Saturday, 30 May 2009

Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban

Like most books written in an ‘invented’ language, this is hard work. Unlike most, the hard part is not so much in getting used to the vocabulary (it is no more difficult in that respect than reading Shakespeare); it is in the fact you have to read every single word. That might sound an odd statement, but normally an experienced reader will read whole phrases and sentences. With this book you cannot do that. You have to slow down and work at the pace of the narrator.

This is no bad thing because this is a book well worth getting into that deeply. Exploring each word and the impact it has, exploring each idea and how that is integral to the story, these are essential to get the most out of this tale.

It is no surprise that it took the author five years to write. And not just because of the language. Because this is a deeply subtle book composed of many layers. On the surface, we follow the narrator through several weeks in his life in a post apocalyptic Kent landscape. It is more than two millennia since a nuclear war, and society has pulled itself back up to a level somewhat on a par with our Iron Age ancestors.

Yet this is no science fiction romp. It is a meditation on power, on human relationships, on religion and spirituality, and on the relationship of humanity with the rest of the world. But it manages this with an affecting tale in which a young man comes of age and tries to find a new path to follow, one that eschews the old forms of governance that led before to the holocaust.

The telling of the tale is smoothly done (despite, or perhaps because of, the need to go slowly). The action and the meditation are integral one to the other. There is a tremendous sense of the natural world in which the story takes place. Equally there is a tremendous sense of history, of the centuries of painful resurrection from the devastating destruction. It has a poetic quality of the sort to be found in folk tales, a depth that is to be found there as well.

In short, it is a great book. It is certainly one you should read if you are interested in just how much language can be made to do; how much depth can be conveyed with a fairly limited vocabulary. And if you do read it, try to get the edition with the Introduction by Will Self as it also has some illuminating notes by Russell Hoban.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Best of Michael Moorcock - Michael Moorcock (eds Davey, VanderMeer & VanderMeer)

As far as I am concerned, you could put anything by Mike Moorcock into a collection and it would be The Best Of… Even stuff he wrote at a speed that must have left smoke pouring from the typewriter keys outranks most other stuff for clarity, style, pace, and excitement. Of course, one of the problems is that Mike is often classified by this swiftly produced fantasy work and thus condemned to a literary ghetto (albeit one in which there is more than a fair share of high class work).

It is because of that erroneous perception of Mike as a hack writer of sword and sorcery that this collection (edited by John Davey and the VanderMeers) is all the more precious. Although it contains nods to Elric and to Jerry Cornelius, the rest of the collection is a display of the remarkable range of Mike’s work. I won’t insult it by calling it ‘literary’ for that would be to demean the work with a label that has no real meaning beyond publisher-speak for a book they couldn’t fit into any other genre. Besides which, Mike has always been at the forefront of attempts to rid us of those false divisions and allow written work to find its own form.

The pieces in this collection cover a time span of 43 years, allowing the reader to see how this writer’s work has developed. It also covers a range of styles, themes, and subject matter. They all touch on fundamental human concerns, they are all imbued with the warmth that is typical of the author, and they are all well-written. What is more, they are unique. Moorcock’s work is inimitable. True, there have been others who have used his characters, but a Mike Moorcock book is a Mike Moorcock book, be it a sword and sorcery pounded out in three days, or a quartet of novels taking a quarter of a century.

And underlying this collection there is deep, personal mythology that connects with the real world at a tangent. This is not just a fictional mythology in which all of Mike’s fiction interconnects. There is also the mythical quality that attaches to Moorcock the editor and which resonates in his own work. Because, not content with writing some of the finest and most iconic work of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (a feat in itself), he was also at the centre of a revolution which provided a platform for many writers. A place where they could hone their talents and expand the boundaries of writing.

If you have fought shy of Michael Moorcock in the past, please try this collection. There are one or two science fiction tropes (a time machine, for example), a few head trips (but doesn’t all good writing do that?), but most of all there is top quality writing, a glorious use and development of ideas, humour, warmth, and some of the best stories you’ll ever read.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The President's Last Love - Andrey Kurkov

This more substantial outing from Kurkov is a brilliant, multi-layered fairy tale. It is an autobiographical account of Ukrainian President and one time catering student Sergeyy Pavlovich Bunin. Ostensibly a story of the loves in this man’s life, it is a wry look at politics and the human condition.

This is a much more subtle book than Kurkov’s earlier tales (which are themselves master works of subtlety). The sense of the absurd is still apparent along with an eye for the bizarre and the outright hilarious. But the work blends these aspects into a finer consistency, providing a smoother backdrop to the tragi-comedy of Bunin’s life.

The settings are beautifully realized, the characters are sophisticated constructions, and the political background is left largely to our imaginations which, already fed with twenty-four hour news, are capable of filling in the gaps.

Some find the construction of the work difficult, but the short chapters of almost apodictic quality are superb vignettes that contain more detail than some novelists manage in a whole book. And, moving toward a series of resolutions, the interweaving of several time lines is highly effective. We are introduced to the main character in much the same way we would come to know a real person. There is much we never learn; there is no plot, just a life. That said, this life story is imbued with enormous detail and is lovingly told.

It was good to discover a new author. It is even better to realize just how much his work is improving from an already excellent starting point. I await his next with eager anticipation.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Machine In Shaft Ten - M John Harrison

I bought this collection of short stories when it first came out. Lost it somewhere along the line. Treated myself to a ‘new’ copy. And what a treat. I had forgotten what a remarkably diverse collection it was. All the roots of Harrison’s subsequent work are clearly visible here. Indeed, the collection is remarkable in several ways.

To begin with is that diversity. Although there is a clear Harrison voice (the thematic continuity is very strong from story to story), and the presence of entropy marks these works as belonging to that very loose school of writers emerging at the time, the range given to the voice is extremely broad. Naturalistic narrative, surreal work, mainstream and experimental work. It’s all there.

It might be thought that such a wandering about through styles and content is a sign of uncertainty, of an author in search of voice. Far from it. These stories are not explorations casting about in the hope of finding something unique. The voice is already certain. What we have is a demonstration of the range of that voice. If at times it gets a bit Ballardian or Aldissian, if at times it displays a touch of Moorcock, this is not to be wondered at. Harrison was part of that choir. But his voice is very much his own.

That an author should be allowed such variety is also remarkable. This is not so much the case in the field of science fiction. There has always been greater leeway for astonishing changes of direction, content, and style. It is why versatile and literary writers are so attracted to the genre as that freedom to experiment with form comes as part of the package.

In this collection we have sketches for and from evolving work, especially the Viriconium cycle of tales – a fantasy form that eschews world building in favour of inhabiting the illogic of an alternate reality. This is a theme to be found in all his work, especially the recent books, Light and Nova Swing.

These are not necessarily mature tales, but they are confident. And if you want to see how short fiction can be stretched beyond the bounds of the conventional short story, there are worse places to look than in this collection.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Take Back Plenty - Colin Greenland

There are times when you need taking out of yourself. There are times when you need a bit of entertainment that doesn’t tax you too much, but which is nonetheless intelligent and well produced. Take Back Plenty does all that and more.

This is space opera at its very best. Fast paced, witty, anarchic, and slightly mad, sweeping in its themes, yet concerned with individuals. Its heroine is hard working, flawed, loveable, and a bit of a rebel (as long as that doesn’t involve rebellion). She wants a quiet life. Life has other plans. This is the mould from which things like Firefly were later made.

And it is so well written, perfectly pitched for the story it tells. Ingeniously constructed, Greenland paints a colourful picture of the universe he has created – a sprawling, messy vision that reflects our own world but with a distorting mirror. And there is humour – subtle and without spite.

I have known of Colin Greenland by reputation for a long time and I have read his non-fiction work (though sadly I do not possess a copy of his The Entropy Exhibition). But this is the first time I have read his fiction. This is bad as it means I have been missing out all these years. This is good as it means I have all those other books to look forward to.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Cold Earth - Sarah Moss

A team of archaeologists gather on a site in Greenland to dig a ‘lost’ Viking settlement. During the course of their work they are plagued by an uneasy feeling of being ‘haunted’ by the events that led to the site’s original destruction. At the same time, their communication with the outside world is interrupted with talk of an epidemic sweeping the world.

I tried to like this book. I wanted to like this book. I have a passing acquaintance with archaeology, having worked in museums; and I have always thought a dig is a good setting for a novel. Very few that I have read in the past have captured the spirit, so I was hoping this book would succeed. I am also very fond of novels that explore social breakdown and how communities cope as society collapses around them. I thought this would be the ideal book for me. The epidemic angle makes it topical.

The trouble is, this book is bad on so many levels. To begin with it handles its setting badly. The archaeological side of it could have done with the author watching a few episodes of The Time Team. If the author did much research they have signally failed to transfer it convincingly to the story. Furthermore, it could, for all we get from the book, have been set anywhere. Greenland has a distinctive environment and culture, yet none of that came through to me in the story. Indeed, I was left with the impression that this was just a translocated isolated house story – a staple of pulp horror and detective stories since, well, since Beowulf.

The characters are stilted (as is their dialogue), reading like something from a faux Austen novel written by somebody who has only ever seen Austen on the television. They talk like they are reading a script for the first time with no prior knowledge of story, place, or even their own character. The switching of viewpoints was not well handled and is a dull way to tell a story. Had it simply been presented as the journals of a group of people who didn’t survive from which we piece together their last days it would have been infinitely more interesting. Instead, it all peters out as if the author was not able to keep all the plates spinning. At no point was I able to develop any empathy for any of them or, indeed, find any sympathy for their plight. They were so awfully middle class and wrapped up with their own tiny concerns, I found myself wishing for some mad Viking ghost to rampage through the camp with a bloody axe leaving an evil pathogen in his wake to pick off the survivors.

Cold Earth is touted by the publisher as a ‘highly sophisticated novel of ideas’. Too many ideas. None of them sophisticated (unless middle class academic preoccupations count as sophisticated). Either theme (isolated group or pandemic) would have been sufficient for a novel of ideas. Even together in the hands of a skilled writer it could have worked. Instead it fails. And because the bar for this kind of story has already been set so high (Ballard and Camus are two names that spring to mind without much effort) it is unwise to attempt such an approach unless you have the skills to match that. Moss may be a great academic; she is not a good fiction writer.

In the end, what we have is an amateurish piece of writing that has an over abundance of false sentimentality and no real core of emotion. There is no feeling of urgency and for me, nothing to make me read to the end other than the fact I had agreed to review the book. It doesn’t work as an intellectual exercise (there are no startling insights into the human condition), it doesn’t work as a thriller (despite the potential), and it doesn’t work as speculative fiction (indeed, the only speculation I made was how the book made it to publication although given the information in the Acknowledgements, it is possible to guess). It is not out and out dire, but it is not a book I could honestly recommend to anyone.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Pigeon Post - Arthur Ransome

I am an unashamed fan of Arthur Ransome’s books. Not just the Swallows and Amazons series, but his other works as well. However, it is the twelve that involve the adventures of the Walkers, Blacketts, and Callums (along with the Coot Club) that I love the most. I read them as a child and I have been reading them ever since.

In Pigeon Post, the children gather in the Lake District. During a drought, they become involved in prospecting for gold in the fells in the hope of keeping the Blackett’s adventurous uncle from straying too far from home. These adventures are recounted with Ransome’s usual meticulous detail, with his clear regard for the natural world, and with that ever present and gentle subversion.

The joy for me has always been the way in which Ransome captures that borderland between the real world and children’s fantasy. The adventures of his children are fairly innocuous (other than the three books which might be regarded as tales the children have made up for themselves). They camp, sail, watch wildlife, have mock battles, and stay away from ‘natives’ as much as they can. These pastimes are populated with an overlay of pirates and adventurers, and with the children’s explorations of their world.

There is a great left unsaid in the background of these books, especially the fate of the Blackett’s father. And there is also that subversive element. It’s not immediately apparent, but it becomes clear where Ransome’s sympathies lie, and it is not with the Yahoo behaviour of civilised life. The ‘good’ adults in the books are unconventional, almost Bohemian in character. The children are honest, careful, and mindful of the natural world. The only people who cause trouble in the books are greedy, unthinking adults.

Ransome had Socialist ideals and these books are prime examples of how socialist and anarchist principles can work in practice. Yet that was never an overt (or possibly even intended) message. Ransome told his tales in this way and created the characters in the way he did because of the way he saw the world. His primary interest was in telling good adventure stories of the kind that could (and did) make a child think: I could do that.

Visions Of The Cailleach - Sorita d'Este & David Rankine

Despite (or perhaps because of) my long-standing interest in the myth and folklore of Britain, especially its integral role in understanding ancient metaphysical and spiritual ideas, I do not read many books on the subject these days. I try, but I find most of them to be poorly researched and written to support some pre-conceived idea of the author. What a relief, then, to read a book that starts with the advantage of good research and allowing the reader to make up their own mind about any deeper meanings that may be inherent in the tales.

Collecting and examining tales of the Cailleach, this book sets out the tales by region and by theme, examines their origins, and discusses the possibility of some unifying force behind the tales that helped them to spread and stay alive in the popular imagination. It does no more, because that is enough. The authors make no claims; they discuss possibilities and present the tales as evidence. For that, they are to be thanked. Not just for collecting the tales into a handy reference book, but also for crediting their readers with the intelligence to investigate further and draw their own conclusions.

As a real bonus, the book is well written. The style is easy and intelligent. It wears its scholarship lightly, but is robust. There are plenty of references and a great bibliography. All this makes the book something of a rarity in times when many scholarly works are badly written and dreadfully biased (and professional academics are some of the worst culprits); and when many books on myth, folklore, and spiritual matters seem to rely so heavily on something the author might once have seen on television or has written in their first flush of enthusiasm for a new found path without actually having any deeper understanding of the subject on which they expound.

This book sets a standard. We can but hope that it, and books like it, will lead to a revival of quality worked based in good research and which explore areas beyond that of the huge pile of ‘how to’ books with which we have been swamped in the past decade.