Sunday, 30 August 2009

John le Carré: A Most Wanted Man (2008)

Hodder & Stoughton, 2008

Issa is, or claims to be, many contradictory people. A beggar sleeping on the Hamburg streets with thousands of euros in the purse around his neck. A Chechen imprisoned and tortured by the Russians, but with a KGB officer father. A devout Muslim, who doesn't seem to know the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite, or how to show proper reverence to a copy of the Koran. Son of an important (if shady) customer of a small bank in Hamburg to make contact with the current head of Brue Frères, but not to claim the fortune which is his inheritance. An illegal immigrant, wanted by the Swedish police, who makes himself conspicuous to the German intelligence services on arrival in the country rather than lying low, with the result that he is immediately suspected of being a terrorist.

There are two people on his side. Annabel Richter, a young radical lawyer (in the pre-9/11 sense of "radical"), is assigned to Issa's case by Sanctuary, the refugee charity she works for. And Tommy Brue, respectable proprietor of the family bank. Neither entirely trusts Issa, but both feel the need to help him as much as they can.

Le Carré's last three novels (The Constant Gardener, The Mission Song, and this) share a common theme. They all seek to expose something of his view of the institutional immorality of the West's dealings with the rest of the world. Whether or not you agree with him (and to what extent), he makes what he has to say interesting and gripping. And it is sincere: this is a novel byt someone very angry. What angers him here is the American attitude to terrorist suspects. As one of the characters says at the end, Le Carré's point is that "American justice", which the US makes so much of, has become "extraordinary rendition".

I personally would still hope that not every institution is as morally bankrupt as Le Carré portrays them to be. But surely no one can deny that there is something in Le Carré's position, and that the author's anger is shared by many people from outside the privileged Western nations.

Themes which go back further in Le Carré's work are seen here, too. The troubled relationships between father an son, which are important in many of his novels, are seen here in both Brue and Issa's feelings for their dead parents. Issa also exemplifies the author's interest in the untrustworthiness of people's public personas. The tone of world weariness in the prose is common to many, perhaps all, of his novels.

While A Most Wanted Man was enjoyable on its own, I do find that with Le Carré a little goes a long way. If I read several of his novels in quick succession, the depressing tone which is so much a trademark becomes tiring. So I would tend to rate his novels higher when I read them sporadically. My rating: 7/10.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Charles Stross: Saturn's Children (2008)

Edition: Orbit, 2009

What might happen if the human race became extinct in a couple of centuries time? In particular, what would robots, computers, and other intelligent machines left behind do? This question is basically the starting point for Stross' Hugo short listed novel. The central character of Saturn's Children is a particularly obsolete robot, designed as an escort - an intelligent sex toy - for the men who no longer exist. Freya Nakamichi-47 is scraping a living, her unfashiionable body shape an unwelcome reminder to other robots of a subservient past, when she accidentally kills a member of the new machine aristocracy and has to take a dangerous job to escape from Venus.

Apart from the basic idea - it's certainly ingenious to wonder about the fate of an intelligent sex toy when there's no one to sleep with - Stross taps into many familiar themes from the science fiction genre, with a twist each time. For example, this is really a coming of age story, a staple of the genre, but who ever heard of a coming of age story with a central character already two hundred years old? Or the space journey from Venus to Mercury, courtesy of a space pod with an irritating chirpy personality which functions by having sex with its passenger during the whole trip: it has to properly cocoon and pad the internal orifices of Freya's body, and why not make this as pleasurable as possible for both of them?

This is a novel that Robert Heinlein could have written, if hed been able to drop some of his prejudices and sexual obsessions. It has strong parallels with Friday, one of the best of his later novels. And this is not the only Heinlein novel which Stross either parallels or refers to in Saturn's Children. I noticed quick references to (short story) The Green Hills of Earth and The Number of the Beast, and I Will Fear No Evil, among others. Other writers have updated Heinlein, of course: John Barnes' Orbital Resonance is a particularly successful example. But Stross goes beyond just modernising one of the most famous science fiction authors. Heinlein was never particularly interested in robots; the artificial intelligences in his books are larger and fairly sessile: ship's computers, or the computers to run the services of a city. Thinking and writing about the design and built-in limitations of robot brains is distinctly Asimovian, Stross effectively updating the Three Laws of Robotics for today's readers. To bring together two such contrasting authors in this way is no mean feat.

Stross also has something to say about racism, servitue, identity, and theories of sociological evolution through this story. There is more to Saturn's Children than appears on the surface. Given these themes, it is not surprising that another novel he refers to is 1984.

Why the title? The reference is to Roman mythology (strictly speaking, Greek mythology as adopted by the Romans). Saturn, ruler of the Titans, bore a series of children by Rhea (not so co-incidentally the name of the first of Freya's robot model, from whom all their personalities are derived with a small amount of randomisation). When each child was born, Saturn swallowed them, because of a prophecy that one of them would overthrow him as ruler of the universe, as he had his own father. Eventually, Rhea deceived him, giving him a stone instead of a baby and bringing up Jupiter in secret, to eventually fulfil the prophecy. There is clearly a connection with the supplanting of humanity by their robot creations, as well as resonances between the personalities in the myth and the various bodies in the solar system named after them in a story which involves a lot of interplanetary travel.

The biggest problem with this edition is nothing to do with Charles Stross (at least, I hope he wasn't involved in the decision). At the back, there is something which has now become common in genre fiction, the excerpt from a new title, "if you enjoyed this book, you might like...". I am not a big fan of this in general, even when the excerpt is by the same author, and this is a particularly strange example. Michael Cobley''s Seeds of Earth seems from the chapter published here to come from a branch of the science fiction genre extremely remote from Saturn's Children, and I would judge it unlikely to appeal to the readers who enjoyed this: they might do, if they pick it up some other time, but the contrast between the two is jarring. Surely the point should be to encourage the reader to try it, not pick a random entry from the publisher's new releases which is more likely to put the reader of the excerpt off buying it. Perhaps in this case, the excerpt should have been accompanied by, "if you didn't think much of this novel, one you might prefer instead is...".

I was reading this - at home, not attending - during the 2009 WorldCon, Anticipation. So I was in the middle of Saturn's Children when the winners of this year's Hugo Awards were announced, including the best novel, the category for which it was short listed. Did it win? No. Did it deserve to win? I can't actually answer that, as I haven't yet read all the short listed novels. However, I did think it would have been a better choice than the actual winner, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Good though that is, I felt that Saturn's Children has a lot more to say and is a bigger achievement. It renews some familiar, well loved, parts of the science fiction genre for the twenty first century. My rating: 8/10.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Thomas Pynchon: Vineland (1990)

Edition: Voyager, 2000

On opening Vineland, it is almost immediately clear that this is going to be a riotous novel. By the third chapter, the reader has been introduced to a man who makes his living by annually throwing himself through a plate glass window wearing a dress to qualify for mental illness disability benefit, a punk band named Billy Barf and the Vomitones, hired unheard to play at a traditional Mafia wedding by pretending to be Italian, and an FBI agent who may also be an escaped lunatic.

There is a bit of a dip in quality in the middle, once the flashbacks to the early seventies begin to take over, and from that point on Vineland is less funny. I don't think this is just due to my inability to conentrate, though I was extremely tired while reading this section of the novel.

The theme of Vineland is the hippy dream turning sour, and in particular the effects of the US government's attempts to extinguish the counter-culture. The main narrative is set in the mid-eighties, during Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign, and it is clear that Pynchon wants to make two points: first, that the repercussions of this crackdown affected lives both on the hippy side and in the law enforcement agencies right through the next fifteen years; and, second, that it was worth warning his readership about parallels between Nixon and Reagan.

"Vinland" is of course the name used by the Vikings to (almost certainly) mean the American continent, so implies that this is a novel about all of America - in other words, Pynchon intends to write what has been described as "the great American novel". However, reading it suggests that actually he wanted to subvert and satirise the idea of the great American novel. By making Vineland in the book a small (fictional) town in northern California, he is perhaps making a dig at the limited horizons of eighties American culture, and this is doubled by concentrating on hippy culture, never involving anything other than a small minority of US citizens.

Gravity's Rainbow and V. might have a bigger literary reputation, but of the Pynchon novels I have read - not all of them by any means - this is the most accessible, and the funniest. Each chapter in the first half made me laugh out loud at some point, even on re-reading. It has an easier plot to follow than Gravity's Rainbow in particular, which also helps make it an easier read.

I would rate Vineland at 7/10.

Monday, 10 August 2009

E.E. "Doc" Smith: First Lensman (1950)

First Lensman coverEdition: Panther, 1972
Review number: 100

The second novel in Smith's Lensman series, First Lensman is a unified narrative (unlike Triplanetary which precedes it). It follows on directly from the events of the first book, detailing the later stages in the fight against drugs and corruption led by Virgil Samms. (Samms plays a comparatively small part in Triplanetary, which was more concerned with the swashbuckling adventures of his sub-ordinates.)

The first half of the novel is an explanation of the origins of the Lens after which the series as a whole is known. Various problems are beginning to dog the Triplanetary Service. Corruption is taking hold, particularly in the fight against drugs; criminals are impersonating officers of the Service, using faked ids. A mysterious conviction grows that answers to these problems can be found through a visit to the planet Arisia, shunned as a "ghost planet" both by legitimate spacemen and by pirates and drugs runners.

Arriving at Arisia, Samms meets an entity who calls itself "Mentor". He is given a mysterious artefact, a Lens; it is a telepathic crystal, tuned to his mind alone and capable of enhancing the powers that his mind possesses. Mentor assures him that no one will be given a Lens who is unworthy of one, and that only the incorruptible will wear them.

Samms is a bit bemused by this generosity, but the reader knows the background to it: the eons-old war between the Arisians and Eddorians, the Arisians continually trying to build up civilisation, the Eddorians to knock it down.

The second half of the book tells of a North American presidential election (Canada, the US and Mexico together forming a single state) fought by the officers of the Triplanetary Service (as 'Cosmocrats') on the right and the pirates and drugs runners on the left. Smith's politics are one of the most difficult aspects of his writing style for a modern European reader to swallow - as they cater rather more for stereotypical American political viewpoints a US citizen may find them easier to accept. He persistently holds the belief that any intelligent person must support the right, with the left only gaining votes through stupidity, corruption and vote-rigging. It is a view perhaps explicable in an American of his time, who had lived through some of the most corrupt scandals of American town-hall politics. Smith's right wing politics were of a reasonably benign kind, characterised by a strong belief in intelligent capitalism most clearly expressed in Subspace Encounter. He was relatively free from racism, particularly when compared to contemporaries, though this is perhaps debatable given the almost complete absence of non-white human beings in his novels.

The first half of First Lensman is easier to read, then, than the second, though the ins and outs of the political campaign are an interesting change from the standard military space opera trappings of the rest of the series. If Heinlein's novels transfer an idealised American small-town background to everywhere in the universe (see review of Rolling Stones), then this novel takes a similar approach with an American large town.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Fred Vargas: The Three Evangelists (1995)

Translation: Siân Reynolds, 2006
Edition: Vintage, 2007

Fred Vargas' only standalone novel so far is an intriguingly different detective story. This is clear from the bizarre opening, in which retired opera singer Sophia Siméonidis wakes one morning to find a new tree has been planted in her garden overnight. After worrying in silence for a month, she approaches her next door neighbours, three effectively unemployed historians (known as the Evangelists because their names are Matthias, Marc and Lucien) and a senior policeman forced into disgraced retirement. She asks them to pose as council workers and dig up the tree, once they suggest that it would be a good way for someone to hide a body.

When nothing is found, it seems as though the whole thing was just a fuss over nothing, until Sophia goes missing. Then the Evangelists begin looking into the mystery in earnest, feeling that their research skills and the fact that they are not policemen might make it possible to discover things that the official investigation cannot. While this latter reason is commonly used in crime fiction to justify amateur investigations, it is not one that would be recommended by police forces around the world!

The Three Evangelists is a character led detective story, with quirky touches like the tree lending extra interest. (I have been told that this sort of whimsy is typical of Vargas, and that to some it might become tiresome after two or three novels.) It has a brilliantly put together ending, where the pace suddenly picks up for the last few chapters and the solution is revealed.

Vargas has now won three of the last four International Crime Daggers, despite other writers translated into English having a higher profile. The Three Evangelists was the first of her winners, and clearly deserved to do so. This is not just a well written detective story, it is different from the usual run of things in the genre and so stands out all the more. I would rate it at 8/10.