Sunday, 25 October 2009

Omon Ra - Victor Pelevin

It has taken me too long. I have wandered around Pelevin’s books for a few years now, trying to decide whether to spend money on them (and no, the library doesn’t have them). I wish now that I had done this sooner. Because I have been missing a real treat.

Omon Ra is a heart-breakingly bleak, absurdist, farce. Ostensibly a satire about the Soviet space programme – in which expendable young men are suborned for the pride of their Motherland into suicidally manning ‘automated’ spacecraft – this work goes much deeper and far wider. Beneath the layers of social satire are musings on the nature of reality, on growing up, on friendship. The despair-ridden backdrop, far bleaker than any moonscape, is shot through with moments of real tenderness.

Written in a spare, matter of fact style in which the real and surreal work perfectly alongside each other, the idiocies of political ambition are thrown in sharp contrast with the simple desires of the human being. The ability to capture vivid moments with a handful of words, the complex weaving of imagery (wonderfully preserved in the translation by Andrew Bromfield), the sharp simplicity of the story, all speak of a master at work.

Whilst reading I caught flashes of the Strugatskys, Ballard, Beckett, and Kafka without the work ever being in their thrall. Pelevin has covered similar territory to these and other authors, but with his own distinct voice. I very much look forward to reading more of his work.

Friday, 23 October 2009

House Of Many Ways - Diana Wynne Jones

This is DWJ back on form, as far as I’m concerned. There did seem to have been one or two recent books that wobbled (although a DWJ wobble is still better than most work of this nature). Here we return to the world of Howl and his moving castle along with favourites such as Calcifer and Sophie (all much better in the books than in the film).

Charmain Baker is sent to look after the house of a distant relative, a wizard, whilst he is away being treated by the elves for an unspecified illness. Comic mayhem ensues as Charmain is drawn into the quest to discover exactly why the King is so poor. There is much else besides and most things are rarely what they seem to be. In fact, that is such a trademark of DWJ’s stories that one can spend a lot of time wondering what is happening and miss the journey. Which is why I will doubtless re-read this fairly soon.

The writing is spare yet manages to conjure acute descriptions and set a rich background. Characters are well drawn without getting unnecessarily complex. And the frustrations of growing up and learning life’s little lessons are well presented with a gentle humour. The only jarring note was the odd flash of cruelty. Not out of place one might think in a fairy tale, and when it is between humans I do no flinch as there is invariably payback. Here, though, there was a touch of casual cruelty involving animals and it didn’t sit well with me. I would also like to have seen more use made of the interior of the wizard's cottage, but perhaps a sequel is in the air.

All in all a smooth and delightful read that is worthy addition not just to the Howl series, but to her entire canon.

The Blonde And The Boodle - Jack Trevor Story

I had intended to keep this for a treat a bit later in the year. No will power. Another of Story’s Sexton Blake tales, this is closely akin to his novel The Trouble With Harry. Whilst the plot is different it has the kinship of a cousin, perhaps. The small town setting is also reminiscent of other later works. So even here, in a pulp, Story was exercising his talents and his preoccupations, making those work for him.

The tale is fairly straightforward. A bank robbery is meticulously planned by a woman who is a bank clerk and her crime writing husband (with a touch of wickedly smiling self-portrait in there). But from the very beginning nothing is ever quite what it seems and events didn’t quite happen the way you think they did. Even Sexton Blake looks he might be flummoxed by this case.

With twists and turns that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Jive Club, the tale rolls on at a rollicking pace. It is beautifully crafted; written with economy and style; and retains a dark humour throughout. And for all the murder and mayhem, it remains good natured as well, another of Story’s trademarks in the earlier part of his writing life.

The only problem with this is that I’ve read it know and will have to save my pennies to go and buy another one. The originals may have been ten pre-decimal pennies (that’s less that a shilling (5p) for you youngsters, about 4p, in fact), but they don’t come with much change from seven or eight pounds these days. Still, for such superb writing it’s a small price to pay.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Charlie Bone And The Red Knight - Jenny Nimmo

The seventh and final book of the Charlie Bone series brings this wonderful story to a satisfying close. I won’t discuss plot, because that cannot be done with spoiling this and other books in the series. Suffice it to say that amongst the expected victories, there are surprises.

It has been a wonderful journey. I have loved these books from the start in a way I never managed with another seven book series about a boy with magical talents. Rowling’s books always felt contrived, to me, and they were none of them particularly well written. Jenny Nimmo, on the other hand, is a superb writer. Her books are pitched at just the right level. They are engaging and warm, even though there are some quite horrible events. They are tightly plotted and consistent. And they are imbued with a gentle sense of humour.

Book production also plays a part. With the Charlie Bone books there has been a rare and truly wonderful melding of content and presentation. The interior of each book is lush, with a page header that makes the text feel almost hand-written. The end-papers are full of information and beautifully drawn. And the covers… Sam Hadley is to be congratulated for his excellent illustrations, each of which is relevant to the book and printed on a glossy cover that sparkles. The whole package is what books should be about – a joy to hold, own, and read.
If you haven’t read Charlie Bone yet, please go out now and make a start.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Camp Concentration - Thomas M. Disch

Aside from one or two references to the Vietnam War in which this work had its roots, this book remains as fresh and as relevant as ever. And for anyone who has ever claimed that sci fi is pulp, I challenge them to read this and not agree that it is highly literate, elegant, witty, dark, and highly accomplished.

The book is the journal of Louis Sacchetti, a poet and conscientious objector who finds himself first in an ordinary jail and then in the Dantean Camp Archimedes of the title. There he comes to realise that the prisoners are part of an elaborate experiment. They have been infected with a mutated form of syphilis which increases their intellectual capacity at the same rate it shortens their lives.

Creating a group of geniuses in a prison camp has the expected outcome, but just how they plot and execute their escape is a mystery until the very end. Of course, the world into which they escape, ravaged by the wars they were meant to help win and the disease with which they were infected, is a mixed blessing.

Packed with philosophical and religious discussion, with particular reference to ethics, this might sound like a dry story. Far from it. It flows with consummate ease. Disch was an exceptional poet and it shows in a prose that is condensed and fluorescent without ever becoming obscure. What is more it is packed with literary references that never once hinder the flow or meaning of the work. If you don’t get the references, it makes no difference to the fluidity and fierceness of the work.

As a critique of western society, this has barbs you don’t notice at first. The story draws you in with subtlety until it is too late and the impact of its message – that we have created a hell on earth every bit as destructive as Dante’s vision, every bit as vile as the concentration camps of Europe – hits you smack in the face.

The book met with critical acclaim, yet has now fallen into relative obscurity. One can’t help wondering if Disch knew why when, talking of his science roots in an interview, he said: “I have a class theory of literature. I come from the wrong neighborhood to sell to The New Yorker. No matter how good I am as an artist, they always can smell where I come from.”

Monday, 12 October 2009

The World Without Us - Alan Weisman

This book gets sorted to the top of two piles. The first is the pile of most interesting books I have read about a world without people (largely because it is the only book I possess or have read on this subject). The second is the pile of most depressing books I have ever read.

No living thing exists without changing the world around them in some small fashion. That’s what life does. However, over millions of years it has developed to create a complex web of interdependence, new species evolve to fill empty niches. There have been explosions of life and mass extinctions. Until now only once in the past has the world been so radically altered that the legacy has lasted through billions of years – when algae began to pump out so much oxygen the only place left for it to go was the atmosphere.

We take oxygen for granted. Most life on the planet depends on it (and those things that don’t have a relationship with those that do). But that change to an atmosphere with oxygen was a step in the evolution of life and it gave rise to new life. The by-products of human existence, however, are like the cold hand of death. We have produced poisons that will still be present long after humanity has become extinct; long after the planet’s atmosphere has been stripped away. Indeed, they will still be here when the Sun expands and the Earth is destroyed.

This has been done already. And along the way we have turned fertile land into deserts, dried up rivers and seas, killed off whole species for sport or fashion, and strewn our filth into every corner from the highest mountain peak to the deepest ocean trench. Every living creature contains chemical toxins we have produced. If we, as a species, were to disappear tomorrow, the cancerous ulceration of our presence would be here for in some form or other until the very end of the world.

Weisman’s book is well researched (if at times tiresomely undermined by his propensity for introducing people as if they were characters in a badly written novel). Each chapter is an essay that looks at one strand of the human legacy. It points out that all the things we hold to be good and noble about our species would last a few centuries (all that art work and architecture, all that music, literature, and so on – useless without us anyway). All that is thoughtless, careless, and born out of greed will carry on poisoning the planet for thousands and millions of years to come.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this book is that there is nothing much in it that is new. All this stuff is well known to scientists, technologists, and politicians (well, maybe not politicians as most of them as thick as pig shit and a lot less useful) but nothing is done about it. Individuals can make a choice in some countries, but whilst we allow greed to be enshrined in our political and legal systems, things will only get worse.

Despite the extra layer of gloom this settled around me, it is nonetheless a book I would recommend. It is, on the whole, well-written. It covers a great deal of ground, conveying complex ideas without once resorting to jargon. At no point does it go for sensationalism – it doesn’t need to. It is certainly thought provoking. Read. Consider. And then look at all the plastic that surrounds you.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Geek Love - Katherine Dunn

It is very rare for me to give up on a book. I don’t like doing it because I know what goes into writing the damned things (and the more difficult endeavour of getting them into print). So I tried. I really did try. But in the end I cut my losses and put it on the pile to go to the charity shop.

Some books I give up on because the writing stinks. That is not the case here. Dunn seems to know how to string words together in an elegant way. Some books get the heave because the plot or subject matter is risible. Plot is somewhat irrelevant here and the subject matter… without wishing to sound ghoulish, it seemed to be to my taste (although the hyperbole of the quotes on the cover were just that – these people had clearly led very sheltered lives if they found the content ‘disgusting’, ‘shocking, ‘tasteless’, ‘raw’, or ‘bizarre’).

So why did I give up? The answer is ‘boredom’. I found the book unutterably dull. Despite the Hallowe’en costume grotesqueries, it seemed to me to be a mundane soap opera and it was an effort to turn the page. Getting to page 129 (where my brain switched off for the last time and refused to re-engage) was like getting part way up a steep hill on a foggy day. Hard work with no reward or prospect of any reward. The book did not engage me emotionally, intellectually, viscerally, or professionally.

If there were points being made they were either the ones being signalled with big waving flags (yes, we know it is ‘ordinary’ folk that are the real freaks) or way too subtle for me. If there were endearing characters, I wasn’t the person they would bond with. If there were wider points being made, I am happy picking them up from more engaging work.

None of this is to say I don’t think others should try the book. It’s not one of those books that makes me wonder how it got into print. It simply didn’t engage me. If you do try it, I hope you have more joy of it.

Invitation To A Murder! - Jack Trevor Story

This is one of a number of works that Story wrote for the Sexton Blake Library (No 429, May 1959). And I love it for a number of reasons. First and foremost it is Jack Trevor Story. This is a pulp story, written to formula, written to a specific word count (or rather, page count, as the point size of the text is adjusted accordingly), using stock characters that cannot change too much (if at all). It takes a special skill to be able to turn out several of those in a year. To be able to make them literate, amusing, and intriguing; to add character depth and development without stepping outside the bounds; the comment on society; and to provide a fun read – that takes genius.

The tale is simple. A young woman is murdered and Sexton Blake becomes involved, not least because of an intriguing phone call. We catch a glimpse of the world in which this young woman lived. A model and aspiring actress, we slowly begin to discover that she is not the devoted young daughter her parents believed her to be. She has exploited all sorts of people and one of them could take no more. Story makes a wonderful job of keeping us guessing whilst leaving a trail of clues.

As if being presented with well-written entertainment was not enough, the volumes of the Sexton Blake Library are a joy to behold. The cover illustrations are fine examples of their type, especially when you get to the late ‘50s. The advertisements are reminders that the same things have been set out to tempt us for decades, yet manage to convey an air of innocence. And the letters page… You have to wonder how much of those letters were produced in-house. In this issue several of them were, including the one from a gentleman signing himself Mike J Moorcock (who penned a Sexton Blake of his own, although it came out under the house name of Desmond Reid).

In a discussion I once lamented the demise of publications like this and was told that television had replaced them. Well, television may have been responsible for their demise, but it has not replaced them. Story did also write for television, but there is little to compare with his ability to produce a great story that was at once literate, entertaining, witty, and wise.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Committed Men - M John Harrison

I must have read this. I have the original paperback. I remember buying it. It shows signs of wear (which means I read it more than once). Yet I did not remember anything. Normally a scene or an image will stay fixed somewhere in the subconscious (more often than not in my case attached to entirely the wrong book), yet this was like reading the book for the very first time. And was I disappointed? No. Simply mystified that such a wonderful book didn’t somehow make more of an impression.

Published in 1971, I suspect this was overshadowed by other works around at the time. It certainly follows the entropic theme that was so prevalent in works by others associated with the New Wave – Aldiss, Ballard, Moorcock, Sladek, and so on. Indeed, you can see the elements employed by those writers standing at the core of this work. A post-apocalyptic landscape, wet and chilly. A band of misfits on a seemingly pointless and hopeless quest. A peppering of the off-beat, with nods to other authors, especially that other MJ.

Yet for all that, this is Mike Harrison’s work and no pale shadow of anyone else’s. Everything that appears in later, more mature work, is to be found here. The same refusal to play god with world building. The same dark humour. The same surreal settings that blossom like fungus and mould across the face of the real. And by saying this is to be found in Harrison’s more mature work is not to imply this is somehow immature. Far from it.

We have here a work that is assured and highly accomplished as well as, dare I say it, literary. The characters are interesting. They may not develop much, but that is not the point of the book. And we are certainly left with enough to be curious about how they came to be as they are and where they might go afterwards. The portrayal of a society dissolving into the mire is well realised. We are left wanting more.

The book is also short and tightly written. One could wish that authors and publishers would get back to work of this length. If a story requires length, then it should be long, but much sf these days is bloated, full of stuff that doesn’t need to be there to tell the story. Publishing seems to demand 100,000 plus words when many stories would be far better told in 70,000 or less.

If you like Harrison’s later work, this is well worth seeking out.