Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The d8 Book Club Round-Up

Due to the wonders of commuting in cramped conditions, I was able to read a great deal over the last few months. Here's a bunch of capsule reviews, marked out of 8.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes, Rodger Zelazny
This one has been sitting on my shelf for about 20 years. It has a gushing introduction by Theodore Sturgeon which rather set the book up to fail given how high the praise was. In the end, of the four stories in the collection, only one really flopped.

The title story about an Earth linguist attempting to come to grips with the ruins of a Martian civilization and The Furies, about a group of unusual—Vance-line—assassins tracking down a rogue ex-special forces commander pretty well made it up to the mark and rattle alone pretty well, although Rose suffered slightly from the assumption that the Martians were identical to humans and that the reader would also assume that, and so it didn't need to be mentioned until context finally made it the only explanation. At that point I had to stop and reconsider everything in the story up to that point as my assumption had been that the aliens would be alien-looking. I blame Giger.

Of the other two stories, The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of his Mouth must come close to winning the least-appropriate-title-ever and I can only assume that Zelazny thought he had cancer or something and would never have a chance to use such a great name for any other story ever, so he just slapped it on this so-so story of salmon fishing on tropical pulp-age Venus.

The Graveyard Heart is a nice piece of social satire, and a better fit for its title and suffers slightly from having been redone by others in the time since, but the characters are interesting and the setting believable enough to frame the philosophical point being made. Using hibernation-sleep technology, The Set, circle the world in fast-forward, partying like it's 1999 and beyond, aging only 1 year for every 20 in the world outside their exclusive club. But some find that immortality drags after a while and that the lifestyle they lead can mess with people's minds.

d8 score: 6

The Great Book of Amber, Rodger Zelazny
Having enjoyed Rose, I decided to go back and have another go at Amber. I had read Nine Princes in Amber years ago after playing the computer game and had enjoyed it. As luck had it at the time, I wasn't able to locate the next book in the series and so I picked up Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers, which had been doing the rounds in an omnibus edition. I didn't get far into it before I realised that the setting was very, very similar to Nine Princes and when I checked the date I saw that Farmer's book was the original. This coloured my opinion of Zelazny for years afterwards and I didn't bother reading anything else apart from a comic adaptation of Demolition Alley (itself ripped of mercilessly by John Wagner for his Judge Dredd story The Cursed Earth).

Anyway, I eventually read an interview with Zelazny where he was asked about the similarity to the World of Tiers books and he said, basically, that he'd liked the idea but wanted to read about the characters' relationships which Farmer had not focused on, so he just wrote his own version. Well, fair enough, I guess. After reading Rose, I went to get a new copy of Nine Princes and discovered an omnibus edition of all ten Amber books (running to 1200 pages of fairly small text) which I gradually read on the Tube.

The Ten books are divided into two sets of five, the first five dealing with the struggles of Corwin, one of the nine princes in question, as he tries to deal with the fact that the king of Amber, Oberon, has vanished and his siblings are jockying for position either directly for the throne or to be on the good side of the eventual winner. Corwin is unsure that he wants the throne himself but most of his brothers, at least, assume that he does and his apparent doubts are clever manœuvring. On top of that, Amber is one end of a long sequence of parallel worlds which run from The Pattern to the Courts of Chaos. In between is every imaginable world, including ours, that of the magical Camelot, Wonderland, and presumably every world of fantasy or science fiction ever written about. Corwin and other "real" people can travel over these worlds but for the Amberites they are seen as essentially figments of their imaginations, "shadow" worlds and in those shadow worlds real people stand out as especially strong, intelligent, and/or plain magical. Corwin finds a lot of these pre-conceived notions challenged as he tries to take control of his destiny in preparation for a final confrontation between Law and Chaos where the only possibility for a third option looks to be a lethal one.

The second set of five books concerns Corwin's son Merlin's similar struggle with becoming his own man as the consequences of Corwin's actions reverberate around the multiverse. Zelazny never suggests that this Merlin is the Merlin of legend, which I found refreshing to be honest, but he is a magic user all right, unlike his Dad who was a fighting man. In fact, Merlin is, to my surprise, a Vancian caster!

The first five books do not deal much with magic so having a spellcasting central character was a bit of a change of pace in itself but it was really a bit out of left-field when Merlin started to prepare spells for later use, "hanging" them in his terminology. There is a bit later on where he talks (all ten books are first-person narratives) about using up all the prepared spells and then starting to battle another wizard with "raw power" which is a lot more tiring, so it's not completely AD&D, but it's interesting to speculate whether the game had influenced the books (possibly the influence came directly from Vance, of course).

The second set of books suffers only slightly from "been there, done that" but I felt that Zelazny had trouble making the characters of Merlin and Corwin really distinct beyond their "classes". On top of that, Corwin's main enemy has a epiphany late in the game and throws in with him, something which seems to have happened a lot in books I've read recently and as this was the third time I'd seen it in a year I was a bit tired of it, never mind that Zelazny had done it first—I hadn't read his first.

Very long but overall rewarding and fun read, even if the second set made magic seem a bit too easy which undermined the value of it and implied some unanswered questions about the plot of the earlier books.
d8 score: 7

1Q84, Haruki Murakami
Junk. A classic example of a writer who thinks fantasy must be easy because anything can happen, leading to lazy plotting, lazy characterization, and a setting that is almost see-through in its flimsiness.

Although it is presented as one book in three parts, the book was clearly not written that way. Book 1 is far better than the others and it's obvious that Haruki wrote it in a burst of ideas and then found that he didn't know what to do next. Book 2 is tolerable and Book 3 is a bad joke.

Briefly, the story concerns a woman who is working as a feminist assassin, killing (in an inventive way) men who have mistreated or even killed women but managed to remain above the law. One day in 1984, stuck in a traffic jam on the way to a hit, she gets out of a taxi and climbs down an emergency staircase from the freeway to the ground below. When she arrives there, she is in an alternative reality where the US and USSR have a joint moonbase on the larger of the two moons and there are subtle differences about police uniforms related to events at a mountain commune where several policemen were killed—the deaths being attributed to the old-fashioned nature of Japanese police equipment.

An alarm bell did ring for me even at this point, because as Aomame gets out of the taxi the driver says something portentous and mysterious about the nature of reality. It really couldn't have been clunkier or more clichéd if Arnold Schwarzenegger had said it. But I glossed over it, giving the author a bit of a fool's pardon on the grounds that it was a translation and maybe the original was a little more smoothly done.

Book One progresses well from there and it becomes clear that there is a love story here but as we fade into Book Two the love story starts to sound forced, a love-at-first-sight, haven't-seen-each-other-since-school routine that might fly in Mills and Boons but was creaking under the strain of passing itself off for an adult audience. Gradually it loses all coherence, as does the story itself which may or may not involve aliens or maybe elves or perhaps some sort of albino smurfs which travel magically via roadkill.

Nothing is really resolved except through deus-ex-machinae and the alternative reality setting is apparently completely pointless and holds the writer's interest not much longer than the various characters that drift in and then out again when they've done their bit for the plot regardless of whether their actions have any internal motivations at all.

Treated as a single book, it is the worst book I've ever bothered to finish.

d8 score: 1

1984, George Orwell
Now, here's a thing. A cornerstone of our culture which is rarely actually read any more; better known through stock phrases and iconography than in its original form. I don't know if this is currently on the national curriculum but I think it probably should be. As a study of evil and the dangers of party politics it's a gem.

Orwell dissects the political mind and the need for an unending war with an amazing level of penetration for someone writing no later than the year after the end of WWII; he has no illusions at all about the grand gestures and the mirror-image opponents of the oncoming Cold War (we are at war with the Soviet Union; we have always been at war with the Soviet Union; we are at war with Terror, we have always been at war with Terror). I don't know much about his life but I do know that he spent some time as a policeman in Burma where he had to participate in hangings, and the mistrust of motives and patriotism he learnt serves him well in the depiction of a political class which has harnessed behavioural science and linguistics to control the emotions of the people who supply it with luxury and pleasure.

The weak points are the physical setting (the effects of post-bombing radiation and fallout were not yet well known and so the portrayed after-effects of a nuclear war on Britain seem fairly ridiculous to the modern eye) and the central character of Winston Smith.

Smith is a fool, basically. Although it is easy to understand his desire to rebel, it's not so easy to understand why he's quire so bad at it. He's weak and fatalistic from the start and although the trap he is caught in is a surprise when it arrives, the fact that it arrives is not. When he is broken in Room 101, his reaction and manner of collapse is strange and not entirely convincing. It's also hard to have any sympathy for him or his lover, they are so obviously doomed by their own lack of either gumption or discretion.

These points make the book feel like a play at times, where the set is dressed to give enough of an impression of place but is not really important. Which is fair enough, really, but it still felt odd when Smith and Julia went for a day out in the countryside, regardless of the suggestion that they are worried about being watched; it still reminded me of the original ending to Blade Runner when they run away into the beautiful forest.

Orwell is strongest when he is presenting the logic of The Party's policies and the motives of its inner circle, devoted to the perpetuation of the system as their personal slice of immortality and their own triumph over the weak. That material is sadly all too realistic.

The book ends with an appendix which discusses Newspeak, the language that The Party is phasing in to replace Oldspeak—English and the other languages of its empire. This is another insightful piece of writing and could almost be a guide to modern political and economic language in places; it certainly catches the intent of a lot of this sort of writing and speaking. The goal, Orwell says, is to create a language where the brain is not needed, speech will come automatically from the larynx as an animal response to the correct stimulus. Dumbing down the language is a specific tactic to make it hard to express anything which could challenge established ideas and the use of contractions is encouraged in order to slip ideas past the brain quickly without any critical analysis.

I'll have a look at 1984 and Evil in a later post.

d8 score: 7

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
A classic story of a cursed magic item which seems on the surface to be a great gift. Gray, like 1984, is a study in evil, but a more insidious evil in the form of Lord Henry Wotton who first steals and then corrupts the young Dorian Gray from Basil Hallward, the painter of the picture in question.

Wilde was a great, possibly the greatest ever, writer of fairy tales and this is a fairy tale of wishes coming true, set in a very real and adult world and like all good fairy stories it is replete with hidden sexual tension and social commentary and ends with a moral.

The book has many layers, not least in its care never to state directly that the older two men are homosexuals, and somewhat predatory ones at that, although Basil seems not to be bold enough to really force himself on anyone at all. Henry/Harry is a different matter but his attention to Dorian is not out of love but of cold, detached, manipulation for the pleasure of it. The painting's role is to hold out the promise of not simply immortality but also of absolution to Dorian and thereby, perhaps, be the catalyst for Harry's influence on the young man. Or perhaps that is simply Dorian's excuse; perhaps without the painting he would have been just the same, as his shoddy treatment of a girl he professed to love seems to imply. The text is ambiguous in many, and artfully constructed, ways. Wilde diced with trouble even publishing this version and the text of it would in fact be used against him in his trials.

Wilde said that Basil was who he really was while Henry was his public image and it's interesting the degree to which the former chastises and even mocks the latter, and the number of times that the narrative voice undermines Harry or points out his deviousness. His clever quips and amusing attitudes are routinely framed in such a way as to highlight their shallowness.

Under the evil that is done by Harry and his puppet Dorian, and perhaps that of the magic in the picture, the story is about power and the dangers of irresponsibility - both Dorian's freedom from consequences gained from the painting, and Harry's immunity from blame as his machinations are carried out by his young proxy, leaving him blame-free in the eyes of the wider world, if not Basil's. And that is the only real difference between the evil of Dorian Gray and 1984: in Orwell's book the evil has won and no longer has to hide from the wider world. But both evils have the same nature and same ultimate fear—the past. Both Dorian Gray and The Party of 1984, consciously alter the memory of the past in an effort to avoid its rebuke; the chance that they can be shown to be wrong. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1984, and, Zelazny's The Graveyard Heart, immortality is the goal that drives the core of the story, and immortality stores up a great deal of past to be afraid of.

d8 score: 8

Monkey, Wu Ch'êng-ên, trans. Arthur Waley
Who doesn't like a bit of Monkey Magic?! Anyone that said so can leave now. Actually, those that do like Monkey, should probably also steer clear of this abridged translation of the original story and keep their memories intact.

The main problem is not the translation (although that is a little dated now, having been done in 1942), nor in the fact of the abridgement. Indeed, if it had not been abridged I doubt that I would have completed it.

I guess I was expecting a novel, albeit a very early novel and full of fantastic nonsense. But I got a selection of rather repetitive folk stories which have very little internal consistency, satire of things that don't exist any more, and a bunch of characters that have no purpose.

The book starts with stories of Monkey's youth wherein he demonstrates that he is, as advertised, the Equal of all Heaven and it is only though rather unconvincing trickery that the forces of Heaven are able to finally bind and imprison Monkey. This is the key problem, as it establishes Monkey as an almost unstoppable factotum capable of anything. Going to India and back is no more a challenge to him than scratching his big baboon bum would be. Yet we have to traipse through 350 pages of him accompanying Tripitaka on his expedition to get the scriptures from a bunch of moronic and bad tempered Buddhist spirits who don't even give them the right scrolls.

On the journey he has to contend with Tripitaka's gnat-like attention span while occasionally calling on Pigsy or Sandy to do some minor feat that we know Monkey could do in his sleep because we saw him doing much greater things in the early chapters.

So, if you're still interested, read it in the frame of mind that it is not a novel, or even a coherent story. It is a very run-of-the-mill collection of the sort of folk stories that might just about entertain folk with a mental age of 7. Compared to Norse or Celtic mythology and folklore this is very definitely third-class material.

d8 score: 2

Against All Things Ending, Stephen Donaldson
The final Thomas Covenant series has been a slow progress, each book being about 600 pages long and the series itself being four books instead of three. This third book sees the action pick up a bit as Covenant himself begins to make his mark on the story, having been turned into a god, then back again, killed, and resurrected over the course of events since the close of the original three books.

Donaldson has experimented with writing this series much more strongly from the point of view of Linden Avery, Covenant's love interest from the second series and for me it has not been a success. Avery is basically a dickhead and every minute of her company is like walking over glass to a viewing platform where one can see the most incredible vista; I put up with it because I love the vista, but I really would prefer an alternative. With Covenant returning to centre stage a bit, that's at least a help.

Meanwhile, Covenant's insane wife and his estranged son are out to kill him at the behest of good old Lord Foul. Covenant's experience as the Arch of Time has given him insights, but his reincarnation in mortal flesh makes accessing his omniscient memory hard and unreliable, but he knows that at last he understands Foul and that he can not kill him without breaking the universe in which The Land exists. Much hilarity ensues. Apart from the hilarity, that is.

Exciting, interesting, and often rousing when T.C. (Thomas Covenant, not Top Cat) gets angry and starts doing things, the plot still relies far too heavily on people not saying even the simplest things to each other. It's sometimes like a French Farce played for blood. But, ah! the giants! The wonderful giants.
d8 score: 6
The Last Dark, Stephen Donaldson
Ever see an author collapse from sheer exhaustion? Well, read The Last Dark and see what it looks like. For a 600 page book, it feels incredibly rushed. Plot lines start to collapse, in some cases because the protagonists are finally getting to grips with their situations and sorting things out, but in other cases because it feels like the author has himself collapsed and frankly doesn't care any more. A major antagonist switches sides and T.C. pulls everyone's fat out of the fire and everyone lives happily ever after. There's even a rainbow. I am not joking.

Not that I didn't want Covenant to have a happy ending, but this was too pat somehow. The struggles of the previous books deserved an ending where the costs were acknowledged without casting a shadow over the victory but it just didn't feel like that to me.

Overall, a partial success but badly marred by the obvious desire to stop writing this damned series. Which is a shame after 30 years, but maybe it was just too much to ask.
d8 score: 3

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Michael Moorcock
It was a long time since I had read any Elric and I had a hankering, as they say. So when I saw this and Stormbringer in a second hand stall I picked them up. I was slightly wary because I knew that these were among Moorcock's earliest work and that I was pretty young when I last read them. With that slightly low expectation in mind, I wasn't let down.

Sailor is a set of three linked novellas which chart Elric's travelling adventures, starting on a mysterious ship who's captain is initially putting together a crew to find and kill a pair of alien beings before they can end the world (bloody aliens; set UKIP on them, I say). To this end, the captain has sailed the multiverse and found not just one but four incarnations of The Eternal Champion—Elric, Erekosë, Corum, and Hawkmoon who then select various henchmen from the other sailors on the ship. Elric is unaware of his connection with the other four until the final showdown wherein they combine into one super-being to slay the aliens (hoorah!)

Of this first story, the most memorable parts are the aliens who are initially mistaken for buildings, and the city they are found in which, although ruined by time and/or war, the shadows of the original intact architecture are still somehow cast across the empty streets.

The second briskly gets Elric off the ship, which sails off in search of legendary Tnemlorn, and into a rather dull sort of love story which is notable only for its introduction of Count Smiorgan Baldhead, who's an entertaining sidekick, although this being Elric we all know he's doomed from the moment he says 'hello' to our Albino jokester.

The final part of the book takes us to the original home of Elric's Melnibonéan race, revealing that long before they conquered Melnebone, they dwelt in a Howardesqe jungle on another island in the middle of a river. I was half expecting winged apes to swoop down on the party as they explored it and gazed up at the huge statue of Arioch, Elric's patron Lord of Chaos and all-round bad egg.

As it happens, this is the story that sets Elric on a collision course with Arioch and lights the fuse of the apocalypse which eventually overcomes the world in Stormbringer.

d8 score: 5

Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock

He's got nothin' you need,
He's going to make you bleed...
Deep  Purple, "Stormbringer"

Absolutely the epitome of adolescent angst and moodiness, Stormbringer is everything British fantasy used to be before the Tolkien juggernaut rolled over everything, followed by hordes of vampires and werewolves. Elric chooses his side, and decides that it will be no side; using the Lords of Law as a weapon against those of Chaos but ultimately playing both ends against eachother as he searches for a middle way.

In the process, Bruegel is unleashed on the world, and not the nice one that did the pictures of people having a booze-up at a wedding: the other one that painted skeletons chopping people's heads off.

Apocalypses are hard to pull off. I find that most attempts either don't capture the scale or overwhelm the characters with the presentation of the scale. Moorcock, it seems to me, pulls the trick off here because the world is not in fact destroyed but turned into a living incarnation of Chaos. When Elric brings the whole thing to an end replacing it with, it is implied, our real world, the feeling is indeed one of cleansing and even his final death at the blade of his own sword manages not to overplay the moment. So, all in all, I was pleasantly surprised. Or maybe I've not grown up very much in the last 30 years after all.

d8 score: 6

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, Isabel Greenberg
Boy meets girl, boy and girl are magnetically repulsed by an invisible force, boy tells his life story to pass the time, book ends very abruptly.

What there is of Encyclopedia is excellent. But because there is a substantial appendix of bits and pieces (including some stories), there's no feeling that you are coming close to the end of the book until you turn the page and find the word "Appendix" blaring out at you. It was a real shocker, as the storyline seemed to heavily imply that more was going to happen. But it didn't; the boy and the girl die without ever overcoming their magnetic resistance problem and that's dealt with in a single page.

I could have done with a book twice as long with a better ending. If I could only have one of those I'd pick the longer book as what there was, was great.
d8 score: 4

Economics: The User's Guide, Ha-Joon Chang
A good overview of the world's main economic religions theories and models and a welcome return of the Pelican imprint with its distinctive light blue covers.
d8 score: 7


  1. Hmm, you've tossed out some sketch reviews with ease there. I have not read any Zelazny beyond dismissive glances so I am taken aback that you read 1200 pages of the stuff and enjoyed it.

    I think of 1984, Zamyatin's We and Brave New World as a triptych and read them together, oh, every eight years or so. Even though Orwell lifted his plot and characters from We the two novels read very differently, 1984 is political history really and We very much science-fiction. It is also interesting to read Orwell's reviews of We and BNW.

    I loved Stormbringer in my teens but found it unreadable recently - Elric is insufferable and characters around him do not react plausibly to his alarming narcissism and ... smiles.

    I loath Oscar Wilde and his formulaic wit, 95% of which consisted of tediously predictable inversions. He is a pain in the arse to read.

    1. I'll have to dig out a copy of We, then. BNW is a great book.

      I felt that Wilde's predictable inversions in Dorian were almost satire of the set that found them amusing. The book was wiser than I expected in many ways and the character who spouts most of those classic "paradoxes" is portrayed as a complete arsehole, so maybe Wilde agreed with you.