On his twenty-first birthday, he was asked where he wished to go in the world, to which he immediately responded ‘Otago’—knowing that the rushes in Victoria had abated, and having long been enamoured of the idea of the prospector’s life, which he conceived of in terms quixotic and alchemical. He saw the metal shining, unseen, undiscovered, upon some lonely beach of some uncharted land; he saw the moon rising full and yellow over the open sea; he saw himself riding on horseback through the shallows of a creek, and sleeping on the bare earth, and running water through a wooden cradle, and twining digger’s dough around a stick to bake above the embers of a fire. What a fine thing it would be, he thought, to be able to say that one’s fortune was older than all the ages of men and history; to say that one had chanced upon it, had plucked it from the earth with one’s own bare hands.

– From “The Luminaries,” by Eleanor Catton

Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? by Ian Dunt (2016) 188 p.

brexit.png

In the opening chapter of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? Ian Dunt paints a nightmare scenario lying ahead for the United Kingdom. No trade deal with the European Union, hard borders, re-implemented tariffs and customs red tape, and the British government at the mercy of Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. The pound plummets, the economy goes into freefall and dark times lie ahead for the British people. “That was the worst-case scenario,” Dunt explains at the beginning of the next chapter. “It is also Britain’s current destination.”

Dunt is the editor of politics.co.uk and the political editor of The Erotic Review. I’ve followed his writing for some time, and respect his level-headed and journalistic approach to writing editorials and opinion pieces, which seems increasingly uncommon on both the right and the left. By this I do not mean that he sits in the middle and gives equal respectability to all sides. I mean that he states the plain truth even when it seems unfashionable or uncomfortable to do so – and if you find the headline I just linked to strident or inflammatory, I suggest you read the entire piece. He deals with facts and figures and resents the increasing role that emotional, gut-level tribalism has come to play in politics, not just in Britain but around the world.

This has only been exacerbated by the Brexit divide in Britain. Dunt is a Remainer, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from reading this book. He wastes no time on recriminations, finger-pointing or a dissection of the referendum campaign (riven as it was with misinformation, ignorance, propaganda and outright lies). Instead he looks ahead, to the enormous challenges Britain now faces, in the hope of making the best of a bad situation. To that end he’s interviewed dozens of economists, professors, lawyers and public servants to try to provide an outlay of exactly how Britain can extract itself from a political, legal and trading network that it’s been part of for more than forty years.

As the opening chapter explains: outlook not good. The problem with Brexit is that it’s not a simple proposition. “Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May said firmly upon entering Downing Street, a meaningless tautology that will nonetheless go down in history textbooks which are unlikely to look kindly upon her and her current cabinet. After explaining exactly what the EU is and how Britain relates to it (not as silly as it sounds, since most Brits probably have only a vague idea) Dunt spends some time examining the three Brexit ministers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – and how they’ve behaved since the referendum. Johnson has published multiple articles which contradict each other and ludicrously state that freedom of movement will continue; Fox repeatedly failed to understand that it’s illegal for the UK to make trade arrangements with other countries while still part of the EU; Davis conducted a meeting shortly after the referendum with business leaders who were pulled aside by civil servants beforehand and warned to only say they were positive and excited about the “opportunities” of Brexit.

By the end of this short and sobering book it seems very clear that few British people, whether they’re Merseyside plumbers or Tory Cabinet ministers, have much of an idea about exactly what the EU does and how catastrophic Brexit has the potential to be. Go on any Facebook or Twitter thread, or the comments section of online articles, and you will find a legion of Leave voters, lecturers at the University of Some Bloke At The Pub, happy to scoff at the notion that Britain will be anything other than enormously successful. There are no challenges or problems in Brexit-land, just a happily-raised middle finger at those faceless eurocrats in Brussels.

This is the problem Dunt finds so infuriating: not the concept of Britain leaving the EU in general, but the fact that it’s doing that so recklessly, so thoughtlessly, in a maelstrom of jingoistic tub-thumping and blind nostalgia for the British glory of a forgotten age. And, worse, that this shortsighted nationalism has infected the very highest level of politics. The book’s epigraph is a quote from Michael Gove:

“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms, saying they know what’s best and consistently getting it wrong.”
Michael Gove
Justic Secretary
Sky News, 3 June 2016*

*When told that the leaders of the US, China, India, Australia, the bank of England, the IMF, the IFS, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the chief executive of the NHS and most of Britain’s trade unions opposed Britain leaving the EU.

Foreign readers may not find Brexit particularly compelling reading; I’m Australian, but I care about politics, I lived in Britain for a year and I still have a job which means I need to watch a lot of BBC and Sky. (On a side note, as an Australian, the Remainer assumption that the UK can just turn around and find all the old countries of the Commonwealth waiting for it is hilarious. Nations don’t have friends, they have interests, and they also have their own scheming politicians and hysterical tabloids.) I also think the world’s fifth-largest economy cutting off its nose to spite its face will ultimately affect all of us. But the reason I think Dunt’s book is worthwhile reading no matter where you live is because it touches on that nerve of modern ignorance: the insidious influence of populist politics and the dismissal of people who actually know what the fuck they’re talking about. The most obvious example of this is Trump, but you can see it everywhere, as Facebook echo chambers slowly replace actual news and opinion from measured, intelligent sources. A few years ago I started working for a news network and was subject to countless hours of vox populi, and the inane, pig-headed, simple-minded nonsense that spouts from the mouth of the man on the Manly ferry when you put a microphone in front of him slowly eroded any respect I ever had for the intelligence of the common citizen. I try to avoid using the word stupid – many of these people are mechanics and doctors and engineers and environmental scientists, all of their heads swimming with skills and abilities I could never have. But they’re ignorant. Everybody is ignorant of something, and nearly all of us are ignorant of EU political relationships and trade law. So putting a loosely-worded referendum to the entire populace, after years and years of tabloid propaganda, purely as a domestic political move to placate the right wing of your own party, arrogantly assuming you’ll easily win – was that maybe a stupid thing to do, Dave?

A lot of people, particularly Remainers, assume it will be no big deal. They are going to be painfully proven wrong. What we’re going to see is millions of EU citizens in the UK now living in fear of deportation, every British citizen being stripped of their EU citizenship rights, the jeopardisation of decades of peace in Northern Ireland with the possibility of the return of a hard border (astoundingly, David Davis seemed to believe in one interview that the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK), a second Scottish independence referendum, and a volatile economy and weak pound for a decade to come. But I’m sure it will be worth it for English people to get their bendy bananas back.

I’m clearly a tad more partisan about this than Dunt. But as I said, it’s not really Brexit itself: it’s the worrying trend of abandoning facts, reason and logic and replacing them with sloganeering and feelgood fantasies. It’s about understanding exactly what it is you’re tinkering with before you rip it apart (see also: the “Washington establishment”). I can guarantee you that the vast majority of Leave voters – and Remain voters, for that matter – and even the vast majority of the British Parliament would be unaware of the problems examined in this book, even now, nine months after the referendum. For those of us outside Europe, this is worthwhile reading. For those poor sods in Britain it’s essential.

Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News by Robert Hutton (2013) 135 p.

romps.jpg

I do closed captions for evening new bulletins. That’s my dead-end day job, and it largely entails sub-editing the absolutely atrocious scripts filed by journalists around the world, who – despite presumably having graduated not just high school but university – will still spell engine as “enjyn” and other such horrors. (Australian and Canadian journalists are far worse than the British.)

Apart from the frankly bewildering spelling errors, the more subtle thing that nags away at you is how dreadfully cliche and predictable the language of “journalese” is, whether it’s in broadcast or print. Victims always “maintain a dignified silence” in court; political meetings are always “crisis talks” which take place “behind closed doors;” scandal-gripped public figures are always “beleaguered” or “embattled.” I spend all day immersed in it, but anybody who regularly reads newspapers or watches evening bulletins will have absorbed far more of this odd dialect than they realise. Robert Hutton, a proud hack at Bloomberg, took it upon himself to compile a glossary of it which is now collected in this amusing volume. Some highlights:

designer clothes – as opposed to a sack with holes torn in it.
expenses paid– for some reason, when they hear the word ‘expenses,’ journalists assume fraud must be involved. Psychologists might be able to explain why this should be.
flat-screen colour TV – or a ‘TV,’ as they’re now known.
going forward – the reporter, possibly half-asleep, has copied out too much of the press release.
lethal cocktail – there were two drugs in their system, you say?
named locally – the cops aren’t saying who it was, but fortunately everyone in the pub knew.
smoke-filled rooms – where cosy consensuses are reached. This has survived the smoking ban.

I can’t say this would be gripping stuff to somebody who doesn’t either work in the industry or follow the news closely, but I found it quite a brief and entertaining read. Journalese is so pervasive that you don’t really notice it for what it is, and I’m pleased that Hutton has managed to comprehensively compile and articulate something that thousands of us have probably felt only as a vague, nagging sense of irritation.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (1991) 400 p.
Discworld #13 (Stand-alone)

small gods.png

This is widely regarded as one of Pratchett’s finest novels, certainly in the early days of the Discworld series. It’s a standalone – possibly the most complete standalone in the series, taking place far from Ankh-Morpork or Lancre, with only a brief cameo appearance by the Librarian and of course Death. Pratchett takes us to the vast desert kingdom of Omnia, a religious autocracy built around worship of the god Om. On the Discworld, as we’ve already learned, belief can create reality – and so gods in turn are reliant on their believers for their continued existence. Om’s problem is that people no longer believe in him as a god per se, but rather in the institution of the church. Shrunk down into the humble body of a tortoise and with his omnipotence vanished, Om finds he has only one true believer left: the naive young novice Brutha, working in the gardens of the Church’s great Citadel. Om clings to Brutha like a drowning man to a life raft, well aware that if Brutha’s belief wavers then his own existence will be imperilled, as he tries to figure out how to make the people of Omnia properly believe again.

Brutha, meanwhile, has been recruited for a special mission by one of the Church’s deacons for of his eidetic memory. Accompanying Vorbis, Pratchett’s latest Machiavellian villain of iron-cast belief, Brutha thus sets out on the journey of a lifetime to Omnia’s neighbour Ephebe, with none of his retinue suspecting their god is riding along in Brutha’s backpack.

This is a case where I really have to differ from public opinion. I remembered very little of Small Gods, and I’ve learnt on this rereading project that this usually means the book didn’t make much of an impact on me the first time around and won’t the second. The best explanation I can come to for why Small Gods doesn’t engage me is because I’m not religious, I wasn’t raised religious, and I live in probably one of the most irreligious countries in the Western world. Being an agnostic or an atheist doesn’t mean you don’t have to cope with religion’s impact on society, but in Australia it has very little effect on me compared to if I were an atheist in, say, Alabama. I just don’t find Pratchett’s ruminations on religious belief as engaging as those on racism or politics or sexism or any number of other things.

As I said, it’s one of Pratchett’s most beloved books, and apparently he received plenty of approving letters from believers and non-believers alike, praising his depiction of faith, belief, and the critical differences between organised religion and a personal relationship with God. I can believe all that, and I can appreciate why so many others love it. It just didn’t strike much of a chord with me personally, and I find myself with very little to say about it.

Next up, we’re back to the witches of Lancre with Lords and Ladies.

Rereading Discworld Index

Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry (1997) 752 p.

LarryMcMurtry_ComancheMoon.jpg

Comanche Moon is the final volume McMurtry wrote about Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call, but the second chronologically – it slots in between Dead Man’s Walk, when Gus and Call are freshly minted teenage Texas Rangers, and Lonesome Dove, the original Pulitzer Prize winning doorstopper which sees them retired and herding cattle in their fifties. (There’s a fourth volume, Streets of Laredo, which takes place after Lonesome Dove and which I haven’t read yet.)

Comanche Moon takes place in the 1850s and 1860s, spanning a fair hunk of our heroes’ time at the core of their life as Texas Rangers. Rangers are of course fabled figures in Wild West mythology, but as I’ve come to expect from McMurtry, he doesn’t romanticise them. Despite their nostalgic memories of the good old days in Lonesome Dove, Gus and Call and their comrades are underequipped, undertrained and underpaid, and suffer from a nagging doubt that they really make very little difference in keeping settlers safe from the Comanche. Texas itself, now a state of the Union, is portrayed as a dusty backwater – even its capital is a ramshackle frontier town in which the senators spend their days blind drunk in saloons. Nor does McMurtry shy away from the fact that his ostensible heroes are meant to be “civilising” the frontier and driving away the “savages” – in fact, Comanche Moon spends quite a lot of time inside the heads of various Native American characters. Coming from a white 20th century Texan that would normally be cause for concern, but McMurtry’s skill with character is such that the “Indians” are as well-rounded, complex and diverse as the Americans. They’re very different, of course, since they believe they live in a world of spirits and witches and gods and portents, but at the same time some are more dubious about that than others – much like some Texans roll their eyes at the Bible-bashers amongst their number. McMurtry also manages to make the Indians sympathetic despite often being violent nightmares in human flesh. Buffalo Hump, for instance – apparently a real historical figure – is a chieftan who halfway through the book brutally murders the unarmed parents of one of the main characters during a horrific raid of rape and plunder. Yet because we see him as part of his time and place – and because we see so much of the novel through his eyes, and feel his gnawing anxiety about the end of his people and the end of his era – he’s a character you respect, even if you don’t necessarily like him. (This reminds me of quite a few characters in Game of Thrones.) Part of this is skilful character writing; another part of it is McMurtry’s dispassionate style, in which he relays the horrible facts of the frontier in unsentimental prose which can make the actions and choices of characters feel as immutable – and as incapable of guilt or responsibility – as a landslide or a flash flood. McMurtry writes about a world of implacable injustice.

And as always, he’s also very gripping. One of the driving narratives in Comanche Moon is the story of Inish Scull, a larger-than-life Harvard history professor with a penchant for combat who seeks his fortune with the Texas Rangers, and by the campfire at night reads out stories of Napoleon or the Ancient Greeks to the uneducated hicks that make up his lacklustre squad. The novel kicks off when Scull’s gigantic warhorse is stolen by the Comanche thief Kicking Wolf, who takes it to Mexico as a gift for the feared bandit warlord Ahumado. Promoting the bemused Gus and Call to captains and entrusting them with taking the Rangers back to Austin, Scull bravely but unwisely pursues Kicking Wolf alone into Ahumado’s territory, and what subsequently happens to him stretches out over a good course of the novel. From any reasonable point of view Scull’s actions are foolishly reckless, but McMurtry shows his motivations so well – his ennui, his thirst for adventure, his rollicking battle spirit which sits just this side of sanity – that when Scull ended up in an agonisingly brutal battle of wits with Ahumado, including a particularly horrific form of torture, I found myself rooting for him harder than any other character I can remember in quite a while. (It’s all the more gripping since, after the previous two books I’ve read, I know that McMurtry is up there with George R.R. Martin when it comes to killing off characters who seem untouchable).

This series – especially the first two books – often reminds me of the fantasy genre, telling of wild adventures and unknown foreign lands and death-defying exploits. (In that sense McMurtry also reminds me of Patrick O’Brien, and in fact I wouldn’t hesitate to call Gus and Call, with their odd couple relationship, the Aubrey and Maturin of the American West.) There’s one particular scene: Scull arrives in Ahumado’s territory, is led down into a meteor crater amid a horde of hundreds of starving peasant slaves, and is forced to eat the cooked brains of his beloved horse. (“So it must have been when the cavemen ate the mastodons, Scull thought.”) The way McMurtry paints this scene – the slow build-up of ominous dread, the primitive barbarism of it all – makes it feel like something out of a Norse saga. And what is the Wild West if not the great fantasy of America?

I’ve decided to stop reviewing books in 2017. I don’t mean entirely; I’ll still write a review if I feel I have something relevant to say, if a book is really wonderful or really awful or if I think it does something particularly unique. But I’ve wasted too much time over the past few years on my own obsession with box-ticking, with reviewing every book I read even if I don’t have any insights worth sharing. I’ll probably still scribble a few thoughts in shortform on my Goodreads account, if you don’t already follow me there.

Anyway, here are the ten best books I read in 2016 – not counting re-reads, specifically my Re-reading Discworld series, which would have filled up quite a bit of it.

10. The Possessors
796426-001

“Come out, Mandy. You think it’s cold out here, but it isn’t.”

Sometimes you don’t want a Booker Prize winner with fifteen pages of broadsheet accolades on the inside cover. Sometimes you don’t want gorgeous prose and beautiful metaphors and intricately structured symbolism. Sometimes you just want a classic sci-fi monster story to read late at night with a storm howling at the window. The Possessors is vintage John Christopher, a group of stuffy middle class English tourists trapped after a snowstorm in a remote Swiss chalet who have the singular misfortune of stumbling across a body-possessing alien intelligence, and find themselves falling to it one by one. Sure, we’ve seen this before in The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but what’s not to love? Books like these are the equivalent of a halal snack pack: you shouldn’t have one for dinner every night, but when it’s what you’re craving it can be pretty damn good.

Further reading: RIP John Christopher, Unsung Young Adult Sci-Fi Writer

9. Black Light Express
railhead-damask-will-kirkby
Far off, where the sea met the sky, a light the colour of nothing at all reflected very faintly off the clouds.

The sequel to Philip Reeve’s enormously enjoyable futuristic space opera Railhead, Black Light Express sees him in Star Trek mode as Zen and Nova explore an entirely different galaxy full of bizarre aliens and beautiful new planets. Back home in the Network Empire, trouble is brewing, and before long Zen and Nova aren’t the only humans forced to flee into uncharted space. Reeve paints his galactic canvas with gay abandon, and it’s all the little things that add up to make him a great writer: the cinematic setpieces, the concise and subtle descriptions of characters’ feelings, and his uncanny skill of ending chapters with just the right turn of phrase to generate narrative frisson. It continues to bemuse me that he’s not more well-known; he’s certainly one of Britain’s finest YA novelists.

Further reading: Philip Reeve on the genesis of his concept for an interstellar railway

8. Here
here.png
“We have reason to believe that your property may potentially be an important site.”

Not really a comic or a graphic novel so much as an intriguing thought experiment that plays out across a book-length work. There is no story, there are no characters; there is simply a room. There is simply here. The place never changes, but we see the room of an ordinary house over millions of years of existence – including long before it is built and long after it is destroyed – jumbled, out-of-order glimpses of the thousands of minor and major interactions, both human and animal, playing out across thousands of years. It makes you reassess the idea of your own living room as a humdrum, ordinary space. Here is a unique and fascinating work of art.

Further reading: McGuire’s early 6-page comic with the same concept, published in 1989

7. House of Suns
MoKSQ2LqGaN1i2ByWNEVSKg6.jpeg

“You are a bookworm, tunnelling through the pages of history.”

Humans can’t really grasp the immensity of space and time, but Alastair Reynolds does a very good job of trying. House of Suns puts us in the minds of near-immortals travelling around a human colonised galaxy, watching empires rise and fall like lilypads blooming on a pond. This is a space opera on relativistic time: where lifetimes can pass in a single paragraph, where a spaceship chase near the climax takes three thousand years, where a character can refer to an empire that controlled thousands of star systems and lasted millions of years as “fifteen minutes of fame.” It’s a testament to his skill how rapidly the reader adjusts to this new world. Beyond that, House of Suns is a great book because it’s just deeply, deeply engrossing – the kind of book that makes you miss your stop on the train.

Further reading: An interview with Alastair Reynolds about House of Suns

6. The Peripheral
peripheral.jpg
So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway.

The Peripheral, like many of Gibson’s works, is a familiar plot-driven genre vehicle with predictable strokes and a deus ex machina ending. He can be forgiven all that because it’s such a richly detailed world – or two worlds, rather, one in rural America in the near future and one in London in the far future, hinging on the time travel connection and transfer of data between the two. Both of these worlds are equally engaging: a run-down, decrepit, barely-getting-by America that’s seen better days, and a glitzy high-tech London built on the ruinous foundations and catastrophes of the 21st century, a world where the haves are doing great and the have-nots have pretty much died out. Gibson once again weaves his magic with the subtle inclusion of small details and an unforgiving determination to rarely hold the reader’s hand.

Further reading: Ned Beauman interviews William Gibson about The Peripheral

5. Warday
warday-map.jpg
At 1654 we heard a long, crackling rumble from the north. I knew that this was the sound of the Soviet weapons detonating over Washington, two hundred miles away.
I remember that a big crowd had gathered, and the local volunteer fire department soon arrived.

We haven’t thought about them much over the past twenty-five years, but all those thousands of nuclear warheads are still there, still patiently waiting to go off. Warday explores not a full-blown nuclear war, but rather a limited strike of only a handful of warheads on US cities… which nonetheless triggers total economic collapse, a balkanisation of the United States, terrible famine and a new world order. This is what a single submarine-load of nuclear weapons could wreak, Streiber says, so now imagine what a full-scale exchange would look like. Warday is very much a product of the Cold War and in some ways it can feel quite dated; but given that a man with the ego and emotional capacity of a toddler is about to take control of America’s nuclear codes, Warday is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Further reading: What Exactly Would It Mean To Have Trump’s Finger On The Nuclear Button?

4. Replay
replay.jpg

The possibilities, Jeff knew, were endless.

It’s a thought I’ve had often enough: what if I suddenly woke up in my own body ten or twenty years ago, with all my memories intact? How much would I remember about sporting events for gambling purposes? Do I try to stop 9/11? How would I cope with missing the people in my life that I wouldn’t meet for another ten years? Replay lives that fantasy (or nightmare) out as Jeff Winston finds himself, over and over again, dying of a heart attack at the age of 42 and waking up as an 18-year-old in his college dorm. It’s a hugely compelling and enjoyable paperback potboiler that feels like a lost entry from Stephen King’s early writing career.

Further reading: Jo Walton revisits Replay

3. Truth
Black-Saturday-Fires.jpg

“Didn’t do a bad job with the boys either,” he said. “Seeing to them. I should’ve said that before.”

There are awkward beats in Truth, to be sure; places where Peter Temple’s primary calling as a crime writer shines through a bit too strong, places where he feels compelled to insert a gunfight or some other cliche. But none of that is what comes to mind when I remember this book. What I remember is a novel that hangs on a genre framework, but also powerfully rises above it. Truth is an atmospheric police procedural set during a sweltering summer week in Melbourne, as the smoke of hellish bushfires hangs over the city, as Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Villani tries to cling to the last few shreds of his personal life. It’s an examination of Australian masculinity, a masterclass in laconic Australian vernacular, and a very deserving winner of the Miles Franklin Award.

Further reading: An interview with Peter Temple

2. HMS Surprise
hms surprise.jpg

On and on she sailed, in warmer seas but void, as though they alone had survived Deucalion’s flood; as though all land had vanished from the earth; and once again the ship’s routine dislocated time and temporal reality so that this progress was an endless dream, even a circular dream, contained within an unbroken horizon and punctuated only by the sound of guns thundering daily in preparation for an enemy whose real existence it was impossible to conceive.

The third novel in the immense Aubrey-Maturin series, and the one for me where Patrick O’Brien really hits his stride. It’s an epic in miniature, a voyage across the world to Brazil, India and Malaya, the characters we’ve come to know taking their first steps beyond the familiar world of Europe. O’Brien’s prose is so complex, so 19th century in its mannerisms and stylings, that I have to admit it sometimes goes over my head; I would not actually be able to offer you a proper plot synopsis of HMS Surprise, a book which I have decided is the second-best one I read all year, which frankly seems odd. Yet somehow that doesn’t seem to matter with Patrick O’Brien. What I remember is his deeply vivid imagery, and the dozens of scenes that still stick in my head from this book: the loss of the poor, lovesick crewman on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic; the funeral pyre at the edge of the water in India; Stephen’s duel, and the surgery he performs on himself to extract a bullet from the edge of his beating heart; the sad, lonely death of the reverend on a nameless tropical island somewhere in Malaya; Stephen’s heartbroken trek up the side of a volcano in the Canaries to lie in a shadow gutter of snow. This whole series is really one enormous meta-novel, but HMS Surprise is the most strikingly beautiful part of it so far.

Further reading: Philip Reeve on why he loves the Aubrey-Maturin series

1. Megahex & Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam
meg mogg owl.jpg

“That’s not funny. That’s just depressing.”

This is two books, but along with their outrigger zines, online home at Vice, and various scribblings floating around on Tumblr,these comics by Australian artist Simon Hanselmann are the best thing I’ve read in years. A witch, her cat, a man-sized owl and a werewolf: some of the most disgusting, depraved and depressing characters you will see put to print, floating through a pointless life of ennui in a suburban wasteland that’s not quite America and not quite Australia, setting constant new lows in their inhuman treatment of each other. With its slow, agonising build-ups, pitch perfect timing and characters’ ridiculous facial expressions, Megg, Mogg & Owl is probably the funniest comic I’ve ever read.

And that would be enough: a really hilarious and creative stoner comedy that made me literally laugh out loud multiple times would be great, and it would certainly be on this list. The reason it’s #1 is because Hanselmann consistently, subtly pushes the narrative beyond its expected template, creating moments which are unexpectedly moving. The ending of Megahex in particular, as Owl closes his eyes and imagines himself flying free amongst the fireworks, escaping his terrible life, was surprisingly cathartic. Using the words “tackling” or “addressing”makes it sound like an after-school PSA, as though things like drug use abuse and depression and loneliness are solvable hurdles on the road to a happy existence, rather than, for some people, indelible elements of their lives. Maybe the best word is “illustrates;” Hanselmann draws on his own life experience to illustrate depressing, drug-addled, abusive relationships, using anthropomorphic fantasy characters in an endlessly hilarious way.

Further reading: “Boston Clanger” (the NSFW litmus test for whether this humour is to your taste), plus Sean T. Collins interviews Simon Hanselmann

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008) 473 p.

house_of_suns_amazon

I was lukewarm about Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel Revelation Space but recently found myself going down a Wikipedia wormhole of his fictional universe while I was bored at work, remembered that in terms of sheer creativity and ideas I actually quite liked him, and figured he was worth another crack. The Revelation Space sequels are exactly the kind of books I was happier to read the Wikipedia synopses of rather than slog through hundreds of pages of more padding and thinly drawn characters, so I thought I’d jump ten years further into his career and read House of Suns.

I’m glad I did, because it’s really quite good. Revelation Space took place in a universe a few thousand years into human colonisation of the galaxy: a cold, bleak and frightening place full of extinct alien civilisations, decaying cities and autocratic governments, where humanity is clinging to life rather than prospering. House of Suns takes a rather different tack: humans are still the only intelligent life to arise in the galaxy, but after six million years we’ve splintered, evolved and gene-tweaked our way into a million daughter species who have flourished in every corner of the galaxy – a steady tide of thousands of different stellar empires rising and falling. The novel is built around the concept of “shatterlings,” the thousands clones of wealthy industrialists who – back in the solar system, six million years ago – sent them forth to explore the galaxy. Thanks to the time-dilating effects of near-light travel, cryogenic freezing and generally advanced medicine, these clones operate on an entirely different timescale than other human civilisations; at one point a different kind of near-immortal describes the protagonist as “a bookworm who has tunnelled through the pages of history.” The shatterlings have powerful starships, conduct engineering feats on grand scales, trade with other civilisations for their immense amount of accumulated knowledge, and are generally perceived by lesser human civilisations as something like angels or gods.

Plotwise, House of Suns revolves around the shatterlings Campion and Purslane of the Gentian Line, i.e they are both clones of a woman named Gentian. They’re engaged in a taboo love affair and are on their way to one of the regular reunions held by the Gentian Line  every few hundred thousand years. Upon their late arrival at the designated system they discover their Line has been ambushed and nearly wiped out. Most of the book is a mystery, as Campion, Purslane and the other surviving Gentians try to figure out who tried to annihilate their Line, and why.

House of Suns grabbed me right from the beginning. Over ten years of his writing career Reynolds has really improved: there’s far less bloat, the plot moves along at a cracking pace, and information is never brazenly withheld from the reader (a repeated sin in Revelation Space). The characters are still a bit flat, but I found it nice to read about people who are friendly and helpful to each other, rather than the cast of Revelation Space, who were bafflingly hostile and suspicious of each other even when they were natural allies. The plot gets a bit complex towards the end, but most of the loose ends are tied up and the conclusion is really quite nice. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015) 404 p.

219xlsl

This was one of the critical darlings of the past few years, garnering rave reviews everywhere from Strange Horizons to the Guardian. I was surprised by how much I disliked it, even though in the case of Becky Chambers that’s a bit like kicking a puppy.

The story, such as it is, revolves around the multi-species crew of the wormhole-building ship the Wayfarer: a gang of Super Best Friends who zip around the galaxy in their cosy spaceship drinking tea, talking about their feelings and braiding their hair. (Yes, there is actually a hair braiding scene.) I could tell within the first 100 pages that this was absolutely not the book for me, but stuck with it partly to see if it improved and partly to rubberneck. Calling it “girlish” feels sexist, but the problem I have with it is specifically that it’s girlish rather than feminine, which is to say, it’s juvenile. It’s not YA, it’s not juvenile in a good way – it’s juvenile in the sense that it appeals to a child’s cosy fantasies rather than genuinely grappling with the world.

The conflict and drama in this book, while theoretically there, is anodyne. Crises arrive, are quickly solved, and then everybody talks about how it made them feel for the next fifty pages in passages that feel more like exercises from a self-help book than dialogue in a novel, let alone an actual conversation. Everybody is super courteous and incredibly understanding of each other’s feelings at all times… except for Corbin the fuel specialist, a character deliberately written to act like a needless jerk merely so he can serve as a whipping boy for the rest of the crew, who talk about how they wish they could push him out the airlock. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Corbin is the only white male in the book.

I’m sure that fans of the book – and there are a lot of them, apparently – would disagree that the novel is without conflict. Sure, a couple of bad things happen; sure, there are nasty things in this galaxy. But rather than have her characters face up to them, Chambers opts every single time for a predictable homily about the importance of respecting differences or the value of friendship.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has all the usual problems of a debut sci-fi novel – brazen exposition, flat characters, insipid writing – but it was really that cloying, all-pervasive niceness that drove me up the wall. This is not a grown-up novel. This is Enid Blyton meets Tumblr. This is the Babysitter’s Club in space. This is a paper version of chamomile tea and a hot bath. If that sounds like your thing, go nuts. If you want something less insufferably twee, there are far more challenging and well-written space opera series out there.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987) 208 p.

MoonTiger.JPG

This one was a bit of a slow burn (appropriately enough – a moon tiger is a mosquito coil), narrated by an old woman dying of cancer in hospital and looking back on her life. Important notes struck include her incestuous relationship with her brother, her adoption of a Hungarian student marooned in London after the 1956 revolution, her lukewarm relationship with her daughter, and most importantly of all, her tragically short romance with a tank commander in Egypt during World War II.

Sometimes I finish a book but don’t get around to reviewing it until later, and realise that only a week has passed and I’ve forgotten the main character’s name. Moon Tiger is one of those. I warmed to it as it went on, and enjoyed the second half more than the first. I liked Lively’s evocative description of WWII-era Cairo and its bustling population of millions of Arabs living in the shadow of a vanished civilisation, putting up with the occupying British waging a war the Arabs don’t care about. But that’s the kind of book Moon Tiger is – a good one, a well-written one, but one where I know a year from now I’ll remember very little from it except a handful of scenes and impressions.

 

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (1991) 286 p.
Discworld #12 (Witches #3)

wa

In the tiny hilltop kindom of Lancre, the witch Desiderata Hollow passes away – and passes on her magic wand and responsibilities as a Fairy Godmother to Magrat, the youngest of Granny Weatherwax’s coven. The three witches must set out for the distant city of Genua to find Magrat’s young charge Ella (as in Cinderella) and free her from the manipulations of her other, evil Fairy Godmother, Lilith – who also happens to be the de facto ruler of Genua, having deposed the old Baron.

Witches Abroad, as the title suggests, is a road story. The witches don’t actually arrive in Genua until halfway through the book. The first half is a sequence of comedic setpieces as a pair of old biddies and their exasperated younger friend bumble their way through Foreign Parts. (“Abroad” is such a classically English word.) At first – the dwarves, the vampire village, the running of the bulls – this is a reason for Pratchett to exercise his overactive imagination in amusing vignettes. As the witches approach Genua, however, their encounters are lifted straight out of fairytales – not just because Pratchett wants an excuse to satirise them, as would have been the case in previous Discworld novels, but because Lilith is deliberately engineering her local world to resemble a world of fairytales, regardless of the implications. This comes out most strongly in the Red Riding Hood analogue, as the witches save an old woman, only to find that the Big Bad Wolf is a victim as well – an ordinary wolf given human predatory instincts, slowly going insane:

She stared at the wolf, wondering what she could do for it. A normal wolf wouldn’t enter a cottage, even if it could open the door. Wolves didn’t come near humans at all, except if there were a lot of them and it was the end of a very hard winter. And they didn’t do that because they were big and bad and wicked, but because they were wolves.
This wolf was trying to be human.
There was probably no cure.

“Someone made this wolf think it was a person,” she said. “They made it think it was a person and then they didn’t think any more about it. It happened a few years ago.”

Lilith’s autocratic wonderland is on full display as the witches eventually reach Genua: a swamp town, a party town, a very clear New Orleans analogue. It seems a strange place to set your novel about fairytales and princesses, but Pratchett is deliberately contrasting it with another city in the same part of the real world – Orlando, and specifically Disneyworld. In an interview he said:

[Witches Abroad] had its genesis some years ago when I drove from Orlando to New Orleans and formed some opinions about both places: in one, you go there and Fun is manufactured and presented to you, in the other you just eat and drink a lot and fun happens.

The old Genua – the swampy shanty town – still clusters around the outskirts of the new Genua, a pristine, polished wonderland which is utterly soulless, and which reminded me of Lord Farquaad’s castle in Shrek (which is, of course, another paordy of Disneyworld). The witches go about finding Ella, encountering a voodoo swamp woman who is neither quite ally or enemy, and and attempting to disrupt the threads of narrative power that will enable Lilith to cement her hold on the people of Genua.

I remember liking Witches Abroad quite a lot when I first read it, and I still do. The plot hums along very nicely considering it’s a book of two halves, treading a good balance between comedy and gravitas, much like Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! (In fact, it’s strange to me that Pratchett clearly hit upon excellent characters in Weatherwax and Vimes, yet waited so long to write their follow-up stories – six and seven books respectively, if you consider the Granny Weatherwax of Equal Rites to be a sort of proto-character.)

What works best of all is the dynamic between the three characters: Granny, the iron-willed leader of the group, a cranky and contemptuous woman who was “born to be good” and doesn’t like it; Nanny Ogg, the rambunctious, cheerful, drunken old hen, the kind of woman you wish you had as a crazy aunt, who’s nevertheless sharper and more powerful than she first seems; and Magrat, the youngest of them, a hippie-dippie New Age wet hen. Granny and Magrat in particular clash a lot over the use (or non-use) of magic and Granny’s scornful attitude towards Magrat’s idealism, which culminates in a very nice scene at the climax of the book in which Granny overcomes a voodoo practitioner by doing something she repeatedly told Magrat is impossible. (“When Esme uses words like ‘everyone’ and ‘no-one,’” Nanny Ogg notes, “she doesn’t include herself.”)

An excellent entry in the series, and I again have to say how puzzling it is, in retrospect, that Pratchett waited so long before reintroducing some of his best characters. He must have realised he was on to something after this one; after Small Gods, which is next (and possibly the only totally stand-alone book in the series) he went straight back to the witches with Lords and Ladies, which I recall being the high point of their arc. The City Watch books will start coming thick and fast soon as well.

Rereading Discworld Index

Archive Calendar

April 2017
M T W T F S S
« Mar    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930