Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dark November brings the fog

I just want it noted that while I've been virtuously turning in at the sort of time normal people turn in, Jo has been pulling insanely late nights. 4am! I ask you! Just wanted that on the record, folks. On with the bookage.

This month's books have all come from Wellington Central Library, of which I am now a member. Moo hoo, ha ha.

New Model Army, Adam Roberts
The narrator of this latest Robertstravaganza is a member of a type of mercenary group known as a New Model Army, a sort of freelance TA. NMA soldiers have a bit of technology installed in their skull that allows them to communicate sort-of-telepathically with their comrades and contribute to the battle wikis; the NMA itself has a wiki-like structure, anarchic but self-policing, with no command hierarchy. The soldiers are responsible for buying and maintaining their own kit - which ensures no complaints about poor equipment - can get whatever training they need online and are able to suggest and take part in campaigns as they see fit. Pay and the NMA's minimal overheads are covered by their employers - in this case, a breakaway Scots Parliament - and by ransoming captured enemy combatants - in this case, members of the British Army. This free-form approach to warfare is presented as the ultimate expression of democracy, as contrasted at some length with what the narrator refers to as the feudal structure of the traditional, national army.
The narrator's NMA has the punning name of PANTEGRAL - cue lots of metaphorical material about giants (Pantagruel). It's an Adam Roberts novel, folks - there'll be a high concept in there somewhere.
I'd say this is one of Roberts' better books. The character of the narrator is well-realised and consistent, not just a conduit for the concepts, which are laid out carefully and explored thoroughly. There does seem to be a bit of plot fumbling to get us to Roberts' preferred ending, but the fumbling doesn't start until quite near the end, and I find it easy to forgive. May be worth getting hold of a copy at some point.

Ex Machina, vol. 9, Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris
Well, that's an improvement and a half over the last volume. A bit of ker-razy meta shennanigans with Mayor Mitchell Hundred interviewing potential writers and artists for his comic book biography, and then some very large revelations about the Mayor's superpowers and a big set-up for the final confrontation in vol 10. What I may need to do at some point is to reread the whole series and fillet out an "essential Ex Machina" that excludes vols 7 and 8, and possibly other middle volumes.

Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird, Tony Millionaire
More oddball fun.

Cowboy Ninja Viking, vol. 1, AJ Lieberman & Riley Rossmo
Slightly disappointing. The basic idea has huge dramatic and comic potential - a community of assassins with multiple personality disorder - but the execution is off. The artwork is eye-catching, but it's too hard a lot of the time to tell who has what personalities, and there are a few characters who look a bit too similar as well. In story terms, this first volume (the first five issues) jumps around a bit in time, but I don't think Lieberman's actually got a handle on the chronology of it. But it does have a lot of fun lines, and the back cover blurb is a thing of beauty in itself.

Flight, vol. 3, ed Kazu Kibuishi
Apparently there's a seventh one of these out now or soon. Will one of the libraries get it in, or will I have to ask them to?

The Complete Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
For the most part, these are a kind of scientific folk story - your narrator, the eternal Qfwfq, explains how life used to be in the days when the Moon was much closer to the Earth, or what it was like to be part of the first generation to walk on land, or why snails started to grow shells. These tales have a kind of expressionist whimsy about them, although they get more subdued as Calvino gets older. There are only four stories in here that I really didn't care for at all, which originally appeared in the collection Time and the Hunter and which read like dramatised maths problems (if X is heading at a constant speed towards Y...). The stories comprising yer basic Cosmicomics collection are probably the best of the bunch.

Move Under Ground, Nick Mamatas
Jack Kerouac vs Cthulhu! I believe that just about covers it. If you need more persuading, you shouldn't.

Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Reza Negarestani
I just had to read this after all the rave reviews it got. China Mieville loved it! Jeff Vandermeer loved it! I trust these fine authors with my grey matter and with the delicate balance of my sanity! And besides, the marketing blurb is sensational stuff, presenting it as a kind of post-modern horror thriller in which Oil, or War, or the Middle East itself is the monster. But the blurb is the most sensational bit of the book. If you like reading other people's science theses, this is the horror story for you; for myself, I found it to be a pretty equal mix of the Unnameable and the Unreadable.
Mieville calls it "post-genre horror"; I think what we actually have here is an attempt to imagine what the Necronomicon would look like if it were written today, informed by the War on Terror and contemporary politics, with Reza Negarestani cast in the role of "the mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred and disappeared scholar Dr Hamid Parsani as his Ibn Schacabao. We start with the old "found manuscript" schtick, which makes me wonder if either Kristen Alvanson (the "finder"), Reza Negarestani (the "author") or both are fictional, although both have a substantial web presence. The text itself examines the notion of infiltration (particularly the infiltration by the Outside from Inside) and presents this in the context of narration sufficiently often that I'm further inclined to suspect authorial shennanigans.
There's actually a lot of thought-provoking material in here, particularly on the subject of monotheistic doctrine. Notions of spiritual openness, of all-consuming communion and of transformation through death are explored in sickly detail in terms of divinity, worship and demonic possession. Reference is made to Lovecraft's fiction, and to John Carpenter's The Thing, both apparently used to give resonance to the suggestion that the Earth itself is an infiltrator plotting against the monomaniacal Sun. But all this stuff is presented as a series of academic papers, and some are so inaccessible that I wonder just how small the book's intended audience is.
This is one of those times when I feel that the rewards just didn't justify the effort involved in reading the book. I kind of wish I could nip back in time a few weeks and give myself the precis version instead.

House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds
Needed a bit of this after the previous item. It's been a while since I picked up a Reynolds novel - there've been at least three since I last paid attention.
This one follows the clones of Abigail Gentian, originally a thousand in number, now reduced to about fifty, as they try to discover who's had most of them wiped out and why. The Gentians are one of a number of Lines, cloned in the thirty-somethingth century, designed for extreme longevity and dispatched to the furthest corners of the galaxy, now six million years old. They gather and trade in information, sell their services to younger, lesser civilisations (the Gentians' speciality is in containing supernovae behind gigantic "stardams", thus saving nearby species from the lethal radiation), and occasionally throw their weight about in horrifically brutal displays if they don't get their way. Because they're incredibly old, you see, and that gives them the right.
I don't know for sure that we're supposed to find the Lines generally repugnant, although I think so - as with Adam Roberts' narrator, we're shown enough reaction from other characters to form a pretty bad impression, and Reynolds' two lead characters seem to develop a dim view of their own Line during the course of the book (although I'm reading between the lines there, and nothing comes of it in the story). That said, the portrayal of the relationship between the Lines and other civilisations varies quite wildly - at the start of the book, they seem to be meek and benevolent stardam makers, performing a public service and accepting whatever rewards they can negotiate; it's later suggested that the Lines habitually take by force what they can't get by persuasion, and punish species who don't play ball. Civilisation #1 isn't prepared to give our heroes the trade they want, which actually leaves them hugely in the lurch at the start of the story; civilisation #2 shows them the desperate hospitality and false bonhomie of someone who expects their guest to pull a gun on them at any minute. Hmm.
The story itself unfolds well and ties up neatly; the scale, as is usual with Reynolds, is dazzlingly huge. It's an impressive novel. Just something about the characters that doesn't quite convince me.

The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares
Interesting - I wonder if JG Ballard got much inspiration from this? Wonder if JJ Abrams had this knocking about in his mind when he created Lost, for that matter? A fugitive hides out on an isolated island, which is apparently deserted but on which someone has built a large hall and a couple of other buildings. He descends into the basement of the hall and finds some mysterious machinery; when he re-emerges, he discovers he has suddenly been joined by a party of suave socialites. He hides from them, then discovers that they can't see him anyway, although he can see, hear and even touch them. He initially theorises that the island is a form of purgatory for himself and/or the others, but finally discovers the truth about the experiment that is keeping them on the island, and will keep him there too.
This novella was written in 1940.
It's pretty obvious to a modern reader - or at least it was to this modern reader - what's going on long before the narrator figures it out, but then again readers at the time weren't so familiar with the SF/fantasy ideas that this story anticipates. Casares carelessly scatters these ideas over the 90-ish pages of the story - his focus is more on the psychological state of his narrator, who pines after one of the socialites but can never make his feelings known to her. This is a rich read and an amazing bit of speculative fiction.

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