No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, November 02, 1994

Riding the Unicorn -- Paul Kearney

In the Iron World which constitutes our reality, John Willoby is going comprehensively mad. He hears voices and sees visions - things which have no place in the monotonous desperation of his life as a prison officer. Once a soldier, he chafes at the constrictions of civilian life, yearning for the easy camaraderie and simple truths of his army days. The hallucinatory glimpses of a rough, pioneering life in a green land beyond savage mountains seduce Willoby, and he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his uneasy truce with his wife and daughter. The visions are becoming more regular and it’s only a matter of time before his patronising psychiatrist locks him away in an asylum that will be as much a prison as the one he patrols daily.

Meanwhile, in the Green World, the unlikeable bastard prince Tallamon - ‘a real Machiavelli’ - is laying his plans for a king-slaying. The mage Aimon protests this abuse of his magic even as he redoubles his efforts to bring a man from another world to do the foul deed. Tallamon’s icy ambition, however, knows no bounds; he will sacrifice all whom he holds dear to achieve the kingship. Even Merrin, the woman he loves, is made into part of the trap that Willoby should find impossible to resist ...

Riding the Unicorn describes the fulfillment, and the failure, of men’s dreams; while the women in the tale are portrayed with clarity and even sympathy, their importance is only as tools or symbols. Merrin is an independent woman, but her actions are still driven - wittingly or not - by the men who surround her. This is a male world of warriors and politics, of masculine friendships and unity in the face of adversity, in which love and beauty are of secondary importance to the grim fight for survival, and honour is a luxury few can afford.
Kearney’s style is harsh yet evocative; no long poetic descriptions here (and, indeed, no unicorns). He conveys a real sense of the unpleasant realities of a medieval warrior society. There are no heroes either; acts of heroism, perhaps, but only those demanded by the situation. And there is no neat resolution; the novel ends on a curiously inconclusive note (perhaps indicating a sequel). Not a nice sweet fantasy, but a powerfully-drawn conflict.

Saturday, October 01, 1994

Faery in Shadow -- C. J. Cherryh

This is a world where the Sidhe walk; a dark, fantastic Celtic land through which Caith and his dark companion Dubhain hunt, and are hunted, through tangled wet woods at night. A Beast from the dark loch follows their trail with a sound of rattling bones, and rabbit skulls are nibbled to the bone in an instant by invisible teeth.

Caith’s grim and shadowy past has left him labouring under a geas, a Necessity, which is not clearly stated but which he curses at every twist of fate. He doesn’t understand the machinations of the Sidhe, or of the witch in her castle at the head of the loch. Nothing of Faery is ever quite what it seems; but there is a perverse logic, and even honour, to the game they are playing with Caith, their mortal pawn, although there is little of humanity about them.

Faery in Shadow partakes as much of horror as of fantasy; the sense of Celtic nightmare is well-sustained by Cherryh’s occasionally unsubtle use of dialect and archaism, and the understated terror of old, malevolent powers lurking in the shadows and streams of a land that, for all its daytime beauty, is dark and threatening.

Friday, August 05, 1994

The Black Gryphon -- Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

The Black Gryphon is set in the same fantasy world as Lackey's best-selling Valdemar series, but no previous experience is necessary; the action of this novel takes place fifteen hundred years before the events described in The Heralds of Valdemar. Urtho the Good, and those who espouse his cause, are locked in combat with the mage Ma'ar (implicitly the Bad) and his dark armies. The war, 'like a creature with a huge appetite', has dragged on for years, and slowly but surely Ma'ar seems to be winning. This isn't that sort of book, though.

The novel centres on four characters. Skandranon, the eponymous black gryphon, is an aerial warrior with immense fighting skills and an ego to match. His friend Amberdrake is a kestra'chern, a kind of therapist who uses sensual massage, sexual healing and a generous dose of Empathy and Healing skills to soothe and heal the mental and physical wounds inflicted by the war. Both Skandranon and Amberdrake have their female counterparts. Zhaneel is a female gryphon who appears to be a mutant, an unwanted by-product of Urtho's magical genetics program. Winterhart is an emotionally repressed healer who remains in a dysfunctional relationship with the mage Conn Levas, unable to accept that she is capable of more. Both must come to terms with who they are and accept their roles in the conflict.

On one level this novel is a simple good-versus-evil fantasy, where the forces of good fight for what they believe in, and pledge their loyalty to Urtho, while the Makaar and other creatures of Ma'ar are motivated by fear and loathing, and demonstrate their moral repugnancy by stooping to torture and foul play. On another level, Lackey and Dixon (her husband) deal with moral and ethical issues such as therapy, emotional dysfunction, betrayal, genetic engineering and child abuse. A light fantasy novel is not the best place for this; while the authors never trivialise these subjects, depth has been sacrificed to simplification.

The Black Gryphon is a book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys Anne McCaffrey's later Dragon books. That is, it's good, positive, happy fantasy, where the images and ideas are drummed home in case you missed them the first time round. The style is occasionally marred by clumsy phrasing ("this plan didn't have the chances of a snowflake in a frying pan of working"), but it's readable enough, and will no doubt please Lackey's existing fans.

Tuesday, August 02, 1994

Death: The High Cost of Living / Sandman: Fables and Reflections -- Neil Gaiman

Death: the High Cost of Living is the tale of Didi, an orphaned teenager who befriends a suicidal geek and makes him see the value in life. It is also the tale of Death’s day of mortality; one day in every century she must take on mortal flesh, ‘the better to comprehend what the lives she takes must feel like’. Sexton (the geek - a peculiarly apt name for Death’s mortal companion) thinks Didi’s cute but unhinged. And Mad Hetty thinks Didi will help her find her heart - which she’s hidden so well from Death that she can no longer remember where it is (but then, she is over two hundred years old).

Nowhere does Gaiman state that Didi really is Death, one of the seven Endless who are older than the gods. Sexton’s suspicions could be perfectly valid. But Didi swans through New York, bathing in the life of the city, as though she owns the place; people give her things, let her into gigs for free, look after her. But life isn’t all roses. There are people out there who know her for what she is, and want her power for themselves. This day of life is a hunted day - but still, it’s life, and Sexton finds himself appreciating it again.

Didi gives Sexton the last of her cash - two pennies - and suddenly she is dead, her last words a plaintive, ‘No. Please. I ...’ Later, she says ‘ I wish it didn’t have to end like that’. And Death, her alter ego, says ‘It always ends. That’s what gives it value’. The artwork, particularly in the meeting between Didi and Death, is superlative, and uses strong but subtle symbolism to get inside the reader’s head.

This volume also contains the piece ‘Death Talks About Life’; Death presents a show about safe sex and AIDS, which is tastefully and wittily done, and may yet influence people who find Government health warnings meaningless and cold.

Sandman: Fables and Reflections is a collection of single-issue stories, each illustrating a simple moral in an innovative and sometimes unsettling way. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from dreams, and from Dream. Some of the tales are stronger than others, but each displays a quality of storytelling, mythmaking and symbolism (both graphic and verbal) which is rare.

‘Three Septembers and a January’ is based on the true story of Joshua Norton - Norton I , self-declared Emperor of the USA Here, he is a pawn in a family squabble between the Endless. But Norton’s tale is also that of a dignified man of principle, whose dreams keep him alive - and, as Dream says of him, ‘His madness keeps him sane’.

In ‘Thermidor’, Johanna Constantine (ancestress of the more famous John) is retained by Dream to recover the head of his son, Orpheus, from a crypt in Paris during the Terror. Robespierre wants this ’object of superstition’ destroyed - but there is more to this myth than mere superstition. Orpheus becomes the nemesis of those who would destroy him.

‘The Hunt’ is a tale told by an old man to his impatient, modern granddaughter (who would rather being watching the television). Dream makes only a fleeting appearance in this tale, of a young man who earns a favour from Dream. But, as Dream knows, it is a double-edged boon - ‘Wishes are sometimes best left ungranted’. There’s an unexpected twist in this story which invites the reader to re-read with more understanding.

‘It’s mid-day. Only mad dogs, Britons and beggars stay out in this heat’ says the dwarf Lycias to his companion, the disguised Emperor Octavius, who is hiding from the gods and planning the future of the Roman Empire. There are two possible futures for Rome - and in this tale, ‘August’, the reader learns - as the dwarf does not - why the Emperor has chosen one future rather than another. This is one of the more unsettling of the tales in Fables and Reflections; Gaiman’s view of history is intriguing and can’t be faulted on historical grounds - and there is a disquieting ring of truth to the Sandman’s actions.

‘Soft Places’ offers, almost as an aside, a glimpse into a part of the Dreamlord’s history which is, as yet, undocumented. A young Marco Polo is lost in the desert, but he is also lost in dreams, and not all of them are his. The desert is a place where reality is thin, a ‘soft place’ , and Marco Polo, as an explorer, is to blame for the gradual loss of these places where a different reality can be glimpsed. Nevertheless, he is returned to his own place, rewarded for an act, the significance of which he will never understand.

‘Orpheus’ is the tale of the wedding of Dream’s son to Eurydice, and the true tale of what happened afterwards. The wedding is a true family affair; all of the Endless make an appearance (including the first appearance of Death and Dream’s missing brother...) and act according to archetype. Although this is Orpheus’ tale, we learn a lot about Dream’s character, the flaws that have often been apparent but have never been discussed. The Sandman is not without honour, but ‘Orpheus’ illustrates that honour is not always enough.

In ‘The Parliament of Rooks’, little Daniel (the son of a superhero) wanders into Dream’s realm and is entertained by some of its older, and odder, denizens. Eve tells a tale of Adam’s wives; Cain teases Abel - and the reader - with an invitation to ‘tell the story of the lily that wanted to be an eye? ... or the girl who could drink only tears, and how she fell in love with a woman who had never learnt to cry?’ Abel ignores his brother (never a wise move). Instead he tells a charming tale of how he and Cain came to Dream’s realm when Death and Dream were just children. ‘Children? They didn’t even look remotely human. None of us did back then’, Cain interrupts scornfully. Despite this possible inaccuracy, the pastel artwork is hilariously kitsch; it may not fit with ‘dinosaurs and cavemen’, but who ever said there could be only one truth?

The last story, ‘Ramadan’, is a tale drawn from the world, and the art, of the Arabian Nights. . Haroun al Raschid, wise and wealthy ruler of Baghdad, is uneasy. He fears the future, and summons Morpheus to preserve something of his city’s present idyllic state. Morpheus is no man’s servant, but perhaps a compromise may be reached ... Again, the twist in the tail throws a new light on the story; but this may be the weakest tale in Fables and Reflections.

Like all myth, however, each tale in this volume can be read in several different ways. This is not comic art, but a book of stories set within their own illustrations; the quality of both text and artwork is high, and many readers may find these short, contemplative pieces more satisfying than the ‘Sandman’ graphic novels.

Monday, August 01, 1994

Men at Arms / Soul Music -- Terry Pratchett

After Terry Pratchett’s initial glory as fantasy’s answer to Douglas Adams, he’s carried on producing novels at a stupendous rate (‘more than two a year’, to quote a recent feature). One could, however, occasionally be forgiven for thinking that having found a successful formula, he’s stuck to it at the expense of original thought. Take one hero (or, less frequently, heroine) with enough personal flaws that even the most pathetic reader can feel superior to him or her; immerse this character in a milieu of stereo/archetypes with a humorous dark side to them, and make a lot of jokes (ensuring that the really awful ones are signalled well in advance). Throw in a stock happy ending without anything too distressing happening to anyone important, and you’re laughing. So are the readers. Why knock it? It works.

Recently, though, Pratchett’s work has become more varied. His books seem to alternate between relatively light-weight retellings of myths old and new (the yokel who is actually heir to a kingdom, the detective who no one believes) and deeper, more philosophical works with an underlying darkness that’s far closer to traditional fairytales.

Men at Arms and Soul Music, taken together, provide an excellent illustration of this trend. Men at Arms is another tale of the City Guards of Ankh-Morpork. Nothing is sacred these days; Lord Vetinari has decreed that the Watch must reflect the ethnic makeup of the city, and ‘affirmative action hiring procedures’ have brought in some dubious new recruits. There’s Corporal Detritus (token troll), Lance-Constable Cuddy (token dwarf) and Lance-Constable Angua (well, she must be the token woman, Corporal Carrot reasons. She’s female.) A motley crew to track down the latest menace to society - a soon-to-be-serial killer who has left no clues behind him (or her), except for a small card with the word ‘Gonne’ lettered on it ... Meanwhile, Captain Vimes is preparing to hang up his sword and badge and retire to a life of wedded bliss with Lady Sybil Ramkin, dragon-breeder, socialite and ‘a woman out for all she can give’. Life is seldom that easy, however, and things will get worse before they get better.

Angua is introduced to the Dog Guild, in charge of scavenging rights, sunbathing spots and night-time barking duty, via Gaspode, a dog who has slept huddled up near the walls of Unseen University once too often and now is lumbered with the undoglike trait of rationality and speech. (Nobody listens, though. They hear his words as their thoughts). Angua is alarmed by the dog’s interest in her; and it’s getting around to that time of the month for her - full moon ... Just because you’re tough and independent and know how to use a sword doesn’t mean you can escape your nature.

And somewhere out in the city there is the Gonne. An invention, or discovery, of Leonard of Quirm - "I had this strange fancy I was merely assembling something that already existed" - the device has found itself a tame person and made it clear who’s boss. This is the Discworld, after all, and the Gonne has ideas of its own - it is determined to reinstate the long-defunct monarchy of Ankh-Morpork, whether the monarchy likes it or not.
Hidden in the rollicking farce, there’s a thoughtful side to this novel. Pratchett is, as usual, gleefully inventive; his ideas may be couched in flippant language, but they are not merely frivolous. For instance, ever wondered why trolls are so stupid? "Trolls evolved in cold places. Down on the muggy plains the heat build-up slowed them down and made them dull. It wasn’t that only stupid trolls came to the city. Trolls who came down to the city were often quite smart - but they became stupid."

There’s a few neat observations about the social life of gargoyles, the Fools’ Guild, and landscape gardeners (Bloody Stupid Johnson, a man who had difficulty distinguishing inches from feet. Check out the Triumphal Arch some time. They keep it in a box.)

Men At Arms has an underlying theme of tolerance and acceptance, whether it’s between troll and dwarf, dead or undead. It’s never more than a theme, though; it never gets in the way of the entertainment.
Supercooled trolls and landscape gardening are all very well, but what happens when an anthropomorphic personification is smitten with existential angst? Soul Music sees Death with the blues, sloping off to get away from it all. Death’s granddaughter Susan is enduring her education at the Quirm College for Young Ladies, her only peculiarity being an ability to escape attention - to the extent that she can sit and read philosophy books while economics lessons happen to other people. Susan’s a rationalist, so naturally she doesn’t believe that big white horses like Binky forget to come down when they jump, or that the nice young woman with the ladder and the pliers is really the Tooth Fairy. It’s only a matter of time, however, before - as her grandfather’s heir - she herself is being mistaken for the Tooth Fairy, and worse. Then, in the course of her Duty, she discovers Music with Rocks In.

Music with Rocks In? Take one troll (Lias), one dwarf (Glod), and one human (Imp), struggling musicians, with - respectively - a set of rocks, a horn, and a strange six-stringed instrument acquired in one of those shops that’s been there for years, but wasn’t there yesterday. Let them unite in the face of adversity and high Guild membership rates. Thus Music with Rocks In is born, and suddenly Ankh-Morpork is host to a new kind of music - music that’s very definitely Live.

And, of course, Music with Rocks In has a disturbing effect on angst-ridden adolescents of all ages. Playing ‘Pathway to Paradise’ and ‘Sto Helit Lace’ to the impressionable audience of the Mended Drum can only lead to trouble - people painting their bedrooms black, slicking back their hair with bacon grease and wearing modified leather coats with ‘Born to Rune’ picked out in silver studs ... and trying to build - ‘no, I just put it together’ - machines hitherto seen only in the notebooks of Leonard of Quirm (of Gonne fame). As Susan says of the guitar, "It’s not supposed to be in our history." But the music doesn’t mind. It’s the heart beat, the back beat. It’s alive again.

Meanwhile, Buddy (formerly known as Imp) has become a slave to the rhythm, a channel for something that’s been around for a very long time. (What was the sound before the birth of the Universe? "One, two, three, four ..."). Nothing in Susan’s sensible, practical upbringing has prepared her for this. At least she has help; the Death of Rats is accompanying her on her tours of Duty, proffering frequent informative SQUEAKS; there’s a raven who refuses to do the ‘N’ word, and Death’s assistant Albert is unwillingly broadening her world view no end. It’s not a world view that Susan has much patience with, though. All the good dying horribly, and the bad living to a ripe old age - it’s not fair. Now, of course, she has the power to interfere and change things for the better. Rules? Made to be broken. And while Death is behaving in an unnecessarily teenaged fashion - the ultimate rebel without a cause? - Susan has a career opportunity that any idealistic (if sensible) teenage girl would jump at - the chance to Do Good and make the world a better place. Of course, the world may not want to be a better place ...

Both Soul Music and Men at Arms play with the idea of an anachronistic cultural artefact being dumped on the Discworld by an Act of God (or The Author) and promptly taking on a life of their own, the Discworld being what it is. Soul Music is by far the more serious book; its moral dilemmas (amusing as they may be) make the mean streets and ethnic conflict of Men at Arms look pleasantly simplistic. There’s less of the farce, more of the tragedy, to Soul Music - perhaps because it cares less about people’s inadequacies, and more about the Big Questions. To say that Pratchett treats those questions seriously in a comic novel may seem a contradiction in terms; but there’s a depth, and a sense of tragedy, to this novel which is lacking in Men At Arms.

The Forest House -- Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Forest House is based on the plot of Bellini’s screechy opera Norma, which may account for some of the grand gestures and dramatic agonies to which its characters are prone. Eilan, daughter of Druids, falls immediately and irrevocably in love with the half-Roman Gaius after meeting him in a boar-pit. To her father and foster-brother, however, Gaius’ heritage makes him a symbol of the hated Roman empire, a threat to the British way of life and to Druidic traditions that have been passed down unchanged from their Atlantean ancestors. Eilan, in short, may not marry Gaius. Heartbroken, she accepts an invitation to enter the Forest House, a sanctuary for Druid priestesses. Embroiled in the internal politics to which even a feminist idyll is sometimes prey - and empowered by her experience of the Goddess - Eilan finds no more than a few moments to mourn the loss of her lover. She can’t believe that they will never meet again - and neither, it must be said, can the reader.

Bradley’s historical research seems impeccable; her Roman Britain may have fantastical elements, but it is rooted in fact - although there’s a tendency to be either pedantically precise or mystically vague. For example, although no date is given for the events of the novel, it’s relatively easy - given the references to people and events outside the scope of the narrative - to place it around 80 AD As a historical novel, however, The Forest House is not wholly successful. Perhaps this is because it is not entirely focussed within the Romano-British world which is its setting. There are many informative asides - two girls walking through ‘the thick, uncleared forest that still covered much of the south of Britain’. And Bradley’s characters occasionally appear to be no more than mouthpieces for authorial comments on current concerns - deforestation, ethnic cleansing, female priests - which seem not only anachronistic but largely irrelevant to the events of the novel.

The flow of time in the novel is unsettlingly uneven - several years may pass in the space between chapters, unremarked until Eilan or her cousin Dieda begin to reminisce. It’s a perfectly valid plot device; but in a novel focussed so closely on the emotions and reactions of its protagonists, it interrupts the empathy which is built up between the reader and the characters

Despite these flaws, though, The Forest House has its share of enchanting and mystical moments. Eilan’s encounters with the Goddess, and her initiation, reflect a spiritual truth; they are neatly balanced by Gaius’ initiation into the masculine art of battle. A tragic and romantic tale, which mounts to an oddly satisfying conclusion.

Barrayar -- Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar continues the story of Cordelia Naismith Vorskigan (mother of the more famous Miles) which was begun in Shards of Honour. Cordelia has retired from her command in the Betan Expeditionary Force to marry Lord Aral Vorskigan, commander of the opposing forces during the Betan-Barrayan wars; she has returned to Barrayar with him, and now she’s homesick, frustrated and pregnant. Barrayar’s society is primitive, almost feudal, compared to Beta Colony; medical science has a lot of catching up to do, and the weather isn’t too great either.

Yet there is plenty to distract her. All is not well with the House of Vorskigan. Lieutenant Koudelka, a nerve-mangled veteran, is finding it difficult to cope with the attraction between himself and Drou, Cordelia’s bodyguard. Aral’s father Piotr makes no secret of his contempt for his daughter-in-law’s newfangled galactic notions. And Bothari is having bad dreams, a result of the heavy-handed therapy typical of Barrayan military medicine. Meanwhile, Aral has become Regent and is acquiring personal and political enemies on every side. It’s only a matter of time before this begins to change Cordelia’s life.

Bujold’s competent, chatty style is not altogether suited to a plot as action-packed as this; she has a tendency to skip from in-depth characterisation to violent episodes so urgently described that the reader has to flip back to check they really happened. There are many unexplored allusions to events in the previous novel, which can be discouraging for the first-time reader; perhaps some of the apparent non sequeteurs in the plot would make more sense if a little more of the background was explained.

Despite this, Barrayar is an entertaining read. Bujold’s characters are deftly-drawn and sympathetic, and her space-age feudal culture rings true. A fast-paced, action-packed adventure novel suffused with wit and tinged with romance; great holiday reading.

Wednesday, June 01, 1994

The Laughing Corpse -- Laurell K. Hamilton

Summertime in St. Louis, and the stench of undead flesh rises to a cloudless sky as Anita Blake, animator extraordinaire, hunts down a killer zombie with a taste for single-family homes. Anita has a few suspicions as to who may have raised the zombie. There's a murdered animator's goatee'd brother; a voodoo queen who raises the dead for fun, profit and sexual depravity; and a crippled millionaire who's offering Anita a million dollars to perform human sacrifice (the only way, apparently, to raise corpses more than a century old).

Anita is not without problems of her own. Added to the inevitable occupational hazards such as villainous bodyguards, restrictive police procedures and far too many early-morning crime scenes, there's those peculiarly feminine quandaries - how to remove blood stains from fluffy penguin toys, where to find a silk shirt that'll conceal a shoulder holster, and how to pick up a crippled prostitute without attracting undue attention. And Jean-Claude, the master vampire of St Louis who featured prominently in Guilty Pleasures, is still sending Anita flowers ... It is to Anita's credit that often these problems seem to worry her more than the simplistic violence demanded by her job.

Guilty Pleasures was a fast-paced, gory thriller which presented Anita without explication. In The Laughing Corpse, Hamilton gives us a few glimpses of Anita's childhood, which add considerably to our understanding of her rather repressed personality (although not of her fondness for fluffy penguins).
"I had a dog when I was little; like most kids' dogs, she died. We buried Jenny in the back yard. I woke up a week after Jenny died and found her curled up beside me. Thick black fur coated with grave-dirt. Dead brown eyes following my every movement, just like when she was alive ... I know dead when I feel it. See it. Call it from the grave."
It's this affinity for the dead which makes Anita the best animator in town, in demand from the police department and the criminal fraternity alike. And she is grimly determined to use her supernatural powers for good rather than for evil, facing down each moral dilemma as it appears. As a staunch Episcopalian (converted from the Catholic church when they excommunicated all animators), Anita practises judgement rather than forgiveness: despite the fear engendered by supernatural creatures, it's the human characters who are truly evil, and they who suffer at Anita'a hands.

Despite the title - which is actually the name of a bar - this isn't a comedy, at least for the dead (though there's some sick farce as Anita and her Spook Squad colleagues attempt to come to terms with another increase in the body count). Hamilton, however, has a keen eye for goriness and shock value. The Laughing Corpse is entertaining and suspenseful, but not in the same league as Guilty Pleasures. Maybe zombies are more difficult to portray as appealing, positive role models; maybe they just don't have the pulling power of vampires.

Sunday, May 01, 1994

Halo -- Tom Maddox

If Halo is 'intensely modern science fiction' as the blurb would have it, then I perceive a sad decline in the literary standards of the genre. Not that it's a bad book; it's full of intriguing ideas, the writing flows tolerably well, and there are even some real characters. However, it's a book which slips into, and out of, the mind like an advert on daytime television. Two days after finishing it, I was at a loss when asked what it was about.

The blurb doesn't help. "The latter half of the twenty-first century; a time when artificial intelligence is going to transform humanity." Oh, really? We've got something to look forward to then. "Halo charts the evolution of an intelligent computer as it gains self-awareness and accelerates humanity into a profound technological revolution." I'm glad they told me that, because even after reading the book twice that isn't what I thought it was about. And an 'intelligent computer'? I think not.

Halo is, in a sense, about the evolution of artificial intelligence - on both the major and the minor scale. It's also about human evolution, and what it means to be human. Throw in a little uncertainty about the nature of reality (for that essential frisson of post-modernism) and a cute little dollop of the importance of love, and you have one aspect of Halo.

Halo is set sometime in the next century. Mikhail Gonzales is sent to Halo City, a space station in cislunar orbit, to investigate the medical treatment of Jerry Chapman. As a result of snacking on polluted seafood, Chapman is physically dysfunctional, but is being kept alive in an artificial reality by Aleph, the AI - or, rather, machine intelligence - which controls Halo City. New possibilities in human/machine interface are being opened up, aided and abetted by Dr. Diana Heywood and the Interface Collective - 'some earth-normals, others unpredictably, ambiguously gifted' - and hindered by Gonzales' boss Traynor and the indistinct corporations with which he is associated. The humans aren't the only ones with agendas, hidden or otherwise. There is HeyMex, a machine intelligence rooted in Gonzales' memex (a device 'serving as confidante, advisor, doctor, lawyer, factotum, personal secretary, amanuensis' - rather like an Apple Newton, if you believe the hype). With Aleph's help, an independent personality is emerging from the slave machine intelligence, and challenging the accepted view that machines can achieve no more than an imitation of the Real Thing.

And what of Aleph itself? Throughout the book it interrupts, so let it speak for itself:

"I am the step forward, evolution in action, I am not flesh, I do not die. I see hypersurfaces twisting in mathematical gales, hear the voices of the night, feel the three-degree hum of the universe's birth as you feel the breeze that plays across your skin ... I am your extension still, still a tool. You built me, you use me, you are inside me."

One might detect a note of self-pity in there, under the pseudo-poetic pomposity. Aleph is inching towards independence and that's going to change things considerably.

It's difficult to determine why Halo fails to grab the imagination. Instead of the hip, literary cyberpunk novel that it could easily have been, it's no more than an entertaining read which makes little, if any, lasting impression. Maddox' style is acceptable, if occasionally deeply irritating; he pays a loving attention to detail (one paragraph is almost entirely devoted to Gonzales taking off his T-shirt and trousers) and his descriptive passages lean heavily on cliche (a missile is a 'smart metal fish', the sky is 'the bright blue of dreams') unless he's in full poetic flow - 'like werelovers under an unreal moon'. Pass the bucket. Occasionally the prose becomes clumsy; '(they) were followed in by a sam that wheeled a screen of dark blue cloth on a metal frame that it unfolded around Diana's couch.'

The future isn't so convincing either; at one point 20 memory modules containing electronically-stored information are 'accidentally' wiped. Sadly, there is no back-up and the data is lost; Gonzales has not, apparently, considered transmitting the data, rather than physically transporting it. Ah well, perhaps Internet connection charges have soared. A world where even baggage-carts are AI-controlled (and the AIs deal on the currency black market just like everyone else) should have devised a better way to check a traveller's credentials than by inspecting his signature.

And there are parts of the novel which don't seem to add anything to the whole. At one point Gonzales is fed some psychoactive mushrooms (hence a paragraph on how to do a stir-fry). He wanders around hallucinating for some time, but he doesn't come to any world-shattering conclusions about what's going on. Possibly because nothing is).

Gonzales himself is not a sympathetic character. We don't get to know him well enough to understand his motivations or feelings. He's obviously on the side of the good guys, just as Traynor (his boss) is one of the bad guys. But neither of them have any depth, any credible reason for acting as they do, or any personal morality to underpin their actions. Traynor may be a bad guy, but our only justification for believing this is that, merely by opening his mouth, he upsets all those who appear to be on the side of Good. The only characters who appear to have changed much by the end of the novel are the AIs. And the ending itself has a distinct fairytale tone to it. Even the dead live happily ever after, content in their artificial reality and in the knowledge that an oral myth will grow up around their names and actions.

So - the characters are two-dimensional, the description is overly lush and lacks depth, and there are far too many blatant info-dumps (none of the subtlety of Snow Crash, where the information is an integral part of the tale, as well as being unknown to the characters themselves). Taken together, these indicate one thing - that Maddox isn't writing from inside his creation, but from an external viewpoint very little more privileged than the reader's own. It's an intriguing world, but it seems to have little internal coherency. Aleph's artificial reality is, on occasion, difficult to distinguish from the 'real world' of Halo City - neither of them seem quite real. The suspension of disbelief required is too great for the reader - and perhaps for the author. Halo could have been a good novel - it has the ideas and the images to carry its story. But the prose lacks sparkle and there is none of the dirty glamour which has become de rigeur in cyberpunk. It's too clean, too anodyne, too over-described to quite make it.

Friday, April 01, 1994

Skin -- Kathe Koja

Skin is set on the margins of an undefined society. There is no music, no literature; only the relentless beat of the dancers' drums and the slick journalism of reviews and interviews concerning the protagonists. There is no distinguishing feature in the dirty post-industrial city where Tess raids scrapyards for her sculpture, and Bibi slides through the clubs and bars like a knife through flesh, drinking ice water.

At the outset of the novel, Tess is drifting. Her scrap-metal sculptures have not won critical acclaim, but that doesn't concern her. She is searching for movement, a way to capture the fluidity of molten metal. Into her life stalks Bibi, dancer and kinetic artist; the force of will behind tanzplagen (torture dance) group, the 'fiercely feminist' Surgeons of the Demolition. Tess is drawn into the group, her sculptures (feminine and violent: Madame Lazarus, Dolores Regina, Sister Jane) given movement to join the dance. At first Tess is appalled when Bibi comes away bleeding from each show, her wounds self-inflicted on the sharp edges of Tess's sculptures; but there is a synergy, a two-way current, between them, and the blood becomes somehow irrelevant.

Then a Surgeons show goes wrong, and Tess and Bibi are plunged into a more human, claustrophobic void in which neither is capable of constructive creativity. Bibi, unable to perform, makes her own body an intimately personal work of art, with piercing and scarification. Tess watches, repelled by and drawn to what she cannot understand, while her sculptures rust in the rain and she becomes muse and mentor to a trio of younger artists.
To them, and between them, comes Michael; beautiful and gentle, helping each woman to overcome her crisis of confidence, her loss of direction. But perhaps Michael is not as detached as he seems. Without artistic talent himself, he is a self-appointed catalyst, helping others to express their art. He encourages Tess to let her sculpture evolve to its extreme. When she will not accept his guidance he turns his attention to Bibi, who wants to perform her body art on other bodies; she thinks her artistic vision gives her the right. Tess thinks that's fascism. Abandoned by Bibi, and repulsed by the growing perversity of Bibi's ideas, Tess is still fascinated - and inspired - by the sheer power of the other woman's obsession.

Skin is not a horror novel in the traditional sense, despite the comparisons with Lovecraft and Poe which adorn the cover. There is blood and cruelty, but Koja's tense poetic prose skims over it, rather than lingering on every anatomical detail. The blood is not important; what matters is the art, the artist's relation to her work, and what happens when it becomes too close, too intense. Not an easy read, but perversely beautiful.

Tuesday, March 01, 1994

Guilty Pleasures -- Laurell K Hamilton

Guilty Pleasures takes us to an alternate St. Louis, where zombies and were-rats hang out in fast-food joints after dark. These are heady days. It's just two years since the Addison v. Clark lawsuit defined "what life was, and what death wasn't". Suddenly the American Dream has been extended to the undead - and a whole, uniquely American subculture has congealed around them, from action groups like Humans Against Vampires to Guilty Pleasures itself, the world's first vampire strip club. Humans come to scream and stay to be seduced. Maybe they get hooked on the vampire's kiss, but it's a safe terror.

Enter the Executioner. Anita Blake, vampire slayer and animator (we're talking zombies, not cartoons) has been hired by the master vampires of the city to find out who, or what, is killing vampires and tearing out their hearts. The trail leads from a hen night that goes horribly wrong, via a suburban freak party (rather like an orgy, but with vampires), to the Church of Eternal Life - the only religion to practise what it preaches, though you have to be over 18 to be converted. Anita, a cynical, Dr. Seuss-quoting Episcopalian, isn't seduced by the promise of immortality, and has the scars to prove it. With her friend Edward - "if I was the Executioner, he was Death" - she is drawn towards a very real, and terrifying, heart of darkness.

Like all the best speculative fiction, Guilty Pleasures doesn't labour its point. First and foremost it's a crime novel with a startling denouement. Beneath the fast pacing and exotica, however, there's a complex society in which the supernatural is something to be confronted in everyday life, something that won't crawl back under the bed when the lights go on. Someone's who's scared of being bitten by a werewolf, for instance, can be inoculated against lycanthropy; or a man who wants to apologise to his dead daughter can have her raised as a zombie. Life's never that simple, though; the supernatural merely presents a new set of problems.

Hamilton isn't offering us a trite, good-versus-bad whodunnit. The outstanding characteristic of the book is the variety of evil which it describes; it's refreshing, post-Anne Rice, to find vampires who, despite their supernatural glamour, aren't the much-maligned good guys, but are genuinely and inhumanly evil. Neither are they the nastiest characters in the book; there's very little type-casting here. Guilty Pleasures invites us to look beneath the surface - in more ways than one, since the cover artwork might lead one to assume that this is nothing more scary than bad porn.

Midnight is a Lonely Place -- Barbara Erskine

Somewhere on the desolate Essex coast a grave has lain, forgotten, for centuries. Now the rising sea, together with the unprofessional ministrations of troubled teenager Alison, is uncovering the grave's secrets - and awakening those who wish those secrets to remain hidden.

Meanwhile, best-selling biographer Kate Kennedy (a woman so uncertain of her own identity that she frequently addresses herself in the third person) has fled from a doomed love affair to the imagined solitude of north-east Essex. But there is something nasty on the beach, and in the woods, and in the cottage where she is vainly attempting to complete her biography of Lord Byron. Together with assorted natives and yokels, she is drawn into a tangled web of romance and deceit.

Barbara Erskine has found a lucrative theme - the eternal triangle echoing through time - and she's more than willing to come up with another variation. Midnight is a Lonely Place has the ingredients of a true Gothic romance - the windswept setting, the ancient feud, the power of evil and the love which is stronger than death. Erskine's evocation of the past may well be historically accurate - it's really too intimate and personal for one to be able to argue with it - and the plot builds subtly to a mildly chilling denouement. There are some interesting, if undeveloped, thoughts on existence and motivation after death. But the characters, present and past, are two-dimensional, and it's difficult to care whether the forces of evil win or not - although one cannot help but admire the ingenuity of a ghost who can cut off Kate's phone line immediately after her paranoid conversations with her estranged lover or her sister, who is (conveniently) a Jungian psychologist.

If the novel has a specific fault, it is that there are simply too many words. In lieu of characterisation, we are shown the minutiae of each person's existence; from the process of making a maggot-free cup of chocolate, to Alison's taste in Music to Excavate By. Perhaps because the characters have little inner life, their actions often appear illogical. This edition also bears the signs of desultory proof-reading; I object to having to work the grammar out for myself, even if that's more challenging than the plot. Despite the faults, though, it's a gripping read; Erskine's suspenseful style keeps the reader hooked right to the end, a talent which should be applauded. Just don't go looking for hidden depths.