Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Childhood's End - Arthur C Clarke

Childhood's End dates from 1954 and was therefore written not long after Prelude to Space; yet it is a million miles away in terms of literary craft and scientific ideas.

In my review of Prelude (see below) I suggested that it barely qualifies as a novel, lacking all the normal constructs of the form (character development, tension, etc.). It was, in fact, a framing device for explaining Clarke's ideas about early space travel. In Childhood's End the ideas are much more radical - how does Earth deal with the sudden arrival of aliens, specifically 'good' aliens as opposed to, say, the Martians of H G Wells? The structure is also much more novelistic, albeit there is no real protagonist and only an antagonist if you regard the aliens as collectively a single character, not an unreasonable proposition given what happens to the titular children.

The narrative is in three parts. The first, in Clarke's favoured end time of the 1970s, is a few years after the sudden appearance of gigantic alien ships over the major cities of earth. Their leader, Karellen, is over New York where he interacts only with the Secretary General of the United Nations. The aliens refer to themselves as the Overlords, Karellen is the Supervisor. They say they have come to save Earth from its own atom bombs. They enforce peace across the globe and promote the notion of one world. Other than that, they do not interfere. From the moment they arrived, everyone has wondered what the Overlords look like. Even Secretary General Stormgren, who has regular meetings with Karellen aboard his spaceship, has never actually seen his host, who is hidden behind a screen.

The second section is set 50 years later, when the Overlords finally decide that the people of Earth are ready to see them. I did not for a moment guess what they look like, and I won't reveal it here. For me, it was a masterstroke, the best moment in the book. We then meet other people who are involved with the Overlords one way or another. We meet the Greggsons, George and Jean. We meet Jan Rodricks, who stows away on one of the Overlords' transports when it returns to the home planet. The journey there and back will seem to him like four months; in Earth time it is eighty years.

The third section is ten years after the second. The Greggsons have two young children, nine-year-old Jeff and the infant Jennifer. They are now living in a sort of dropout community, two Pacific islands, New Athens and New Sparta. Perhaps Clarke had heard of the American Nature Boys certainly he seems to be predicting the hippy reaction to world of hi tech science. Finally it become apparent why the Overlords came to Earth and what their long term (very nearly a century) aim was. It involves the children. And when Jan Rodricks finally returns after eighty years, he finds that he is the last true human being.

All this in less than two hundred pages is an astonishing achievement. With Clarke you of course get all the technical context and the predictions. My favourite of the latter is on the subject of TV:

Do you realise that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? f you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that's available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges - absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing tome per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won't be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!

Clarke underestimated the number of channels and overestimated the quality of the programmes. But in essence he's spot on.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Lost Light - Michael Connolly

Lost Light (2003) sits bang in the middle of the "Harry" Hieronymus Bosch series. Harry has walked out of LAPD after twenty-odd years and registered as a private investigator. His first case, however, is one he has carried away with him.

Back in the late Nineties Harry was assigned to a movie unit using $2 million in real money for a particular shot. The shoot was raided, obviously by someone with inside knowledge. Harry shot one of the raiders but never found the body. Later, Harry found the body of a woman from the production unit who also logged the money at the bank. Later still, two cops investigating the robbery were shot in a bar. One died, the other wishes he had; he's been left in a wheelchair, totally paralysed. He is another element of Harry's motivation for putting things right.

No sooner has he opened the old file than pressure is on him to leave well alone. His former partner, Kiz, now with the chief's office, warns him off. The FBI warn him, too. Turns out one of their own has disappeared, presumed dead, whilst working the case. The same agent, it appears, contacted Dorsey, the cop killed in the bar, just before she disappeared and he died. Something about one of the stolen bills turning up where it shouldn't.

Already, in just a couple of paras, we have a story so deep and tangled that for me it was reminiscent of Connolly's early and best work. Back in the Nineties, I bought each of his books as it came out in paperback. I gave up before the Bosch series really got going because I thought Connolly had become marooned in his formula. Clearly 9/11 was a shot in the arm for him. Writing about the immediate aftermath of the Twin Towers and the dark shadows of the War on Terror give us some of the very best sections of a very good book.

The denouement is as tangled as the premise. I will say no more than that - except, perhaps, to mention a revelation about Harry's personal life that I never saw coming. First rate reading by a master of his craft. Highly recommended.

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.