The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman
23-year-old award-winning novel expanded from a 100-page novella. I'd previously read the novella part of it, but hadn't managed to work my way through the further 300 pages. Turns out I had the right idea the last time.
The set-up is that someone discovers a cure for cancer which, as an unavoidable side-effect, throws out the body's natural aging processes such that people simply drop dead in their mid-thirties. Unfortunately the cure goes viral and everybody gets it. The workaround for this involves more viruses - at six months, children are inoculated with a full encyclopaedia's worth of information, as well as a variety of other helpful smart apps, so that they can bypass the childhood learning experience and get straight on with contributing to society etc etc. (What could possibly go wrong?!) However, the government of the day (nominally socialist with Orwellian tendencies) takes the opportunity to program in other things, like "acceptable" social behaviours - in other words, dissent, originality and non-normative inclinations are effectively trampled out. (The novella was published right around the time the British government was looking at ways to limit literary discussion of homosexuality, particularly in school libraries; Section 28 was law by the time the novel was published; Ryman, an openly gay writer, naturally had an interest.) Milena, the book's protagonist, has a natural resistance to some of these smart viruses, and consequently has grown up gay in a world where gayness has been made impossible. This causes problems for her, but also puts her in a position to resolve a new crisis that the governmental hive mind is unable to think its way around.
The novella largely concerns itself with the problems, while the expanded novel introduces the crisis. In the novella, Milena meets and falls in love with Rolfa, a member of an Antarctic mining community who has an unusual talent for musical composition. Rolfa's community don't have the viruses, but they also don't have a use for her operatic setting of Dante's Divine Comedy. In order to stage the opera, Rolfa has to be integrated into the Consensus and given the viruses - she can either express herself or be herself, but not both. Milena tries to do right by her, but clearly it's not going to end well either way. This story is moving, well-structured and well-told.
The rest of the novel sees Milena continuing to try to get Rolfa's opera staged against a backdrop of social disintegration as the viruses go increasingly wrong. This part of the book is just too damn cluttered. The problem isn't that it jumps around in time, as some readers claim - it's clearly stated up front that Milena is remembering these fragments of her life during her long-delayed integration into the Consensus, and it honestly isn't hard to follow. The problem is that Ryman seems determined to make it harder by throwing in every spare idea he had, apparently just for the sake of upping the weird quotient. Oh yes, this was when people couldn't speak unless they sang the words. Oh yes, this was when trees started growing out of people's backs. Oh yes, this was the day humans and animals randomly swapped consciousnesses (although apparently for no other reason and with no other result than giving Milena a human companion that thinks he's a dog). These ideas are cast to the wind, rarely if at all followed up. There's just not enough focus, and the prose in these 300 pages is remarkably stodgy, too. So, worth another look at the novella, but I'm unlikely to bother reading past that point again.
The Last Mimzy (aka The Best of Henry Kuttner), Henry Kuttner
1975 anthology rejacketed and retitled to tie in with a recent film that completely passed me by. The back cover bills this as the work of a writer ahead of his time, and I'd have to agree. Kuttner died in 1958, and most of these tales were first published in the 40s and 50s, but some of them wouldn't look out of place alongside the New Wave tales of the 60s and 70s. Some of them would, mind you, but there it is - Kuttner's a writer with a very broad range. There's a general tone of dry humour that I like. I'm glad I picked this one up.
Mansfield with Monsters, Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens
In a similar vein to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but with three unique selling points: for the Kiwi readership, it's based around the work of a New Zealand author; it's comprised of several short stories rather than a novel, so the ideas don't outstay their welcome and you're not left with a single gag stretched out for a couple of hundred pages; and the supernatural additions have generally been tailored to each story, rather than just being incongruous elements bolted on. Basically, it's the art mash-up.
I should admit that I hadn't previously read any Mansfield, but went and read several of the original pieces on Project Gutenberg in order to compare and contrast. What I found was that the originals suited the mash-up treatment extremely well, because they contained enough ambiguities and gaps to be able to accomodate the new elements (just what was drawing all those people up that hill in "Bank Holiday"?), as well as the occasional macabre feature already in place. And the additions are such good imitations of Mansfield's own style, I was hard pressed to spot where the joins were in some cases. Highly impressed with this book.
Rare Unsigned Copy, Simon Petrie
Tragically, signed. Collection of short (and very short) stories by an Antipodean writer. Some of these are full short stories, both SF in earnest and frivolous pieces about farming mile-long carrots and murders in space elevator cabins; some are 100-word vignettes, or even throwaway jokes ("Sudoku for Psychics" being a brilliant hit-and-run gag). Petrie has a deep-seated love of excruciating puns, the results of which vary. By and large, this was a good and entertaining collection.
The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud
The Golem's Eye, Jonathan Stroud
Borrowed from a friend. First two volumes in a trilogy about Nathaniel, a boy apprenticed to a lowly civil servant in a parallel Britain ruled by magicians, and Bartimaeus, a djinni unwillingly pressed into his service. Book 1 introduces and book 2 develops the character of Kitty, a commoner who wants to end the magicians' decadent and oppressive rule but is forced to collaborate with Bartimaeus and Nathaniel in book 2 to save London from the titular golem.
My impression of these books is that they're Harry Potter done properly. (Quick check of the publication years... they may even have been written as a reaction to HP, who knows?) No whimsical boarding school bollocks or secret magical ministries here. Stroud's whole approach to the world of magic is more cynical, but far more believable, and a lot more politically flavoured, which won't do the young adult readership any harm. The magicians have control over the djinn and use it to retain feudal control over the masses - revolt is inevitable (pending the build-up of enough magical resistance within the commoners), but the magicians have enough problems avoiding the back-stabbing of their colleagues and uncovering the endless conspiracies of ambitious junior ministers. It falls to your narrator, the resourceful and quick-witted (and modest!) Bartimaeus, to save the day, although that swine Nathaniel will end up taking all the credit for it. Absolutely cracking reads, both of them, and book 3 is shaping up to be a fine end to the trilogy.