Saturday, 28 February 2009

Earthworks - Brian Aldiss

This short dystopian novel, first published in 1965, has lost none of its impact. Whilst it is true that, in common with all visions of the future, it suffers from being too specific about technology; its emphasis on social developments and the impact of humanity on the natural world make this, for me, a far more important novel than Frank Herbert’s much-lauded Dune.

We learn of this through the first person tale of Knowle Noland, a displaced orphan who grows up in the slums of an overcrowded city and eventually finds himself in a forced labour camp. There he works with others to grow enough food to feed a population that has outstripped the planet’s ability to support it. Escaping from this ‘farm’ he encounters the Travellers, free spirits who live on the fringes. Eventually, he winds up in Africa, a war torn land that has become the dominant continent in terms of politics and technology. And there he is confronted with a truly deadly choice.

In many ways, this book breaks the rules by which we are supposed to write. It is largely exposition – although by being written as a first person confessional, Aldiss has provided a vehicle in which exposition seems natural. He has also kept it short. The temptation would be, in lesser hands, to give us a bloated vision of this future hell. Instead, the narrator rightly assumes we know what he is talking about.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it is so coherently prescient. In broad terms it has seen a world into which we have started to drift. Agriculture, population, the rise of Africa, the inability of politicians to control events, the development of a surveillance society and police state. These are all closer now than they were forty years ago. But Aldiss also saw detail in his vision. Travellers (who are not just our own home-grown drop-outs, but any dispossessed group) treated with contempt and the target of police violence. A society in which elites have become increasingly divorced from the reality of everyday life. A society of this nature breeding fanatics who are prepared to unleash terror and destruction because they see that as the only way left to them, the only solution to the world’s problems.

From its eerie opening sentence, to its frightening conclusion, this is a book well worth reading.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

The Fifth Floor - Michael Harvey

A review of this book can be found here.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Dark Lord Of Derkholm - Diana Wynne Jones

This is unusual for a DWJ book in that she has eschewed the use of her normal convolutions. And wisely so. That is not to say there are no twists, but the central idea of the book is, in itself, strong enough to hold a fairly straightforward story. For here we have a world where there is a lot of magic, held hostage to the whims of someone from another world. And he uses the magical world to run tours – parties of Pilgrims (as they are called) who are led along routes peppered with stage-managed events that owe more than a little to all those books that are, basically, bad re-writes of Lord of the Rings.

So far, so good. Or not. Because this off-world ‘entertainment’ is destroying the magical world – in more ways than one. And the inhabitants, those that have survived, have decided enough is enough.

As is to be expected from DWJ, this is well-written, inventive, by turns comical and thought-provoking, and packed full of interesting characters and events. There are one or two small holes in the plot, but they don’t spoil the book at all. And the story, whilst being an excellent entertainment, also tackles the question of what constitutes evil.

If you like fantasy that is intelligent, which subverts the genre and re-invents it, and which is well-written, then I cannot recommend DWJ’s books enough. Always fresh and engaging, often with the most unexpected of twists and turns (always true to the logic of the book), and with plenty of humour, she well deserves her place in the top rank of fantasy authors.

Monday, 23 February 2009

The Little Sister - Raymond Chandler

Chandler gathers epithets such as ‘hard-boiled’, ‘tough’, ‘tense’, like a half-sucked sweet gathers fluff in the bottom of a pocket. They are often used by people who haven’t read the books properly or rely on the screen portraits. Now, it is true that Chandler does not shy away from the nastier side of life; but for me, the works are acute and accurate portraits of a time, a place, and the people who lived there.

The Little Sister is a case in point. You know that whatever case is taken on by Philip Marlowe, it is not going to be straightforward. On the face of it, it is a simple of finding a missing person. But people go missing for a reason. Marlowe soon stumbles across a dead body. And then another. Blackmail, greed, and part of the nasty underbelly of Hollywood all play their part. And although this isn’t a whodunit, we are given plenty of indication as to who is responsible for the murders.

Chandler does not rely on complex twists so much as he makes use of layering. Marlowe peels away layer upon layer of event and motive, finding a solution to one problem only to uncover another. And on this journey of discovery we are treated to superb detail, some blisteringly original description, and a creation of atmosphere that is difficult to find elsewhere. From Marlowe’s office through run-down rooming houses and film studios, to rich districts and poor, luxury apartments and cheap dives, we can see, feel, smell, and even taste these places.

But it does not stop with the setting, because Chandler’s characters get the same treatment. Even minor characters and walk-ons are treated in such a way that you have a rich and unique impression of them. And central to this, of course, is Philip Marlowe. Which is where my opening comment comes in. Marlowe, it seems to me, is not a tough guy. Everything in this book, the story, the setting, the atmosphere, the characters, all point to an overwhelming fact. Marlowe is lonely. Desperately lonely. So lonely he no longer cares what happens to himself, although he does retain a core of humanity in that he cares what happens to other people (his dwelling on the father, sitting back in Manhattan, Kansas, coping with the aftermath of a stroke in a loveless relationship; his desire to keep scandal from destroying Mavis Weld’s career).

Like many genre works, crime thrillers are looked upon by some with a great deal of disdain. Even expressing admiration for a writer of Chandler’s considerable ability is looked upon as slumming it. Why, I don’t know. The book tells a good, plausible story. It is complex and reveals a great deal about human nature. It is exceedingly well written. It has no pretensions. You can read it as entertainment and you can also read it for deeper meaning. One could only wish that half of what is lauded as literary successfully fulfilled all those functions.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Keep The Giraffe Burning - John Sladek

Surrealism is hard to do well. As it is a movement/philosophy expressed principally through visual art and effects, surrealist writing is even harder to do well. Yet it does lend itself to writing as an expression, always provided the writer is someone who keeps tight control over their work. John Sladek is one such writer.

This collection is usually classified as ‘science fiction’, and whilst it does deal with science in fictional settings, it transcends what, for many, is a very specific genre. Indeed, one could accuse Sladek of having produced literature. He is careful, however, to point in the introduction the book that the pieces collected there are intended to amuse.

As works of a surreal nature they succeed admirably, exposing psychological truths by stripping the everyday of normal significance, making awkward and sometimes painful juxtapositions, to create images and trains of thought that might not otherwise occur. As an exercise in amusement, they also work, because Sladek is a paramount satirist. Indeed, it is the surrealism of the pieces that allows him to make acute observations about the sheer stupidity of much that we humans do.

Prescient, as well. Although it does seem as if a number of writers in the mid-1970s considered the possibility of Ronald Reagan as president of the USA. Yet the prescience extends beyond that. One story has finance ministers from around the world trying to sort out their economies whilst the world comes apart around them.

It is clear that pieces of fiction such as these are not going to appeal to everyone. They are ‘experimental’, peopled in part by the characters you find in mathematical problems (of the: if A gets on train travelling at x mph and B boards a plane… type – A and B discuss these events and their unhappy childhoods sharing apples with C, and so on), and they often seem to go nowhere (although those that do are sketches for what might have been powerful novels). However, it is also clear that Sladek has taken a great deal of care over them and they are fine examples of work that deserve a far wider readership.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Moving Toyshop - Edmund Crispin

First published in 1946, this belongs to what many consider the golden age of crime writing in the UK. The book certainly has a great deal to recommend it. Literate in an unfussy way, it has a great story and an intriguing plot, and some wonderful characters set against the lovingly realised backdrop of Oxford.

The central character of this and Crispin’s other books is Gervase Fen, a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. By turns eccentric, exasperating, and madcap, he has a penchant for detecting and plunges into the adventure with gusto. An old acquaintance arrives in Oxford in the early hours of the morning and stumbles into a toyshop that is unlocked, where he finds a corpse. On reporting this to the police, he is taken back to the scene only to find that not only is there no corpse, but also there is no toyshop.

And so begins a convoluted tale replete with literary allusions, car chases, kidnap, and scenes of high comedy. This won’t suit everyone’s taste. Whilst it is undoubtedly worthy of inclusion amongst the great crime writers of that era, it errs to the anarchic fringe. That is, whilst it respects the literary form, it has a great deal of fun with it as well. The story, whilst not impossible is highly improbable. Some of the characters border on caricature. What is more, the author is not above playing games with the reader that break the fourth wall. At one point the main character passes the time ‘making up titles for Crispin’, at another he decides to go left at a fork in the road because the book is published by Gollancz. These games do not detract from the book and are very much in keeping with the overall tone. So, if you like your crime novels to have a relaxed and humorous air, this (and Crispin’s others) will be for you.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

An Ungodly Child - Rachel Green

It is possible to measure a book by how engaging it is, by how much it takes you out of yourself. And there is no greater competition for this than grief. I have, to put it bluntly, had a bastard few months, capped off with the death of a much loved companion cat. This book provided respite from all that turmoil – and for that alone it gets my praise.

But its strengths are far greater and more universal than being a convenient distraction. From the very beginning, you know you are going to be in for fun. The blend of homely everyday life and a cast of demons, imps, and angels of all grades and colour works extremely well (and the image of a demon enjoying a nice cup of tea and a biscuit won me over straight away). The characters are subtly drawn and develop in realistic fashion (with scope for future appearances) and despite the supernatural setting are preoccupied with small creature comforts just as one would expect.

The story moves along at a great pace without stops on the way for pages of explanatory text (as many writers of supernatural subjects are wont to do). This is refreshing, to say the least. All too often, the likes of demons and angels are simply used as forces to push an angsty character about a shaky plot like some manic pinball. Here, they are integral to the plot.

The style is light. By which I mean, the book is written with a light touch. It is a clever book without flaunting its cleverness. It is funny without trying. It is engaging because it contains sympathetic characters and has an intriguing storyline. And it stays true to itself throughout – for whilst it is a tale of demons and angels, it never steps beyond the slightly down at heel world in which it the story takes place.

I sincerely hope that Harold has more adventures and that Rachel Green goes on to write many more books. She clearly has a great talent for this sort of work (and for art work as well, as the superb cover is one of her watercolours). Indeed, the only thing that bemuses me is why this was not put out by a major publisher and why studios are not falling over themselves to buy the film rights.