The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (2004) 127 p.

Arthur Conan Doyle kept writing Sherlock Holmes story up until his death in 1930, but usually backdated them chronologically to place them in the detective’s heyday, the 1890s. The final story in the series’ chronological order, “The Last Bow,” takes place in 1914 on the eve of World War I, after which Holmes retires from detecting and takes up beekeeping in the country.

Michael Chabon’s novella The Final Solution takes place in Sussex in 1944, in which an unnamed, octogenarian beekeeper – who once dazzled Victorian London with his detecting skills – meets a mute Jewish refugee boy and his pet African grey parrot, which has a habit of repeating strings of German numbers. When a man is murdered and the parrot goes missing, Holmes agrees to help the local police track it down – not to solve the “unremarkable” mystery of a murder, but simply to reunite the poor child with his only friend.

The Final Solution (an obvious Holocaust reference and a less obvious reference, for readers unacquainted with Holmesian lore, to a famous story called “The Final Problem”) is firmly set within Chabon’s genre-experimentation period, being a detective story touching on all his typical themes: Judaism, the Holocaust, and even superheroes, if you consider Sherlock Holmes to be an early example of one. He doesn’t attempt to mimic Doyle’s style; this is very much a Chabon novel, with all the wonderfully descriptive writing and excellent metaphors one would expect.

I’m not a Sherlock Holmes fan, but obviously many people are, and the character has of course become legend. Even though Doyle himself considered it unremarkable genre fiction which he wrote to pay the rent, many would be miffed with the idea of other writers tinkering with the great detective. But, of course, many have anyway, and there are certainly worse writers to do so than one as gifted as Michael Chabon. There are some poignant scenes as Holmes – still sharp of mind yet beginning to succumb to age – has mental episodes in which he is briefly unable to recognise anything around him.

The conquest of his mind by age was not a mere blunting or slowing down but an erasure, as of a desert capital by a drifting millenium of sand.

Likewise, the final paragraph of the book – and the revelation of precisely what the parrots’ numbers means – is sad and moving. The Final Solution makes any number of veiled commentaries on the concept of mystery and detection, but the most obvious one is the great, unsolvable mystery of the Holocaust, which hangs heavily over the story as a crime that not even Sherlock Holmes can solve. The Final Solution is a short but elegant novella, one which fans of Michael Chabon and fans of Sherlock Holmes alike can enjoy.

Harvest by Jim Crace (2013) 273 p.

Fitting that I finished this 2013 Booker-shortlisted novel the day the 2014 longlist was announced. Harvest is a fairly short and simple novel set in a rustic village in an unnamed part of England at some point in, probably, the 17th century – the time period also goes unmentioned, but several characters are still using longbows although the medieval age seems to be over, or at least passing. The peace of the village is interrupted by the smoke signals of newcomers camped at the edge of their land, and the escalating series of conflict and violence is only the harbinger of a much more devastating change which is about to be wrought on their land.

Crace has a decent writing style and a particularly good voice in this book; the narrator, Walter Thirsk, speaks not exactly in an historic cadence but not in a modern one either. The concept at the core of the novel – the earth, the harvest, the back-breaking yet honest world of agricultural labour – is tonally pitch perfect. You can smell the soil and feel the dirt on your hands. It’s a shame, then, that this solid writing supports an indifferent plot; a symbolic artifice which comes to a predictable conclusion.

I have no doubt that Harvest is an objectively good book, but it certainly didn’t reach the wonderful level I expect from a Booker-standard novel. (And maybe it’s my expectations that are at fault, because, really, very few short-listed novels or even winners reach the same heights as, say, Life of Pi or Disgrace.) Harvest didn’t exactly leave me cold, but neither did it warm me up.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898) 178 p.

I was sure I’d read The War of the Worlds, because it’s one of those really famous and perpetually-referenced works of fiction that eventually just seeps into your brain by osmosis. I’m pretty sure I did read an abridged version in primary school, and I’ve read the excellent 2006 graphic novel Dark Horse put out, and I’ve seen the (greatly underrated) 2005 Spielberg film, and I’ve read Christopher Priest’s bizarre mash-up of it in The Space Machine. I know the plot pretty much off by heart. So it was with surprise that I recently realised I’d never actually read the original, unabridged novel.

The Martians invade England, lay waste to the land with their tripod battle machines and deadly heat-ray, scatter the British military before them, and eventually die because of Terran bacteria. That’s the synopsis that everybody knows. But even if you think you know this story, it’s well worth reading, because unlike most 19th century classics it’s an absolute cracker of a book.

One of the things I was most impressed by was Wells’ ability to develop a dreadful suspense, even though I knew precisely what was coming – and, you know, I’m sure even the readers at the time figured it out from the title. The War of the Worlds begins on a beautiful midsummer night in the London commuter town of Woking, amidst the utterly ordinary environment of the Victorian suburbs. (Incidentally, I enjoyed how the summer itself seemed a visceral part of the events – what is it about apocalyptic stories and summer? The Stand and the TV series The Walking Dead come to mind.) Strange conflagrations are witnessed by astronomers on the surface of Mars, and shortly afterwards, a falling star lands on the common near Woking. This moment in time – the beautifully written warm twilight of a Friday evening – is merely the beginning of a terrible destruction that will be wrought upon southern England.

Alien invasion stories are a dime a dozen these days, but when Wells first wrote The War of the Worlds it was something completely new: one of the first hard science fiction novels, challenging notions about British (and indeed human) supremacy over the planet, and depicting the reactions of the characters to terrible events above and beyond them with stunning clarity. One the one hand, it’s fascinating to see how differently a apocalyptic event would have been a century ago, chiefly in how slowly the news travels – even the narrator remarks on how strange it is, a few hours after the first Martians incinerate dozens of people at the first landing site, for him to stumble terrified back into Woking and find that only a few miles away people are still going about their business. Likewise, the true gravity of the situation is slow to descend upon the citizens of the capital, chiefly because “the majority of people in London do not read Sunday papers.”

Yet on the other hand, when the reality of the danger does sink in, Wells’ description of the panicked evacuation of six million people from London – one of the finest scenes in the novel – is weirdly modern. One might have expected a Victorian writer to fill it with acts of bravery, chivalry and decorum, but instead we see an ugly mass of people trampling over each other in their haste to escape.

Had the Martians aimed only at destruction, they might on Monday have annihilated the entire population of London, as it spread itself slowly through the home counties. Not only along the road through Barnet, but also through Edgware and Waltham Abbey, and along the roads eastward to Southend and Shoeburyness, and south of the Thames to Deal and Broadstairs, poured the same frantic rout. If one could have hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue above London every northward and eastward road running out of the tangled maze of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streaming fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress. I have set forth at length in the last chapter my brother’s account of the road through Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realise how that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned. Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede–a stampede gigantic and terrible–without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.

The various acts of panicked violence which follow are, to use the word again, modern – a realistic point of view I would have expected from a mid-century writer, not a Victorian. It’s enthralling stuff.

It’s also an eerie book to read from a modern perspective, not least of all as we approach the centenary of World War I. That war was still sixteen years distant when The War of the Worlds was released, but it’s uncanny how many things Wells accurately predicted: the total warfare, the sacking of towns and cities, the armoured fighting machines, and – most disturbing of all – the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, something a lot of people don’t know about The War of the Worlds is that in Wells’ fictional universe, there are actually humans living alongside the Martians on Mars, albeit as slaves and food sources. This is only mentioned once, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s poetic license on Wells’ part or whether he thought that might be a genuine scientific possibility. Either way, it seems odd compared to how prescient the rest of the book was.

It’s hard to overstate just how much of an impact this novel had on the rest of the century’s science fiction. Even the final chapters, as the narrator walks across a deserted London – a scene that feels almost cinematic in its use of noise and silence – no doubt influenced the opening of John Wyndham’s classic The Day of the Triffids, which in turn was the inspiration for the film 28 Days Later, and so on and so forth. And I can’t stress enough just how madly, horribly inventive and compelling every part of this book is: the crowd gathered around the first cylinder at sunset on a hot summer’s day, the image of a Martian tripod striding down the Thames past the Houses of Parliament, the panicked flight of millions of Londoners, the devastated countryside choked with alien red weed, the derelict tripod on Primrose Hill dripping with “lank shreds of brown.” The War of the Worlds is an absolute classic of literature, and if you think you know the story and don’t need to read the book, think again. And, of course, it’s in the public domain and you can read it for free, so there’s no excuse not to.

The City and the City by China Mieville (2009) 373 p.

Beszel and Ul Qoma are twin cities. Beszel is a decaying former communist city similar to Sofia or Bucharest; Ul Qoma is a secular Islamic city similar to Istanbul, which has recently undergone an economic revival. The residents of the two cities have different cultures, languages, ethnic attributes and politics. They are not twin cities in the sense that they neighbour each other: they occupy the same physical space, with citizens learning from birth to “unsee” those buildings and citizens which are not a part of their world. The City and the City is a detective novel taking place within this strange world, in which a resident of Ul Qoma is found dead in Beszel, meaning that either she or her killer committed the gravest crime possible: that of “breach,” unauthorised passage between the two cities. The case develops further unsettling implications when the protagonist, investigating detective Inspector Borlu, receives a phone call with information from Ul Qoma – not an act of breach, because it’s properly routed through international lines, but problematic because the informant claims to have seen a poster of the murder victim that Borlu put up in Beszel.

Cities have always been at the heart of China Mieville’s work, but it’s safe to say that Beszel and Ul Qoma are his boldest and most creative fictional cities yet. The concept, which seems so implausible as to be unworkable even as a fantasy concept, is made real and convincing through Mieville’s details. Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in the modern day, in real Europe: Beszel has connecting flights to Athens and Budapest, the US government has a trade embargo on Ul Qoma, Chuck Palahniuk wrote a novel set in the cities, Inspector Borlu once attended a policing conference called “Policing Split Cities” which dealt with Berlin, Jerusalem, and Beszel and Ul Qoma. (“Totally missing the point,” he says.)

The concept of “unseeing” – of studiously avoiding looking at citizens of the other city, of pretending you do not see them – seems ridiculous, but it does not hold perfectly. “Breach” is the name of both the act of breaking this legal and moral code, and the name of the powerful (and possibly inhuman) agency which punishes such errors. Besz and Ul Qomans alike view Breach with fear and awe, and by the culmination of the novel, so does the reader – leading to a very neat police chase with Borlu in one city and his quarry in another, which ends in a shocking way.

I naturally expected this to be a political book – Mieville is a political writer, and the concept of two cities (and of “unseeing”) brings to mind a whole range of themes. Consider London, where I live now, which has billionaires living in penthouse suites and mansions in Chelsea, and immigrants living ten to a room in Tower Hamlets. Consider the various ethnic ghettoes, or the way we avoid eye contact with homeless people, or the way nobody speaks to or looks at each other on a crowded train. The concept of “unseeing” becomes much less silly when you consider that everyone in a big city does it every day – Mieville has simply taken it to its extreme.

The City and the City is the best of Mieville’s books I’ve yet read, not just for the originality and execution of its concept, but because – unlike the Bas-Lag trilogy – it’s tightly edited and far less flowery and rambling Mieville used to be. Perhaps this is because he was trying to emulate the Raymond Chandler detective novel style, but I hope it’s because he’s also developing as a writer. Even if you have been underwhelmed by Mieville in the past – as I was – I can strongly recommend The City and the City.

The Explorer by James Smythe (2012) 265 p.

I picked this up because I’ve been reading and greatly enjoying James Smythe’s two-years-and-running project at the Guardian in which he is re-reading every single Stephen King novel. Without that, I doubt I’d even have heard of him, so once again we see how all this extra stuff writers do to pay the rent (and, of course, for their own interest) does contribute towards a wider readership.

The Explorer is set in the near future and follows narrator Cormac Easton and the voyage of the Ishiguro, an exploration vessel heading out into interplanetary space. Cormac is a journalist, selected to join the crew because the entire thing is more or less a PR exercise; a way, as Cormac repeatedly reminds us, to rekindle a passion for space travel in the human race. The Ishiguro actually has no aim beyond just going out there, further than humans have been before, and then coming back. That’s a little sketchy in my opinion, but never mind, because when the novel opens all of the other crew members have died in various accidents and Cormac is the last one left.

The Explorer is not exactly a hard science fiction novel; Cormac’s cluelessness stands in for Smythe’s and for our own, and we don’t get so much as a description of the ship. (There were also far too many “panels” and “crates” full of “spare parts” for my liking – not to mention a ducting system full of convenient, plot-servicing vents.) Neither, however, is it pulp science fiction. It’s what would generally be termed a “literary” novel, with most of it revolving around Cormac’s relationship with his other crewmates, extensive flashbacks, and various neuroses. Cormac’s narrative style (and I’ll call it Cormac’s, because I’m not sure if this is how Smythe normally writes fiction, or if it was a device to serve the tone) is excessively wordy; almost rambling, in fact, and focusing far too much on the minutiae of physical actions. Here’s a totally random example:

I quickly loosen the straps on another crate, behind where I am, and slide under that, watching the shadows made by the light outside the room as Guy approaches. I stay totally silent as I hear the door slide across, Guy heaving it, locking it open. He grabs the box he’s looking for, drags it toward the light from the hallway, peels back the lid and rummages.

There’s pages and pages of this sort of thing. It’s also seriously depressing. I get that this is necessary for the tone, but Cormac spends what felt like half the novel ruminating on his life of regret, even before he got on a doomed spaceship. There is no sense of humour, and any sense of joy or amazement at the cold splendour of space feels hollow. One could easily argue that this is an appropriate tone for a novel about a lone survivor in a claustrophobic environment, but here’s the thing: what the novel says it’s meant to be about and what it actually feels like it’s about are vastly different. Cormac rarely lets a chapter go by without rabbiting on about how important space travel is; how important it is for humans to explore beyond their safe harbour. There is no doubt in my mind that these are Smythe’s own sentiments (and my own, for that matter). He is clearly disappointed by the scaling back of humanity’s ambition in recent decades, and wishes we could see a more fast-paced exploration and colonisation program, like we did in the 1960s; not just that, but he’s also clearly disgruntled by this lack of passion and believes it reflects a paucity of spirit and imagination in modern civilisation. These points are repeated too often throughout the novel for the author’s intent to be mistaken (and, again, I agree with him 100% about all of this).

Why, then, he chose to make The Explorer an examination of just how hostile and unforgiving space can be – physically and mentally – is puzzling. The conclusion of The Explorer almost seems to suggest that we should stay where we are, and be grateful for it; to discourage curiosity and exploration. It’s a very mixed message.

Throughout much of The Explorer I kept comparing it to Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden. Both of them are English science fiction novels with the clash of danger and exploration at their core, but I felt that Beckett’s novel was more successful in balancing and reconciling these conflicting themes; The Explorer, on the other hand, is a less compelling read and fails to achieve a satisfying resolution, and also fails to attain the same desired sense of claustrophobia as Dark Eden. (Another interesting comparison is that both authors got stiffed by their cheapskate publisher on the second imprint, turning vital black covers white just to save on ink.)

This is overall a fairly negative review. But on the other hand, The Explorer received mostly favourable reviews in the press, and my own enjoyment of Smythe’s non-fiction writing at the Guardian means I will not give up on his fiction entirely. I have no desire to read what is apparently planned as a quartet (The Explorer’s sequel, The Echo, was released earlier this year) but I will keep an eye on what he writes in the future.

Collected Stories by Peter Carey (2001) 328 p.

Peter Carey has rapidly become one of my favourite authors, so reading some of his short stories seemed in order. He’s had a few collections published; this 2001 edition is, I think, the most comprehensive, combining his previous volumes The Fat Man in History and War Crimes, and adding a few extra stories which had previously been unpublished.

Although most of them take place in no particular time or place, the majority of these stories were written in the 1970s, before Carey turned his hand to writing novels. Carey was self-admittedly suffering from cultural cringe at the time, and therefore he usually avoids naming the setting, despite the fact that nearly all the stories are clearly set somewhere in Australia or an Australian-like nation. The effect, when combined with his usual surreal and magical style, is to create a sort of fantasy Australia – a land of dusty country towns and strange cityscapes built around anonymous harbours, stifling factories at the edge of the desert, bleak motels and seedy bars, secret rivers and dark forests. It actually reminded me, in a wonderful way, of the artwork of Shaun Tan – clearly Australian, yet also strange and fantastic. I said in my review of Illywhacker that I loved the way Carey took Australian place names and turned them into something beautiful and lyrical, but there is equally something marvellous about the mythical not-Australia of his early fiction.

As in any collection, I have varying opinions on the stories. Some of my favourites included Kristu-Du, about an architect building a monument for a third-world dictator and turning a blind eye to his role in the dictator’s human rights abuses; Crabs, a strange story about a man who becomes trapped in a drive-in theatre in a sort of post-apocalyptic world in which possession of a car is paramount to survival; A Windmill in the West, about a soldier guarding a fence in the desert who becomes confused about which side is which; The Puzzling Nature of Blue, about an Australian who must confront what has actions have wrought upon a tropical island nation; Exotic Pleasures, about an alien bird which gives intense pleasure to all who stroke it; A Schoolboy Prank, about an act of revenge and intimidation a group of alumni perform upon their former teacher; and The Journey of a Lifetime, about a clerk obsessed with travelling on a luxury train.

Carey’s prose is brilliant as always, and his stories range across a variety of post-modern anxieties and unease: Australia’s relationship with America, the stultifying effects of consumer culture, the lip service people pay to the notion that physical beauty isn’t important. Sometimes these themes can be buried deep within complex allegories – beautifully written allegories, but nonetheless difficult to extract. I can’t say I enjoyed every one of these stories, and I do still think Carey is a better novelist than a short story writer. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Collected Stories a lot.

Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991) 252 p.

I have a goal of reading every Booker and Pulitzer winner, which requires more reading than you’d think, because some of them are part of a larger series and I don’t like to read things in isolation. 1995’s winner, The Ghost Road, is the final part of a trilogy which begins with Regeneration.

Regeneration takes place during World War I, largely revolving around British psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers and the various shell-shocked soldiers under his care at Craiglockhart, a military hospital in Scotland. World War I was the first major war in which many soldiers experienced post-traumatic stress disorder – or, perhaps, the first major war in which the authorities took notice of it. Most of the patients are at Craiglockhart to be treated for shellshock or some variation of it; one of the central characters, poet Siegried Sassoon, is there because he wrote an open letter denouncing the war and one of his well-placed friends managed to have the military consider that a symptom of trauma, rather than treason deserving a court-martial. I was a fair way into the novel before finding out that many of the characters were in fact real people, including Rivers and Sassoon; other real life figures making an appearance include Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen.

Regeneration was apparently widely acclaimed, although I don’t see why. It’s by no means a bad novel – it’s well-written, and it tackles serious themes such as pacifism, masculinity and psychology. But there was no particular element in it which made me think it was something really, truly special, and I doubt it’s a book I’ll remember much of down the line. I wouldn’t read the next two books if I didn’t want to tick off all the Booker winners.

The Forge of God by Greg Bear (1987) 326 p.

In the middle of the Australian desert, a mountain has appeared where there was no mountain before. Silvery robotic aliens emerge, promising to usher humanity into a new era of technological development, of peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, in Death Valley in California, a similar mountain has appeared – but emerging from this one (and quickly kept under wraps by the US government) is a frail, dying, biological alien, which informs its captives in perfect English that “there is bad news.”

The first third of The Forge of God is probably the most gripping sci-fi mystery I’ve read since Christopher Priest’s Inverted World. The government’s interrogation of the Death Valley alien, termed “the Guest,” is wonderfully ominous and provides tantalising glimpses at what is to come; the alien’s own limitations in the English language are both believable and serve to obscure precisely what it is that’s about to happen to the Earth. Without giving too much away, the Guest is an effectively powerless agent which is merely here to warn us, setting the scene for some kind of alien invasion or destruction.

The title is more than just a metaphor; religion plays a significant part in The Forge of God. The fictional US President, Crockerman, is a devout Christian who is visibly shaken by what the Guest has to say, and interprets it theologically. He eventually comes to believe that he has encountered an angel proclaiming Judgement Day, and that all that is left for the people of Earth to do is pray. Other sci-fi writers might have made Crockerman a scornful caricature, but Bear presents him reasonably and realistically – he is neither stupid nor crazy, and faced with the information he has, and the genuine faith he has, I found his reaction to be eminently believable. (Bear himself is apparently a deist, which goes some way to explaining this.)

It’s a shame, therefore, that Crockerman’s action or lack thereof ultimately has little value, along with most of the rest of the characters in the book. The second two thirds fail to capture the cracking pace of the first, and towards the end the book begins to drag as the characters are faced with their apparent inevitable doom.

This is largely a problem of character. A hard sci-fi writer like Bear is fantastic at coming up with intriguing concepts and putting them inside an enjoyable pot-boiler – the kind of book you can happily burn through on an airplane or beach holiday – but not so great at the slower, more introspective stuff demanded of somebody who has chosen to write about humans living out their last days. He has, for example, that annoying belief common in many sci-fi and thriller writers that characterisation involves giving a physical description of somebody. Every time a character is introduced, no matter how irrelevant, you can bet Bear’s going to tell us how old they are, what colour their hair is and what they’re wearing. The entire first page is actually a rundown of the main character’s physical description. And, typical of writers who do this, all his characters are cardboard cut-outs; mostly white, middle-aged scientists or political advisors with names like Arthur or Edward or Harry. I wish Bear had stuck to his strengths, ignored all the attempted end-of-days sadness, and kept us on the roller-coaster ride the first third of the book is.

One more minor complaint: given that the only scene in the book set outside the US takes place in Australia (and a fairly important scene at that), it wouldn’t have killed Bear to do some light research. I realise Google didn’t exist in the 1980s, but a cursory glance at an encyclopaedia could have told him that Melbourne is not the capital, the Australian Army does not use the “royal” prefix, there are in fact real TV networks and scientific organisations you can use rather than made-up ones, etc. It’s a small thing, and one that non-Australian readers wouldn’t notice, but it annoyed me a lot given that Bear is obviously not averse to a bit of factual reading.

Overall, the The Forge of God begins extremely well – reminiscent of Michael Crichton at his best – but unfortunately loses paces halfway through and ends in mediocrity. It’s nevertheless worth reading for hard sci-fi fans for the first third alone, and despite being less interesting towards the end, it’s still a quick and easy read. There is a sequel, Anvil of the Stars, which I may check out.

My short story West Gate, which was first published in January 2013 in Allegory Magazine, has been recorded in audio for the horror podcast Pseudopod. You can listen to it for free here, and can also download it onto your iPod or Samsung or whatever the kids are doing these days.

I think West Gate is one of the better stories I’ve written, along with one called What Manner of Creature. I wrote them both way back in early 2012, but the latter took longer to find a home, and is coming out shortly in Postscripts to Darkness. So it’s nice to see that others like it too. I’m not particularly knowledgeable when it comes to audio fiction but I think the reader (writer and poet Ron Jon) does a sterling job bringing the story to life, and it was a nice touch by Pseudopod to ensure an Australian story was read by an Australian. I was actually going to compliment Ron on doing a very convincing Australian accent for the characters (since it’s a hard accent for foreigners to imitate well) before realising he is in fact Australian, and that upon listening a second time his narrating voice is also clearly Australian, even though I thought it was Received Pronunciation the first time around. Clearly I’ve been away from home for too long. Or possibly not long enough.

Extra fun story: I’m flat broke at the moment and was delighted when I realised this had gone live because I assumed I’d be getting a nice injection to my PayPal account. Then I realised the Pseudopod staff are good eggs, and actually paid me as soon as the contract was signed, which was about six months ago. Damn Pseudopod for being good eggs!

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) 205 p.

The Alteration is an alternative history novel by Kingsley Amis which hinges on the premise that the Reformation failed, with Martin Luther becoming reconciled to the Catholic Church and indeed becoming Pope. The Western world remains under the influence of a repressive Catholic regime and scientific progress has been stymied. The story itself revolves around Hubert Anvil, a 10-year-old choir boy, who has the most wonderful singing voice heard in generations; a voice which must, by the reasoning of the celibate clergy, be preserved by Hugo’s castration – the second “alteration” of the title.

The Alteration compares itself early and openly to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, with Hubert and his dormitory friends huddling around a candle after lights out to read a fictionalised version of that very book – an alternate history which, of course, posits that the Reformation succeeded. (In real life The Man in the High Castle depicts a world in which the Allies lost World War II.) But while I criticised The Man in the High Castle for not having much of a plot, relying on the intrigue of its divergent world to get the reader through, The Alteration has a fairly good one. The prospect of Hugo’s castration – in which, as a minor, he has no say – is opposed by several of his friends and family members, and the book becomes a struggle to see whether or not they will be successful in standing up to the hierarchy of the Church. In the final sixty pages or so, as Hugo takes his fate into his own hands, it becomes a fairly captivating fugitive story. I found myself somewhat bored through the first half of the novel – Catholic stories always do that to me for some reason – but by the novel’s climax I was genuinely involved and hoping against hope that Hugo would succeed. I suppose the threat of castration is a fairly gut-felt plight for a male reader.

Without giving away the ending, I’ll say that the outcome of the novel was frustrating – something of a deus ex machina – although I suppose in the context of the story, which speaks at length about faith and God and God’s will, “divine intervention” is less irritating than it would have been in other stories.

The Alteration is an objectively good novel; it has a richness and a depth to it which largely slipped past my analytical abilities, dealing with piety and the human condition and the worth of art, and there are also a lot of subversive references to the 1970s I didn’t get until I read about them after (I didn’t realise, for example, that the Pope was Harold Wilson). It was also slow to get going, and a little too on the nose in some parts – the Machiavellian discussion the Pope has with his closest advisors towards the end of the novel was particularly clunky. Nonetheless, it’s a solid alternate history novel, and certainly one I can recommend to fans of the genre.

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