Sunday, 22 May 2011

Bollocks to Alton Towers

A day at Alton Towers isn't to be sneezed at of course, but sometimes you just want to root around a derelict military site from the second world war, or an ugly 70s pseudo-Corbusier monstrosity made by someone who hated humans. My idea of fun.

Here are some in this book which caught my eye: Imber - a village on Salisbury Plain which was taken over by the army in WWII and never handed back. You can still visit on a few days a year, and it looks like it's been preserved in the 40s, but also done up like a training level on Call of Duty.

Orford Ness sounds even better. It's a peninsula off the coast of Norfolk where they tested secret weapons, including components for the atomic bomb. There are big creepy pagodas dotted around which seem to be designed to collapse in on themselves if something horrible happens.

There are some cracking sights I've visited already in this book, from Portmerion to Avebury. It even has Tebay Services on the M6, which I visit (twice) every time I make a trip to Shrewsbury. The only motorway service station which doesn't make you want to kill everyone.

But the one place that intrigues me most is the Williamson Tunnels. It's a baffling, Escheresque labyrinth built under the streets of Liverpool by a rich nutcase two hundred years ago. Nobody knows what it was for or how far it stretches. It's currently being excavated by people who have clearly never read any HP Lovecraft.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The New Machiavelli by Jonathan Powell

It's got Machiavelli on the cover, it's about Tony Blair's time in power, and it's written by Blair's chief of staff - an important political figure in his own right.

But the dominant character here is none of these. One person casts a gloomy, vindictive shadow over proceedings. Gordon Brown.

This is a first rate hatchet job from a genuine insider. There was lots of talk about Brown being psychologically unsuited to being prime minister. This book suggests he was psychologically unsuited to being a human being. It's not really anything we haven't heard before - he's a bully, a coward, a liar, paranoid, self-deluding and consumed with jealousy and hatred - but I find it endlessly fascinating. I'm missing him more than I thought I would.

This book comes firmly from the Blair camp, but it does have the ring of truth. Blair himself comes across as personable and capable, but vague and without that killer instinct. A central point of this book is that he should've sacked Brown early, rather than let him poison the whole of government.

Now, I'm not a fan of Blair. My big problem with him is what he and Powell see as his strength - centralising power, wanting to cut through "red tape" and "civil service bureaurocracy" to do exactly what he thinks needs to be done. They see it as efficiency, I see it as dictatorial and wrong-headed. But I can recognise that the intentions were good (road to hell, etc.) Brown's a different kettle of fish. He just wants power for power's sake.

There's some more interesting stuff in the book about other cabinet figures, etc, but nothing earth shattering. The Machiavelli lessons are only partially successful, but that's possibly because his writings have become political common sense. It did make me want to check out his Discourses, which are about Roman politics rather than renaissance Italy.

I'm blaming my peripatetic lifestyle of late for embarking on five books simultaneously - Peter F Hamilton's conclusion to the Void trilogy, a big book about Mao's Cultural Revolution, The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, the Hobbit on tape, and an amusing travel book, which I've finished and shall review soon.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre

Astoundingly good. I've read Le Carre books before and really liked them, but this one blew my socks off.

George Smiley is a former spy master who's been forced out of MI6 (the Circus) after some bloody debacle in the Eastern Bloc. But he's summoned back to secretly investigate suspicions of a mole at the highest level of the Circus.

So the plot's pretty straightforward but this is head and shoulders above the run of the mill spy thriller. Le Carre was a spy himself, and was forced out when another high level mole Kim Philby blew his cover, so the spycraft described is very convincing. What's apparent is that it's not glamorous in the least. A dirty, lonely job where you have to lie and betray people, and you can't even trust your own side. Being a spy doesn't appear to be very good for you psychologically.

Smiley's a fantastic character. Middle aged, tubby, polite and unassuming. He's repeatedly cuckolded by his beloved wife - we never meet her but it sounds like she badly needs to be shown the pimp hand. But you can see his skill and subtlety as he winkles information from various other damaged people who've been sacked from the Circus.

A lot of the book's in flashback from these interviews, and it has bits in Hong Kong, India, Czechozlovakia. But it's the portrayal of Britain in the 70s - London in particular - which is the most striking. Seedy bedsits, shabby people, soggy raincoats and bad food. The sense of place and time jumps off the page.

It's told in quite a subtle and rich way and I sometimes found myself re-reading pages to get everything out. But it's certainly rewarding. By the end when you see how wonderfully all the plot points have been put together, you realise it's pretty much the perfect thriller.

Now, I'd seen the TV version of this years back, so I knew who the mole was. Actually I knew who the actor was, but luckily I couldn't remember who he played. And it's impossible when reading this not to think of Alec Guinness in the Smiley role, even though the book makes it clear he doesn't wear a hat (his wife says it makes him look ridiculous.) There's a film version out soon from the director of Let the Right One In. Gary Oldman as Smiley, which I can definitely see. But I'd urge you to read the book first.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire by Fik Meijer

It's hard not to think about Celtic and Rangers when you read this book. Thousands of frenzied fans decked out in green and blue. Chants of hatred. Claims of bias by the authorities. Riots spilling out onto the streets. Best of all, they didn't have to watch boring old football. They got to watch the greatest sport of all time.

Chariot racing was already well established when Homer wrote about it, and it was a passion in Rome from at least the time of the kings. By imperial times it was massively popular. There were race days around twice a week - far more than gladiatoral contests. And the numbers involved beggar belief. A conservative estimate puts the capacity of the Circus Maximus at 150,000. To put that in perspective, Wembley (the English Hampden) holds 90,000. It wasn't even the only circus in Rome, and there were many others across the empire.

It sounds incredibly exciting. A very light chariot, usually with four horses, and seven laps with two long straights to get your speed up and two 180 degree turns. The reins were tied around the charioteer's waist so he could have his whip hand free. Useful, except when there was a crash and you were dragged along behind your horses. Crashes seem to have been pretty common.

The way the racing was organised is fascinating. There were stables named after colours, with the Greens and the Blues being the most prominent. Charioteers often transferred between stables, but the fans never did. The supporters were fanatical, and knew all the stats of their favourite charioteers and even horses. And it crossed all the rigid social divides in Roman society. Even emperors had a side, and were expected to by the crowd. Mostly they were for the Greens, at least in the early Roman Empire. But the reasons for supporting one stable over another are murky. We don't know if it was geographical, or possibly to do with different professions. Family allegiance presumably played a part, but it seems politics and religion did as well.

Chariot racing gradually died out when the empire's capital moved to Constantinople. But it went out with a bang. The introduction of paid "clappers" (nasty cheerleaders, presumably) for each stable saw the hatred and violence cranked up even more, as did the religious controversies of the time. Fighting between Greens and Blues under Justinian led to the destruction of much of the city. The crackdown in the Hippodrome under the legendary general Belisarius was hardcore - more than 30,000 fans killed.

There's a great description of the typical chariot hooligan of the time - a long beard in the style of ancient Persians, a mullet with shaved front and a brightly coloured cloak with gold stitching with a dagger hidden inside. They roamed in gangs attacking anyone at the slightest provocation. Presumably while looking like prog-rock bands.

The author's done a great job, considering the paucity of evidence, both written and archeological. Nice and short as well, which I like in a history. And it's strangely comforting to see such fanatical rivalry made so strange and pointless through the lens of time. What's latin for "there will always be nutters"?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod

The last book I read by this crazy Scottish sci-fi lefty was Newton's Wake, and despite stacks of great and bizarre ideas, it wasn't completely successful. I wanted to try out one of his sagas, so this is book one of the Engines of Light trilogy.

Well, it's certainly different. And interesting. And not entirely successful.

It skips between two different stories. One is set a few decades in the future - the USSR is still going strong (obviously) and now incorporates the EU (I knew it.) Alien contact is made for the first time on a Soviet space station around an asteroid, but the story follows an Edinburgh programmer/hacker as he goes on the run with important data. This is the cyberpunk part of the story, and it's pretty enjoyable, but as usual with this genre I'm probably missing a lot of computery stuff.

The other story (the chapters alternate) is set some time in the future on a different planet and is very different. As well as descendents of cosmonauts in the other story, there are humans who've been there much longer - three species in fact. There are also sentient beings called Saurs and space-faring squid called Krakens, who navigate the other species around the planets at light speed. And although it's never explicit, it gradually becomes apparent there may not actually be any aliens in this book. Ooooh.......intriguing!

As always with Macleod, I enjoyed the soviet porn. One meeting held in VR is modeled on the Baku Congress of the Eastern Peoples in 1919. You don't get that in many science fiction novels. I also liked the different levels of technologies going on here - things are much more advanced in the past on Earth, whereas the saurians and krakens have the upper hand on the other planets so the humans are much less technologically advanced. Despite that, things are still pretty utopian. Which may be part of the problem with this book. Needs more conflict. It also needs more interesting characters.

I still plan to read the other books in this series, but it just doesn't have that massive scope you get in Peter F Hamilton or Alistair Reynolds. Well, it does, but it's just not portrayed as effectively. I can tell there's a lot more to come out about this universe, so maybe I just have to be patient to get the full effect.