The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (2008) 439 p.

Two hundred years from now, following catastrophic climate change and devastating wars, the remaining people of Earth have been united under a handful of super-states: the Pacific Community, the European Union, and Greater Brazil (encompassing most of the Americas). In the solar system, meanwhile, genetically altered human colonists called “Outers” have fled to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn after a war with Earth saw their colonies on Mars totally eliminated. As the Outers intend to spread further and deeper into space, and the repressive, conservative governments of Earth feel uncomfortable with allowing what they see as a new species to prosper, war seems to be brewing once again.

The Quiet War is at least in part a parable about the Cold War, with two sides holding diametrically opposed philosophies and conflict seeming inevitable despite the fact that most people don’t want it to happen. Or one could read it as an allegory for the Iraq War (not that either side matches up), given that it’s instigated almost entirely by a small group of people on one side, and the reader is led to sympathise with the large but ultimately marginalised peace movement. The novel is told from the point of view of a few different characters, the most important amongst them being Macy Minnot, a American scientist sent as part of a team to work on the construction of a biome on Callisto by the government of Brazil. The biome is a good faith gesture which elements of the Brazilian government want to sabotage, and through a series of events Macy is framed for murder and forced to defect to the Outers. McAuley is thus given the opportunity to take us on a grand tour of his invented world as Macy begins her new life as an exile in the outer system, the drumbeats of war growing louder.

You can easily see the influence of Kim Stanley Robinson in this novel, not just in the thoughtful scope of his futuristic world-building and the repeated scientific infodumps, but also in the sort of worldviews he, as an author, seems to possess. There’s an awful lot of exposition when it comes to both scene-setting (understandably hard to avoid in this type of story) and character motivation (less tolerable). His two major characters are both scientists – rational, intelligent, level-headed people constantly troubled by the lesser minds around them. There’s one particularly telling scene on Ganymede, where Macy is trying to settle into her new life and is constantly harassed and bullied by a “cosmo angel” named Jibril, a narcissistic performance artist who films and disseminates her reactions. Jibril is the only “traditional” artist of any kind in the book; certainly the genetic creations of some of the more genius scientists are presented as art. The presentation of this character, along with a fellow Ganymedean’s suggestion to Macy that she should “video them videoing you and post it; make your own art that critiques Jibril’s,” gave me a fairly clear idea of what Paul McAuley, hard science fiction writer, thinks about the respective importance of art and science.

But as with Robinson, it’s hard to fault him for it, when he’s presenting such a beautiful vision of science as art: of the human race spreading out across the worlds, harnessing technology to create new life, building floating gardens in the atmosphere of Saturn or treetop cities on low gravity moons where humans fly between the branches. It’s a compelling vision of a possible future for humanity, war and all, which makes you vaguely depressed to look up from it and remember that it’s 2014 and we still have no plans to go to Mars. I can see why it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award; it’s a pretty classic candidate.

It’s a shame, on the whole, that The Quiet War’s story – with its clunky exposition, constant political subterfuge and doublecrossing, and unmemorable characters – doesn’t quite live up to the world it takes place in. (Story of science fiction’s life, I guess.) It also ends on a somewhat abrupt note, with the war over but the outer system in disarray, and the characters treading water. There’s a sequel, which I’ll probably read, but I’m in no rush to do so.

The Ill-Made Knight by T.H. White (1940) 484 p.

I have by this point realised that T.H. White’s Arthurian fantasy series, The Once and Future King, is a modern take on a legend he assumes the reader is already quite familiar with. Perhaps every British schoolchild in the 1930s learnt about it, but for foreign or even modern readers it’s a bit different. My sum total knowledge of the legend is more or less John Boorman’s film Excalibur, and it’s been a long time since I saw that, as part of the muddled ninth grade English curriculum in a public school in Australia.

This isn’t to say that the books are hard to follow. They’re almost a child’s fantasy, written simply and with a tone that alternates between serious and jocular. But White quite often refers (especially in The Ill-Made Knight) to a scene by saying “Malory describes this” or “you can find a better account in Malory,” referring to Sir Thomas Malory, the 15th century Norman writer who popularised the legends in Britain. Many of the legend’s pivotal scenes, such as the quest for the Holy Grail, occur mostly off-screen or are related second-hand. The Ill-Made Knight is largely the story of Lancelot, covering his childhood, his arrival at Camelot, his affair with Guinevere, and the eventual decay of Arthur’s Round Table.

Although I think The Once and Future King would be more enjoyable to somebody with a basic grounding in Arthurian legend, this isn’t the reason I don’t like it as much as I expected to. It’s just not my cup of tea, even though I can plainly see White’s skill and I understand why the series as a whole is considered a classic. I found the focus on the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere to be tiresome, for example, when King Arthur is the far more interesting character – a just and fair ruler, growing increasingly troubled, in this book, by the hypocrisy inherent in his creation of a kingdom of laws which he accomplished by the use of force. And Merlin is entirely absent in The Ill-Made Knight, which is a shame, because White’s amusing interpretation of him as an omniscient, time-travelling, benevolent puppet master is one of the series’ better characters.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed The Ill-Made Knight more than The Witch in the Wood, because it felt more central to the series as a whole and serves more or less as an epic story of one man’s life in its own regard. I just hope the series picks up again towards the end.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915) 89 p.

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

This is one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and the general concept of The Metamorphosis, which hovers on the borderline of being a short story or a novella, is one of literature’s most famous and fascinating stories. No explanation is given for Gregor Samsa’s terrible fate; he and his family must simply endure it. Almost the entire novella takes place within the Samsa family’s apartment, and over a mere 61 pages Kafka develops an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, alienation and sheer misery at the unjustness of the world.

This is a book many students are forced to read in high school, probably because of its short length, like The Great Gatsby, with no consideration for the fact that high school students probably aren’t yet equipped to appreciate the themes it explores (again like The Great Gatsby). There are dozens if not hundreds of scholarly interpretations as to what The Metamorphosis is allegorising; mental illness and depression are popular ideas. If I had to throw my hat into the ring I’d suggest it’s about the struggles of adulthood, the sometimes crushing sense of responsibility, the loss of innocence; much is made of the fact that Gregor, in his early twenties, has been working as a salesman to support his recently impoverished family, and following his transformation his inability to work and provide for them leaves him with a terrible sense of guilt. On the very morning of the metamorphosis the head clerk arrives from his office, demanding to know why he has not turned up for work, and it’s almost a scene of black comedy as Gregor attempts to leave the bed and open the door, to reassure his superior that he is fit and able and enthusiastic. The fact that he has turned into a monster is of secondary concern to his job security.

This particular edition has a couple of Kafka’s other short stories at the back, presumably because the publisher wanted to pad the length out. None of them struck me as particularly memorable. The Metamorphosis, on the other hand, deserves its status as a literary classic – an enduring symbol of alienation in human society.

Saga Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (2012) 160 p.

This is the first collected edition of Brian K. Vaughan’s space opera comic Saga, gathering issues 1-6. The story begins as star-crossed lovers Marko and Alana, both deserters from opposite sides of an interstellar war, are holed up in a garage on a planet called Cleave, with Alana heavily pregnant and about to give birth. Volume One covers the misadventures of the couple and their baby as they attempt to escape the planet, pursued by military forces and bounty hunters.

Saga is heavily inspired by Star Wars; this is space opera as fantasy rather than science fiction, and Vaughan goes a step further than Lucas by openly involving magic. It’s also a heavily weird comic, in a weird why-the-hell-not way rather than the more mythic, deadly serious weirdness of something like Brandom Graham’s Prophet. Within the pages of Saga you’ll find a forest that grows rocket ships, a sort of deadly women/spider centaur, the ghost of a girl who dresses and speaks like a ‘90s SoCal teenager, a seahorse-like alien who acts as a Hollywood-style “agent” for various violent bounty hunters, soldiers who ride pegasuses (pegasi?) for some reason, and sex scenes between robots with TV monitors for heads (characters who are, I hope, inspired by Evan Dahm’s The One Electronic in Rice Boy). Whether or not you like Saga depends largely on how happy you are to embrace this sort of madcap, tongue-in-cheek creativity, and whether you think it strikes the right balance between playfulness and gravitas. Personally I was okay with it, but we’ll see how future volumes go.

The pacing is solid. You can tell that this is the beginning of what Vaughan hopes will be a long story, and Saga is an apt title for a work like this. The story has an omniscient narration by the couple’s infant daughter Hazel, who looks back on their struggles from a future vantage point, Wonder Days style, which I think works well. Opening the story with Hazel’s birth was absolutely the right moment to do so, throwing the reader into a family’s life-or-death struggle against a hostile universe from the exact moment they properly became a family, and I like the idea that Saga could chart a character’s entire life in this crazy universe from birth to death.

Saga is not precisely the kind of epic science fiction story I’d like to read – I’d probably prefer something a little more serious – but I still liked it quite a bit, and I’ll keep reading it. Volume One is a solid opening to what I hope develops further and becomes a classic sprawling space opera.

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathon Lethem (1999) 311 p.

Motherless Brooklyn is the first of Lethem’s more well-known novels, and so I was expecting to really like it, particularly after Girl in Landscape left me cold. It follows native Brooklynite Lionel Essrog, who is recruited in childhood along with a few friends from an orphanage (hence the title) by local small-time crook Frank Minna, to be groomed as what Minna styles “private detectives,” but who are actually just goons, thugs, or whatever you’d like to call them. In the novel’s opening scene, Frank is killed, and Motherless Brooklyn revolves around Lionel’s quest to solve the mystery of his father-figure’s murder.

Lionel also has Tourette’s syndrome (much less well-known when the novel was written), and his investigative interviews are hampered by his constant outbursts of verbal nonsense. There’s probably a postmodern reason for this, something to do with investigations, truth, the way our minds tick, etc. But I was never engaged with the novel enough to care. The plot itself is stock-standard crime novel stuff, complete with Japanese mobsters, Brooklyn thugs and an antagonistic homicide detective – although I did like the idea of telling a story from the point of view of one of a mobster’s anonymous thugs, the guys who always lurk menacingly in the background, whom we never think of having their own lives or stories.

Overall I didn’t particularly enjoy Motherless Brooklyn, and if I had to pick one I’d still say Lethem’s best book is As She Climbed Across The Table, although that wasn’t what I’d describe as a great novel. I’ve read Lethem’s first five novels now, and find him to be a frustrating writer – always on the verge of writing something really great, but never quite getting there. Hopefully his next book, Fortress of Solitude, will finally do it.

Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (2008) 379 p.

Tobias Wolff, a writer more known for his short stories than novels, has been floating around on my to-read list ever since I read his short story “Bullet in the Brain” back in my first or second year of university. It’s funny how when it comes to reading I can mentally file something like that away and then not get around to doing it for seven years. Anyway, Our Story Begins is a collection of both old and new stories from across Wolff’s career.

What I liked about “Bullet in the Brain” – which can be read online here – is that it begins as a light-hearted jokey sort of story, with a book critic wearily sighing at the cliched demands of real-life bank robbers, and then – as he gets shot – suddenly turns into a serious and moving story, as his life flashes before his eyes and he remembers the joys of his younger years. Wolff has a talent for mixing the banal and the profound, the humourous and the terribly sad.

I mentioned in my review of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? that I prefer short stories which are either plot-driven, or which have beautiful language. Wolff examines quotidian suburban life as much as Carver does, but writes in a way that’s actually interesting and poetic.

At the end we see the explorers sleeping in a meadow filled with white flowers. The blossoms are wet with dew and stick to their bodies, petals of columbine, clematis, blazing star, baby’s breath, larkspur, iris, rue – covering them completely, turning them white so you cannot tell one from another, man from woman, woman from man. The sun comes up. They stand and raise their arms, like white trees in a land where no one has ever been.

Now, certainly there are no stories in here quite as good as “Bullet in the Brain,” but that’s his most famous one for good reason. Stand-outs in the collection include “Hunters in the Snow,” about a chubby hunter bullied by his friends, “The Rich Brother,” about a wealthy man who rescues his aimless brother from a cult group, “A White Bible,” about the father of a disgraced schoolboy who abducts and threatens his teacher, “Her Dog,” about a widow taking his dead wife’s dog for a walk, and “Nightingale,” about a father driving his son to begin boarding at a military school.

Our Story Begins is an excellent anthology from one of America’s finest living short fiction writers. I typically just read short story collections to study the craft, and for something to read alongside longer novels, but this was a book I enjoyed for itself as well.

The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey (1991) 279 p.

Peter Carey is one of those authors whose personal life seeps into their writing in interesting, identifiable ways. His years working for an advertising agency and then living on a hippie commune in Queensland are very evident in Bliss, and the fact that his parents owned a car dealership in a small town can be seen in Illywhacker, where Herbert Badgery spends much of his time in the 1920s selling Fords to farmers. It’s even more relevant in The Tax Inspector, which revolves around the Catchprice family and their failing auto dealership in the outer suburbs of Sydney in the early 1990s.

It’s tempting to say that Peter Carey is a hit or miss author depending on whether he’s writing historical fiction or not; I loved Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, all of which are historical novels, but didn’t like Bliss and was indifferent to The Tax Inspector. But I feel like that must be a coincidence, because there’s something lacking from the writing which has nothing to do with the era in which it’s set. The Tax Inspector rambles along a series of unlikely events and unbelievable characters in the same way that an early Michael Chabon or Jonathon Lethem novel might, and no single passage of prose holds the same sticking power as Ned Kelly and his changeling host in True History of the Kelly Gang, or the Aboriginal tribe discovering and keeping Lucinda’s shards of glass in the aftermath of a massacre in Oscar and Lucinda. It doesn’t feel like it amounts to something worthwhile in the same way that even one of his middling novels like Jack Maggs does.
The Tax Inspector is not a bad novel but not a great one either. If I didn’t know any better – if you gave me his books and asked me to arrange them in chronological order – I’d say The Tax Inspector feels much more like a sophomore novel Carey might have written after Bliss, rather than a follow-up to the literary powerhouses that actually precede it.

David Michod’s debut Animal Kingdom was always going to be a hard act to follow – in my opinion it’s oneof the best crime films of the last decade, and one of the best Australian films ever made. The Rover is a messy failure, but I’m still glad he made it. It takes place in the Outback “ten years after the collapse,” and stars Guy Pearce as a grizzled anti-hero trying to recover his car from a gang of thieves. The story is weak and and ultimately doesn’t add up to much, but the world Michod has created is a compelling one. At first glance it appears to be in the same vein as the original Mad Max – a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse, already bad but about to get worse. Gangs rule the highway and the only law is the barrel of a gun. This is neither original or compelling, unless you consider an alternate interpretation.

Most reviewers assume the “collapse” in the title cards is a global one. But nothing in the film actually confirms this. The overheard Chinese radio advertisements and Chinese-branded train carriages guarded by armed mercenaries imply that everything is going fine in China, which is now a dominant economic and cultural power. An assumption of China’s inevitable domination is par for the course in a lot of apocalyptic scenarios these days (see The Bone Clocks), but the second intriguing detail is that everyone in the film who wants to sell something demands US dollars as payment. This suggests that maybe things aren’t too bad in the US, either, and reflects the real world practice in which many impoverished countries, such as Cambodia and Zimbabwe, use the dollar as a de facto currency.

The developing feeling I got throughout the film was that of Australia as a failed state, the kind of violent and dangerous country you can find all over Africa. A land where once the minerals flowed and everybody was well-off, but where the good times have come to an end, and law and order has broken down. The use of foreign currency, the cultural and financial presence of an overseas superpower, corrupt and underfunded soldiers acting as police – all of these things have real-world equivalents, little post-apocalyptic states which grind away with brutality while the rest of the world is still watching Netflix and reading the Wall Street Journal. The Rover is a far more disturbing film when viewed through this lens, as a film which forces the viewer to conceive of their own country as a failed state.

One of the lingering images of the film comes as Pearce’s character stares through a chain-link fence at an open-cut mine’s enormous superpit; an iconic image for modern Australia, one that Australians associate with wealth and prosperity, but which symbolises in The Rover a land of vanished happiness and, perhaps, of squandered opportunities. To that extent, at least, The Rover is a cautionary tale; a rebuke to complacent Australian viewers who assume our economy is untouchable.

London is a hard place to live. Kristie and I already have our eyes on the door at the end of her two-year visa; financially speaking, Australia has come to represent the land of milk and honey. (It does for many Britons, too.) But it’s important to remember that while Australia has always been a prosperous country, its recent wealth is unprecedented. Young adults of my generation, who graduated high school in the middle of a time of unparalleled wealth and economic growth, have to remember that this is the exception, not the rule. In the next decade or so, as the mining boom begins to wind down, life is going to be a lot more like it was for my father’s generation in the 1970s and 1980s – still comfortable, but harder and more uncertain than the Australia we grew up in. Either that or we will in fact utterly squander the mining boom, end up as a banana republic, and engage in blood-spattered gunfights with Mad Max style bandits for our territory’s remaining petroleum resources.

Prophet: Remission by Brandon Graham (2012) 136 p.

I’m trying to read more comics, but not being a fan of the whole superhero thing means I have to be fairly discerning when trying to collate a to-be-read list from various internet sources and “100 Greatest lists” etc. As it turns out, John Prophet is in fact a superhero, albeit a short-lived one – but you wouldn’t know it from this comic.

Prophet: Remission is the stuff of dazzling space opera, as Prophet awakes from cryosleep tens of thousands of years in the future and roams across an unrecognisable Earth, colonised by bizarre alien species and scattered with the decaying ruins of long-forgotten civilisations. This is heady stuff, the best kind of fantasy and science fiction hybrid, the sort of thing you might read about at Clarkesworld. Prophet: Remission is low on exposition, and as John survives in a city made from the decaying, crashed body of a once-living spaceship, or joins an alien convoy to travel across a harsh desert, I often had little idea what was going on. But this is what makes comics so wonderful: the visual element means I’m more than willing to forgive the confusion, which I probably wouldn’t be in a novel or short story.

This reboot of the original series – which is apparently little-known even among comic fans – is spearheaded by Brandon Graham, creator of the brilliant King City. Different chapters are illustrated by different artists (Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milongiannis and Graham himself), which sounds confusing, but there’s a good plot-related reason for it which I won’t give away, and which makes it very appropriate. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed Roy’s branch the most, simply because at three chapters (half the book) it’s the longest. What always bothers me about comics and graphic novels is that they’re too short, although obviously it takes a long time to illustrate and colour all those fun images. I just wish I could discover something old that ran for decades and has now been collated in a great big bundle – I’m certainly open to suggestions from people with more experience than me.

The Witch in the Wood by T.H. White (1939) 94 p.

This is a weird one. It’s the second book in TH White’s larger work The Once and Future King, and at one stage it was extensively written and republished. From descriptions online I seem to have read the revised version, which is much shorter, but I’ve seen conflicting information as to which is called The Witch in the Wood and which is called The Queen of Air and Darkness. My ebook version, which is the series as a single work, has it as The Witch in the Wood, anyway.

This is also an odd one because it’s much, much shorter than The Sword in the Stone and also far less interesting and eventful. It’s split between the Scottish island of Orkney, with a plotline involving the witch-queen Morgause, her four children, and the bumbling knight King Pellinore and his companions, and a different section further south involving Arthur, Kay and Merlyn as they fight an uprising. This section was the more interesting; White’s time-travelling Merlyn, with his contemporary language and knowledge of the 20th century, is a wonderful character, and the three of them have interesting discussions about the nature of politics, war, and the justification of force. I thought this was an interesting quote (even though I disagree with it), given that it’s the eve of the Scottish independence referendum:

“I could never stomach these nationalists,” he exclaimed. “The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.”

Overall The Witch in the Wood seems to be a bridging novel, between the establishment of the series in The Sword in the Stone, and the later novels, which is presumably where the meat of it all is. I wouldn’t say I’m disliking the series, but so far I haven’t seen anything to support the popular claim that it’s one of the greatest fantasy series of all time, and if it wasn’t for that claim I probably wouldn’t be pushing on with it.

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