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Is there – and this is the question, the real question – is there one girl, just one, whether she be called Bea or Eva or Djemia, who has not experienced the war? Just one who has not made war with her body, with her gentle face and moist eyes, with her mouth and teeth, with her hair? Just one who has been neither prey for the hunter, nor hunter herself? On all sides are watchful gazes, darts bristling from loop-holes. On all sides, breastplates, shields, scabbards, arrows, machine-gun barrels.
Stephanie gave me this book as a gift. “Here’s a nice short one”, she said, an easy read that would not take up too much of our time during the weekend. Oh how wrong she was.
I have gobbled down some fat books well under a day. As I tell people, this is usually because I have an interest in the material. If I am having a good time reading, my speed increases. If I am having a hard time, my reading speed crawls to a halt. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying today’s book was poorly written – I do not have the courage to go up against the judges of The Nobel Prize for Literature – but it certainly belied its slim size.
This book is something very special.
For a start, from the book’s beginning the tone is quite similar to a long-form prose poem. War is described as an onrushing event, an already present eschaton, indeed the inevitable death of humanity itself that is prophesied by modernity. Bea B and her lover Monsieur X are the nominal protagonists of this book, witness to the dehumanising influence of ‘war’. The ruining of a face is revealed to be symbolic for the destruction of a cityscape. Bea B imagines herself becoming electricity and infusing a simple light-bulb with energy. War is the chaos of clashing forces, the impossible to predict outcome of humanity’s desire to destroy itself.
Le Clezio extrapolates this same desire from every innocuous element in life. Each chapter opens with a seemingly random quote from science, literature and science fiction. A particular favourite was a long quotation from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, describing a world entirely covered in artificial, man-made structures. Le Clezio shines a new light on this most anachronistic of science fiction authors, identifying a Ballardian aspect to his writing that has perhaps gone unnoticed. Ballard is largely credited as a prophet of urban nihilism and War certainly evokes a similar style. This is a comparison that, thankfully, others have noticed.
I also found his vision of the apocalypse, an absurdist eruption of meaninglessness, reminiscent of Antonin Artaud, where the apocalypse is simply a breakown in our sense of what is real, what is normal. Le Clezio mines a similar theme, such as when Bea B. finds herself involved in a ‘man hunt’, or Monsieur X’s description of events in Vietnam. That he can describe such war crimes in such a matter of fact manner once again underlines the omnispresence of horror and destruction in today’s world. So who is to say that the ‘war’, has not already begun?
I found this to be a very difficult read, but a nonetheless incredible piece of writing. Sublimated poetry, with a philosophical tone, a literary revelation.
People loved having time machines – but hated the government-imposed restrictions on what they could do at certain key events in history, and the Crucifixion was perhaps the most controversial. Yes, you could go there, but only in ghost mode.
‘Yeah the number of people who complain to me because they can’t save the Lord, or take His place, or who want to give Mary a hug or a biscuit. How do you stand it?’ Malaria has only recently started working at the shop.
‘Maintain a sense of humour, Malaria. It’s your best defence.’
Have you ever seen the 1960’s film version of The Time Machine? Here have a look at the trailer. I principally remember this film for its terrible attempt at showing the passage of time. The Time Machine is parked opposite a shop front window and as the Traveller goes forward in time, he notes how the fashions worn by the mannequins change with each year. It is such a cheesy way to show the abilities of a machine that can skip through history, but it perfectly illustrates the problem with time travel as a story device. As The Doctor has observed, time travel stories tend to result in ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff’, the very non-linearity of the protagonist’s adventures leading to extreme headaches for the reader in plot progression.
K.A. Bedford’s principal character, Aloysius ‘Spider’ Webb shares these frustrations. He hates time machines. Unfortunately for him, time machine repair man is the only job available to him. Drummed out of the police force despite a promising career, due to making enemies of the wrong people, Spider was broke before meeting the very charismatic ‘Dickhead’ McMahon, who offered him a job as an engineer at his business. He makes enough money to get by, has some good staff working with him and receptionist Malaria makes a mean cup of coffee.
One afternoon during what seems to be a routine repair job, Spider and his assistant Charlie discover that the second-hand time machine they’ve been called out to have a look at is exhibiting very unusual power fluctuations. Almost as if it is present in current space-time and yet also elsewhere. When they return it to shop, they manage to contain it inside a miniature pocket universe before accidentally detonating it. Amid the destroyed shell of the original unit, they see another time machine, sitting in the very same hermetically sealed space. Inside Spider finds a dead body of a woman.
As a former cop, he finds himself compelled to investigate the mystery, but knows that anything involving time travel means trouble. After all that was how he lost his job with the police force in the first place. He has a decent job that pays enough that he can tolerate Dickhead’s weird rants about angels. His personal life is a mess. His wife Molly has insisted on a trial seperation and the officer in charge of the investigation into the mysterious dead body, Iris Stone, was a former lover of his. He just wants to keep his customers happy, enjoy a nice cup of coffee and leave time well enough alone.
Then his future self shows up one evening and starts babbling about him being framed for murder, conspiracies involving a group named Zeropoint and a civil war at the end of time itself. Seems no matter what Spider does, he can’t live the life he chooses.
According to this novel’s cover jacket, it was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2009. I actually found a number of similarities to the master of bluecollar sf. Not only is the very fantastical notion of time travel itself reduced to a 9 – 5 job, Spider’s relationships also bear a strong resemblance to the complicated lovelives of protagonists in Dick’s fiction.
Sadly the book is just too long. Philip K. Dick would often introduce a scenario within a seemingly ordinary world, only to throw all sense and reason out the window within a hundred pages. Bedford has Spider meet different versions of himself from wildly divering timelines and get swept up into a chronal war spanning millenia. There’s simply too much going on.
I did like the offhand humour of the story though, the frequent references to cult shows like Twin Peaks and The Prisoner, as well as the hints that Africa is the industrial capital of the world in the future.
A mixed bag for me then, but it kept me entertained throughout, despite the frequent head-scratching.
The two men shared a look. Finally Breeze spoke. “Lord Ruler knows, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. But, Kell, I do question your reasoning. Are you sure we can do this?”
“I’m positive,” Kelsier said. “Previous attempts to throw down the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen – and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. These things make us perfect for this particular task.”
I should explain how my reading speed works. Basically, I need to be interested in the book I’m reading to finish it quickly. For example, the book I have had the hardest time finishing in time for review on this site so far has been Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It bored me silly and I just managed to get my piece published in time, despite it being quite a slim book. So why am I reviewing a book that is over six hundred pages long? I am very interested in Brandon Sanderson. See this is the fellow who has been handed the unenviable task of wrapping up Robert Jordan’s overlong and unwieldy Wheel of Time series. Which I first began reading in 1992. I grew out of the books, but I just want the series to end, so I can find out what happens. So I tackled one of Sanderson’s own books, to see what kind of writer he is.
The story begins with a land shrouded in mists and covered in black ash. The Lord Ruler controls the lands of the so-called Final Empire, his reign over a thousand years old. The people his armies enslaved long ago are known as skaa and they believe him to be nothing less than a god. One night in a regional settlement the cries of a young girl are heard as the provincial lord’s men drag her away. The skaa do nothing. Tired and frightened, they accept that this is the way of things. A stranger who has recently arrived goes out into the night in pursuit. When he does not return the people assume the men who kidnap their daughters killed him as well as the girl. In the morning they awake and find the young child they thought lost returned. The castle has been burned to the ground, the soldiers defending it dead and their lord stabbed to death by the stranger. His name is Kelsier and he is what passes for a hero in these times.
The Lord Ruler’s capital is known as Luthadel and for most of Vin’s short life she has lived on its streets, stealing to survive. Her brother is gone and she is utterly alone. Until Kelsier, the man referred to by the skaa as The Survivor finds her. He invites her to join his crew of thieves, men who work together and even seem to trust one another. What makes her special? Vin, like Kelsier, is a Mistborn, capable of drawing power from diluted solutions of metals and alloys. Allomancy is an ability restricted only to the nobility who serve the Lord Ruler. Any who hide among the skaa and practice these powers are hunted down and killed by the agents of the Final Empire, known as Inquisitors. All of Kelsier’s men have some ability with alomancy and he has a plan. They’re going to pull off the biggest con of all. Collapse the Final Empire itself.
As I was reading, I had this niggling sense of familiarity. A crew of thieves with special powers? A long-con designed to financially cripple a powerful enemy? A hero with a tragic past and a precocious young women with amazing abilities….this is the fantasy version of Inception!(which you can read me kvetching about here and here).
It’s also a post-nationalist fantasy, something of a constant since the time of Tolkien. The setting is mostly urban, you have morally gray heroes and a fantastically bleak premise (the jacket reads ‘What if the Dark Lord won?’) – Sanderson has, unwittingly or not, become a torch-bearer for Moorcock’s revisionist take on the fantasy genre.
Well developed characters, interesting concepts and a climax that actually delivers (this is the first book in a series), I am impressed.
He turned to the back of the paper, and studied the advertisements. For sale, one Lilliputian, good needleworker. For sale, two Lilliputians, a breeding couple; one hundred and fifty guineas the pair. For sale, stuffed Lilliputian bodies, arranged in poses from the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Scott. For sale, prime specimen of the famed Intelligent Equines, late of His Majesty’s Second Cognisant Cavalry; this Beast (the lengthy advertisement went on) speaks a tolerable English, but knows mathematics and music to a high level of achievement. Of advanced years, but suitable for stud.
My first exposure to Jonathan Swift was not Gulliver’s Travels, but his satirical essay A Modest Proposal, an attack on the view held by the English that the Irish were a barbarous people. Let’s just say it spoke to me. When I saw the title of Adam Roberts’ book I was intrigued. How would he go about writing a sequel of sorts to Swift’s most famous work? As it turned out his objective was a broader one than that, touching on several authors during the course of the novel.
Abraham Bates credits himself as a moral man, moved by Christian mercy to plead the case of the Lilliputian people enslaved by the British Empire. It is over a century since Lemuel Gulliver returned from the lands of the so-called ‘Pacificans’, his tales leading to an occupation of those wondrous countries by European nations. The ‘little people’, are now reckoned to number only in the thousands across the whole world as a result of this invasion by ‘big folk’. The British Empire owes their great successes since the invasion to the technological skill of the Lilliputians, gifted with powers of invention due to their miniature size that have led to clockwork wonders. Even still Bates is dismayed by their enslavement and is contacted by an agent of France. In exchange for his assistance, he is promised the swift liberation of the Lilliputian slaves and the overthrow of the British Empire at the hands of an alliance between the French and the Church of Rome.
This is also the story of Eleanor, sold into marriage with an industrialist who business thrives on Lilliputian handiwork. Her mother made the match in order to secure her own lifestyle and Eleanor becomes resigned to her fate. She buries herself in the study of the natural sciences, with reading her sole pleasure, a retreat from the cruelties of the world outside her door. One night following her marriage to Mr. Burton, she witnesses an event that she feels might be turned to her advantage, but shortly thereafter the French invade London, with an advance force of Brobdingnagian Giants laying waste to everything in their path.
The French have yet another weapon to hand. A calculating machine, perfected by one Charles Babbage. When Eleanor and Bates meet, they learn that whoever should control this computational device, could decide the course of the war. Together they race across England, unaware that their world is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.
If that’s not a broad enough hint, it soon becomes apparent that Swiftly uses its relationship to Gulliver’s Travels as a skin. In reality the book is a parody of H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds. Through this comparison Roberts draws out the similarities between both writers, equal in their criticism of the British Empire and the brutal hidden histories of civilization. The Brobdingnagians marching across the Channel resemble the Martian Tripods of Welles’ book; there is also a sudden outbreak of pestilence across England.
My one complaint is while the period detail is excellent – religion and the fear of committing some social impropriety are straitjackets to each of the characters; the evolutionary theories of Lamarck are rejected as the ‘Pacificans’ are seen to be proof of God’s plan – I am frustrated with hints of condescension towards the views of sex held by these characters. One of the pleasures of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of books is that he made the thoughts and actions of historical figures from the 17c seem modern. Here there’s a mocking tone to Eleanor’s discovery of sexuality (she takes out a book from the library of the mating habits of pigs) and Bates’ tortured excitement at his own desires.
While that made me think less of the overall project, the book is gifted with an excellent premise. In keeping with its Anglo-Frankish conflict it swings from Swiftian to Rabelaisian satire. Fascinating.
Irena told me once that she went into the woods by herself with the dog to think. About literature and politics and I don’t know what all. And I felt secretly embarrassed when she told me that, because when I’m alone usually all I ever think about is girls, and I felt inferior compared to her.
Right now I am fascinated with the sudden interest in translated fiction from Europe and eastward towards the nations of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson got things started, but even before the English translation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there were books by the likes of Pelevin appearing in Waterstones.
What’s more we are in the enviable position to be able to enjoy works that were censored under Soviet rule, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only did the Russian novelist fall victim to censure, he even earned special attention from Stalin by demanding to be allowed defect if his book could not be published. Josef Škvorecký’s novel was also banned and this edition opens with an Author’s Preface were he pleads for understanding and clemency. It’s a strangely pathetic plea, defending the work while simultaneously apologizing for it. In the regard the events of the book seem prophetic.
Danny and his friends are waiting for the end of the war in the small Czech town of Kostelec. It is May 1945. Hitler is dead and the Germans are said to be retreating, with the Russian army on their tails and the western allied forces waiting in Berlin. Danny doesn’t care, he just wants to play jazz and sweet-talk some of the local girls. Of course he loves Irena most of all, but she is going out with Zdenek the thick-bodied Alpinist.
Of course, one thing that really impresses girls is a hero, so when the opportunity arrives to teach the defeated Nazis a lesson, Danny, Haryk, Benno and Lexa sign up to join the official paramilitary force. They are shocked when the town elders demand they hand over the weapons they had managed to scrounge during the war and then ordered to march around Kostelec unarmed. Quickly deciding this was nothing like the revolution promised, Danny tries to think of way to avoid further boredom. He concentrates on trying to woo Irena, even as the occupying German force becomes increasingly nervous, with the growing danger of a massacre caused by an angry local trying his luck robbing a submachine gun. Despite not seeming to care a whit for the course of the war, he seems to repeatedly find himself in the centre of events, attracting the anger of a frightened German soldier and even later becoming an unofficial translator and guide for bewildered prisoners of war escapees.
This is a blackly comic novel, with a wry note of suspicion towards authority. While Danny appears to care about nothing more than music, girls and American movies (nursing an enormous crush for Judy Garland), he is aware that all the folk of Kostelec are witnessing is a changing of the guard, despite the Soviets’ claims that they are a liberating force. Local boy Berty has even taken to photographing everything, with a view to selling the photos of the ‘revolution’, in years to come. There’s a significant scene between Danny and a soldier from Liverpool who asks if he would prefer if the British were in charge. Of course, he replies, but this is the situation.
Again and again the theme of the novel comes back to impotence. The title is inspired by the characters failing to live up to the heroic ideal of patriotic warriors repelling the invaders with guerrilla tactics and bravery. Yet Danny and his friends know that they are caught up in events they cannot control, any more than they can get a girl to notice them. In his head winning over Irena should be easily achieved by imitating the Hollywood lovers he is obsessed with, even affecting an American accent every now and then. It never seems to work out in real life though.
This story was written before the author was twenty-four years old. It is a young man’s book, but with an incisive degree of self-awareness and a mocking tone throughout. An excellent novel.
I had seen men die violently before; indeed I had killed a few myself in the Matabele War; but this cold-blooded indoor business was different.
Buchan’s classic novel has been adapted to film at least three times (with another due in 2011), a television series and even a stage play. Last time I was in London I was strongly tempted to check it out, but I am glad I got a chance to read the novel first, as the Broadway production takes a more comic approach to the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s film in 1935 probably was inspirational for one of his later ‘American films’, North By North West, which has a similar plot of an unremarkable man becoming swept up into an international conspiracy. Furthermore the timing of Hitchcock’s film is relevant, with the original novel also being published for the purposes of propaganda in 1915.
Richard Hannay is our hero, a middle-aged bachelor who was born in Scotland and made his fortune in Rhodesia. Having settled in London he discovers that he has become bored with his life of easy leisure. He longs for a return to the dangers of working in a mine, or the wild beauty of the veldt. His prayers are answered when a strange fellow named Scudder, an American who claims his life is in danger. Hannay patiently lets the man tell his story, a thrilling yarn of international espionage, Zionist plots and an already lit powder-keg set to drive the chancelleries of Europe to war. Despite the extravagant claims of the stranger, Hannay finds himself believing this rum tale and agrees to hide him from his shadowy pursuers.
Scudder proves to be a master of disguise and conspires with his host to hide his identity. Hannay observes him writing copious notes in a little black book, presumably a record of his investigation. Excited at the sudden injection of adventure into his life, the retired Rhodesian mining engineer enjoys aiding his companion in his efforts to prevent Europe falling into war. Then one day he returns to find Scudder dead in his home. Shocked, Hannay has no choice but to flee the scene of the crime. His tale is so outlandish no police man would believe it. He takes Scudder’s black book and takes the first train to Scotland, where he hopes his childhood memories of the landscape will help him evade pursuit. Everywhere he goes he sees strange figures watching him, just as the dead man had described. Finding himself hunted through the moors and mountain ridges of the Scottish highlands, Hannay has to think quick on his feet, disguising his appearance as Scudder had. His only hope is to decipher the cryptic code he finds in the American’s black book that may prove his innocence and identify the threat amassing against England.
Buchan’s redoubtable hero became a recurring character in his fiction, the archetypal ‘stiff-upper lip’ chap with a ready fist and a gentlemanly manner. The novel itself is a product of its time and not just due to the anti-semitic remarks attributed to Scudder (although a character later remarks that this was an ‘odd bias’, of his). Published in 1915 it is similar to the Riddle of the Sands, a jingoistic work released in 1903 that strongly encouraged the idea of an impending European conflict. The difference with The Thirty-Nine Steps is that it came out after hostilities had already commenced, all the better to reinforce the case for war. The men and women Hannay encounters during his hazardous flight across Scotland are mostly good, hearty ordinary folk. He becomes more convinced of the importance of succeeding where Scudder failed, so that the people of Britain should be protected from a disastrous war. Scotland itself is infested with spies from abroad, able to disguise themselves in a blink of an eye. Hannay, and by extension readers of the time, must be vigilant to ensure they do not manage to sabotage the defenses of the country.
Also particular to the setting of the novel is that peculiar condescension towards the Scots. I was reminded of my favourite scene from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace whenever Buchan essays a Scottish brogue. I find the smug superiority strange, as the author himself was raised in Scotland and the landscape is described beautifully, as only one who lived there could achieve.
Despite some of the dated attitudes present in the book, it remains an entertaining read. A bladdy good yarn!
In the men’s room, he finally took the trouble to examine the money and was encouraged to see the face of Ulysses S. Grant engraved on the front of each bill. That proved to him that this America, this other America, which hasn’t lived through September 11 or the war in Iraq, nevertheless has strong historical links to the America he knows. The question is: at what point did the two stories being to diverge?
First off apologies for the late posting. I was miles away from my trusty Asus this afternoon. While this is being published still within the borders of the prerequisite ‘day’, it is late and I hope you were not waiting in vain. Auster’s novel is a traumatized reaction to the events of September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. I found myself comparing it critically to a number of other writers, yet at the same time Man in the Dark is a statement confronting the failures of American liberalism in the wake of these horrific events in recent history.
August Brill is a man trying to hide from his past. Mourning the death of his wife, he lives with his daughter Miriam and granddaughter Katya. Further tragedies haunt this family, but they retreat into silence, or obsessions to escape the necessary catharsis.
Twinned to this narrative is the story of Owen Brick, a man transported to another America, torn apart by civil war. Several states have followed the example of New York and seceded from the United States. Brick finds himself an unwilling military recruit, ordered to assassinate the man responsible for the horrors being visited on the American people. He protests that he is only a magician and cannot bring himself to kill. The men who have chosen him threaten the lives of his loved ones back in the ‘real world’, if he does not comply. The target for assassination? A writer named August Brill.
I picked up this book as it describes the imaginings of a chronic insomniac. If you ever wondered how I have managed to read 46 titles in as many days, well now you know. Auster also refers to Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno as an explanation for his ‘many worlds’, premise. I took issue with his conclusion that Bruno was executed for the thesis of the plurality of worlds. I always understood the Vatican having ordered his death as his belief in Christian magick fell out of favour with the new pontiff Pope Clement VIII. There is an excellent book by Frances Yates on the subject if anyone is curious.
The world of Owen Brick is quickly established to be a fiction. I was strongly reminded of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark throughout, despite Auster employing the shadow of 9/11. The difference is that for Gray the fantasy world is just as ‘real’, as ours. Philip K. Dick would also do this on occasion, refusing to clarify which perspective of reality is the ‘true’ one. Auster instead describes this alternate America as a distraction from grief, with the endless film viewing of Katya and August fulfilling a similar function. Their shared tragedies must be evaded at all costs.
It is a slim book, perhaps I expected more meat on the bone. I have never read Auster before and I have heard nothing but good things. If anyone can recommend another title by him, I would love to try him out again.
Tomorrow – Scott Pilgrim!