09 November 2007

Books Update: Gold and Brown (Baxter likes one)

Let me start by apologising for that truly appalling title. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry...

So, what have I been reading in the surprisingly lengthy expanse of time since my last book update? Quite a lot really. Blimey.

Let's get that horrible pun out of the way first:

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold was nice, but not great. I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd read it before, rather than after, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The authors are friends, and their books are engaged in much the same project of reinventing the American adventure novel, but with a contemporary political outlook and vastly increased literary panache.

Both are set in a major U.S. city during specific decades of the 20th century; both deal with issues of love and rivalry and oppression and belonging. Both feature real historical characters and events, but fictionalise them heavily. Both have a stage magician as the central character, and his younger gay relative as a sidekick.

Carter Beats the Devil does all of these things well, but Kavalier and Clay does them consummately. As I seem to remember saying about following David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas with his earlier Ghostwritten, if I'd gone from the latter to the former it would have felt like I was ascending from the heights of excellence to a zenith of genius, whereas doing it the other way round felt like a bit of a letdown, really. Ah well.

Eric Brown's Approaching Omega's been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now, since I found it hanging around in a secondhand bookshop. Unfortunately it was a letdown after the other Telos publishing originals I've read. In particular, coming right after the literary banquet of Daniel O'Mahony's Force Majeure (see below) it tasted of takeaway pizza, competently constructed but to a terribly familiar template.

Approaching Omega is formulaic hard S.F., where the maintenance team aboard a generation starship start to act (and worse still, talk) like hardened space marines the moment danger threatens, because that's how People In Space behave (and talk). It deals with interesting issues -- if you hybridise human beings with A.I., where does the human end and the machine begin? -- but in a facile way, albeit with one mildly interesting twist. Stephen Baxter's quoted on the back cover as saying "Brown is at the height of his powers", which makes me wonder what his earlier books were like. (Reasonably numerous, apparently.)

I love Samuel R. Delany's work, but a little of his intense and densely-textured prose goes a long way. I've only read a few of his books over the years, and I still haven't had the courage to tackle the gargantuan, Finnegans Wake-ish Dhalgren. Babel-17 is one I missed out when I first discovered Delany and have only recently gone back to.

It's less impressive than some of his later works, but not by much. The characters are vivid and their predicament fiendishly clever, but some of the space-opera background -- well-drawn and detailed as it is -- feels a little formulaic. What's more, unlike some of the other Delany books I've read it's simply using the formula rather than (apparently) deconstructing it.

Groundbreakingly for S.F. at the time, the plot revolves around linguistics, which it treats in much the same way as earlier S.F. treats the hard sciences -- taking the then-popular Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and extrapolating from it an extreme conceptual scenario designed to distort the boundaries of the reader's worldview. Its linguistics feel a little antiquated now, as does its proto-cyberpunk, but that's only because of how things have moved on since then.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is a book I first read when it came out, at which time I was twelve or so. I was surprised how much of it I remembered, and by how well it stood up to my memory of it. In retrospect it's obviously a first novel -- it crams in too many disparate clever things, there are some awkward moments in the writing and the American author never seems quite comfortable with his London milieu -- but there remain some excellent ideas, vivid descriptions and compelling adventure narrative, and a surprisingly coherent magical scheme which works itself out mostly in hints and allusions rather than direct exposition.

Reginald Hill's The Death of Dalziel is a well-written police procedural, relying (perhaps slightly too heavily) on the charm of the characters he's created in his 20-odd previous Dalziel and Pascoe novels. This one revolves somewhat fantastically around a British anti-Islamic terrorist organisation known as "the Templars", which I thought at first was a cop-out allowing the liberal Hill to deal with contemporary issues without offending Islamic sensibilities. Actually, though, it works as a rather clever way of engaging the reader's sympathy with the terrorist mindset, suggesting that terrorists are people whose understandable, rather mundane concerns are radicalised by their extreme life-experiences.

I noted approvingly some months ago that the range of Doctor Who tie-in novels was showing some hints of returning to its former impressive heights, with the announcement of works by Paul Magrs and Mark Michalowski, among others. Subsequent commissions have called this trend into some doubt, but it's still splendid that we have Magrs's whimsically Ballardian Sick Building and Michalowski's biological hard-S.F. novel Wetworld in the range.

Sick Building combines some familiar Magrsian tropes -- a wintry landscape full of fantastical beasts, a young man's troubled relationship with his parents, a villain motivated by possessive love who talks like someone's auntie -- with a take on The Tempest which makes Forbidden Planet look conventional. It's at the lightweight end of Magrs's output, which has certainly included more serious and meatier fare. The eructation-driven climax read almost like a self-consciously silly embracing of New Who's occasional CBeebie-ish excesses -- which, being written by Magrs, it very likely was.

Wetworld's a maturer piece, and one which pays some real interest to the science underpinning its SF world. Where Sick Building, by an author who's written children's books as well as (sometimes very) adult ones, could have been accused of talking down to its readers, Wetworld takes it for granted that they'll be interested in adult stuff like xenobiology and the politics of survival. It's still enormous fun, though, with Michalowski's sympathy for his characters and sometimes wicked wit fleshing out the sturdy framework into one of the best new-series novels yet.

Both authors nail the characters of the tenth Doctor and Martha right through the ears, which I appreciated greatly. I'm not a huge fan of David Tennant's portrayal of the Doctor, but divorced from his actual presence, the three-year-old's attention span and manic logorrhoea are rather endearing. And Martha's fab, of course.

The best work of fiction I've read recently, though, was Force Majeure by Daniel O'Mahony -- an alumnus of the Doctor Who novel ranges from back when they were good. Despite the terribly generic cover, this short novel (or maybe it's a longish novella) reads like a hybrid of Jorge Luis Borges and Christopher Priest, presenting a beautifully-envisaged, yet clearly unreal, Latin American city apparently founded in prehistory by dragons, intersecting with the forces of 21st-century capitalism.

As with some of O'Mahony's earlier works, it's not entirely clear what happens in the book and what doesn't, but the descriptions of what may or may not have happened are beautiful and disturbing. His knack of making us sympathise with unlikeable characters is also to the fore.

It's not O'Mahony's best work -- that would still be his Doctor Who novella The Cabinet of Light -- but it's a brilliant excursion, and it makes me positively salivate for his forthcoming Faction Paradox novel, Newtons Sleep.

Finally (for now), Ken MacLeod's The Human Front is a fun alternative-history novella about a post-WWII world where the U.S.A.F.'s experimental flying saucer didn't crash at Roswell in 1947, but gave rise to a whole new generation of anti-gravity bombers with which America attempts, disastrously, to win the Cold War. As usual with MacLeod's books it's full of left-wing political theory, humanised by a questionable yet sympathetic central character, and ends in a firework-burst of S.F. cleverness. It's even published back-to-back with another novella, so (if I was feeling exceptionally optimistic) I could even give Eric Brown another try.

That's the fiction I've read since August. The non-fiction is another story (as it were), but in the interests of keeping the blog up-to-date (and not having this post fester in my blogspot directory for further months) I'll cover those books later. Suffice it to say that I've read three of them recently, one of which was good, one very good and one quite stunningly good. To find out what they were, watch this space.

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