Thursday, 29 December 2011

Author of the year

George R R Martin chosen Author of the year by USA Today.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Slow Week

We have family visiting Chez Szondy this week at the same time I'm facing a string of deadlines that Christmas has already kept me away from for too long.  Therefore, though I'll be posting the usual video features on Ephemeral Isle, other posts will be as and when I can find time.

Normal service will resume as soon as possible.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas
The Quill & The Keyboard

Back after Boxing Day

Friday, 23 December 2011

Review: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

In some households, Christmas is marked by reading Dickens's "A Christmas Carol".  Others with "The Gift of the Magi" and some by opening up a traditional ghost story.  At Chez Szondy, we celebrate the Yuletide with "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle".

I feel that this is appropriate, not only a proper Christmas story, but the season also looms large in Sherlock Holmes lore.  It was in the Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887 that A Study in Scarlet was published and it was in the Christmas issue of The Strand in 1893 that Watson's editor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tried to kill off Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls.  In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", Christmas has Holmes and Watson by the throat.  Watson visits Holmes at their old digs at 221B Baker Street to pay the detective the compliments of the season only to find Holmes intently studying a battered old hat.  This had been lost by a man  who'd been set upon by roughs in Tottenham Court Road along with a fine Christmas goose.  The commissionaire who witnessed the scuffle and the fleeing of both the roughs and the man found himself in the possession of hat and goose and took them to Holmes because he knew that the detective found even the smallest problems of interest.  In the interest of waste not, want not, Holmes told the commissionaire to keep the goose for his family's Christmas dinner while Holmes retained the hat.

Naturally, Holmes is able to deduce all manner of things about the headgear, but what he couldn't deduce was that the commissionaire would find a fabulous jewel in the crop of the goose–a jewel that had been a sensation since its disappearance earlier in the week.  The question is, how did it come to be inside the bird and what did the owner of the hat have to do with it?  What follows is a tale of Holmes and Watson descending into the would of London poulterers as they retrace the goose's career.

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is one of the best written, certainly one of the most charming of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Never mind that many over the years have delighted in picking apart Holmes's hat deductions.  They were never meant to stand up to serious examination in the fist place, since they were merely a literary device to convince the reader of his analytical powers,  They serve their purpose and serve it well and Holmes uncovering the secret of Mr Henry Baker's life from the stains and dust on his hat are a classic of the mystery genre.

Beyond that, we have what truly makes the Holmes stories unique.  In this adventure, we have on display Conan Doyle's spare, economical writing style that has held up so well after over one and a quarter centuries.  He brings Victorian London to life so well that the modern capital can't compete with it for all its wifi hot spots and bicycle lanes and glass gherkins.  It is a live, vivid city that we feel that we are truly visiting.

And, of course, there is the friendship between Holmes and Watson that is the foundation of the stories and what keeps drawing us back.  See the two in a Christmas settings is a cozy, reassuring episode that ends with a neat little dispensation of justice, Yule spirit and another mystery with a bird as the centrepiece.

Happy Christmas from The Quill & The Keyboard.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Review: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin (1996)

Winter is coming, but the Seven Kingdoms don't seem very bothered about it.  While the men of the Black Watch stare at the northern wastes and its unknown dangers from their gigantic wall of ice, the lords of the kingdoms to the south play at a game of thrones to determine who will rule over the others.  For 15 years after slayer the Mad King, King Robert has sat on the Iron Throne, but the mysterious death of his first minister, the King's Hand, as set into motion events that will through the realm into civil war.  Caught in the middle of this is Robert's old friend Lord Eddard Stark, who is selected to replace his dead predecessor.  It's an unwelcome appointment, as Eddard would rather remain in his home of Winterfell with his family and he finds that Robert is not the man he used to be.  Worse, Eddard and the entire Stark family soon find themselves caught in a web of mystery and intrigue as Eddard tries to get to the bottom of what is going on while keeping his honour and those he loves safe.

A Game of Thrones is the first volume of George R R Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series.  As such, it is the sort of book I dislike on first principles.  I'm never keen on airport doorstop novels and have little relish for ploughing through 700 pages only to discover that it ends with "To be continued"  I dislike it even more when the series is still continuing after five massive volumes.  Either Martin has an incredible plot mapped out in great detail or he's winging it and I'd hate to have to flip 30,000 pages to find a train wreck at the end.

That being said, Thrones is a definite improvement on the HBO series that it spawned.  Where the television incarnation is confusing and I often felt like I'd forgotten to bring my study guide, the novel delves far enough into back story and the characters to clue me in on the plot.  It also makes more sense because the story telling is tighter, there's no budget to restrict the action and the book is mercifully free of gratuitous naked boobies and homoerotic shaving scenes.

It's not badly written.  In fact, Martin's style is disciplined and his main characters are nicely handled, though second tier cast and below blur together in a maddening fashion.  The main problem is that there is just too much going on and much of it is needless.  There are entire plots that have nothing to do with the main action and could easily have been dropped.  Others are like over-laboured set ups that could have been achieved much more economically with a few lines of dialogue and one is merely distracting.  This is a pity because Martin's main plot lines are very good.  What he should have done is taken one of the plots, Eddard's or that of the dwarf Tyrion (the only really interesting character) and used that as the basis of a single, smaller book.  I'd have been happy to read a 200 page novel about Eddard's mystery solving or Tyrion's attempts to stay alive in hostile territory, but mashed together with a load of filler until it tips out at 750 pages?  No, thank you.

Some might council patience and point out that it's part of a larger story like The Lord of the Rings.  To this, I'd remind them that LOTR was one book broken into three by the publisher and that even in a multi-volume series it is reasonable to expect each one to be self-standing.  Cliff hangers are fine, but wondering what the deuce dragon girl has to do with anything else in the story is too much, sorry.

The best take on the whole thing, a coffee stand sign I saw that said, "Winter is coming–So, why not warm up with an egg nog latte?"  Every problem is an opportunity.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Review: Wilt

Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)

Henry Wilt is unhappy.  After ten years of trying to teach English literature to day-release apprentices in classes like Meat One and Plasterers Two, he's fed up.  He's a good teacher, but hasn't a chance of getting anywhere because the nitwits who run the college are desperate to get the place upgraded to a poly, so they're only interested in promoting post-modern poseurs who can't string together a coherent sentence.  Worse, Wilt is married to Eva, a large woman of even larger enthusiasms who throws herself so completely into whatever she does that she can turn a flower arranging class into a threat to life and limb.  Seeing his life sinking deeper and deeper into a grey mass of unchanging attempts at having something like a peaceful home life while trying to get gas fitters interested in Shane, Wilt tries to console himself as he walks the dog with fantasies of murdering his wife.

Then Eva meets a sophisticated American couple who seems to be everything she yearns for, but it's a meeting that results in Wilt being arrested for murder and the start of a nightmare–for the police inspector who arrests him.

Tom Sharpe is one of those authors who is very hard to explain in summary.  His novels are always gut-bustingly funny with passages that leave the reader literally breathless with laughter, but his humour works by the build up of a carefully constructed farce.  Wilt's attempt to dispose of a rubber sex doll is uproariously funny, but it's impossible to explain why.  You have to read it yourself to get the build up to the climax.  The same goes for the sequence of events that lead to Inspector Flint looking at his pork pie and realising that he may be an accessory after the fact to a murder.

What can be said is that Wilt is arguably Sharpe's best novel.  His creation of Henry Wilt is a masterpiece of an Everyman who sees his life slipping away from him on a daily basis, yet comes to discover hidden talents in himself that ultimately allow him to overcome all obstacles.  His wife, Eva, is equally well written.  As Wilt describes her,
Eva is not forceful. She is a force. There's a difference. And as for character, she has so many and they're so varied it"s difficult to keep up with them all. Let's just say she throws herself into whoever she is with an urgency and compulsiveness that is not always appropriate. You remember that series of Garba pictures they showed on TAI some years back? Well, Eva was La Dame Aux Camelias for three days after that and she made dying of TB look like St Vitus' dance. Talk about galloping consumption.
They are a perfect match for one another and when they are unleashed, woe to the world.

The other thing that is delightful about Sharpe is that he is so gloriously un-PC.  Having been deported from South Africa during the Apartheid era,  he saw up close and personal what mental conformity looked like and has no truck with it.  In Wilt, as in his other novels, he takes great delight in skewering targets on the Left and Right, but takes particular pleasure in going for the soft targets of liberal pretence and hypocrisy.  This is probably the reason why his books, though still in print, don't get the recognition they deserve.

Something Henry Wilt would understand.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Review: The Science of Sherlock Holmes

The Science of Sherlock Holmes by E J Wagner

Sherlock Holmes is regarded as the world's greatest detective.  More than that, he is that rare instance of a fictional character who has not only become a household word, not only become a part of popular culture and folklore, but has joined that elite group of characters whom many people firmly believe really existed.  Dr Watson's accounts of his exploits, edited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are wonderful stories filled with adventure and the portrayal of a remarkable friendship, but they are also a primer of logical thinking and of proper crime detecting methods.  Indeed, much of modern police work can be traced back to Sherlock Holmes.  Therefore, a book about the science of Holmes would be a fascinating exploration of both the Holmesian Canon and forensic investigation.

Unfortunately, this book is not it.  The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a major disappointment.  Far from examining the science behind Sherlock Holmes, Miss Wagner merely uses the great detective as a framing device for a book that is little more than a potted and very superficial history of forensic science.  We are introduced to fingerprinting, the acid bath murders, Crippen, and the usual assortment of the lurid and the mundane, but it is territory that has been ploughed much more deeply and thoroughly by better writers and using the gimmick of referring occasionally to  Holmes before dancing off to talk about blood stains does a disservice to both topics.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Harlan Ellison

Frederick Pohl looks at science fictions perpetual enfant terrible, Harlan Ellison.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Review: Kalin

Kalin by E C Tubb

In his endless search for his home planet Earth, Earl Dumarest manages to forget the lost of his first love Derai when he meets a troubled woman named Kalin, who has the ability to see into the future.  Lost in a life bubble after surviving a botched hijacking attempt that destroys the ship they were travelling on, Dumarest and Kalin are rescued by a slaver.  Though Dumarest has enough money to keep them from being sold on the auction block, they instead find themselves dropped on the planet Chron; a miserable mining planet where the mines run on slave labour and there is no other way to earn a living.  Dumarest must find a way to keep both himself and his new love alive while finding a way off the planet.  Meanwhile, on another planet, the Cyclan sends one of their order to offer his services to a local noble, despite the fact that their world is too poor to afford their services.  What is it that they seek there?

The fourth book in the Dumarest Saga, this is where the series settles down into the pattern it will maintain from now on.  With less of an emphasis on intrigue than on a plot revolving around survival in various forms, Kalin is a simple, harsh story with moments of real tension when it seems that Dumarest is well and truly screwed for good.  More important, up until now, the relationship between Dumarest and the Cyclan has been one of mere mutual hatred–the Cyclan have killed those Dumrest loved and tried to kill him repeatedly, while he has been a thorn in the order's side.  By the end of this book, this changes when Dumarest comes into possession of a secret that the Cyclan want desperately and will stop at nothing to recover.  After this, Dumarest's quest becomes a chase as well.  Also, we learn more about the benevolent Brotherhood, who become allies of Dumarest in his adventures, though only as far their code permits.  Nevertheless, we get more insights into their organisation and another dimension is added to the saga.

This novel not only marks a turning point  in the saga, but it is also the one where Tubb reveals a greater love and command of the English language.  His descriptions become more on the mark and the world that forms the backdrop to Dumarest's adventures becomes more vivid and even stark at times.  It is here that the saga really begins.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Review: The Road to Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

A remarkable thing about Orwell's writing is that even his prose rises so easily to the level of literature.  The Road to Wigan Pier is, at the end of the day, a work of sociology and a polemic call to action.  Orwell's concise yet evocative style provides a moving account of working class life in the coal mines and industrial cities of Northern England in the 1930s.  In fact, he does such a good job that anyone who pounds the table about poverty in Britain after 1955 looks like a fool to anyone who recalls the true privations and hardships that Orwell so movingly records

The second half of the book has dated very badly.  There Orwell gives a very open and honest account of why he became a Socialist, his idea of a proper Socialist society and what he thinks of fellow Socialists who are little more than poseurs and opportunists.  It's reasonably thought out, though one is astonished that Orwell seemed to regard the economy as a zero-sum game and it never occurred to him that the way to raise the poor out of their misery was largely a matter of making everyone more prosperous.  The idea of wealth creation never seems to have crossed his mind.

Worse, after over seventy years, we have a tremendous wealth of hindsight with which to judge the Socialist experiment; how it has been an abject failure across the board resulting in everything bankrupt welfare states at one end and murderous Communist and Fascist regimes at the other.  It is tragic that Orwell never saw that what he regarded as aberrations of Socialism were, in fact, the core of an ideology that did not understand human nature, never delivered what it promised and proved a ready-made template for every busybody, bureaucrat or totalitarian who craved more power.

The ironic thing is that Orwell did actually see one great truth, but he never recognised it as truth.  He observed that the working classes saw Socialism as being nothing more than being allowed to live their lives as they'd always lived them, holding on to the ideals, beliefs and institutions that they loved and were familiar with, but where they were paid more, worked less and treated decently.  Ironically, that's all they did want, expected to receive when the Welfare State reared up, and what they were denied as the Socialists unveiled their contempt for Britain, her history and her people as the old Establishment died and the New Political Class rose in its place; a class that looks more like something out of a couple of Mr Orwell's later, more prophetic books.  This is why so many in Britain today see the fruits of Socialism as making Britons feel like strangers in there own country.

Perhaps someone needs to make take another trip along that road to find that elusive pier.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Review: The Voyage of the Space Beagle

The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A E Van Vogt

In July 1939, Van Vogt's first short story, "Black Destroyer" was published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine.  By 1950, it, along with three other stories, were collected and rewritten to form his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle.

The plot is familiar to anyone who's seen an episode of Star Trek, which isn't surprising because Beagle set the format for all the later space voyaging series.  In the  distant future, the giant starship Space Beagle is on a mission of exploration.  Exactly what this mission is and why they're out there is never made clear.  Apparently, pop off and have a butcher's was regarded as a sufficient brief to hurl a thousand men on a multi-year trek between galaxies.  While bouncing about space, the crew of the Space Beagle encounter the terrifying Coeurl in Van Vogt's première story, a creature retrieved in the depths of space in a tale that was the inspiration for a number of science fiction films ending in Alien, a mind attack right out of the Star Trek handbook, and a galaxy-eating gas monster.  In each case, the crew face a new monster, battle it and defeat it in a fashion that becomes formulaic by the end of the book.  In order to make this into a novel, Van Vogt stirs in a healthy dose of his obsession with mental self-improvement by introducing as his hero a "Nexialist"; a man who specialises in not specialising, but through hypnosis and lots of deck-staking on Van Vogt's part is able to master all the sciences simultaneously.  Naturally, despite the prejudice of his crew mates, he saves the day in every story and wins acceptance for his self-improvement regime.

Despite its fameThe Voyage of the Space Beagle is something of a disappointment.  The beautifully laid on atmosphere and sense of menace that "Black Destroyer" offered is ruined here as it is shoehorned into a novel and made to serve the ends of setting up the hero.  The next three episodes don't build on the plot or pick up the pace, but rather slow it down and dissipate any drama that might have existed.  Worse, each one is of poorer quality than the last until finally the whole thing bogs down in what can only be described as an anticlimax.  This may be a book worth picking up for historical value, but I'd much more recommend reading "Black Destroyer" in its unadulterated form and then seeking out the other short stories as opportunity offers itself.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Review: The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel by Ursula K Le Guin (1971)

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William ShakespeareThe Tempest: Act 4, scene 1, 148–158
That's how The Lathe of Heaven should have started, but, instead, we get an obscure quote about Confucius.  It's neither a very apt quote and neither is it very surprising, which pretty much sums up the novel.  Despite her reputation, which I've always thought was due more to her politics than her talent, Le Guin has always been a very tepid writer who never could come to grip with her stories.  Some novels end, others stop, Le Guin's just peter out as she runs out of things to say.  From the detached, disinterested tone she brings to her writing, I often suspect that she simply gets bored with a project beyond a certain point and only wants to get shot of it.  The Lathe of Heaven is no exception.

George Orr is an unexceptional man of the year 2002.  In fact, he's so unexceptional that he's exceptional because of it.  On every scale he lands right on the mean.  The only true peculiarity about his is that when he dreams, they become reality, but only he is aware of this change.  Convicted of drug abuse after trying to dope himself into not dreaming, Orr is sent to Dr Haber,  a psychologist who specialises in dream research.  Haber soon discovers Orr's secret and starts to use it to alter the world to suit his own ends and a battle of wills soon develops.

This is a story that couldn't be written today; one seemingly about world-shaking consequences, but really a  fight between two men in a doctor's office.  In many ways, the sci fi element could be eliminated and this could be simply a drama about a man and his psychiatrist.  Orr is well drawn, though maddeningly passive, effeminate, ineffectual and (worst) fatalistic.  And we're supposed to identify with him.  Haber, on the other hand, is a walking caricature of a Benthamite gone wild; creating the greatest good for the greatest number right and left and damn the consequences.   Surprisingly for such an arch-Feminist author, Le Guinn's female character, Heather Lelache, is very sketchy and peripheral with Le Guinn imagining it's enough to make a woman "strong" by telling us she is.

The real problem is that this is a novel of ideas and most of them are half-digested New Age quasi-zen pap mixed in with Le Guinn's background research on dream psychology that she insists on sharing in toto.  Worse than that, she is incapable of merely making a point and then moving on.  Instead, she is forever circling back to something from earlier chapters and labours it until it's as thin as the seat of an old pair of trousers.  We got the point a hundred pages ago, please ease up and hold the literary flourishes.  Finally, the story doesn't so much resolve as take a last gasp of air and expire.

Adapted for the screen, once by PBS and remade with James Cann in what seemed like a fit of absent mindedness, The Lathe of Heaven is a decent story, but one that ultimately sinks under it's philosophical and literary pretences.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Review: The Skylark of Space

The Skylark of Space by E E "Doc" Smith (1928)

Chemist Richard "Dick" Seaton watches in astonishment as his experiment flies out the window and into infinity.  Before you can say "radium" Seaton realises he has discovered the secret of atomic energy and without missing a beat gets his best friend to back him in building a spaceship.  However, evil mastermind Richard "Blackie" DuQuesne is also after the secret and does all sorts of dastardly things to get a monopoly on the new power source, including kidnapping Seaton's fiancée in a spaceship of his own.

Skylark is one of the true classics of early science fiction, but "classic:" doesn't always translate into good.  This is a novel where to call the characters two-dimensional would be a compliment.  As to the plot, Smith sets up his chess pieces, gives you a good 360 degree look at them, and then sets them in motion with zero suspense or even conflict.  True, there are villains and fist clenchings and all sorts of melodramatic goings on, but none of it means anything because nothing is ever at stake.  When our heroes can effectively forget about the black-hearted Duquesne for the last half of the book, something is seriously wrong.  Instead, we get spectacles, set piece battles, and escapes that are about as engaging as watching a string of firecrackers go off.  And there are banquets.  Every time Smith's plot bogs down he has everyone march off to eat.

Worse, most everything depends  on a staggering string of coincidences.  Our heroes just happens to come across an airfleet bineg attacked by monsters never before seen in such numbers.  The fleet just happens to be that of the emperor of the planet they're visiting, who just happens to have the leader of his enemies captives, who the emperor just happens to give the Earthmen as a slave and who just happens to have a thought teaching device he just happens to have just invented.  And so on, and so on.

The only thing that keeps this going is sheer brass with Smith rolling out scientific wonder upon wonder in a parade of power fantasies.  Small wonder it was such a sensation in 1928.  It hasn't the "what the hell" bravado of Smith's later Lensman series, but it does point the way.