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 clich├ęs, 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.