Friday, August 22, 2014

Book review #4 Millennium by John Varley, multiple editions

Multiple spoiler alert - just don't read on if you plan to read this book yourself. And I would recommend that you do - it's a good read.

Some science fiction stands the test of time. Some doesn’t. I remember reading Millennium in 1985, two years after it was published, and being blown away by some of the concepts. To whit: the multiple nuclear wars that left Earth devastated and humanity nothing more than a collection of genetically mutilated and environmentally compromised wrecks. The fact that those wrecks largely chose to fill their short lives with unstinting and pointless pleasure before their early deaths as a result of their many physiological defects. The dazzling concept of using time travel to ‘rescue’ people who are about to die in train crashes, shipwrecks or - significantly in this novel - plane crashes. They are pretty well shrink wrapped and fast frozen against a plan to rebuild the human race elsewhere in space and time. For forensic integrity their physical beings are replaced by ‘living dead’ - humans from the 50th century whose birth defects led to them being in a persistent vegetative state and who are then engineered to resemble the ‘dead’ person they will replace.

All this requires split second timing, of course. Not just on the part of the tiny minority of humans who take part in the snatches that bring healthy humans to the far future, but on the part of the novelist, who holds every paradox and timeline in (in this case) his hands. Multi-voice narrative helps maintain the omniscient viewpoint of this concept, whilst setting part of the novel in 1955 gives it a powerful multi-time frame. 

Sadly, the narrative hasn’t stood the test in one way - it’s hard for a modern reader not to see terrorism as the major threat to air travel. The reactions of the passengers on doomed aircraft just don’t ring true to us, because the future that Varley couldn’t imagine in 1983 is our present day - and it includes the fear that any aircraft may be hijacked or shot down in one of the world’s very many conflicts. Of course, that fear does make the 'many multiple nuclear wars' perspective more believable …

Apparently this was made into a film. The reason I mention this - as I never see films made from books I like - is that my copy is the Sphere Books edition with a silver cover that is utterly unphotographable. Really it is. I assume metallic covers must have been the dog's bollocks back in the day. So I have found a creative commons photo of the DVD cover instead. Nice tagline. Cheryl Ladd and Kris Kristofferson starred. I wonder what happened to Cheryl Ladd? 

Perhaps this is one of those books you can’t read very often. Varley is fond of the ‘big reveal’ but I’d say it doesn’t work quite as well in this novel as in some of his others. The reveal is big, none bigger in fact, and that may be what flattens the novel on subsequent readings - you just can’t not know what’s coming.

It is a brilliant sf concept though, and deftly handled too. I’m a fan of Varley’s female characters - many people find them difficult, and I’m all for that - they are often complex, demanding, frequently aggressive in pursuit of their beliefs, and sometimes outright violent. They also tend to have a lot of sex. For all those reasons I like Louise Baltimore, one of his protagonists, very much indeed. 

For that reason it made the cut when my 6,000 books got reduce to 600. For that reason it still gets re-read every couple of years but … truth to tell, I don’t always read the ending these days!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review #3: High and Inside by Russell Rowland published by Bangtail Press

This is an interesting week to be reviewing a book about alcoholism. The death of Robin Williams is in the news, but even more, in the world I move in, the idea that this happens to people is a present, maybe even an omnipresent, obsession. Creative people know that they have chosen a community on the edge, and that they may never know how close they’ve got to the edge until they fall off it, or find themselves clinging by their fingertips to whatever they’ve got left of their sanity - or their reason to live.

Robin Williams lost something: his reason, his need, his ability to fill the void for which there is never enough of anything - never enough fame, money, sex, love, drugs, booze, acclaim, awards, work, challenges …. never enough for the moment you find yourself standing, looking in the mirror, and wondering, is this all there is?

So, re-reading Russell Rowland’s High and Inside has been a timely examination of what it takes to answer that question. While his protagonist, Pete Hurley, is not a creative but an athlete, he is gifted, and his gift brings him fame, success (winning the World Series) and adulation - and one extraordinary pitch that ends his career. His name, rather than being associated with the success of the Red Sox, becomes synonymous with a punitive ruling leading to game bans for foul pitches that injure batters. Also interesting, because at least here in the UK, a Suarez is now any kind of a bite … perhaps not the fame that Luis Suarez was seeking! 

This real life parallel is not the only glimpse that Rowland offers us of the way that individuals become consumed by their need to win. As Hurley spirals down into an ever smaller life, in which he injures everybody and everything around him, both deliberately and inadvertently, he has an ever greater need to deny that the problem is his. Finally, unwilling to face his own behaviour and unable to avoid the evidence of his appalling actions, he heads for Montana where his sister and her family live, his three-legged dog (her disfigurement is just one consequence of his drinking) in tow and his life in fragments.

What follows, without including spoilers, is less a story of redemption than it is a perspective of what it takes for an alcoholic to find a rock bottom that can lead to recovery. It’s an account of the intensity with which alcohol can distort reality and the ways in which an alcoholic can invest in their drinking, regardless of the effect on those around them and eventually, on their ability to retain any control of their lives. 

Hurley, believing he’s starting a new life, finds his old one waiting for him in the prejudices he experiences, the uses he makes of people and the disdain with which treats anybody who tries to show him the mistakes he is repeatedly making. He plans to build a house, although he has no training, no skills and  - it turns out - an ability to infuriate and alienate the very people he needs to help him. 

By the end of the book Hurley has accepted sobriety and discovered that most of what he’s believed about life is questionable. It seems he may not have had the childhood he remembers, nor ever understood the motivations of those around him. His use of alcohol has blinded him, not just to his own faults, but to the actions and reactions of everybody he's been close to. He’s been obtuse, arrogant and self-involved as well as talented and driven. It’s only a beginning, like the foundations of his house, but his potential, once based on a natural talent, is now grounded in commitment to self-understanding and the acceptance that he will never be able to drink again. 

For those contemplating what could cause a man like Robin Williams to take his life, Rowland’s novel is a valuable exploration of the role of sobriety - not a goal to be achieved but a skill that must be maintained daily, even on days when maintenance doesn’t seem necessary or even desirable - it’s a relentless exercise that is most required when the individual feels least like undertaking it and it’s exhausting even to the strong-willed and well-placed. For those who strive to understand alcoholism in someone they know, this novel offers something else, a clue as to why talent, looks, success, love … are not enough for the alcoholic. It brings some insight into why these attributes can actually fuel, rather than dampen, the desire to drink and it explains why a crisis is usually necessary for an alcoholic to get sober. Finally, it highlights the sombre truth that those who get sober don’t always stay there, and while it ends with Pete Hurly launched into sobriety with high hopes of his future, it counterpoints that ending with a reminder that most of the work is still ahead of him, and that work is arduous and never-ending.

Montana is almost as much a character in this novel as Hurley - and like the journey he makes, it’s a hard but worthwhile territory to explore. In both its scenery and its people it has by turns a bruising and healing effect on Hurley, leaving him alternately battered and elated by his experiences of land and locals. 

I know nothing about baseball, and whatever knowledge I have of alcoholics is second hand. Talent I do know about, and the use and misuse of talent is something no creative person can fail to understand, both as part of themselves and as a component of their chose vocation. This novel is about what happens when talent is not enough, and in this case, talent is allied to alcoholism, as is so often the case. 

It’s a finely written testament to the nature of recovery and what precedes it, and its characters: Dave the dog, Hurley himself, his conflicted sister and the woman with whom he develops a relationship are real, rounded and worthy of compassion and understanding. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Book Review #2 - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry


Something of this novel reminded me of the work of Primo Levi - not the scope, which is definitely as Dickensian as many reviewers suggest - nor the subject matter, which is relatively remote from Levi’s preoccupations. I struggle to articulate the exact parallel, but perhaps its the unremitting sense of certain failure which dominates both bodies of work.

And yet Mistry has a fine sense of humour, perhaps part of the balance that the title refers to is the way that he manages to place joyous comedic scenes in the body of a profoundly dismal narrative. 

The characters move in and out of likeability as the novel moves in and out of humour and grim disaster. Dina is both an appealing young wife and a shrewish employer. Ishvar and Omprakash are both full-blooded comedy figures and skivers who rip off their employer (Dina) and Maneck is both an idealistic young man and an awful prig. What they all are, is stuck. By caste, poverty or cowardice (on Maneck’s part at least) they are locked into a descending spiral of circumstances that drags them to homelessness, loss of liberty and even of limbs and life, even as the results of the ‘Emergency’ drive India further into polarised communities and violent retaliations for real and imagined slights, insults and incursions.

Viewing each character through the eyes of the others gives a rounded picture of the situation as a whole, although Maneck, about whom we really discover least, is more central to the story than the others, and as a result, when he disappears for eight years to work in Dubai, we, the readers, are left with no clear understanding of his development, this is perhaps the weakest part of the book, and somewhat undermines the previous complex narrative. 

On his return, Maneck’s responses to the circumstances of his former companions are as inadequate as his response to the murder of a fellow student which occurs in the opening scenes of the book. He is polite but dishonest with Dina and pretends not to recognise Ishvar and Omprakash when he sees them begging on the street. No spoilers here, but by the time the three discuss his coldness towards them, he has carried out an irreversible and shocking act as his expression of loathing for what his country has become. 

It is a substantial book, requiring quite a commitment from a reader, but in my view it does reward the work required. India is a vast and complex country, a divided and incoherent set of religious, cultural and caste structures and a bewildering political space. Few novels explore the entirety of India, geography and culture, politics and religion, history and gender relations, poverty and power - but Mistry makes a solid attempt at bringing this huge subject to life for readers, and creates some fine characters in the process. Ishvar and Om, for example are more Shakespearian than Dickensian in their robust humour but I found my sympathies entirely engaged by their desperate situation and their hopeful dreams of finding security and maybe even happiness. What happens to them is profoundly disturbing and as a single example of the effect of sweeping political decision making on the people at the bottom of society is as powerful a tale as any by Victor Hugo, with whom I think Mistry also bears reasonable comparison. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

After Before by Jemma Wayne - book review #1

After Before by Jemma Wayne - published by Legend Press

Emily, Vera and Lynn:  three women with very different backgrounds. Emily is a Rwandan refugee, scarred both emotionally and physically by the genocide there. Vera swings between memories of her drug and drink-laden past and a present in which she seeks redemption for her previous life through Christianity and Lynn, brittle but determined to control the progress of her fatal condition, is beleaguered not by its symptoms but by the regrets that surface as she looks back on her life.

Something of a slow burner, this book weaves the stories together, bringing the women into contact with each other and creating a context for their personal experiences around issues of faith and spirituality. Whilst relatively realistic, some elements of the story are symbolic and some players too - John, one of Lynn’s sons, is not much more than a character sketch and Omar, who appears towards the end of the story, is almost a caricature. I found one key element of the denouement unconvincing, but, not wishing to be a spoiler I won’t go into details. Let me just say it won’t spoil anybody’s enjoyment of the resolution of this novel, even if they find it as unlikely as I did. Hint for those who do read the novel - scene takes place in the kitchen! 

Given those minor caveats this is an accomplished piece of work, giving equal depth to three stories of life and loss that converge and diverge only to converge again in a well-balanced exploration of women’s lives. Wayne paces the book well, keeping each storyline moving forward and giving us alternate glimpses of the women through each other’s eyes that create momentary startlements for the protagonists and the reader alike. 

London is also one of the players in this story and it’s well rendered; Emily’s life in a tower block and Lynn’s in a comfortable suburban home are beautifully juxtaposed,  while no urban commuter could fail to recognise the daily details of Vera’s existence. 

Above all this is a redemptive novel without any easy sentimentality - Wayne succeeds in bringing the reader to a point of acceptance along with her protagonists and that’s a major achievement. This book is likely to appeal to serious readers, to those interested in moral, ethical and spiritual issues, and to anybody who wonders whether a life that strays off course can ever be restored to the path. Highly recommended.