Thursday, 25 April 2019

Europa Blues - Arne Dahl

At last! After several of the TV movies have been broadcast in the UK, some of Arne Dahl's ten novels featuring the A-unit team of Stockholm Police are starting to appear in English translation. And this is a weird one, one which I suspect would not have been easy to adapt for TV. A stoned-out-of-his-head pimp gets eaten by the wolverines in Stockholm Zoo. An elderly professor has his brain pierced while hanging upside down over the grave of an unknown man who had no nose. A lone female on an underground station platform strikes back with a vengeance when hoodies try to steal her phone.

Of course all these incidents turn out to be connected. It's a trail which leads the team all over Europe. Fortunately Arto Soderstedt is already in Italy on an extended holiday, so that saves Stockholm a fare. All the familiar faces from the TV series are here, of course: Paul Hjelm and Kerstin Holm, Jorge Chavez, Sara Svenhagen and, my favourite, Gunnar Nyberg, memorably played on TV by former World's Strongest Man Magnus Samuelsson. This is what's different about Arne Dahl - even Nordic procedurals like Martin Beck have a limited number of active participants but with Dahl the entire team is involved. Here, Arto is the one who is involved to the greatest extent - the one who faces jeopardy and ultimately restores order in the world - but I know that others have led in other novels.

The story is a cracker but for once I spotted the key clue straightaway. That didn't lessen my enjoyment one iota. The translation - by Alice Menzies - reads very well and I suspect that wasn't easy to achieve. Because the publisher is Vintage, the cover is more interesting than so many of the second wave Scandinavian policiers. But yet again they are publishing out of sequence - which flummoxes me completely.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Spaceways - Charles Eric Maine

I was reading Arthur C Clarke's Prelude to Space (reviewed below) in the 1953 paperback when I was struck by one of the ads in the back. Spaceways (never heard of it) was "originally a radio play, broadcast by the BBC in 1952 with immense success. Later it was made into the first British science-fiction film." As regular visitors must know by now, my doctorate is in radio drama and, as I say, I had never heard of Spaceways. As for movies, what about The Shape of Things to Come (1936)? That was science fiction, surely? It was certainly British (London Films). Anyway, I had to investigate further. Firstly I bought the book.

Not as good a cover as the Clarke paperbacks of the same era. The science is not as heavy as in Clarke, but ironically that results in it being closer to what actually happened - rockets taking off vertically in the middle of nowhere, rather than Clarke's fancy of horizontal runways. Maine, however, is a much better novelist than Clarke. His characters not only have inner lives, they have sex lives too, something the early Clarke would never countenance. In fact Spaceways is a genre hybrid, a noir-ish murder mystery based on the eternal triangle and set on a space research facility in the Nevada desert. Oh yes, I should have mentioned that. The pseudonymous Maine was British but this is an entirely American novel.

The other thing I should mention is that the novel is not directly based on the radio play. The radio play was turned into a Hammer movie, written by Maine, which he then turned into this book. I have looked up the credits for the radio broadcast, which seems to me to use the framing device of a court trial. It lasted 75 minutes, as did the film. The protagonist of the novel, Barry Conway of the Security Division of Special Services, is not in either the radio play or the movie. The movie seems to have a different plot to either the play or the novel. The central plot device, however, remains the same.

One of the key scientists is having a torrid affair with the wife of a senior colleague. The wife has cheated on the husband before, and he has responded violently. On the morning before the launch of the first space rocket (the novel is specifically set in 1955) the husband turns up for work with a black eye. When the rocket is safely heading for orbit, from which it will never return, it is discovered that both the wife and her lover are missing. The theory is that Hills, the cuckold, has killed them and stowed their bodies aboard the rocket. On that basis he stands trial, only to cause a sensation when he offers to prove his innocence by flying the second prototype rocket and bringing back the original. This is what happens - with an almighty twist, which I won't spoil for anyone who wants to seek out this curiosity for themselves - albeit I have as yet no idea whether it was remotely the same in either the play or the film.

And I do intend to take this further. The movie is easily available on DVD but the play will be harder to track down. In the meantime I have discovered that Maine did the same trick with other stories. Timeslip aka The Atomic Man is the movie version of his novel The Isotope Man, both of which I have already acquired.

As for the suggestion that Spaceways was the first British science fiction film, my interim theory is that whoever wrote the blurb in the back of the Pan was drawing a distinction between the post-Hiroshima technology-based fiction of Clarke, Maine and their contemporaries, and the purely speculative future fiction of Wells and Verne. Interestingly, directly underneath the blurb for Spaceways is an ad for The Time Machine and The Man Who Could Work Miracles (the latter a celebrated BBC radio drama of 1934, adapted by Laurence Gilliam). This describes H G Wells as, specifically, a "Pioneer of Space Fiction".

In the meantime, check out the long-forgotten Mr Maine. He really does merit rediscovery.

Monday, 15 April 2019

The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness was Le Guin's breakthrough novel in 1969. I suppose it could be argued that her theme chimed with the emergent feminist wave - and the book is often cited as the first feminist sci fi - but I believe it is good enough to have been a success in any period.

The book is famous for the line "the king was pregnant", which doesn't actually appear in the text in those exact words and which comes long after we have understood that the inhabitants of the winter-world Gethen are ambi-sexual, alternating between male and female and coming together in periods of kemmer. The Ekumenian envoy, Genly Ai, is Terran and fixedly male. His contact and protector is Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide. But the king's ambitious cousin overthrows Estraven and Ai loses favour soon after. Both end up in exile, slaves and captives, until they come together and return to Karhide after a mammoth trek across the vast ice cap.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set in Le Guin's Hainish universe. There is clearly mythos carried forward from earlier novels, but this does not prevent new readers becoming immersed because the main story is interspersed with legends from the Winter World. As you read, you get a sense of being part of something much bigger, something building to a bigger, more decisive climax. Really the novel is about people of different cultures coming together, recognising and respecting their differences, and finding success through cooperation. It is a philosophical work as much as a science fiction one. Le Guin writes with an elevated tone, almost Homeric yet remarkably fresh. Her sentences vibrate with individuality. Her characters, too, are deeply developed and as a result profoundly involving for the reader.

This edition is from the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. It truly is a classic.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Faithless - Kjell Ola Dahl

This is my first encounter with Kjell Ola Dahl and his Oslo detectives, Frolich and Gunnarstranda. Given it is a series of twelve and Faithless is number ten, it goes without saying there is a great deal of back story I am not familiar with. Some of it stands out - one of the background cops has converted to Islam - but none of it gets in the way. It just makes me want to read more.

Faithless (a title wholly irrelevant to the story) has two strands. A young African student newly arrived in Oslo goes missing, and somebody murders Veronika, the fiancĂ©e of Frolich's childhood friend Karl Anders Fransgard - a day after Frolich arrests her for drug possession and twelve hours or so before he realises who she is at Karl Anders' party. Frank then goes home with Veronika's best friend Janne, who turns out to be Karl Anders' ex and his alibi for the murder. Frolich tries to recuse himself from the investigation but Gunnarsranda can't spare him.

I liked Faithless because, for all the characters' idiosyncrasies, it is a proper police procedural. The other big Norwegian crime writer, Jo Nesbo, makes his protagonist Harry Hole so horrible that he is invariably kicked off the case and has to solve the crime in his own way. The characters are well drawn. In this story Frolich features much more than Gunnarstranda so we get to know him better. I have no idea if that is always the case but will certainly find out. Gunnarstranda's occasional interventions here just make him more enigmatic and interesting. Frolich had a big finish in this story and I am keen to find out what happens to him next. Fortunately the next in the series, The Ice Swimmer, is available in English. The latest, Courier, was published this week.

I find it inexplicable that the series is being published out of order in the UK. Faithless is the fifth of seven currently available here, which would make sense if they were only publishing the later, fully fledged instalments - but the fourth to appear in English was Ola Dahl's first novel, Lethal Investments, dating all the way back to 1993! The good news is that they are all translated by Don Bartlett, who succeeds in the hardest task for any translator - making you forget it's a translation. Ola Dahl may not be best-served by Orenda Books and their terrible covers but Bartlett serves him very well indeed.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman - Angela Carter

I was only familiar with Carter's radio plays and later fiction - the gothic fables most readers are aware of. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) was apparently the turning point. Carter had won the Somerset Maugham Award which enabled her to spend two years in Japan, and this was the result.

It is very, very different. For a start, the protagonist-narrator, Desiderio, is a man, a minor underling in an unnamed city state in what is said to be South America, which is besieged by the illusions created by the Desire Machines. He is sent on a quest to bring down Doctor Hoffman through his daughter Albertina. The quest is utterly surreal, involving circus sideshows, freaks, Indian tribes, a swashbuckling sex-maniac Count and a tribe of centaurs. We can see the seeds of her future work.

The style, though, is experimental. She uses a quote from Jarry as an epigraph and indeed the pseudo philosophy she plays with throughout is very Jarry-esque, that is to say pataphysical. The action comes in spurts, is very colourful and often funny. It is over-wrought as so many experimental novels are. When you sling overboard all normal fictional restraints, where or why would you stop? The outcome is great fun and an essential read for all interested in Angela Carter, which should of corse be everyone. But I have to say I missed the nostalgic, almost elegiac tone of the later novels.

The introduction in this edition, by Ali Smith, is the worst I can remember reading.