Sunday 24 October 2021

Light - M. John Harrison (2002)


Rating: Excellent

After reading Light I can't believe that I've gone all my adult life without having read an M. John Harrison novel. Harrison has been writing since the late 1960's and is the author of the proto-cyberpunk novel The Centauri Device (1975) and the Viriconium sequence (1971 - 1985), among many other delights from what I've read online. Light encompasses three seemingly disparate storylines that dove-tail towards the end. The first, set at the turn of the twentieth century, involves a physicist called Michael Kearney who is co-researching some weird theoretical physics, but also spends a great deal of time being a homicidally dysfunctional human and being freaked out by an entity he calls The Shrander. There's Seria Man Genlicher, who lives four-hundred years in the future and is fused with a K-Ship that's gone rouge and is both dysfunctional and homicidal. Finally there's Ed Chianese, at 'twink', who is, you guessed it, dysfunctional as all hell and lives in the same time-frame as the K-Ship. Although two thirds of the narrative focusses on humanity among the stars, they are still as fucked up, greedy and perverse as ever, which I think is part of the point. Would anyone expect humanity to 'grow up' morally and physiologically to keep pace with technological advancements? No...

Light is a wild ride, surreal and complex, but also with more sex and violence than any other science-fiction novel I can remember reading. There's also plenty of dark humour to keep you going. Many of the minor characters are overtly strange and are perhaps stereotypes of a sort, if you can indeed stereotype future humans utilising freaky technology pillaged from alien artefacts raided from a region of space-time called the Kefahuchi Tract. This region in space features a singularity without an event horizon and a wormhole created by a vanished alien civilisation. The Kefahuchi Tract screws with the laws of physics considerably. It's entertaining stuff, which apparently is the point. I've read that Harrison was friends with the great Iain M. Banks and one night whilst they were drinking whiskey Banks told him that his trouble was that he didn't have enough fun. Harrison thought "I'll show you I can have fun..." and went home and started writing what became Light with no advanced plan for the narrative worked out. Well, Light certainly was a lot of fun, and excellent writing too, so I'll be tracking down the sequels, Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012). Harrison has also just recently published a new novel I'll investigate called The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020).

Sunday 10 October 2021

9 -11 - Noam Chomsky ( 2001)


Rating: Admirable

I found this very short, 124 page book in an op-shop I frequent very close to the library earlier in the year and I immediately realised that I had to buy it because this September would be/was the twentieth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on America. Like many people I watched the first tower on fire on TV and then the second tower be hit by the second plane. It was amazing, visceral history unfolding before our eyes. The aftermath was confusing, intense and scary in terms of just were it all might lead. We know just where now, but when this book was published we only had an inkling. 9-11 is a collection of interviews with Chomsky with journalists from around the planet, conducted mostly via email. As you would imagine Chomsky gives well considered answers and it makes for sobering reading. Most of the questions are geared toward who attacked America and why (at the time bin Laden was only suspected) and then what will happen in the near future because of the attacks. It is not particularly compelling stuff, rather it's more depressing and sobering reading, particularly in light of what went on to happen and the situation we find ourselves in now, where in America the situation has darkened and decayed significantly with Trump's threat to democracy and the potential repercussions of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

During many of the questions Chomsky talks about America's poor record around the world, in particular in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Nicaragua. Chomsky refers to America as a 'leading terrorist state', mainly due to their actions in Nicaragua (now decades ago), and when you read what he has to say you have to admit that he has/had a point. There's also a great deal of talk about Osama bin Laden, whether he was responsible and we all know how that panned out. Overall it was fascinating to read responses from an intellectual of Chomsky's renown so soon after the attacks (the book was published in November 2001) and with added historical hindsight. I also watched the documentary 9-11: Inside the President's War Room (2021) on Apple TV, which was just incredible. For all of his flaws President Bush actually comes out of it looking better than he had at the time. 9-11 is obviously still causing repercussions now and this book acts as a primary source when thinking about how we have arrived at this point in history. It was updated in 2011 with the added subtitle: Was There an Alternative?, with an extra essay by Chomsky. Important but depressing reading.

Monday 4 October 2021

The Lamplighters - Emma Stonex (2021)


Rating: Admirable

The Lamplighters is exactly what I'm beginning to think is typical fare for a book club read, a so-so novel that is basically popular fiction with some pretence or ambition to be literary fiction. The Lamplighters has some of the typical tropes of modern literary fiction, fragmented both through time, jumping back and forth between 1972 and 1992 and into sections dedicated to three different women, who were all in relationships with the three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously go missing in 1972, never to be solved (well, until you read the ending that is...). The central mystery of exactly what happened to the men tugs you along through the novel, however there are some slow points, in particular some of the sections in which the women are interviewed by a writer doing research for a book about the disappearances. The women are naturally evasive, all having something to hide, but in a way that means they tend to produce a great deal of prattling dialogue. I started to speed-read these sections, which is never a good sign. The novel has a bit of padding and perhaps could have been tightened up a bit, particularly with the revelations coming a bit too late to feel like you are being rewarded for your perseverance. 

There are things to admire about the novel, such as Stonex's fine eye for detail and fairly impressive descriptive powers. Stonex powerfully evokes the men's lives within the lighthouse and the sea with all of its beauty and menace. Stonex also has created a fine array of characters, all of whom are well rounded and believable, in particular Arthur, the Principle Keeper (PK), who is hardened by all his years on the lighthouse. Unfortunately Stonex brings into the mix some supernatural elements, which, in the end, undermine the psychological depictions of the characters, which is a strength of the novel. This spoilt the ending for me, souring the pleasure of finally finding out exactly what happened. This left me with a dissatisfied feeling and the notion that the novel was trying to be too many things at once and would have worked better if it was more focussed, playing to its strengths of setting and psychology. Still, anyone who enjoys a good lighthouse mystery tale and feels like a light holiday read should garner enough enjoyment.