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Surface Detail
Surface Detail
by Iain M. Banks
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Never Say Die, 19 Oct 2010
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This review is from: Surface Detail (Hardcover)
If you can create an immersive virtual reality indistinguishable from the Real then you can build Heaven ... or Hell. Inevitably some civilizations will build their own Hells, to punish sinners and encourage the virtuous. Equally inevitably, other civilizations will want to abolish these virtual arenas of unending torment.

In "Surface Detail", Iain M. Banks' new Culture novel, there is a war in progress on this very issue. Waged for decades in virtuality, the losing side is preparing to cheat and move the war into the Real. Suddenly this issue could drag everybody in.

This novel of 627 pages provides plenty of space for a multitude of story lines to develop and coalesce as the big picture comes slowly into focus. We start, mise en scène, with the tattooed girl Lededje fleeing her overbearing boss. We cut to the conscript Vatueil, part of a mediaeval army besieging a castle in an opaque war. We cut to an overwhelming `equivalent tech' assault upon a Culture Orbital and meet Yime Nsokyi fighting in the last ditch. Not all of these events are happening in the Real.

It's a challenge to write compelling descriptions of Hell: how many words for torment are there in the language? How many gruesome tortures do you need to describe? How can you get the reader to empathise with suffering? Banks' solution is to apply a paced plot-driven structure to excursions into the netherworld: we encounter agonies from repeatedly unexpected directions.

Towards the end, as battle fleets assemble, the novel picks up pace and Banks has a lot of fun with the Abominator Class General Offensive Unit "Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints". This is a ship which could probably destroy a whole galactic spiral arm without really trying and boy, does it waste the bad guys!

So: exuberant, satisfyingly complex, interesting characters, quite a few surprises and a weird echo of "Use of Weapons" on the final page. What's not to like?

If all SF is really reflection on the here-and-now, what's the issue being explored here? No-one is going to feel too surprised that Iain Banks feels that torture is wrong, that virtual reality Hells are a poor idea, that sociopathic plutocrats ought to get their just desserts. So where is the subversive take on received bien-pensant opinion? The nearest I could find is that sometimes being talented, high-ranking and self-important doesn't make you the automatic centre of attention - a somewhat underwhelming truth.

So read it as intelligent, sophisticated entertainment: it's worth the money.


Mysterium
Mysterium
by Robert Charles Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.85

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Slow and shapeless, 11 Oct 2010
This review is from: Mysterium (Paperback)
A mysterious artefact is discovered in the Turkish desert. Lethally radioactive it does not appear to be constituted of normal matter. The small town of Two Rivers, Michigan USA is the site of the R&D establishment set up to study it under the direction of Theoretical Physics laureate Alan Stern. With the townsfolk we experience the night the scientists decide to bombard the artefact with high-energy beams, the night when everything within two miles of the lab is transported to a parallel universe.

Two River's new world is one in which the Roman Empire never became Christian and Gnostic Christianity triumphed. It's perhaps fifty years technically behind the world Two Rivers left. There is no America: an independent Anglo-French theocracy occupies the continent, warring with the Spanish empire to the south: the race is on for the first nuclear bomb. The Inquisition soon arrives in Two Rivers to purge heresy and investigate both the advanced technologies to be found there and the strange events which led to its incursion. The resulting conflicts drive the plot.

I wonder why Robert Charles Wilson wrote this book. It's a reprint of something he did in 1994 so perhaps it was an apprentice piece? The characters are stock; the narrative lacks focus as we struggle to understand what we should be caring about while the resolution at the end is both contrived and unsatisfactory.

What stands out above the blandness are a couple of ideas. At one point one of the bad guys, a religious inquisitor comments on the practice of religion in Two Rivers: "Their theology is impoverished too. Like a line drawing of Christianity, all the details left out," (as compared to Gnosticism - p. 287). Something interesting there which is never developed.

Earlier the novel's guru, Alan Stern poses this question (p. 49, I have précised slightly).

"Think about Albert [the family dog]. He functions in every way normally, within the parameters of his species. He can learn, do tricks and recognise you. But despite all that, there's a limit to his understanding. If we talk about gravitons or Fourier transforms he can't follow the conversation. His mental universe can't contain such concepts.

"We're sitting here asking spectacular questions about the universe, how it began, about everything which exists. And if we can ask a question then sooner or later we can answer it; we assume there are no limits to knowledge. But maybe the dog makes the same mistake? He doesn't know what lies beyond the neighbourhood but if he found himself in a strange location he would approach it with the tools of comprehension available to him. And soon he would understand it doggie-fashion, by sight and smell and so on. For him there are no limits except the ones he can't comprehend. So what about us? Are there questions about the universe we can't ask? Things we can't know? Are there real limits to our comprehension as invisible to us as they are to Albert?"

This is a good question which deserves some thought but it's not explored in this novel.

In summary this book barely kept my attention: it's slow and sprawling; the characters are cardboard and we just don't care about them; the plot is unfocused and unengaging. The best thing about it is the title and the cover art. Wilson has written better novels subsequently and has carved out a minor place in `literary SF' so I'd recommend sticking with those.


The Man Who Folded Himself
The Man Who Folded Himself
by David Gerrold
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

10 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Derivative, self-indulgent, deeply flawed, 30 Sep 2010
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David Gerrold is a cult science-fiction author. For people who care about Star Trek he has written episodes and is the author of the book "The Trouble with Tribbles". For fans of military SF he wrote the four books in "The War Against the Chtorr" series - we have been waiting twenty years for the final volume(s).

And then there is his time-travel novel "The Man Who Folded Himself". Gerrold is a career-acolyte of Robert Heinlein: "The War Against the Chtorr" series is explicit homage to "Starship Troopers" while "The Man Who Folded Himself" parallels exactly Heinlein's classic "All You Zombies".

So what to make of it?

Gerrold starts promisingly in the style of "The Catcher in the Rye". Danny is the truculent, bored adolescent orphan being paid $1,000 a month by his 'Uncle Jim' to attend University. As he observes: "An apartment, a car and a thousand a week for keeping my nose clean."

Soon however Uncle Jim dies and Danny is left with a timebelt, a personal time machine. Now Gerrold leaves his promising story development to spend 7 technophilic pages describing this device to no advantage to the underlying narrative whatsoever. What did his editor think he was doing?

We soon revert to old-fashioned story-telling as Danny and his one-day-advanced doppelgänger go to the races and clean-up. Cue another techno-excursion into multiverse-ontology as Gerrold presents his solution to the obvious paradoxes: plot development stalls and dies at this new irruption of fan-boy geekdom. Eventually the story resumes although with less élan as Danny meets a female version of himself (Diana) from a remote alternate timeline and they produce a male boy. Well, you can see where it's all going to end up.

Somewhere between here and there Danny ends up fancying himself rotten and Gerrold devotes some pages to explore homosexual relationships. In his afterword Gerrold makes a big issue about his dilemma as to whether to include this topic and his difficulties in writing it. However this all seems to me ridiculously self-indulgent. The question is whether the gay sex episode is consistent with and necessary to character and plot development. In fact it's gratuitous and contrived.

Gerrold is basically a good writer and an intelligent man: I am still waiting impatiently for his final book in the "Chtorr" series. But he takes his own opinions and his own sexuality far too seriously and this self-centredness detracts from his literary accomplishments. So if you want to see the difference between 'mere science-fiction' and literature then here it is in the nutshell. There was a good novel trying to get out here but Gerrold strangled it by gratuitous techno-info-dumping and gay-rights-prosletysing. He may believe this is a strength of genre-writing but it isn't.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 29, 2013 11:24 PM BST


AD 410: The Year That Shook Rome
AD 410: The Year That Shook Rome
by Sam Moorhead
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Not the Rome beloved of history teachers, 18 Sep 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
What a page-turner this is! My immediate reaction on finishing was that I needed to read it again in order to really anchor the central characters and to order my impressions. However my second thought was that these impressions, as imprecise as they were, should be savoured for their remarkable vividness.

The action is set during the implosion of the Roman Empire in AD 410 with barbarian invaders camped outside the city of Rome. The description of the stranglehold the Goths were able to maintain by the single act of cutting off food supplies is chilling with accounts of disease, starvation and even cannibalism. The Roman influence in Britain as portrayed at school omitted this Achilles' heel of urbanisation, focussing on the positive aspects such as rule of law, road building, the amenities of a rationally laid-out town and the luxuries of villa life.

The Empire's problems stemmed from its very success: its expansion. Rule from Rome became infeasible and a single authority was replaced with two emperors and two assistants,(who would in theory ultimately replace the emperors) establishing bases in the east and the west. Divided authority within the empire however invited ambitious generals to test the strength of their own claims and gave rise to internal strife.

This fracturing of the power structure opened the way to all manner of barbarian invasions and the eventual invasion of Italy itself. In AD 410 the absent emperor Honorius, based in Ravenna, could have saved Rome with a treaty providing a homeland for the Goths had he been more insightful and respectful of the motivations of his enemy. Instead he vacillated and finally goaded Alaric, the leader of the Goths, into sacking Rome.

The other strand of the book was the establishment and survival of the Catholic Church during these turbulent years. Despite the fall of the city occurring under the auspices of Christianity rather than paganism, the faith and the church retained its place in the Vatican. This was in no small part due to the scholarly expositions on the misfortunes of the empire as a part of God's plan by Saint Augustine (The City of God).

In conclusion this is a dense but delightful read which would benefit from a leisurely revisit if time allows.


The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There
The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There
by Sinclair McKay
Edition: Hardcover

27 of 41 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars No life, secret or otherwise, here, 11 Sep 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Bletchley Park is synonymous with the brilliant work of a dedicated group of clever men who broke the German wartime military codes and in so doing helped defeat Hitler. The subject matter is indeed potent. Unfortunately the treatment in this book suffers from two related flaws: firstly, being published some sixty five years after the event it lacks freshness in the telling; secondly, it is based solely upon the recollections of the few surviving staff.

Unfortunately most of these are women who had relatively mundane roles in the establishment. This is not to denigrate the women, rather to acknowledge that they were not the ones chosen as code breakers: but only those people could really tell the tale which is so central to the Park.

Those women, who were translators and apparent insiders to crucial intelligence, recall little that is sensational. Repeatedly they emphasise the separation and isolation of functions which fragment their narratives. Even after sixty five years the total emphasis on secrecy impressed upon them still lingers - their reminiscences focus on practical matters of feeding, accommodation and relaxation rather than shedding any light on how the codes were tackled and the role of the proto-computers.

What the book does offer is an insight into the demands of war work. The hours were long and in shifts; separation from family and the comforts of home meant that loneliness and tedium were the norm with homemade entertainment such as theatrical and musical shows, dancing and sporting exercise being the chief respite. How introverted types must have loathed such a diet of regimented jollity!

In the end the story this book tells is insubstantial and like the lives of many who served their country at Bletchley Park, often tedious. It captures the mundane while the secret thrills of code breaking elude it.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 26, 2012 7:49 PM BST


Two Serious Ladies
Two Serious Ladies
by Jane Bowles
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two femmes fatales go their own way, 29 Jun 2010
This review is from: Two Serious Ladies (Paperback)
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Christina Goering, daughter of a rich and distinguished family is a difficult child. Driven by her fervent imagination she flits between cultish fads, dragging other children into her worlds, children who can't comprehend and therefore cordially dislike her.

As a grown woman, she lives in a smart house outside of New York - it's the early 1940s. Soon, however we find her abandoning luxury to live with her lady companion and a couple of male admirers in a cheap leased house on a run-down island downwind of a nasty industrial town with glue factories. Soon she is visiting the roughest dives, making out with the local tough guys and finally allowing herself to be picked up by a gangster.

Her friend Mrs Frieda Copperfield has a puppyish dolt of a husband, endlessly battily curious, self-centred and lacking all common sense (an INTP I'm afraid). They go to Panama where Mrs Copperfield ends up befriending a local prostitute, Pacifica and living in the "hotel" in the red-light district where the prostitutes conduct their business with visiting sailors.

Various adventures befall Mrs Copperfield and the people she meets and finally she returns to New York with Pacifica and meets up again with Christina Goering. This time at a restaurant where the gangster is conducting his business. And there the novel ends.

Jane Bowles wrote this when she was 26. She was already a bohemian, bisexual, hanging out with W.H. Auden and Gipsy Rose Lee. The novel is billed as a cult classic, her masterpiece: I was therefore very curious myself as to how it would measure up.

To start with, the book is a very easy read. The two women's narratives are told in parallel with linear plot development and short sentences. It's at once apparent that the characters are not meant to be real people: they're archetypes of a kind of intellectual anomie, people who are there to show and work out strategies of alienation. The two serious women of the title are not well-differentiated: I would say that Frieda Copperfield is Christina Goering with competence turned down and neuroticism turned up. In Myers-Briggs parlance, they're both ENFPs.

What is striking about both women is that they pursue their counter-cultural life-choices with absolutely no thought of the consequences. A rough type (Andy) after being involved in a brawl says to Miss Goering "It would please me in the midst of all this horror to go to bed with you. But in order to do this we'll have to leave this bar and go to my apartment." "Well, I can't promise you anything but I will be glad to go to your apartment" Miss Goering replies. And nothing bad happens to her (or Frieda) - ever. Nobody hits them, rapes them, steals from them or even swears at them.

So I saw this novel in the end as Jane Bowles playing with personal scenarios of rootlessness, the excitement and novelty of random sexual encounters, the accumulation of novel experiences for their own sake: and most of all, a complete and enduring lack of personal emotional commitment. So although as a literary accomplishment this book is merely so-so, as a view of the personal drives and demons of the very-unusual Jane Bowles it's very interesting indeed.

Note: the subject matter might suggest this is a very prurient book, full of shockingly explicit sexual scenes. But in fact everything is merely hinted at - the most overt description is when the gangster puts his hand on Miss Goering's knee (having taken her for an up-market prostitute).


Siberian Education
Siberian Education
by Nicolai Lilin
Edition: Paperback

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A criminal culture in decay, 31 May 2010
This review is from: Siberian Education (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
`Siberian Education' is a dramatised autobiographical account of the life of Nicolai Lilin, a criminal in the Siberian tradition. It chronicles the early life of the protagonist and the slow death of his community (transported from Siberia to Russia's south-west by Stalin) over the last two decades of the twentieth century. We are introduced to the principle characters in Nicolai's life and their place in the pervasive hierarchy that governs their conduct in all matters criminal.

Lilin covers many unique facets of life in this natural and flowing narrative. Not so much a stream of unremitting horrors, more a blend of the ups and downs faced by Nicolai and his contemporaries as they grow up in Low River, one of several distinct districts each with their own gangs and codes. The setting is implicitly conveyed through the actions and description of the characters until Nicolai reaches the children's prison for the first time. Here the description is precise and taut and inescapably grim.

I found the characterisation in `Siberian Education' to lack a certain subtlety, fitting too easily into the good-guy/bad- guy mould. The narrative tone however does reflect the changing attitudes of Nicolai as he grows older and moves from inheriting to forming his own views. The final section of the book which acts as an epilogue is interesting but for me the author doesn't quite make enough of it. For this book is as much about the values and lifestyle of a now defunct community as it is the autobiography of one man.


Deadlock
Deadlock
by Sean Black
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.72

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Violence aplenty, not much sex, 29 May 2010
This review is from: Deadlock (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It came as a surprise after finishing this book to discover that the author is British, so authentic was the immersion in Americana. In DeadLock we have a very fast paced drama with twists and turns aplenty making for a classic page-turner. To enjoy this book one must set aside one's critical faculties and relish unreality: the three main protagonists are unfailingly principled, resourceful and fearlessly brave. At times the clearheaded planning and execution of convoluted tactics inside the maximum security prison was incredible and suggested an image of the author as weedy online gamer writing about avatars with all the superhuman attributes that he himself lacks.

The plot revolves around one man, a freelance protection-provider for extreme situations representing conventional decencies charged with protecting a white supremacist turned super-grass. The motive of the super-grass is to forward his cause not to cooperate in staying alive so as to testify in court. The characterisation of those on both sides of the conflict is sufficiently well rounded that I was genuinely interested in their survival.

I would compare this novel to a Dick Francis thriller. The plots in both cases are intricate and always pacey and the characters strong and admirable. They both have levels of violence which are outside normal experience providing frequent doses of shock and horror throughout. As a one-off this was an interesting read but a follow-up would not appeal. What could a subsequent story offer: even more bravery in the face of even more violence?


As the Earth Turns Silver
As the Earth Turns Silver
by Alison Wong
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars More a tract than a novel, 23 April 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
In Fay Weldon's compelling typology ("Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen") this is a `bad good' book, one with literary pretensions but important flaws in execution.

Set in the early years of the twentieth century, the story revolves around the Chinese community in Wellington, New Zealand. We have forgotten what full, right-on racism and sexism feel like but Wong has carefully researched the times and has recreated their shocking unpleasantness. The dynamics of the story are grounded however in the dominant Anglo community. Sensitive Katherine McKechnie is emotionally and physically brutalised by her drunken rabidly right-wing brutalist husband Donald. She has a sensitive bright daughter and a hooligan tearaway son who idolises his father. Donald drunkenly falls into the sea one day and drowns, and Katherine and her family are thrown into poverty.

A chance encounter at the Chinese greengrocers throws her into the company and then the arms of Yung - a sensitive, refined, poetic Chinese man - and forbidden romance blooms across the racial divide: it was always going to end in tears. There is also quite a back-story for the Chinese characters, men who have left their families and marital ties behind in China to eke out a living in New Zealand where any kind of advancement always eludes them.

So what has Alison Wong done right? She has a small cast of characters who are distinguishable and have some hinterland. The plot is multilinear and moves along, if not always at a cracking pace. She has a poet's ear for language and description, and the tensions of the time are starkly drawn. But here is the problem: the characters which dominate this novel are Racism, Sexism with Imperialism a bit-part player. It's moral indignation which drives this novel along and post-colonial guilt which sent it high in the best-seller list in NZ.

Actually Wong does not care much about her characters who are merely archetypes for attitudes: either infeasibly noble or dyed-in-the-wool black-hearted. Because the author doesn't care much about them neither do we and so the novel degenerates into a crafted but ultimately unsatisfying polemic.


The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ (Myths)
The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ (Myths)
by Philip Pullman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most intelligent take on Christianity, 13 April 2010
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Many other reviews have summarised Philip Pullman's story-structure as a rationalist retelling of the new testament and I will not repeat that here. The book is full of deadpan humour in the early chapters but builds up to a damning critique both of Jesus' own maximalist doctrines (insofar as we can recover them through historical scholarship) and the Pauline-inspired reconstruction of 'Christianity' to the point where it became the propaganda ministry of the Roman Empire after Constantine (a model it has basically stayed with ever since).

Pullman's hatred of hypocrisy shines through as well as his piercing intelligence. Pilate is the hard man you expect - no letting the Romans off lightly for political reasons - and the high priest Caiaphas is only gently mocked for his role as having to please all his constituents including his Roman masters. As diplomats always remind us, it may be a weaselly job but someone does in fact have to do it.

Jesus alone achieves a full clarity of thought but where does that leave him? It's characteristic of the sophistication of Pullman's work that the protagonist and antagonist both indignantly reject ambiguity, but that in the end is all we can ever get.


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