20 March 2008

Life, Death, Space, Time, Matter, Gods, Aliens...

...you know the drill.

And now so do I. A BLOODY GREAT BIG DRILL, in fact, positioned a few inches from my head as the next-door house is disassembled down to its very foundations (warning: slight risk of hyperbole). I guess that writing I mentioned won't be happening today.

(Disturbingly, the van at the front of the house belongs to a pest control company, suggesting that they've been called in to deal with something living in the walls.)

So -- books. And beer as well, but probably in a separate post.

I think I've said what I wanted to about Arthur C. Clarke in my piece for Surefish. I'll update here when that's available online -- I'm hoping it might be today [ETA: Yes -- see above], but it may have to wait till Tuesday[ETA: No, I told you, the link's just up there.]. Suffice it to say that Clarke's been an inspirational figure since my childhood, has had a pervading influence on my thinking in all kinds of ways -- most of them too deeply ingrained to identify -- and that his death, whatever age he reached, was always going to be a loss to the world.

(One thing I hadn't room to mention in the article was that his 62-year professional writing career was one of the few to threaten the 65-year record of George Bernard Shaw. If Clarke had lived another four years, as Shaw did, I'm sure he'd have overtaken him.)

One thing that some of you might be able to tell me, though... the most recent book of Clarke's I read was 3001: The Final Odyssey, one of a cluster of utopian novels by senior SF writers which popped up unexpectedly around the turn of the millennium. I've not read any of his co-written stuff, not being a big fan of Stephen Baxter's work and suspecting that Beyond the Fall of Night and the Rama sequels in particular were blatant cash-ins.

So, um... are any of the collaborations any good? I'm thinking here particularly of the Clarke-Lee Rama books and the Clarke-Baxter Time Odyssey series, all of which I really ought to have read at some point.

In other S.F. news... I enjoyed Iain Banks' Matter, but like The Steep Approach to Garbadale and to some extent The Algebraist, it had the feel of Banks working to a reliable formula without much interest in stretching himself. (Dead Air didn't feel like that to me, and nor did Look to Windward, so I hope this is an extended lapse rather than a long-term slide into senescence.)

The complex and massive detail of an insanely long-lived galactic metacivilisation (and a completely different one from the one in The Algebraist, at that) was well done, but other elements felt fairly familiar. This is particularly true of the absurdly advanced and enlightened Culture's covert intervention in the affairs of the rather boring feudal society who form the focus of the novel, since this was also the plot of Inversions nearly ten years ago. Admittedly this feudal culture occupies a portion of a world-sized artifact left behind my mysterious long-vanished aliens, but -- as one of the characters even points out during the novel -- that's the only interesting thing about them.

Admittedly there's a cleverish twist in that the Culture's agent is herself a native of the feudal society in question -- a princess no less, donated by the king as payment for services rendered some time previously, and immediately emancipated as a fully entitled (and enabled) Culture citizen. (Her name, Djan Seriy, recalls "Janissary", whether deliberately or otherwise.) In other respects, the book rehashes elements of Excession, Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, to no particularly worthwhile effect. It's a fun read and I was never bored, but I do feel Banks has been treading water for the past half-decade or so.

Since finishing Matter I've started River of Gods by Ian McDonald. I'm not very far in, and so far it's a little baffling -- I'm ashamed to say the panoply of Indian names, not all of them readily distinguishable to my angloglot eyes, isn't helping with that. I've just reached the part where the synthetic Bollywood-soap star explains that he was created as an A.I. actor rather than an A.I. character because everyone likes to know what stars get up to behind the scenes, only for it to be revealed that this part of his life is just as scripted as his soap appearances. That's fairly promising.

I'm also most of the way through Bryan Appleyard's Aliens: Why They Are Here, an examination of fictional and supposedly-real aliens which blends pop-culture and philosophy with immense readability. It's fascinating.

Oh, and this isn't a book, but it did appear in the Guardian Books supplement, and is written by the author of a book I want to read. Well, I guess that about wraps it up for Dawkins.

1 comment:

  1. Hello. I have just finished Matter and have only 'The Hydrogen Sonata' to go. I'd agree with much of what you wrote. I enjoyed Matter but it didn't take me anywhere out of the ordinary (for Banks). That said, I thought Djan Seriy was by far the most interesting of Banks otherwise very very similar female SC protagonists (and indeed whatserface in 'The Business').

    I found the pacing of Matter pretty annoying. It was (spoiler follows) to me pretty obvious by about halfway through that they were going to uncover an Iln. (You probably spotted this earlier than me as you are good at that kind of thing, like Low-Key Lysmith). So then we have a couple of hundred more pages to get to uncovering the Iln. And then he rushes through the dénouement. The Alturida are under-developed, as is the WorldGod.

    But I did like the way he ties together the fate of the 3 surviving children of Hausk.

    I might be weird. I still think Excession is by far my favourite Culture Novel, Player of Games my least (it felt, to me, the most formulaic and predictable) and I didn't like The Algebraist much at all. A lot of that was down to the totally gratuitous anal sex bit, mind you. Which left a bad taste. Metaphorically.

    Do you even read these comments? No idea.


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