Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K Dick

From 1968, this is surely Dick's best known work. OK, that's almost entirely due to the movie Blade Runner, which shares some but not many elements of the novel. Thus the question is, is the original any good?

Yes it is. I have seen Blade Runner but it must be thirty years ago. I was not interested in the new version or sequel that came out recently. I hate most modern sci fi movies. It's the green screen and computer animations. They are so overwhelmingly fake. Interestingly, the fake v reality dilemma is the core of the novel. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard earns his fee by 'retiring' rogue androids. He has gizmos and tests which even the best androids can't beat. And yet Deckard is addicted to mood changing hardware (the Penfield mood organ), he believes in the communal faith of Mercerism, and he keeps an android sheep on the roof of his building. For this is post-apocalyptic San Francisco, 1992, and most real animals are either endangered or extinct. It is the height of Deckard's aspiration to own a genuine ostrich or goat or even perhaps just a squirrel. His neighbour has a horse - 100% real.

A bunch of new model androids has escaped from Mars and returned to Earth, where androids are illegal because they would take work from the educationally-challenged, the chickenheads and the antheads who do all the terrestrial menial jobs. J R Isidore is a chickenhead. He works for a fake veterinary service which really just fixes broken animal androids.

These new Nexus-6 androids from the Rosen Corporation really are very good, almost undistinguishable from real humans - except for one thing, the failure of all androids ever made and the sole unique feature of humankind: empathy.

Deckard visits the factory on Mars and soon figures out that Rachael Rosen, supposedly a member of the family, is in fact an android. Even so he enlists her help to hunt down the last of the renegades: Roy Baty, his wife Irmgard, and Pris Stratton, a variant on the Rachael model. The three of them are holed up with Isidore in one of the thousands of urban apartments left vacant by the apocalypse.

By this time Deckard has had his preconceptions about real and fake ripped apart. He lusts after Rachael. Does that make him an android? Or a human with empathy for androids? They have sex. Neither really feels anything. The most popular TV personality, who may or may not be an android, goes public with the revelation that even Mercerism is a hoax, the prophet really an alcoholic former bit-part player in Hollywood.

The questions keep on coming and it is the questions that drive Dick at his best. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is absolutely Dick at his best, even better than The Man in the High Castle. Is it the best he ever wrote? We'll have to explore further before we can attempt an answer.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Real Tigers - Mick Herron

Real Tigers is the third in what has come to be called the 'Slough House' series, named after the falling down building in Aldersgate where MI5 sends its rejects to wither or die of boredom. Slough House is the realm of Jackson Lamb, former super spy, now super slob. Say what you like about Jackson, he will never leave one of his joes in the field.

Catherine Standish is one of his joes. She's not exactly in the field - she's kidnapped by one of her old boyfriends as she leaves Slough House, but even so, Lamb is inclined to take it personally. Especially when River Cartwright, one of his slow horses, only still in the service because his grandfather was a big noise there during the Cold War, is detained against his will for having broken into the inner sanctum overlooking Regent's Park.

From that point on, Jackson Lamb is roused to action. His slow horses are given starter's orders. Even Roddy Ho, the annoying desk jockey, is sent into the field where his ability to hotwire a car or any similar form of transport comes in handy.

It is all set against a backdrop of pushy politicians in the Boris Johnson mould, dubious goings-on in the not so distant past, MI5's version of the X Files (the Grey Files or, in Lamb's somewhat riper phrase, the 'Dipshit Chronicles') and power plays for the soul, such as it is, of the Service itself.

By far the best of the series that I have read to date, which is saying something because I love them all.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Licence Renewed - John Gardner

Continuing my project of reading the pseudo-Bond novels in chronological order, here is the first of I believe sixteen written for the rights holder by John Gardner in the 1980s and 1990s. Gardner was a known writer, but nowhere near as well known as Kingsley Amis who had written Colonel Sun more than a decade earlier. Amis was associated with the Bond brand while Fleming was still alive (The James Bond Dossier and The Book of Bond, both 1965). Gardner was different. He had found literary success in 1964 with his Boysie Oakes series, an overt 'piss-take' of Bond. He went on to write other series, including my favourite, the Moriarty books. Then came this, in 1981.

Given the time lapse since Colonel Sun and the last of the Fleming originals, it was perhaps a wise move to bring Bond up to date. Had the lapse been longer, I feel sure prequels would have yielded better results, but the idea in 1981 was to sell new Bond to the same people who had bought original Bond. Overall, the updates work fine. The problem, however, is that Gardner wastes half the book getting over them.

Bond books were never the money spinners that the films were. Fleming, indeed, learnt from the movies and tended to begin subsequent novels with teasers intended to hook us into the narrative. I still remember the opening of Dr No (the novel) which I suppose I read in 1966 or '67. Gardner doesn't and I have to say I was on the verge of throwing Licence Renewed at the wall when we finally got to the action - on page 113! Gardner is keen to echo Fleming in detailed descriptions of Bondian technology. Gardner is a better writer than Fleming but clearly he does not love technology to the extent Fleming did. Fleming's prose comes alive when he writes about gizmos and sex. Gardner's technobabble is more a matter of listing and there is absolutely no rampant sex in the book, despite the presence of two strong and sassy female characters.

The super villain is Anton Murik, a nuclear physicist and (bizarrely) Scottish laird. He is absolutely in the Fleming tradition, and his evil plan is appropriately spectacular and ridiculous. From page 113 to the end on page 259 Licence Renewed zooms along like a fighter jet, action, twists, fights all the way. In the second half Gardner's first attempt is better than both Fleming and Amis. But the first half ... oh dear God, the first half is unspeakably awful.

As a result, it looks like I'm stuck with pressing on. Gardner 2 then, For Special Services, another good title. I might try Boysie Oakes, while I'm at it, to get an idea what Gardner really thought about Bond mania.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

One Step Behind - Henning Mankell

Considering his eminence and key role - second only, perhaps, to Stieg Larsson -  in the popularisation of Nordic crime thrillers, Mankell is oddly under-published in Britain. Consider, for example, the dreary cover and offensive bodytext typeface in this edition from Vintage. Those issues notwithstanding, One Step Behind is a reminder of just how great Mankell's Wallander novels are and how much he contributed to the genre.

The highly fallible lead detective - Wallander himself doesn't think he's fit to lead the investigation; the dense character backstories; the empathetic psychology of the killer, no matter how evil his or her actions... All of these Mankell  either brought to the table or developed from the great pioneers Sjowall and Wahloo, co-creators of the peerless Martin Beck.

Here, it seems, we have two mysteries - who killed and then resurrected a bunch of young party people, and the murder of Ystad detective Svedberg. It will come as no surprise that the cases turn out to be linked, but the perpetrator is very unusual if not unique. I certainly have never come across a fictional serial killer with this particular quirk - and I would have noticed, given that it is one I have thought about using in my own writing. It's a measure of how skilful Mankell's writing is that I didn't guess the twist until the second or third heavy hint.

A masterpiece of its type. Henning Mankell and Kurt Wallander at their mutual best.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Razor Girl - Carl Hiaasen

It's been a while - five years, unbelievably - since I last read a Hiassen. That was Bad Monkey. This is Razor Girl. The hero is the same, Andrew Yancy, busted ex-cop turned roach inspector, but other than that, all is new.

The razor girl is Merry Mansfield, who specialises in tail-ending other vehicles while she's purportedly shaving her pubic hair. She and Yancy team up to solve the case of the missing reality TV redneck, Buck Nance, who has gone AWOL after an ill-judged homophobic/racist rant in the wrong bar in the wrong part of Florida.

Along the way we and they encounter Mafioso 'Big Noogie' Aeola, replacement beach specialist Marty Trebeaux, class action lawyer Brock Richardson and his fiancée Deb, Buck's biggest fan 'Blister' Krill and a pair of giant Gambian pouch rats. So it's all business as usual, brilliantly plotted and laugh-out loud funny. Pure Hiaassen on top form.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Prelude to Space - Arthur C Clarke

Prelude to Space was apparently written in 1947 but not published until 1953, which I find hard to believe. There seems to be a manuscript from 1947 but is it the same text as that published in 1953? Or is it, as with so many authors, just a portmanteau title that was attached to several works until the right one came along?

Certainly it is the right title for this novel. It is entirely about events leading up to the first moon shot in 1978, British of course, from Woomera in Australia, here rechristened Luna City. The book ends with the spaceship taking off and we can only guess the outcome from the epilogue in which our retired hero, Dirk Alexson, is living on the Moon for health reasons, a benefit I have never seen elsewhere. Other prophetic content includes the famous geostationary communication satellites, but it is the spaceship itself which is the most interesting.

Clarke envisages a two stage process for Prometheus. Beta is the mother ship which transports the rocket Alpha and fuel pods into Earth orbit. From the back of Beta, Alpha attaches itself to the fuel source and uses atomic power to head off the Moon. Thus Clarke gives us a recyclable, affordable system which causes vastly less pollutants than a the skyscraper of inflammable carbon fuel that was actually used by NASA. In time some parts of the system will be moved to the lunar surface which will become Man's gateway to the stars, hence this really is the prelude to space, not just the prelude to the Moon.

All of this stuff, framed as debates between the characters or presentations at press conferences, is totally fascinating. As a novel, however, it is a total failure. The characters are simplistic mouthpieces, even though they are supposed to possess giant intellects. There is no action, mystery or tension. Frankly, there are no meaningful human relationships. The only real fantasy is Alexson's afterlife on the Moon. Yet I loved it.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Bad News - Edward St Aubyn

Very much the flavour of the month, thanks to the Showtime dramatisations (which I hated), St Aubyn has written five autobiographical novels about his alter ego, Patrick Melrose. Bad News is the second. It is also, as it happens, the novel upon which the first episode of the dramatization was based, the only one I managed to sit through to the end.

Turns out I dislike the acting of Benedict Cumberbatch much more than I dislike the writing of Edward St Aubyn. In fact, I like the writing a great deal. St Aubyn is rich, pampered, objectionable in principle - of course he became an author of autobiographical novels, that's what people like him do, just as people slightly less well off than him publish them. Talent, however, is no respecter of wealth or lack thereof. I loved St Aubyn's way with words from the off. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which Patrick is so stoned that he hears voices. I was less fond of the scene in which he dines with a trio of bores; this is because, self-evidently, they are boring.

We have to accept that Bad News is already a historic artefact, a relic of an era now long gone. 1992 (when the book was written) was when heroin chic was ultra-fashionable and those with inherited wealth were the perverted mirror of 'honest' entrepreneurs like Branson and Green. The book is set in 1982 when St Aubyn/Melrose was 22, which makes him a pioneer of excess. Patrick Melrose is reminiscent of the late 7th Marquess of Bristol, except that Melrose is never going to run out of cash. Ah, those were the days!

The trick, of course, is that St Aubyn makes Melrose not only acceptable but actually likeable. We laugh at his jokes, we tag along on his helter-skelter of Class A drugs. We do not want him to come to harm.

Much of this empathy is achieved via the horrible backstory of being raped as a child by his unspeakable father. The bad news of the title, by the way, is that old man Melrose has died in New York and Patrick has to fly in (on Concorde) to collect the cremains. We are told by the internet that this is what in fact happened to young Edward. The older Edward is successful as a novelist because he tells the tale of the ultimate sad little rich boy. He knows whereof he writes. And he really does write beautifully. More of the same for me, then!

Thursday, 21 June 2018

A Study in Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle

Everybody knows it - but how many have actually read it? Not as many as one might think, is my guess. I certainly read lots of Sherlock Holmes in my early teens but even after fifty years I'm sure I would have remembered this. Why? Because nearly half of it is actually a cowboy story!

To be clear, I have always thought Conan Doyle is overrated - a moderately capable writer who, from time to time, and not only in the Holmes genre - hit upon really compelling storylines and great characters. None of that applies to A Study in Scarlet. Part One, the Holmes origin and initial investigation as we would expect it, is actually extremely well done, the writing considerably better than in later works. The second part, the cowboy stuff, is guff beyond belief, filler in every sense of the term.

The reverse thinking, the famous analytic deduction, I found as unconvincing as ever. Holmes just proposes something outlandish and Conan Doyle works backwards to justify it. But it works as well here as it ever did later on in the canon. And there are many things I didn't realise would be present in the first episode. We have both Scotland Yard inspectors, Lestrade and Gregson, for example. The Baker Street Irregulars are up and running. Mrs Hudson doesn't have a name yet, but she does have a maid and a dying dog. I was under the impression that Watson had to leave the army because of a leg wound from Afghanistan but it transpires it's a shoulder wound and a bout of enteric fever contracted in hospital.

As for the title - again, everyone knows it, but who can explain it? Well, Holmes does to a certain extent: "There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life and it is our duty to unravel it." Well, no there isn't. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

In short then (and one of the best aspects is that A Study in Scarlet is only really a novella), reading the first Holmes story was something I should have done fifty years ago. Reading it now was fascinating and, even allowing for the cowboy romance, it turned out to be much better than expected. Yes, I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The Difference Engine - William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

What we have here is a collaboration between two founding fathers of cyberpunk, an alternate history in which Babbage's proto-computer has changed the world, notably Britain. The Tories under the Duke of Wellington tried to hold off the Radicals until Wellington was assassinated and the Rads took over. Byron is Prime Minister, his daughter Ada is effectively First Lady, and the House of Lords has become an appointed senate of savants. Steam carriages prowl the streets and the greatest, most popular form of communication is by way of punched cards. Vast bodies of data are stored and minutely analysed. The Victorians of 1855-56 even have their own version of fake news - eye-catching headlines on big screens with no real fact or analysis behind them. Which is pretty damn impressive for a book published in 1991.

It fascinated me. I loved the game of style played by the authors in which we have a series of five more or less standalone 'iterations' and conclude with a 'modus' of pseudo documents. We have a series of protagonists who come and go, some taking up more space than others. We have the Rad prostitute Sybil Gerard, who becomes involved with the speaking tour of ousted 'Texian' president Sam Houston; then there is Edward Mallory, discoverer of the Wisconsin Brontosaurus. He falls in with Laurence Oliphant, a sort of effete James Bond with connections in the very highest circles in Britain, the US and, for some reason, Japan.

These are fascinating characters. The world they inhabit is vividly realised down to the tiniest detail. The warnings to the modern reader are manifold. The problem is, though, I haven't the faintest idea what the book was about. What is its theme? What exactly are our heroes trying to achieve? And what do they actually achieve?

I'm not at all sure these things actually matter. They didn't in any way spoil my enjoyment. I suppose in a way there's a similarity to Murakami's 1Q84. Essentially, this is the world I have created for you; this is what these people do in it; make of that what you will.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Quiet American - Graham Greene

It's faintly disturbing to come across a book written in the year I was born, about then contemporary events, that seems so up to date today, sixty-three years later.

Graham Greene, as usual, knew what he was talking about. He had reported on the early stages of the Vietnam conflict and had encountered the early stages of US involvement. That is the setting here. Thomas Fowler is an ageing (in the 1950s he would have been downright elderly) reporter for a major London newspaper. He has been happily covering the conflict from Saigon for several years. It suits him because his high Anglican wife back in England won't divorce him and out East he can live with his twenty year-old girlfriend Phoung and his opium pipe. Unluckily he meets the rawest of new boys, young WASP Alden Pyle, who claims to be working for medical aid but who is clearly a 'diplomat' as they used to be called, or spy as we call them now. He supports America's policy of a third way in Vietnam (basically replace French domination with American). Pyle is a devotee of the US thinker York Harding. Harding is fictional but reflects a trend of the time. Fowler elucidates: Harding was a foreign correspondent rather than a frontline reporter; his work is all opinion with no factual underpinning. The irony is, Fowler's secure life is now threatened because his paper wants him back in London as their foreign correspondent.

Fowler and Pyle become unlikely friends. Thus Pyle encounters Phoung and falls in love. Unlike Fowler he is single and plans to take Phoung home with him. Fowler cannot do that if he returns to London and his wife still won't divorce him. So he doesn't stand in the way when Pyle takes Phoung from him. But then Pyle is found dead in the river. Inevitably Inspector Vigot suspects Fowler. Vigot and Fowler are old friends, which makes things awkward.

It could easily be a murder-mystery but it's not, albeit the story does rely on an unexpected twist in the tale. Instead it is a novel of clashing attitudes and beliefs - a strong philosophical basis brought to life by the deft characterisation of the handful of main characters. The other stroke of genius is the time structure. We start with the discovery of Pyle's body, then recover the events that preceded it. A lesser hand would have either gone back to the beginning and continued in the past or alternated, but Greene was at the peak of his powers in 1955. He flips back and forth between present and recent past - the investigation unfolds for the reader at the same time as s/he discovers the relationships between the characters and their motives. It really is brilliantly done.

For me, the only drawback was the purely journalistic stuff, the local colour. The problem here arises because in 1955 Greene could have no idea of the horrors that full American involvement would bring in the Sixties. In 1955 Vietnam was largely unknown to the English-speaking world and was very backwards under its French masters. Therefore Greene had to explain it and show how primitive it was in parts. However for those of us born in 1955 we all know about Vietnam (or we think we do - how many of us truly know that the US took over a pre-existing war and turned a war for freedom into civil war?), thus the 'native' sections were very dull for me. On the other hand, it is unmistakably, inarguably anti-American, which makes it irresistible in the time of Trump.