08 January 2009

Greeks, Spooks, Terrorists and Supermen

In my general remissness recently, I've omitted to mention any books not written by me or my friends since... well, it looks like October, which is actually more recently than I thought, but the time before that was August. I clearly have been slacking.

At present I'm still immured in Kim Stanley Robinson's One Mars Two Mars Red Mars Blue Mars trilogy. (Incidentally, I've discovered since that October post that the TV adaptation I mentioned of Red Mars is being co-developed by someone whose screenwriting credits include Armageddon, Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. So I take back everything I said about it being potentially a complex, serious political drama and therefore a good idea.)

I'm now some 70 pages into the final book -- no, sorry, the final novel -- in the sequence. It's taking me a long time, admittedly, but I submit that this is only partly my fault. Parallel with this I'm reading Tom Holland's Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom. More on both when I finish them (which, in Blue Mars's case, is looking like sometime around the date of Robinson's first Mars landings in 2020).

Meanwhile, here are brief (Note to self: yes, brief, because I haven't got all day here) mini-reviews of some of the other stuff I've managed to get read during the past few months.

The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod: I read this so long ago now that it's difficult to remember what I thought about it, except that I found it enjoyable and disturbing in equal measure. It's set in a divergent near-future where Al Gore won the 2000 US Presidential election was allowed to take office after winning the 2000 US Presidential election -- but the world's gone to hell in a handbasket anyway. It's quite a clever take on the near-future story, and produces an appropriately hideous and apocalyptic world of nuclear terrorism, rampant misinformation and state intervention in private affairs.

MacLeod makes the transition from "proper SF novel" to "proper SF novel pretending to be a thriller" with consummate ease, assisted no doubt by his obsessive interest in politics. Although the final twist where... er, very broadly "the good guys win", was an excessively silly one. I hope this new direction doesn't mean an end to his space-opera and further-future stories, because those are ace.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek: the man who discovered Britain by Barry Cunliffe: An impressive reconstruction of the exploratory voyages of a natural scientist from the Greek colony of Massalia (now Marseille) who have left the womb of the Mediterranean to visit not only southern Britain but apparently Lewis, Shetland, the Baltic coast and even Iceland, as early as the fourth century BCE (Equally astonishing is the throwaway detail of a clockwise circumnavigation of Africa by a Phoenician fleet under commission from Pharaoh Necho II a good couple of centuries earlier.)

Cunliffe's an archaeologist, meaning that his narrative takes in the architecture and technologies Pytheas might be expected to have encountered, as well as the few remaining fragments of Pytheas's own writings which exists (mostly as quotes from other writers insulting him). It's dry in places, but the story is utterly fascinating.

The Intruders by Michael Marshall: The books of crime writer Michael Marshall -- also known as SF writer Michael Marshall Smith -- are always highly entertaining to read, thanks to his urgent, chatty style and his brilliance at turning a phrase. ("It began to rain then, with sudden firmness, as if it had meant to start earlier but forgot.") Approximately every three books, he also comes up with a new story to tell, and this is one of those.

The nature of that story means that the book is very difficult to classify in one genre or another, but that's been true of all his books to date. (Those sold as SF are actually dark-fantasy stories set in cyberpunk futures, while the Straw Men trilogy, marketed as crime thrillers, involve Neanderthals surviving in the Pacific Northwest and an ancient brotherhood of serial killers who've been secretly running the world since prehistoric times.) My only quarrel with The Intruders arises to some extent from this genre ambiguity, in that the crime-novel protagonist is exasperatingly slow to understand, and then to believe in, the horror-fantasy plot he's living through. Otherwise it's an excellent read.

(I've recently picked up Smith's The Servants, a ghost story published -- in my edition, at least -- under the name M. M. Smith, so I'm looking forward to that one, too.)

The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley: Politically disturbing sequel to 1986's mould-breaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. This one has many more superheroes in it, which is always fun, but takes the earlier book's only mildly disconcerting view of Bruce Wayne as a Nietzschean superman to absurdly Mussolinian levels, with Batman defeating his enemies, and wresting control of the world from its corrupt leaders, just through being a helluva lot harder than anybody else. Especially the real Superman, whom Batman makes his bitch halfway through the novel.

Given that the character's shown himself by the end to be a bullying, abusive tyrant, it's a little difficult to cheer on his new world order. One to avoid, sadly.

Spook Country by William Gibson: Gibson's previous non-SF novel, Pattern Recognition, doesn't seem to have been particularly well received, but I adored it for the inventiveness of its real-world concepts (the protagonist's neurotic brand-sensitivity renders her "allergic" to specific trademarks, a concept which could be played for laughs but instead comes across as rather poignant) and its sparsely lyrical descriptions, particularly of n American visitor's view of London. B. gave me both it and Spook Country for my birthday back in November, and a reread confirmed me in my love for it.

This follow-up (and incidental sequel) is possibly rather better, although I was less immediately enamoured of it. What I thought was the main innovation -- the extensive descriptions of the highly cyberpunkish medium of locative art -- turns out to be an exaggeration of something that actually exists, while the Chinese-Cuban organised crime family who practice a highly disciplined blend of Soviet spycraft and Santeria were a little too weird to be really involving. The two non-Cuban viewpoint characters were both thoroughly engaging, though, and the way the plot slowly assembles itself in front of the reader who has access to all three narratives -- while never quite making sense to any of the protagonists -- is masterful. It's interesting to see Gibson's traditional thematic concerns modulating themselves to a more realistic world, though -- it must have been a fascinating discipline for him.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: Very lovely in a number of ways, this episodic story of the adventures of a boy brought up in a graveyard by ghosts, werewolves and vampires, and his eventual confrontation with the secret society who killed his parents, feels a little like Gaiman by the numbers. This isn't to say that there's anything here that's directly familiar from his previous books (in the way that, say, Odd and the Frost Giants involved his third, slightly different portrayal of the Norse god-triad of Odin, Loki and Thor)... just that given the premise it's very much the kind of book I would, by now, expect Neil Gaiman to write. I'd like to see him try something really adventurous -- ideally an adult novel of the quality of American Gods, but in a different genre. I'd love to see him tackle some proper SF worldbuilding, for instance... but a realistic novel like Gibson's pair would be excellent too.

I'm sure I read more books than that during the second half of last year, so I'm fairly certain there are more that have been left off. (Well, there's Shining Darkness and The Eyeless for a start. I ought to get round to reviewing those at some point, but they don't fall into the category of "not written by friends of mine".)

If I remember any, I'll try to get round to adding reviews of them in future. Meanwhile, I probably also owe you some witterings about film and TV, but those are going to have to wait for a few days.

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