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

Thursday, January 18, 2007

#3: Soldier of Sidon -- Gene Wolfe

Oh, it's a long time since I read, and reread, and immersed myself in Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist, the tale of a veteran of the Persian War (479BC) with traumatic amnesia. (The sequel, Soldier of Arete, didn't make as much of an impression on me. I'm not sure why.)

'Read this every day' is written on the outside of the scroll that Latro carries with him. It's the only lasting memory he has: though when he wakes he may recall the previous evening, by noon he will have forgotten. At the beginning of each scroll, of course, there's not much story-so-far to read. As the scroll (or the novel) fills up, though, it's less feasible for Latro to catch up with his own story. He'll have more of a grasp on events at the beginning of his tale than events just beyond the boundary of memory. And all of them will read as though they happened to another man -- so he can express surprise, disbelief and amusement at his own actions, just as an impartial observer might do.

Soldier of Sidon has been a long time coming -- there have been rumours of a third book in the sequence ever since I began attending SF conventions and pub meets, fifteen-ish years ago. I've read online that Wolfe lost his notes and drafts, and had to recreate them: if true, it's even more remarkable that he's reproduced the voice of Latro so consistently. (That does sound as though I'm damning with faint praise. It's what writers do, eh? But Latro, amnesiac and god-touched (or -touching), is an unnervingly unreliable narrator.)

Wolfe resorts to the same narrative techniques, with elaborate variations, again and again. One of the most noticeable is that the narrative cuts away from the action just before a momentous event and resumes later, possibly with the assumption that the audience is aware of what's happened off-stage. (I can think of several instances of this in 'The Book of the New Sun', not to mention Pandora, by Holly Hollander.) It's an effective technique in that it pulls the reader into the text: an irritating one, though, in that close attention is sometimes necessary to locate these lacunae. Especially true in Latro's case, because chances are that he doesn't remember what happened.

In Soldier of Sidon, Latro goes to Egypt in search of long-promised healing. (It's not entirely clear how much time has elapsed since the end of Soldier of Arete. In early chapters, Latro writes about his life before this journey started, but soon those memories have gone.) Egypt, as somebody tells him, is riddled with gods, rotten with 'em: they're everywhere. And they most certainly make themselves known to Latro.

(Another Wolfe trope: the woman who is not what she seems, not alive or not human or not a woman.)

I liked Latro a lot more, in this novel, than I did in the previous two: but that might simply be that I'm older and calmer (or more perceptive; or pickier; or nostalgic; or zombified. Or a character in a Wolfe novel, who need not appear consistent but may still be so.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

REREAD: Casino Royale -- Ian Fleming

Reread after watching the recent movie version starring Daniel Craig. I read all Fleming's Bond novels as a teenager, when they impressed and excited me rather more than they do now. The world that Fleming writes about seems very distant to my own, now, in a way that it didn't back then. Perhaps, growing up during the Cold War on a diet of black-and-white war films and thrillers on TV, with parents who spoke often of their wartime experiences, the decades between the end of WW2 and my childhood were compressed.

Now it reads like ancient history. Part of that's the evolution of technology: more than anything, this can date a novel, and because it's a relevant aspect of the plot there's no avoiding it here. Part of it's Bond's attitudes: his patriotism, his chauvinism, his alienation. His repression, too.

And another thing: compared to most contemporary novels, this was a very short, quick read.In fact, I suspect I could have read it in less time than it took to watch the 2006 film ...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

#2: The Machine's Child -- Kage Baker

After the cliffhanger at the end of The Life of the World to Come, I'd been eagerly awaiting this.

Now, I am eagerly awaiting Sons of Heaven, due in July.

There are some delicious scenes in this novel (especially concerning the piratical peregrinations of Alec Chesterfield &co) and a focus on philosophical themes that is, in retrospect, surprising -- not because the Company books are in any sense 'dumbed down' or trivial, but because there's such pace and wit to the narrative. Two topics for discussion: 'the child is father of the man' and 'an immortal cannot be killed'. (And who's the eponymous Machine?)

We learn more of Edward's backstory, more of Mendoza's fate, more of the machinations of the Company and those who oppose it. Baker's dark, sly humour -- epitomised by Joseph, still looking out for Mendoza and on the trail of Alec / Edward / Nicholas -- is at its best here, with some classic one-liners. ("He's screwing your daughter ... or he will be when he finds the screws.") The tone's different to the earlier novels, though: there's more direct authorial voice, and there's a definite sense of impending climax.

Mind you, I thought that when I finished reading The Life of the World to Come.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

REREAD: Swordspoint -- Ellen Kushner

I was spurred to reread this by other reading: The Privilege of the Sword, an utterly wonderful and frivolously swashbuckling sequel; and some rather good fanfiction.

The following notes contain, not exactly spoilers, but aides-memoire.

It's about ten years since I first read Swordspoint, and I was surprised at how little of the plot I'd retained. In particular, I'd forgotten the lurid details of Michael Godwin's past. But rereading now, I can see more clearly how Alec and Richard's relationship fits into the wider political situation. And I truly don't believe that anything is accidental where the Duchess Tremontaine is concerned (the theatre, the ring).

Alec's intellectual enquiries do seem much more juvenile than they did a decade ago!

This edition (which isn't the one I owned back then, and which I actually have a duplicate of as I couldn't wait to retrieve and unpack my books from ex-landlady's loft) contains three additional stories, none of which I'd read before. 'red-Cloak' is the first ever Riverside story, and to me it seems strangely foreign -- the magical atmosphere, something more supernatural about the events. (One of the great delights of Swordspoint is that it's distinctly a fantasy, and yet there is no magic, there are no gods.) 'The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death' (also the title of a novel-within-a-novel in The Privilege of the Sword) is an interesting forerunner to Kushner's later examination of the role of women in Riverside / nameless-City society. And 'The Death of the Duke' is really rather wrenching, and takes us past the end of Privilege.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

#1: Explorers of the New Century -- Magnus Mills

Explorers of the New Century is a novel with a twist: that is, it's plain that there is a twist from the blurbs on the back, which hail 'alternate history' and 'parable' and 'satire'. Right, so it's not, or not only, a fictionalised account of the Scott / Amundsen race to the South Pole, then ... There are plenty of similarities. The characters are two bands of explorers; one group have exagerratedly English surnames, Scagg and Summerfield and Johns, while the other group -- Tostig, Snaebjorn, Thegn -- seem Scandiwegian. The setting is an icy waste, full of natural hazards such as scree and river-gorges, with both parties traversing it, by different routes, on their way to the AFP or Agreed Furthest Point. The dialogue is excessively polite and jovial, even in extremity: "'The task requires both daring and judgment; one slip could mean certain death. I thought I'd give you first refusal.''Thank you, sir.'"

There are distinctions, of course. They're heading north (away from civilisation): they're all inspired, not by a geographical point, but by a book, 'The Theory of Transportation'. Scott and Amundsen had dogs: these explorers, far from their nameless homelands (though both groups come from 'wayfaring races') are accompanied by mules.

And there are plenty of clues that all's not quite as it seems. There's certainly something odd about the explorers' concern for the mules that carry their supplies -- one of the English party is sent back to the ship and takes with him a number of female mules, thus imbalancing the numbers and messing up the breeding pairs. But mules are sterile ... Actually, I'm beginning to think that there's another layer of meaning in there. Both Johns' group and Tostig's are all-male, yet none of them speak of wives and sweethearts at home -- mothers, yes, but not women for whom they harbour romantic (or sexual) feelings. And Medleycott is very concerned about the sleeping arrangements ...

And is it a coincidence that Johns and Medleycott share a birthday?

And what are the blue stones for? Art, or something more ... significant?

It's a fairly short novel (184 pages) and the twist comes slightly over halfway through. I've read reviews that claim it's all allegory: reviews that interpret the twist in a (wilfully?) naive way: reviews that seem to completely miss everything I've mentioned above, and reviews that give a number of (supportable) readings to the tale and its rather bleak conclusion. (Bleak if you're not Johns or his party, anyway.)

It's one of those books I'd like to press upon friends and acquaintances, just to find out what they think -- except that I'd feel much happier about doing so if I'd enjoyed reading it more, and been less eager to simply discover the secret at the book's heart.