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Endymion by Dan Simmons (1996) 563 p.

I’d heard that the latter books in Simmons’ Cantos series weren’t as good as the first two (the excelllent Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion) so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself thoroughly drawn into this book, reading huge stretches at a time and finishing it in a few days.

Endymion takes place 274 years after The Fall of Hyperion. Following Gladstone’s destruction of the farcaster (teleporter) network, the hundreds of planets of the Hegemony were cut off from each other and plunged into a new Dark Age. Only recently has the “Pax,” a Catholic Church theocracy, begun to once again unite the scattered worlds. The story begins with Raul Endymion, a 27-year old hunting guide on the familiar world of Hyperion, killing a man in self-defence and being sentenced to death for it. Mysteriously rescued and taken to a different continent, he is charged by his benefactor (a returning character from the previous books) with rescuing Aenea, a foreshadowed messiah who will be emerging from the Time Tombs in two days.

The thing about the Cantos is that it has a very complex higher plot, involving AIs and time travel and fate and destiny and all that jazz. Which I never really grasped – like the climax of Neuromancer, I didn’t quite wrap my head around what happened at the end of The Fall of Hyperion. But, again like Neuromancer, I didn’t really care, because the “lower” plot is very enjoyable and comprises the vast majority of the book. Endymion has a few sections talking about the “Godhead” and the Machine God and the role of love and belief and the nature of the universe, etc, but for the most part it’s a fantastic science fiction adventure tale. The bulk of the story involves Raul, Aenea and their android companion A. Bettik (almost a Jim the Negro analog) escaping from their Pax pursuers by rafting down the River Tethys, a river that once ran through two hundred worlds thanks to the farcaster portals (which Aenea can somehow reactivate). Since the Hegemony is one of the most awesome science fiction universes ever written, in my opinion, I was more than happy with this story of high adventure on a dozen different worlds. Half the book is told from Raul’s perspective, and the other half from Father de Soya, a Pax warrior-priest charged with capturing them, who has his own companions in the form of a few surviving spec ops troops from the failed capture attempt on Hyperion. Simmons writes de Soya not as a heartless antagonist, or a demonised religious caricature, but a believable and sympathetic character – in fact, while reading the Raul sections I was rooting for him to escape, and while reading de Soya’s sections I was rooting for him to capture them. If you can make a reader do that, you’re doing something right.

My favourite book, on the whole, is still The Fall of Hyperion – a brilliantly conceived and executed brink-of-war, end-of-the-world, high stakes space opera. And if I had to pick, I’d probably say Hyperion is slightly better than Endymion. But it’s still a great addition to a great series, and I look forward to reading the final book.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (2003) 356 p.

Neuromancer was William Gibson’s novel, and it remains his finest: a fantastic science fiction tale of a washed-up computer hacker drawn into the ultimate heist, it was gritty and post-modern and ahead of its time and genre-spawning and, most importantly of all, simply an excellent novel. In the decades that followed, Gibson wrote many more novels set in the Neuromancer universe, before eventually writing Pattern Recognition – his first novel set in the real world and the present day.

Pattern Recognition is centred around Cayce Pollard, a “marketing consultant” who is literally allergic to certain logos and corporate symbols (the novel’s only unrealistic touch). While working in London, Cayce is hired by a Belgian entrepreneur to uncover the origin of a series of viral videos that are sweeping the Internet. This leads her to Tokyo, back to London, and finally to Moscow.

The most intriguing thing about Pattern Recognition is that it reads like science fiction despite the fact that it isn’t. It’s not so much that Gibson has stopped writing science fiction; rather that the real world has caught up to the creative vision he laid down in the 1980s. And yet it’s not (and never was) technology that defines the fiction of William Gibson, but rather the way it influences and affects our society and our identities. Marketing, globalisation, fashion trends, commercialism, the end of communism, the effect of September 11… Neuromancer was impressive not just for its prediction of technologies such as the Internet, but also because it depicted a world in which corporations are becoming more powerful than nation-states, urban decay is rife and society seems to be wracked with nihilism. Pattern Recognition presents the same world – but this time it’s real.

I spent three years at university trying to wrap my head around post-modernism, and now I can recognise it when I see it, but I still can’t articulate it. Whatever, nobody cares about post-modernism.

In any case, I found Pattern Recognition to be fascinating on that level, but not neccesarily fascinating on its own merit. It’s a good book, certainly, but nowhere near the level of Neuromancer. On the other hand I read it quite quickly, so it must have been somewhat compelling. Certainly reccommended for Gibson fans.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003) 529 p.

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Thus begins Middlesex, a book about gender and identity, following the life of Calliope Stephanides, a third-generation Greek immigrant who is born a hermaphrodite. She is raised as a girl, and life goes well enough until she reaches puberty, when the usual teenage problems come with additional complications that change her – his – life forever.

Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer prize, and a good deal of it follows an immigrant family’s adaptation to America over several generations, played out against a backdrop of 20th century history. As far as I can tell this is Pulitzer paydirt. The story begins with Cal’s grandparents fleeing the burning of Smyrna in 1922, taking a ship to America, and settling down in Detroit. Henry Ford’s auto factories, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, and the social upheaval of the 1960s (including an excellent depiction of the Detroit race riots) all play out in predictable fashion, and to some extent it feels like Eugenides is following a formula. But he follows this formula so well that the reader never minds, and he won himself a Pulitzer for it, so good for him. In fact, many of the novels most compelling story threads have nothing to do with Cal at all, but rather with her parents and grandparents.

Eugenides weave a compelling story, and his prose is excellent – not quite as good as Michael Chabon or David Mitchell, but certainly in the same league. Middlesex is one of the finest novels I have read this year, and a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956) 195 p.

I first read this novel in high school, after greatly enjoying the Tripods trilogy (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire) for which John Christopher is more well-known. Those books were aimed at young adults, and I recalled The Death of Grass as being surprisingly more serious and cold-blooded in dealing with the downfall of human civilisation.

The Death of Grass is a classic post-apocalyptic novel, written in the 1950s, the golden age of British post-apocalyptic fiction. In this case the end of the world as we know it is brought about by the Chung-Li virus, a disease originating in China which kills off all grass species – including, unfortunately for humans, wheat, barley and rye. First China falls to famine, and then it spreads to India and South-East Asia and the Soviet Union, and before long the grass is dying out in Britain and rationing is introduced in a desperate measure to stave off starvation. As England descends into anarchy, the protagonist and his friends and family must fight their way north to Cumbria, where his brother has a potato farm in an easily defended valley.

What sets The Death of Grass aside from other post-apocalyptic novels of the time – notably John Wyndham’s nonetheless excellent bibliography – is the sheer level of realistic brutality the characters are forced to lower themselves to. Like all novels of the genre, The Death of Grass‘ overriding theme is that civilisation is a thin veneer that will be peeled away as soon as the electricity goes out and the tap water runs dry, and there are many conversations (and actions) to this effect. The protagonist and his friends are forced to kill, and not just in self-defence, and in the closing stages of the novel – a mere few days after they have fled London – he realises that he is becoming something akin to a feudal chieftan, with a roving band of armed killers. Men like this are a staple of post-apocalyptic fiction – whether they are the bikers of Mad Max, or the armed survivalists of The Road, or even the miscellaneous bandits and marauders of my own serialised novel End Times – but they are always the bad guys, never the protagonists. Note that I didn’t use the word “heroes;” in Christopher’s world, there are no heroes, just the dead and the living. These generic bad guys always kill to take things – weapons, food, vehicles – and from our vantage point in the real world we consider this the wrong thing to do. We never consider that scavenging and trading might not be enough. We never consider that, in order to survive, we might very well have to kill and take. If you’d prefer to die than do that, you will – count on it.

The Death of Grass is one of the most unflinching accounts of an apocalyptic event that I’ve ever read, and is required reading for any fan of the genre. It’s also, incidentally, the first book that I’ve re-read in more than two and a half years, because I’m in Mongolia at the moment and reading material is limited. Once I reach London I’ve a good mind to go over and read some favourites from the past – the entire Discworld series, for a start, plus all of Philip Reeve’s books. Now I’m adding all of Christopher’s works to the list (although the only ones I’ve read are the Tripods books) and, for that matter, all of Wyndham’s.

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885) 224 p.

King Solomon’s Mines was reputedly written on a wager, with H. Rider Haggard betting a friend that he could write a better adventure novel than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It’s a classic adventure novel, with three stiff upper lip Englishmen venturing into the South African veldt in search of a lost brother and the fabled treasures of King Solomon’s mines.

I haven’t read Treasure Island, but if it’s anything like Stevenson’s Kidnapped, which I read and enjoyed a few weeks ago, I would personally say that Haggard failed his bet. King Solomon’s Mines contains all the elements of a proper adventure novel – kitting up for an expedition, nearly dying in the wilderness, uncovering a Lost World kingdom, huge battles, restoring a rightful king, being trapped in a treasure chamber etc. – it’s almost as though he’s following a recipe.

I found myself quite bored throughout, particularly during the wooden and lifeless battle scenes. This is fairly typical of 19th century novels, as far as I’m concerned, and it was more that Kidnapped pleasantly surprised me than that King Solomon’s Mines let me down. But Stevenson is certainly the better writer; he has a wit and a charm about him that is wholly lacking in Haggard, which is unsurprising, given that the latter wrote a formulaic novel just to win five pounds.

Going Solo by Roald Dahl (1986) 210 p.

Roald Dahl was a British author most well-known for his children’s novels – Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG and so on – but he also wrote short stories for an older audience, and had a very interesting life. Going Solo is an autobiography that covers his experiences living in East Africa in the 1930s and then serving as a fighter pilot in the RAF during World War II.

The book isn’t long and Dahl writes in an extremely simple style, so it almost does feel as though this is a children’s novel, albeit one with people getting shot in the head. This makes it quite an easy and enjoyable read, and I breezed through it in about two days. There’s a definite feeling of adventure to it, set as it is on the fringes of the British colonial empire during its last great era. Scattered throughout the book are original documents that enhance this feeling – maps, handwritten letters, steamship schedules, black and white photographs and so on – and Dahl even acknowledges on the first page that this isn’t just nostalgia, but a genuine opinion that everything was more adventurous back then:

The voyage from the Port of London to Mombasa would take two weeks and on the way we were going to call in at Marseilles, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Port Sudan and Aden. Nowadays you can fly from London to Mombasa in a few hours and you stop nowhere and nothing is fabulous anymore, but in 1938 a journey like that was full of stepping stones and East Africa was a long way from home, especially if your contract with the Shell Company said that you were to stay out there for three years at a stretch.

His life in East Africa lasts for only a few chapters before World War II breaks out, and he trains as a pilot and is sent to fight in the eastern Mediterranean. He survives a crash in Libya, participates in the Battle of Athens and becomes one of only ten pilots to escape from Greece alive, and it’s all terribly exciting, by Jove.

Even if you’ve never read anything by Roald Dahl, or are skeptical that a children’s authour might offer up anything more mature, Going Solo is an easily readable insight into a fascinating period of history, and I highly reccommend it.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010) 469 p.

About five years ago Radiohead became my favourite band of all time – not a band that I would call my favourite based on a few songs, or a strong album, not a band that I would grant that title to after heavy consideration, but a band whose output was so stupendously good that I would automatically say their name when asked, a band so good that in my eyes they are catapulted far above any other bands, into an untouchable heavenly pantheon. The fact that they were an active band, one that still produces new albums, was all the better.

David Mitchell is the Radiohead of my personal literary tastes. His novel Cloud Atlas is my favourite book of all time, and he is far and away my favourite author. His novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the first one he has published since I started reading him, and as with Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” I met it with both excitement and concern. What if it failed?

Fortunately, it didn’t. Just as “In Rainbows” is one of Radiohead’s best albums, The Thousand Autumns is one of Mitchell’s finest novels. I am now really belabouring a comparison that has no significance to anyone but myself. Forget Radiohead, let’s move on.

Japan in the eighteenth century was a hermit kingdom: a completely isolated empire where foreigners were barred entry and citizens prevented from leaving, upon pain of death. Western influence was mistrusted and the Christian religion persecuted. West met East in only one place: the tiny, artificial island of Dejima, constructed in the harbour of Nagasaki, where the Dutch East India Company was permitted to maintain a small trading post.

Enter Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who arrives on Dejima in the summer of 1799, charged with purging the colony of its notorious corruption. The events that unfold over the coming years are a tale of love, science, adventure, politics, evil, pride, deception and murder. This is a more evolved work (some might say more “mature”) than Mitchell’s previous novels, and for the first third, it seems like a straightforward historical fiction novel. Yet David Mitchell remains David Mitchell, and cannot help himself from introducing an adventure. I do not say this to criticise – Mitchell’s talent for pastiche is what won him acclaim in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns is all the better for it. It’s quite telling that once this more adventurous plot strand was introduced, I became far more involved in the novel.

Mitchell’s talent for worldbuilding remains as strong as ever: Dejima is a fascinating outpost of corrupt officials, Japanese interpreters, monks, abbots, prostitutes, thieves, slaves, servants, sailors, captains and samurai. Even aside from its own strength as a novel, it’s a fascinating insight into a fascinating time in history.

The Japanese influence is, as one would expect, quite strong; indeed, Jacob is largely usurped as a character in the middle third of the book by the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, who seeks to rescue someone from a remote monastery. (You know you’re reading David Mitchell when you go from Dutch merchant accounts to a ninja raid on a mountain stronghold.) His previous novel Black Swan Green was clearly semi-autobiographical, detailing the life of a teenage boy in 1980s England. Mitchell also spent many years in Japan as an English teacher, and The Thousand Autumns clearly reflects this later period in his life – albeit more subtly – with a sense of being an outsider, incorrectly assuming your post is temporary, failling in love with someone from an alien culture, and feeling anguish over the way your children are “too Japanese to leave, but not Japanese enough to belong.” And the climax of the most important plot thread involves only Japanese characters, ending in a very Japanese way, and also delivering the best Justice Burn since the end of 24’s fifth season.

This is considered a forerunner for the 2010 Booker Prize, but I’m not certain it deserves it – not because it’s not a fine novel, or because the other contenders are superior, but because it’s not his best novel. I think Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green are both superior, and for him to win the Booker for this would be like Scorsese winning that Oscar for “The Departed;” a “Whoops, how have we not given this guy an award yet!” kind of thing. Mitchell is only in his forties, and I’m sure he has some even more razzle-dazzle stuff tucked away in that brain that will emerge in the coming decades. I certainly hope he can top Cloud Atlas at some stage.

In any case, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a wonderful novel and a delight to read, the best book I’ve read this year. I expected no less of my favourite author.

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September 2010