Saturday, March 03, 2012

Book catch-up: Jan & Feb 2012


Queen Victoria's Bomb, Ronald Clark
Borrowed from a friend. This is a lovely little item, a 1960s forerunner to the steampunk movement that presents a secret history of the atomic bomb, as first tested in British India in the mid-nineteenth century. It's presented as the rediscovered memoir of Franklin Huxtable, a scientist who first conceives of the deterrent to end all war while at Cambridge in the 1830s, develops it in Cornwall and tests it on an isolated Indian plateau but then, through a variety of misadventures, fails to put it into action on the battlefield. Clark's first calling as a historian serves him well here in constructing a believable story for Huxtable, with several cheeky references and cameos thrown in. This really is a cracking book; sadly it's long since out of print and is very hard to get hold of. It's crying out for a reprint (perhaps Gollancz's SF Masterworks range?).
The later edition I read includes a chapter added on in the 1980s in which Huxtable also invents the neutron bomb as a side venture; this didn't really fit in with the main story or add anything to it. Still, at least it was presented as an extra and not crowbarred into the main body of the story.

Chicks Dig Time Lords, ed Lynne M Thomas & Tara O'Shea
A collection of essays about Doctor Who written by women. Some of these address the series itself (portrayal of female characters, for example); many (probably upwards of half) are fannish testimonials that happen to have been written by female fans; some are interviews with or articles by women directly connected with DW in its various forms. One is a piece written by a fan who claims never to have experienced the least interest in the series until she discovered the slash fiction - sorry madam, but that doesn't sound like a DW fandom that encompasses saucy fan fiction, more like a porn fandom that happens to include characters who share names with DW characters. There's some good material to be found in this book - I guess I'd put it on a par with the Time, Unincorporated books.

Te Wiremu - Henry Williams: Early Years in the North, Caroline Fitzgerald
Colonising Myths, Maori Realities: He Rukuruku Whakaaro, Ani Mikaere
Christmas books. I thought I should do some reading around the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi, since it's a key moment in NZ history and still a hot topic today. (Further reading will be called for at some point.) However, because it's such a polarizing subject, I thought it'd be best to ask for books from both ends of the debate. These looked like the most interesting candidates to start with: the diaries and letters of Henry Williams, the British missionary who set up shop among the Maori in the Bay of Islands in 1823 and went on to draft Te Tiriti in 1840 (with results that remain controversial); and, lacking a contemporary Maori memoir for comparison, a collection of lectures by present-day academic Ani Mikaere on the Maori experience of colonization that includes a certain amount of material on the Treaty/Te Tiriti.
The plan was to start on one book and switch to the other whenever I felt I needed the other point of view for balance. What actually happened was that I started on the Henry Williams, fairly quickly got sick of his patronising talk of the "savages" and bored with the slow churn of the text, picked up the Mikaere and realised a little later that I'd have to put her down and push on through the Williams again, because if I didn't pace myself I'd end up with nothing with which to sweeten the Williams. Mikaere's book is a lot more engaging and, though her lectures repeat each other quite a bit and she sometimes drifts towards the extreme, she raises a lot of very significant points for consideration. Challenging but necessary reading.
I was ultimately glad to have read the Williams, inasmuch as it provided a kind of context for the events of 1840 - the bit I was most interested in - although that was barely covered at all in the extracts of Williams' own writings. The extracts got as far as the single night Williams was given to draft the now infamous document, then stopped dead. In fact, I got more from the introduction and afterword, which summed up the momentous events and offered some broader detail and explanation. I think the most significant bit of information here was that a general election in Britain between the time of the signing of the Treaty/Te Tiriti and the subsequent years of conflict between Maori and colonial British saw the replacement of a sympathetic Labour government with a Tory government largely composed of shareholders in the New Zealand Company, whose unscrupulous land grabbing the Treaty/Te Tiriti had been intended to block. That looks like the turning point right there, but now I need to find the right book to fill out some more detail around that.
Still, very informative to have read the two books together, to see how they cast light on each other. Principles of Maori law and philosophy (tikanga Maori) as described by Mikaere and observed Maori practices as described by Williams sometimes conflict and sometimes explain one another in interesting ways. Williams depicts the Maori of 1823 as pretty much a nation of thugs, while Mikaere depicts pre-colonization Maori as pretty much a nation of bodhisattvas; neither position is entirely likely, but both could be facets of the true position. More reading on tikanga Maori will also be necessary.

Calling the Gods, Jack Lasenby
Borrowed from a friend, mainly because it's a NZ-published genre book - actually about NZ! - that's eligible for this year's Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Set a few hundred years in the future, when society in NZ has reverted to a kind of pre-industrial tribalism. Selene, the teenaged shaman for her community, is cast out on the strength of a malicious accusation from a family who envy her powerful position and want their own daughter to be the Selene. This same family have brought down destruction on the whole community in the form of merchant raiders from the South, so they're not the best candidates for the top job. Selene has to get as many survivors as she can out of the doomed community and start again; however, she still has the rival family's daughter to contend with.
For some unfathomable reason the author has also included several chapters from the perspective of a contemporary old man (presumably an author-analogue) who occasionally sees the events of the main story superimposed over his own environment, although he can't interact with the characters in any way, and who offers his own recap of the events and his cantankerous opinion on them. These chapters added nothing to the story - if anything, they detracted from it. Had an editor kindly but firmly removed these pointless chapters, this would be a great book.


Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds
Review book. Verdict: it's all right.

The Light-Field, Traci Harding
And what rough book, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Wellington to be reviewed?

Tourmalin's Time Cheques, F Anstey
A nice little comic novel from the author of the bodyswap story Vice Versa. Peter Tourmalin is kicking his heels on a cruise ship from Australia to England; his fiancee wants him to prove his constancy in her absence, and he finds it a struggle to spend the long hours at sea reading the improving books she's given him and not chatting to the pretty ladies around him. He's approached by the manager of an unusual bank with a fantastic solution to his problem: bank the hours he doesn't want to spend now, and then whenever he feels the need for a break after a hard day in London, he can write himself a cheque for fifteen minutes and enjoy a pleasant quarter-hour of his missing time on the ship. However, the time isn't returned to him in chronological order, and terrible misunderstandings result.
I can just see Dudley Moore in a 1970s film adaptation of this - I'm surprised it didn't happen, and surprised this book isn't as well known as Anstey's other work. Nice light reading.

The Martian Ambassador, Alan K Baker
The Feaster from the Stars, Alan K Baker
More pulpy steampunk adventure. Anyone would think I had a medical need for the stuff. Here, as in many, many other steampunk novels being published today, a male-female detective partnership - Thomas Blackwood, special investigator for the Crown, and Lady Sophia Harrington, paranormal researcher - investigate extraordinary threats to Queen Victoria's Empire. I'd have to say that on balance, these are the next step up from George Mann's Newbury & Hobbes novels - the burgeoning romance between the lead duo is better handled, not least because the characters themselves are more believable, and the constituent elements of the world they inhabit are more varied and more interesting. The adventuring itself is still pretty straightforward.
I think The Martian Ambassador is the better book of the two, combining a broader (and wilder) range of ingredients to better effect. The Martians (technologically, the ones from The War of the Worlds, but physically more like exotic humanoids, and culturally largely taken from the stories of Clark Ashton Smith) have established diplomatic links with Earth, but war is threatened when the eponymous ambassador is murdered. Also includes proto-computers that are serviced by fairy support staff (the main retail outlet is Cottingley's of Mayfair, chiz chiz) and which use the mythical Akashic Records as a search engine, a lovely side detail that exemplifies the book's rich blend of Victorian-era science, fiction and spiritual beliefs. I have three (and only three!) gripes, the first two of which can at least be shrugged off as part of the pulp territory: the alien characters, far from being alien, are really just Victorian gentlemen with funny-looking bodies; the villains are too straightforwardly villainous; and whenever an important piece of information is revealed to the reader, the characters all know or independently deduce it at the exact same time, which reduces the dramatic potential somewhat.
The Feaster from the Stars is really just straight fantasy, with our heroes teaming up with the ghosts of the London Underground and a swash-buckling Faerie army to battle the eldritch King in Yellow in outer space. The story's a lot simpler and too much of the rewarding detail of the previous book is lost. A third volume promises to introduce The Gods of Atlantis; I'm not entirely sold on this notion, and may approach other books by Baker with caution.


Alan K Baker said...

Hi John. Came across your blog this morning, and wanted to thank you for your kind words about Ambassador (sorry you didn't enjoy Feaster quite as much).

Regarding The Gods of Atlantis, it will hopefully appear later this year - but fear not! The "gods" of the title are not quite what they appear to be. Hope you'll give it a try.

By the way, my standalone supernatural thriller The Lighthouse Keeper is out from Snowbooks on 1 May. Hope you'll give that a try, too!

All the best,

John Toon said...

Yikes! Hi Alan, and thanks for commenting. I'm sorry I didn't enjoy Feaster as much too! But like I said, I'd rate the pair of books together above others in the ever-expanding steampunk detective duo market, and if my opinion of Feaster isn't so great, you can rest assured that it's offset by a very favourable opinion of Ambassador.

Re Atlantis, what makes me leery as much as anything else is the way that it came out of nowhere at the end of Feaster. It's a pretty big thing (as a continent and as an idea) - I would've expected a mention of some kind earlier on in the series that Atlantis is out here, especially if it's so commonplace that the characters consider it a holiday destination. I don't rule out reading it at some point, mind you.

But yes, the standalone lighthouse story, and the Dyatlov Pass story I understand you're working on, those do look tempting.

Alan K Baker said...

Ha ha! Indeed, the idea that Atlantis never sank in Blackwood & Harrington's world is a bit of a jump. It's difficult to know, as a writer, how much to let on about things like this. You're quite right: it does come out of left field, but on the other hand, it's so commonplace (or rather, it's supposed to be so commonplace) that it might sound odd or contrived if it were mentioned without explanation. Kind of like mentioning Malta for no apparent reason. I guess it's one of the ten thousand little choices one must make when world-building in a series.

Regarding Dyatlov Pass, don't know if you read Russian, but it's been picked up by a Russian publisher (Gonzo). Unfortunately, I'm still struggling to find a home for it in the West! Oh well...

John Toon said...

My Russian is about 15 years rusty now, certainly not up to the challenge of reading a novel in the language (hard to believe it ever was...). Cusses. Well, I suppose it's local interest for them, and those Russians sure do love their Forteana. I wish you and it the best of Slavonic luck.

I take your point about (not) name-dropping Atlantis. It is a tough call. Eh well.

Incidentally, I've just had Ambassador back from a friend (and promptly handed it on to another friend). He loved it too, but he was disappointed to hear that the sequel wasn't going to feature more of the Venusians! He's retirement age, so he's part of the generation who grew up with the space race - I suppose that angle's going to have an obvious appeal to him. But I've lent him Feaster, and we'll see what he makes of it.

John Toon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan K Baker said...

Ah! Hope your friend enjoys it anyway. Just FYI, The Gods of Atlantis is going to introduce a story arc which will feature the Martians and Venusians quite heavily, and which will hopefully last for at least two novels. I've taken onboard what you (and several other reviewers) have said about turning away from the scene-setting of Ambassador, and how it was a bad idea. I'm following the age-old maxim of listening to your customers! :)