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.