Friday, 30 April 2010

Jordanian hiatus

No Jordan review this week. What can I tell you? What with one thing and another, one thing being some other reading I needed to do, and some writing of my own that took up a good chunk of my time, and another being, you know, this 'having a life' malarky of which people sometimes speak, I didn't finish reading it. But do not say I have given up for good. I shall take a deep breath and have another go. Rejoice not against me, O my enemy, and so on, and so forth.

I did pick up vol 8, the Path of Doggers, on a couple of occasions. I even made it through the bloated 44-page prologue ‘Deceptive Appearances’, in which various royals and wizards meet in a mighty convocation to sit astride dancing horses (‘Tenobia gave a sudden, shocking laugh. Her gelding tried to dance’, 23) and establish alliances to destroy the dragon; followed by a section in which an Aes Sedai called Verin Mathwin interrogates some people and inwardly waffles on and on. But though I had several goes at chapter one I couldn’t get myself into it. And this despite promising sentences like:
East the wind blew across Tremalking, where the fair-skinned Amayar farmed their fields, and made fine glass and porcelain, and followed the peace of the Water Way.
The wind did?

Why did I fail? Oh, why did I fail to polish off wotviii this week, I thought to myself, creasing my brow and tugging my braids. Since the Age of Legends I have been reading this bu’u’ook, as the ancient bound codices were called. White streaking my beard and hair, I stroked the mindtrap upon my bedside table. I must be careful, I thought. Careful. To take care. Three different skills were in play, the ancient art of readin, the even more ancient and venerable art, of which only a few dozen in the world were true masters, of Turnian Pages, and, most difficult of all preventing the bitter, lethal brain num that inevitably pursued any man who dared to channel the antique magic of this kind of readin. It could be fatal, brain num. Fatal, it could be. I tugged my braid. The old Ar Selbow proverb came back to me: readin should be a chore, not a pleasure. I thought, oh, but I've read so much! To give up now would be ... but I left the utterance an axe-handle short of completion. Was there room for any more? I tugged my braids. Hardly any hair left, I thought to myself. I wonder if tugging it all the time is responsible for it falling out? I wonder. I wonder.

It's only 560 pages long, too. Tch!

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Dionisio D. Martínez, 'The Prodigal Son' (1996)

In a second-hand shop I chanced upon an issue of the journal Verse (13:1 1996) edited by Charles Simic (after whom I named a character in one of my novels, so highly do I esteem him as a poet) given over to the subject of 'prose poems'. This is an interesting topic, I think; and there's a lot in this pleasantly dark purple journal-book. But my purpose here today is only to reproduce this short piece by Cuban-born poet Dionisio D. Martínez. I do so as part of a gadfly project to identify science fiction by people not in Clute and Nicholls (Clute, Nicholls and Langford as it will soon become, in a 3rd edition livery). Nice, eh?

Monday, 26 April 2010

H G Wells, The New Machiavelli (1911)

I read an old paperback copy of this Wells title (lovely cover, what?) as a palate cleanser after too much of this. I'd be prepared to claim I've read all Wells's science fiction, more or less; but there are plenty of his 'ordinary' novels still for me to tackle. This one is a first-person narrative about the rise of a left-ish politiciam in the final decades of the C19th-century; his background and education; his marriage and party-political rise towards prime-ministerial eminence, and then his tumble, on account of falling in love with a woman other than his wife. And it's terribly good; a little creaky and old-fashioned in places but absorbing and credible and full of superbly judged detail. Its political narrative is perhaps a little hamstrung by the fact that it doesn't, as a novel, realise that WWI is just around the corner; and all the sex stuff is a little self-congratulatorily 'daring' in a way which, since it all now of course seems dustily dated and oblique, is perhaps unfortunate. But it has all the rich pleasures of a well-made novel, compellingly developed characterisation, strong narrative balance, a cool thematic about 'mess' versus 'order', and some acute descriptive prose -- here's our narrator Dick Remington, on a walking tour over the Alps with a friend:
The lake and the frontier villages, a white puff of steam on the distant railway to Luino, the busy boats and steamers trailing triangular wakes of foam, the long vista eastward towards battlemented Bellinzona, the vast mountain distances, now tinged with sunset light, behind this nearer landscape, and the southward waters with remote coast towns shining dimly, waters that merged at last in a luminous golden haze, made a broad panoramic spectacle. [114]
The novel's very good on this sort of panopticism, both in itself and in a self-aware and indeed self-critical manner that articulates the dangers in thinking utopianly Big and ignoring the day-to-day human Small.

There are incidental plaeasures, too: Wells' horrid eugenicism rearing its head from time to time for instance; or the way his animadversion of Victorianism ('No, the Victorian epoch was not the dawn of a new era; it was a hasty, trial experiment, a gigantic experiment of the most slovenly and wasteful kind') blinds him to his future, our present:
Will any one, a hundred years from now, consent to live in the houses the Victorians built, travel by their roads or railways, value the furnishings they made to live among or esteem, except for curious or historical reasons, their prevalent art and the clipped and limited literature that satisfied their souls?[40]
Our survey says ...

If I were to put together a critical reading of this novel, though, I would argue that it's not really about politics, howevermuch Wells wants to pretend it is. There's a great deal about the imaginative stimulation of modelling the world, planning utopian societies etc., which is presented as the conceptual preparation for a life in politics. But its actually all, fairly patently, about the conceptual preparation for a life in writing, like Wells's own. This is veiled autobiography, not a fictionalisation of the career of Lloyd George. 'For an imaginative boy,' the narrator notes at one point, 'the first experience of writing is like a tiger's first taste of blood.' I honestly couldn't put it better myself.

That's how I read the splendid account of boyish play in the second chapter; about the worldbuilding imagination of Fantasy, not about nascent prime-ministeriship.
When I think of how such things began in my mind, there comes back to me the memory of an enormous bleak room with its ceiling going up to heaven and its floor covered irregularly with patched and defective oilcloth and a dingy mat or so and a "surround" as they call it, of dark stained wood. Here and there against the wall are trunks and boxes. There are cupboards on either side of the fireplace and bookshelves with books above them, and on the wall and rather tattered is a large yellow-varnished geological map of the South of England. Over the mantel is a huge lump of white coral rock and several big fossil bones, and above that hangs the portrait of a brainy gentleman, sliced in half and displaying an interior of intricate detail and much vigour of coloring. It is the floor I think of chiefly; over the oilcloth of which, assumed to be land, spread towns and villages and forts of wooden bricks; there are steep square hills (geologically, volumes of Orr's CYCLOPAEDIA OF THE SCIENCES) and the cracks and spaces of the floor and the bare brown surround were the water channels and open sea of that continent of mine.

I still remember with infinite gratitude the great-uncle to whom I owe my bricks. He must have been one of those rare adults who have not forgotten the chagrins and dreams of childhood. He was a prosperous west of England builder; including my father he had three nephews, and for each of them he caused a box of bricks to be made by an out-of-work carpenter, not the insufficient supply of the toyshop, you understand, but a really adequate quantity of bricks made out of oak and shaped and smoothed, bricks about five inches by two and a half by one, and half-bricks and quarter-bricks to correspond. There were hundreds of them, many hundreds. I could build six towers as high as myself with them, and there seemed quite enough for every engineering project I could undertake. I could build whole towns with streets and houses and churches and citadels; I could bridge every gap in the oilcloth and make causeways over crumpled spaces (which I feigned to be morasses), and on a keel of whole bricks it was possible to construct ships to push over the high seas to the remotest port in the room. And a disciplined population, that rose at last by sedulous begging on birthdays and all convenient occasions to well over two hundred, of lead sailors and soldiers, horse, foot and artillery, inhabited this world.

Justice has never been done to bricks and soldiers by those who write about toys. The praises of the toy theatre have been a common theme for essayists, the planning of the scenes, the painting and cutting out of the caste, penny plain twopence coloured, the stink and glory of the performance and the final conflagration. I had such a theatre once, but I never loved it nor hoped for much from it; my bricks and soldiers were my perpetual drama. I recall an incessant variety of interests. There was the mystery and charm of the complicated buildings one could make, with long passages and steps and windows through which one peeped into their intricacies, and by means of slips of card one could make slanting ways in them, and send marbles rolling from top to base and thence out into the hold of a waiting ship. Then there were the fortresses and gun emplacements and covered ways in which one's soldiers went. And there was commerce; the shops and markets and store-rooms full of nasturtium seed, thrift seed, lupin beans and suchlike provender from the garden; such stuff one stored in match-boxes and pill- boxes, or packed in sacks of old glove fingers tied up with thread and sent off by waggons along the great military road to the beleaguered fortress on the Indian frontier beyond the worn places that were dismal swamps. And there were battles on the way.

That great road is still clear in my memory. I was given, I forget by what benefactor, certain particularly fierce red Indians of lead-- I have never seen such soldiers since--and for these my father helped me to make tepees of brown paper, and I settled them in a hitherto desolate country under the frowning nail-studded cliffs of an ancient trunk. Then I conquered them and garrisoned their land. (Alas! they died, no doubt through contact with civilisation--one my mother trod on--and their land became a wilderness again and was ravaged for a time by a clockwork crocodile of vast proportions.) And out towards the coal-scuttle was a region near the impassable thickets of the ragged hearthrug where lived certain china Zulus brandishing spears, and a mountain country of rudely piled bricks concealing the most devious and enchanting caves and several mines of gold and silver paper. Among these rocks a number of survivors from a Noah's Ark made a various, dangerous, albeit frequently invalid and crippled fauna, and I was wont to increase the uncultivated wildness of this region further by trees of privet- twigs from the garden hedge and box from the garden borders. By these territories went my Imperial Road carrying produce to and fro, bridging gaps in the oilcloth, tunnelling through Encyclopaedic hills--one tunnel was three volumes long--defended as occasion required by camps of paper tents or brick blockhouses, and ending at last in a magnificently engineered ascent to a fortress on the cliffs commanding the Indian reservation. [17-18]
Not that the unselfconscious imperialism isn't interesting too ... I just think it's trumped by the gigantic clockwork crocodile.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 7: A Crown of Swords (1994)

You can see, there, how much I paid in Thames Hospicecare for this hardback copy of WoTVII, or ‘wotveee!’ as I shall call it. I’m glad I paid no more. Though I'll confess I quite like the cover (That Bodybuilder Who Was Darth Maul playing one-potato-two-potato in front of a giant pothole). That is to say, I like it more than some of the other ones.

A heatwave has devastated the WoTland, and the parching climate is described at length, but I can’t say I cared. Rand al’Thor, who has wangled himself three attractive girlfriends, spends quality time with one of them: Min Of The Goon-Show Name. He plans an attack upon the blond-haired, scarred Evil-fellow, Sammael, and I can’t say I cared. Then he gets stabbed with a magic dagger by evil former-pedlar Padain Fain, although not stabbed fatally, and I can’t say I cared. I thought Padain died in a previous instalment, but I must have got that wrong. Must keep up. What else? Mat, Nynaeve, and Elayne look for a magic bowl with the power to end the heatwave, but I can’t say I cared. Perrin does a lot of sniffing around; literal sniffing, since he’s a half-man-half-wolf, but I can’t say I cared. The Evil characters plot and counterplot and plot some more, but I can’t say I cared. There's some more awkward titillating nudity, and a lot of waffling about. I just can't say I cared.

Did I care about anything in this novel? Well, I cared about the quality of the writing, which seemed to me markedly worse than even previous instalments. In the prologue, e-e-evil Elaida talks with a subordinate called Alviarin, a lady described as being ‘slim and cool-faced’ [5], though I’m not sure what that means.
The Ajas sent to the Keeper whatever dribbles from their own eyes-and-ears they were willing to share.
Eeew! As for Alviarin, ‘the slim woman merely smiled her cool smile’ [6]. Cool, you see. ‘Her voice became cold ... [she] stood there, calm as a frozen pond ... the woman’s reply was cool and smooth as her face ... if anything it should have coated the walls with frost.’ You get the idea. Ah but it’s ironic, see, because the world is suffering an unnaturally prolonged heatwave! D’you see the irony?

You do?

I started keeping note of some of the more out-leap-y examples of WoT/THoG style:
That old woman reminded Sevenna of a landslide plunging down a mountain. [22]

The threat hung in the air like a gleaming dagger. [30]

The birdlike fellow made Valda itch [37]

Suddenly he pressed the looking glass to his eye as a woman galloped a tall black horse. [39]

This had been his first real lesson as a soldier. You always had to pay the butcher. [42]

Shoulders wide enough to make him seem shorter than he was slumped under the weight of responsibility. [45]

Worry ... ate inside him like a ferret trying to burrow out of his middle. [45]

Perrin shut out the rest, no easy task, with his ears. [51]

He sounded like a bumblebee the size of a cat instead of a mastiff. [63]

A rabbit watching for a hawk might have been as intent, but never with that air of menace. [77]

Min held herself stiffly and took ginger steps. [102]

Her slightly tilted eyes fastened on him, dark liquid moons. [104]

His nose strained for a scent of her, but the perfume was too strong, and the fear. She had a reason for being there on the dais, a good reason. She did. [104]

Gently he took her by the shoulders and lifted her until those big tilted eyes were level with his ... Berating himself for being an oaf he let her go, arms springing apart, but before he could apologize her fingers clutched his beard. [119]
But after 120-pages of this I exhausted the patience necessary to interrupt my reading with jotting examples down in my notebook. I wanted to get through the damn thing as soon as possible. That's not to say that the writing get any better, for it does not ('cold eyes followed her in a bubble of silence', 493).

One thing that sticks most in my mind is the book’s very un-Tolkienian, un-Herbetian obsession with interior design and soft furnishings:
The case clock balanced the door to her sitting room ... the carpet covering most of the tiles came from Tarabon, patterned in red and green and gold; silk carpets were the most precious. In each corner of the room a marble plinth carved in unpretentious verticals held a white vase ... [3]

The furnishings were Domani, striped wood inlaid with pearlshell and amber, bright carpets in patterns of flowers and scrolls ... [27]

Tall gilded stand-lamps with mirrors on every branch ... scattered niches held bowls and vases and now and then a small statue, in gold and silver or alabaster ... [102]

Carved chairs heavy with gilt stood in paired lines to either side of a golden Rising Sun, two paces wide, set into a polished stone floor ... a carpet spread for the occasion was green and gold and blue in a Tairen maze. [305]

Min watched him, rooting through the coats in the huge ivory-inlaid wardrobe. How could he sleep in this room, with all its black, heavy furniture? [520]
Hideous bourgeois Homes-and-Gardens decor-porn, the lot. 'Egwene returned to her unsteady chair and pushed her breakfast tray aside ... filled her teacup, setting it and the blue-glazed honeypot on the corner of the table.' [197] Can you imagine Arwen eating off a breakfast tray? Aragorn?

Otherwise: 'the fox-faced woman across the way popped into his view again' [260]. The fox-faced woman? Really?

That's enough wotveee! for one week, I think.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

J G Ballard, Chris Evans, 'The Invisible Years' (1977)

I'd call this 'an undiscovered Ballard short story' if I could be sure it hasn't been discovered. Certainly it's not in the Collected Stories, but I daresay a diligent Ballard-bibliographer somewhere has listed it. I found it in an old issue of Ambit I picked up in a second-hand-bookshop, and I reproduce a couple of scans, above, one of the story's first page, one of its last. I'd scan the whole thing in but don't wish to violate copyright. Enough to give you a flavour of the piece, at any rate. You click on these images to enlarge them. ('Bax', there, is Ambit's editor; the issue's contents page implies he had no hand in actually 'writing' the story).

Monday, 19 April 2010

Stephen Baxter, Stone Spring (2010)

Baxter has written several novels in which intrepid humans use their technology to try and stave off environmental disaster. Sometimes he sets those novels in the future—his Clarke-co-authored Sunstorm for instance, where the sun threatens to flare and obliterate life, and humans must push their technical nohow to the limit to construct an orbital soletta and save the cheerleader. Sorry, world. Stone Spring is another such novel, except that this one is set not futuristically but prehistorically, in the Mesolithic period.

The land nowadays covered by the North Sea is open to the sky and inhabited by an attractive tribe of fisher-gatherers. In our world the basin flooded when the last ice age ended; but Baxter’s book explores the what-if of an unflooded North Sea. This, the title page says, is ‘Northland Book 1’: and we start pre-flood, with various characters who gather from the four corners of the world in Baxter’s northsea ‘Etxelur’. The cutting-edge technology they employ to try and hold back the waters is—a nice touch, this—bricks, more precisely the assembly of a great many bricks and stones into a huge seawall.

It is, in other words, another Baxterian floodpocalypse, something humanity fights against this time with ur-lego. And the whole thing is served with all Baxter’s usual trimmings: an engaging band of likeable characters having to overcome not only the technical challenge but a range of ancillary threats, dangers and difficulties. The detail is all Mesolithic-specific, and a lengthy afterword details the extensive research the author has done. But, as ever, the things that really leap out are the cool ideas for which there is no historical evidence—the wall itself, a tribe of feral ‘Leafy Boys’ who live only in the forest canopy covering prehistoric Britain, like characters from Aldiss’s Hothouse.

By and large I fully bought-into Baxter’s Mesolithicitizens (although, strictly speaking, there’s only one city in the book: the Biblical Jericho, nicely rendered as a seamy, crowded, unhealthy sort of place, surrounded by brick walls designed to keep out floods and mudslides rather than human enemies). They chat amongst themselves like modern folk—the book is probably a little too dialogue-heavy, although of course that’s also to do with the conventions of the medium ... nothing less Mesolithic than a continuous prose narrative bound between hard boards, after all. And generally Baxter not only worldbuilds splendidly, but does enough to sketch out the different being-in-the-world of his characters. That said, there are places where I wasn’t sure the emphasis was quite right: for example, his characters seemed to me to have a rather twenty-first-century reverence for the life of babies (‘As Ana neared that broken body she saw the red tightly curled hair, the strong arms splayed in death ... she felt as if she died too in that moment. “It’s alright,” Arga said, burying her face in Ana’s chest, “You had to save the baby ...”’) which I’m not sure was likely shared by the peoples of actual prehistory. Indeed, one character gives birth by Caesarian section, which I found inherently dubitable, and doubly so since both baby and mother survive the operation.

That said, there are only a few elements here that wobbled a little, I thought. A very nicely handled narrative strand brings brick-expert Novu from bricky Jericho to brickless Etxelur, brought out as a slave of a tubercular old trader called Chona. The two walk across Eurasia, trading as they go, until Novu suffocates the old man with his leather shirt and gains his freedom. He does so after the old man threatens to rape him—although, since the randy old fellow has owned this slave for months by this stage, I didn’t see why it would have taken him that long. It’s odder because elsewhere in the book Baxter is neither squeamish nor gritty-averse. Indeed, there are some splendidly visceral scenes, not least a climactic battle that’s almost Homeric in its detailed descriptions of spears penetrating different parts of different bodies.

More, there’s one way in which this book marks another advance in Baxter’s already accomplished technique. It is full of descriptive writing of genuine evocative power, particularly when it comes to the landscapes of his world, and most especially of the North Sea landscapes of Etxelur. Evidence of Baxter’s continuing maturity not just as an ideas man but as a writer.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 6: Lord of Chaos (1994)

I am posting these Lonesome Dove-style ‘trekking through the wilderness dragging behind me the corpse of my interest’ posts on Jordan’s Wheel weekly, every Friday. But thanks to Blogger’s pre-posting facility I’m not reading them as regularly as this regimen perhaps suggests. I can be more specific: I read the first three Wheel-vols pretty much one after the other; and then it was only a short interlude before I tackled four and five. But after that I didn’t read another Jordan novel for quite a long time. Somehow I couldn’t quite summon the energy to pick up the effectively cuboid, thousand-page (‘megapage’?) Lord of Chaos. At the back of my mind was the thought: but even when I finish this one I won’t yet have reached the halfway point! And at the front of my mind was ‘No! No! No!’

That Lonesome Dove reference, up there, dates me rather, doesn’t it though?

Still, eventually I screwed my courage to the sticking point, or to be precise, stuck my courage to the screwing point, or screwpoint-and-sticked, and I read the thing. And the result was: dear merciful God. That pretty much sums it up. ‘Oh God!’ is an interesting utterance, isn’t it? It can be spoken by someone at the very point of orgasm, as a signifier of extreme pleasure; or it can be groaned out by someone facing horrors, terrors, pains and an eternity of dullness. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which usage applies in this case.

To be a little more specific: this seems to me a novel written by a man who has only too effectively painted himself into a corner. The overarching narrative is the battle of Good versus Evil. Evil has a seemingly neverending supply of bestial trollocs, various high-placed traitors and wizards, and all the cool black clothing. But by volume six Good has acquired not only the draconic magical leader destined by prophesy to overthrow evil; but also an enormous army of impossibly gifted warriors of a naturally martial race; a general who can channel all previous genius-generals; an invincible magical sword that can destroy whole cities; and a horn that can summon the greatest dead warriors of all time to help you out. The implication, it seems to me, is that ‘Ayn’ Rand, Jordan’s hero, could wipe the floor with Evil's Minions any time he liked. But Jordan has many more fat volumes to fill. I suppose he could balance each of these laboriously acquired magical positives with magical kryptonite-equivalents to cancel them out, until the final showdown. But he chooses a different textual strategy: he dillies, and dallies. He dallies and dillies, misses the cart and, furthermore, he cannot find his way home.

Volume six is a lengthy exercise in treading water. Nothing at all happens for hundreds and hundreds of pages. And when the reader has got on top of that, nothing at all happens for hundred of pages more. Finally there’s a big battle, but by this point the reader’s brainwaves will long since have assumed a perfectly sine regularity. For almost the whole of its length this is a novel that absolutely point-blank refuses to get off its arse and do something, anything. Anything at all. Reading it is the equivalent of spending ten hours staring at a portly man slouched in a bean-bag.

What happens? Some more magical artefacts are discovered to add to the characters' lumber room: here a crystal bowl that affects the weather. Egwene, Rand's former girlfriend, hooks up with a fellow called Gawain. The Aes Sedai split into two factions, and Egwene is elected Grand Panjandrum, or Grande Panjandra, of one of these. There are various assassination attempts upon Rand's life (think how much more interesting the sequence could have been had one of these succeeded!) Then Rand is kidnapped, put in a small box, no, really, and carried away; and Perrin leads an enormous army on a rescue mission. There's another big dust-up, during which Rand gets free on his own without anybody's help, and then, after E-e-evil has been knocked on the head, that's your lot.

Also: I appreciate that Jordan wasn't responsible for the cover design, up there. But still. Hard to look at it and not think; 'Gold! (Gold!) Always believe in your so-houl!'

And finally Esther (and finally Cyril), this week’s Robert Jordan’s Proverbial Wisdom:

Never prod at a woman unless you must.” Good advice.

Cheer the bull, or cheer the bear; cheer both, and you will be trampled and eaten.” Since bulls eat grass rather than people, I would say that implicit in this proverb is ‘… eaten by the bear.’ Or to paraphrase: the bear doesn’t mind if you cheer him, or if you cheer the bull; but for some reason he gets very cross if you cheer them both. I daresay the bear has his reasons.

The only man completely at peace is a man without a navel.” Only with plastic surgery will you attain peace.

If the world is ending, a woman will want time to fix her hair.” There’s a word for proverbs like this. The word is ‘sexist’.

Caution once forgotten could be forgotten once too often.” Um …

If wishes were wings, pigs would fly.” Because what pigs truly wish for is wings. Little curly wings.

The best way to apologize to a man is to trip him in a secluded part of the garden.” The second best way is to say ‘sorry’. But, really, you should go with Plan A in the first instance.

You put your cat in your hat and stuff it down your breeches.” This one is attributed to that ill-starred Dr Seuss porno project you've probably read about.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Lion Annual 1957

Words cannot do justice. Really. It's just splendid. (Look at the front cover! Click for an enlarged picture! Look! At the Space-Mini! Its puff-puff rocket exhaust in the vacuum of space! The robot sitting uncomfortably in the passenger seat as if he can't think of any conversational gambit! Look at the fondue-bowl spacestation!)

It's the SF bits of this annual that catch my eye mostly, but there's a jawdropping range of alternate modes of derring do, only slightly tarnished by some horrid unreconstructed racism. Pages 49-56 are taken up with 'Captain Condor and the Menace on Space-Station J9', in full colour. Here's the last image in that strip (the 'menace' is an escaped convict; he steals a space-boat but Captain C. sends a robot to apprehend him):
'The game's up, Vargal Skurn. I shouldn't struggle if I were you. The robot can be very rough if its upset.' Upset! Then again there's the following double spread of the wonders that await lunar explorers:
My favourites: 2nd caption down, left hand column of p.62:
Danger may lurk in the creater Erasthones, for it may be the home of swarms of man-sized insects!
Or it may not.
How do we know? Because Earth's astronomers have seen black patches moving mysteriously about this 38-mile-wide "bowl".
1957's astonomers saw swarms of space insects on the moon? After smoking ... what? And p.63 bottom right:
What will the moon's caves contain?
Nothing much.
Weird, bat-like creatures that cling to vegetation covered walls?
Skeletons of awesome animals that roamed millions of years ago?
No. Ah well, never mind.
It'll never catch on!
'As Fred went to join Phido on the bus platform, the burly bank-robber sent him staggering backwards. The electronic bloodhound was now controlled by the very crooks it had been trailing!' Look me in the eye and tell me you don't want to read the story to which that picture, and especially that caption, is attached. I double-dare you.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Dick's Valis and others

Slightly out of sync (just back from a week's holiday in the Lake District), here's my review of four later Philip K Dick novels, including his bug-eyed-religious VALISstory. Lots of people really rate that novel, you know. If you want to know what I think, you'll have to mosey over the strange horizon.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 5: The Fires of Heaven (1993)

None of the previous volumes in this series are what you would call fast-paced (although I concede the first one had a reasonable, if stately, momentum to it); but this book is slower than a slug on mogadon. By this stage in his series Jordan had evidently, and I think unwisely, decided to jettison ‘stuff happening’ as the organising principle of his fiction in favour of ‘characters talking, backstorying, bickering, flirting, fretting over their motivations and wearing painstakingly described clothing’. Of course, Jordan’s previous model of ‘stuff happening’ was ‘meandering characters getting intermittently attacked by trollocs.’ But it was better than what we get here. The thing is, it so happens I have a very high tolerance for, and in some cases, deep love for novels in which nothing happens. A novel in which nothing happens can be a wonderful read. This is not such a novel. Nothing happens here in a maddeningly faffy, self-regarding, high-school-soap-opera sort of a way. Then at the very end there’s a big set-piece Fighty-fight, although the notional drama of it bounced off my soggily worn-down imagination.

Tedium, oh tedium. Or, indeed, something stronger than tedium: coffeedium. Tripleexpressodium. Rand leads an enormous army of his super-warrior ‘Aiel’, and there’s some dull, laboriously described but hard-to-visualise military stuff, all lead-up and no pay-off. More, Jordan assumes we will be fascinated by which adolescent crush is uppermost in his hero’s life.

Sex, which in the previous installments had been non-existent or else Carry-On euphemistic, here comes out of the wardrobe, and its a ghastly sight. Pantechniconloads of beautiful girls fling themselves at the main guy, Rand, and he worrits and ponders which of them, or which several of them, he fancies the most. Rand by name, Randy by nature. But, oh, and woe, and oh dear the novel’s sexual politics is offensively narrow and essentialist, to the point often of being actively gynaphobic: women in fancy dress granted notional ‘powers’ by authorial fiat, set up as ‘strong women’ in order to be humbled, magically enslaved, spanked or forced to perform humiliatingly menial tasks. J.'s male characters complain endlessly that they 'don't understand women'; but I don't know why. The key Jordanverse women are either transparently vain, or man-hating, or both.

And, gosh, but there are a lot of boobies in this novel. Really, lots and lots. Low-cut dresses, boobies, silk clinging to breasts, cleavage, lady lumps, bosoms. Jordan can't stop going on about them. It’s embarrassing.

Otherwise, the Bene Gesserit characters go after their ‘black’ chapter, and Mat uses his nifty ability to channel all the Great Military leaders there have ever been in all time ever. Perrin doesn’t appear to be in the novel at all. Or else Perrin is in the novel but my imagination and memory were so stupefied by the reading process that I don’t remember him. But, then again, what do I remember about this novel? Its interminability, mostly; its details hardly at all.

Now, see, I’ll give you an example: two of Jordan’s most powerful, if nascent, female magicians, Nynaeve and Elayne, join a travelling circus in this instalment. That either happened, or else my heat-oppressed brain has somehow muddled childhood memories of watching Dumbo in with memories of reading this book (Elayne learns to walk on a tightrope! Nynaeve has to fend off the circus-owner who has a crush on her!) Elayne and Nynaeve spend a lot of the novel bickering, whingeing and complaining. Characters wander about. The evil characters compound their banality and thinness with stupidity and incompetence. Nothing is resolved. This does not make for interesting reading.

Also, I have no idea why the novel is called 'Fires of Heaven', unless it is to mock me by reminding me of this vastly superior novel. I don't recall there being any heavenly fires in Jordan's book. But it is conceivable that they're there, I read them, and all thought of them has fallen out of the gash in the back of my imagination caused by being rear-ended by this clanking juggernaut of a book.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Kit Whitfield, In Great Waters (2009)

I came to this highly praised novel with great expectations. And, having read it, I can see why it's been so highly praised; it's very good. It didn't quite take the top of my cranium off, though.

It's an alt-historical fantasy set somewhere around the 1500s in a world where mermaids and mermen actually exist (Tudorpunk; Splashpunk; Queenpunk; Walk-the-plankpunk; not sure what the best neologism would be). The premise is actually something along the lines of: in a world in which traffic by water was vital, the 'deepsmen', as Whitfield calls her wet ones, would surely be in a position to grab themselves serious political power. And so they have, in In Great Waters: deepsmen and landsmen having interbred to produce hybrid humans who dominate the royal houses of Europe. The novel then tells the stories of two such hybrids -- deepsborn Henry cast out by his pod, and the aristocratic Anne, raised in an English court -- illuminating as it does so the world of high-born politics and scheming, flashes of beauty, blots of cruelty and hideousness. All very evocatively done.

Now, the danger with a project like this -- which is to say: The Mermaid Tudors -- is that it could so very easily become cheesy, or twee, or worst of all both ('cheestwee'). And the first thing to note about In Great Waters is that it assuredly, even triumphantly, avoids those dangers. It is, if I'm pressed for one word to describe it, a very classy piece of work. Whitfield's deepsmen bear the same relation to conventional 'mermaids' that Blade Runner's replicants do to creaky actors-in-tinfoil androids of earlier cinema, or that the Batman of Begins does to the Batman of & Robin. The writing is fluent, and spotless; and if it's a little diffuse (and occasionally a tad too discursive) for my taste it is also capable of exquisite moments of really beautiful expression; sentences or passages of distilled stylistic excellence that are very striking.

But there's a problem, and it has to do with the worldbuilding. This alt-Renaissance world is one in which deepsmen have forced themselves into the ruling dynasties all over Europe. Early in the novel, we're given some backstory: how deepsmen and Venetians clashed centuries earlier, how the deepsmen got the better of the landsmen, forcing them to accept a mermaid Queen, and after subsequent generations of inter-breeding, deepsman/landsman hybrids ruling every country. But I didn't believe it, and since the whole novel is premised on this situation that's awkward. Specifically I didn't believe the deepsmen would be so indefatigable, militarily speaking; something that struck me as both inconsistent with the way they're portrayed elsewhere in the novel (for otherwise they're enormously dim, easily tricked, unambitious and lacking in initiative) -- as well as inconsistent with what we know of human military persistence and ingenuity. The Venetians, I think, would not have given up so easily.

Now as I read the first quarter of so of the novel, this kept getting in the way of my ability to suspend my disbelief. Then I thought: but what if I'm taking this the wrong way? Maybe the point here is not so much the worldbuilding as the metaphorical potential. We get only Venice and the English channel, rather than the rest of the world, not because Whitfield is incapable of showing us other seas and coasts, but because Venice (where, as Browning famously noted, St Mark's is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings) and England were both such important maritime powers. The point of a human/fishman linked dynasty is in the ways it dramatises the importance of the sea to this world. In other words, I wondered if the novel is about how important the sea is to the land of England. Conrad has written about that, and done so by representing the world of maritime England. Whitfield does it, perhaps, by metaphorizing it.

And the literalising of metaphor is of course a core SFF textual strategy. So, I told myself: take the book this way. See if the eloquence of her central metaphor, as a way of talking about human connections between sea and land, supercedes creakiness in the nuts-and-bolts representation. And up to a point it's good to read the novel that way, something helped by Whitfield deliberate rooting her similes and metaphors oceanically (There are lots and lots of examples, but I liked: 'on the day of the wedding, Anne was packed into the heaviest dress she had ever owned, caked with sharp jewels like a barnacled hull', 80). But by the end of the novel I found myself unsatisfied, and I think the reason for this was that the novel isn't quite true enough to its metaphoric, poetic vision. It keeps getting itself bogged down with the merely metonymically representative: all the twisty ins-and-outs of personal and political interaction, all the nooks and crannies of the worldbuilding. I should add that these are the precisely the satisfactions most readers of Fantasy look for, so it's hardly a mistake of Whitfield to provide them. And I could add further that, actually, it's a close run thing: there's a great deal in this novel that is precisely poetic, hauntingly and transportingly to the process of metaphorization. Just not, for me, in the end, quite enough. Very good, though; and very much worth reading. You should buy a copy. You could, if you liked, buy two. Indeed, as you can see from the sticker in the top right of that above scanned cover, you could, at the moment, in Waterstones, buy three for the price of two.

One thing the novel is very good on, though (especially in its storming first section) is using the positions of ocean-dweller and land-dweller to illuminate the other in estranged, powerful and beautiful ways. In this, I'm guessing Whitfield took some impetus from Leigh Hunt's splendid linked trio of poems 'The Fish, the Man and the Spirit', which really ought to be better known. She quotes a few lines from it as epigraph to her tale; but it's short enough to quote in full. I especially like the second one.:
You strange, astonished-looking, angle-faced,
Dreary-mouthed, gaping wretches of the sea,
Gulping salt-water everlastingly,
Cold-blooded, though with red your blood be graced,
And mute, though dwellers, in the roaring waste;
And you, all shapes beside, that fishy be,—
Some round, some flat, some long, all devilry,
Legless, unloving, infamously chaste:—
O scaly, slippery, wet, swift, staring wights,
What is’t ye do? What life lead? eh, dull goggles?
How do ye vary your vile days and nights?
How pass your Sundays? Are ye still but joggles
In ceaseless wash? Still nought but gapes, and bites,
And drinks, and stares, diversified with boggles?

Amazing monster! that, for aught I know,
With the first sight of thee didst make our race
For ever stare! O flat and shocking face,
Grimly divided from the breast below!
Thou that on dry land horribly dost go
With a split body and most ridiculous pace,
Prong after prong, disgracer of all grace,
Long-useless-finned, haired, upright, unwet, slow!
O breather of unbreathable, sword-sharp air,
How canst exist? How bear thyself, thou dry
And dreary sloth? What particle canst share
Of the only blessed life, the watery?
I sometimes see of ye an actual pair
Go by! linked fin by fin! most odiously.

Indulge thy smiling scorn, if smiling still,
O man! and loathe, but with a sort of love;
For difference must its use by difference prove,
And, in sweet clang, the spheres with music fill.
One of the spirits am I, that at his will
Live in whate’er has life—fish, eagle, dove—
No hate, no pride, beneath nought, nor above,
A visitor of the rounds of God’s sweet skill.
Man’s life is warm, glad, sad, ’twixt loves and graves,
Boundless in hope, honoured with pangs austere,
Heaven-gazing; and his angel-wings he craves:—
The fish is swift, small-needing, vague yet clear,
A cold, sweet, silver life, wrapped in round waves,
Quickened with touches of transporting fear.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 4: The Shadow Rising (1992)

Volume 4 is considerably fatter than the previous three; more than a thousand pages long. It’s also less focused; a sprawl of different storylines going in different (physical) directions, great spoldgy-wodges of second-hand worldbling, and, er, that’s it. I enjoyed reading vol. 1; didn’t enjoy 2 at all; quite (despite myself) enjoyed 3. 4 was pure slog.

The structural glitch of the previous novels (a too-slow start followed by a deal of too-detailed wandering about) is magnified here: the start is fantastically boring and taxing, and the subsequent wanderings hard to keep a mental handle on. In this volume our pals split up: ‘Romaine’ Rand going, via magical short-cut, to visit the Aeil; ‘Reggie’ Perrin back to his provincial home, the Two Rivers. Meanwhile, representatives of the various coloured Aes Sedai (blue, red, etc) go hunting the evil branch of their movement. I’ll leave you to guess what colour the evil branch is. Mat goes into dreamtime for a bit and comes back with some more magical artefacts (a magical spear and a protective medallion). If the novels continue accumulating magical artefacts at this rate, the three pals will be able to open an extensive antique shop at the end of it all. Rand, meanwhile, is stretching his metaphorical magical muscles, making axes fly, ships crash and the like.

I read the book fairly rapidly, but I look back on it now trying to remember what all this diverse running-around, collecting, fighting and so on amounted to. To be precise: I look back trying and failing to remember. A fair bit has to do with the ‘Aiel’, a sort of Native-American/ Samurai/Fremen warrior race of people who live in the ‘Aiel Wastes’ and have some special spoken-by-prophesy relationship to the Dragon Reborn. But aside from taking us around their world and culture, and establishing to their satisfaction that Rand is indeed the Muad-Dib, sorry, the Dragon, I’m not sure what the force of this lengthy narrative detour was. There's also the Gipsy-like Tuatha'an—that’s one of their caravans on the cover, up top—and a character called Slayer. A nasty character, naturally.

Mat is menaced by the e-e-evil: ‘Time to die, Hornsounder!’ [225]. I believe I once went to a tiny basement club in the Borough where the DJ was called ‘Hornsounder.’ I may be misremembering that. Anyway, as before Jordan intersperses lots of Trolloc combat to try and maintain flagging excitement levels. This fighting is ramped up (‘fiery explosions tore at the trollocs’, 729) from the previous books, in a diminishing-returns sort of way. Now, I like humans. And I like trollocs. But which is better? There's only one way to find out …

A good chunk of the novel is given over to the notional 'development' of the main characters, but this is all teen-soap-opera nonsense; and rubbish to boot. There are intimations of sex in the book, but instead of actual sex we get a load of schoolyard crushes, mooning about, kissing, jealousies and the occasional bottom-pinch. Egwyne—Rand’s girlfriend—announces that she doesn’t love him any more (‘People change, Rand. Feelings change … I love you as I would a brother’; 147) which frees him up to snog other girls. There are also occasional instances of topless serving wenches, attractive women discussing things whilst naked in saunas and beautiful women chained naked in dungeons, which would be less creepy if it were more honestly handled (handled, that is to say, with less mendacious cod-propriety).

But my main grouse here is the way it is all written. Vol 1 was written in a garrulous, occasionally creakily cod-archaic style, but was at least quite well-written, according to the rather limited aesthetic criteria of this kind of writing. But Vol 4 is really not very well written at all, even by those standards.
Perrin and Faile had made no effort to be quiet in climbing the stairs, but the three men were so intent in their watching that none of them noticed the new arrivals at first. Then one of the blue-coated bodyguards twisted his head as if working a cramp in his neck; his mouth dropped open when he saw them. Biting off an oath, the fellow whirled to face Perrin, baring a good hand of his swordblade. The other was only a heartbeat slower. Both stood tensed, ready, but their eyes shifted uneasily, sliding off Perrin’s. They gave off a sour smell of fear. So did the High Lord, though he had his fear tightly reined. [79]
This isn’t hopeless writing (aside from ‘eyeballs in the sky’ Ansibleable ‘their eyes slid off Perrin’s’ bit, which is indeed hopeless writing); but it reads like a first-draft that J. couldn’t be bothered to revise. The smell-in-harness at the end; the cliché; the fumbling-bumbling piling up of clauses. That all needs polishing. The paragraph that follows it, on the other hand, is pretty much beyond revision. You need to bin this and start again:
The High Lord Torean, white streaking his dark, pointed beard, moved languidly, as if at a ball. Pulling a too sweetly scented handkerchief from his sleeve, he dabbed at a knobby nose that appeared not at all large when compared with his ears.
Now that’s bad writing: clumsily wrongfooting and unevocative. From whence did that knobby nose appear? Did the white streak his beard as he moved languidly? Which is to say, did his languid movement shake free some white from the upper reaches of the beard? The writing is all like this, either undercooked or actively bad: ‘a myriad of scents danced in his nose’ [718]. 'Without touching her head she knew she had on some sort of helmet' [867]. 'Ogier's ears went stiff with shock' [257]. 'The woman frowned and lowered her chins' [784]. You know the way that, when somebody throws a pencil at your nose, it squeezes perspiration from the whole spread of your skin?
Damp heat hit her like a stick between the eyes. Sweat popped out of every pore. [584]
Now some of this, I’ll confess, had to do with the rapidity of my reading of the book. Encountering the phrase ‘the fork bearded fellow with a ruby the size of a piegon’s egg in his ear’ [227] I clocked the fork, egg and ear-insertion and thought ‘say what?’ But in such cases I can always re-read to get a clearer sense of what the writer is on about. Clumsily on about in this case.

Another feature of the style is the way Jordan scatters the text with cod-proverbial wisdom. He gets this from Tolkien too, I think; except that where Tolkien’s invented proverbs generally feel right (‘grief is a hone to a hard mind’), Jordan’s feel either flabby or else goatblinkingly-incomprehensible. Some examples.

"There's no time for winking at the men when you're busy bailing the boat." [29] OK. I get this.

"On the heights, the paths are paved with daggers." [43] Laid flat, this would surely result in a perfectly serviceable, if expensive, road. Laid edge-upwards, you’d probably want to walk alongside it rather than on it. Either way it seems self-defeating.

"As well you try to understand the sun, Perrin. It simply is, and it is not to be understood. You cannot live without it, but it exacts a price. So with women." [417] I don’t understand this one at all. What price? Is the meaning here: ‘if you’re staked out underneath a woman with your eyelids cut off you’ll go blind?’ Does that count as ‘proverbial’?

The sling has been used. The shepherd holds the sword. [775] Um. OK. This is one of those 'the wild geese fly south at noon' style statements.

A weeping woman is a bucket with no bottom” [117] But this can't be right. ‘When a woman weeps it’s like all the water gushes out in one go and then she’s dry’? Presumably not. ‘Don’t try gathering water in a weeping woman.’ What?

I could have shaved myself with one sneeze.’ [55] What?

Otherwise, despite the addition of a metric tonne of detail, Jordan's imaginary world feels more-and-more ersatz/theme-park and less-and-less authentically rendered.
[It was] a large room with a high ceiling. A rope strung along waist-high posts would keep anyone from going too close to the things displayed on stands and in open-fronted cabinets. [199]
Can you imagine a room like that in Middle Earth? As the Old English proverb has it: better a dinner of herbs where authenticity is, than a stalled ox and a National Trust Property thereby.