Thursday, 20 July 2017

Vulcan's Hammer - Philip K Dick

The last of the three early, short novels in this collection is Vulcan's Hammer. Is it the best? Hard to say: they are all different, all effective in their way. Is it the one I enjoyed most? To an extent. Is it the one that gave me the frisson? Easy answer. Yes it is.

Vulcan's Hammer was published in 1960, when computers filled warehouses and could barely count up to ten. Dick posits a post-apocalyptic world of about now when the world has come together in the utopian concord that everything will be fine so long as we agree to have policy determined by machines instead of men. That machine is Vulcan 3 which, spookily, occupies a facility in Switzerland not unlike CERN. In order to generate the best policy Vulcan has to be fed with every scrap of information available. Hands up who's thinking Google right now? Google's motto, Do No Evil, seemed cool to begin with, now it's morphed to ironic. Vulcan is also served by a multinational corporation. They call it Unity.

Dick accurately foresees the problem with super-super computers. There comes a time when they will replicate themselves, repair themselves, and if we stop feeding them information they will take measures to gather it for themselves. Should we be foolish enough to try and attack them, they will defend themselves. They may even fight back - which is where the hammers come in, in case you were wondering; I'm afraid they end up in their ultimate version as a prime example of an author who is halfway through his story when he realises he hasn't justified the title.

The writing is very measured for Dick, who notoriously wrote at a furious rate. The characters are very well drawn - as rounded as the protagonists in longer works such as The Man in the High Castle, written two years later and very much my kind of Dick novel. Essentially what makes the story zing is that the characters have doubts and consciences, a trait often missed in lesser SF where, of course, such things are personified as the enemy.

I have really enjoyed the three novels in this Millennium collection. I've learned quite a lot about SF signatures and tropes. I therefore recommend.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Spook Street - Mick Herron

I hadn't come across Mick Herron before. Had I noticed the blurb from the Mail on Sunday I would never have picked Spook Street up, which would have been a shame because, though the Mail on Sunday has no sense or taste whatsoever, this really is an excellent, fresh take on contemporary British spy fiction.

For a start, it's sardonically comic. Jackson Lamb, our team leader, is an appalling slob. The team he leads at Slough House are known elsewhere in MI5 as 'slow horses'. They are, in short, the unmanageable ones.  They have initiated disaster at some point in their career but MI5 dare not sack them in case they go to the Press, in which case some officers who still have prospects might end up in the adjoining prison cell.

Still, even slow horses have their day. Sometimes a case arises which is inescapably their province. Here, the proper domestic spies are fully engaged with a suicide bombing in a shopping mall. River Cartwright, one of Lamb's team, goes to visit his grandfather who is suffering dementia. Only someone claiming to be River has already shown up. The old man, who is not so senile that he can't vaguely remember his own grandson, shoots him dead - because David Cartwright was once also an habitue of Spook Street, by no means a slow horse but a candidate for First Chair. Who has sent an assassin to kill him? Is the old man as gaga as he seems? And how come the assassin and the suicide bomber travelled on papers of British citizens who never existed but who were created by MI5 back in David Cartwright's day?

That is a plot that would suffice for any straightfaced spy novel. Herron is able to deliver more because his spooks are comic and to be able to laugh at or with them we have to know something of who they are. Thus Herron's misfits end up being more rounded than many leading characters in mainstream series (Spook Street is itself the fourth in a series). Drink and domestic problems are not enough to give the slow horses their edge. Thus we have Roddy Ho, deluding himself that he has a proper girlfriend; the homicidal Shirley, and J K Coe who, his colleagues conclude, is "either PTSD or a psychopath."
The bad guys are equally conflicted, equally well-drawn. The prose style is exactly right throughout and there is a twist about 80% of the way through that is as devastating as anything by the master of such things, Jo Nesbo (see, for example, the mighty Headhunters.

I hugely enjoyed Spook Street in every way - intellectually, artistically, and sheer laugh-out-loud. I'm off down the library tomorrow to hunt out more.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Third Reich - Roberto Bolano

Like virtually everyone else, I first heard of Bolano when he died ridiculously young in 2003. Like lots of my fellow literati I bought his final novel 2666 when it came out. And like a large proportion of my peers I struggled to love it.

However it turns out 2666 was not the last of Bolano. He left archives, drafts and outlines. He left The Third Reich, which seems to have been written towards the start of his career and, for whatever reason, discarded. It finally appeared in 2010 (2011 in English). This I absolutely loved.

Bolano was Chilean but he lived most of his adult life, such as it was, in Spain. In fact the lived in a minor resort on the Costa Brava, just like the one where The Third Reich is set.

The title naturally suggests the Nazis, and our anti-hero Udo Berger is indeed German, as is his girlfriend Ingeborg, her holiday friends Charly and Hanna, and the owner of the hotel, Frau Else. But The Third Reich is actually a war game. This is the 1980s when war games came in boxes rather than downloads and Udo is the German champion, lined up for a big match in Paris, who is developing a new strategy for publication.

The Germany Bolano actually plays with is that of Kafka. When Charly goes missing Udo's exceptionally ordered life starts to crumble. Even though he doesn't like the louche and feckless Charly he becomes overwhelmed by the need to stay on, long after Charly's body has been found and repatriated, long after the season has ended and the hotel around him is steadily heading for hibernation.

Udo fills his days by playing The Third Reich in his room with El Quemado, a disfigured beach bum of unknown origin who lives inside a pile of his own pedalos. El Quemado knows nothing about gaming but is "a quick study" - very quick. Soon Udo finds himself in retreat...

Like Kafka, nothing is really resolved. Mysterious linkages appear and fade. All that really matters is the carefully documented narrative of Udo's disintegration. Found among the papers is not usually a great indicator of quality, but in this instance it really is.

I am usually snitty about blurbs. Fair's fair, though. The cover blurb here - from the now defunct Independent on Sunday - couldn't be more right:
Overflowing with Bolano's exuberance, dark humour, and sarcasm, The Third Reich is a good introduction to this great and disquieting novelist.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Cartel - Don Winslow

The Cartel takes up where The Power of the Dog leaves off - it is the second, conclusive round of the lifetime, life-and-death duel to the death between the DEA's Art Keller and Adan Berrera, patron of the combined cartels of Mexico.

I loved The Power of the Dog when I read it earlier this year. The Cartel is just as good, perhaps slightly better. Happily, Winslow still resists the temptation of going the full Ellroy. His world is very dark, very treacherous, and astonishingly violent, but it remains none of the main participants is actually stark staring mad. That's the point - Adan is all about business; where would the Mexican economy be without him? There's a great passage on page 514 where he says:
After the crash [of 2008] the only source of liquidity was drug money. If they shut us down it would have taken the economy on the final plunge. They had to bail out General Motors, not us. And now? Think of the billions of dollars into real estate, stocks, start-up companies. Not to mention the millions of dollars generated fighting the 'war' [on drugs] - weapons manufacture, aircraft, surveillance. Prison construction. You think business is going to let that stop?
That's the beauty and the power of Winslow. He is so on-the-razor's edge current. I gather his latest novel, The Force, is going to propel him into the major league. Even before the book comes out, the TV version is in production. Don Winslow is already pretty big. Within a year he is going to be huge. I just hope he can stay current.

Writing this post, I think I have hit upon what makes The Cartel ever so slightly better than The Power of the Dog. It's the subplot about Pablo Mora, crime reporter on the local newspaer in Juarez, the frontline of the cartel war. Pablo is lazy, submissive, but he comes through in the end. Boy, does he come through. I can't offhand think of anything recent that has moved me so deeply as his last post. For many writers that would have been the whole story. Here it is just part of the mix. Other readers will be more stirred by other storylines. The point is, every reader will find something to treasure here.