Friday, 26 March 2010

The Wanderground - Sally Miller Gearhart

This is a well-written novel that explores important questions. Yet it left me deeply unsatisfied. The novel posits a future in which the Earth has rebelled against the domination of men. They are confined to ‘the city’, the only place where technology (and male sexual potency) still functions. Whilst there are women in the city, some have moved to the hill country and created communities. There they have also developed telepathy, telekinesis, and the power of flight.

As a scenario, it is science fantasy rather than science fiction; wishful thinking rather than a genuine exploration of how the earth has been ravaged and what the consequences might be. But as, in part, a utopian novel, the important aspect of the book is the exploration of ideas about how a particular community works.

We are treated to a number of chapters that display the powers the hill women have developed, that tell us how wonderfully loving and ecologically conscious they all are. By half way I was beginning to tire of the sugary and highly sexist assumptions that underpinned this ‘utopian’ society.

The book is lauded for its questioning of the nature of violence and whether this is gendered based. Apart from a token argument toward the end that tries to shoehorn a bit of balance into the question, the book seems to start with and expound the idea that men are responsible for all violence and ills in the world, that all women and homosexuals are victims.

This seriously undermines what would otherwise have been a truly interesting work. Had this stark, black and white image been given shade and colour; had the storyline (such as it is) been better developed (so that the feeling of threat came across as more than the annoyance one might experience at a shoe lace breaking) and resolved with a bit more than, ‘Oh we’d better think about doing something about that,’ before getting straight back to life as normal; it would have been lifted into a different league altogether.

I do realise that these may actually have been some of the points that the author was trying to make – that utopia is all well and good, but it is boring, suffocating, shored up by the prejudices of those for whom it is utopia (and a hell for everyone else), as well as being extremely vulnerable to alternative visions of the world. Unfortunately, judging by the praise heaped on the book, these particular observations were either unintended by the author, or missed by the many who read it.

For all that, it is well worth reading, not least for the fact it is fantasy book that makes an attempt to tackle some of the most serious questions facing humanity. This can be done whilst still producing a well-written work. Such books exist. Sadly they are few and far between. We should treasure the ones we do have.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Road To Corlay - Richard Cowper

Richard Cowper (real name John Middleton Murry) came of illustrious literary stock. That sort of thing can destroy you as a writer, or it can make you. In Cowper’s case, it clearly had a good influence – even if he turned away from ‘literary’ writing and opted for the genres of science fiction and fantasy to tell his tales.

This gives us a wonderful mix of a highly accomplished writer allowing his imagination free range. The result is sophisticated and complex work that is also lyrical, accessible, and which touches on areas most sf&f writers steer clear of or do very badly.

In this case, the subject is religion. Most sf&f writers these days would give us a sixty thousand word prologue explaining the religion and all its by-ways; we would be ‘treated’ to pages of ceremonial and dreary descriptions of places and people before we got anywhere near a story. And then it would be handled badly.

There is nothing especially original about Cowper’s story – two religious cultures (one old, one new) clash. But instead of being portentous about it, Cowper tells us the story of individuals caught up in this conflict. Through their stories we learn of the wider conflict, but it always remains at a personal and sometimes heartbreaking level.

And if that was not enough, Cowper adds extra layers. All are beautifully portrayed; all treat the reader with intelligence. We do not need to have things explained if the writer weaves these things into their tale. We are given enough to see what the writer means, yet not so much that we cannot then apply our own imagination. Cowper does this wonderfully. The hints of ecological disaster, the way the past affects the future, the way actions have consequences, the way that failure to act also has consequences.

This book is the first of a trilogy and this edition contains the novella which inspired the rest of the story. I read them both a long time when they were first published, but have only now managed to find a set of all three. I am looking forward very much to seeing how Cowper develops what has happened so far. If he keeps to the standard of this first book, I am not going to be disappointed.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Cryptozoic - Brian Aldiss

A story about time and time-travel – the basic premiss is that time is purely our perception of the continuum and with training of the mind we are able to travel in time. This becomes so popular it affects the economy and leads to social break down, followed by revolution and military dictatorship. Against this background, Bush, one of the more accomplished travellers is forcibly recruited by the military and tasked with assassinating someone who has taken time-travel to a further level and who speculates that our perception of time is the wrong way round.

Bush, of course, has no desire to assassinate someone who might be able to bring down the military dictatorship. Along with other rebels he manages to find the fugitive and learn his secret before others succeed in assassinating him. The plot sounds like something straight from a sci fi pulp magazine, but that background is thoughtfully handled and the emphasis of the book is on the internal world of the characters and their own precarious navigation through what just might be madness.

Aldiss never fails to surprise me. Even with books I have read before (this first appeared in 1967 under the title An Age), I am always surprised by the feel of them, the texture of the story, the approach to ideas. Mind time travel was not a new idea, but Aldiss explores the idea here and introduces a different slant that could perhaps have done with more exploration (although many others have explored the idea).

Well written and well constructed, with an ending that leaves you wondering, this is an excellent example of how sf can blend action and ideas and come up with something every bit as good as a literary novel.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Bunny Lake Is Missing - Evelyn Piper

This 1957 thriller is an eye-opener. Like the Brand book, I sought this out because I once saw the film. And I’m glad I did. It’s riveting stuff. Dark, tense, suspenseful. And beautifully written.

Blanche Lake, an unmarried mother and recently moved to New York, goes the school at the end of the day to collect her daughter from the nursery. Bunny isn’t there. No one remembers Bunny being there in the first place. Blanche, already in a delicate psychological state because of her ‘situation’ and an overbearing mother, becomes frantic. The police are sceptical and, having looked through her apartment, can find no trace of a child having existed.

This is a nightmare that grips the reader from the very beginning and it does not let go. Taking place mostly in darkness, even the reader begins to wonder if, perhaps, Blanche is deluded and we are taking a journey into the mind of a psychotic woman. But little clues mount up and the motives of those whom Blanche meets in her frantic search are called into question.

This portrayal of a mind in turmoil and the paranoia it so easily engenders is wonderfully observed. The book is a blend of this psychological maelstrom (it rattles along at a breathless pace with no chapter breaks), and the best of noirish, gritty thriller writing. Although it lacks the overt violence of a Chandler or Hammett, the psychological violence is brutal and the sense of menace drenches the whole piece.

I have read criticism of the book’s ending claiming it is something of an anti-climax. It didn’t read like that to me. The final scene on the steps outside the school very cleverly wraps up the story whilst leaving so much unresolved that it is clear that whilst there is one level of resolution, there is a great deal more left of the night to be journeyed through.

Excellent stuff.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Green For Danger - Christianna Brand

This is a good, old-fashioned whodunit of the very best kind. Well plotted. Great characters. Great background. Well-written. What more do you need?

The action takes place in a hospital during the Blitz. An ARP Warden dies on the operating table. Although devastating to those involved, it is investigated and pronounced to be an accident. And then one of the nurses claims it was a murder and knows how it was done. When she is found stabbed to death, the whole can of ugly little worms is spilled.

I first came across this in the film version. With a screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Alastair Sim as the detective (along with a notable cast), you can imagine how good it was – noirish, pacy, and full of menace, yet retaining an understated wit. I had been keeping an eye open for the book for a long time and was glad, finally, to get hold of a copy. It is every bit as good as the film. Well-written, it sticks to the conventions of the whodunit (there are clues from the very beginning and you are never cheated), yet rises above much of the genre to find a place in company with work by the likes of Allingham and Marsh (and better than Christie and Sayers).

I will certainly be keeping my eye out for more of Brand’s work.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Last Of The Country House Murders - Emma Tennant

Like a number of her early novels, the first impression is of a bit of ‘60s fluff – slightly weird light reading. But that is to do these books a disservice. Yes they are weird (sometimes completely off the wall surreal) – which for me is a good thing. Yes they are comic (in that apparently light-hearted foolishness that fools you long enough for the vinegar to hit the raw nerve ends) – which for me is a good thing. Yes they are short – a great virtue when confronted with the bloated corpses of books that are passed off as literature.

First impressions, however, are deceptive. This is multi-layered work that wears its erudition and its vision very lightly. Not in a throwaway sense, but in the way that elegant solutions always draw the ‘why didn’t I think of that response’. It is simple, yet a work of profundity at the same time. It is also prescient.

In some unspecified and not-too-distant future, Britain is collapsing beneath the yoke of a vaguely Orwellian state. The proles are literally beyond the pale and left to fend for themselves as best they can. Dangerous thinkers are isolated. Those previously wealthy are shut up in enclaves and allowed to die out, playing out their rituals in little theme parks. Those that are biggest threat to the state are kept distracted by endless tours and diversions. One of these is to be exactly what the title suggests.

This prefigures concerns that emerged in the ‘80s that Britain was fast become a heritage theme park and that the only industrial jobs left would be in museums, or in TV shows that harked back to a golden age. Country house murders, country house tours, all played on this cosy and rosy view of the past. But it is a past that never existed (and those elements that did were propped up then as in this future, by misery and servitude to an ethos that protects an elite). And because it never existed, attempts to recreate it soon fall apart. The planned murder goes completely awry. The agent of the state tasked with overseeing it, fails completely. And the proles storm the barricades.

Although we do not learn what happens afterwards (probably more of the same but with different masters), we get a glimpse not just of what is about to happen politically in Britain, but what the consequences might be. That there has been no revolution, no popular uprising, is not a defect of the book. The potential is there. Sadly, perhaps (or not) the British are supine when it comes to upheaval. They’d rather deal with the devil than throw him out and start taking responsibility for themselves.

Simply written (and clearly the work of an author being allowed by a publisher to develop their talent) this is, nonetheless, a highly accomplished work. Its comic element is reminiscent of Jack Trevor Story (anarchic, dark, well observed, and tending to the absurd). Its brevity, as I have alluded, is one of its strengths – the reader is trusted to fill in details and follow up on issues raised. It was and remains a breath of fresh air. Not to everyone’s taste, perhaps, but definitely to mine.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Vineland - Thomas Pynchon

This book, appropriately enough, was a bit like listening to a harmless old stoner rambling on in the corner of the room. By turns interesting, funny, and strange, but for the most part following an internal road map that has no relevance to the outside world, stopping off along the way to point out stuff that to the stoned mind is probably fascinating, but to an outsider is a chipped old bit of concrete.

Thomas Pynchon is an author I feel I should like. I do remember being impressed with Gravity’s Rainbow when I read it in the ‘70s, but maybe my tastes have changed. Given the accolades on the cover, I couldn’t help thinking this was a case of emperor’s clothes. The plot is pure TV soap-opera schlock. The cast of weirdos aren’t very weird. There is next to no characterization – and the one character with whom one should have had any sympathy elicited none from me. Indeed, by the time I got to the end of the book I was hoping they’d all get run over or whisked off in black helicopters never to be seen again.

The whole gave the impression of being a uniformly dull slab of rock onto which someone had tried, without success, to carve an elaborate portrait of a particular piece of American history. They used the wrong tools, to my mind, as it seemed to me that the surface was barely scratched. Maybe that’s the haze of dope smoke obscuring the view. The paranoia of the period, the hope and betrayal, the self-obsession characteristic both of many hippies and most Feds (as well as the destructive cycle into which both became locked) have all been dealt with far better by other writers.

I had been considering looking at other work by Pynchon, but after this, I don’t think I’ll bother.