Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha Lee (2016)


Rating: Admirable

I bought this book on a whim, mainly because I thought it was Chinese science fiction, but Lee is actually an American, however, despite my admittedly rather limited exposure to Chinese science fiction, Lee does display some stylistic similarities to some of the Chinese writers I've encountered. There's a certain formal tone to the writing, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The formal tone suits militaristic science fiction, with its array of exotic weapons (amputation guns and something sinister and powerful known as a Winnower, are two of many examples) and space battles, which can be difficult to get right, but Lee does well here. However it's not so good with character development, leaving many of the characters as two-dimensional actors in settings dominated by military technology and imperialist ideology. The two main protagonists, captain Kel Cheris and the 'undead' mad and traitorous Shuos Jedao, have some depth to them, particularly as their circumstances allow for some pretty dark psychological intensity, but all the other characters are one dimensional or impenetrable. The novel became less satisfying as it progressed. In fact I became indifferent throughout the last third and just wanted to finish so I could move onto another book, which is never a good sign.

Despite the novel's flaws the concepts found within Ninefox Gambit are intriguing. There's a struggle between a despotic space Empire called the Hexarchate and other groups that are under its control, who have a tendency to become 'heretics' and develop alternate ways of living. This is were it gets really interesting - civilisation, and objective reality itself, is maintained and altered by the development and establishment of calendrical mathematics. The Hexarchate is run by a strict calendar that all disparate parts of the empire must adhere to, otherwise reality itself can change in ways that undermine its function. It's a great concept and I also enjoyed the fact that Lee throws you in the deep end from the first page and it takes quite a while to work out what is going on. Ninefox Gambit is the first novel of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. The combination of Lee's ideas, space opera tropes and mathematic concepts make the novel and the trilogy an intriguing proposition, however because Lee's style left me cold it is likely that I will not read the other two novels, Raven Stratagem (2017) and Revenent Gun (2018). Other's may find Ninefox Gambit totally satisfying, so don't be necessarily put off by my reaction to Lee's writing. The novel won the Locus Award for best first novel and was shortlisted for the Nebula Award, so I may well be in the minority.

Monday, 15 August 2022

Something to Hide - Elizabeth George (2022)


Rating: Mediocre

This is the first book I've had to read for the library's book club for quite a while. At over seven hundred pages long I'd hoped that it would be worth the effort, but it turned out that I could only last two hundred pages. It's rare for me to give up on books, particularly book club books, as I display a reasonable degree of dedication. However Something to Hide is the dad-bod* of novels - bloated, bland and with a curious self belief that it is better than it actually is. The novel is a police procedural, with a detective called Lynley on the case (although we do not encounter him until one hundred pages in). This is George's twenty-first Lynley novel, so obviously plenty of readers enjoy these books. The novel has a seriously important theme - the effort to stop female genital mutilation, however the narrative is so slow, the style so overly descriptive, and the characters display a level of blandness that is enough to irritate and not care, that such an important theme is rendered inert. I could go on, but I just can't be bothered. My lack of enthusiasm for this novel has bled over into this review, making it almost as bland. Read this novel only if you are already a fan of the series and, I guess, crime/police procedurals in general, although I'm certain there are better ones out there. 

* I used this description when talking about the book to a library casual, so I decided to use it, even though when written down it loses something along the way...

Sunday, 24 July 2022

Rosewater - Tade Thompson (2016)


Rating: Excellent

Firstly, I can totally relate to Thompson, as it mentions on the small biographical blurb on the back cover that "...he battles an addiction to books." Secondly, Rosewater is an enticing proposition, a novel that explores typical science fiction tropes (alien invasion, future technologies), but subverts the norm by making Nigeria the central setting of the novel, with African characters as the main protagonists, removing the narrative from typical western settings. Thematically, the novel critiques colonialism and American isolationism, as well as the tendency for humans to remain divided, despite facing a common problem. I wasn't surprised when I learnt the Thompson is a trained psychiatrist, as his characterisations reveal a particular insight into the human condition, a good example being Kaaro, the main protagonist who displays both moral and amoral tendencies. Kaaro works as an agent for a shadowy government organisation called S45, who has hired Kaaro due to his exceptional abilities as a sensitive. The alien presence in Rosewater is an entity named Wormwood, which crash-landed initially in London, before burrowing through the Earth's crust to emerge in Nigeria. A bio-dome covers the entity and Rosewater is a shanty-town that has grown up around the site, mainly due to the fact that periodically the dome opens and releases spores that has the ability to heal humans. It is also responsible for the xenosphere, which enables sensitives to interact with each-other (like a biological internet) and influence other humans.

Thompson really has crammed a great deal into Rosewater, including horror elements, bio-punk, cyber-punk and Afro-futurism. His writing style is propulsive, consistently compelling and often makes abrupt changes of pace, which works more often than not. The amalgam of cross-genre elements makes for an intriguing blend and the Nigerian setting is refreshing in the same manner as the Asian settings in recent Chinese science fiction. The narrative is set between 2012 and 2066, and jumps back and forth between various times in past and the present (2066). This enables Thompson to explore Kaaro's origins, therefore fleshing out his character, and the story of Wormwood, which is totally intriguing. Kaaro's ability as a sensitive is explored via these time-jumps and this was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Rosewater. The xenosphere is like a connective virtual reality that sensitives can slip into, assuming different guises and encountering exotic and nefarious entities. It's psychedelic, disturbing and dangerous, giving the novel a shot of extra frisson. I'm not surprised that Rosewater won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2019 and an award for African science fiction called The Nommo Award. Rosewater is the first part of a trilogy, the other two books were published in 2019 (as usual I'm late to the party) - Rosewater Insurrection and Rosewater Redemption. As it is now my policy to make sure I finish trilogies, I'll be tracking these novels down. I just spent a week in Melbourne, where I managed to find Thompson's latest novel, Far From the Light of Heaven (2021), but these two were nowhere to be seen. I'll have to hook up to the xenosphere to buy them...or nose around in a library.

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic - Tom Holland (2003)


Rating: Excellent

At the tail-end of my recovery from a hip replacement I felt that some hard-core history reading was in order, and in fact that is a good modern phrase to sum-up the Roman Republic - hard-core. Rubicon takes us from the foundation of Rome in 753 BCE to 14 ACE, and throughout the Roman Republic is revealed as an intense example of all of humanity's worst attributes; hubris, arrogance, cruelty, a whole litany of negative attributes basically, but it is not all bad, as Rome helped give Western culture a fine political and societal framework to improve upon. It's pointless here it try to go into Roman history, but what really stood out is just how similar the modern world is to that of Rome's, in particular the USA. Both feature ego-driven political figures bent on stamping their authority on the world, expecting to bask in the glory of success and have the populous love them for it. A Roman figure such as Pompey has a modern equivalent in Donald Trump (except the Pompey actually did some work, like subduing Asia Minor). In fact there were plenty of Trumps in the Roman world, whipping up mobs to intimidate political rivals and attempting to use the law to bend the republic to their will. Both civilisations feature political back-stabbing, military might, the use of the court of law for political ends, vast inequality, unchecked hubris and assassinations. Would we really expect much to change in just two and a half thousand years? It's long been a historical cliche, but essentially we are Romans, just with better technology with more checks and balances in place that give us some higher ground morally.

Pompey the Great, Rockstar General

As for the quality of the book itself? It's right up there with the best I've ever read in terms of history books. Holland delivers the story of the Republic in great detail, but with a verve that reflects the drama of such a dynamic and tumultuous civilisation. His writing is not overly academic, but is nowhere near being dumbed down for popular consumption, it's classy writing basically. Holland delves deeply into such matters as the Roman Senate, populated with the significant historical figures from that period, such as Cicero, Sulla (whom I was unfamiliar with) and Augustus Caesar, who led the way forward out of the Republic and into Empire after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Aside from the Republic's political life, Holland does an excellent job at placing you in the heart of Rome, in its streets teeming with citizens and slaves, from the exalted individuals from noble families and the peasants living in squalor in the narrow market thoroughfares. One aspect that really stood out was the status of military generals, such as Pompey, who were tasked with taking out leaders from neighbouring regions before they could pose a threat to the Republic, if successful they were like rockstars or celebrities, treated on their return to Rome with parades and granted status and wealth. Despite this Holland reveals that whilst the Republic needed figures such as Pompey to build their empire, there existed inherent boundaries that kept such figures from becoming too powerful and endangering what was ultimately a democracy, until, that is, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy and swept all before him, beginning the end of the Roman Republic. Once again here lies historical echoes of present day America, caught in a fight between fascism and democracy on its own soil. What will future students of history be reading about our current time and will they be musing over historical parallels with the ancient world? Unfortunately it looks probable at the moment.

Monday, 6 June 2022

Lives of The Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius - Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman (2020)


Rating: Admirable

I bought this book at the beginning of my three weeks off of work in April before I had my hip replacement. It caught my eye because I've always been interested in Stoicism and also I felt that a certain degree of stoicism got me through the one year wait I had to endure to have the surgery. There is, of course, much more to Stoicism than just being resilient and happy despite one's circumstances. There are ethical considerations, along with justice, virtue and the use of logic free of subjective bias. A principle aim of Stoicism is to be free of the baser elements of human emotion, such as envy, jealousy, anger and to work hard toward one's betterment and the betterment of others. The Lives of the Stoics doesn't exactly explain stoicism in such simple terms, rather it illustrates the tenets of Stoicism via the lives of its exponents in the ancient world. Stoicism began in Ancient Greece in the third century BCE when Zeno the Prophet arrived in Athens, poor and down on his luck after losing everything in a maritime Mediterranean storm. Zeno's story here is merely the beginning of Stoicism as a philosophical movement, which then unfolds chronologically over the course three hundred plus pages, many centuries and dozens of historical figures.

The early Stoics hailed from or ended up in Athens. Due to the historical era not that much is known about some of the early Stoics and some entries are either short and/or read as if there is a lot of supposition involved. Things eventually become a lot more interesting with the advent of the Roman Stoics. Greek Stoics, such as Antipater the Ethicist and Panaetius the Connector, would spend time in Rome during the second century BCE, influencing the Romans and leading to such famous Roman historical figures as Cicero, Cato, Seneca and finally, Marcus Aurelius, whom is famous for his written works entitled Meditations (161 - 180 ACE). These are fascinating historical figures and Holiday and Hanselman do quite a good job of relating their historical footprint through the prism of Stoicism. It's interesting and fascinating, but unfortunately not often compelling (but, should it be?). Fortunately due to the book's format the reader can read about one Stoic at a time, usually over about twenty pages or so (the book also features a handy map and a timeline). This is how I approached reading Lives of the Stoics and in-between I started to look more into the period of history each Stoic hailed from and in the end my interest in ancient history was rekindled and I started to read a book from my library discard stash on the Roman Republic (more about that later). Once I started reading Rubicon by Tom Holland (2003) along with Lives of the Stoics, it become a much more vibrant read. Although you have to work to pick out Stoic philosophy out of the stories of its practitioners, I do feel like I have a greater appreciation of Stoicism. To get the best out of this book I recommend my approach of reading it in conjunction with some wider research of both Stoicism and of the ancient historical era.

Monday, 23 May 2022

Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music - David Stubbs (2018)


Rating: Excellent

Mars by 1980 has been my book to read as I've been recovering from a hip replacement, and it's been exactly the right choice (you get good at this as you get older...). It's fascinating and well written, but not too demanding when the ability to concentrate is compromised. I do know and love a reasonable amount of electronic music, but this book has filled in many gaps in an engaging and interesting manner. In the preface Stubbs admits that the book is not an exhaustive history of the genre, which is just as well as it would have to have been an encyclopaedia, such is the genre's lengthy history and ubiquitous twenty first century presence. The genre's history begins in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, with the invention of such machines as the pianola (1895), and then the exotically named Telharmonium (1906) and the Intonarumori (1910). Part one was perhaps the most fascinating for me, going from the above mentioned inventions through to the pre WWI Futurists and then onto avant-garde electronic composers such as Edgard Varese, Pierre Schaffer, Stockhausen and John Cage. It was rewarding to read about these innovators and at the same time listen to their compositions via You Tube, a recommended approach for anyone wanting to read this book. Although overall the book is a linear history, Stubbs does jump back and forth in time a bit, which is fine. Stubbs also offers a somewhat personal and subjective perspective, recounting his initial exposure to electronic musical works, which proves to be an effective and engaging approach throughout.

Perhaps the real strength of Mars by 1980 is the quality of Stubbs' writing, which is witty, erudite and perceptive. There are never lulls or boring sections to contend with and Stubbs' subjective opinions are never intrusive or excessive in tone. Stubbs evades any criticism of not even trying to be comprehensive by making what he does cover really count. He gives in depth attention to black musical artists who were trailblazers, such as Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder, as well as female artists, such as Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, who worked at the BBC in the 1960's. Derbyshire produced the Dr Who theme, which became one of the most famous electronic works within mainstream awareness for quite a while. Perhaps the most enjoyable chapters for me personally were 'The Art of the Duo' and 'Substance', both of which covered electronic music in the 1980's when I was a teenager. So, a nice glow of nostalgia for me as I contended with getting my new hip into gear. Stubbs also examines ambient music, 1990's rave culture, the dominance of sampling and then EDM (electronic dance music) in the twenty first century. Along the way he deftly examines the push and pull between black and white music and the associated question of authenticity, such as when white artists become funky by sampling the work of black artists (hello Moby). Mars by 1980 is much more than just a selective overview of electronic music, it also stands as an almost anthropological examination of twentieth century culture, which, in doing so, strongly gives the impression that the invention of machines that allowed humans to compose electronic music was a highly significant development in human artistic endeavour. Recommended for music lovers who are both curious and adventurous, and really, why not be both?

Monday, 2 May 2022

The Little Friend - Donna Tartt (2002)


Rating: Sublime

The Little Friend is an incredible novel, but before I get into just why I need to point out that this does not mean that everyone will enjoy it. The novel disappointed some of Tartt's many fans after the sublime The Secret History (1992), which is one of those special novels that are revered with a cultish intensity. A hard act to follow then, and it doesn't help that The Little Friend is a world away from the university setting of Tartt's debut. Also Tartt takes her time to set the scene, establish the characters and engage in some world building; for example, after the prologue, nothing much happens for fifty plus pages. We are introduced to the Dufersnes family, some twelve years after the nine year old Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found dead, hanging from a tree in the front yard. Among the ensemble of characters, including three aunts, parents, friends, housekeepers and pets, we meet Harriet Cleve Dufresnes and learn that the trauma of her brother's death has resulted in a sad and dysfunctional household. Initially it really seems that the novel just consists of endless dialogue and descriptions of domestic scenes, coupled with a slow pace. However, via the twelve year-old Harriet, who is intelligent, intense and wilful, you are drawn irresistibly into the decaying  small town gothic American south of the mid 1970's. Harriet becomes determined to find and punish whoever killed her brother, and thanks to information provided to her by the family's hard-done-by housekeeper, Ida, she fixates on local red-neck meth-head Danny Ratliff, whom, along with his brothers, are the toughest criminal element in town. Once Harriet and her only friend, Hely Hull, set out to track down Danny the novel really takes off, becoming totally absorbing and engaging. Of course, as with all great novels, you need the set-up for the pay-off to really work, so any requirement of patience and work on behalf of the reader is well worth it.

The Little Friend has been criticised for being something like a Nancy Drew mystery, but this is totally misguided criticism. The novel is very adult, incredibly compelling and the writing is absolutely brilliant. Tartt really is a superb writer of fiction and her descriptive powers are endlessly astounding. When Tartt sets a scene you are really there with the characters, who are all fully realised creations, including the many minor characters. I truly believe that Tartt is one of the most talented writers to ever put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard?). The tension that Tartt builds throughout the novel is almost unbearable, I had to keep putting the book down to take a break. On the other hand I have never laughed so spontaneously and so loud and long at a scene that involved a cobra, a skeletal old grandma called Gum and an open-top Trans Am, and the thing is, I'm not even sure if it was meant to funny! The novel is also very dark, filled with despair, malevolence, bathos and paranoia, playing out like a TV series made by David Lynch, but without the supernatural elements. There are also some of the most brilliant set pieces I've ever read, like when Hely eavesdrops on a tense scene in a seedy pool-hall and the intense scenes when Harriet and Hely break into a house containing boxes of poisonous snakes owned by a travelling snake-handling preacher. The Little Friend is filled with such moments, it was a novel I desperately wanted to get to the end of so I could find out what would happen, yet I also didn't want it to end because it was so enjoyable. It's an extremely clever novel in that it doesn't give up its secrets too easily, you need to wait till near the end to find out who the title refers to, and as for some of the other mysteries, I'm not saying anything lest I spoil things for new readers. Oh, and Donna Tartt, it's been nine years since your last novel was published, given your publishing record the new one must be due next year, I certainly hope so.