Softly Softly ASCII Monkey

Thursday, December 04, 2003

On by Adam Roberts

On is Proper Hard SF. Where most hard SF is content merely to baffle and/or illuminate with scientifically-correct extrapolation, On provides a short appendix with equations and a glossary of terms. The reason for this is that On turns around a central premise that is nboth simple and utterly transforming.

The world of On has (via a mechanism which becomes sort-of apparent) had its gravity rotated by 90 degrees. To the inhabitants, this gives the impression of a vast wolrd wall, punctuated by ledges (formerly, vertical outcroppings) upon which pockets of humanity scrape a meagre existence.

Tighe, the protagonist of this tale, lives on such a ledge with his father, mother and fearsome grandfather - a village priest whose fire 'n' brimstone sermons about the God of the Worldwall set the moral agenda for the locals.

Tighe, inevitably, falls of the edge of the world. Unlike previous plummeters, Tighe (barely) survives and discovers a slighly more advanced society further down the wall. He is adopted by on of two warring factions as a lucky mascot and through his eyes we glimpse a terrible conflict, full of folly and glory. This being a sort of planetary romance, we also learn more about what makes this unique environment tick, and why Tighe himself may have a crucial role in its future.

It mostly works. Roberts is a fine writer with a good ear for dialogue and eye for detail. Tighe is (by necessity) a sort of 'everyboy' figure, but there are many other memorable characters with distinct voices who leave a lasting impression. The environment is well thought out (I am taking the veracity of the equations on faith) and Roberts has clearly put in a lot of work to making his world tick in just the right way.

The plot, though, is less successful. The scenes of military life seem familiar, despite the outlandish scenery and the 'secrets' that are revealed seem bizarrely tacked on. There is one character, in particular who is significantly less primitive than the rest and while he gets some decent lines it seemed more as though he was addressing us - the modern SF reader who might easily figure out what widget X does - rather than Tighe.

The biggest let down, for me, was the ending. Roberts builds up a fair head of steam by emperiling his protagonist, giving him something to lose and crankingup the tension... and then halts proceedings so fast I kept thinking someone must have swiped the last page from the printers.

Despite its faults, though, On is mostly an enjoyable read. Roberts' style is impressive enough that I will be on the look out for his (apparently superior) first novel Salt as well as the rest of his back catalogue.

Stuart 4:37 PM::link to this entry

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

A Girl In Winter by Philip Larkin

This, the second and last of Larkin's novels, was published in 1947 and is a largely-forgotten gem of post-war fiction. Despite the author's subsequent doubts "i cannot open it without a profuse and thoroughgoing embarrassment." it is an admirably coherent and well-realised book. In fairness Larkin was often no more enamoured of his own poetry ("my thin trickle of cindery shit") so perhaps the self criticism should be taken with a smile, if not a saline drip.

A Girl in Winter is, of course, typically downbeat, typically... well, Larkinesque. It shares many common themes with his poetry- the delusional aspirations, the quotidian repression, life as an assimilation of cumulative disappointments. Despite this it is at heart a tender novel, free of (or lacking, depending on how one likes one's jollies) the corrosiveness, indeed the ranting abject bitterness, of his later work.

The centrepiece of the novel is an account of an English (oh so very English) pre-war summer (oh so very summery) holiday taken by Katherine, a 16 year old Swedish student, with the Fennels, the family of her English penpal Robin. Bookending this is the story of a single day in the life of Katherine some six years later, back in an England beset by war (tellingly now in winter - can we all see what the author's doing here, boys and girls?) and about to be reunited with Robin.

Katherine is the focus of the novel- Robin's schoolboy letters are clumsy and inane, Katherine repeatedly attempts to goad juicier responses but to no avail. She is surprised to receive an invitation to England and begins to cultivate romantic fantasies. Robin proves to be as bland as his correspondence and the pair are seldom without his waspish elder sister Jane. All the tropes of romantic fiction and the halcyon summer are in evidence nevertheless - long country walks, boating on the river, tennis in the midday sun. We learn that Jane, out of loneliness and isolation, instigated Katherine's invitation- sensing a kindred spirit having read her letters and that Robin is dutifully entertaining a guest, no more than that. However Jane and Katherine do not get on, the latter having assumed the former to be an unwelcome chaperone. The entire trip is infused with irritability and dissatisfaction, Katherine is relieved to return home having accepted her brief infatuation with Robin was a nonsense- on her final night Robin incongruously, ridiculously, kisses her.

Six years on Katherine is working in a provincial library (as of course was Larkin) being berated by her boss over a mis-filed book on Uganda and, perhaps a little unreasonably, for "not having the common horse-sense she was born with". She takes a junior colleague to the dentist as Larkin evokes a different England, one of rain, overcoats, concrete and canned food. She has contacted Robin's family (this time it's Katherine who feels lonely and isolated) and is told to expect a visit from Robin himself, now a serving officer stationed somewhere close to home. To end Katherine's wavering anticipation the visit occurs, Robin is boorish, drunk and wants sex, Katherine initially rejects him then rationalises it as 'an unimportant kindness'. Thus ends Larkin's subversion of the love story.

What i love about this is that, in using the smoke and mirrors of the romantic genre, the pre- and during war settings and the sun/winter contrast, Larkin is scratching away at life's illusions. We know that Katherine's summer in England was an unhappy one- because we have just read about it- but for Katherine herself, due to the passing years and her worsened circumstances (exacerbated by war and winter) it has become, by default, the halcyon summer it never was. Something to yearn for, to rekindle.

Larkin, ever thrifty with the happy dust, does however maintain an empathy of sorts with his characters - this is not a novel of blind nihilism. Katherine, in one of the few sub-plots, discovers her boss is engaged in a discreet, if drab, relationship with an 'ordinary' woman tied to an invalid mother. The consolation we all seek. "looking at her (Katherine) glimpsed the undertow of people's relations, two thirds of which is without face, with only begging and lonely hands..."

mark 9:43 PM::link to this entry

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Tetherballs Of Bougainville by Mark Leyner

Mark Leyner doesn't write novels, he writes Mark Leyner Stuff. MLS is a synthetic compound of pop culture, satire, observational humour and the kind of world view that evokes both psychology textbooks on schizophrenia and that one time you drank all the cough medicine when your parents were out.

Tetherballs, then, is a bit of a departure for Leyner as it includes a plot, pacing and a beginning, a middle and an end. Admittedly, the plot is insane, the pacing jitters like an arrhythmic speed fiend and the beginning, middle & end are from three different narrative strands - but it's a start. It is also one of the funniest books I have read in ages and had me living the old book jacket cliche of 'laughing out loud on the tube'.

The plot concerns 13 year old Mark Leyner - a brilliant, bare-chested, leather-trousered high school prodigy who is attending his father's execution for a series of food processor-based murders. Mark is finding it hard to concentrate on the matter in hand due to both his Game Boy obsession and the fact that he has won a prestigious screenwriting award (the Vincent and Lenore DiGiacomo/Oshimitsu Polymers America Award - a company that is product-placed hilariously through the book) and needs to get to the library and actually write the award-winning screenplay before the awards ceremony ("The advantage of having a powerful agent").

When his father's PCP-sodden body proves resistant to lethal injection and he is released under the New Jersey State Discretionary Execution Programme (the subject is free to go, but may be killed by ninjas at the whim of local government) Mark finds himself consoled, then seduced by the comely prison warden who has both a predilection for innappropriate workplace sex and access to enormous amounts of contraband drugs, liquor and antiques (don't ask).

Here is where it starts to get weird.

During their post-coital, drug-mashed come down, the warden advises Mark to write about what he knows. Thus the screenplay becomes about Mark Leyner, 13-year old, blah blah who is watches his father's botched execution and ends up discussing a screenplay he has to write with the attractive prison warden. In reading the screenplay, we come across a scene where Mark reads the warden a long and learned review of the movie of the screenplay that Mark wrote himself (while the screenplay was still gestating) to both act as a talisman for his future writing career and, more importantly to give him the satisfaction of reading a review of his work without actually having to be bothered writing the thing.

The intertwined plots, both real and imaginary (or imaginary, even more imaginary and frankly ludicrous if we are being honest) cover a lot of ground but take in military dictatorships, advertising, the morality of RPGing a passenger jet to execute one of it's passengers, the need for politicians to stop sitting on their hands and generate the political will to allow the FDA to approve some real lethal injection drugs and (of course) the giddy world of professional tetherball on the south sea island of Bougainville.

There book also raises a little known literary scandal involving a bonobo monkey that has been secretly writing novels on behalf of imposters playing the parts of 'Bret Easton Ellis', 'Douglas Coupland' and 'Donna Tartt' among others. But lets not go there.

Whether or not you like this book will depend a lot on your opinion of Leyner's style. I can imagine many readers being irritated by the book, just as others will love it. Personally, I think it is genius. The structure of the novel has been meticulously worked out and everything adds up at the end. Along the way there is some sharp commentary on pop culture and some of the daftest, deftest prose you will ever read.

Stuart 3:25 PM::link to this entry

Friday, October 10, 2003

Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick

In 15th century Wittenberg, the scientist Dr Faustus is crazed with discontent at the religious stodge and foolish superstition that is crippling his research and scientific progress as a whole. After burning his collection of academic works he cries out for the Demons he has been told must be prodding him with ideas to come and finish the job. On cue, he is visted by Mephistopheles - not quite a devil, more of a visitor from a parallel plane of existence. Mephistopheles' race are enraged at the thought of humanity outlasting them and thus Faust is offered a deal. Mephistopheles will provide him with all the knowledge he seeks, every scientific enquiry satisfied and more besides. In return, Faust will agree to share this knowledge. Mephistopheles believes that humanity will abuse this boon and bring about its own destruction. Faust agrees, confident that he will be able to turn these revelations into a science that, far from dooming the world, will make it an earthly paradise.

What follows is both funny and horrific and all proceeds with a crunching sense of inevitability as Mephistopheles whispers secrets into Faust's ear and slowly corrupts his sense of purpose, turning his pure scientific aesthetics into base, practical technology and commerce.

Swanwick allows this Faust his own Helen of Troy - in this case the lovely Margarette, whose father's business empire is soon turned to mass production of Faust's new inventions. With demonic assistence, Faust comes up with many technological marvels - from mass production itself to telescopes, ferris wheels, automobiles, zeppelins, refrigerators and antibiotics. Quickly, via some well written and amusing scenes, the Renaissance accelerates into a premature analog of the 20th century, complete with many of the social changes that Swanwick suggests would accompany the technology.

People being people, of course, the main demand for Faust's 'miracles' comes not from the medical and consumer goods sectors but from Governments who would use his expertise to develop ever more terrible weapons. Slowly but surely, it begins to seem as if Mephistopheles will have his way.

Much of the tech-driven social evolution is seen through the eyes of Thoroughly Modern Margarette as she negotiates high finance, (semi-)emancipation, the tabloid press and contraception. Some of her scenes reminded me a lot of the neo-Victorians from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Although seemingly introduced as a pretty-but-simple object of lust to tempt Faust, Margarette quickly establishes herself as one of the most competent and level-headed characters in the book.

The book is great fun - there are plenty of jokes and subtle tweaks given to history as well as a sly gag involving a certain nursery rhyme that I wont spoil. Faust himself is a superb character - his sheer bile and capacity for cruel rages are well handled and his slide from scientist to technocrat is convincingly done even if the time frame for the social changes requires a pinch of salt.

Jack Faust is not without its flaws - it may seem daft to let an anachronism rankle in an alt-history novel but there are a few uses of language that seem too modern for the character's lips (e.g. one character is described as 'flunking' an exam, which to me sounds more Monkees than Marlowe) and you may find yourself wondering if the patterns of history are really as set as Swanwick suggests here but these are minor nits in an otherwise enjoyable and thought provoking fable.

Stuart 3:44 PM::link to this entry

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Right as Rain by George P Pelecanos

What is it with detectives who have funny names? Inspector Morse I can let go - Morse is a well established surname made unusual by its association with dots-and-dashes. Jack Frost? C'mon, who doesn't think that deserves a slap? There is an ITV mystery series that has just started about two female gardeners-cum-sleuths called (wait for it) Rosemary & Thyme - it is a wonder that the hideously beaten corpses of more writers aren't discovered in ditches, it really is. That said, I would like to take this opportunity to announce my own series of mystery novels featuring the Jamaican-born detective Hailee Predictable.

Now here comes Pelecanos with a book about Derek Strange. Thankfully, we are able to ignore the naming conventions, by virtue of this being a great book.

Strange is a PI, ex-Washington DC police and long in the tooth. After a black policeman is shot, while off duty by another (white) cop, Strange finds himself hired by the deceased's mother to clear up any suspiscion that he may have been committing a crime when he was killed.

The white officer (now ex-) who pulled the trigger, Terry Quinn ends up helping Strange with his investigation for reasons of his own.

As you may have guessed, this is a book about captial-R Race, and how deeply ingrained prejudice can shape the decisions we make without our even realising it. What Pelecanos does particularly well is avoid laying blame on the shoulders of any individual, much less any side of the racial divide. There are no easy answers in this book, only characters who come to know their own shortcomings, and to one degree or another attempt to live with them.

The plot is taut, well paced and intelligent and the author has a real ear for dialogue. A few of the black characters can occasionally slip into cliche, but this is rare and Pelecanos even has then comment on this.

Although there is a mystery element to this book, the real meat of the book is two articulate and well drawn characters thrashing out their differences against a well realised backdrop of urban Washington.

Stuart 3:51 PM::link to this entry

Monday, September 15, 2003

Bold As Love by Gwynyth Jones

This won the 2002 Arthur C Clarke award, and I think I can see why.

The plot is fairly complex, and just a teensy bit ludicrous. It is the Dissolution - the United Kingdom is fragmenting into its constituent nations and to celebrate/commiserate, the counterculturals are staging a series of huge rock festivals. Amid the chaos a (suspiciously Blairite) politician recruits a selection of pop and rock stars for an ersatz 'Cool Brittania' stunt which goes, shall we say, a bit wrong. There is a brief but bloody coup and the forces of Rock end up running the country. Tommy Vance would be proud (and possibly Pope).

The book has a few flaws (apart from the basic premise) which might ruin it for some : firstly, the music scene presented in the novel seems unrelated to any that currently exists. There are no boy bands, no R&B, no Eurocheese. Music Of Black Origin seems particularly underepresented. We are talking here more about a selection of Indie Rock flavours that runs from sensitive singer/songwriter to Radiohead-style prog-lite. Electronic music is a powerful force, but takes its cues from American psychedelia (the Grateful Dead, in particular) far more than the real life dance music scene ever did. It is probably best to assume that the point at which the reality of our world and that of the novel diverged was sometime in the 1970s rather than now.

Some of the pacing seems a little off, too. A fair bit happens in its 412 pages and it is sometimes obscure exactly what the timescale is for some events.

So, we have an unrealistic premise, a skewed view about the cultural phemomenon that is central to the novel and some slightly wobbly pacing - does this mean you should be giving the book a wide berth? Not at all.

Jones' skill is such that, while every part of your rational mind is finding this hard to swallow she presents you with such well drawn characters that you would rather suspend disbelief than not hear them speak.

This is a book about England, and exactly what that word means. Just when you are lulled into thinking that this is just the story pf white, middle-class pseudo-rebels Jones slips another sly blade in and makes you think a little bit harder.

There are several intruiging subplots involving an innovative new energy source, Islamic fundamentalism (now as much a part of 'Englishness' as cricket) in Yorkshire and child abuse. Advanced technology crops up throughout the book in wholly naturalistic ways - no infodumping, no showboating - just solid world building.

Bold as Love is the first volume in a trilogy and Jones' seems to be weaving the story into a parallel of the King Arthur legends. The three principal characters (Ax, Fiorinda and Sage) fit neatly into Arthur, Guinevere and Launcelot (although their roles do seem to shift as dynamics change) and there is even a Welsh 'wizard' in the form of Olwen - a biotechnologist and 'Zen Self' guru who one character even explicitly states is trying to create 'magic' using technology.

Give this one a try. Parts of it may niggle, but if you give it a chance I think you will get sucked in.

Stuart 1:54 PM::link to this entry

Friday, September 12, 2003

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

This is a big one. As Laurie Anderson might say 'this is a book big enough to stun an ox'. And it is dense. Packed with information, plot, character, digression and Perl regular expressions.

Cryptonomicon tells , in alternating chapters, the linked adventures of Bobby Shaftoe - US Marine, pragmatist and good egg, Lawrence Waterhouse - Mathematician, cryptanalyst and naif (both confounding the Hun via kafkaesque subterfuge in WWII) and their present-day grandchildren Randy Waterhouse and Amy Shaftoe who (through a series of convolutions) end up seeking Nazi gold in the Phillipnes.

Although from a reknowned SF author, Cryptonomicon is more like a Tom Clancey technothriller snatched away from its author at the planning stage and rewritten by a tag team of Thomas Pynchon and (cryptographer) Bruce Schneier. Schneier did actually contribute to the novel, providing Stephenson with a working crypto algorithm and method which is used several times and is handily provided as Perl code in an appendix.

Stephenson writes with a slightly arch and tongue-in-cheek style, which might annoy some readers but for me seems perfect for capturing the bizarre atmosphere of paranoia and doublethink used in the WWII sections and the emotional naivety of the two Waterhouses as they struggle with relationships, real life and the intracacies of very hard sums indeed.

I would recommend this to anyone with even a slightly geeky bone in their body. Non-nerds might struggle with some of the more meandering digressions about computing or crypto, but Stephenson is always entertaining to read and if given a chance might just convert a few readers to geekdom.

Stuart 6:19 PM::link to this entry

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