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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

2017/58: All Systems Red -- Martha Wells

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. [p. 9]

All Systems Red is the first-person narrative of Murderbot, a self-hacked security cyborg -- 'SecBot' -- who, due to having disabled their governor module, is no longer forced to obey the commands of the Company . (Note the pronouns: Murderbot may not have what they primly refers to as 'sex parts' but they are very much a person, possibly more so than some of their human clients.)

Murderbot's current job is as security for a small group of scientists who are exploring newly-discovered planet. The expedition is facilitated by the Company, who monitor the team's conversations and communications, broker life insurance, and provide the equipment. Most of that equipment -- Murderbot included -- is supplied by the lowest bidder, so when a team member is attacked by an undocumented hostile lifeform, everyone assumes it's just a glitch in the info pack.

It's not just a glitch in the info pack.

Without Murderbot's sardonic commentary, cynicism and gallows humour, this would be a fairly routine piece of pulp fiction, albeit with a more diverse cast than is usual. But Murderbot is a delight: they would really much rather watch episodes of Sanctuary Moon than interact with clients (though they do have a strong protective streak towards 'their' humans). They're accustomed to being treated as equipment, and they like things that way. (Commenting on the cultural depiction of emancipated bots -- all those soap operas have given Murderbot a detailed, if not always accurate, understanding of human society -- they remark, 'If it showed the bots hanging out watching the entertainment feed all through the day cycle with no one trying to make them talk about their feelings, I would have been a lot more interested'. )

The humans, in turn, are not initially used to treating Murderbot as a person: they don't even recognise Murderbot without the helmet and the armour. How each of the team reacts to Murderbot is a fascinating sociological study: from 'ah, so we can punish you by looking at you?' (Murderbot is described as 'shy', but exhibits habits that could be labelled as autistic, abuse-survivor or simply introverted); to invasions of Murderbot's private personal log, to Dr Mensah, the leader of the expedition, who regards Murderbot as an equal and a person of value.

Murderbot has a shadowy past, too. They hacked their governor module for a reason: and I'm looking forward to reading the next novella, which sounds as though it might explore that backstory a little more.
More Murderbot from Martha Wells! [Tor]

Anyway: highly recommended, vastly enjoyable, funny and poignant and thought-provoking.

I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon. [p. 102]

Monday, May 29, 2017

2017/57: American Gods -- Neil Gaiman

"Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn't she the one who killed her children?"
"Different woman," said Mr. Nancy. "Same deal." [loc 6102]

Reread sparked by the Amazon TV series -- which is a very different animal,
'based on' rather than a straightforward adaptation of the novel.

I still like American Gods and enjoyed this reread; it turned out that I'd forgotten whole swathes of plot, while managing to retain single sentences and the secret of Shadow's cellmate's identity. I don't find Gaiman's prose in this novel especially noteworthy ('Chicago came on like a migraine' is great, but its greatness is partly because it stands out from the surrounding text) but it has a transparency that makes it an excellent vehicle for the plot.

This isn't a review of the TV series, but I will note:
- Shadow, without his viewpoint and a window into his thoughts (as in the novel) is rather passive and not hugely engaging
- possibly because they're filtered through Shadow's perception, the female characters in the novel are trivialised*, marginalised, sexualised: less so in the TV version.

* a word that is actually derived from one of the names of Hecate, who's far from inconsequential.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

2017/56: Spandex and the City -- Jenny Colgan

He almost certainly had no idea that the fact that he was rich was as strange to me as the fact that he could lift up a truck with one hand. [loc. 1255]
Holly lives in Centerton, an American city, though she grew up in Britain. Centerton has its very own vigilante hero, Ultimate Man, who Holly encounters when she gets caught up in a meticulously-planned robbery conducted by Frederick Cecil and his henchmen. Holly, with typical lack of forethought, stands up to Cecil and ends up rescued by Ultimate Man. As if that weren't bad enough -- Holly is not a fan of Ultimate Man -- she encounters him, and Frederick Cecil, again, when Cecil targets a party at an art gallery.

But this time Holly discovers Ultimate Man's secret identity ...

Spandex and the City is a witty love-triangle romance -- Holly finds herself attracted to both hero and villain -- with rather more in the way of underlying philosophy than that capsule categorisation might suggest. None of the characters are especially happy. Holly has problems finding a suitable date, and is alienated from her family: she thinks they don't care about her. Ultimate Man also has problems dating (see 'Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex' for one of the reasons) and is isolated by his wealth and his powers. Frederick Cecil's mission is wholly philanthropic and well-argued (I do feel he has a point) but he's the product of an unpleasant childhood and hinted-at abuse.

Nevertheless, Spandex and the City is a witty and entertaining read. It's also a perceptive exploration of the pervasiveness of social media and the internet, typified by Holly's dependency on her smartphone and the social crises caused by a telecomms failure.

Also features a namedrop for Spiderman -- "We meet at, you know, trade conferences and so on". Colgan knows her genre: Spandex and the City is in part a critique of the superhero genre, but an affectionate and well-informed one.

Friday, May 12, 2017

2017/55: Lord of All Things -- Andreas Eschbach (translated from the German by Samuel Willcocks)

the digested version of a story already squeezed to bursting, a story of Arctic islands, Russian subs, and a steel fortress that fell to dust.

A book of two (unequal) halves: a promising beginning, but the rest is weakly plotted, gruesomely sexist and poorly characterised.

It starts well. Hiroshi is the half-Japanese, half-American son of a cleaning woman. He likes fixing things, and befriends Charlotte -- daughter of the French ambassador -- after fixing a broken doll. Hiroshi has grand plans for solving the world's inequalities with robotics; Charlotte has a unique gift, manifested when she touches an object.

Abruptly, Charlotte's father is posted to Buenos Aires, and the two lose touch. Some years later, Hiroshi's long-lost father reconnects with his son, and Hiroshi ends up at MIT -- where he meets Charlotte again, although both Hiroshi and Charlotte are now in relationships with other people.

While Hiroshi's experiments near fruition, Charlotte visits a remote island in the Russian Arctic which is reputed to harbour a mysterious but menacing force. Only gradually do Hiroshi and Charlotte both come to understand the deadly underside of Hiroshi's marvellous creation -- and its universal impact.

I have missed out a lot of the plot in that summary, because it vexes me. Hiroshi is envied by his peers (of course!) but perseveres and triumphs. Charlotte does very little except drift through life: occasionally she wonders if she should have a baby. There is very little indication of what she does with her gift. Or why she stays with a rich-but-repulsive fiance. While Hiroshi is acting on the world -- making terrible mistakes, with the best of intentions -- Charlotte has minimal impact on anyone or anything (despite being beautiful, presumably intelligent -- though we are given little evidence -- and well-dressed).

Eventually Hiroshi realises that his invention and the Arctic menace are connected -- part of a bigger picture that includes a prehistoric skull with a bullet wound, a knife that's older than human civilisation, and the Fermi paradox. Having worked marvels -- including curing Charlotte's cancer -- his final creation is a Sierpinski knife made of the four grammes of iron in his own blood.

There are some lovely ideas in here, and some well-visualised scenes: but the sexism really bothered me, and the characterisation seemed flat. Maybe if the book had been half the length, everything would have been sharper. Maybe if there had been no women in it at all, it would have been less sexist.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

2017/52-4: The Moon in the Cloud, The Shadow on the Sun, The Bright and Morning Star -- Rosemary Harris

The pyramids were almost as white by night as by day. They burned with a malignant whiteness barely distinguishable from a white sky. They had a fierce beauty, fed by what lay around them: hundreds of thousands of men had toiled all day in the burning eye of the sun to raise them, and been worn and thirsty; and many had died. Their bones lay beneath the desert. Great kings had laid them there: the bones of the labourers, white, and buried in a gold casing of sand, near the bones of the kings encased in gold, buried in a white casing of stone. And in the night the bones of the buried men and the bones of the kings help speech together. [The Moon in the Cloud, page 147]
Reread, because the Amelia Peabody books made me yearn for some quality fiction set in Ancient Egypt. I adored these books as a child and am pleased to report that they are just as enjoyable some decades later. And I was happy to see Barbara Mertz' Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs mentioned in the Acknowledgements!

In The Moon in the Cloud, Reuben, a Canaanite animal tamer, is sent by Noah's son Ham to retrieve a cat and two lions from Kemi (Egypt). Reuben is enslaved, and becomes the musician of the (imaginary) Pharoah Merenkere: Reuben escapes during a riot, with the help of a friendly tomb-robber, and fulfils his quest.

The Shadow on the Sun is the darkest, and I think weakest, of the trilogy. It focuses on Meri-Mekhmet, who is courted by a mysterious young man but rejects him when he turns out to have a wife and multiple concubines. She is, in turn, courted by the Prince of Punt, who abducts her. Reuben and his cat Cefalu, back in Egypt with Reuben's wife Thamar, become involved.

On rereading I found the characterisation of the Prince of Punt and his people rather racist, and Reuben's victory trivial and hastily described. Still, some lovely scenes in the Chamberlain's water garden and the King's palace, and on the waterfront of Menofer.

The Bright and Morning Star focusses on the children of previous books' protagonists. Merenkere's children -- Ta-Thata and Sinuhe -- are, of course, due to be married to one another. Neither is especially keen on the idea, and Sinuhe's tutor, the priest No-Hotep, has plans of his own. Ta-Thata's friend, the Chief Royal Architect Hekhti, becomes involved in the treatment of Reuben and Thamar's son Sadhi, who is deaf and dumb.

These novels (published in the late 1960s / early 1970s) don't read like modern children's books. The vocabulary is quite advanced, some weighty concepts are explored, and Harris isn't afraid to kill off her characters. There are multiple plot strands, elements whose significance isn't spelt out but left for the reader to deduce, and characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly villainous. (The King behaves very badly when rejected, for example.) And while the novels do, technically, feature 'talking animals', this is on the basis that their human associates understand their body language, rather than the animals speaking any form of human language.

A lovely reread: I appreciate the evocation of ancient Egypt more now than I did as a child.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

2017/51: Chalk -- Paul Cornell

I stuck to what was true, except that I didn’t include anything impossible. I wrote about what it was like on the playing field. How there were no teachers. How anything could happen. How anything had been happening for a long time now. I mentioned the lightning because there would be the patch of black glass on the ground ...

A horror novel about growing up in the 1980s: cod in butter sauce, Feast lollies, Bananarama, school discos. These things, in hindsight, are horrific in their own right, but Paul Cornell weaves a truly chilling story around the mundane details of Andrew Waggoner's school and home life, 1982-3.

The Amazon blurb describes this as 'a brutal exploration of bullying in Margaret Thatcher's England': well, yes, in the sense that the Bible is an exploration of God saying 'let there be light'. There is a lot more to the story than bullying, though that's where it starts: Andrew Waggoner is set upon by a group of bullies, after the Halloween disco, and maimed. He goes home -- can't tell his parents, because it would mean the end of their hopes for him, and also because he's embarrassed and simultaneously protective -- and washes the blood from his clothes, and stares out of his bedroom window into the night, out to the Downs with their earthlights and chalk figures.

And something sees him.

It's possible to read Andrew's new doppelganger, Waggoner, as a psychological rather than a magical manifestation. Waggoner occupies the same space as Andrew, and nobody but Andrew can see him. Waggoner behaves badly, and Andrew has to restrain him. Sometimes Andrew fails, and Waggoner enacts a series of bloody reprisals on Andrew's behalf.

As the year circles round to Halloween, there are indications that something bigger is happening around the edges of Andrew's story. The sense of creeping wrongness is subtly and effectively introduced. (I'd have liked just a little more about what was happening, what had happened long ago, on the downs: but the story doesn't need it.) Meanwhile, Andrew is trying to get through his mock exams, work out which music he's supposed to like, and befriend Angie, who is cool and interesting and who scries using the week's number one hit single. (Oh Lord, Rene and Renata.)

The finale felt slightly too rushed, though otherwise very satisfactory on both mundane and extraordinary levels. But what will stay with me about this book is the portrayal of what it was like to be an unpopular kid in the early 80s: Andrew's mingled embarrassment and protectiveness towards his parents, who only want the best for him; the fear of being seen by schoolmates outside school, where you can be judged; the sense that the adult world is an alien place from which no help should be sought, for it won't come; the way parents lie to their children, to be kind. Andrew doesn't know or care about politics, but he's acutely aware of class tensions. His mother, and especially his father, are at once central and peripheral to the story: like politics, they are incomprehensible and he doesn't pay a great deal of attention to them.

The bad thing that happens to Angie felt, on one level, like a false note: it's almost a cliche. But on the underlying mythic level, it makes a horrible kind of sense.

Highly recommended but not always nice.

Friday, May 05, 2017

2017/50: City of Miracles -- Robert Jackson Bennett

The conclusion I draw is not, as you suggested, that miracles fade as their existence goes on, causing fluctuations in their function. Rather, I believe that miracles changed and mutated just as any organism might: the Divine Empire was a teeming ecosystem of miracles and Divine entities, all with varying levels of agency and purpose, all shifting and altering as the years went by.
Conclusion of the Divine Cities trilogy (previous volumes were City of Stairs and City of Blades). I wondered, reviewing the latter, if the third book would focus on Sigrud the mysterious Viking Dreyling berserker: and it does, in that he is the primary viewpoint character. However, it's not primarily his story. The real protagonist of City of Miracles is Tatyana Komeyd, Shara's adopted daughter. Sigrud is just one of the people who gets Tatyana to where she needs to be.

The novel begins with the assassination of a former Prime Minister, by a killer working for a controller he's never met. Only after this does Sigrud reappear: he hasn't seen Shara for thirteen years, and hoped that she would reach out to him again, but now she never will. Vengeance is all that is left to him.

He calls on Mulaghesh, who has a cryptic message from Shara that she recites to him. And that message leads him in search of Tatyana, and thence (with the help of several formidable women) in search of the possibly-Divine being who arranged Shara's death. A being who, it transpires, has every reason to hate and fear the Komayd family.

I still like Sigrud as a character, and City of Miracles adds depth to some of his backstory, explaining why, and how, he has become so good at what he does. I'm happy to report that some good things happen to him in this novel, too. It is, in parts, thoroughly swashbuckling: in other parts, quite horrific. Bennett writes about the dismal underside of battle, the orphaned children and the refugees; the ways in which they forget, and then remember, what has happened to them, and why. It's the weaponisation of grief and pain, and it is horribly effective.

The children are important: Shara knew that, and was working with wealthy friends to provide for them. Sigrud is still mourning his own daughter (the dead one: strangely, he doesn't seem that interested in the surviving one or her offspring) and marvelling at the ways the world has changed -- with remarkable rapidity -- while he wasn't paying attention. It is worth noting, as several of the people he meets remark, that he hasn't aged a day since they first met him.

I didn't find this as satisfactory a read as City of Stairs. The events are momentous, the staging epic: but Sigrud's blend of bloodthirsty competence and quiet despair has a flattening effect. There is a rushed, unedited feel to some of the writing: 'neither of them' when there are three people in a situation; 'such weapons should not be trusted with governments'; 'a small, tiny mirror' ... It is, though, a nicely-rounded conclusion to the trilogy, with plenty of closure and simultaneously a sense of new beginnings.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

2017/49: Death by Silver -- Melissa Scott, Amy Griswold

He threw a satisfied glance at Ned, looking momentarily very much like one of the heroes of an adventure novel. Ned felt rather like one himself, and wished there were any chance of Julian putting his arms around him in an admiring way on the spot. [loc. 5335]
Death by Silver is set in an alternate London, probably in the local equivalent of the Victorian period: carriages not cars, telegrams rather than 'phones, cricket at Lords. Ned Mathey is a newly-qualified metaphysician, still trying to establish himself as a practitioner and curse-breaker. Edgar Nevett, whose son was at school with Ned, engages him to deal with a curse on the family silver. Ned can't detect any such curse -- but the next day, Nevett is dead, killed by an apparently-enchanted candlestick.

Ned enlists the help of his friend (-with-benefits) Julian Lynes, who is a detective. Both Ned and Julian were brutally bullied by Victor Nevett, the dead man's son: neither of them especially relishes the necessity of dealing with him now. But the case brings the two of them together more than casual visits have done, and as well as identifying the means, motive and method of the murderer -- in a satisfyingly complex plot -- they discover one another's misapprehensions about their relationship. (As in our own world, miscommunication is all too common in matters of romance.)

Death by Silver is a charming detective story with a romantic subplot, or possibly vice versa. It's strongly reminiscent of Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes' stories (Julian is the one who extrapolates from detailed observation: Ned is the professional with the social skills) with the added dimension of an intricate and well-described system of magic. Magic's taken for granted: there are spells to keep the lid on a tea-pot if it's tipped over, spells to stop a gate admitting salesmen, love charms, contraceptive charms ... There is also, as mentioned by Ned's redoubtable clerk Miss Cordelia Frost, a London School of Metaphysics for Women: and Miss Frost hints at a whole sub-culture of women's magic based on domestic arts.

I should like to read more of Miss Frost's story, whether or not it intersected with Ned and Julian's. (There's a sequel, A Death at the Dionysus Club: it's on my list.)

Monday, May 01, 2017

2017/48: The Hippopotamus Pool -- Elizabeth Peters

Careers for women! That is a favourite theme of yours, I believe? Why, then you should commend my efforts, for I have given gainful employment to women – downtrodden, oppressed females of this and other countries, who work not for men but for themselves – and for me. A criminal organization of women![loc. 5712]
Amelia and her family are in Cairo to greet the 20th century (technically a year early) when a mysterious visitor produces an ancient gold ring, some hints about an undisturbed tomb, and -- shortly thereafter -- his own inexplicable disappearance. There are other mysteries, too: in the absence of Sethos (a.k.a. The Master Criminal), who has taken over the thriving trade in forged antiquities? Could there be two factions? If so, which faction is trying to prevent Emerson from finding and excavating the rumoured tomb? And is the forger Abd el Hamed's sullen juvenile apprentice, David, to be trusted?

Also features another fat villain; a Theosophist; Nefret being awesome; the return of Walter and Evelyn, and the latter regaining some verve; the cat Bastet obeying a command; Amelia's narrative shading into smugness.

There were quite a few typos in this Kindle edition ('pouring over the message', 'a wealthy window') as well as sentences where the words ran together without spaces, and at least one missing line. Still, very enjoyable, and has rather more history and archaeology than some of the others in the series.