Friday 30 August 2019

The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon (1966)

Rating: Admirable

Thomas Pynchon is perhaps the most famous cult author, not just because of his unorthodox work, but also because of his purported reclusiveness. Pynchon offers up a heady combination in the context of Western post-war culture where everything is viewed as being justifiably up for grabs. I'm kind of ashamed to admit it, but The Crying of Lot 49 is the first Pynchon novel I have ever read. I do have Gravity's Rainbow (1973) on my shelf, but opted for this novel because of its refreshing brevity. Unfortunately despite Pynchon's reputation I have been left underwhelmed and wondering whether the novel is a brilliantly complex post-modern puzzle or a now passe mundane indulgence (it is probably a bit of both). The novel's Wikipedia entry notes that The Crying of Lot 49 can be viewed as an example of post-modernism and perhaps also a satire of post-modernism itself, a technique that  ironically lies at the heart of post-modernism in any case. Reading the Wikipedia entry was, in some ways, more entertaining than the novel itself; perhaps this could become the new way to read novels, just read other people's interpretations, don't go to all the trouble of reading the actual novel itself, no need to ponder all the obscure cultural and historical references, the clever word-play and biting satire....

Sorry, what was I on about? Who knows - anyway, back to the review. The Crying Lot of 49's main protagonist, Oedipa Maas, is named as executor of the estate of a former lover and therefore becomes exposed to the supposed existence to an alternative postal service that goes back centuries - originating in Europe and still operating in a clandestine manner in 1960s California. The novel is brimming with unusual situations and strange characters, but despite this The Crying Lot of 49 was mostly mundane rather than intriguing. Perhaps it is due to an overexposure to post-modern techniques that really hit the mainstream in the 1990's in cinema and television in particular. In fact Pynchon himself appeared (well, his voice at least...) in The Simpsons as himself, satirizing his reputation as a weird recluse. Despite my mild disappointment the novel was worth reading and I did enjoy the satirizing of conspiracy theories in general, which I believe is the main theme of the novel; it was published three years after the assassination of Kennedy after all, which became one of the most prevalent conspiracy theories of them all. Sorry about the lukewarm review Mr Pynchon (if you ever read this...), but I promise I'll still get around to reading Gravity's Rainbow one day, or maybe I'll just read about it...

Monday 5 August 2019

Helliconia Summer - Brian Aldiss (1983)

Rating: Excellent

Helliconia Summer, the second volume in the Helliconia trilogy, is superb old-school science fiction. The novel is superior to Helliconia Spring (1982), partly because the world it depicts is far richer in summer than it was in its emergent state in spring. The novel also contains much more detail about humanity's observational satellite - Avernus, in orbit around the planet, as well as Helliconia's stellar and biological history. The novel's world-building is splendidly detailed, fascinating and ultimately entirely satisfying. During summer the planet's human-like life forms are dominant and their civilization is akin to that of Earth's late middle ages. The planet's other intelligent inhabitants, the Phagors (as pictured on the book cover) are much more passive during summer, surviving and biding their time until winter returns. The Phagors are curiously compelling aliens, despite being mostly impassive and enigmatic. Although Phagor culture is less sophisticated than that of the 'humans' they make them seem childish and vain in comparison.

Part of what makes Helliconia Summer so satisfying is the weave of complex multiple plot strands that also feature well rounded and believable characters. The characters are generally dynamic and relatably human in both their motivations and flaws. I couldn't help but get caught up in the characters individual stories as they struggled to cope with the planet's continual cultural and geographical shifts. Like the first novel there are long sections detailing particular narrative threads, however there is much more dynamism to the narrative in general, making it far more compelling than the first novel. Despite being nearly 600 pages in length I really did not want Helliconia Summer to end, it was thoroughly enjoyable and I couldn't help but wonder why it has never been made into a series akin to something like Game of Thrones; it certainly has the complexity and scope to satisfy most modern viewers, even those who failed to understand Game of Thrones denouement.