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Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Helliconia Winter - Brian Aldiss (1985)

Rating: Admirable

Helliconia Winter is the third and final book in the the Helliconia Trilogy, the others being Helliconia Spring (1982) and Helliconia Summer (1983). The novel begins at the end of autumn and the planet of Helliconia is moving into the beginning of a winter that will last 300+ years, causing the human-like denizens to suffer greatly from the collapse of civilization that had reached its zenith in summer, including falling prey to the 'fat death' (which causes binge eating, including cannibalism), which in reality changes human physiology in a manner that allows a greater chance of survival during the harsh winter. For the other main dominant species, the Phagors (as pictured on the book cover), winter results in potential dominance once more over the humans (or Sons of Freyer, as they call them...). This is a very basic synopsis of the novel, which is essentially dominated by a world building narrative in its truest sense. Although they are mostly well developed, the principal protagonists are merely actors on a massive environmental stage in which Helliconia and its yellow-orange dwarf star, Batalix, follow a highly elliptical 1200 year orbit around the Type A Super-giant star Freyer. For fans of epic world building novels the Helliconia Trilogy is up there with the best and Helliconia Winter, although not quite as good as the first two novels, is quality science fiction and despite Aldiss' old-school style it is written in an intelligent and compelling manner.

Helliconia Winter is the lesser novel in the trilogy due to a number of factors; the principal characters, such as Luterin Shokerandit from the northern continent of Sibornal, have less agency in the face of declining conditions, whereas in the first two books the world is opening up to great possibilities due to the advent of spring and then summer. This novel includes much more information about Earth's history and the space station Avernus, which orbits Helliconia and transmits footage back to Earth. The depiction of Earth's future is standard science fiction fare, as is what happens to the six thousand inhabitants of Avernus (although there are some pretty freaky descriptions of giant genitalia called 'perambulant pudendolls'). However the main flaw lies in the fact that despite the trilogy being based on fairly hard science fiction concepts, including believable biological and cosmological principles, Aldiss introduces a seam of dubious mysticism into the narrative, which weakens the original premise. Some of the philosophical ruminations of future humanity are also a bit cringe-worthy, which is perhaps fair enough for humans that do nothing all day but pontificate whilst lazing in mobile towns pulled along by the energy of bizarre white lifeforms called 'geonauts'. Despite these minor flaws Helliconia Winter was an entertaining and satisfying end to one of the great trilogies in science fiction.



Thursday, 9 January 2020

Arrival - Ted Chiang (2002)

Rating: Admirable

Arrival was originally published as Stories of Your Life and Others, but as I actually read this collection under the former title I'm sticking with it. The name change was, of course, brought about by the American film Arrival (2016), which is an adaptation of this collection's Story of Your Life. The film was impressive both because the Americans actually managed to make an intelligent science fiction movie, but also because the premise was a unique and intriguing first contact narrative. Appropriately the story found in this collection is conceptually brilliant and has a strong emotional core, which is something you don't always find in science fiction; actually there is something unique about all of the eight stories in Arrival. The collection begins with one of the better stories, Tower of Babylon, in which humanity is actually building the Biblical tower in an effort to reach the 'vault of heaven'. The story is compelling because you do not really know what to expect, and despite my best guesses the ending was a surprise, something that is difficult to produce when it comes to an audience familiar with science fiction tropes.

The stories that follow are all quite different from each other. The protagonist in Understand takes a drug that has the side effect of giving him a genius level intellect, but also gives him access to the parts of the brain that are normally shut off from the conscious mind. Division by Zero is the standout story, featuring a structure that mirrors the premise and leads you to an ending that is devastatingly poignant and brilliant. I did not actually understand the story until the next morning, when its significance hit me as I indulged in my muesli and coffee; now that's the kind of story every author would love to write. Unfortunately the final four stories do not quite match the brilliance of the first half. Seventy-Two Letters is inventive and entertaining enough, but Chiang's dry style strips some of the flesh from the narrative bone. The Evolution of Human Science is prosaic, despite its startling premise and Hell is the Absence of God and Liking What You See: A Documentary, are both lacking a stylistic spark that would make them much more compelling. Despite the stylistic limitations these stories feature fantastic ideas and are well worth reading. It is unfortunate that I enjoyed them less the further I proceeded through the collection, resulting in a certain degree of disappointment in the end.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Bookends 2019


It's been a great year for reading, with no books being rated by me as mediocre. The worst book of the year was The Last Hours by Minette Walters (2017), which merely read like a passable historical fiction novel, which is no great crime. There were some disappointing books, such as The Crying Lot of 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1966), which seemed dated and unfocused. David Marusek's sequel to the excellent Counting Heads (2005) - Mind Over Ship (2009), struggled for coherence and left me underwhelmed. 

The best by far were Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987) and Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946), two totally different but equally sublime novels. I'll be definitely reading more by Lively and Peake in the near future, and so should you! A shout-out goes to Sailor Twain by Mark Siegal (2012) and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986) for being the most entertaining books of the year. The most important book, for unfortunate reasons, was Sapiens by Yuval Harari (2011); a must-read if you want to understand where humanity has come from and exactly why it was almost inevitable the we should find ourselves in our current climate change predicament. Appropriate reading for humanity's last golden age? I wish that I could be more optimistic on the last day of 2019, but frankly rather than bury my head in the sand, like Australia's ruling Triple C Liberal Party (Climate Change Criminals), I'm going to bury my head in more books next year (including a recent Christmas gift - Bowie's Books (2019), hence the gratuitous Bowie picture above...).





Monday, 16 December 2019

On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno - David Sheppard (2008)

Rating: Excellent

The Book

I've had On Some Faraway Beach sitting on my shelf for a decade, mostly because I don't really read  biographies much any more (or music related books for that matter). Due to some random reason my brain decided that it was time, something Eno would appreciate I'm sure (after all, I do use a system to choose what books I read, but I also leave room for randomness). David Sheppard's biography of one of modern music's most ubiquitous and important figures is particularly satisfying, even though it does suffer from the usual problem of too much focus in some eras and not enough in others. This is understandable, after all many reading this biography would be much more interested in Eno's amazing 70's and 80's period, than Eno's still prodigious but less fascinating 2000's activities, which are relegated to a succession of brief passages, although somehow even at this point Sheppard manages to cram enough compressed Eno detail to satisfy the seriously curious. Sheppard is a consummate writer, whose writing style is resplendent with erudition and jewel-like adverbs; however such literary indulgences suit a cultural figure such as Eno, whom is both a sensualist and an intellectual. Sheppard telescopes in on Eno's most important moments - his time in Roxy Music, his early solo albums, his 'invention' of ambient music and his incredible musical collaborations with the likes of Robert Fripp and David Bowie. It feels like you are placed completely within Eno's (past) world and are then invited to explore. For Enophiles On Some Far Away Beach is very satisfying indeed but for the more casual, yet curious fans, the biography may be just all too much to absorb in the end.

Eno

I've long been an appreciator of Brian Eno's music, and this biography has certainly reignited an interest in his music, which leads me to believe that those with a more casual interest should be compelled to listen to at least some of his music. On Some Faraway Beach reveals a prolific artist who works tirelessly on both his own projects and in collaboration with others. If you are put off by the notion of ambient music (if not then try On Land (1982) for starters) then fortunately Eno had his well perfumed fingers (Eno collects scents...) in many a musical pie. Listen to his work with Bowie, Talking Heads, John Cale and of course, the first two Roxy Music albums, although Eno is perhaps more well known for his production work for the likes of U2 and Coldplay, if that's where your tastes lie. Eno has often been accused of being pretentious (something he's actually welcomed) and this biography does little to dissuade such thoughts, however Eno's approach to music and culture in general is absolutely fascinating. His obsession with working with systems that use initial agreed elements that then either play out or influence a given musical situation has led to a great deal of brilliant music. Then there is his Oblique Strategies cards that contain advice to get you out of a creative impasse, or to generate new ways of thinking about music and art. If you are not particularly interested in reading On Some Faraway Beach then please do listen to Eno's music, which is diverse, immersive and ultimately extremely rewarding.





Thursday, 28 November 2019

Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively (1987)



Rating: Sublime

Moon Tiger is the best Booker Prize winner I have ever read and also one of the best novels I have ever read. Moon Tiger is only two hundred plus pages long, yet it contains everything you could possibly want from a novel. Lively has filled Moon Tiger with meaty themes - love, death, history, tragedy, war and incest (yes, incest...). The writing is simply superb and Lively manages that rare feat of experimenting with narrative form, yet remaining eminently readable throughout. Often a scene is described through the eyes of one character and then is repeated through the eyes of another, allowing multiple perspectives sometimes within just one page. Lively does this so well that it barely interferes with the novel's flow; something that also applies to the sudden switches between second and third person (something Lively is careful not to overdo). The novel is also determinedly non-linear, fragmented even, yet the jumps in time never detract from the engaging story being told; the life of Claudia Hampton, a 76 year old British woman on her death bed remembering her life in a manner that equates her personal history to that of the Twentieth Century.

In Claudia Hampton Lively has created an arrogant and sometimes cruel protagonist who is also an absolutely relatable and sympathetic character. Claudia is a fiercely intelligent and determined feminist (without ever referring to herself as one) who is caught up in the ructions of the mid Twentieth Century. Blagging her way into a journalistic assignment in Cairo during Rommel's push into Egypt, Claudia meets and falls for Tom Southern, the captain of a tank division fighting the Germans in the desert. As they lay entwined on the bed in the heat of the night a brand of mosquito coil called Moon Tiger burns steadily, representing one of the most obvious, yet also most deftly handled analogy for the passage of time and the finality of its passing I've ever read. I was continually impressed by the quality of Lively's writing, but she saved her most impressive moment for the last two paragraphs for what is the greatest death scene I've ever read. Across just two paragraphs Lively manages to profoundly encapsulate what it is to be alive, followed by what means no longer exist in the world, leaving you breathless with emotion and wonder. Just amazing...






Thursday, 7 November 2019

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake (1946)

Rating: Sublime

It's hard to know where to begin with this amazing novel, the first in the Gormenghast Trilogy, except to simply say that it is unlike anything else I've ever read, even though it is obvious just how influential Peake's novels have been. Gormenghast is the name given to the massive rambling city sized castle that is a world unto itself. Gormenghast houses the Groan family, whom have ruled for centuries and whose lives are governed by a multitude of rituals and rules, many of which are hilariously and inexplicably bizarre. Although powered along by multiple plot strands Titus Groan is a character based novel. Titus Groan is newly born at the beginning of the novel and therefore the adult characters dominate the narrative. These characters have fantastic Dickensian names such as, Swelter, Fray, Lord Sepulchrave, Nannie Slagg and the one and only Dr. Prunesquallor. Never have I been so enamored by what are essentially grotesque, vain and unsympathetic characters. The main protagonist is a classic anti-hero - Steerpike, a kitchen urchin who escapes the clutches of the obese chef, Swelter, to go on to hatch Machiavellian plots to advance his influence over Gormenghast.

Titus Groan is brimming with memorable scenes and world-building that is highly imaginative and strangely compelling. Peake's prose is beautifully ornate, erudite and highly descriptive without falling prey to pretension or rank excessiveness. It took me about one hundred pages to become used to Peake's prose style; often sentences required re-reading, but then after that I was re-reading them for the sheer pleasure of the beautiful language. The novel's Gothic sensibility is enriched by tragedy, deadly rivalries, intelligent humour, one hundred white cats and a strange sense of poignancy that pervades the shadowy rooms and corridors of Gormenghast. I have a beautiful illustrated edition (Peake was also an accomplished artist) published in 2011, featuring an introduction by China Mieville and containing the other two novels - Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). I'll be definitely reading these novels in the near future, but meanwhile it looks like Neil Gaiman will be involved in a new attempt at adapting the Gormenghast novels for a television series in the near future, which, for once, totally makes sense.

 

Monday, 21 October 2019

The Children's House - Alice Nelson (2018)

Rating: Admirable

Due to some leave from work it has been a while since I have had to read a novel for the library's book clubs, but the time came and The Children's House turned out to be almost tailor made for book club discussion. The novel features some serious themes; trauma - childhood trauma in particular, and its consequences, refugees, alienation and the healing and nurture that families can provide. The principle protagonist is Marina, an academic and writer whose life is shared with her husband, child psychologist Jacob and his son, Ben. Marina's life changes when it intersects with an African refugee, Constance and her young son, Gabriel. Constance is traumatized by the Rwandan genocides and is obviously incapable of looking after Gabriel. As the novel progresses the characters back-stories unfold, revealing families both torn apart by dysfunction and circumstance, but also united by their need to heal. The Children's House is undoubtedly a novel for our times

Despite its noble intentions The Children's House is a flawed novel, with a ponderous pace that causes reader concentration to flag and disinterest in the characters lives to creep in. Alternate chapters that swing back and forth in time add to the disjunction. There is a great deal of description and very little dialogue, resulting in the authors voice dominating in a way that makes it hard to connect with the characters and their stories. The narrative style is also quite self-conscious, making it obvious that every turn of phrase has been burnished for public consumption. Half way through an unkind thought entered my mind, that the novel was popular fiction masquerading as literary fiction, although this is unfair both to the author and popular fiction itself. However something happened in the last third of the novel that changed my mind, the writing seemed more deftly executed and the emotional undertow of the characters stories began to pay off. I also realised that despite the dominance of the author's voice Nelson had been showing, rather than telling the stories of the characters, and quite subtly too. Ultimately the novel was saved from a mediocre rating with its beautifully effecting denouement, in which the narrative's multiple stands are brought together in a sensitive and emotionally effecting manner. Essentially Alice Nelson has done what every novelist strives to do - win over the (cynical) reader and bring something of worth into their life, and for that I can't help but display a degree of admiration.