Saturday, 17 December 2011

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds

Another Reynolds book?  Most of them have had some pretty flawed, though entertaining, and I didn't even finish his most recent - Terminal World.  I was right to stick with him, though: the sequel to Revelation Space is a cracker.

This trilogy is all about the Fermi Paradox - given the estimates on intelligent life in the galaxy, why can't we see any evidence of it?  Is there something stopping civilisations making that jump to interstellar travel?  Something robotic and scary perhaps?

The plot's great. I like the characters and the themes (redemption's a big one) are handled really well.  But where this book excels are in the science and the space battles.  Reynolds' day job is with the European Space Agency and he not only knows what he's talking about - he knows how to communicate it.  Travel between stars, different dimensions, messages from the future and the best way to rip apart a solar system are all dealt with in a realistic way. The military side of things is fantastic too, and the tactics and manoeuvres are really clever and exciting, but again rooted in reality.

There are a couple of odd jumps in the narrative - two thirds in and in the last chapter - where huge important chunks of the story are missed out.  Both sections would probably take up a novella to tell, and they sound like great stories, but it actually kind of worked.  We find out the bare bones of what happens, and the rest is left to our imagination.  I was reminded of the end of the Hobbit where we never see the big battle with Smaug at the end, but we imagine it was pretty cool.

One more book in this trilogy to go - Absolution Gap - and as often with these SF series, a couple of books which come before which I possibly should've read first - Chasm City and the Prefect.  Unlike Peter F Hamilton though, you don't need to read them first to really enjoy this series.  I've abandoned a few science fiction novels in recent months, but this has renewed my faith in the genre.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre

Or, What George Smiley Did Next.  This picks up where Tinker Tailor ends - Smiley's uncovered the mole, but the Circus has been deeply compromised.  Operations are being wound up across the world, and the cousins (CIA) are poised to fill the vacuum.  George is getting increasingly obsessive about Karla at Moscow Central, but is he ignoring other threats closer to home?

This is mostly set in the Far East, Hong Kong especially.  Another Karla operative is uncovered there and journalist and spy Jerry Westerby is called out of semi-retirement to investigate.

There's lots to love about this book.  The Circus stuff is great, especially seeing Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke in the film) back at the centre of things.  You've also got Westerby stirring things up in Hong Kong, and making dangerous detours through Cambodia at the height of the Khmer Rouge, and meeting crazy mercenaries in the jungles of Thailand.

But I didn't enjoy it as much as Tinker Tailor.  When I finished the first thing I did was look up wikipedia to find out what happened.  That's not a good sign.  That's partly because, having checked, the ending doesn't really make sense.  It's like the author just wanted everyone in the same place to make it more dramatic.  But I must take some of the blame for my confusion.

I was listening to this as a book on tape, and I suspect there were some chunks missing.  And I think with something as subtle as this, you really need to have it written down.  I remember quite often re-reading pages of Tinker Tailor to get it all clear in my head - here, it was just gone and I was on the next chapter.

I was also a bit disappointed by the direction it takes.  It's set up as Smiley taking the fight to Karla through his own moles, but that's not what happens.  Instead, you get Le Carre's growing detestation of America (or the CIA, to be fair) which has come to the fore in his more recent novels.

I'm getting a bit suspicious of his portrayal of women as well.  The main female character in this really is a pain in the neck.  The beautiful, tragic victim/whore we've seen a million times.  Then you've got Smiley's pathologically unfaithful wife Ann still lurking off camera.  Peter Guillam manages to seduce a member of the circus, but the only thing we find out about her is she starts off a bit frigid.  The only woman who really shines is Connie.  But then she's old, dotty, drunk and in a wheelchair.  One of the boys, really.

Still, I've got the concluding part of this semi-official trilogy to go - Smiley's People.   I'm not sure  where it's going to go after the end of this one, but I'm still looking forward to it.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Here's the good news.  If you're worried about being a psychopath, then you're not a psychopath.  Jon Ronson's more worried that he's an anti-psychopath: socially inept, low self esteem, and worried about things like whether he's the opposite of a psychopath.

The scary thing is it's not a mental illness.  Psychopaths aren't psychotic.  It's not a disorder listed in the "Big Book of Mentalism" the DSM IV.  It seems more like being a vampire, an android in Blade Runner or the Thing.  It's the old problem of consciousness.  How do you really know someone doesn't feel empathy if they've programmed themselves to act exactly as somebody with empathy would?

Ronson meets one prisoner in Broadmoor, who beat up a tramp and convinced the
authorities he was crazy by quoting Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet (which should do the trick.)  But the psychiatrists refuse to let him go, saying faking mental illness is something only a psychopath would do.  He meets a top US businessman who could be a psychopath.  Maybe he's just ruthless.  Where's the line? And how easy is it to abuse the test when you're in a position of power?

There's lots more here beside straight-up psychopathy - there's an examination of the growing medication of children, the hazards of psychological profiling when tracking killers, and the strange case of David Shayler...

He' s the former MI5 officer turned whistleblower who later cropped up as a 911 conspiracy theorist.  Then he went on TV to claim the planes which flew into the World Trade Centre were actually missiles overlayed with holograms of planes.  Then he became a transvestite......then he announced he was the son of God.....and interest has faded since then.

Ronson tracks that media interest, and finds the holographic plane theory was when Shayler peaked - that's when he was the right kind of mad.  Too much becomes banal.  The subtitle of this book is "A Journey through the Madness Industry" and the media, along with Ronson himself, are part of that industry.  There's money in madness, as long as it's the right kind.  Psychopaths, for instance.  They look just like you and me, but underneath they're very different.  What could be more fascinating?

This is a great read - accessible, thought-provoking and unusual - and my first book on Kindle.  I'm liking it a lot.  Very easy on the eyes, the forward and back buttons are intuitive, it's light and it fits in my pocket.  I bought this book for under a fiver and downloaded it in 2 minutes.  Another source has has meant even more than my usual backlog of half-read books, so I'll do another round-up soon.