Sunday, October 07, 2012

Book round-up: August & September 2012

Although the current half-series of Doctor Who has already appeared on NZ television (fifth episode to screen this coming Thursday), we don't have any kind of TV reception and are reliant as before on friends slipping us naughty copies of the episodes.  So far we've seen the first two.  Thoughts on these are forthcoming, but first, I have a couple of months of reading to write up.

August books

Ptolemy's Gate, Jonathan Stroud
Yes indeed, a fine third volume in the Bartimaeus trilogy, with a surprising ending. Somebody really ought to make it into multiple blockbuster films.

There then followed a month of reading through old SF books picked up second hand in a friend-of-a-friend's clearing out sale.  These aren't all of them.  There are many more lurking in the dark corners of the shelf of books to be read.

10,000 Light-Years from Home, James Tiptree Jr
Ah, James Tiptree Jr.  He learned the game from his uncle James, now he's heir to the name.  Oh no, wait a minute -  that's James Bond Jr.
A variable collection of short stories.  I'm glad to have read it, because Tiptree - aka CIA spook and part-time author Alice Sheldon - was one of the significant gaps in my SF reading, but I'm unlikely to read more.  The first couple of stories were pretty good, the next couple kind of limp, and it seemed to alternate from there.  A lot of the material is just plain dated.  Most notable feature is Tiptree's penchant for over-ornate titles, and when the titles are more memorable than the stories, it could be said that there's something awry.

Alternating Currents, Frederick Pohl
Now, I do like a bit of Fred Pohl.  Previously read by the same author: Pohlstars, another collection of short stories, and that was it.  It was about time I read some more of his work.  Pohl has a talent for taking an idea and turning it completely on its side, and that's a definite virtue in genre material when you're reading it decades after publication.  Put simply, this stuff stands up well.

Time Transfer, Arthur Sellings
According to the back cover blurb, this is an author who's "often compared with Ray Bradbury".  Implicit in that would be the word "unfavourably".  A collection of utterly unremarkable stories, not one of which has a decent ending.  I could even have gone for an indecent ending, but no, sadly not.  Total blah.

Machines and Men, Keith Roberts
Short stories by the author of Pavane.  It's about half and half - and they're even grouped that way in the book - between stories of weird stuff entering the lives of everyman characters in present-day England, and tales of the near future.  The very last story is pretty much exactly what I'd expect to happen if Jeremy Clarkson ever wrote a SF story (a nightmarish dystopia ruled by traffic wardens, you say?).  Apart from that parting clanger, a pretty good collection.

September books

Make Room! Make Room!, Harry Harrison
Novel about a policeman pursuing a murder enquiry in an overpopulated near-future (at time of writing) New York.  However, there's no great mystery about it, the enquiry proves to be pointless (and is obviously so to the reader quite early on), and the policeman does himself no favours by seeing it through to the end, even though he's been ordered to drop it.  It'd be a "mean streets" story except that none of the sinister powerful characters in the story can be bothered to make his life difficult.  It's really more of a mood piece, a background in which a more interesting story might happen, and now I can understand how the film Soylent Green came about.  It's also been overtaken by reality, with its warnings of an overcrowded world that hasn't quite come to pass (yet).
I probably ought to stick to the funny Harrisons.

The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
The Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov
Asimov's famous robot detective novels - or at least, the first two.  It turns out there were another two I hadn't spotted, plus all the other novels to tie the robot books into the Foundation books; however, I've been advised to pretend those don't exist and to get out while I still have positive memories of these two.
These are indeed fine SF novels, for a 1950s value of fine.  (Requires allowances for outdated social attitudes, most notably where the female characters are concerned.)  The Caves of Steel presents a world in which intelligent robots are taking jobs from humans - it looks for a fair while as though it might sidestep into a political consideration of industrialised production, but this aspect of the story isn't developed.  I suppose post-war America wouldn't have liked it if it had been.  Protagonist Elijah Baley, plainclothesman, is faced with the prospect of robot detectives that can do his job better than him, which puts him under more than the usual pressure when he's partnered with Robot Daneel Olivaw to investigate an impossible murder.  The murder's impossible because no human could have committed it (because they'd have had to leave the confines of the City, and the whole of humanity is agoraphobic; it's a kind of inverted "good" version of Harrison's overcrowded future, and bugger knows where it gets its resources from) and no robot could have committed it (because the Three Laws of Robotics prevent them from harming humans).  Baley and Olivaw team up again in The Naked Sun to investigate another seemingly impossible murder, this time committed on a colony world whose human inhabitants have a pathological aversion to being in the same room as each other.  Worth a week of anyone's time.

The Music Instinct, Philip Ball
And this took up the rest of the month: a pop science book about how we perceive music.  The title seems to be a direct reference to Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct; in the introduction, Ball takes issue with Pinker's claim (in one of his other books) that music is a non-essential quirk of human society.  In fact, Ball spends a fair bit of the book taking issue with other academics' assertions about music (generally with good cause, in my opinion).  Like a lot of pop science books, it's very interesting but could have been briefer.

No comments: