrated by the Marcos regime for its own reasons. In After the Ice, Steve Mithen provides a popular account of the current state of archaeological knowledge and theory, a worldwide survey of the story of 15,000 years - a period which basically extends from the height of the last Ice Age to the earliest agricultural cultures.

In this sort of account, the difficulty is to make the past come alive - to turn the trenches back into huts, the bones into people - while being able to show the reasoning behind the reconstruction, the boundaries between knowledge and supposition, and also to explain something of the scientific techniques used in modern archaeological investigation. Mithen uses a particular device to overcome this difficulty: he writes about what would have been seen by a time traveller he names John Lubbock, named after a famous Victorian historian, who in his own book Prehistoric Times did something similar to After the Ice, although right at the start of the study of the prehistoric past: this was the book which introduced terms such as Palaeolithic and Neolithic. John Lubbock carries a copy of Prehistoric Times around with him, which makes it possible for Mithen to discuss just how much our ideas about the past have changed in the last century and a half (and also our attitudes to non-white people). This generally works quite well, only occasionally becoming irritating; far less so than a description of the device makes it sound.

Apart from those with an interest in the past for its own sake, why should anyone read After the Ice? Mithen makes a case for this by considering global warming. Through this fifteen thousand year period, global temperatures rose dramatically (though not as fast as they are now), and many of the changes in the archaeology can be linked to the environmental changes that were local effects of this. The drastic move to agriculture - it should be noted that the early farmers had poorer nutrition than the hunter gatherers they replaced - has had amassive (indeed, incalculable) social impact. This is some food for thought as we look to the next century, when global warming is likely to impact a world containing thousands of times as many people.

One minor irritation occurs in connection with the footnotes. A lot of the more technical detail is relegated to notes at the end of the book, and there are many readers who, like myself, will want to follow them as they progress through the main narrative. The problem is that there are frequent errors in the numbering of the notes which can make this a frustrating process. To take an example, in the last chapter the note referenced as 2 in the text appears as 6 in the endpapers, with the notes in between also incorrect (3-5 become 2-4). I hope this will be corrected in later editions.

After the Ice is a fascinating book, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the prehistoric past. Maybe in a decade or two it will be out of date; and in a century and a half it may well seem to be a naive, forgotten relic of the past like Prehistoric Times has become. But for now this is the history book of the year.

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (1907)

Edition: Thomas Nelson
Review number: 1267

Almost since the English novel's origins, there have been writers who wanted to create literary versions of the melodramatic journalism which has been part of British life since the days of the Tudors. Dickens is perhaps the most notable example, with campaigning novels such as Nicholas Nickleby. The Secret Agent is very much part of this tradition, but takes it in a new direction: this is an important milestone towards the establishment of the literary end of the thriller genre, obvious successors including novels like Brighton Rock.

In the thirty years or so before the First World War, anarchist outrages were in the news in much the same way as terrorism is today. Sensationalist writing was rife, some of which was about as grounded in reality as the wildest ranting that can be found on today's Internet. The parallels extend to an equivalent of the 9/11 attacks - the assassination of the Russian Emperor Alexander II in 1881 (and attacks on other royalty). Hopefully there will not be a second parallel event to match the effective ending of the hysteria with another outrage - the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinant, followed by global war.

Conrad was no stranger to sensationalist plots; just think of Lord Jim, or The Heart of Darkness (the latter perhaps more shocking now, with its story of the dehumanisation of whte traders in colonial Africa, than it would have been at the time). The Secret Agent goes further, and also incidentally one of the few Conrad stories to make virtually no references to the sea.

The central character is the shady Mr Verloc; proprietor of a seedy shop atmospherically described in the novel's opening pages. For years, he has been supplementing the inadequate income provided by his business - a foreign embassy has been funding him to organise an anarchist cell in London. As a lazy man, this ideally suits him, as failing to make an impact is just proof of how difficult his allotted task actually is. Then, a change at the Embassy means that Verloc is given an ultimatum: produce results, or receive no more money. The target selected is the Greenwich Observatory, as symbol of the fetish of the age, science.

The Secret Agent isn't really about its plot, but about style and character (the most interesting being Verloc's wife). I've also found it the most accessible and appealing of Conrad's novels. It is less complex psychologically than Lord Jim or The Heart of Darkness, both of which are about how men's characters change; Winnie Verloc does not develop gradually but suddenly turns into a different person at the climactic point of the novel, when she makes a dramatic discovery.

The Secret Agent is, as far as I am concerned, the ideal introduction to Conrad's writing (it was the first writing of his that I read); and it has remained my favourite among his novels.

Friday, 24 September 2004

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Firm of Girdlestone (1890)

Edition: John Murray, 1923
Review number: 1265

The most famous and lasting creations of Arthur Conan Doyle - Professor Challenger and, overwhelmingly, Sherlock Holmes - seem to place him firmly in the nineteenth century; these figures are an extremely important part of our iconography of Victorian England. And yet he wrote most of these stories decades after the times in which they were set, and the Sherlock Holmes stories go right up to the even of the First World War. Though these novels were among those which laid the foundations of modern popular fiction genres, they were firmly backward looking. This is also true of The Firm of Girdlestone, which reads like a product of the 1860s despite being written over twenty years later. It is traditional in themes and form, and could be seen as something of a pastiche of a writer like Anthony Trollope. Even though it looks back, though, The Firm of Girdlestone is not nostalgic. Instead, it takes the theme beloved of the writers who were Doyle's models, that of hypocrisy in outwardly pious pillars of Victorian society. It is not one of Doyle's most original or memorable creations, but it does still remain an enjoyable novel.

The central characters of this novel are not the hero and heroine, who are a rather colourless couple, notable only for their courage in adversity. The villains are far more interesting and dominate the novel: the proprietor of the firm of Girdlestone and his son. The firm itself drives the plot; run in an amoral (or as the Girdlestones would say, businesslike) way for years, the African traders are on the brink of collapse after some unwise speculation. The plot of the novel is basically a series of desperate ploys by the father and son to recoup their fortunes - over-insuring poorly maintained shipping; using rumours and false reports to try to manipulate the diamond market; and attempting to terrorise an heiress into marrying the son (the traditional method of raising money used by the nineteenth century villain). The pair represent the worst of unregulated Victorian business methods, and yet Doyle makes them exhibit different types of evil, which it would perhaps not be too fanciful to say are paradigms of the vices of their respective generations. For the father cloaks his deeds in a hypocritical veil of religious piety, while the son is brazen, vicious and brutal. The novel also charts the change from the father being the dominant partner to the son taking over this role. Though the father is the more intelligent (even if it is his speculation which has ruined the company), the important thing about Doyle's portrayal is that his hypocrisy is unconscious; he truly believes that he is a pillar of the church living a virtuous and respectable lifestyle. That is an idea which must have fascinated Doyle, and this ability to continually justify himself to himself makes him an unusual character.

The three novels that The Firm of Girdlestone is most clearly derived from are Our Mutual Friend, The Way We Live Now and Uncle Silas - all published about twenty years earlier. In particular, a lot of the plot is directly lifted from Uncle Silas. Perhaps the company of Dickens, Trollope and Le Fanu is flattering this novel somewhat, but it doesn't deserve to share the oblivion into which Doyle's minor novels seem to have fallen.

Len Deighton: Spy Hook (1988)

Edition: Grafton, 1989
Review number: 1266

Three years after the events of London Match, and Bernard Samson returns, to begin narrating the second trilogy of novels about himself and his wife. With Fiona firmly established in the KGB hierarchy in Berlin after her defection, and his gradual return to being trusted in his own work for British Intelligence, and with his continuing affair with a much younger woman, everything seemed more or less settled at the end of that novel; but now something happens which beings to unravel all the loose ends that the reader thought had been tied up.

The novel begins this process in the first chapter, which takes place in Washington DC. One of the interesting things about the Game, Set and Match trilogy is the remarkably small part played by the American intelligence agencies, especialy considering the post-war relationship between the US and British governments. The few American characters are either connected to British intelligence in some way or (appear to be) freelance information gatherers. Now, though, the US begins to be involved (though the office of the opening chapter belongs to an Englishman, a former colleague of Bernard's who is a financial expert). Nevertheless, the real focus is still Berlin; everything in this series of novels revolves around the city that was the symbol of the Cold War.

Spy Hook is very much a character based thriller - as Deighton's novels often tend to be. There is no action "for the sake of it" in his novels, and this is more cerebral than most of them. Bernard still has an overwhelming desire to understand why his wife not only defected but abandoned him and the children. The question that the reader has to ask - if they have followed the series of novels so far - is whether the discrepancies he sees are really there, or alternatively that he's clutching at these tiny loose ends hoping that the whole tangle will fall apart. And, of course, this is only the first novel in a new trilogy, so we're not likely to find out anything other than how far Bernard is able to put other people's backs up.

Friday, 10 September 2004

Nora Roberts & J.D. Robb: Rembember When (2003)

Edition: Piatkus, 2003
Review number: 1264

This is an extremely unusual collaboration - because J.D. Robb is Nora Roberts under a pseudonym. The reasoning behind billing the novel like this is quite simple, however: under the two names, she writes stories within different genres. Roberts is the name she uses to write romantic thrillers, and Robb is used for her science fiction detective series featuring Lieutenant Eve Dallas. The story here comes in two parts; in the first half we have a romantic thriller about a diamond robbert, and in the second Eve Dallas investigates a murder connected to a best-selling book describing the old robbery written by the grand daughter of the central characters from the first part.

Though this might sound rather like a gimmick, it actually works rather well, with a lot of the background later used in the Eve Dallas story told in the contemporary tale rather than holding up the action to explain how the earlier robbery had worked. It adds some interest to a story that would otherwise be nothing particularly special, entertaining though each part might happen to be. (Roberts is definitely a writer who produces enjoyable but not profound literature.) Each part is pretty typical of the other novels produced by Roberts under the appropriate name, and is a well written if not terribly original example of its genre.

The nature of this supposed collaboration is such that one of the little games that the reader often finds themselves playing while reading something produced by two well known authors is not possible - that is, trying to pick up clues as to who is responsible for what. But the idea of a collaboration with oneself is unusual enough and the writing good enough that this is an entertaining and most enjoyable light read.

Tuesday, 7 September 2004

Len Deighton: London Match (1985)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 1263

The third novel in the Game, Set and Match trilogy continues the story of how Bernard Samson copes with the aftermath of his wife's defection to the Soviet Union, the event which provided the climax to Berlin Game. KGB officer Erich Stinnes has in his turn defected - the central action of Mexico Set. And now it appears, from what London's intelligence services learn from Stinnes and other agents, that there is another KGB agent in a senior position in the Secret Intelligence Service. This time the novel is not so much concerned with the identity of the traitor, as the first part of the trilogy had been, but with whether the person pinpointed by the allegations is guilty or not. It certainly quickly becomes in the personal interests of many of the characters to support and exaggerate the rumours going round - this is office politics on a large scale.

The importance of the city of Berlin to this trilogy is hard to exaggerate. As a symbol of the Cold War it is unsurpassed, and so this is frequently true of spy fiction of that era. The divided city with its crazy town planning that resulted from being split makes an atmospheric background for these tales of betrayal. Mexico Set and London Match may use the names of other locations from Bernard's story for their titles, but Berlin is more important in the novels than either of them. So it is fitting that the final scene of the whole trilogy takes place in Berlin (though enough loose ends are left that it must have seemed unlikely that this was the last novel featuring Bernard Samson even before the appearance of Spy Hook.

Berlin Game is the best of these three novels, and indeed of all nine stories featuring Samson as the central character. But no one who has read that novel will fail to want to read the others, and they are rewarding too; Deighton is one of the best of thriller writers even when not at the absolute peak of form.

Saturday, 28 August 2004

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights (1995)

Edition: Scholastic, 1996
Review number: 1262

Harry Potter may have started the current revival in the children's books market, but it is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (of which this is, of course, the first) which has picked up most of the critical acclaim. Aimed at an older reader than the first Harry Potter stories, this is an imaginative and dark tale of a fantasy world where human beings are accompanied by personal daemons - basically externalised souls - in the form of animals.

Central character Lyra is a young girl brought up (in a neglected kind of way) by the scholars of an Oxford college. When children across Britain begin to go missing, she resolves to save them (after her closest playmate disappears); this decision takes her to fashionable London, a gypsy parliament in the Fens (at Ely under another name), and finally to the Arctic, where the Aurora or Northern Lights play an important part in beginning to resolve the mystery.

Comparison with the Harry Potter stories, particularly the Philosopher's Stone which began that series, is quite a useful way to enumerate some of the praiseworthy and not so praiseworthy aspects of this novel. The first thing that the reader notices about Northern Lights by comparison is that Pullman imagines a far more complex, logically thought out and intricate world, one that is a great deal less like the one in which we live than the one that contains Hogwarts is. Everything we read about seems to have a purpose within the overall scheme of things, while Rowling, at least some of the time, appears to put in details on the spur of the moment. While the Harry Potter books do have a plan - the final chapter of the seventh novel being among the first to be written - many of the background details do not relate to it (what do every flavour beans tell us about how the universe is structured, for example?). Everything here has its place, it all fills out a corner of a master plan. Though this may be in part something Pullman is able to do because he is writing for an older readership, this particular contrast is valid for the later Harry Potter books as well, which are not aimed at such young people.

Pullman's writing is made to seem far deeper and have more to offer on repeated reading by this method. It should be remembered that Rowling's books are meant to be funny, while Pullman wants to deal with big issues.

The feeling that there is more to be gained by repeated reading of His Dark Materials is bolstered by a second difference: the background to Pullman's series is far more imaginative than Happy Potter, which is really just a boarding school story with magic and a villain. The daemons, the cosmology (all the stuff about the Dust), the bears and so on are original ideas; this is not just another post-Tolkien fantasy novel. Pullman wins out on the broad brush aspects of writing a fantasy novel - the general background is far better - but what about the detail? On the character front, the central cast of Rowling's novels all seem to have something individual about them, though sometimes Ron Weasley in particular is a bit of a caricature. It takes a long while here to feel that Lyra has much of a character. His portrayal of her upbringing as a sort of urchin doesn't seem realistic - for that done really well in a book for teenagers, try Leon Garfield's Smith. The characters here seem to be mainly intended as pegs for the background - which is of course a common problem in novels driven by ideas.

Both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Northern Lights aim to make a big impact in their very first pages, with the outlandish idea of a boy living in a cupboard under the stairs in one and Lyra discovering a plot to poison her uncle in the other. Here Harry Potter wins again, but then it does have one of the most attention grabbing openings in fiction. Harry Potter also continues in much the same vein, and the pace really keeps moving; this is not true of Northern Lights. This is not necessarily a case of one being better than the other, however; it is another difference of emphasis.

The differences between the two series could be summed up as Pullman having more intellectual weight (and it is interesting that most of the reviews I have seen are about the underlying ideas rather than the writing itself), but Rowling being more appealing. It's a matter of mind or heart - each appeals more to the one than the other. Considering that they are the two most successful examples of the current revival of the children's book market, they are remarkably different from each other - especially given that they both fall within the fantasy genre.

Thursday, 26 August 2004

Alastair Reynolds: Absolution Gap (2003)

Edition: Gollancz, 2003
Review number: 1260

This novel completes the story of Revelation Space and Redemption Ark, about how the human race falls foul of machines named Inhibitors or wolves, which destroy interstellar civilizations when alerted by the use of particular kinds of advanced technology. (Chasm City and the pair of novellas Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days share the same background, but are not part of the same story.) At the end of Redemption Ark, one group of humans had taken refuge on the backwater planet of Ararat; one strand of Absolution Gap starts when the Inhibitors attack them. The other main narrative thread is set on the bizarre world of Hela (a third describes the discovery of this world). Hela is an icy moon, home to a really strange religious movement. Many satellites have synchronous orbits, keeping one face towards the planet they orbit, as the Moon does to Earth - nobody could see the far side before the days of space travel. Hela nearly does this, but not quite, so the planet of Haldora appears to slowly move through the sky. On the equator is a route travelled by the strange cathedrals, slowly moving, huge buildings; their aim is to keep the planet directly overhead, under constant observation. (Of course, only one can do so at a time, causing a great deal of rivalry.)

Absolution Gap is a long novel, and to start with moves too slowly. Even though I had enjoyed Reynolds' other writing, I seriously considered giving up on this story. The depiction of Hela is a serious problem; although the cathedrals are a fascinating idea, with a great deal of scope for baroque description in the manner of Peake or Moorcock (they're easily the best thing in the novel), we don't actually learn very much about them. This is because Reynolds doesn't want to reveal twists in the plot beforehand, but it means that the reader's interest isn't sustained. Basically, Absolution Gap could have been better constructed; it is a lengthy wait for things to start to get interesting. Read it if you want to find out the end of the story of the Inhibitors; otherwise, it's not really worth the effort.

Tuesday, 24 August 2004

Len Deighton: Mexico Set (1985)

Edition: Grafton, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1261

I don't think it would be possible to write sensibly about the second novel in the Game, Set and Match trilogy without giving away an important part of the plot of Berlin Game, the first one. So I'm not even going to try. Mexico Set is all about how Bernard Samson copes when his wife defects to the Russians after he uncovers the fact that she is a KGB agent (they were both senior members of the British secret service). So the novel is about Bernard's personal and professional difficulties; he has to try to work out how much of their marriage was a sham, t otry and be there for his children (which he fails miserably to do) and to deflect the questioning of his own loyalty by his colleagues - surely, they say, he should have suspected Fiona long ago, if he himself was innocent.

The plot of Mexico Set is about Bernard trying to persuade a KGB officer - Stinnes, who appeared at the end of Berlin Game and who works for Fiona- to defect. Once again, the narrative is cleverly done so that it doesn't just given an impression of Bernard's feelings, but also conveys something of how much he isn't saying. (How has this man, who views himself as reasonable and professional, come to be so feared by his colleagues?) The various backgrounds, from the sleaze of Mexico City to the paranoia of Berlin, are atmospheric and tightly integrated into the feelings that the novel produces as it is read - treachery is just so much more plausible in the settings Deighton provides for it. Everything about the novel fits together efficiently, and is about enhancing its effectiveness.

Mexico Set is mainly concerned with Bernard's character, which makes it seem a little low key for a modern thriller. Although the reader has the impression that there is not a great deal of action, in fact there is a fair amount of violence, all of it the consequence of some betrayal - by Fiona, or the deskbound officials in London (both of Bernard), or of one Russian agent by another. Betrayal is of course the main theme of the whole trilogy, but Mexico Set is remarkable for the number of different acts of bad faith.

Anyone who reads Berlin Match is very likely to read on through the rest of the trilogy (and quite probably through the other seven novels relating to Bernard Samson); together, they form one of the premier classics of the thriller genre. I am not quite sure how well Mexico Set would work by itself, having only every read it immediately following its predecessor, but I would certainly advise prospective readers to start at the beginning with Berlin Game.

Saturday, 14 August 2004

Len Deighton: Berlin Game (1983)

Edition: Grafton, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1259

While no one who read The Ipcress File could deny that Len Deighton was one of the great spy fiction writers, several of his other novels seem quite tired. With Berlin Game, and indeed the whole of the Game, Set and Match trilogy, everything came together once again; this story would no doubt join Deighton's debut in many fans' lists of the absolute top spy stories. It is not surprising that Bernard Samson dominated the rest of Deighton's output in the same way that Harry Palmer did in the sixties.

From a plotting point of view, there are a lot of points of similarity between the two novels. Both are supreme examples of the "which of my colleagues is a traitor" storyline, and both are told by a world weary, cynical narrator. Both are set mainly in London, but with a second focus elsewhere - in each case, somewhere crucial to the unravelling of the treachery: Berlin here (obviously) and an American nuclear testing facility in The Ipcress File; the London scenes are mainly about office politics. Like Palmer, Samson doesn't quite fit in; twenty years after The Ipcress File, the secret service is still full of Oxbridge types who look down on someone who never went to university at all; both narrators have a serious chip on their shoulder about this, and the attitude is something of a constant theme in Deighton's writing about the secret service as part of the British establishment.

The main difference between the two narrators is in the situations of the narrators in the two novels. Bernard Samson is considerably older, and he is married (to another senior official from "the Department") with two youngish children. Harry Palmer's career began during the Second World War, Bernard grew up in post-war Berlin. These two changes make considerable difference; Bernard is willing to attribute more complex motives to those around him, and recognises shades of grey in treachery which would never occur to Harry. Bernard is so world weary that each betrayal just adds its bit to the total sadness in the world; there is nothing to be surprised about, no real blame to award, for treachery is only to be expected. And yet, even so, those around him describe Bernard as an optimist.

So Bernard Samson is an older, more settled character, and that affects every aspect of Berlin Game, from the amount of action to his analysis of motivations. Even without many of the traditional thrills of the genre, the novel keeps the reader enthralled from beginning to end. It is the characterisation of the narrator which does this - Deighton is subtle enough that we don't just get Bernard Samson as described by himself, but are able to see through that to a real character underneath. The Ipcress File might be more original (Berlin Game being very much derived from it), and it might have had more influence on other writers; but in Berlin Game Deighton has created not just another classic thriller, but one which is in my opinion better than its model.

Wednesday, 11 August 2004

Dan Simmons: Ilium (2003)

Edition: Gollancz, 2003
Review number: 1258

To science fiction fans, Dan Simmons is best known for his award winning novel Hyperion, which uses the poetry of John Keats as its inspiration. In Ilium, his most recent novel and a return to the genre (in which he writes occasionally), the literary references are there again. Here, though, they are made more central (being far more frequently referred to directly), and are more varied. Homer is naturally the most obvious, but there are also direct references to Shakespeare (the Sonnets and the Tempest), H.G. Wells The Time Machine, and Proust as well as indirect ones to other sources.

In The Rolling Stones, Robert Heinlein satirises the flagrant plagiarism of some pulp science fiction authors, a character who is a writer blatantly reuses plots from the Odyssey, Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors. Here, Dan Simmons has done something which is even more clearly reuse, but he does this in a much more interesting way; his retelling of Greek myth is a springboard for a fascinating piece of science fiction.

There are three storylines in Ilium: one a retelling of Homer's Iliad, in which the Greek gods influencing the action are beings from the future; a story from the other end of history, where pampered humans have lost a great deal of knowledge but live in a world run for them by robot "servitors"; and a mission by a group of artificial beings engineered to live on the satellites of Jupiter to discover what is behind some strange quantum effects observed on Mars.

One thing that is interesting to me about Ilium is how Simmons places each story in a different part of the science fiction genre. The Iliad bits are part fantasy, part something like Lord of Light; the last humans on a depleted Earth are like a number of far future scenarios originally derived from the Eloi in The Time Machine; the outer solar system artificial beings hard science fiction rather like Kim Stanley Robinson. Even with all this complexity, Ilium does not come across as having a split personality; Simmons holds it together magnificently for over six hundred pages - which means that each strand is long enough to form a novel in its own right.

The reader of Ilium will get a lot more out of it if they have read the various literary sources it alludes to, and an acquaintance with the Iliad is even more useful. Neither is absolutely essential, as the important points are explained as the story develops. (The device of having the point of view character in the Iliad sections a Greek scholar re-animated at the scene to provide the "gods" with a commentary on how well what happens matches Homer's poem is useful in this respect.) Even without the clever folding of the literary themes, the little references to delight the knowledgeable, Ilium is an extremely well written, if slightly over long, novel. Entertaining and intelligent, definitely one of the best books I have read this year.

Saturday, 7 August 2004

Sean McMullen: Souls in the Great Machine (1999)

Edition: Tor, 2000
Review number: 1257

There are plenty of post-apocalyptic novels, and plenty of science fiction about computers, but Souls in the Great Machine is the first story I have read which combines the two. Set about seventeen hundred years from now, following a nuclear winter, Souls in the Great Machine is about the effects of the development of a new form of a religiously proscribed machine, the computer. Because electronic equipment has become unusable (due to still functioning military satellites which destroy any detected electrical circuits), the components are men and women who perform the operations basic to the electronic computer of today by hand. The machine is slow compared to one using microchip technology, but powerful enough to bring prominence to the small state in which it is secretly constructed.

Souls in the Great Machine builds on well worn science fiction ideas in an original manner, and by centring on the Calculor itself becomes fascinating (at least for the first two thirds; the last two hundred pages of this novel, describing desert warfare, is more commonplace and not so interesting). The scenario is influenced by writers like Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling - despite the massive differences in the technology depicted, the closest novels in tone to Souls in the Great Machine that I can think of are The Diamond Age and The Difference Engine - as well as post apocalyptic novels, particularly A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also deals with the relationship between technology and religion. The desert warfare could come from Dune (which also, of course, has a religious prohibition on the development of computing machines), or a number of fantasy novels and the use of railways is (perhaps more superficially) like Pavane or Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Out of such influences, McMullen has forged a novel distinctively his own.

Souls in the Great Machine has flaws; as mentioned, it tails off in its final third; and it is also lacking in characterisation. It is as though the nature and effects of the Calculor are not just the main interest of the novel, but so much its focus that everything else not directly related to the topic is underwritten. For a genre novel, it is dense and that makes it a slow read, and the effect of the poor end segment is to make the reader wonder whether the effort has been worth it. I would say that for the earlier parts of Souls in the Great Machine, the whole is just worth it; enough for me to look out for his other books, some of which are also set in the same world.

Saturday, 31 July 2004

John Fowles: A Maggot (1985)

Edition: Vintage, 1996
Review number: 1256

In The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles wrote a knowing twentieth century version of a nineteenth century novel. A Maggot is more conventionally a historical novel, set in 1736 but despite fitting better into the genre, it shares much of the ironic self awareness of Fowles' best known work.

The novel starts with something very small - a group of travellers riding across Exmoor, who stop overnight at a small village before heading on again. But a few days later, one of the party, a mute servant, is found dead, having apparently hanged himself. The rest of the novel deals with an investigation, not so much an attempt to find out what actually happened, but to do so as a stage towards finding the rest of the party, who have completely disappeared and who included at least one important person. Thus, the form of most of the novel is records of the interrogations of witnesses, separated (to indicated the passing of time) by excepts from the Gentleman's Magazine, a journal of the time, apparently reproduced in facsimile. While outwardly more like The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Maggot actually has more in common with The Magus. The witness interviews reveal that the ostensible purpose of the trip to Exeter hides another more sinister motive; that the people involved are not who they seem to be; that what is really going on involves some kind of occult ritual.

Anthony Burgess described this novel as "subversive", and there are several ways in which this might be considered to be true. There are both overt and covert attacks on the ideas behind the class structure of Georgian society, some of which are fairly clearly meant to make the reader think about those in positions of authority today. The idea that someone from a higher class would necessarily be a better person is not one readily believed today, but some relic of it is surely part of our hunger for scandal about the morals of politicians and celebrities - do we now believe that people in the public eye should be better than we are? There are also attacks on religious hypocrisy, particularly when the political nature of the Anglican church of the time is compared with the unsettling intensity of the Dissenters. This doesn't have quite the same resonance with the modern world, however, and attacking hypocrisy is not exactly subversive. Dissent is a sufficiently important theme that it as a focus may be said to be another aspect of subversion in the novel.

The way that A Maggot is structured is another element which is more truly subversive. Historical novels are generally quite descriptive, because part of the aim of the genre is usually to convey their background to today's readers. Here, there is very little description, apart from that in the opening pages which are entirely of this form but which could be set in any time period in which groups of travellers rode horses across Exmoor when it was a remote dangerous wilderness and not somewhere frequented by tourists as it is today - in other words, any time before the arrival of the railways. After this beginning, atmospheric as good historical novels are supposed to be, yet not positioning the narrative in time or even (initially) in place, the historical context is mainly provided by the Gentleman's Magazine excerpts, which most readers probably find difficult to read as they're in extremely small type and a hard to decipher font, apart from their lack of relation to the story.

There is also literary subversion of the same type as in The Magus. In both novels, layers of deception are gradually exposed; but here the use of interrogation reports makes the revelations less effective, even though the reader will still spend most of the novel wondering what is really going on behind all the lies.

The way that the title refers to several aspects of A Maggot is not so much subversive as clever (and Fowles obviously thought it important enough to spell out why he chose it in the introduction). In one sense, it refers to the maggot as symbol of corruption, but a maggot is also a rather old fashioned term for an obsession. Several of the characters have obsessions, including the questioning attorney who is more interested in allegations of homosexuality than in the murder itself. But the novel itself arose out of an obsessive picture in Fowles' mind, of a group of horse riders in a wilderness. This became A Maggot's opening scene, and it is an arresting image. The literal meaning of the word also makes a surprising appearance.

While those who do not know Fowles' work will probably pick up A French Lieutenant's Woman or The Magus, A Maggot is definitely worthwhile reading for anyone who enjoyed either of the other two novels.

Wednesday, 28 July 2004

Len Deighton: Winter (1987)

Edition: Grafton, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1255

After the phenomenal success of the first trilogy of Bernard Samson novels, Deighton wrote Winter as a sort of prequel. "Sort of" because it doesn't actually involve many of the characters from the trilogy - being mainly about their parents and grand parents during the first half of the twentieth century - and has a very different focus - it is really about the rise of Hitler. This is Deighton's attempt to explain just why so many Germans came to support the Nazis.

The plot is more a family saga than a thriller; two brothers, who grow up close but are divided later when one is caught up by the Nazi bandwagon while the other marries a Jew and plays the piano for Brecht and Weill. While Deighton really has nothing new to say about the early days of National Socialism, which must be one of the most closely studied parts of twentieth century political history, the story of the Winter brothers illuminates the history and makes it personal; they are exactly the sort of well drawn, well placed fictional characters which are a part of many good historical novels. And that is really what Winter is - an excellent historical novel, not a thriller. It's closest companion in Deighton's work is the alternative history SS-GB, but it is also like his Second World War novels Bomber and Goodbye Mickey Mouse in that its purpose is to put well realised imaginary characters in immaculately researched historical settings. Of all these four novels, Winter is the most successful, the Winter brothers being two of the best written characters in all of Deighton's output. Winter is by a large margin Deighton's longest novel, but it is definitely worth the read.

Tuesday, 27 July 2004

Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)

Edition: Penguin, 2000
Review number: 1253

Sheridan Le Fanu's work has never really become an established part of the English literary scene's collection of classic novels. Although his reputation has gone up and down, and though he has boasted some quite famous fans (including Dorothy Sayers), he has always been an outsider. His Irish origins may have had something to do with this (though they didn't prevent his relation Richard Sheridan from becoming massively successful in the London theatre a couple of generations earlier), but it was perhaps more his style of writing and his subject matter. As early as the publication of Northanger Abbey in 1817, it must have been hard to write a Gothic novel intended to be taken seriously, but that was precisely what Le Fanu wanted to write, almost half a century later.

Uncle Silas was Le Fanu's first success in England, and was based on an earlier short story published in an Irish journal edited by the author. It has probably remained his best known novel ever since.

The plot of the novel is quite simple: Maud Knollyes is the daughter and heiress of a rich, eccentric recluse; when he dies, she is placed in the guardianship of her Uncle Silas. This is intended to be a public declaration of one man's confidence in his brother, for Silas was disgraced years earlier when a man to whom he owed money died in his house leaving his neighbours gossiping as to whether it was suicide or murder. Maud will be completely in her uncle's power until she reaches her majority, and if she happens to die during this time, then Silas would inherit the whole estate. Clearly, the only element missing from making this a Gothic tail is the supernatural, the source of a spine tingling chill in the reader - and this is where Le Fanu does something completely unexpected, and very modern.

For throughout the novel Le Fanu piles on the supernatural atmosphere - almost every metaphor and simile is about ghosts or magic - but the uncanny itself never appears. Most Gothic novels are full of "horrid apparitions", occult ceremonies, and so on, but nothing like that happens in Uncle Silas. Northanger Abbey does the same thing, of course, but for comic effect; Le Fanu is using the conventions of the Gothic novel to induce a similar atmosphere, without the absurdities. (This was, after all, the rational Victorian age.) While occasionally clumsy and sometimes lacking in subtlety, Uncle Silas is well written, atmospheric and tense - while the reader expects Maud to escape an uncle who then experiences his just deserts (good to the good, bad to the bad), the road to this ending is neither straight not following the most obvious route. It has funny moments too; Le Fanu may be taking the unlikely clichés of the Gothic novel seriously, but that does not mean he is lacking in a sense of humour.

Of the writers contemporary with Le Fanu, the closest to him in style was problably Wilkie Collins, and their brand of fairly genteel chills fairly soon lost out to the more flamboyant influence of writers like Poe. Nobody would be likely to place either of them in the top rank of Victorian novelists, but Uncle Silas does not deserve to be forgotten either.

Saturday, 17 July 2004

Philip Kerr: A Philosophical Investigation (1992)

Edition: Vintage, 1996
Review number: 1252

Having already read a couple of Philip Kerr's thrillers that seem to be heavily influenced by Michael Crichton, I was not expecting A Philosophical Investigation to be the kind of novel that it is. It is in the crime rather than thriller genre, even if it picks the crime theme most conducive to a thriller style, the serial killer. With a serial killer, the traditional methods of detective fiction, relating means, motive and opportunity to the people surrounding the victim, are either hard to apply or hardly relevant. Even so, Kerr's novel lies between the two genres, but is closer to the core of the crime genre than the thriller. Among its deviations from the standard practises of either genre is the background - it takes place in a stylised, science fictional alternate reality that reminds me of Jasper Fforde's England of The Eyre Affair - but stripped of its silly touches.

The plot of A Philosophical Investigation is hard to describe without giving away some of the fun details that make the novel different, and which is so much better as a reader to discover for oneself. The changes made to create the alternative world are cleverly woven into the investigation; and the alert reader will pick up all kinds of literary and philosophical references and other touches - this may strike some as tedious and too clever by half, but I find it fascinating. (A familiarity with some basic ideas of Western philosophy gives a reader a big advantage - something on the level of Sophie's World should be read before this novel.) It is a rare crime novel that makes me feel inspired to read Wittgenstein - and the enjoyment is not just intellectual, as A Philosophical Investigation is full of jokes, too.

Friday, 16 July 2004

Len Deighton: Goodbye Mickey Mouse (1982)

Edition: Book Club Associates, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1251

It seems obvious to compare this novel set in an American fighter unit stationed on a Norfolk airfield in the Second World War with Deighton's earlier Bomber. But although the setting is similar, there are many differences between the novels, at several levels. The tensions between the Americans and the locals - the pilots trying hard to live up to the "overpaid, oversexed and over here" cliché - bring a different atmosphere to the story, as does an unusual interest in public relations, not an aspect of the war effort which gets much attention. (And it resonates - spinning war stories for a media circus is not new to wars fought in the eighties and nineties, by any means.)

Bomber reads as though it's a book based on a documentary, because of its twenty-four hour timespan and the careful research into the background details. While Goodbye Mickey Mouse is obviously as well researched, it doesn't feel like a documentary, because the action is spread over several months, the research is presented less obtrusively, and it has a more complex plot which leads up to a veterans' reunion thirty years later. Deighton has also ditched the German characters which are important in Bomber and drastically reduced the descriptions of flying; Goodbye Mickey Mouse is a far better novel as a result.

Comparisons with Bomber proving something of a red herring, it is actually quite hard to find novels which are much like Goodbye Mickey Mouse. It is mainly the theme of the relationships between the Americans and the local British civilians - not quite conquerors and vanquished, but it must have sometimes felt like it - that is so unusual. A British writer almost exclusively using American points of view is also not common.

Goodbye Mickey Mouse - the title relates to the name given to one of the planes and a discussion about whether a phrase like "goodbye" in a name is unlucky - is not really a thriller, centring as it does on relationships not action. That is, of course, Deighton's intention, but it would not make the novel appeal to fans of, say, his early novels. For the general reader, Goodbye Mickey Mouse is also not perhaps Deighton's most immediately appealing writing, though it would repay the effort required to read it.

Wednesday, 14 July 2004

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones (2002)

Edition: Picador, 2003
Review number: 1250

It would have been easy for this novel to be saccharine and sentimental; I picked it up and discarded on the assumption that it would be before a copy was pressed on me by someone who had enjoyed it. Generally, it is not, and the moments where there is sentimentality - a hospital scene near the end, for example - are handled well enough to be endearing rather than sickening.

The story is of a raped and murdered fourteen year old girl (Susie Salmon), told as she watches the way her death affects her family and friends over the years from heaven. Watching them is her main occupation; Sebold portrays heaven is a place where desires are granted, and that is Susie's greatest desire, apart from the one thing that is forbidden, making real contact with the living. Since this is the principal ambition shared by almost all the dead, at least at first, this leaves heaven a curious, rather nondescript place (especially as inhabitants interact only as their dream worlds overlap in some way). Of course, Susie as a victim of an unsolved murder, is even more keen than most to communicate - even if only to say, "It was him!"

The novel of which I was reminded by The Lovely Bones, in terms of genre if nothing else, was Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Both are basically murder mysteries from unusual points of view; Agatha Christie writes from that of the murderer (though not revealing this until the end), while Alice Sebold turns this on its head and writes from the point of view of the victim - who reveals the killer's identity right at the outset. Perhaps the similarities are not really there, as the styles are very different, but at some fundamental level the fact that they are both about unusual ways to look at a murder seems to link the two novels.(From a stylistic point of view, someone like Carol Shields would be a better equivalent to Sebold.)

The most admirable trait of The Lovely Bones is the way in which Sebold is able to deal with such strongly emotive subjects as paedophilia and child murder without seeming any of crass, insensitive, or (the other side of the coin) sentimental. This partly comes from observation - the way that the various members of the Salmon family cope or fail to cope is believeable - but it also is due to high quality writing. This is certainly a novel I would recommend.