Wednesday, 22 February 2017

King And Emperor by Harry Harrison (and John Holm)

Currently reading...

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Owner Series: The Departure, Zero Point, Jupiter War by Neal Asher

Yes, yes, it’s another trilogy post, and I’m sorry about that to a small degree, but in my defence, it is simpler to do this than to find three different ways to say the same thing in three separate posts. Hence, consolidation. Or perhaps in context, some sort of augmentation of the essential humanness of the post? I’m stretching of course.

So, on with the show. Fair dos, I know very little about Neal Asher*, except for what I can deduce from this trilogy. I would guess he has a dark and troubling pessimism for humanity’s future, a grim view of the toll of our human stain, and oddly enough, an optimistic outlook for the planet post-humanity. I would also hazard a guess that he’s a scientist of some sort, or at least of a scientific bent, given he seems to be able to talk of such real-life but convoluted concepts as zero point energy and the Alcubierre drive, only two of the completely feasible near-future technologies he develops to fruition in this, The Owner series.

It all starts with Alan Saul, who awakens in a plastic coffin on its way to being incinerated, with no memory but with an artificial intelligence implanted in his mind. His world is a strangely familiar dystopia in a not-too-distant future, where socialist concepts have been stretched to their most awful extremes and the world is a stratified socialist autocracy where usefulness to the state and to the Chairman is the only measure of a person’s worth and therefore his or her ability to buy food and pay for medical help. Everyone should be microchipped in order for the government to track them, and, it turns out, in a dreadfully warped Malthusian final solution, wiped out if required. It seems however that Saul is somehow off-grid, and whilst working to retrieve his past his great natural intellect gets to work, with the aid of the AI which later he absorbs entirely, on a strategy for revenge and ultimately his escape. Book one works through his struggles planet-side, book two on his escape into space, and book three is basically one fucking great big space battle using crazy far-future weapons and where humans are ‘backed-up’ into portable brains grown from their own stem cell tissues.

It’s pretty bleak in places, and a shit load of people meet untimely ends, but then also many people are suddenly propelled into near-immortality, not least Saul, later the titular Owner (plot spoiling prevents me from revealing the reason), with the advent of new technology for mapping and storing minds. It’s all very entertaining, and with insectoid machines cutting swathes through misguided humanity in vast, sprawling combat sequences, gruesome too. Had this been a medieval setting, I imagine people like Bernard Cornwell would cluck their tongues and stroke their beards in approval.


*Of course, this could be easily rectified with a simple internet search but I prefer in this case to be an absurd Luddite, in contrast to the author

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

One King's Way by Harry Harrison (and John Holm)

Awaiting review...

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Pets by Bragi Ólafsson

One shouldn’t let others into one’s life
Intertextuality took a bump when it came to The Pets. I was idly browsing the shelves of my former employer when its tastefully minimalist but near electric blue cover caught my eye, and then I read things like dark and funny (when used in the same context, possibly my two favourite adjectives) and I was sold. It jumped up the ‘to read’ list straight to the top, once I’d gotten Harry Harrison out of the way. At that point, I knew next to nothing about the author or the book.

So, here are some things I didn’t know about Bragi Ólafsson before that I do now:
1) He was bass player for The Sugarcubes, the Icelandic pop band which launched Bjork into mainstream and avant garde pop stardom
2)      He is from Iceland
3)      He translated Paul Auster’s City of Glass into Icelandic

Is any of that important? Probably, but maybe also not, although reading around the bloggers and reviewers there are a few people making comparisons between this book and some of Paul Auster’s stuff. True also, the somewhat pompous and overblown narrator Emil does bang on quite a bit about music: not as much (or to the same tedious lengths) as some other unsympathetic narrators do, notably between gruesome murders in American Psycho. Gah, okay, the book is set in Iceland and there are some language puns (possibly filtered through the excellent translator’s own sense of humour) which are probably hilarious in the original. But not much else of importance.

So, on to the premise/précis – Emil is rich, having won a modestly grotesque sum on the Lottery. On returning from a shopping spree in London he finds himself subject to the random visit of a phantom from his past, “the misogynist, alcoholic, compulsive gambler and, most recently, burglar Havard Knutsson”, who lets himself into Emil’s flat through the kitchen window when Emil fails to answer the door. Unfortunately for Emil, uncomfortably ensconced beneath his bed, Havard decides to make himself at home, playing Emil’s music and drinking his duty-free booze, all the while answering phone- and house-calls from Emil’s friends and acquaintances and generally having a good time.

The rather silly but entertaining back story is filled in during lulls in the growing farce by Emil’s recollections, including the meaning behind the title. All the action of the present is inferred from beneath the bed, each image drawn from audible and olfactory cues, like the fresh creeping of cold external air when the door is opened, the sounds of bottles opening and water splashing, the fug of cigarette smoke, the teasing and arguing of his friends and other guests, and one-sided telephone conversations. From his limited vantage point he can also see Havard defile his bathroom sink, and his other unlikely guest, Armann the professional linguist, whose diatribe over the plural form of Sony’s Walkman, drunkenly urinates over the toilet bowl, floor, and his own trousers. The only place of salvation [from other people] is the toilet, he suggests on the plane home from London. Not so. There is no place of salvation for Emil.


What develops, over the course of a short but immensely fun novella, is a picture of a weak man whose failures have left him pinioned beneath his own mattress, onto which his nemesis Havard tempts the girl Emil himself invited home, the springs pressing into the place where his spine should be. A word of warning, however– if you like your narrative arc to be resolved, you’ll be disappointed. Emil is left where he lies pressed into the dust-bunnies. He makes his own bed and now has to hide underneath it in literary perpetuity. 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald

Trav salvages another chickadee.
It’s always nice to start the year with a literary palette cleanser, a mental sorbet if you will, and there is none better than John D. MacDonald for a bit of light but thrilling entertainment. However, this was one that perhaps had languished in the back of the freezer for too long and had become crystalline and frost-bitten, resulting in a somewhat lumpy texture and a mostly underwhelming experience.

As regular readers (and hopefully ad-clickers – go on, click the ads, please! It’s the only way I can make any money…) will no doubt have ignored, the Travis McGee novels tend to polarise opinion. Thriller writers and readers love them – the pace is great, the action intense, and the plotting, whilst sometimes, oxymoronically, obtusely complicated, usually makes sense in the end. As James Walling* says:
As the epitome of this [sublime literary] legacy, the McGee series transcends genre fiction, and is rich with piercing psychological insight, social commentary, and clean, compelling prose that lapses into poetry.

They’re short and sharp and mostly enjoyable. Readers with other priorities however occasionally and quite naturally become upset by the affront of rather anachronistic attitudes towards women, or chickadees/pieces of ass/objects of desire or violence (delete as appropriate) as they are often labelled. Indeed, MacDonald’s characters’ descriptions of women rarely stray past the colour of hair and eyes, hips, waist and breasts measurements, and the inferred ability of said eyes and shape in bed.

The Green Ripper is no exception. Good, clean, compelling prose (that does lapse into rather florid poetry at times) is somewhat tarnished by its themes of toxic masculinity. Except that this time, good ol’ Trav is brought crashing back down to the deck of his boat by the sudden death of his girl, the latest one with whom he can imagine a long, lazy life cocking about on the river (as per Lard’s Classic Cuts). He can’t even imagine shacking up with another girl (although he imagines imagining it, quite successfully). Even his hirsute clever-dick accomplice, the Keynesian Meyer, can’t lift him from his funk long enough to party on down with a sultry soon-to-be widow.

In the end, I forget what happens, other than he goes on a surprisingly murderous rampage through the military wing of a religious cult, but it’s all okay at the close of play. And I’m certain there’ll be another chickadee ready to lift his spirits in the next instalment. Which I am definitely going to read.