Monday, 29 November 2010

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

As much as I love the Wasp Factory, I'd still rather read a Banks with an M in it.

This is his first sci fi book, and one which I've read before. Couldn't remember it of course but I rarely do. Hence the blog. Like most M Banks, it's set in the Culture universe, as close to a utopia as it's possible to get in science fiction. There many species living together on orbitals, massive spacecraft and other artificial habitats, with very powerful AIs called Minds. It's a post-scarcity libertarian/anarchist society with no money or laws - you can do anything you want and people are virtually immortal. Luckily this is Iain Banks, so there's always some sickness going on.

This book starts with an old man being drowned in shit, for instance. And it's set on a wider background of a war between the Culture and the religious three-legged Idirans in which billions are being killed. Our hero Horza is on the Idiran side.

It's actually quite different to the rest of the Culture books - I was struck by how much of an adventure story this is. I hate to use the term but hacks would call this a romp. Tonnes of action, mostly following the galaxy's unluckiest crew of space pirates. One stand-out scene, set on an orbital scheduled for demolition, concerns a card game where players can deal emotions on the opposition. They also have to bring slaves (or willing fanatics) in case they "lose a life." Then you've got multiple shootouts and fistfights, a massive wooden boat hitting an iceberg, a spaceship chase inside another spaceship and a grotesquely fat cannibal and his followers who eat excrement.

All fantastic, until the last section which drags along far too slowly then ends in a damp squib. So much interesting stuff has been set up by this point. You've got a planet of the dead, a memorial to genocide curated by a shadowy alien civilisation. You've got the Artifical Intelligence somewhere on this planet which everyone's looking for. And you've got Horza's still unexplained reasons for hating the Culture and AIs. All these potentials are pissed away.

Very annoying, considering how much I was enjoying it. I'm going to go on a bit of an M Banks binge to figure out the best one. I seem to remember Use of Weapons being particularly good.

In the meantime I've finished Roadside Picnic so I'll need to review that before I forget it. I was almost finished the Stalin book (and I will go back to it) but I got waylaid by an unnecessarily long biography of Myra Hindley which has completely hooked me.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Newton's Wake by Ken MacLeod

I was asked by the enigmantic zungg about good stand-alone sci fi novels. I'm still in two minds about whether this is good, but it is great fun.

It's kind of hard to know where to start describing Newton's Wake. Best to begin with the idea of singularity, which I've been trying to get my head around. I think it can be described as a moment when technology breaks free from human control. But it also always seems to be about uploading yourself to a central server, and breaking free of biology. In any case, we're always assured when the singularity happens, we'll know about it.

In this book it's called the Hard Rapture. America goes to war, and its war machines are so advanced they become sentient and start uploading people using the internet while irradiating the planet. The machines/uploads then become posthuman, create a network of wormholes across the galaxy, leave a bunch of unfathomable relics a la Roadside Picnic and disappear onto a different plane of existence where, it's suggested, they've made faster than light travel possible in our universe. We're told singularities start coming thick and fast after the first one's reached.

Okay, that's just the background. The actual plot concerns interstellar Glaswegian gangsters, folk singers brought back from the dead and the political rehabilition of Leonid Breshnev. But it doesn't entirely work, and I'm not sure why. I like the focus on unusual characters, and the way he looks at the world of art and fashion as well as politics and science, but I never got the feel that this was a real universe. MacLeod's ambitious for trying to tell a big story in one normal sized book, but perhaps he does need three massive breeze blocks like Peter F Hamilton. And if you're a sucker for space communists, then there's lots to enjoy.

I've accidently started three books at the same time. Koba the Dread by Martin Amis about Stalin, on audiobook Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks and the aforementioned Roadside Picnic on my phone - something which could be very handy if I can get used to reading the little screen.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

A pleasant suprise, this. I picked it pretty much at random from the audiobook section of the library and it had my hooked all the way through.

Again, it's based on real people and events. If you're going to make something up, stick it in space I say. It's the story of two men - George, who's a solicitor of Indian descent who gets accused of some horrific crimes (the mysterious but strangely popular phenomenon of horse ripping, as well as a bizarre campaign of hate) and Sir Arthur Conan Dolyle who...well, hell, you know who HE is .

In the early 20th century Doyle got involved in the George Ediljay case and publicised it as a big miscarriage of justice. The legal parts of this book I found fascinating. In fact the case led the foundation of the Court of Appeal. It also reminds me of Robert Graysmith's Zodiac, in that it examines lots of different angles and red herrings with plenty of loose ends and few hard conclusions. Lots of folk hate this kind of thing. I love it.

But there's lots more going here - it follows both Arthur and George from cradle to grave and both come across as interesting, admirable, flawed and above all human. Doyle's spiritualism is dealt with at length, and includes a massive seance held at Albert Hall after his death with shows the esoteric glamour, the emotional impact and the base quakery of this lost religion.

It's also really good on race. George is certainly victimised, but it's far from clear that the colour of his skin has anything to do with it. This is still the England of Empire - a massively different world to the one we live in, and one which may not have been as racist as we imagine. A very intelligent and subtle examination of these issues going on.

Finally - very well written, easy to read, always entertaining. A lucky find, and a good excuse to dig out some Sherlock Holmes short stories from my bookshelf.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sway by Zachary Lazar

Who can say why this jumped out at me in the library? Although I should point out it's the second book I've reviewed with Charles Manson on the cover.

This is a novel about the death of the sixties, and looks at the Manson family, the rise of the Rolling Stones and the life of Kenneth Anger, who made avant-garde, occult-inspired films like Scorpio Rising.

I really enjoyed Sway. All these subjects are fascinating to me, and the novel shows how they connect - Anger had started making a film with Bobby Beausoliel, who ran off to join the Manson family. Anger then finished a film using some of the footage for a short film he made with Mick Jagger - Invocation of my Demon Brother click to watch!

So it all ties in, but it's told in a really oblique and poetic way. The atmosphere is always dark and menacing, and there's a lot of weird satanic imagery, but it's not a tough read. Partly that's because it's nice and short, but also because it works on a dramatic level. It's not always easy portraying well known people in a new and interesting way, but Lazar does a great job at getting inside their heads. The interplay between Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones is especially good. Great setpieces as well - Altamont, the murder of Gary Hinman, the recording of Sympathy for the Devil.

No easy messages here - it's all very enigmatic - but one I took is how quickly things fall apart when all the old assumptions and ethics are jettisoned for big ideas like Peace and Love. And how peace and love become interchangeable with violence and hate when the very idea of objective morality is seen as old fashioned.

I'm sure others will have different readings - you should definitely give it a go.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

John Dies at the End by David Wong

I've been hunting around for this for a while, and I finally found it on import in a very nice horror, sf, fantasy bookshop in Edinburgh. I don't tend to buy books any more (not first hand anyway) but I didn't mind shelling out.

It's comedy horror by Jason Pargin, editor of the often very good David Wong's actually the narrator who, along with his friend John, fights unspeakable horror after accidently eating some black jizz from hell. Pair of slackers fight evil - not that groundbreaking - but it succeeds on two fronts. The horror elements are really strong and it's very funny. The opening section when they fight a meat monster ("the phrase 'sodomised by a bratwurst poltergeist' flew through my mind") is fantastic.

It's also got people being possessed by parasitical worms, a massive jellyfish in someone's house, a car full of cockroaches and an exploding dog. And there's always the sense that "is this really happening, or have I gone insane?" It works because the horror isn't treated as a joke - that comes from the characters, primarily John. He's a penis obsessed knucklehead with an endless supply of Arnie-type puns as he whacks demons. Wong is the opposite - a gloomy guilt-ridden pessimist who falls in love and learns that he isn't a hero. Luckily, he's also hilarious.

This works on lots of levels, but it is a little disjointed. It was originally posted online chapter by chapter. Great opening, a big climax half way through, treads water a little, then comes to a big satisfying conclusion. It could probably do with a bit of editing, but it's a pretty small grumble.

Thumbs up from me.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The American Future: A History by Simon Schama

I really liked Schama's History of Britain. I'm a big sucker for the Stuarts and he made the period sparkle. His final part in the TV version was in the form of a parallel analysis of Churchill and Orwell. Now that's genius. This book's a bit disappointing in comparison.
It's set out thematically rather than chronologically, with the emphasis on the different kinds of people who've become American. It's part journalism, with Schama meeting Obama and H Clinton supporters, former generals, and baptist preachers. He even chats to George W about Mexican immigration, which he tells him is the only issue he agrees with him on. He uses these to jump around history - back to the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, the Old West, the Civil Rights Movement etc.

I think one of my problems is that this book assumes an awful lot of knowledge about American history. This certainly isn't - as they would say over there, though I'm not sure why - American History 101. He's always looking at it from different angles - which is great - but if you don't have a pretty good grounding then the new points he's making will tend to be lost.

But here's the stuff I liked - Teddy Roosevelt, whom Mark Twain correctly identified as "clearly insane...and insanest of all upon war and its supreme glories", Andrew Jackson, hammer of the indians who adopted two indian children, the sometimes humane and intelligent dealings with indian tribes, and the very ropey deal for Chinese immigrants in the west.

I also liked the positive view of America coming from a European lefty. He even has a good word to say about their religiosity, pointing out that it's us who're unusual in having abandoned religion for secularism. It's always been the country of hope and opportunity, of starting afresh, but where horrible things can happen to you, especially if you're not the right colour or religion. I still think it's the best country in the world, if only for having in its constitution the right to the "pursuit of happiness" Not a guarantee of happiness of course, but something even better.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

No science fiction universe is as rich or as dark as Frank Herbert's. Here's what you need to know - it's set long enough into the future that no-one's heard of Earth, humans are on tens of thousands of worlds, and society has reverted to feudalism. There was a crusade millennia earlier against AI so technology is strictly regulated. And everything revolves around a substance called spice which increases your lifespan, causes psychic powers, turns your eyes blue and lets you travel through hyperspace. And Dune's the only place in the galaxy where it's found.

This is book three in the series. If you've seen the David Lynch film, you know how the first book ends - the good Paul Maud'Dib defeats the baddies on the back of a sandworm and becomes Emperor of the Universe. Hooray! Book two, Dune Messiah, begins after a religious jihad has swept the universe in Paul's name killing 61 billion people. Um...hooray?

As you might expect in Children of Dune the focus is on Paul's children. Leto and Ghamina are nine years old, but since they both have the memories of all their ancestors, they don't really act like kids. A side effect of way too much spice. It's the same story with Paul's sister Alia, who's acting as their regent. And she's not coping all that well with the whole memory thing.

The plot's all about plotting - they can't help trying to kill each other (and I do like assassination by cat.) Each conversation plays out like a chess game, with moves and countermoves which are entirely different to what the words mean on the surface. These scenes are exhilirating and never turn out the way you expect. You can apply that to the whole book as well.

I love how the Dune universe is one of contradictions. The stuff of which fuels everything only grows on a virtually dead planet. It's set in the far future, but it feels ancient. They travel between the stars but technology is feared and hated. You've got religion and mysticism coming up against realpolitik and ecology. Even things like the medieval/byzantine culture of the galaxy contrasting with the arabic mythology on Dune. So much to get your teeth into.

Most people reckon the Dune books get increasingly ropey, until the myriad prequels co-written by Herbert's son which I've heard are virtually unreadable. For the moment, I'm still riding that sandworm rollercoaster.