Thursday, 30 June 2011

Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey

A strange but engaging novel.  It's made up three very different sections.  It starts with a boy called Robbie growing up in a small Scottish town in the 70s.  He's fascinated by science, his dad talks about socialism all the time, and Robbie dreams about becoming a soviet cosmonaut.  This is a funny and effective coming of age story, and I'd guess it's partly drawn from the author's experiences (he's Scottish and has a PhD in theoretical physics.)

It then jumps forward a few years and sideways a lot into a different universe.  Robbie finds himself in a Stalinist version of Scotland, coming to what had been his home town in another life, but turned into the "Installation" - a closed off research facility which no-one ever appears to leave.  And it looks like he could become Scotland's first cosmonaut.

This middle section is fantastic.  It paints a bleak and sinister picture of the UK under communism; of people trying to lead normal lives while constantly afraid.  The characters are very well drawn, including Robbie himself, as as he slowly decides to take a stand

The shift from the first part is really interesting - Robbie as a boy keeps on slipping into vivid daydreams, and at first this section just seems like an extended version of that.  Everyone he meets is like a version of someone in his "real life", and The Wizard of Oz is referenced a few times.  As well as the preoccupations with space and communism, there's a lot of stuff about sex, and the shift comes right after young Robbie has his first kiss.  And although it feels very real, some bits seem like they're in a schoolboy's mind - the plot for instance concerns a black hole which has "entered the solar system" like it was a comet, and the scientists are planning to reach it.  Very odd.

All this could've been difficult to pull off, but the author does a fantastic job and I thought it just added to an already convincing story.

The last shorter section jumps again, and this part is less successful.  It's certainly not predictable, but it leaves rather too many unanswered questions for my taste.  There's some great stuff here as well though, particularly about loss and growing old.

So, this gets a hearty recommendation from me.  Crumey's got another book - Mobius Dick - which has a better title than this one at least, so I'll be keeping an eye out for that.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

More fantastic and flawed sci-fi from the author I've read more than any other in the past year.

This is another stand-alone novel like Reynold's Century Rain but with the awesome sweep of something like Robert Reed's Sister Alice.

It's set millions of years in the future, and across the galaxy humanity's evolved down countless routes, from furry winged people to whale-sized worms, from underwater slugs covered in barnacles to planet-spanning posthuman gods.  But the characters we follow take a wider view of things.  They're immortal clones and sentient robots, compared to whom the other interstellar civilisations rise and fall in the blink of an eye.  They call it "turnover."

This huge scale is made possible not just by immortality, but space travel.  Reynolds always seems to have a bee in his bonnet about faster than light travel, and good on him I say.  It takes hundreds, even thousands of years to travel from one star to the other, but this becomes integral to the plot and the way the characters interact.

What also works well are the descriptions.  Worlds which feel like they've come from the cover of a Yes album.  Vast spaceships in the shape of headless swans and "art-deco rhombuses."  It feels like how I always thought sci-fi should feel when I was a kid.  And on top of all that you've got brilliant action scenes, engaging characters, and a great plot with big galactic mysteries to solve.  Yet it still doesn't really work.

I'm going to speculate that it comes from a certain slapdash attitude to the plotting.  For instance, one of the most interesting characters is killed off fairly early on in very suspicious circumstances.  It's never mentioned again.  The main story concerns a big massacre, but the reason for it being carried out is deeply unconvincing.  It just seems to be there to move the story along, and I remember a very similar problem in Century Rain.  By the end there are so many loose ends, that you don't care about the big awesome finale.

This is such a pity because for much of the time I was enjoying this book more than any other I've read this year.  Seriously, sort it out Reynolds.

I've already finished another book, Sputnik Caledonia, which I'll review soon.  And I should rattle through a slim volume about great British eccentrics fairly quickly.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton

That's it - the Void trilogy in the bag!  I reckon that's at least two thousand pages worth, all told.  I reviewed part two The Temporal Void  back in October, so I've already gone over the main plot of the book.

So, was it worth it?  Not really.  Turns out two thousand pages isn't nearly enough.  It's a very odd feeling to get deeper and deeper into a book as it gradually becomes clear that you don't really know who anyone is or what's going on.  And yet you're almost at the end, so you may as well push through.

I mentioned this problem in the last review - many of the characters had already appeared in two earlier books (not part of the trilogy!) set more than a thousand years before.  In the final part this becomes ridiculous, with more and more people turning up - folk like Ozzie, who's become such a legend that people say "Ozzie damnit" etc without thinking.  But there's very little exposition to tell you why this guy's so important.  Other "old favourites" have become space fairies (cooler than it sounds), or live as demi-gods inside asteroids, or are brought back as assassins (either mind-wiped or as clones), or are shown as holographic reconstructions/sex toys, or have become a central religious figure in the galaxy, or have become a central religious figure in a seperate dimension.

Even if I knew who these people were, I think this would still be a tough read.  I kept on trying to count how many main characters I was following in this book, and I always forgot a couple.  They popped up every so often, bombing about in spaceships of increasingly absurd speed (in this book it starts as "ultra-light speed"  and progresses from there) and I had to retrace my steps trying to figure out, as usual, who they were and what they were doing.

And yet, and's still pretty damn good.  Although it's very demanding, this really is good quality sci-fi, and by the end I had a pretty good grasp of what was happening and what was at stake.  And it's a nice big satisfying ending.  I've heard criticism of Hamilton that he always ends his epics with a deus ex machina.  In this book a machine which actually makes gods plays a big role in the finale.  I think it's probably a joke.


A few abandoned books recently - my Chinese Cultural Revolution book was just way, way too boring, which is a puzzle as it's one of the most interesting periods in 20th century history.  I was enjoying Douglas Copeland's Player One, but there's a stupid policy with Aberdeen Library that you actually have to hand back (i.e. can't renew) a book after having it out for three months.  Haters plainly gotta hate.  And I gave up on the Hobbit on audiotape, because who needs JRR Tolkien when we've got Peter Jackson?  I can wait till next year.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

A trip to Waterstones to actually buy a book!  Three for two offers ignored (because they're a lie, obviously) and straight for the last copy of Stewart Lee's memoirs/stand up transcripts.  Partly because I've been enjoying his new series, partly because people will borrow it off me and another partly because it's named after one my favourite songs of the moment by Mission of Burma.  Two minutes of postpunk gold.

And the book doesn't disappoint.  It's built around the three stand-up routines which made up his post-herring comeback after a difficult period (fat, bitter, increasingly surreal) in the early 2000s.  There are bits of biography and analyses of stand-up comedy to explain each set and copious footnotes throughout the verbatim transcripts.  I loved all this.  He's always intelligent, always passionate and always funny. 

The high point is the middle set  '90s Comedian from 2006.  He sets up the background before the transcript - the death threats and threat of prosecution for blasphemy over Jerry Springer the Opera; his moment of epiphany on watching the documentary The Aristocrats, about a secret joke told between American comedians which has become an exercise in obscenity; and his interest in sacred clowns from medieval France and the Hopi people of the South Westerern USA.  It culminates during the act in an unpleasant and unforgettable encounter with Jesus in his mum's toilet.  Stewart Lee's mum.  Not Mary.

The whole book's really an investigation into stand-up comedy itself.  Cheap laughs versus hard won respect, saying the unsayable versus just being a dick, political correctness gone mad gone mad and the politics of plagiarism.  It's also interesting to learn Lee started his trick of losing an audience just to try and win it back ages ago, just to stop himself getting bored.  I liked this quote, from one of his many footnotes "...Within a few years these 'jokes'...will have been entirely purged from my work in favour, exclusively, of grinding repetition, embarrassing silences and passive-aggressive monotony."  I wouldn't have it any other way.

Right, think I've fixed the comments problems, so the hordes need no longer batter at the drawbridge.  Still half finished a big bunch of books, but the next looks like it's going to be Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.  That Mieville's so hot right now.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A Simple Act of Violence by R.J. Ellory


Playing LA Noire on the Xbox put me right in the mood for a good police procedural to pick up some tips. This book was no help at all.

It comes across at first as the expected serial killer trash with highbrow pretensions. The chapters switch between the detective and the killer's viewpoints. Some like their whodunnits in the classical mode, but I've always been a fan of Columbo so I don't mind if you see what the other side's up to.

But here's the thing - there's too much of the killer. And, as becomes apparent very quickly, he's not really a serial killer, he's a rogue CIA assassin. This should be a spoiler, but isn't. You get lots of backstory about him getting recruited and getting his hands dirty with the contras in Nicaragua, and it's all really good.

But on the other side you've got a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown who wanders through everything in a daze. I'm racking my brains to think if he picked up any clues which the killer didn't put in his path deliberately. And he even has trouble picking these up.

I can see the point being made - the unfathomable gap in skill between a CIA agent and a homicide detective. But what becomes comical is that the CIA doesn't appear to cross the detective's mind until far too late. He has a bunch of murder victims whose identities are all false. They're in Washington, where the CIA are based. There are planted clues about Nicaragua. Even when he finally speaks to the killer as a suspect (guided by the killer himself, of course) the guy, apropos of nothing, immediately launches into a speech about the CIA bringing in drugs from South America. The penny stays undropped.

By the end though everything's tied up nicely. And it's really well written throughout, with interesting themes and excellent suspense. It's not a bad book by any means, but the dynamics of a decent thriller are all wonky. Part of the problem is it's way too long, so you end up with far too much of the CIA stuff, when it'd be more effective in snapshots. But the big issue is a complete lack of dramatic tension. Why should you care about a detective who should really be in be in a different book, solving a far easier crime?