Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Deadline

I've got two deadlines due today,  so posting will be a bit spotty through tomorrow.

Friday, 23 March 2012

H P Lovecraft examined

The BBC and horror author Ramsey Campbell look at the life and influence of H P Lovecraft.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Review: The Wrong Box

The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne (1889)

When we think of Robert Louis Stevenson, we generally conjure up images out of Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but we usually don't associate him with Victorian comic novels.  Yet The Wrong Box, which one of several novels he wrote in collaboration with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, is just such an example.  Filled with thoroughly silly characters, asides to the reader, complaints against the publisher being stingy about including maps and barrow loads of word play, it chronicles the chain of events centred around the last two surviving members of a tontine.  That is, an investment set up in the name of a group of young boys decades ago with the profits going to the last surviving boy.

Perhaps "boy" isn't the right word, because they last two brothers are in their mid seventies.  At any rate, a mix up in identities in a rail accident lead to the heirs of one brother thinking that he's died in the wreck when, in reality, he's merely taken the opportunity to escape from the smothering care of his relations.  Hoping to keep in the running for the tontine, the two cousins who accompanied their supposedly dead uncle on the train pack up what they think is his body and ship it to themselves in hope of keeping their uncle literally on ice until his brother dies.  Unfortunately, there's a mix up in the packing labels and the wrong box goes to the wrong address.  Now the cousins are in possessions of a giant marble statue and an artist has a dead body.  How is one party to recover it before the second party fobs it off on a third party?  And what will the third party do with the body?  And what about the escaped uncle?

The Wrong Box is definitely a funny read.  Rudyard Kipling pronounced it a real thigh-slapper, though not in those words.  His characters are often very odd from the uncle who is a terrifying bore to a very unartistic artist and the book's voice has the clever, conversational snap of Jerome or Wodehouse.   It's meringue, but one can't fault meringue for what it is.

The only fly in the ointment is that Stevenson and Osbourne missed the opportunity to crank this funny tale into full-on farce by making it more relentlessly logical.  Each of the instances follow on very nicely fromthe previous, but there isn't any real tangling of the skeins and we never worry about how anyone is going to get themselves out of the snarl.  Worse, the resolutions come sequentially rather than in fast order, so when the final plot point falls, it has a feeling of anti-climax.

Once a rarity known only to the haunters of the more obscure secondhand book shops, The Wrong Box is now easily available on line to anyone who wishes to just follow the link at the top of this review.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Review: The Gods of Mars

The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918)

Captain John Carter of Virginia returns once again by inexplicable means to the planet Mars, but instead of appearing in the arms of his beloved wife Dejah Thoris he finds himself at the shores of some unknown sea and under attack by hordes of bizarre plant men and carnivorous white apes.  And so he embarks on an adventure where he plumbs the mysteries of Mars's South Pole, discovers the secrets of the Therns and the central conspiracy behind the Martian religion.

If you had to come up with a tag line for this novel is would be, "Three times the action, three times the adventure, three times the princesses".  Burroughs is obviously worried here about letting down his readers after the success of A Princess of Mars, so he hedges his bets by ladling on the action with a trowel.  There are battles royal, fleets of air ships, rushing about, escapes, sword fights, skulkings, revolts, wars, intrigues, treacheries, revelations and just about anything else you can imagine.  There are even not one, not two, but three sets of villains to keep the reader's attention.

Burroughs maintains much of what made the previous novel work.  We're once again in a new world to explore, there's loads of action and he is able to convey that marvelous sense of the exotic that makes Burroughs truly stand out as a writer. The only real criticism here is that he sometimes puts it on too heavy and we come away wishing that he'd just get on with it.

Still, it is a cracking read with lots of swashbuckling and a cliffhanger ending, so we can be forgiving.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Carter of the Red Planet

And now for something completely different, a serialisation of A Princess of Mars abridged for people with really short attention spans.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Review: The Jester at Scar

The Jester at Scar by E C Tubb (1970)

Scar is a viscous world.  Circling close to a red sun, its winters are a long night of cold monsoons and the summer an endless day marked by impossible growths of fungus that are at once incredibly valuable and unbelievably deadly.  It is to this world that Dumarest has come in order to race a stake to finance his hunt for Earth.  Meanwhile, a strange couple have come to Scar on a seeming whim; the ruler of the planet Jest and his new wife who is a noble from a violent, puritanical world.  As Dumarest fights against the deadly ecology of the world in quest of his fortune, he must guard his back against a shadowy someone who has made more than one attempt on his life and has a curious interest in rings that look similar to the one Dumarest wheres.

And, as always, the Cyclan are never far away.

The fifth in the Dumarest Saga, The Jester at Scar is something of a breather for us.  Dumarest is in possession of the secret that the Cyclan will stop at nothing to recover, but he is still unaware that it's been passed on to him.  The action here is hard and gritty with vivid descriptions of a world that goes from barren, muddy wasteland to riotous jungle in a matter of days.  Tubb also shows that even though he's writing a formulaic series, he can still take the time to provide subplots of reform and redemption as well as an intriguing portrait of a character done in broad strokes who at first seems like a madman who makes life and death decisions based on the spin of a coin, but turns out to have very practical reasons for doing so.

Not as high adventure as other books in the series, this one is more like a punch-up in the corner of the ring and holds the attention for that very change of pace.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Review: Omnilingual

"Omnilingual" by H Beam Piper (1957)

The year is 1996 and the first expedition to Mars discovers a highly advanced technological civilisation.  The only problem is, the Martians have been dead for half a million years and all that is left are their crumbling cities buried under hundreds of feet of ever-settling dust.  Martha Dane, is one of the expedition's tiny archaeology team and she's in trouble with her ambitious superior because she's spending too much time trying to decipher the Martian language.  Though many books have been found, it isn't an easy task because, unlike on Earth, there's no common third language with the Martians that can act as a guide.  Without a Martian Rosetta Stone, all she can read are the numbers and perhaps a couple of words.  Her fellow archaeologists and the reporters in the expedition may not regard her work as important, but Martha knows that without being able to read the books of the Martians, archaeology will always be an also-ran in exploring Mars.

"Omnilingual" is one of those sci-fi stories that archaeologists love.  It's even used as a text in courses at various universities.  In lesser hands, the "idea" behind the story would have been a ham-fisted "so what?", but Piper sets it in the context of a larger story as we're taken on a short tour of a world as it died.  Mars wasn't a planet that succumbed to a sudden catastrophe.  Instead it was a history of succeeding civilisations; each one withdrawing a bit more like the shrinking seas receding on their beds.  We follow Martha and her colleagues as they explore a city that was systematically stripped as it reached its end with empty building after empty building looted by the last generations or crushed beneath the ever-deepening dust.  It's an odd mix of lamentation, a melancholy reflected in the words of the eldest archaeologist who sees himself at the end of his useful life, and intrigue as we see the explorers come across new discoveries that open new possibilities that end in Martha's final vindication.

Piper did his homework for "Omnilingual" and for the trained archaeologist it often reads like a potted account of popular archaeology of the 1950s, but it's a nice little dollop of knowledge for the general reader mixed in with a thoroughly satisfactory plot.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Review: Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov, based a screenplay by Harry Kleiner, adaptation by David Duncan, based on a story by Otto Klement and Jay Lewis Bixby (1966)

A famous scientist with information vital to the survival of the Free World is injured in a failed assassination attempt.  In order to save his life and the knowledge he holds, a medical team is reduced to the size of a microbe and injected into him in to carry out an impossible brain operation.

This novelisation of the 1966 screenplay is famous because the production delays went on for so long that Asimov's version came out months before the film did.  Because of this, the myth was born that the film was based on the book despite the very clear credits on the front cover.  Asimov didn't really care much for the script.  He felt that it was scientifically inaccurate and full of plot holes and insisted that he be allowed to write it as he saw fit.  The studio wasn't too bothered about the novelisation, so they let him have his way.  The result is Asimov's only science fiction novel of the 1960s; a time when he'd turned his hand almost entirely to writing popular science.

When a film is turned into a novel, it's usually a harkening back to the days before recordings and on-demand technology was available; a time when a book was the only alternative to memory and the Late Movie.   At best, a novelisation adds to the film by expanding it, giving us more insights into the character's minds or even affording the opportunity for a last rewrite before history declares its verdict.

Fantastic Voyage is Asimov's crack at the latter.  In some ways, this is Asimov's weakest novel because it isn't his own story and he'd a bit disgruntled about it.  In others, it's his best because he's working from images given to him by the studio, so his descriptions are, for once, up to par. He tries to expand on the characters, but the more he opens them up, the smaller they become.  The secret agent Grant goes from professional and heroic to a mess of fed up combined with adolescent boorishness.  Cora goes from an attractive woman with a crush on an older man to one of Asimov's weakling Feminists. Duval is still a deeply religious man, but since Asimov wasn't, he has no idea how to handle this.  Worse, Asimov was entirely adverse to reusing script dialogue, so the conversations are now rambling and pedantic.

As to filling the plot holes, Asimov is constantly doing so to either holes that are not germane to the plot or that weren't plot holes in the first place as Asimov keeps second guessing the script with far too many ifs and buts tossed like a salad.  Even dealing with the famous one of the destroyed submarine being left behind is done in a way that only makes matters worse.  He just couldn't understand that if you're in a corner like that and you can't get out by a total rewrite, then you just have to brass it out and rely on refrigerator logic.

The reasons behind the shortfalls are threefold.  First, Asimov was a bit of a pedant himself and wanted to conduct the tour of the human body himself.  Second, Asimov loved whodunnits that end with a long-winded, genteel explanation of events so that he bent the script in the service of one.  And third, the Cold War plot with the Americans as the goodies and the Soviets as the baddies didn't sit well with Asimov, who was quite left-wing and I suspect flirted with Communism in his youth.  According to FBI records, the Communists certainly thought him a likely recruit.  So, the "who is the assassin in the sub?" subplot, which was as straightforward as you can get, is dumped in favour of one with needless red herrings and the villain turning out to be not a cold-blooded KGB agent bent on murder at any costs, but a conscientious scientist who is worried that the US military would become too powerful, subvert the miniaturisation project away from pure science and probably start World War III, so he snaps and acts as a lone agent and all that assassination stuff is mere window dressing by coincidence.

Most unfortunate.