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.
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.
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.
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Light by M John Harrison
Light was a remarkable read. The story features three seperate narratives split between two time frames. The first (in the present day) involves Michael, a physicist-cum-serial killer who is on the verge of a discovery that will eventually lead to interstellar travel. He is also being hunted by an alien being known as the Shrander from whom he stole a small pair of bone dice marked with strange symbols.
400 years in the future, we meet a body-modified starship pilot (who you could probably call a serial kiler too - just not to her face) and a down-on-his-luck drifter with a penchant for immersive VR. The far-future parts of the book take place around the Kefahuchi Tract, a spatial and physical anomaly that is surrounded by abandoned spacecraft, planets and even suns brought there by curious alien races in various doomed attempts to understand it.
Needless to say, these three plotlines are related in ways which would require extensive spoilage to relay. Just read the bloody thing.
Light is beautifully written. Harrison is a writer who can make even the most mundane observations sparkle and he has a gift for taking tired SF tropes and giving them new and vibrant life.
He is clearly having fun with his props - this book contains a lovely, overlong infodump during which the characters all but kneel at the reader's feet in shame at having to spout so. Equally brilliant is the fact that in Harrison's universe there is no single handwaving method of Faster Than Light travel. They all work - every daft theory and sub-Star Trek polarity-reversal just works and that's the end of it. In doing so, they reveal tiny fragments of the way Everything Works.
This is not meant to imply that Light is merely a well-done rehash of your typical SF novel, though. Harrison's characters are superbly realised and their ultimate fates make perfect sense within the constraints of the plot. However alien and transfigured they may become, these are real people and the tenderness with which Harrison reveals their inner lives is breathtaking.