David Hebblethwaite

Wild swan 1169 Reputation points Help-d956b624e3a70f299ff60fb4f6e79359
  • Heroes in the Wind: from Kull to Conan: The Best of Robert E. Howard (Penguin Modern Classics)

    The first Howard I read; I'm ambivalent.

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    Heroes in the Wind is a new volume from Penguin Modern Classics collecting together fourteen stories by Robert E. Howard, selected and introduced by John Clute. In a way, this development may be surprising: if you’d never read a word of Howard, what would you imagine his stories to be? Escapist potboilers with mighty-thewed heroes, perhaps? In a range of ‘classics’? Clute asks a similar question at the start of his introduction: knowing what we do about Howard, should we — do we want to — read him? Yes, says Clute, because whatever else Howard was, he was a storyteller (literally speaking the words of his stories aloud as he typed them); and because he had more to say to us than bald synopses of his tales may suggest. What do I make of that, reading Howard for the first time here in 2009, and being of a similar age as he was towards the end of his career? I cannot be as enthusiastic as Clute, but I do see where he’s coming from. Let it be acknowledged first of all that the negati...Heroes in the Wind is a new volume from Penguin Modern Classics collecting together fourteen stories by Robert E. Howard, selected and introduced by John Clute. In a way, this development may be surprising: if you’d never read a word of Howard, what would you imagine his stories to be? Escapist potboilers with mighty-thewed heroes, perhaps? In a range of ‘classics’? Clute asks a similar question at the start of his introduction: knowing what we do about Howard, should we — do we want to — read him? Yes, says Clute, because whatever else Howard was, he was a storyteller (literally speaking the words of his stories aloud as he typed them); and because he had more to say to us than bald synopses of his tales may suggest. What do I make of that, reading Howard for the first time here in 2009, and being of a similar age as he was towards the end of his career? I cannot be as enthusiastic as Clute, but I do see where he’s coming from. Let it be acknowledged first of all that the negative aspects we may anticipate — the stereotyping, the bloody violence — are indeed here; and, regardless of the distance of history, they make for unpleasant reading (to put it mildly). But, side-by-side with these, Howard’s fiction has what Clute referred to in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) as the ‘wind of Story’ — a restless storytelling energy that led to such dynamic passages as this charge into battle led by Cormac of Connacht (from ‘Kings of the Night’): "A wild roar answered [Cormac], and loosing rein he shot down the slope with five hundred yelling riders plunging headlong after him. And even at that moment a storm of arrows swept the valley from either side like a dark cloud and the terrible clamor of the Picts split the skies. And over the eastern ridge, like a sudden burst of rolling thunder on Judgment Day, rushed the war-chariots. Headlong down the slope they roared, foam flying from the horses’ distended nostrils, frantic feet scarcely seeming to touch the ground, making naught of the tall heather…" I can’t deny the sheer kinetic force of such writing. Yet I find myself feeling ambivalent about these stories. I think it’s because I don’t find the positive qualities to which Clute refers to be as prevalent within the tales as I’d have liked. Yes, I know: other people’s readings should have no bearing on mine; but this is one occasion where what I’ve read about the book (namely Clute’s introduction) has influenced how I read the book. I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing here, because Heroes in the Wind is Clute’s book as well as Howard’s; and I feel it’s only right to pay attention to his views on the material he has compiled. Clute’s introduction is, incidentally, a fine example of what an introduction should do, which is to provide context and illuminate the book in a way that enhances the reading experience, rather than obviating it. How many times have you seen an introduction to a work of ‘classic’ fiction that starts with a warning like: ‘This introduction makes the plot of the book plain’ — or that does exactly that, but without the warning? Not here, thankfully. The main positive qualities of Howard’s stories that I take from Clute’s introduction are the dynamism of telling which I noted earlier; and a certain sense of bleakness that gives the tales more of an edge. I see both of these qualities in the stories themselves; the trouble is that, too often, I found myself noticing them intellectually, rather than feeling them emanating from the prose (admittedly, this was more often an issue with the latter quality than the former). The stories of Heroes in the Wind are grouped into three sections. The first contains early sword and sorcery tales with a number of protagonists, notably the Atlantean Kull, King of Valusia, and the Pict Bran Mak Morn. Though there is an energy about these pieces (they include ‘Kings of the Night’, from which I quoted the passage above), I get a sense of it being held back. In part, I think this is because the characters are held back somewhat (most especially Kull, who longs for the days when he was a warrior, free to roam); and of course Howard had less experience as a writer then. What I think comes through most strongly in these first tales is a sense of horror at what lies beneath the skin of reality: most of them involve an encounter with supernatural entities from beyond (on a historical note, it’s fascinating to see how much thinner the line the line between sword and sorcery and horror could be eighty years ago than it is today). There’s also a recurring theme that time and civilisations will pass, that we are ‘the jest of the gods’ – but the full force of this didn’t come across the same. The volume’s second section moves away from sword and sorcery; and it’s here, in ‘Graveyard Rats’, that I find Howard really hitting his stride. This is a horror story which begins with a man being driven insane when he finds his dead (and buried) brother’s head on the mantel and goes on to unravel what happened, and why. The momentum of this piece never lets up, and Howard smartly plays on our expectations; but I wouldn’t go so far as Clute does in calling it ‘an oneiric vision of how the world claws its victims into obedience and death’ — I don’t find the story quite as powerful as that. Also in this section is one of the collection’s longest tales, ‘Vultures of Wahpeton’. John Middleton, the sheriff of Wahpeton, hires a Texan named Steve Corcoran as his deputy to deal with a mysterious gang known as the Vultures. But there’s more to the situation than meets the eye: Middleton is actually the leader of the Vultures, and makes a deal with Corcoran to double-cross the gang and split a hoard of gold. And the intrigues continue… Again, Clute is a good guide to the story — ‘we are left with a sense of the profound entrapping starkness of the world’ — but, also again, I do not feel this as strongly as he suggests. There is a bleak moral complexity to this piece: ‘Vultures’ could as well be a metaphor as the name of a gang; and, thanks to his background, even Corcoran’s moral code is more elastic than one would anticipate from a ‘hero’ (even taking into account historical distance). Yet, I keep coming back to that same stumbling-block: that something stops me experiencing this on a deeper emotional level. I’m coming to think that I just don’t find Howard’s pulp style very effective in this regard. On to the final section, and Howard’s most famous creation — Conan; and, straight away, I feel that the ‘wind of Story’ blows more strongly here than it did through the earlier sword and sorcery tales. Conan is a freer protagonist, and Howard’s telling is freer; ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ demonstrates marvellously what its genre can offer: the unceasing forward motion of the quest, and the fizz of strangeness and magic. I don’t think it works quite so well when we don’t travel directly with Conan (or Howard’s secondary protagonists)– for example, there are passages in ‘A Witch Shall Be Born’ in which past events are reported, and they don’t have the same impact as when we are ‘there’, so to speak; but, at his best, Howard is every bit the storyteller that Clute’s introduction promises. I’d like to conclude by returning to a subject I mentioned in passing at the beginning — are these stories really escapist? I suppose, before I started Heroes in the Wind, I was expecting to find bracing adventure stories within. What I found was something slightly different, something that I don’t feel is quite so well suited to being read for escapist motives; because these stories seem all too mindful that there is ultimately no escape. In this context, the fight of the warrior reads like a frantic attempt to beat back the inexorable tide of reality — the kind of bleakness to which Clute refers. [EDIT: I’ve been made aware that my wording here is not as clear as it could be, so I’ll clarify. I was talking about escapism because it’s an accusation often – and often unfairly – levelled at fantasy. Howard’s fiction isn’t like that, which, in my view, is wholly a positive attribute.] In the end, I have to say I’m rather ambivalent towards these stories as a whole; I see what’s good about them, but there isn’t quite enough of it in them for me. But there’s more to Howard’s tales than first appearances suggest; and his heroes will live on. I think it’s good that we have Heroes in the Wind as an overview. (more)

  • The City in These Pages

    Ed McBain meets... well, read and find out

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    John Grant is a writer who’s not afraid to push the buttons of genre to see what happens (and, by coincidence, he was one of the editors of the very same encyclopedia in which the critical term ‘crosshatch’ was coined); that quality is richly displayed in his novella The City in These Pages. As its title suggests, this is an homage to Ed McBain’s ‘87th Precinct’ novels — though it soon becomes rather more than that. The basic story is that the boys of New Amsterdam’s 14th Precinct have a serial killer on their hands; they dub him the ‘Humor Guy’ because of the darkly comic nature of his modus operandi (the first sees a local crime boss found inside a giant condom, for example). The killings grow more and more incredible, until the Humor Guy turns himself in, claiming that the world itself is not as it seems… I’ve read only two Ed McBain novels, but all the same, I recognise enough of the similarities Grant’s novella shares. There’s no need to be familiar with McBain’s work, though....John Grant is a writer who’s not afraid to push the buttons of genre to see what happens (and, by coincidence, he was one of the editors of the very same encyclopedia in which the critical term ‘crosshatch’ was coined); that quality is richly displayed in his novella The City in These Pages. As its title suggests, this is an homage to Ed McBain’s ‘87th Precinct’ novels — though it soon becomes rather more than that. The basic story is that the boys of New Amsterdam’s 14th Precinct have a serial killer on their hands; they dub him the ‘Humor Guy’ because of the darkly comic nature of his modus operandi (the first sees a local crime boss found inside a giant condom, for example). The killings grow more and more incredible, until the Humor Guy turns himself in, claiming that the world itself is not as it seems… I’ve read only two Ed McBain novels, but all the same, I recognise enough of the similarities Grant’s novella shares. There’s no need to be familiar with McBain’s work, though. For one thing, the style of prose Grant uses here is a joy to read; rapid-fire, with tongue nicely in cheek (’[the cops:] watched in close-up the stationary back of a truck belching pollution at them. It was in town to deliver farm-fresh organic produce for the health benefit of everyone whose lungs it was corroding’). Characterisation is broad-brush, and sometimes feels awkward (one of the cops occasionally ponders some Big Questions, which proves necessary for later in the story, but still jars a bit with the way the rest of his character is presented), but they’re still engaging, thanks to Grant’s humour. The crime story is… not really a crime story at all (there is a ‘crime’, in a sense, but it’s not the one you think it is). Certainly it’s not a detection as such, because the protagonists don’t undertake a proper detective process — the Humor Guy calls all the shots. In short, the crime story isn’t the point. What is the point is the fantasy, and here Grant excels. I’ve read quite a lot of his fiction and, enjoyable though I often find it, I sometimes feel that, if I know where he’s coming from, I might be able to see some of where he’s going. Not in this case. The City in These Pages swings from humorous police procedural to grand cosmic speculation — as I kind of expected it would. But, just when you think you’ve got it pinned down, it wriggles free of your grasp and does something else. Even now, having read it, I can’t decide on a definitive interpretation of what happens. The novella offers many ideas to fire the imagination, of which I’m prepared to reveal one: you know all those brief period of life that you can’t recall in detail — boring journeys to work, and so on? What if those periods of time ‘escaped’ and someone else could live in them? Grant’s skill in juggling ideas like this, and all the other elements of his story, makes for a remarkable novella. (more)

  • The City and the City

    Two cities, one place...

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    (I’ve been reading discussions on this book by Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts; I’ll be referring to them a few times in this review.) Two things you can almost guarantee of a China Miéville novel are that it will have an urban setting, and that it will play games (albeit probably with serious intent) with genre. And here, indeed, we get both: our setting is somewhere in the region where Europe and Asia meet, in the fictional cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are unique in that they overlap in physical reality. (Technically, this is a spoiler, but I reveal it because it makes the book more interesting, and because Miéville reveals it himself forty or fifty pages in. Actually, it’s possible to work out what we’re dealing with before then, because the very first chapter mentions an area called a ‘crosshatch’. Now, ‘crosshatch’ was coined as a critical term in the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997); it means a region where different realities intersect — and, ...(I’ve been reading discussions on this book by Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts; I’ll be referring to them a few times in this review.) Two things you can almost guarantee of a China Miéville novel are that it will have an urban setting, and that it will play games (albeit probably with serious intent) with genre. And here, indeed, we get both: our setting is somewhere in the region where Europe and Asia meet, in the fictional cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are unique in that they overlap in physical reality. (Technically, this is a spoiler, but I reveal it because it makes the book more interesting, and because Miéville reveals it himself forty or fifty pages in. Actually, it’s possible to work out what we’re dealing with before then, because the very first chapter mentions an area called a ‘crosshatch’. Now, ‘crosshatch’ was coined as a critical term in the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997); it means a region where different realities intersect — and, in this novel, crosshatches are the points where the realities of Ul Qoma and Besźel become intertwined. Like Jeff Vandermeer in the comments on Niall Harrison’s post, I’m not sure why Miéville feels the need to employ misdirection over this: if you know what a crosshatch is in a fantasy context, there’s no mystery; and if you don’t, the first-person narrator is happy to spill the beans soon enough, so why does he pussyfoot around to begin with?) Anyway, the cities overlap, and it’s possible to sense both of them at once. It’s not wise to do so, however, because if you cross the border illegally (and there’s only one place to cross legally), you will have committed ‘breach’, and the mysterious forces of ‘Breach’ (more distinctively different names would have been nice) will take you away and… well, nobody knows, but you won’t come back. So people in both cities try their best to ‘unsee’ the other place. (Another aside, but I found this ‘unseeing’ business rather wearying. It’s very tempting to read it as a metaphor for the way we ‘unsee’ people in our own lives — indeed, the instinctive ’pull’ towards this metaphorical reading is as strong as any I’ve felt in a long time — but I don’t think it holds up to close examination. To generalise, the people we may choose to ’unsee’ tend to be [so we believe:] worse off than ourselves; but the default ‘other’ in The City & the City is Ul Qoma, which is better off than Besźel. And actually, we don’t really ‘unsee’ people in the same sense; we ignore them, we might even pretend that they don’t exist — but that’s very different from actively trying not to perceive something, as happens in Besźel and Ul Qoma. (My point here is that I’m left unsure whether I’m supposed to take this metaphorical reading seriously, and there are problems either way. If I am, the metaphor doesn’t work; if I’m not, it’s intrusive. Miéville is surely too canny a writer not to know that this reading is possible, but why make it so noticeable if it doesn’t work? Unless he’s making a point about metaphors themselves, in which case, I wish he’d found a less annoying way to make it.) Back to the story: our narrator is Tyador Borlú, a Besź detective investigating the murder of a young woman who turns out to be an Mahalia Geary, an American archaeology student, working on a dig in Ul Qoma that was looking at artefacts of the mysterious Precursor civilisation that existed before the two cities became conjoined (whether Besźel and Ul Qoma were originally two cities that fused, or one that split apart, is unknown). Mahalia, it transpires, believed in the existence of Orciny, the third city rumoured to exist in the interstices of the other two, and thought by most to be superstition. She also seems to have made enemies amongst the myriad extremist political factions of the cities. Borlú’s investigation takes him not only to Ul Qoma, but on a journey of discovery to the very heart of his reality… but you’d expect nothing less, would you? Some negatives: Miéville’s prose and characterisation seem… not so much lacking as unsatisfying; these may be consequences of the story he has chosen to write. There are, of course, moments of very effective writing (on the contrast between the office and the crime scene: ‘Black tea and bread and paperwork, the boredom and striplights, all so much not like the peeling back of that wet-heavy, cumbersome mattress, in the yard, in the dark’), but on the whole, the prose seemed so restrained that the individual cities didn’t come to life in my mind. There’s much more spark when Miéville is writing action and describing the intersection of realities; maybe it’s that the investigation format restricts the author’s opportunities to write those kinds of passages. In terms of characterisation, Tyador Borlú’s voice comes through as a voice, while nevertheless exhibiting Miéville’s signature style. But Borlú and colleagues feel somewhat flat; they don’t seem to have much personality (though this may be because the narrative is so focused on the investigation that we don’t get chance to see the characters ‘in the round’), nor are they distinctive enough individually. Be that as it may, the real interest of The City & the City lies elsewhere. Between them, Harrison, Hartland, and Roberts raise two related issues (at least, I think they’re related) that get at the heart of what I think is most interesting about this novel. These issues are how far it is possible to accept the fantasy notions as existing in the real world; and how well the modes of fantasy and crime fiction work together. And most interesting about the novel for me is what I think Miéville is trying to do with the fantasy: to take something fantastic, and make it part of reality — and not just in the sense of ‘what would it be like if..?’, but in a truly fundamental, formal sense. Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland both have problems ‘believing’ in the overlapping cities, or at least in the cities’ existing in our world. I was trying to pin down exactly what they meant, when I realised there was an unspoken assumption in their discussion: it seems to me that they assume the conjoined cities are a product of shared delusion, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, and that the ‘boundaries’ between them are just in people’s minds (so are all place boundaries, technically, but I trust the distinction I’m making is clear). Now, it never entered my head — and still doesn’t — to think that the situation in the book is anything other than as literally described; I assumed, and still assume, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are two places whose realities are intertwined; their inhabitants don’t have to ‘believe’ in the relationship between the cities, because that is how things are. So, from that point of view, I have no trouble accepting Miéville’s basic reality, because he imagines it solidly enough. Why do I assume all this is ‘real’ and not delusion? Because of the words Miéville uses: ‘crosshatch’ is the clearest suggestion that we’re dealing with physical realities here, but there are subtler hints. The author makes other critical terms into everyday words (I spotted ‘alterity’ and ‘equipoise’, to name two); people talk about ‘invoking’ Breach, as though it’s not clear to them whether that agency is supernatural or not, or whether that makes any difference. This all seems to me an attempt to deliberately blur the lines between the fantastic and the mimetic, at the level of the text itself; and in that respect, I think it works very well indeed. (This is not to imply that I have no problems with Miéville’s reality-building; I do have trouble accepting his characters’ response to their reality. I can’t believe people would have the discipline to keep ‘unseeing’ things for hundreds of years; the sheer effort would surely be too great, not to mention that it’s impracticable (you have to be able to dodge out of the way of traffic from either city, for one thing). I also can’t believe that the rules of Breach, shown as they are to be absurd and morally reprehensible (Breach will come down on you like a tonne of bricks if you accidentally stray across the boundary, but will leave the most heinous crime untouched if it didn’t involve actual breach), could have lasted for so long without protest. Perhaps this is Miéville’s comment on people’s unthinking adherence to unjust rules; if so, it’s too exaggerated to have real impact.) Then there’s the issue of crime versus fantasy, and whether there need be a ‘versus’ at all. Roberts in particular argues that the two modes don’t really work together in The City & the City; and I agree with him — but I also think the novel depends on that being so. I’d agree that the fantasy keeps the pages turning more than does the mystery (certainly I was gripped the most when I was reading about the fantastic elements); but the two are bound together as tightly as the cities themselves. The mystery element plays into and, to an extent, subverts our expectations of the fantasy — and, ultimately, eats away at the fantasy until all that’s left is a core. The City & the City works well enough as a detection: it has the requisite plot twists, and the denouement is as satisfying in its unmasking of the villain — but that’s all. The fantasy element is by far the most interesting part of Miéville’s novel; and his stripping away of the fantasy to bring the crime story to the fore means the book loses some of that interest. It’s a case of a book which is fine at what it does, but still makes one wish it was doing something else instead. (more)

  • Replay (Fantasy Masterworks)

    A jewel of a book

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    Jeff Winston is 43, his life at a dead-end, when he dies suddenly — and wakes up back at college in 1963, with full knowledge of the intervening twenty-five years. He has the chance to create a better life for himself, and Jeff seizes the opportunity with gusto, placing bets and making investments that leave him a very wealthy young man. Jeff makes a hash of trying to impress his old wife this time around, and isn’t really keen on the heiress he eventually partners; but Jeff does love Gretchen, the daughter resulting from that relationship. So Jeff has pretty much made it — until he reaches the age of 43, dies at exactly the same moment, and returns to 1963, with the previous quarter-century erased from all reality, except in Jeff’s own memories. And so the cycle repeats, with Jeff living out his life anew, able to remember each iteration but not to make any lasting change — until, in one ‘replay’ (as Jeff calls these iterations), the anomaly of a blockbuster movie he’s never heard...Jeff Winston is 43, his life at a dead-end, when he dies suddenly — and wakes up back at college in 1963, with full knowledge of the intervening twenty-five years. He has the chance to create a better life for himself, and Jeff seizes the opportunity with gusto, placing bets and making investments that leave him a very wealthy young man. Jeff makes a hash of trying to impress his old wife this time around, and isn’t really keen on the heiress he eventually partners; but Jeff does love Gretchen, the daughter resulting from that relationship. So Jeff has pretty much made it — until he reaches the age of 43, dies at exactly the same moment, and returns to 1963, with the previous quarter-century erased from all reality, except in Jeff’s own memories. And so the cycle repeats, with Jeff living out his life anew, able to remember each iteration but not to make any lasting change — until, in one ‘replay’ (as Jeff calls these iterations), the anomaly of a blockbuster movie he’s never heard of before leads Jeff to Pamela Phillips, the film’s maker and a fellow replayer. Perhaps inevitably, as the only two who know (or could ever understand) what the other is going through, they fall in love. But they discover a pressing issue: the beginnings of each replay are becoming ’skewed’; though the moment of death for both Jeff and Pamela remains the same, the time their awarenesses return to is growing later and later — so much so that they may only have a handful of replays left. I came to Replay with a certain amount of anticipation: it won the World Fantasy Award, and was reprinted in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series a few years ago, so clearly it had a high reputation. There was also the general sense of apprehension one often has on reading a ‘classic’ (even one that’s only twenty years old), wondering if it will stand the tests of time and of familiarity with its themes. Well, there was no need to be concerned this time — Replay is a wonderful book that deserves all the praise it has been given. It’s important to say first what Replay is and isn’t about: it’s a time travel story, but not one about time travel per se; Grimwood attempts no real explanation of why the replays are happening. Rather, he is much more interested in the emotional ramifications of the premise on his characters, and it’s here that the novel really shines. Each replay is different, as Jeff chooses different paths through his life; and these never feel arbitrary — there’s a logic to their progression. He starts off, as one might in his situation, using his knowledge of the future to improve his lot materially. Then he moves to trying (unsuccessfully) to change history for the better; learning from his first replay to create greater contentment in his second; descending into hedonistic nihilism in the third when it becomes clear that nothing he does will last; and so on. And it rings true at every stage. The interplay between Jeff and Pamela also changes subtly each time they meet, as their different experiences change them; and this too re mains believeable throughout. There’s a moment towards the end that particularly made me smile (I’ll not elaborate on it, to preserve the effect), when Pamela reacts to Jeff in a way he isn’t expecting; and, as readers, we can see the matter from both sides — and have sympathy for both characters. The final position of the protagonists’ relationship is also unexpected and yet, with hindsight, is probably just as it would be in reality. It’s this emotional authenticity that makes Replay such a joy to read. Something else that makes Replay a joy is the way it’s written — not so much individual nuggets of prose (though it has its share of them, such as the passage describing what goes through Jeff’s mind as he dies for the first time), as the way the novel is structured, and its general tone. There are a few times when the book gets tedious (Jeff’s hedonistic period drags in particular); but, generally, Grimwood knows exactly when to throw something new into the mix to move the story forward, whether it’s Jeff’s discovery of other replayers, or… well, find out for yourself. There’s also a very welcome lightness of tone to the book — not an absence of seriousness, but an energy to the telling. One useful function of this is to stop this moral tale feeling too preachy. There were a few a moments when I felt that Grimwood-the-author was lecturing me-the-reader, but they are few; even the ending, with its moral of ‘make the most of the life you have’, doesn’t really feel didactic, because the story has made the case for that viewpoint so persuasively. Apparently Grimwood was working on a sequel to Replay when he died (at the sadly young age of 59). I’m ambivalent towards the idea of a second book: on the one hand, if he could have made it as good as this, I would love to find out what he had planned. On the other hand, Replay is fine as it is, needs no embellishments, and deservedly puts its author’s name down in history as one of the greats. Replay was not the first text to examine the question ‘what if you could live your life again?’, and it certainly wasn’t the last — but, in its elegance and eloquence, it must surely be one of the best. (more)

  • Song of Time

    Flawed, but -- at its best -- beautiful

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    Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time begins as Roushana Maitland, an aged concert violinist, finds an angelically beautiful young man washed up on the shore near her Cornish home. He has no memory of himself or his past, so Roushana calls him Adam, which becomes, in effect, his real name. She tells the young man stories from her life — memories of her childhood in Birmingham, of travelling to India with her mother to aid the victims of nuclear fallout, of her musical career in Paris. But there’s another point to these recollections (which alternate with present-tense passages depicting Roushana and Adam in Cornwall): Roushana is dying, but has a chance to preserve herself by ‘uploading’ her memories to a crystal implanted in her brain, which will enable her to enter a virtual ‘afterlife’ (wherein she will still be able to interact with the world, albeit non-corporeally). And, of course, Adam has a secret — but so does Roushana. My journey through Song of Time was a strange one. For the firs... Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time begins as Roushana Maitland, an aged concert violinist, finds an angelically beautiful young man washed up on the shore near her Cornish home. He has no memory of himself or his past, so Roushana calls him Adam, which becomes, in effect, his real name. She tells the young man stories from her life — memories of her childhood in Birmingham, of travelling to India with her mother to aid the victims of nuclear fallout, of her musical career in Paris. But there’s another point to these recollections (which alternate with present-tense passages depicting Roushana and Adam in Cornwall): Roushana is dying, but has a chance to preserve herself by ‘uploading’ her memories to a crystal implanted in her brain, which will enable her to enter a virtual ‘afterlife’ (wherein she will still be able to interact with the world, albeit non-corporeally). And, of course, Adam has a secret — but so does Roushana. My journey through Song of Time was a strange one. For the first third, I found the book very moving; I was feeling the emotions while bypassing the words, which doesn’t happen very often. But the remainder of the novel was much less affecting — apart, that is, from the final pages. Much of that opening third details Roushana’s early life, when she was merely a good musician, overshadowed by her brilliant brother Leo. But Leo had contracted ‘white plague’, an engineered virus that caused multiple food intolerances, and did not have long to live. It’s this early part, laced with tragedy, where I found MacLeod’s writing to be particularly evocative and poignant. For example: ‘All I remember is being summoned from lessons at school just before lunch, and finding Mum sitting waitinf for me on the sofa in the head teacher’s office, her face white and entirely blank. The head seemed embarrassed, and mumbled that it was probably better if she left us both alone.’ So what happens to the emotional impact later on? What changes? In a way, nothing — what happens is that, as the story moves on, something comes to the foreground that had been niggling me from early on. It gives rise to my main problem with Song of Time: that I don’t buy into the future presented by the book. Throughout, the prose style is quiet and reflective; this is appropriate, given the nature of the story, but has the effect of ‘muffling’ the futuristic changes. So, when Roushana describes the more extreme weather of her childhood, we don’t feel that weather — it feels as though life carries on pretty much as it does now, however much the author suggests that it does not. And the Paris of her adult years does not feel as turbulent as the text says it is. Even Roushana’s Cornwall, in the closing years of the current century. has a timeless quality about it; only the sequences set in India don’t feel so distant. But my credulity was most tested with the eruption in the novel of the Yellowstone supervolcano. I may be mistaken, but my understanding is that such an event would be disastrous for human civilisations the world over. Yet even the impact of this eruption, as depicted in the novel, did not feel as great to me as I thought it should. I had a hard time believing that the world of Roushana’s old age could emerge from that cataclysm, because in many ways it doesn’t feel all that different from our present. The title Song of Time refers to part of a generative symphony that Roushana performs; music is one of the novel’s key themes, though I can’t really say much more about it — I don’t know enough about music to be able to judge what MacLeod does with the subject. But the book has another important theme, and that’s memory. ‘Memories are what you are,’ says the book, near the beginning. In the case of the dead, with their newly virtual existence, that’s literally true; in the case of Adam — well, he has no memories, so who is he? And Roushana? Although the connection is never made explicitly in the novel, a life composed of memories could be seen as a ’song of time’, one that can be changed and re-interpreted each time it’s rehearsed. Perhaps, in the end, Roushana is whatever she wants to remember — or be remembered as. I may have given the impression here that I dislike Song of Time more than I actually do. It’s flawed, no doubt — but at its best, it is beautifully written and moving (and, though I haven’t touched on this, the characters never rang false even though the world didn’t entirely convince me). In short, the good parts are very good indeed; I just wish there were more of them. (more)

  • House of Suns (Gollancz S.F.)

    A fine, grand space adventure

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    My first encounter with the novels of Alastair Reynolds and… well, for a start, he certainly doesn’t lack vision. House of Suns is set not just in the far future, but in the far future of a far future (as it were) where humans have colonised the galaxy. In addition to myriad planet-dwelling sub-species (some of whom are barely recognisable as human), there are the star-faring Lines, each comprising a thousand clones (or ’shatterlings’) of individuals who, six million years previously, set out to explore the further reaches of space (they have remained alive so long thanks to various forms of hibernation). We follow the shatterlings of Abigail Gentian, and two in particular: Campion and Purslane, who broke one of the taboos of Gentian Line by falling in love. They’re late for the Line’s current reunion (at which individuals’ recorded memory ’strands’ will be shared) when they receive a distress call telling them to turn and flee, for the reunion world has been ambushed, and most of...My first encounter with the novels of Alastair Reynolds and… well, for a start, he certainly doesn’t lack vision. House of Suns is set not just in the far future, but in the far future of a far future (as it were) where humans have colonised the galaxy. In addition to myriad planet-dwelling sub-species (some of whom are barely recognisable as human), there are the star-faring Lines, each comprising a thousand clones (or ’shatterlings’) of individuals who, six million years previously, set out to explore the further reaches of space (they have remained alive so long thanks to various forms of hibernation). We follow the shatterlings of Abigail Gentian, and two in particular: Campion and Purslane, who broke one of the taboos of Gentian Line by falling in love. They’re late for the Line’s current reunion (at which individuals’ recorded memory ’strands’ will be shared) when they receive a distress call telling them to turn and flee, for the reunion world has been ambushed, and most of Gentian Line destroyed. Accompanied by Hesperus, one of the sentient Machine People as their companion, Purslane and Campion meet up with the survivors; but they’ll discover that a dark secret lies behind the ambush; and their understanding of the universe — and themselves — is about to change. The novel is told in the first person, with Campion and Purslane narrating alternate chapters; there is also a recurring plot strand dealing with the early life of Abigail Gentian (which could be narrated by either clone, as all Abigail’s shatterlings have memories of her life). The latter does not seem to add much to the story, beyond setting the scene and introducing some apparatus that will reappear at the end; but, since these sections are quite short, it didn’t really bother me. More problematic is that Purslane’s and Campion’s narrative voices can’t be told apart, which weakens the characterisation and makes it hard to keep track of whose chapter is whose (I suppose this could be explained by the two characters’ being versions of the same person, but it doesn’t excuse the difficulty). Although it’s disappointing that, in effect, the novel has one narrative voice, that voice is not unengaging. I particularly liked some of Reynolds’ imagery, such as this example from near the beginning: ‘…an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons’. But it’s not the prose that’s the star attraction of House of Suns — it’s the constant flood of imagination. Reynolds’ remarkably busy universe includes not only the exotic humans and the machine intelligences, but also such phenomena as the Vigilance, a vast living library, and the Spirit of the Air, a cloud-shaped higher intelligence who was once a man (both of these latter are beautifully described). Ideas and revelations come thick and fast, the pace builds as the end approaches — and, despite the occasional sense of things being pulled out of a hat (as if to say, ‘ta-dah!’), the author controls it all very well. However, this approach is not without its problems. In particular, Reynolds’ story raises serious questions about issues like torture and guilt; but I’m not sure that these are explored in all the depth they should have been — indeed, I’m not sure there’s time for Reynolds to do so, given the structure he uses: the plot gets in the way to an extent. But, all in all, House of Suns is a very enjoyable piece of space opera, and surely not the last Alastair Reynolds novel I’ll be reading. (more)

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