Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Oh yes, this is the good stuff. The best science fiction novel I've reviewed so far.

I wasn't overly impressed with his short story collection Galactic North, which was very hit and miss, but I did like it enough to give one of his novels a go. This is the first in the series, but works very well as a stand alone.

It's set in the aftermath of the Melding Plague, which is a big deal in the short stories as well. It affects nanotechnology, and there's no cure. It means many people with implants have either frozen themselves until scientists know how to kill it, or bomb about in containers called palanquins so they don't get infected. And cities, which are meant to grow organically, have withered and died. All very dark and gothic.

One of the three stories which come together concerns the plague - the captain of a spaceship is in stasis because of the infection, but the crew know someone who can help him. This person - Sylveste - is the leader of a planet where an alien race became extinct a million years ago. He's also their head archeologist and he's obsessed with finding out what happened to them. The third strand is an assassin sent by someone known only as the Mademoiselle to kill Sylveste.

It works on every level. The setting is well realised - I wrote in the last review about it being hard sf with relativity causing time dilation, no faster than light travel etc, but there are other great touches, like inches of slime on the floors of the spaceship, and acres of rotting vegetation because the UV lights in the biodomes have broken. The characters are interesting, unusual and believable if not always sympathetic. And the plotting's excellent. It builds quite slowly, coming to a great showdown in the middle, and the last half goes off in an unexpected and mindblowing direction. But nothing feels rushed, shoehorned-in or surplus to requirements. Fantastic.

I'm now embarking on 2666 by Roberto Bolano (Spanish squiggle on the n implied) which is pretty good, even though it's not actually set in the year 2666. As far as I know.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Caligula by Douglas Jackson

Rome's craziest emperor deserves better than this. I quite liked the start - the main character's an animal trainer who tries to steer bloodthirsty Roman audiences away from the slaughter of exotic beasts by making them do tricks and routines. Animal welfare through circus routines - stick that PETA! Nice idea to look at the violence and spectacle of Caligula's reign through the microcosm of the arena. But instead the trainer has to look after the Emperor's elephant, and the story falters.

Most disappointing was Caligula himself. If you're writing a trashy novel about Rome's third emperor, then you really want to make him balls out bonkers. This guy's a byword for topsy-turvy tyranny. Children of the eighties will remember with fondness Judge Caligula's brief time in office in Mega City One. There's certainly a lot of crazy and brutal behaviour, but I wasn't convinced. Maybe after reading about Stalin it doesn't seem so outlandish.

We don't actually know all that much about Gaius Caesar (Caligula's a childhood nickname - his father was a famous general, and Gaius used to wear a tiny uniform around camp. A caliga was the sandal worn by the soldiers, and caligula is the diminutive.) Tacitus's history of the regime has been lost, and historians rely on Suetonius. He's very entertaining, but kind of like getting your history from News of the World. His lost works include Greek Terms of Abuse and Lives of Famous Whores.

So, many modern commentators thinks Caligula's craziness has been exaggerated for effect. What is clear is that he was very young (28 when assasinated) and the first emperor to realise the true extent of his power. This bears a little explanation.

The old Republic had been devastated by decades of political violence and civil war. The complex, balanced but inherently static political system couldn't cope with a growing empire. First off there was a massive influx of slaves from conquered terrorities. Slave labour led to fewer and richer landowners, which caused a military problem - only landowners could be soldiers.

The General Marius needed an army, and decided to ignore the senate and recruit anyone he wanted. He paid them with the promise of booty and land in the future. A commonsense solution, but one which would have massive consequences in the coming centuries. See, the generals were also the politicians. And the Marian reforms meant that armies were loyal to their generals, rather than the Roman state. A recipe for disaster.

The interminable in-fighting came to an end after Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium. He decided to make himself king.

Now, the Romans hated and loathed kings ever since they kicked out Tarquinus Superbus back in the mists of time, so Augustus (as he was renamed) was very careful not to seem like a king. He retained and paid respect to the consuls, the tribunes, the senate - all the traditional power structures of the republic - but they were stripped of any real power. And so Rome enjoyed peace and prosperity for the first time in a long time.

Political genius though he was, Augustus hadn't thought this through. Two big problems - no effective curbs on the emperor's power, and no consistent rules on succession. The rot set in quickly. Augustus's successor Tiberius was a gloomy, paranoid and brutal ruler (he always reminds me of Gordon Brown.) He was (possibly) murdered by Caligula, who finally seemed to understand what being an emperor was really about - doing whatever you wanted!

He was murdered by the praetorian guard after a few short, but presumably fun years (for Gaius at least.) But the standard was set. Most Roman emperors were closer to Caligula than Augustus. And the military became increasingly powerful, ending up with the throne being "auctioned off" by the guard a few centuries down the line. The succesful bidder didn't hang on to it very long. Fear of the armies was also a big reason why Britain had so many military bases, Hadrian's and Antonine's walls etc. It wasn't because of constant battles with the Picts in Scotland - it was to keep them as far away from Rome as possible.

I love all this stuff, but if you want more I can recommend Tom Holland's Rubicon, an excellent history of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Crassus (Olivier in Spartacus - a millionaire who ended up having molten gold poured down his mouth.) And there's a great podcast by Dan Carlin called Hardcore History - he's currently wading through the history of the late Republic.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Koba the Dread by Martin Amis

Look at this cheeky chap! A face only a mother could trust, although Stalin wasn't very nice to his mother either.

The bulk of this book is a rundown of his horrors. The torture, the gulags, the collectivisation, the famine, the fear. Amis notes that one of Stalin's most reliable tool of terror was the cold. It's much easier to control the people when you've got somewhere as deadly as Siberia to dump them en masse. A number of gulags were wiped out completely in blizzards - prisoners, guards, dogs.

There are lots of chilling accounts from first hand witnesses, laid out expertly by Amis. I hadn't even heard of the slave ships, which crossed back and forth across the Northern Seas, filled with prisoners in chicken coops in a Bosch-like vision of hell. One ship - the Dzhurma - was caught in the ice off Wrangel Island in 1933. All the prisoners on board froze to death. There were 12,000 of them.

This book also has an excellent portrayal of Stalin. Paranoid, cruel, brutal and living in a fantasy land. The big mystery has always been why he trusted Hitler. Those (and there were many) who warned that the Nazis were about to invade were executed as wreckers. Amis argues that Stalin had waged war on truth so succesfully in Russia, he just couldn't conceive of a fact that wasn't his own.

When Hitler's treachery finally sank in, Stalin met with his ministers, expecting his own arrest and execution. But his terror tactics had been so succesful, none had even considered challenging him.

This admirable hatchet job is bookended by an inquiry into why Stalin gets an easier ride from the intelligentsia (then and now) than Hitler. As a communist party member Kinglsey Amis defended him for many years, before turning into an arch-Thatcherite Colonel Blimp. There's also a letter to his friend Christopher Hitchens who at least used to be a lefty (God knows what he is now)

This bit of the book I was most looking forward to, but I would have liked more. There's a whole volume to be written about our apologists and fellow travellers, but this is too short, and barely touches on Shaw and HG Wells. And Hitchens was a Trotskyite, so can't really be labelled a Stalin denier. All a little scattershot.

But I did enjoy this a lot (better than Money, and shorter.) Like Noise, Amis warns us to Beware the Utopians, whether fans of Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin or Hitler. People who say the world can be perfected, if only this or that so called "freedom" didn't get in the way. Idealists of every stripe. As PJ O'Rourke wrote, Big Ideas are almost always bad, as anyone who's been asked "Hey, what's the big idea?" can tell you.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Money by Martin Amis

So I started reading Koba the Dread, and now I'm reviewing Money. Not sure how that happened.

It's one of those "prick in the 80s" novels and concerns a drunken boor called John Self who's made his name in advertising and is now making a movie which seems to be loosely based on his relationship with his horrible father, which might be based on Amis' own relationship with his father Kingsley. Self jets between London and New York getting monstrously drunk and getting into scrapes, while trying to handle a bunch of insane stars he's trying to sign up for the film. He also meets an author called Martin Amis, who ends up writing the script for his movie. Oh yes, it's postmodern.

The writing's very strong, managing to be funny and heartbreaking even while narrated by a moron like Self, and some of the scenes are fantastic, especially those with the actors. And the ending's very satisfying, how it all comes together.

But I didn't love it. I have no problem with an unpleasant lead character (like, say, Stalin) but there's no forward momentum with Self. He's not after money -he's got more coming in than he knows what to do with - and he's pretty generous with it. He doesn't even seem to care about the film. Self's a little more interested in the women in his life, but since they're all either saints or whores, I was unconvinced. He's an entertaining character, but a boring one, if that makes sense.

I think I would've liked this a lot more if I'd read this in my teens, but I found it a little dated. An interesting side point - Self's supposed addiction to pornography. Very quaint by today's standards!

Shout out to the narrator of this audiobook Steven Pacey, who does a great job. And I've since found out he's sci-fi royalty - he played Tarrant in Blake's Seven.

I've got some more of Koba the Dread to read, but I've got caught up in another massive science fiction - Revelation Space by Alistair Reynolds (I reviewed his Galactic North a while back) and I'm listening to a trashy novel about Caligula which is suprisingly good.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley by Carol Ann Lee

A fascinating biography of The Most Evil Woman in Britain (TM.) Myra Hindley and Ian Brady murdered at least five children and teenagers in the early sixties. Myra supplied the transport and the victims. Ian raped and murdered them before burying them on the moors. Still the most notorious crimes in this country since Jack the Ripper.

The most shocking aspect has always been the fact of a woman taking part in the sexual murders of children. Brady is one of Ressler's classic organised serial killers - a sadist and a psychopath obsessed with power and sex. But what was Hindley getting out of it? Was she a besotted lover? A victim of his sexual violence and domination herself? Something worse? Nobody, let alone Myra, has ever known for sure.

They were both wannabe intellectuals, into Neitzche and de Sade. They both worshipped the Nazis, and despised the mundane world with its conventional moralities. They lurked outside schools taking pictures of the children. After the murders they revisited the moors, sometimes taking neighbours' children for a day out and encouraging them to play on the spots children their own age were buried. Even in court they wrote coded messages to each other about throwing acid in the face of a toddler. When the internal world of a serial killer is split in two, you can see it a lot more clearly.
One of Your Own is chilling and lyrical without trying too hard. It captures the mood of the time and place perfectly. And although it's an easy and engaging read, it's never sensationalist.

The second half covering Myra's time behind bars is very interesting. She tried for years to win parole. How could she be judged decades later for things she did as a brutalised young woman in love?

Now, I'm not going to defend the guards who orchestrated her savage beating, or the Sun, which attacked the brother of one of the victims who visited Myra "to give her a HUG !" (in fact he was trying to convince her to undergo hypnosis to tell where he was buried) but I have no doubt it was right not to release her. She lied and made excuses throughout her incarcation, and at least one of the bodies has never been found.

There were those who campaigned on her behalf. Her "old men" - her useful idiots - like Lord Longford who cried compassion, and said Myra was a different woman, who deserved her freedom after years behind bars. That her crimes were secondary and under duress. They were almost succesful as well - only her death prevented a probably favourable decision by the European Court of Human Rights. All wrong of course. I'm of the old fashioned view that people are responsible for their actions, and that evil should be punished.

At least Brady admits he should never be released. He's currently in a psychiatric hospital in year eleven of his hunger strike, being fed through a tube. I've no complaints with that. I can also recommend his florid and claustraphobic book Gates of Janus. It's about serial killers.
In other murder news, I've got David Peace's novel 1974 featuring the Yorkshire Ripper investigation coming up, and I'm on the hunt for the Devil in the White City about 19th century torture dungeon king H.H. Holmes. I also keep noticing the American Psycho audiobook in my library, but I think that could push me over the edge.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Empties, witches' jelly, death lamps, the jolly ghost, rattling napkins, wriggling magnets, Jack the tramp, the Golden Ball. What the hell is going on here?

Roadside Picnic is a big novel in the history of science fiction. It's about one of several Zones across the world where visitations have taken place (presumably by aliens) but where things have been....changed. Strange artifacts, stranger physics and inexplicable effects on people and things. The title's a metaphor, put forward by a scientist in the novel, about the kind of things we'd accidently leave behind on a picnic and what woodland creatures would make of, say, coins, cigarette lighters, mobile phones.

This is the central idea here - how alien are aliens? A lot of modern sci-fi doesn't even go near aliens, preferring to talk instead about AI and singularities, and I wonder how influential Roadside Picnic's been in that trend. You learn nothing about the aliens in this book, expect that you can never learn anything about them. I suspect a lot of writers since have taken that lesson on board, and concentrated on subjects they can speculate about.

It's got quite an unusual feel. It's supposed to be set in Canada, but there are so many alcoholic melancholics that it can only be Russia. Is it political? Well, I suppose you could make a case for the unpredictability and promised riches in the Zone representing the Soviet people's hopes and fears about capitalism, although I suspect that's a bunch of bollocks.

I really enjoyed the little touches about family life. The protaganist Red's daughter Monkey, a mutant who's hated by the neighbours and loved by her family, becomes less and less human. Then you've got another stalker called Buzzard who's got two great looking kids, and you slowly realise they just don't add up. And there are family members who come back from the dead, return home and sit around like benign zombies. What's going on there? It's almost like the attempts at communication in Solaris (actually, Stanislaw Lem's someone I need to get reading!)

So how it does it compare to Tarkovsky's Stalker? Well there's more cool weirdness in Roadside Picnic, and there's not all that in your face philosophical yapping, but the ending's definitely better in Stalker and I think it's got a better story. IMDB claims (imdb claims a lot of things) that a new version's in production. With the right people, there's the potential for something very interesting indeed.