Friday, 21 December 2012

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

I probably haven't had as much fun reading since childhood as I had reading Stephenson's Baroque cycle - Quicksilver, the Confusion and System of the World - a few years back.  It's a huge and ambitious epic set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, taking in science, alchemy, cryptography, politics, exploration and piracy and laced throughout with wit, adventure and nerdy erudition.  His sci-fi monastic tome Anathem is very different but fantastic as well.  And his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, although highly regarded in the genre, is one of the worst books I've ever read.  Really terrible.  REAMDE is certainly no-where near as bad as that, but I wouldn't call it a success.

It starts off really well - the main character is Richard Forthrast, a former cannabis smuggler who's now in charge of the next generation of online games called T'Rain, which appears to be played by a good third of the population of the world.  You get to meet some of his strange family and colleagues and various mysteries and secrets are alluded to. It sort of feels like the begining of one of Ian Banks' family sagas, but with the potential to be even richer, because the virtual world of T'Rain is also so well imagined and thought out.

However it takes a very strange turn.  A couple of strange turns actually. The title refers to a virus which is being used to extort money from players.  This isn't what the story is about, but it does trigger an unpleasant encounter with some Russian gangsters, and then an even more random encounter with some even more unpleasant customers.  There's globetrotting, shootouts, explosions, crash landings, murders - even boondocking in the car parks of Wall Marts like my folks do.  And I hate to be the one to complain like this - but this isn't the book I was looking for.

I think I was mainly disappointed to have Forthrast basically dumped as the main character for much of the book.  What I especially liked was the it looked at his day to day working life.  It showed some of the problems he faced, and who he talked to to sort them out.  You rarely get a novel about a businessman and entrepreneur like this without a deep veneer of sneer.  I wanted more of this, but instead I got very detailed - and very well done - action scenes on the other side of the world.  Except I didn't need all that to be interested in the characters - in fact it felt like a distraction.

I don't know - it's definitely a pretty good thriller, and I know how unfair it is to criticise a book for what it's not rather than what it is.  And it's a hell of a lot better than Snow Crash.  It's just I know Stephenson can write books which are among my favourites of all time, and this is just adequate.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Alan Moore does Cthulhu?  Well I'm hardly going to say no to this...

It's set in the modern day.  Kind of.  An FBI investigator is working undercover to find a link between very similar murders carried out by totally different people.  And he unearths some stuff which man was not meant to know.  Then it follows two other investigators, who find out some more stuff man was not meant to know.  Or, more specifically, stuff which woman really wasn't meant to know.

Fans of Lovecraft will enjoy all the references - a punk band called the Ulthar Cats for instance, with a female lead singer called Randolph Carter.  But it's not just a retread of the old mythos: Moore puts his own distinctive stamp on it.  Which, of course, means lots of kinky sex.  Not HP's style, but the kinkyness did always peek out from behind the prudishness.   There's also a lot of racism addressed here - another allusion to Lovecraft's strange outlook on the world.

It's fairly short this, but certainly worth reading.  The section with the Dagon cultists is especially powerful I thought, but not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.  I'd like to see Moore do a bit more with this  - he knows why Lovecraft is still important to people today, and he also knows how to take it forward and make it something new.  Burrows also does a great job with the illustrations: some nice big crazy tableaux, and some nasty pornography.  Good job all round!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Hide and Seek by Jack Ketchum

Still got a bit of a logjam, so I'd better keep churning these out.  This is a pretty short horror novel, and I've been looking out for this guy Ketchum ever since I saw The Woman at Frightfest 2011.  This book isn't as good as that (few things are) but it's still got plenty going for it.

It's set in Maine - familiar enough territory for horror fans - sometime in the 70s or 80s.  It's narrated by Dan, a young man working a blue collar job who falls in with some rich students his own age.  He falls hard for one of them - Casey - who's messed up and likes taking risks.  They shoplift caviar and go skinny dipping, before Casey convinces them all to play a game of hide and seek in an old house where something creepy happened a few years before.  Great idea.

What works really well is the relationship between the characters, and Dan's narration.  He's very much like a film noir character who knows full well the dame is trouble but just can't help himself.  The whole group has a very unusual but convincing dynamic, which of course is just how a novel like this should be - make you care about the people before turning the screws.  Right out the Stephen King handbook.

Fans of The Woman will find some of the same motifs here, but those would constitute spoilers.  My only criticism is the great set up and the horror towards the end don't really seem to gel.  When you've painted the characters so well, I was expecting a bit more from the shocking denoument.

This is my second download on Audible, after the King one with the stupid date.  Enjoying it so far, pretty easy to use and a good selection.  The reading's been good as well.  I find it tough to listen to music as I get older, so this kind of thing is perfect for long car journeys.  Unfortunately it means I'm now generally on three books at a time - paper, kindle and audio.  Which is why I need to keep rattling these reviews out.

Monday, 3 December 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Possibly the most annoying book title I've ever seen.  Even the correct date would be bad enough - but the 11th of Twentytember 1963?  You try stopping the assassination of John F Kennedy on a ludicrous date like that - see how far you get!

Luckily the rest of the book is great.  It's a simple enough premise - man goes back in time to try and save JFK - but the attention to detail makes it work.  It all starts with a cracking idea - how can a local diner in Maine make such cheap burgers?  Obviously, it's because the owner has a portal to an exact time and place in 1958 out back, so every week he goes and buys the same bunch of mince for a few dollars, takes it back to the present and cooks it up.  For years the customers have been eating the same meat over and over again!  I love it - banal and mindblowing.

Here are the rules - the changes you make in the past affect the present; you can stay as long as you want but when you come back through the portal you've only been gone two minutes; and every time you go back through the portal it resets everything.  You're very aware that every time the hero's doing something in the past, he can always go back and change it.  And if, for instance, he's saved someone's life on a previous visit, he has to go and do it again the next time.  Or he can take a short cut.  This all works really well, especially because of another rule the hero discovers - history doesn't want to be changed.

Clearly King's done a lot of research about Lee Harvey Oswald in this book, and it reminded me a lot of Normal Mailer's Oswald's Tale, which turns out to be one of the main sources.  But before we get to all that, there's a little something fun for the die-hard Steven King fan - a return to Derry, home of Pennywise the Spiderclown.  If anything the feeling of dread in that city is even more pronounced in this book than in It.  This section could easily feel forced, but it's really well handled and possibly my favourite bit.

And with all this going on, it's something of a surprise to discover that at its core, this book is a romance.  The relationship between the time traveller and a teacher he meets in the 60s is well portrayed, so you start caring about these people's lives and futures.  Which I suppose is the real secret to Steven King's success, but it works particularly well here.

And I'm not going to give away any spoilers, but the ending is also good - plausible and yet original.  Good to see King can still knock it out of the park when he wants to.

Monday, 26 November 2012

No One Left to Lie To by Christopher Hitchens

My apologies for the hiatus in blogging, and more apologies for what will surely be a perfunctory and ill-remembered review.

This is a pretty short but action packed phillipic against one William Jefferson Clinton by the Hitchens on the left, Christopher.  The one who has nice things to say about Trotsky and Paul Wolfowitz, but not Mother Theresa or, indeed, Bill Clinton.

There's a couple of main thrusts in this hatchet job - if you can thrust with a hatchet.  One is that Clinton's a hypocrite.  He appeals to the downtrodden as a folksy man of the people, but always sides with the powerful and rich.  This is the famous tactic of triangulation, or what Blair called the Third Way.  Also known as fake left, go right.

I suppose this seems like a perennial complaint of the left against Democratic presidents - Obama certainly, unless you believe the bonkers idea that he's any kind of socialist.  But for some time before Clinton, Democrats were genuinely different from Republicans.  People like Jimmy Carter, or George McGovern.  Actual liberals, and more arguably actual socialists than the current incumbent.  Oh, and as well as being a secret right-winger, Hitchens also suspects Clinton of being racist when it suited him as governer of Arkansas.  Obviously, this was before Toni Morrison bizarrely hailed him as "our first black president."

The second thrust is that Clinton used military action to distract people from more troublesome issues - which I'll get to next.  It does seem like the bombing, without warning, of a medicine factory in Sudan was strangely timed around the Lewinsky revelations, and on the flimsiest of evidence which fell down in a matter of days.  He also puts forward evidence that he only ever took action against Saddam Hussein when it helped him politically.

So, all these are questions of character in Hitchens' book, which brings us to the one thing Clinton will be remembered for - the women.  Supporters of the Democrats urged us all to seperate a man's private indiscretions from his public duty.  But is it really okay that the most powerful man in the world is seducing young interns in the Oval Office?  Or that women's characters are then assassinated by "White House sources" when it looks like they might break cover?  Where are this man's morals, asks Hitchens?  And that's before you get into the real raw meat of this book - the chapter entitled "Is there a Rapist in the Oval Office?"  which looks, not only at the Juanita Broddrick allegations, but also claims from other unnamed women who say they've been too afraid to come forward.

We'll never get to the bottom of all that, I'm sure, but I think it's fair to see Clinton has been less than a gentlemen where women are concerned.  Should that matter?  Well, Hitchens does link it directly to his kneejerk military action when confronted by these allegations.  And he suggests that a man who has no sense of right and wrong in private matters also can't be trusted to do the right thing in matters of policy.

It has made me think about what Democratic presidents can get away with, and the current Obama administration: more extrajudicial killings, more drone strikes, Guantanamo still open despite promises to close it down, and the National Defence Authorisation Act which critics say give the US government the right to detain any citizen without charge for any length of time.  Now that's triangulation!  Clinton's lesson to Democrats has clearly been well learned.  Just a pity we won't get the Christopher Hitchens hatchet job on Obama.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Violent Professional by Kier-La Janisse

The definitive book on the films of Italian screen icon Luciano Rossi.  And yes "icon" is definitely pushing it.  He's more like the Kurtwood Smith of Spaghetti Westerns; the JT Walsh of Poliziotteschi; or the Harry Dean Stanton of Giallo.  Him out of thingy, except in crazy Italian genre films.

In fact, Rossi's so unknown the author can't even find out if he's alive at first.  No-one in the industry seems to know what happens to him.  When she finally does track him down to the town he grew up in, it turns out he died a few months earlier.  His last known movie is 1987's Long Live the Lady, and the author can't even tell which one is Rossi.  Sad, but also surprising, considering his unusual appearance.  Blond, progressively hunchbacked and generally creepy.  But he's not without his admirers, not least Janisse herself, who awards each of his movies stars for how good he is in them, and hearts for how cute he looks.

So, this is a love letter to a small time actor in cheap Italian b-movies - how cool and romantic is that?  And it's beautifully put together, with tonnes of amazing stills and posters.  It's also a revealing look at the film industry there in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  From sword and sandals to spy thrillers; from westerns to horror films and from crime movies to Nazi films (some genres were more peculiar to Italy than others.)  Janisse has a love of this kind of trash, as do I, and her movie reviews are always interesting and funny.  And it's given me a long list of movies I really want to see.

Just a short review this, so I'll end with some of my favourite movie titles of Rossi's films:  Get the Coffin Ready; Run, Man, Run; Django the Bastard; Five into Hell; Heads I Kill....Tails You're Dead; Death Walks in High Heels (giallo); So Naked, So Dead (well done if you guessed giallo again); Free Hand for a Tough Cop; SS Experiment Camp (nazi movie); Red Nights of the Gestapo (yes! Also nazi.)

Good luck getting any of those on Blu Ray.  And thanks to the Frightfest people for giving this book out free last year - much better than a free book about a forgotten actor in a lot of probably godawful foreign movies has any right to be.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Okay, the "golden age" of Soviet Russia might be pushing it.  But, coming off the back of Stalin, the Khrushchev era was pretty rosy in comparison.  This book's about the new hopes and dreams people had at that time in Russia, and what went wrong.

First off, it's not really a history - it's mostly a collection of short stories, featuring both fictional and real characters.  

You get Khrushchev's thoughts as he visits New York, filled with confidence about a fair and honest competition between socialism and capitalism.  Young, confused party workers visiting the American Exhibition in Moscow.  Starry eyed idealists in a Siberian academy-town who finally think they've got a model for a command economy which actually works.  Black marketeers who walk a profitable but dangerous line between the command economy and the real economy.  Factory owners who wreck their own machines because of the twisted logic of communism.  And factory workers being massacred when everyone's best laid plans have unintended consequences.

I enjoyed all short stories, and some have a real touch of magic.  Some of the economics stuff tends to the abstruse, but the passion of those involved is infectious.  It's a great look into a Soviet Union we never really see.  What's interesting especially is what isn't covered in much detail - the space race;  Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalin.  That's more for the West - the Russians had different priorities at the time.

In between the stories are small sections of more straightforward history - again, from an engaging and unusual viewpoint - and tiny snippets of Russian fairytales, which seem central to the book:  impossible tasks, capricious kings, and wishes which turn into nightmares.

There's a lot of hope in this book, but with massive lorry loads of melancholy.  Was it doomed to failure?  I reckon so.  Even if you had the perfect system, with banks of quantum computers calculating everyone's needs and abilities, it still needs the iron fist.  You can't risk the people messing up your perfect system.

I'm pretty sure I had more to say on this book, but I must've finished it a month ago so it's starting to fade.  A big recommendation though if you're into communists, Russians and beautiful short stories.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

Another big science fiction trilogy in the bag!  This is the conclusion to Revelation Space and Redemption Ark, and it's a bit of a funny end.  It's fantastic, certainly, but curiously not entirely satisfying.

Here are the good bits - the main protaganists change again in this one, and I'm glad to say the focus is now on the two most interesting characters.  Scorpio, the hyperpig bandit turned good, and the mysterious and ancient Captain John Brannigan/Nostalgia for Infinity.  This is a masterstroke by Reynolds.  All sci-fi books should have enigmatic and depressed spaceships and borderline psychotic farm animals front and centre.

Scorpio's a great lead because he's your Han Solo Mal Reynolds straightforward gung ho type, which is always fun when done right.  Plus, he seems a lot more human, ironically, than people like Sylveste or Clavain.  Getting the know the Captain is even more enjoyable.  There's one sequence when he morphs through his own history - from an astronaut on Mars which we would recognise, through increasingly bizarre sections of his history.  You begin to appreciate the depth of the world that's been put together by the author, and understand Brannigan's growing disconnectedness with the rest of humanity.  Both characters have really good arcs in this book, and one particular bit at the end actually had me punching the air in joy.

I also loved the new setting for much of this book - an obscure moon which is dominated by a strange religion.  There are massive mobile cathedrals which creep around the world, so as always to keep the gas giant they're circling in sight.  It's very gothic and steampunky with lots of intruige and world exploring.  Quite different to the rest of the series, but it complements it well, although I suspect this may have been intended as a plot for an entirely different novel.

There are a few niggles throughout the book -  a superhuman baby who's only really there to move the plot along.  Pretty clunky I thought. And I was a little confused by one character arc - someone who's being set up as a new leader for the future.  It's handled really well, but just seems to fizzle out.  But it's the ending which doesn't sit right with me.  It's one of those when you realise you're 97% through the book (you can be more exact about these things on the kindle) but there's simply no way everything's going to tied together satisfactorily.  Instead the author throws a whole bunch of new things at us and takes a sideways step.  It's certainly clever, but I can't be the only one who felt just a little shortchanged.  Anyway, can't grumble too much.  A brilliant, exciting and thought provoking end to the trilogy.

Right, I've been busy and my internet was down for a bit, so I have three other books I've already finished which I need to get reviews done of soon before they disappear into the aether - a strange quasi-history of the golden age of Soviet Russia, a book on an unknown legend of Italian cinema and a brutal hatchet job on a widely admired political figure.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Life by Keith Richards

Here's an interesting fact about Keith Richards - he may not even be able to play the guitar at all!  He does this thing called open tuning, so the strings are naturally set to G without fingers. It's the only way you can make Start Me Up and Brown Sugar sounds right, apparently.  And he only uses five strings, rather than six.  It sounds more Guitar Hero than guitar hero to me, but who am I to judge.  All I can play on the guitar is Patience.  And not the Guns and Roses one...

Keith's writing has an easy and seductive flow, and he's got a robust sense of irony and the poet's eye for picking out telling details.  He manages to portray himself as the the sensible, down to earth one in the Rolling Stones, even when he's sleeping with a gun under his pillow, and can only be woken by his seven year old son Marlon in case he opens fire.

So, about those other Stones.  Brian Jones doesn't come out looking good at all.  Manipulative, massively egocentric, out of control and a woman beater.  Keith steals Anita Pallenberg from him (also portrayed in this book).  Bill Wyman - likes 'em young, boring, but once went and bought heroin for Keith, so a point in his favour.  Charlie Watts he has a lot of respect for, and was the one member of the band they really had to fight for in their younger days.  And he gets on well with Ronnie Wood too because they've both got that gypsy/pirate thing going on.

His relationship with Mick Jagger is a bigger issue.  Keith talks fondly of them sitting down, writing songs together, and he rates Mick as one of the best harmonica players in the world.  Says it's the one time he's not striking a pose onstage.  That's his problem with Mick - he always wants to be something else, rather than Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, which Keith feels should be enough for anyone.  His failed attempt at a solo career in the 80s created a pretty big rift between them.  And, of course, the knighthood from Tony Blair is roundly mocked.  He's still got plenty of respect for him, but it's striking that they haven't been to each other's dressing rooms for decades.

A lot of this book is about the drugs, and it's great on the exhausting and humiliating efforts to get enough gear just to make you feel normal.  He remembers how, from his youngest days, he was never knocked out by illness.  You just man up and keep going.  He took that businesslike approach to taking huge amounts of drugs, and still turning up on stage.  Fair enough, he used to regularly vomit behind the speakers, but he says they all did that.  Plenty of others in his life, however, didn't have his stamina, and he tends to skirt the issue of how much responsibility he should feel in introducing these casualties to a lifestyle only he can really maintain.

Thankfully there's also plenty about music - his passion for the blues shines off the page.  As well as how to tune your guitar, there's how he comes up with riffs, meetings with his musical heroes (Chuck Berry, predictably, is a big disappointment), on-stage mishaps, like a firework burning right through his finger on stage as they open with Start Me Up.  He doesn't even stop, but of course he's got that open tuning, so it's not that impressive.  What's also really interesting is who's playing what on those early tracks: on Play with Fire for instance, that's Phil Spector on bass.  And the harpsichord isn't Brian Jones, it's Frank Nitzche - the man who really invented the Wall of Sound!  He also played piano on Paint it Black.  Well....I thought it was interesting.

A very easy and entertaining read this - rock and roll, drugs and sex.  In that order.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Power Play by Gavin Esler


The good thing about listening to books on tape is that no matter how godawful the book is, you can generally push through to the end.  Unless it's the Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, which unaccountably won the Booker Prize, and even more unaccountably is supposed to be a 'comic novel.'

I doubt Power Play's won any literary awards, and it is rubbish - but at least it's readable enough.  Listenable, anyway.  The hero is the British ambassador to the USA.  There's a very powerful and hawkish Vice President who needs to be massaged by the British.  They take him on a grouse shoot in Aberdeenshire, where he vanishes.  Cue pandemonium.

A pretty nice set up then - lots of potential.  Missing VP on British soil!  What's happened to him?  Kidnapped by jihadists?  Gone nuts?  Is it all a set up to justify another war?

Except the book fails utterly.  Problem one is this Vice President is clearly just Dick Cheney, with maybe a touch of Rumsfeld thrown in.  He even has a tendency to accidently shoot his friends on hunting trips!  A few years on, and we've got nice cuddly Obama pouring over his kill list and no-one bats an eye.  A carbon copy Cheney already seems cheap, trite and old hat.  Here's a theory - Esler's a journalist, and journalists don't have any imagination.  We report what we see, and maybe twist it a bit.  Don't ask us to write a novel.

But that's not the big problem.  Here's the story:  the VP disappears.  Then tapes of him getting Abu Graibed are released on the internet - exciting!  Then he's found chained up naked on a beach on Norfolk, driven half mad.  This is where the big SPOILER comes in. We never find out what happened to him...

Aha!!!  Did you see what he did there?  Not everything's got an answer - not everything comes with all the loose ends tied up in a bow - the world's complicated etc etc etc.   Absolutely unforgiveable, and Esler's editor should probably be sent to Abu Graib for not sitting him down and saying - yes, very clever.  Now stop mucking about and finish the novel.

Just a couple of final quibbles.  Uncomfortable softcore BDSM.  No.  And I'd like to draw attention to one scene which only makes sense if the author was doing it as a bet.  The ambassador makes a speech where we've been expressly told Mike Myers is in the audience.  A fairly feeble joke is made (though I think it's supposed to be witty) and Myers says "groovy baby" to the room.  In, and I quote "his best Austin Powers accent."

This makes no sense whatsoever in the context of scene, or in the book as a whole.  Is this the kind of thing Mike Myers would do?  Neither Myers nor Austin Powers had been referenced in the speech, I should point out.  That would make some kind of sense.

This scene really, really bothers me and I've been trying to figure it out ever since.  I've actually found it online here so if anyone can figure out what's going please let me know.  Start on page 81.  Thanks in advance.

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Fall of the West by Adrian Goldsworthy

"...instead of inquiring how the Roman Empire was destroyed," asked Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall, "we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long."  This recent but nicely old-fashioned history of the fall of Rome certainly bears this out: a litany of no-marks and nutters in charge; endemic civil wars and an institutionally terrible government.  Gibbon thought the sheer size of the Empire brought the whole thing down - Goldsworthy reckons the momentum was the only thing keeping it going.

It starts off looking at the 3rd century - a time of crisis, with frequent assassinations, different bands of troops proclaiming new emperors all over the shop, and constant fighting.  In the 4th century, things calm down a bit with a couple of strong emperors who know what they're doing - Diocletian sets up a tetrachy (four emperors!) which only works for as long he's the one in charge of them.  More civil war - then the rise of Constantine who turns the Empire Christian and, less famously, murders his wife by locking her in a sauna until she chokes to death.  The 5th century is when it all comes crashing down.  Attila the Hun, Vandals and assorted Goths.  The Empire carries on at Constantinople for a thousand more years after this.  But it's not the same - real Romans don't speak Greek!

Goldsworthy has a bit of a grumble about all the different theories historians have put forward about what went wrong - population decline, disease, movements of peoples outside the Empire.   All things which are very hard to discern in the historical record.  What they tend to ignore is what we what we do know about - interminable civil wars, which ran for most of these three centuries.  For Roman soldiers the big enemy was always other Roman soldiers. This was a colossal drain on resources, and would also have been devastating for Roman citizens living in the path of these warring armies.  And barbarians living on other side of the Danube or wherever couldn't fail to notice when all the legionnaires had abandoned the border to fight other legionnaires...

It's important to note that these emperors weren't fighting for a cause - Romans didn't really have any ideologies.  It wasn't even as if it was, say, a Christian emperor versus a pagan emperor.  They were fighting only for power and survival.  In previous centuries emperors had all come from the senatorial class.  To stop potential claimants, the senate was increasingly sidelined to make emperors more secure.  In fact, the opposite happened - lower class equestrians started grabbing the throne anyway and the pool of potential usurpers grew exponentially.  In the end any military officer who could sit straight on a horse had the chance to become a living god.  For a short time, anyway.

I've mentioned it in respect to this trash, but the original sin of the Roman Empire was succession.  Augustus never set up a good system for who becomes next emperor.  British history is obsessed with succession  - arguments about who's descended from whom, who's got a strong claim to the throne, who's the rightful heir.  It all might seem pretty ridiculous to us, but a very likely alternative would've been the anarchy and violence of the late Roman Empire.

Here's an interesting aside.  Like the popes, emperors grew sick of Rome.  Most of them in this period never even saw the Eternal City - they were either constantly on campaign (mostly against other Romans, of course) or holed up in Milan or, increasingly, Ravenna.  Poor old Rome - it became a shabby backwater in its own dying Empire.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Embassytown by China Mieville

This is everything science fiction should be - epic, dramatic, awe inspiring and mind blowing.  I liked China's The City and the City, but it wasn't without its flaws.  And I didn't even get all the way through The Kraken and Perdido Street Station - both were good, but too sprawling and unfocused for my tastes.  Embassytown is the real deal.

I'm not going to give too much away about the plot, because much of the enjoyment comes from the unexpected twists and mounting drama.  It's set very far in the future, and a colony of humans has been on an alien planet for generations, in a small enclave called Embassytown.  The aliens are the Arekei and are treated with the utmost respect and called Hosts.  They in return supply living biological technology from vehicles to homes and power stations.  All very weird and interesting, but it's the communication between the species which is the real focus of the book.

The Arekei cannot lie, and this throws up some fascinating ideas.  For instance, some of the humans have become living similes, so the aliens can use them as rhetorical devices.  The protagonist Avice is "the girl who was hurt in the dark, and who ate what was given to her."   This had to literally happen to her, so she could become a simile.  It doesn't make a lot of sense to humans, but the Hosts talk about her in different ways, and this search for nuance and, ultimately, lies, becomes hugely important to everyone on the planet.

This is all a bit hard to get your head around sometimes, but I found it hugely rewarding.  I saw echoes of some of the best sci-fi here: Lem and the Brothers Strugatsky in its convincing portrayal of the deeply alien;  A Fire Upon the Deep and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card in the way it looks at communication between humans and the deeply alien; Dune and Asimov's Foundation series in its epic scope, its portryal of earth-shattering changes in society, and even in the rise of ambiguous prophets and gods.

Despite all this, it's not overly long and there's always a clear dramatic focus to keep you going.  It's also intelligent and literary, and the writing and imagery are beautiful and affecting.  This is a huge recommendation from me - the best book I've read all year.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Johnson's Life of London by Boris Johnson

An odd book, but enjoyable.  The first thing I noticed was the bald faced lie on the cover.  A book on tape, read by the author.  Well, I know what Boris sounds like.  He may have read the first cd, a chapter in the middle, and a bit at the end (all with the sound of the photocopier in the background, amusingly), but the rest was written by someone defiantly not Boris, and definitely not credited.  I hope his Mayorship doesn't bring this kind slap-dash, half-baked approach to running one of the greatest cities in history.

This is - like Boris - a very self consciously old-fashioned yet modern history.  Most of it is portraits of the great men and women who've made their mark on London through the ages.  Boudicca, Chaucer, Dick Whittington, Shakespeare, Churchill and......Keith Richards?  Not that I've got a problem with an old school "great men" historical approach, and certainly not that I've got a problem with Keith Richards, but this is an affectation too far for me.

It's sometimes a bit too much like Boris setting out his political stall.  On one hand he gives a staunch defence of arch-conservative Samuel Johnson, but he also shows great affection for the radical rabble-rouser and freedom nut John Wilkes.  Mary Seacole (aka the Black Florence Nightingale) is a figure of annoyance to some on the right (and left) who see her as a PC icon, who's come to dominate the Crimean War in the classroom, but Boris gives sterling support to her rehabilitation.  The Churchill chapter lists his many faults, mistakes, prejudices but concludes that, despite all this evidence, he was fantastic.  Again, not there's anything wrong with any of this, but there's more than a touch of inclusive, touchy feely Vote for Borisism about it all.  This becomes ridiculous when he starts talking about a new airport for London and - good grief - Routemaster buses.  

The bits I liked best were a step away from politics, like the fitting tribute to the natural philosopher, architect and drawer of fleas Robert Hooke, who appears to have been the only man more eccentric and misanthropic than his rival Isaac Newton.  The highlight for me, though, was the passage on the life and paintings of J.W. Turner, someone I've previously known next to nothing about despite loving his pictures.  Turns out he was another weirdo.

So, it's kind of all over the place this book - more a collection of essays with London as its theme than a history.  Entertaining and informative though, which is always a plus.  I just wish Boris had read the whole damn thing.  Which isn't something you'd say about Ken.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter

Probably the most harrowing book I've ever read - and I've read Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang.

45 million now looks like the best estimate for how many people died between 1958 and 1962.  Much of Dikötter's research comes from Chinese archives never before seen by historians, so I tend to trust his judgement on that.   This makes it almost certainly the worst man made disaster in history.

It was caused by a series of stupid and evil decisions.  Mao decided in the late fifties (as part of an internal party struggle, as was so often the case) that China needed to modernise fast.  Overtake Britain in just a few years, in fact.  He did this by destroying almost half of the homes in the country, and putting everyone in communes, where everything was controlled by party cadres, and troublemakers were banned from the canteen.  He forced millions to build dams and take part in irrigation projects - generally in the wrong places, with disastrous consequences.  He also championed new, more socialist agricultural practise from Soviet idiot Trefim Lysenko, which ruined the crops.

Then he told everyone to make steel in the backyards of their communes.  Oh, and he declared war on sparrows for eating grain, and drove them to near exinction in China.  Which caused a plague of locusts.  It's still hard to tell how much of this regime was evil, how much insane and how much just stupid.

At the same time, the state took a higher and higher proportion of the grain being grown.  Part of it went to feed the cities, where there was often so much it was left to rot.  People even took part in eating contests - 2kg of rice in a single sitting was considered a good effort.  But an even larger proportion was exported - to Russia, Eastern Europe, Cuba and Africa.  Showing a successful China off to the world was much more important to Mao than the deaths of millions.

What really shook me about this famine was the cruelty, rather than the stupidity.  The communes became death camps with party officials regularly murdering people.  There are so many heartbreaking stories - from the 8 year old boy who was beaten to death for stealing a handful of rice, to the parents who were forced to bury their 12 year old child alive for a similar crime.  A mother commits suicide, so her young children are bricked up in their home to starve to death.  The violence seems to have become more and more systemic as people got more desperate, and those in charge learned exactly how much power they really had.

Other stories are now seared in my memory.  Corpses were dug up and eaten - the heart was popular because it rotted more slowly than other parts.   People eating mud from riverbanks to fill their bellies, then having to dig out each others' faeces because of the chronic constipation.  I also now know more about prolapsed uteri than most people would ever want to.

In a secret meeting in 1959 Mao told the other party leaders that it was better to let half the people die, so the other half could live.  This at a time when officially a third, but in fact a great deal more, of the grain was being sent to other countries, who didn't really want it in the first place.

Mao learnt his lesson from the Great Famine.  He was sidelined for a few years and returned with the Cultural Revolution.  It's easier to see now how he managed to instigate such hatred from the people towards party officials, and indeed anyone in power.  All that anger and frustration and hatred which should've spelled the end of Mao was instead channeled towards those party cadres who'd been carrying out his policies just a few years before.  And at the end the disgusting psychopath was more powerful than ever before.

Not the easiest of reads this, what with all the unthinkable horror and reams of statististics, but it's easier as a book on tape and I recommend it highly.  It shows us exactly what happens when society is ripped down to its most basic elements and rebuilt by thugs.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis

More alternate history!  This one's got more Catholics and fewer testicles.

It's set in 1976 and the Pope's in pretty much complete control of the world, aside from some pesky New Englanders and Mohametans.  The Reformation never happened.  Catherine of Aragon dutifully produced a boy for Henry VIII and Martin Luther became Pope Germania I.  There's a Pax Romana across Europe and beyond: no world wars, no nazis, no communists.  And no electricity.

The technology I loved in this book, and that wasn't something I was expecting from a more literary writer like Amis.  Diesel is king.  Petrol engines never caught up, because they use sparkplugs, and electricity is considered pretty suspect by the church.  But the industrial revolution still appears to be in full steam, so to speak.   All railways lead to Rome, and there's a direct link from London, over the channel, over the top of the Alps and down through the Papal States.  And the Yanks at least have airships, so you know for sure this is early steampunk.

Another aspect of this book works wonderfully - historical figures from our world exist here, but in very different aspects.  At the start we meet two cardinals of the "Holy Office" (Inquisition) named Beria and Himler.  Edgar Allan Poe was a great New Englander general, and had one of those airships named after him.  There's a well respected French Jesuit theologian called Jean Paul Sartre.  And two church heavies loom up half way through, called Foot and Redgrave - who in another reality would be well known left wing firebrands of the day.  I'm sure there are plenty more references I've missed.

The plot's about a young boy with the voice of an angel, and of course the authorities would like that voice to remain untouched for the greater glory of God.  By taking his knackers.  The boy Hubert is well portrayed and convincing, and the story really works.  It has a clear narrative drive, we learn a lot about the world, and it explores sexuality, art, power and rebellion without anything seeming forced.  I wasn't totally sure about a twist (literally) towards the end, but it didn't harm the book for me.

It hardly paints a rosy picture of the Church, but I saw this more of a satire on human nature and totalitarianism rather than Catholicism.  Any belief or political system, when unopposed, will tend to brutality and horror.  That's why Amis shows people like Himler and Beria flourishing.  When your system is in complete control, it doesn't really matter if you're a Nazi, a Bolshevik or a Cardinal.  In the end, you're just another thug.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Wake Up and Dream by Ian R Macleod

A shabby private eye gets mixed up with femmes fatales, dodgy doctors, sinister politicians and a buried secret in 1940s Hollywood.  Except this time round the detective is called Clark Gable - a failed actor from the almost forgotten era of the talkies, before the feelies changed everything.

This is a noir in a world with one big change from ours: the invention of a device which records emotions and auras, and can play them back to an audience.  It's supposed to have been introduced just a few years after the silent era came to an end, and like the earlier revolution it left a lot of one time stars on the scrapheap.  Humphrey Bogart makes a brief appearance as a boat captain for tourists, and the actress who ushered in the new era (the Al Jolson of the feelies) is Peg Entwistle.  I thought I recognised her name - in the real world she found fame by throwing herself from the top of the Hollywoodland sign.  I really liked these little touches.

It's also really successful in conjuring up a feeling of dread.  America's on the brink of full blown facism - the jews have been run out of the movie business and Klan feelies are the new big thing.  But what's really scary is the potential of feelies.  It's not really the movies - it's the adverts beforehand which give you a nasty taste of the future in this world.  Joy, lust, pride, hatred can be pumped directly into the brain.  It's already been shipped out to the Nazis to boost their rallies.  There's a real sense that this is describing the beginning of something amazing and horrible.

The plot starts out as a very nice mixture of Chandler and Philip K. Dick, although it sort of falls apart towards the end.  The one big mistake (minor spoiler) is going down the movie monster route towards the end.  If it wanted to capitalise on that dread, it could've gone all Videodrome for instance, rather than the end of Ang Lee's Hulk.

Pretty damn good otherwise, with big ideas carried through convincingly, though I should admit I only read it because I thought it was by Ken Macleod - he of the singularities and space communists.  And yet I probably enjoyed this more.

UPDATE: the only cover art I found for this book was pretty horrible because I think it's only available as an ebook, so I've replaced it with a nice picture of Clark Gable from a happier reality.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Hitch 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens

Not even I can live on Peter Hitchens alone (this one, or that one or his blog) so I thought it was time to give his late brother another whirl.

And in fact, there are a lot of similarities between PH and CH - both are fiercely independent and intelligent thinkers; both are equally contemptuous of received wisdom and neither are afraid to follow Keynes and change their minds when the facts change.  They both adore Orwell.  And I imagine the pair of them will infuriate many readers, although I find both to be wonderful and exhilarating writers.  Though I have to admit Christopher has the edge.

After a fairly conventional start (childhood, family, school, university) these memoirs become a lot more thematic.  The recent history of Iraq is examined in detail, as a way to explain why he opposed the first Gulf War but became a prominent cheerleader for the second.  His late discovery that he's a little bit jewish sparks an in-depth analysis on the tension between atheism and Jewishness, the history of Israel and Palestine and the horrible mistakes, injustices and hypocrisy on both sides.

Peter was a hardline Trotskyist back in the day before he become, well, what he is today.  Christopher had a similar past, but his journey has been more nuanced.  He fully accepts the seeds of Stalinism were in Leninism, but wonders what conditions allowed those seeds to grow - were there other seeds which could've taken root?  He still admires Trotsky (and Rosa Luxemburg) but admits the left has failed. 

His relationship with the USA is a useful way for him to examine this - not many socialists choose to take US citizenship, you'll notice.  He considers politicians from Kissinger to Clinton to be war criminals, but stands up for neo-con boogeyman Paul Wolfowitz.  His argument isn't that he's changed from a radical left-winger to a rabid right winger - it's the Left in general which has lost its moral compass.  His disgust is more than palpable after 911 when his former comrades can barely hide their delight in seeing the USA brought low by religiously inspired fascism.  If that isn't the kind of thing you should be smashing with all your power, what's the point of the Left any more?

There's plenty more here to enjoy aside from the politics: lots about literature and poetry; great character studies of friends like Martin Amis, the soul searching about his mother's suicide, and a wonderful account of what it was like to be a teenager filled with the spirit of 1968.  And no matter what meandering side streets you're being led down, that beautiful writing just carries you along.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club for girls.  Or transexuals, anyway.

The plot's about a model who's had her jaw shot off by persons unknown.  She teams up with a beautiful pre-op tranny called Brandy Alexander and her brain damaged former boyfriend, who may have been the one who shot her, and who is definitely gay.  They spend most of their time stealing and taking prescription drugs.  It ends in revenge, gunshots, fire and redemption.

This feels very much like a companion piece to Fight Club.  At the centre is a love/hate relationship between the nameless narrator and their glamorous and dangerous alter ego.   But it's the differences which make it interesting - it's all about the feminine rather than the masculine; in this it's the narrator who really knows what's going on (or thinks she does.)  And it's outrageously camp.  But in retrospect, so is Fight Club.

I did wonder when reading it whether it was self-consciously a female version of CP's more famous novel.  In fact, Invisible Monsters was the first book he wrote, so it's really quite an achievement. The narrative's nonlinear, and people change names, gender and personalities, but instead of being confusing it actually drives the story.  I also was really impressed by some of the less extravagant aspects.  I found the relationship between the narrator and Brandy really quite touching.  The way the narrator's parents cope with the death of their son is also funny and sad.

I think I did read this back in the day - or more likely two thirds of it - but it was well worth revisiting.  It was a book on tape, and I listened in one go on the long drive from Birmingham to Aberdeen.  Few better ways to spend a journey.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Demon Trap by Peter F Hamilton

My second top notch sci-fi police procedural in a month.  What are the chances?

Peter F Hamilton is of course the author of this cumbersome colossus and this brobdingnagian breezeblock but perhaps this is just what the doctor ordered - a Peter F novella!

It's the same world as the Void trilogy, set presumably thousands of years earlier, but featuring one of the many, many characters from those books - Paula Myo.  She had some great action scenes in those books, and I knew she was a feared and respected badass, but finally I've got an idea why.

Paula's a genetically engineered supercop, hardwired to always serve justice.  In fact, she's technically illegal everywhere but her home world, known as Huxley's Haven (TH or Aldous is left deliberately unsaid.)  She's investigating a terrorist attack against the most important families (again, familiar names from the Void books) and of course not all is what it seems, but the nicely unfolding plot turns on fantastic sci-fi ideas.  I especially like the use of wormholes - a train which goes from Paris to London to Sydney to the Moon in just a few hours - then you can catch another train to other solar systems.

It reminded me of how many great concepts there were in his longer books, but how as a whole they became a bit indigestible.  Clearly novellas like this are the way to go first.  Ideally one featuring each of the two or three dozen main characers of his longer books.

This is part of a new collection he's got out called Manhattan in Reverse, and I got this on a cheap kindle download.  I was particularly intrigued by the sound of one of the other stories called Watching Trees Grow, about the Roman Empire in space.  Then I realised I read it years ago, and it's just being re-released.  It's damn good as well though, so this collection gets a double recommendation from me.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I've always stuck up for the pigs - now I learn they're a bunch of dirty communists.  The ones on Animal Farm at least.  I like to think other farms around Britain were experimenting with other forms of government at the same time - social democracy, anarcho-capitalism and Islamic theocracy, though the latter is unlikely to be run by pigs.

This is one most of us will have read at school, and I remembered it pretty vividly.   Four legs good two legs bad; taking the old workhorse Boxer to the knackers' yard; the end when the pigs become indistinguishable from the greedy farmers.  But it's worth experiencing again when you know a bit more about Stalin and Orwell himself.

What really struck me was the faith the author has in socialism.  Burgess's 1985 made a big deal of how Orwell's was a very English socialism (Ingsoc!) and that's a major issue here.  The animal version of the Internationale is Beasts of England, which explicitly harks back to a golden age of proto-marxism in this green and pleasant land.  It's not just a direct metaphor for Russia under Stalin, it's also the dream of a strangely conservative communism at home.

I am not and have never been a member of the communist party.  To me it's always seemed self evidently evil and stupid, so it's interesting to get such a vicious denunciation of the Soviet Union from a staunch left winger writing at a time when Stalin was at the height of his powers, and the commies were actually our allies (the book was published in 1945.)  He must have been pretty brave.  His disgust is at how the high ideals of Marxism are twisted to become the same tyranny as before - they're not really communists any more.  But that makes the denounciation all the more bitter.

Here's one aspect I found especially intruiging - Napoleon holds late night drinking sessions with his pig cronies in the farm house (breaking at least two tenets of Animalism) which seem very close to Stalin's "parties" with Beria, Malenkov et al.  Were these drunken, terrifying parties common knowledge at the time, or is corruption just that obvious and banal.

This has piqued my interest not only in Orwell, but in left-wing infighting.  I'm keen to read Homage to Catalonia now, especially since a union rep in Aberdeen told me (with a touch of bitterness) about how he'd spied for MI5 during the Spanish Civil War, and sold out the real communists.  Who knows, but I get the feeling that Orwell's moral compass is probably more reliable than most.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

And here was me thinking of putting the science fiction on the back burner in 2012.  I'm glad I didn't - this is another stone cold cracker from Reynolds.

It's the Revelation Space universe again, but a couple of hundred years earlier, before the Melding Plague made everything all goth.  What will become the Rust Band around the planet of Yellowstone is still the (unfortunately named) Glitter Band, made up of ten thousand habitats containing millions of people, but with wildly different ways of living.  There are the Voluntary Tyrannies, the Permanant Vegetative State, and places where people fly about on winged horses.

This is all great, but what I really liked was the way it was all set out - this is a police procedural.  The Prefect, called Dreyfus, is part of Panoply which has great power in the Band, but limited jurisdiction.  In fact, they mainly investigate vote rigging and ensure access to the sci-fi internet, known as abstraction.  And they've got weapons/robots called whiphounds which are pretty cool.

So you've got the classic tropes of a detective thriller (two seperate cases - could they be connected?) on top of a fantastically inventive and brilliantly realised world.   And, in a nod to Revelation Space itself, you've got two mysterious and powerful non-human entities casting long shadows over everything.  It's plotted meticulously, with twists, betrayals, uncovered secrets, confrontations and denouments all used with the skill of a master.  And to give you a flavour of what's going on - in one section Dreyfus is plotting to decapitate his boss.....but he's not allowed to tell her.  I never saw that in Taggart.

I think if you're looking for a first book in this universe to read, this is the one to go for.  It's fairly straightforward, confined to one system, and self contained, but you still get a real taste for the world, and you learn enough about the different metasocieties - the Demarchists, the Ultras and the Conjoiners - to whet your appetite for more.  Reynolds has a new book out - hurray - but it's not Revelation Space - boo - and in fact looks like the first in a new series - double boo.  He should wise up before someone goes all Kathy Bates on him.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Well, I guess by now you're feeling the full effect of that Hunger Games hype.  I finished the second book last week, but since there's not a hell of a lot I can say without giving you SPOILERS, I thought I'd wait until the movie was out and give it a compare.

First up then - Catching Fire.  I guess it's not too much of a SPOILER to suggest that maybe Katniss Everdeen survives the Hunger Games.  And The Man isn't too happy about the way she did it.  The first half deals with the victory tour of the districts - how the events of the first book have sparked the beginnings of revolution, and how the Capitol deals with it.  The second half and we're back in the Hunger Games, but this time with a different arena, different traps and - of course - different contestants.

The good news is it's still really good.  Perhaps the first half is a little unfocussed, but I preferred how the Games panned out in this one, especially when it looks at how unrest in the outside world changes what happens in the arena.  It kept me guessing throughout about what would happen next and it sets everything up nicely for the (inevitably disappointing?) final book.

So...the film version of the Hunger Games.  It's all in there, although the survivalist aspect is taken down a notch.  The actors are good - Jennifer Lawrence in particular, but Woody Harrelson also reins it in as their drunken mentor Haymitch, who survived the games years ago.  Also props to Lenny Kravitz for looking great in gold eyeliner, Stanley Tucci for having big blue hair in a ponytail, and Wes Bentley for rocking some first class facial beardage.  The bizarre fashions in the decadent Capital are really well portrayed, and I liked how the focus often shifted to behind the TV cameras, rather than staying on Katniss all the time.

But the big failing is the action.  I don't mind them taking out some blood spurts to get it a 12A or whatever, but it's succumbed to the post-action disease which seems to be the law in Hollywod these days - "all action should be filmed by shaking a camera six inches from people's faces."  Awful, but still worth watching.  Worth reading even more.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy

The end of the Roman Republic is one of my little obsessions.  I blame Rubicon by Tom Holland for so effectively bringing to life such characters as Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Cato, Cicero.  Giants all, but the biggest and most fascinating is Julius Caesar.  The perfect product of the Republican system, and the man who destroyed it.

An early anecdote to highlight his coolness - in his teens Caesar was taken hostage by pirates.  He became firm friends with them, urging them to raise the ransom and promising to come back and kill them all when he was released.  My, how they laughed....

He rose to power in a pretty standard fashion - by borrowing and spending money wildly, although Caesar was wilder than any other.  Politics in the Roman Republic was a high risk game.  Everyone was out for himself, and there were no political parties, so the whole thing operated as a network of patrons and clients.  Favours owed and called in at the right time.  Caesar gained a reputation as a good friend to have, and became peacemaker between the two big rivals: Pompey, Rome's greatest general and Crassus, Rome's richest man.

And when he wasn't making friends with the most powerful men in the Senate, Caesar was in bed with their wives and sisters.  It almost seems like a compulsion for him.  And if we know about it more than two thousand years later, you can bet they knew back then as well.   Somehow when he did end up stabbed to death, it wasn't over a woman.

So Caesar was at the centre of everything, but there was a problem.  War and politics weren't seperate worlds at Rome.  The only way to pay back your debts (apart from attempting a coup, like the notorious Cataline) was to be named a governor and, ideally, win a war.  He went to Gaul, took advantage of some tribal tension and ended up ruling the whole of modern day France in just a few years.  The people back in Rome loved him - and many of the other senators grew to hate and fear him.

I'm still a little puzzled by exactly how the Civil War started.  The senators, led by his former son in law Pompey and pious "voice of old Rome" Cato wanted to stop him running for consul, or having a triumph through the streets, or both.  But Caesar had a battle hardened army who fought for him, not for Rome. So he crossed that Rubicon and the die was cast.

What really struck me about the Civil War was how Caesar used generosity as a weapon.  He was amazingly merciful to those who'd taken up arms against him and could credibly paint himself once again as the peacemaker.  He cursed his bitter rival Cato for taking his own life before Caesar could forgive him.

He ruled as dictator (but not a tyrant) for just a few years, and most of the work he started was unfinished.  He did invent the leap year though, so kudos for that.  But he wasn't careful enough to avoid being seen as the man who would be king.  Romans didn't like kings, and his successor Augustus was much smarter in the way he handled it.  He kept the apparatus of republicanism, but in reality turned it into a monarchy.   Meanwhile Julius Caesar was made a god.

I admit this book was sometimes a bit of a slog to get through - Roman names and positions are very complicated, and I drifted in and out of many of the military campaigns - but it was well worth finishing.  Not just for getting a clearer picture of this awesome man, but for the other players and the world they lived in.  Expect more Roman stuff pretty soon - I can't get enough of it.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Vinge is kind of a big deal in the science fiction world.  He coined the term singularity in this paper which was hugely influential among fellow writers as well as the tinfoil hat brigade.  I'd never read any of his stuff before, but this book is fantastic.

It sounds corny, but he's literally put a new dimension into SF: The Zones of Thought.  The idea is intelligence and technology don't work at the the centre of the galaxy.  Those are the Unthinking Depths.  Further out is the Slowness where Earth lies.  Beyond this is the - well - Beyond.  Here's where you hit science fiction paydirt.  Faster than light travel, instant communication and millions of alien civilisations living and interacting in this narrow strip around the edge of the galaxy.  Beyond that is where it gets interesting.

This means when ships travel deeper, it's got the feel of a submarine battle.  They slow down, technology stops working and they can't talk to anyone further up.  It's also a neat explanation for the Fermi paradox - any aliens which are advanced enough to make contact with Earth are thousands of light years away in the Beyond, zipping about like Buck Rogers.

I also love the deep time in this book.  It's way in the future but humans are still a pretty young player in the Beyond.  Their mythology doesn't come from Earth, but from a jungle planet further out called Nyjora where humanity built itself back up from the dark ages to space travel.  They often talk about chivalry in the Age of Princesses, and the steam engines of Nyjora during the industrial revolution.  They know about Earth - theoretically - but it's this second history of humanity which is their frame of reference.

And this is all backstory for something even better - a first rate fantasy novel on a planet of gestalt sentient aliens.  Each "individual" is a pack of dog-like beings whose individual members aren't themselves sentient.  As well as a fascinating look at how an intelligent lifeform like this could operate, it's also a great adventure story, with human children learning about the world and some proper villains up to no good.  Like something from a Nyjoran fairy tale.

I've already got the follow up to this -  A Deepness in the Sky which is set thousands of years earlier, and there's a direct sequel set on the same planet which is just out called Children of the Sky, but word is it's a bit disappointing.  I'll read it anyway.

I owe a review of the big Caesar biography I've been listening to for months and have now finished (he dies) and I should soon be finished another Le Carre and the second Hunger Games book.  My light blogging of late I'm going to blame on Murakami's 1Q84, which I read two thirds of and couldn't be bothered finishing.  What went wrong Haruki?

Monday, 5 March 2012

Wild Summer by Stephen Richards

Alright, declaration of interest first.  This author is in fact my stepdad, and I got a sneak preview of this because I was proofreading it.  Last year he and my mum spent most of the year in one of these big RVs travelling around the USA.  Most of the time they just stayed overnight parked outside Wallmart and the like.  So far they've managed to avoid being shot by the urban youth.

I already had a read through of Steve's first volume - Tornado Spring - but it was a pretty rough draft so I didn't review it here.  That book included the buying of the RV, trawling up the east coast from Florida and running away from a tornado in a supermarket carpark.

This volume picks up in the Chicago area as the pair take up the second leg of their trip - across country into Yellowstone Park, then over into the Pacific North West and a brief brief detour into Canada, before heading down the coast to San Fransisco.

You've got some great descriptions of the landscapes and the mood all along the way, from the weird vulcan phenomona of Yellowstone to the mile upon mile of flat farmland in the Midwest to the romantic mist covered coastline of Washington.  There's also plenty of wildlife along the way - bears, whales, elk and trout.  Lots of trout.  And salmon.  In fact, there's lots of fishing in general, but these are probably my favourite bits of the book, and I'd be hard pushed to describe myself as a keen angler.  What makes these sections work is that the action is clear and exciting and the passion shines through.

Another aspect I really liked was the practicalities of getting a big RV across America.  What can go wrong, how you can fix it, how to drive up and down inclines without destroying your brakes.  Not stuff you usually get in a travel book unless it's for comic value, but I found it interesting.

Book Three - Desert Winter - will be out soon.  Luckily I feature in this final volume so I know it can't be all bad.  But it does mean more proof reading for me.  Errant apostrophe's are my vampires and all must be destroyed.   Arghh!

You can get all these in paperbacks or kindle on for a dirt cheap price.  Yeah, that's right - shameless plug.  Suck it up, freeloaders.

Right, now I've got three books about the same trip written by my mum which I need to check the punctuation on....

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I got this book free at the cinema when I went to see a ropey Taylor Lautner movie, so they're clearly touting it as the new Twilight.  Except it's really not.  It's a grimy, downbeat and less insane version of Battle Royale.

It's set in Northern America quite a bit in the future.  The former US is split into twelve districts (the 13th has been destroyed (or has it?!)) all ruled over by the iron fist of the Capitol, located in the Rocky Mountains.  As penance for a rebellion decades ago, every year a boy and girl from each district have to fight to the death in a massive booby trapped arena.  And everyone has to watch.

The survival and killing are handled without histrionics.  These kids already live a hellish existence, so they handle it better than we would.  What's also done really well is the reality TV aspect.  The central character Katniss is always aware when her actions will be heavily featured in the highlights show.  She knows how the producers will be fashioning a narrative around the senseless slaughter.  And since sponsors can parachute items in at massive cost, it's always in her interest to be the star of the show.

A reality TV show where people kill each other is hardly a new idea, but this is the best I've seen it handled.  The world's built up very well so the satire never seems heavy handed or stupid.  It's strangely classical - people have Roman names, the country's called Panem and the sacrifices are very reminiscent of myths like the Minotaur.  It certainly doesn't feel like "America of the future."  What's also helpful are the details which show us the huge difference between the serf-like existence in the districts and the high tech wonderland of the Capitol - the taste of food, the smells, the feeling of being clean for the first time in your life.

It's going to be hard to sell this as the new Twilight.  Ok, it's got a female teenage protagonist and there's at least the beginning of a love triangle (which unfolds nicely, and is integral to the plot) but there's not much else you can make a connection with.  The movie's out soon, so we'll see what kind of mess they make of it.  Perhaps Taylor Lautner's in it.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

When I was a nipper I used to go into John Menzies, pick up an Agatha Christie with an intriguing cover, and see how much I could get through before the staff started sniffing around.  I must've read at least the first few chapters of quite a few that way.

I think this could've been one of those, because I remember the set up well, but not the denoument.  It's the first Miss Marple novel, and I do marginally prefer her to Poirot, though they're both pretty great.  It has the classic opener - kill off the most detestable character whom everyone's got a beef with. Then throw in some red herrings, then a few reverse red herrings.  By the end your head's buzzing, but the solution was right on front of us all along.  Of course.

What I always like in these books is the attention to detail in the plotting.  Things are revealed in the correct order and at the end it's like a clockwork apparatus with everything in the right place.  Realism isn't the goal, but strict internal consistency.  But it's Christie's view on human nature which is the secret ingredient.  She seems to understand what drives people, whether to love or to murder, and I always find the characters interesting and convincing.  She also has a dark sense of humour, and understands that a passion for murder, which she shares with her readers, is perhaps a little unhealthy.

Not my favourite of her books, but I've got plenty more for the kindle now when I want the literary equivalent of a KFC.  Hmm, now I want a KFC.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

The follow up to this, but with an even more annoying title.  Luckily it's still a great read, with lots of myths busted, patterns teased out and sacred cows turned into burgers.

For instance: pimps generally do a good job.  Prostitutes who use them on average make more money per week and are safer than those on the street alone.  In fact, the figures suggest they do a better job than US estate agents.  I also learned working girls have different tariffs depending on the colour of the client's skin.  I knew it!  See, this is why God wants me to punish them.

There's a fascinating section on altruism, kicking off with the Kitty Genovese murder - a famous case in New York which 38 people apparently witnessed and did nothing to stop (also where Rorscharch got his mask, Watchmen fans.)  The authors then look at the history of economists' games like Dictator, which suggested that people were a lot kinder than thousands of years of history and common sense would've lead us to believe.  The lessons learned from both these stories are pretty amazing.

The book also has a nice bit of controversy - anthropogenic global warming.  It looks at the issues from an economist's point of view and compares it to the manure problem of the early 20th century, which was solved by the invention of the internal combustion engine.  Several potentially easy fixes are suggested, often to do with pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, but the authors question whether fixing it as an engineering problem is the real goal of Al Gore et al.

The main lessons in this book are the same as in the first one, but no less salient for that.  People respond to incentives, but not always in ways which are easily predictable.  And, perhaps more importantly, never take the pronouncements of vested interests at face value, whether they're from politicians, the media, or filthy lying whores.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Eden by Stanislaw Lem


Here's a good thing about getting a kindle - you can download a stack of science fiction from behind the Iron Curtain which would otherwise be pretty hard to find in Aberdeen.  I've got a job lot of Lem and the brothers Strugatsky to plough my way through now.

First up is Lem's Eden from 1959.  A spaceship crashes on an unexplored planet and the first part is really enjoyable as the crew (known only as "the Captain","the Cyberneticist," etc) try and figure a way out of the upended ship.  Things get a lot weirder when they find a way outside.

Where this book really works is in the unfathomable strangeness of the place and its inhabitatants.  The crew theorise about what they're seeing, but they also know they could be projecting their own human experiences on things they have no frame of reference for.

There's an unsettling mood to much of their explorations, but unfortunately (for my tastes, at least) it never takes a turn for the horrific.  Instead it becomes political.  They finally communicate with one of the inhabitants, who describes a system not unlike communist Poland in the 50s.

This is all interesting stuff, but the problem is there's no plot, or at least no forward momentum.  The exploration of the alien landscape is just that - exploration.  They don't have any specific goals except looking around.  The repair of the spaceship is, again, very interesting, but it does seem pretty straightforward.  I especially liked one bit where the Engineer's having problems moulding a new plastic control panel - something I'd never considered before in SF, but I guess you don't want to be dealing with a lot of bare wires when you're up in space.

I suppose I've got lowbrow tastes, but I'd have liked a bit more peril.  None of the crew are injured (aside from some coughing at poison gas) and you never feel like they're in any danger.  A missed opportunity for some Lovecraftian unknowable terror, but praise at least for the depiction of a truly alien world.

Right, I'll have another couple of reviews soon.  I've finished another two books and I'd better get them done before I forget what they're about.

Friday, 13 January 2012

1493 by Charles C. Mann

The follow up to 1491, which makes sense thematically, if not numerically.  The previous book looked at the Americas before the arrival of Columbus; here we find out what happened next.

Mann reckons 1492 marks the beginning of a new epoch in Earth's history - the Homogenocene.   It's the first time in 200 million years that the east and west hemispheres have had any meaningful interaction.  The New World gets Europeans, Africans, Chinese, smallpox, yellow fever and malaria.  The Old World gets potatoes, corn, rubber, and lots of silver and gold.  It's the start of globalisation, and it changes everything for better or worse.

This book has a wider scope than the previous one, and looks at the impact on China and Africa, as well as Europe, and at the amazing early years of the post Columbian Americas.  Potosi in modern day Bolivia became one of the biggest cities of the world in just a few years, thanks to the amount of silver ore nearby.  Mexico City was similarly cosmopolitan, with Spaniards, Africans, Indians and Chinese living side by side.  No-where like these cities had ever existed before, and they were a glimpse into the future.  Here's a cool fact - there were even exiled samuari in Mexico at this time, making their way by guarding the silver routes.

There's also a great and unusual look at the slave trade, which seems to have been largely fuelled by diseases like malaria and yellow fever.  Europeans just couldn't survive and died in staggering numbers, but Africans had already built up immunities.  This even explains the US Civil War - the Mason Dixon line, which seperates the Southern slave owning states with the rest of the USA, is also the cut-off point for mosquitos.  The Northern states never really had slaves because Europeans weren't dying of malaria there.

We also find out about new Maroon societies formed between escaped African slaves and Indian survivors, mostly in South America.  Many slaves were originally soldiers captured by other Africans, so they had military experience.  Along with Indian knowledge of the territory and ecology, these maroons became hugely troublesome to European plantations.  Even today these people and their histories are largely ignored.

As in 1491, there are plenty of amazing people.  My favourite is Esteban - probably the first African in North America.  In the early 16th century he was brought along with a group of Spaniards to explore the new continent, but soon he became their de facto leader.  He was worshipped as a powerful holy man in Indian villages and his legend grew.  What happened to him is still a mystery, but the best story is that one village worshipped him so much that they cut off his legs to keep him there.  He apparently survived for many years as a captive god, his wounds being tended with great care.

This is a cracking read for anyone who likes Jared Diamond or Felipe Fernadez Arnesto - a mixture of sweeping macrohistory with compelling personal stories.  And, as with the best histories, you're simultaneously hit by how relatable, but how bizarre, the past can be.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Pythons' Autobiography by the Pythons

Essential reading for the Python nut, and indeed any fan of comedy, but what were they REALLY like, hmmm?

This book's mostly stitched together from new interviews and diary entries from the time.  That means Palin's diaries get quite a look in.  Especially memorable about filming the Holy Grail in the Highlands.  Remember when he has to eat mud as a politically aware peasant?   They mixed chocolate in to make it more appealing.  Yum.  Comes across as affable, level-headed, possibly a bit dull, but not markedly insanse.

Markedly insane.  Or at least horribly alcoholic, sexually promiscous, unreliable, lazy and with a bit of a cruel streak.  Since he's dead Chapman's contributions come from his family members, long term boyfriend and his own autobiography.  Comes across as pretty selfish and lonely, though he turns it around by sobering up for the movies and becoming an unlikely leading man.  He was even the official doctor on the Life of Brian.  On a Python reunion the 80s the other members kicked over what were supposed to be his ashes, which does sound pretty funny.


Picture, if you will, Terry Jones.  I bet he's wearing a dress, isn't he?  It's his womanly figure and high-pitched voice I suppose, but back in the day he was considered quite dashing as a man.  With his interest in history, he was the driving force behind the Holy Grail and Brian and directed them both.  Tried to get a sequel to Holy Grail going in the 80s, with the ageing knights of the round table going on crusade.  And no Chapman.  Sounds awful.

Very tall and very difficult.  Most of the Python friction over the years seems to have involved Cleese.  He bailed on the last series of Flying Circus and was generally pretty hard to get on with.  Accused by the others of being unsociable and greedy, but I do like how he's so serious about the business of comedy.  Most of his big tiffs were with.....

An interesting character.  Very canny with a head for business and a ruthless streak.  Most of the others started writing in partnership (Palin and Jones; Chapman and Cleese) but Idle always wrote alone.  His early life is telling:  his family were pretty poor and his father died, but he went to a brutal boarding school where he was both the school rebel and the head boy.  Always looking out for number one.  Gets a bit of a hard time for exploiting the Pythons, but I also think they were glad one of them knew what was going on.  Wrote all the songs, too, and was dragged up to sing Always Look on the Bright Side at Chapman's funeral.

It can't be easy for six creative and radical comedians to work together over so many years.  It wasn't all Morcambe and Wise chuminess, but neither was it Steptoe and Son viciousness.  Even between Cleese and Idle there's a deep respect about each others' talents.  And I don't think there's one you can pick out as head and shoulders above the rest, or one who's letting the side down.  Good work everybody!  Anyway, here's Confuse-A-Cat.