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Review of Retromancer by Robert Rankin

18 October 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve only just got round to reading last year’s offering by the world’s greatest teller of tall tales, and, to be honest, it was a bit disappointing. All the basic components of a Robert Rankin novel are there – one gormless hero taking on the forces of evil to save the world, a heady mix of science fiction and the supernatural, and much talking of toot.

This novel is a direct sequel to The Brightonomicon and sees Hugo Rune’s assistant Rizla (whose identity was revealed at the end of this novel’s predecessor) travelling back in time to prevent the Germans winning the war. Along the way Rune and Rizla must solve twelve mysteries, each one related to a tarot card (and each of these has a full page illustration created by Rankin), which see them dealing with ghosts and werewolves, the now-legendary Minstry of Serendipity, the spirit of King Arthur resurrected in a Bletchley Park computer, the technology behind the Philadelphia Experiment, and so on and so forth.

A lot of this book seemed like joining the dots. The characters had an arbitrary series of cases to crack before the inevitable show-down with the villain of the piece, Count Otto Black. The story lacked the usual verve – and even the narrator comments on a lack of the usual running gags (although there is a superabundance of devices powered by the transperambulation of pseudo cosmic antimatter). The fact that the narrator’s true identity is also known took away from force of the books, for me.

On the other hand, there are some interesting developments regarding Rune himself – we learn more about his relationship to Black, and there is a suggestion that he might retire himself.

All in all, this was not an outstanding Rankin book, so I look forward to this year’s effort, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, with a mixture of trepidation and hope.

The Ten Best 100 Best Novel Lists List

15 October 2010 Leave a comment

In this post I’m going to reveal how many of the books on each list I’ve read and then, by averaging them, come up with a figure for how well read I am.

1. Time – 10

2. The Modern Library – 6

3. The Modern Library – Reader’s List – 19

4. The Modern Library – Radcliffe Rival 100 Best Novels – 14

5. The Best 100 Lists – 28

6. BBC – The Big Read – 24

7. The Guardian/Observer – 11

8. Goodreads – 28

9. The Telegraph – 100 novels everyone should read – 17

10. This Recording – Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels – 29

Total: 186. Divide by 10: 18.6

Therefore I am 18.6% well read. What about you?

Conclusions: I actually own a lot more of the books on these lists than I have actually read – so I need to get around to reading them (Moby Dick, for instance). There’s plenty of others that I don’t own and haven’t read. But I can take some comfort from the fact that I don’t appear to be a complete ignoramus. My score on the sf and fantasy list is a little low – so there’s work there to be done, for sure.

Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I’d never read any Hemingway before I picked this book up, but I knew that he was famous for his pared-down style. For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on his experiences reporting on the Spanish Civil War. It relates a period of about three days during which a young American Explosives expert, Robert Jordan (which is also the pen name of the James Oliver Rigney, author of The Wheel of Time), arrives at the hideout of a small band of Republican guerillas and embarks on the demolition of a nearby bridge. During this time he has to plan the attack and deal with the tricky web of relationships between himself and the partisans.

It’s a sizable book (perhaps not as big as some Wheel of Time volumes) and the fact that only three days pass is quite impressive. The length of attention given to the build-up to the attack on the bridge heightens the sense of danger, doom and melancholy. This is a book about death and although Robert Jordan manfully avoids thinking about the risks of his task, the inevitability of death hangs over him throughout – from Pilar’s harrowing recounting of the slaughter of fascist-supporting townsfolk, to the fate of the previous dynamiter who worked with the guerillas, to the suicide of Robert Jordan’s own father.

The way language is used is interesting. The characters speak in Spanish throughout, but, of course, the book is written in English, so Hemingway uses various techniques to create a sense of Spanishness to the dialogue. There is a smattering of actual Spanish used in the book, particularly the expression que va? which is used to show disbelief or disgust. In order to convey the Spanish informal pronoun , thee and thou are used. Some of the grammar is idiosyncratic; whenever the Spanish characters mention the plan to blow up the bridge they say, ‘this of the bridge’. There’s also some use of ‘false friends’ – these are words in two language that are similar enough to suggest that they have the same meaning, when, in fact, they don’t. For example, the Spaniards in the novel say that a Russian character has a ‘rare’ name, but this is a false friend of the Spanish raro, which actually means ‘strange’.

There is a lot of dialogue in this book – both between the characters and within the protagonists’ own heads. A lot of this dialogue is also quite repetitive. Robert Jordan repeatedly asks the partisans questions – perhaps because he is afraid of anyone making mistakes (although this isn’t stated explicitly). All these qualities give the text a strange readibility – I was always aware that I was reading dialogue and always trying to guess how much of the technique is authorial invention and how much based on experience.

The book paints a consistent and believable picture of life behind enemy lines in the Spanish Civil War. As I mentioned, the shadow of death hangs over the whole narrative – especially given that the reader knows something the characters don’t, namely that the Republicans lost to Franco’s forces. There’s a certain coldness to the story – I felt that I was appreciating the events and the characters and their feelings intellectually rather than emotionally.

Another weak point was the character Maria, a brutalised young woman who falls in love with Robert Jordan as soon as she sees him and who provides a tender counterpoint to the harsh realism of the rest of the story. She’s an annoyingly passive and girly character, always fawning over Jordan. She jumps into bed with him despite the trauma she has very recently experienced.

Incidentally, one episode in the book shows the last stand of the leader of a nearby band of guerillas and a few of his men on a hill, surrounded by fascist troops. This scene was the inspiration for the Metallica song, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (and what a stupendously brilliant song that is).

All in all, the novel is engaging, thought-provoking and occasionally moving. It is dark, but not depressing – the protagonist may be doomed to die, but he is prepared to die for something he believes in.

The Page 99 Test

Apparently, the author Ford Maddox Ford favoured the idea of judging a book that one might read by reading page 99 first. The logic being that it won’t that it will be a good example of the general standard of writing in the book. An article in the Guardian says that there is a web site starting up on which authors and readers will submit page 99s of novels for public perusal.

Page 99 is a completely arbitrary point at which to test the literary waters, but it is an easy number to remember (if choosing a number is too difficult for the prospective reader). It’s also not too far into most books. The Guardian piece says it will be a quarter to a third of the way through most books – make that a fifth to a tenth of the way through a fantasy novel.

Review of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

7 September 2010 2 comments

I think the last time I tried to read 18th century literature was when I did (or was supposed to do) Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders at university. I found that book hard going, and nowhere near finished it. Gulliver’s Travels is a much more accessible and engaging book.

In it, Lemuel Gulliver, inveterate traveller (he keeps leaving his wife and family to go on hazardous voyages half-way around the world) journeys separately to four previously unknown civilisations: Lilliput, where all the inhabitants are a few inches tall, Brobdingnag, where the people are sixty feet tall, Laputa, where the men (not so much the women) are obsessed with science and philosophy, and the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent and noble horses.

The book was intended as a satire on society at the time and people in general. So, for instance, in Lilliput, human pettiness is highlighted: official Lilliputian doctrine states that eggs should be broken at the narrow end; the contrary ‘Big Endian’ practice is punishable by death. In Laputa (or one of the associated islands – I forget), scientists are paid to work on such projects as reconstituting food from excrement. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver offers to show the king the secret of gunpowder; when he explains what can be achieved with the black powder – muskets that fire lethal bullets, explosions that tear men to pieces etc – the king is horrified, just as a young child would be; Gulliver, however, can’t believe why the king would pass up a chance to gain dominance over neighbouring lands.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is populated not only with the sentient horses, but with the reprehensible Yahoos, creatures that are physiologically identical to humans, but without civilisation or anything but the basest rudiments of intelligence. Over the course of his stay in this land, Gulliver comes to despise and fear the Yahoos – probably more than the Houyhnhnms do – even though the only difference between him and them is his upbringing. Consequently, when he is forced to return home, he sees his fellow humans as similarly base and disgusting. After some years back home he is able to spend time with his wife in the same room, but not for very long and certainly not while she is eating.

The portrayal of human imperfection is probably not as amusing or as cutting as it was in Swift’s time, but it still works. Some of the ideas are pretty funny – and also thought-provoking. Is it right that humans should take pride in our military might? Or pleasure in our lumpy, blotchy flesh?

As a work of fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t work as a story – because it isn’t a story: it’s four stories. And even then, none of these four have much in the way of plot other than Gulliver arriving, learning about the culture and leaving. For me, fantasy is the use of story to explore issues about power and morality. In this book, though, this exploration happens more through the agency of setting. World-building is a vital part of any fantasy book and Swift’s – predating by a long time any of the early modern fantasies like William Morris’s novels (let alone Tolkien) – is pretty solid; except from a scientific standpoint, the various lands visited all make sense (kind of) and support the satirical purpose of the book (although how the Houyhnhnms hold things between their hoof and pastern is rather far-fetched). It’s also refreshing to read a fantasy that doesn’t focus on the stock, quasi-Medieval Europe of many, many novels.

Gulliver’s Travels seems to be seen as a children’s book, but, while there’s a lot in here that would certainly amuse children, the political content of the stories would go way over most children’s heads. The grammar, too, while not at all that difficult an adult to get to grips with, would prove heavy going for younger readers; it’s full of long sentences broken up with colons and semi-colons. I think the orginal text would prove to trying and dry for most children. And then there’s the scene where Gulliver becomes a plaything of some Brobdingnagian maids-in-waiting who naked in front of him; at one point he is sat on one of the girls’ nipples.

All in all, a surprisingly entertaining book – or maybe not that surprising when you take into account that it’s been in print for nearly three hundred years.

Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

21 August 2010 2 comments

A strange book. A short one, too. The first ten or so chapters are set out as individual, spaced paragraphs, each one starting with a bold title in line with the text. These paragraphs are linked, but they don’t read like the consecutive paragraphs of a conventional story. Each contains an idea or a scene. Each chapter functions (or is supposed to function) as a separate novel – but these novels are linked. They are about the same characters with the same preoccupations. One character, although he is the same throughout, changes name from chapter to chapter – Traven, Travers, Travis etc. The chapters, therefore, are very repetitive; they are modulations of the same idea. The last few chapters vary this form, but not by too much.

The subject of the book is at once extremely specific, yet disturbingly ambiguous. It is about the deaths of President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and others, it is about fatal car accidents, it is about sex, it is about the media. There is a lot of sex in this book – but there isn’t. Sex and death are presented, interpreted, recreated in the form of auto-crashes, in collections of photographs and other documents, in the angles of stairs and walls.

Where it works best, the book is about the maniacal and surreal investigations of Traven and his alter egos into the deaths of Kennedy, Monroe – and his own wife. He does this by staging their conceptual re-deaths; simulating – or perhaps achieving – the death of a female character. He is endlessly searching for meaning in the angle of a woman’s thighs, in the wrecks of American cars. These first ten or so chapters are a portrait of a man in the midst of a breakdown. His story is like a mirror, smashed and then inexpertly pieced back together.

The remaining few chapters don’t add much to this story (such as it is). One is entitled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Raegan’ and describes the politician’s rabidly reactionary views spoken in his friendly, reassuring voice – a voice that deafens listeners to his meaning. Another later chapter portrays the assassination of President Kennedy as a motor race.

The copy I read (which I bought at a branch of Fopp for the pleasingly small sum of £3 a few years ago while at university) was padded out somewhat with annotation written by Ballard for a 1993 edition. Each chapter concludes with notes on the author’s inspiration and memories relating to the content of the text. He talks a little about his experience as a child in war-time China, its liberation by the Americans, his love of things American, his wife who – like the main character’s – died. These notes are a little distracting, but for the most part are interesting and provide a much needed context for the book. There is also an introduction written by William Burroughs.

In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages of War and Peace.

These words, written in the late 1960s, are scarily prophetic – just think of Basic Instinct. While The Atrocity Exhibition is bizarre, surreal, difficult, obscene, the above quote highlights the seriousness of its intent. It’s a satire of the fragmentation, mechanisation, sexualisation, trivialisation of modern society.

I’ve read a few J G Ballard books, and this is the first one I’ve read since his death a year or two ago. His earlier ones, like this, are not easy to read; his later ones, while taking similar topics, are much more conventional narratives. I think, with the benefit of greater age and maturity, I’m better able to appreciate works like The Atrocity Exhibition. Which isn’t to say I loved this book; I respect it greatly, but it is, nevertheless – by its very nature – cold and alienating.

What has always most intrigued me about Ballard is his interpretation of and position within the science fiction genre. As he wrote in his introduction to Crash – a novel that this one closly prefigures – he is not interested in the science fiction of outer space – laser guns and spaceships and the like – but in the science fiction of inner space – man’s relationship to techology and its effects. The Atrocity Exhibition demonstrates that interest in ways that are both crude and subtle.

Words, words, words, as Hamlet said

On the subject of books, this autumn looks like being a great season for book releases from some of my favourite authors. In addition to Against All Things Ending (see below), there’s Towers of Midnight (book 13 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson,

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, by Robert Rankin,

and I just found out that there’s a new Iain M Banks book coming out – a Culture novel, no less – called Surface Detail: