Saturday, 30 July 2011

Wireless by Charles Stross

Science fiction, the Cold War, HP Lovecraft, PG Wodehouse.  King.

I'll just do a quick description of some of my favourite short stories here.

"Missile Gap" sees the cold war of the 60s transported onto a massive flat disc in the Magellanic Cloud.  The Americans and the Soviets try and explore seemingly endless oceans and continents, and have to deal with the physics of living on a flat surface, rather than on a globe.  It also features Yuri Gagarin re-imagined as Captain Kirk, on the bridge of an ekranoplan, which is used to far greater effect than in that awful Bond book.

"A Colder War" sees the cold war of the 60s, 70s and 80s dealing with the Cthulhu mythos.  Features a Shoggoth under tarpaulin at a May Day parade in Moscow, and Colonel Oliver North at the Mountains of Madness.

Lovecraft returns in "Down on the Farm" but on a lighter note.  This is a satire about a branch of British intelligence which deals with magic.  Really fun and creative but with enough of that creeping horror and nameless dread to give it an edge.  Stross has written a few novels in the same world - The Jennifer Morgue and The Atrocity Archives - which I'll be keeping an eye out for.

And "Trunk and Disorderly" is Jeeves and Wooster in the far future.  Features a dwarf mammoth and a drunken dalek.  Nowhere near as terrible as it sounds.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Looking Glass War by John Le Carre

Whether it's James Bond, Jack Bauer or Danger Mouse, most fictional secret agents have one thing in common - they're good at their job.  You don't often get an inept spy, unless it's played for laughs.  There aren't many laughs in this book.

This isn't set in the Circus, home of George Smiley (though he does have a shadowy supporting role), but in "The Department" which deals with military intelligence.  A force to be reckoned with in the Second World War, certainly, but in terminal decline for the two decades since.  The novel starts with a juicy lead about possible missile deployments in East Germany, which gives the out-of-touch spymasters a chance to get the upper hand on the Circus once more.

The story's in three parts - a courier picking up a roll of film in Helskini; a member of the Department sent to Finland to find out what happened; and the re-training of a dusted-off spy who'll be sent behind the Iron Curtain to investigate.  Blunders abound and hilarity doesn't ensue.

There's a lot of good spycraft in this - cover stories, radio communications, the relationship between agent and handler - but more importantly it shows you what happens when good practise isn't followed.  Le Carre was a spy himself for MI5 and MI6, and there's a sense of anger here at good and perhaps misguided people being put at risk because of sloppiness and red tape from those higher up the food chain.

Still plenty of unanswered questions at the end, but for once that was completely justified in the story.  The only problem was a few impassioned and unrealistic outbursts towards the end, but that's pretty minor.  Having said that, this isn't nearly as good as Tinker Tailor, but that's because few books are.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The City and the City by China Mieville

This is based around one of those ideas which hit you like a punch on the nose:  simple, original and convincing, but which seems so obvious, you wonder why no-one's thought of it before.

It's really a murder mystery set in the city of Beszel, somewhere in Eastern Europe.  But the policeman protagonist soon discovers the victim was actually killed in another city - Ul Qoma.  This is a problem, because both cities are in the same place.

Now, this could've gone down the line that the cities are in different dimensions (think Zelda or Metroid games) but here it's all done psychologically and culturally.  Some neighbourhoods and streets are all in one city or the other, while some are in both.  And they don't interact.  The system's kept running, in the main, through taboo.  People of each city are trained to "unsee" people and things in the other city.  The way that folk walk and talk, architectural styles, even certain colours will tell a citizen that they've seen something which they should immediately disregard.  Driving seems to be a particular problem, although at least they both drive on the same side.

But the masterstroke here is the realism.  You've got certain dynamics being played with - East and West, democratic and authoritarian, Christian and, well not exactly Muslim.  The Ul Qomans seem to follow Zoroaster or Mani more than Mohammed, but you get the idea.  But these aren't abstract ideas of cities; they're convincingly fleshed out.  You've got the broad strokes of a deep history between the two which means, for instance, that Bezsel has coke while Ul Qoma has Canadian cola because of a US embargo.  And there's certainly no good city/bad city thing going on either.

What I really liked about this book is how it plays with the idea of cities split by history, politics and culture.  Berlin certainly, but also Belfast, Istanbul, Budapest - even Edinburgh.  Most cities, in fact, have a bit of that duality going on.  Here it's taken to ridiculous, but believable extremes.  I also love the notion that it's the people themselves who're conditioned to perpetuate it.

Now there is another force called "Breach" keeping the people seperate, and the way it's gradually explained is nicely handled, but I'm not convinced it was really needed in the book.  In fact, it raises more questions than it answers.

Looking at the plot, this is a fairly conventional thriller with some politics and archeology thrown in.  Some of the parts work better than others.  There's the traditional Hollywood double-baddie reveal towards the end. The first part concerns the most minor and shoe-horned-in of characters, and is pretty unconvibcing.  It also expressly refuses to explain the significance of the Maguffin, which I was a bit annoyed by.  The last baddie reveal is handled much better.  Not a massive surprise, but a lot more convincing psychologically and thematically.

Still too many unanswered questions overall for my taste, but there's certainly scope for more thrillers set in the city and the city , so fingers crossed.

I'm actually halfway through another book by Mieville called Perdido Street Station which is a big, sprawling, Dickensian, steampunk affair.  It's also really good, but it's a book on tape and I've been listening to a lot or music and podcasts recently.  I'll finish it when I finish it, but I will finish it.