16 January 2011

The Adventure of the Anagrammatic Algebraist

I'm beginning to suspect, if I'm to keep this blog going at all, that I need to learn the art of writing pithy but substantial posts, rather than great long screeds which lay out my every passing thought on a topic.

As a first stab at that, here are brief(ish) reviews of the most recent pair of books I've read:

* * *

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks: The latest of Banks' loosely-linked Culture sequence, this combines enjoyably labyrinthine politics with giant space-opera battle and some serious philosophising. The necessarily murky foreign relations of a utopian society are, as ever, highlighted even while the setting itself is evoked with confidence and style.

The new element here is a corollary to an idea I've used in my own writing, of a highly technological society building its own Heaven where its citizens can survive after death. In the Culture universe, we learn, many civilisations have also built Hells in which the uploaded souls of their dead can suffer eternal torment in retribution for perceived misdeeds in life. It's an effectively nasty -- and as far as I'm aware original -- idea, and Banks is just the author to deplore it whilst still having some sadistic fun. (Indeed, a couple of passages suggest that these Hells should themselves be considered artworks in just this vein, as if Dante or Bosch -- or the Banks of Complicity and its ilk -- had worked in the arena of actual experience, rather than in depictive media.)

I suspect most sincere believers in the Christian Hell would see this as an obscene usurpation of God's prerogatives, and the novel didn't work very hard to convince me otherwise. There's also almost no indication of what most of the souls in the Hells have done to be consigned there: although a few are political prisoners, one presumes that many must be guilty of crimes which Banks and the reader would join their parent societies in decrying. Still, Surface Detail's Hells are, fairly uncomplicatedly, a metaphor for fundamentalist religion in general, and going into fictional doctrinal detail would have detracted from that.

It's a highly entertaining novel, but doesn't quite face up to the challenge it sets itself. And some of the Culture material feels very much as if it's re-exploring familiar ground -- an impression which one continuity-based revelation (in literally the last two words of the novel) does little to dispel.

* * *

Zero History by William Gibson: The conclusion to the rather startlingly named "Bigend Trilogy", in which Gibson turns essentially the same sensibility as created his science fiction works on the unadulterated contemporary world. Shockingly, I see that I never properly reviewed either Pattern Recognition or Spook Country, though I did praise them in passing here and there. Both are outstanding, and if you've enjoyed Gibson's SF I'd urge you to seek them out.

Zero History is as gorgeously written as ever, the information-dense prose nonetheless elegantly inventive and enthralling, the characters -- most notably the genially appalling capitalist anti-hero Hubertus Bigend -- convincingly drawn and detailed. As with Pattern Recognition and (the suspiciously similarly-named) Count Zero, one plot strand concerns a typically Gibsonian quest to track down the creator of some mysterious anonymous art -- in this case a "secret brand" of designer clothing. Although I do find discussion of fashion rather wearying, I enjoyed the branding motif in Pattern Recognition, and there's an entire thesis to be written about the parallels between these three realistic novels and the Sprawl trilogy.

Although ostensibly far more closely connected to Spook Country, with which it shares its two point-of-view characters, than to Pattern Recognition, it does a very clever thing with the structure of the trilogy, which I'd better conceal with whitespace (highlight to read): When Hollis Henry, the retired rock-musician protagonist of Spook Country, eventually meets the designer in question, she turns out to be logo-averse Cayce Pollard, whom we last saw performing a parallel quest some seven years earlier in Pattern Recognition.

Unfortunately, the anonymous-designer plot strand is rather perfunctorily resolved, and insufficiently well-integrated with the main plotline (which relates to the commercial rivalry between Bigend and a rogue operator for, erm, the contract to design clothing for the U.S. military). There's also a McGuffin which may be the nearest equivalent to a deux ex machina in a modern mainstream novel, but which equally seems to come out of nowhere. The book's a fantastic read, but ultimately I felt not quite as satisfying a novel as its two predecessors.

* * *

I've a couple of short-story anthologies to read next (both in series I've previously contributed to), but the next novel on my list is Rivers of London, a fantasy-police-procedural by the magnificently talented, and heretofore hopelessly undervalued, Ben Aaronovitch. I mention this mostly because I'm amused by the coincidence -- his two full-length Doctor Who novels draw heavily on the works of Gibson and Banks respectively -- but I'm looking forward to it enormously.

Finally, in a similar spirit of brevity, and in keeping with the mention of the police... here's one more teaser (the ninth of eleven, if I'm not mistaken) for my forthcoming short story "A Hundred Words from a Civil War" in Obverse Books's Faction Paradox anthology, A Romance in Twelve Parts:
     ‘Who was he?’ The investigator wears a greatcoat and muffler. ‘Apart from being a Remake, an academic and a closet gay, obviously. And taking his phobia of Tube travel as read.’
     ‘Remake?’ Inspector Inshaller stammers. ‘No, he was a maths lecturer. Dr Roamers-Jay.’
     ‘Oh, typical,’ he sneers. Hologlyphs in various alphabets and number-systems orbit his camelish face. ‘Someone’s leaving me a trail of dead Moriartys, and none of them are mine.’
     ‘Erm,’ Inshaller says. ‘No offence, but when we hired the Great Detective Agency, we were expecting someone a bit more...’
     ‘Heritage? Yeah,’ he sighs. ‘I get that a lot.’
The book's due out in the spring. Ordering details will appear here as soon as I have them myself.

03 January 2011

Twenty eleven, forty, twelve, one hundred

2011 will be the year I turn 40. That really doesn't seem feasible, somehow. I remember a time when I thought that any year with two nines in it sounded thrillingly futuristic.

Anyway, B. and I have spent the past week-and-a-half gadding about the country in the traditional manner, only this time with a toddler in tow to help keep things astonishingly overcomplicated. (One happy by-product of the necessary extensive disruption to said toddler's routine is that he now accepts sleeping in a cot that's across the other side of the room from our bed, rather than strapped to it, as being normal. This represents progress.)

Among the spoils of this Christmas's festive present exchange with our relatives are complete boxed sets of the incomparable and timeless Twin Peaks and the two best BBC sitcoms of the past decade, Outnumbered and The Thick of It. (OK, so that last one's technically B.'s.) Also Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream, which sounds rather akin to James Blish's earlier biographical-novel-about-a-scientific-revolutionary-with-SF-visionary-scenes, Doctor Mirabilis.

New Year's Eve was beset and blighted by various illness afflicting B and our proposed guests, meaning that we spent the evening alone and went to bed at 10:30ish. There were far fewer fireworks let off in our immediate neighbourhood this inter-year midnight than last, which I approve of from the point of view of the environment and my sleep, though it's probably economically telling.

2011 is also the year in which the first Faction Paradox short-story anthology, A Romance in Twelve Parts, is due to be published by Obverse Books, including "A Hundred Words from a Civil War", the official sequel to my novel Of the City of the Saved.... I'm certainly looking forward to it more than I am the longevitudinal milestone I mentioned earlier. You may be too, in which case you may like to see another teaser in the form of a deleted drabble:
     A dragon hisses and snaps at its handler, tail thrashing, hungry for flesh. The hobbits are going to war against the ogres.
     The diminutive Citizens of Erbor District’s island margins have always had troubled relations with the beetle-browed giants of the uplands. These thickset Homo antecessor Citizens were once a culture of cannibals, and have gazed hungrily at their tiny Homo floresiensis neighbours since long before the collapse of invulnerability. Now they grind the hobbits’ bones to make their bread.
     In retaliation, the floresians have been domesticating the marshlands’ vicious monitor lizards.
     The dragon-handlers’ charges trudge onwards towards the foothills.
There, I've even annotated it with hyperlinks for you. Happy New Year.