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Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951) 189 p.

Isaac Asimov is the last of the Big Three science fiction writers I hadn’t read, but I approached this book with a sense of duty rather than desire. While these classic science fiction novels may form the foundation (lol) of what we have today, they’re usually quite detached from what I’d consider to be “good” books, in both technical style and readability.

Foundation is a story spanning many generations, about the decline of a Galactic Empire and an attempt to rebuild it in the Dark Ages that follow. It concerns the “Foundation,” a sort of emergency ark of scientific knowledge situated on a planet at the very edge of the galaxy. Each large chapter deals with a different section of history, ranging from a mathematician on the capital planet deciding to establish the Foundation, up to a century afterwards when society is beginning to break down.

So Foundation tries to pack in an epic sweep of history, yet focuses on individual events and moments, and jumps to the next epoch very quickly each time. The majority of the book is dialogue, and there are no discernable characters – just names. Most classic sci-fi is pretty poor on characterisation, but this was appalling. Even if Asimov were a Pulitzer-calibre writer (which he suuuuure isn’t), it’s nigh impossible to craft memorable characters when you’re leaping forward in time every 35 pages.

Asimov also has an annoying habit – similar to Heinlein, though nowhere near as bad – of writing scenes in which Smart People Are Right and Foolish People Are Wrong. There’s never any self-doubt or self-questioning. This strikes me, ironically, as a very unscientific attitude. But, hey, if you like reading about pompous old men lecturing people, you’ll love this book.

Overall Foundation was a pretty bad book, the kind where I didn’t know what was going on most of the time – not because the plot was too complex to follow, but rather because it was too boring to follow. I may chance Asimov’s I Robot, but I doubt I’ll read the rest of the Foundation series.

Foundation at The Book Depository

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Scrivener’s Moon by Philip Reeve (2011) 438 p.

Scrivener’s Moon is the third book in the Fever Crumb series, Philip Reeve’s prequel to his excellent Mortal Engines quartet. It begins with an excellent prologue and clever piece of storytelling which suggests that Reeve is bringing back his A-game.

The story begins with Fever returning to London after several years on the Continent, although to the horror of Eurosceptics, this series takes place in a post-apocalyptic future world where the North Sea has dried up and connected Britain to the mainland. Since Fever’s departure, the project to make London into a moving city is well underway, with much of the existing city having been demolished or stripped for raw materials, the populace living in tent towns clustered around the base of the great vehicle.

However, Fever soon sets off again, travelling north in search of a secret temple that holds the secrets of Stalker technology. And so Scrivener’s Moon is a road story, like the books of the Mortal Engines series, and unlike Fever Crumb and A Web of Air, which took place in single cities. There’s also some huge battles and explosions towards the end, which again is more like the previous books and less like what I’d expected to find from the Fever Crumb series.

Yet I’m not sure it works as well anymore, and I think it’s because Reeve’s heart isn’t in it. He’s clearly more interested now in character arc and relationships, and the battle scenes in Scrivener’s Moon felt like a throwback to something he didn’t really want to write about anymore. He’s mentioned a few times about how much he dislikes the airship tropes of young adult steampunk literature, which I suspect is why Fever Crumb‘s world is a flightless one, and I think battles and explosions and swashbuckling excitement come under the same heading.

Which is a shame, because although I personally prefer the cinematic high adventure of the Mortal Engines series, the Fever Crumb series was building its own character and style, and Reeve shouldn’t feel obliged to throw flashy battle scenes in for old fans. I still don’t think he’ll ever beat Hester Shaw (and in the Fever Crumb series he brings Shrike back a little too often), but there is some excellent character work in Scrivener’s Moon – particularly Charley Shallow, who returns from Fever Crumb and is built from the ground up as a study in how cruel and heartless villains come into being. Charley has both good and bad in him, and there are many crucial moments in both Fever Crumb and Scrivener’s Moon, where things could have turned out differently if someone had shown him kindness, or if he’d been strong enough himself not to take the selfish path. There’s also a very surprising development with Fever herself, which led me to think that maybe Reeve isn’t the religious conservative I had him pegged for.

In any case, take this review with a pinch of salt. The Mortal Engines series as a whole is in my top five favourite stories of all time, and I find it impossible to be objective about it. The Fever Crumb series has been very difficult to review, because I don’t like it nearly as much as the Mortal Engines quartet, and I find it hard to tell if it’s just a lack of nostalgia, or personal preference, or if Reeve really isn’t writing books as good as he used to. I still recommend this series, and consider it much better than most young adult fiction, but I also still consider it a pale shadow of the magnificence that is the Mortal Engines series.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988) 309 p.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a player of games, a genius master of almost every game that exists. He exists in the utopian, want-for-nothing Culture with a sense of nihlism and ennui, challenged by nothing and bored by everything, until he is plucked from his comfortable life by Contact – an agency of the Culture tasked with dealing with other, potentially hostile, species. Contact has discovered a brutal alien empire in which the higher aspects of society are governed by a complex game called Azad. As the greatest game player in the Culture, Gurgeh is recruited to participate in the empire’s grand game tournament, which determines who becomes the emperor.

This is not because they or the empire believe that Gurgeh could actually become Emperor, Riddick style. Rather, he has been invited as a guest, and the empire does not believe he will progress very far, and Contact’s motives are vague and secretive. Gurgeh is backed up only by a drone and a sentient spaceship; the impression given is that neither this mission, nor the empire, nor Gurgeh, are a particularly high priority for Contact.

This a problem. It reminded me of the largest problem with the first Culture book I read, Look To Windward, which was that it lacked a sense of urgency. A boook does not, of course, have to be about saving the universe to have a sense of urgency. It just has to be urgent for the characters, and even Gurgeh himself never seems to be particularly invested in his circumstances. (Nihilistic characters always irk me.) One of the main themes of Consider Phlebas was about how, during massive wars and world-changing events, individual people really make very little difference to the grand scheme of things – and, although set against the backdrop of a hugely destructive war, Consider Phlebas is mostly about the immediate fate of the protagonist and the people he cares about. Yet I found myself much more invested in the plot of Consider Phlebas than I did in The Player of Games, because the events were drastically important to its main character. (Like Look To Windward, A Player of Games does take a dramatic turn towards the end, but it’s too little, too late.)

The other issue I had with this novel was that so much of it revolved around the game of Azad, yet Banks didn’t bother to actually create this fictional game, and is therefore prevented from ever going into detail about it. This is what a description of a typical round reads like:

The lesser games ended with the sides about even. Gurgeh found there were advantages and disadvantages in playing as part of an ensemble. He did his best to adapt and play accordingly. More talks followed, then they joined battle on the Board of Origin.

Gurgeh enjoyedit. It added a lot to the game to play as a team; he felt genuinely warm towards the apices he played alongside. They came to each other’s aid when they were in trouble, they trusted one another during massed attacks, and they generally played as though their individual forces were a single side. As people, he didn’t find his comrades desperately engaging, but as playing partners he could not deny the sene of emotion he felt for them, and experienced a growing sense of sadness – as the game progressed and they gradually beat back their opponents – that they would soon all be fighting each other.

…Nobody actually attacked until the last of the other team’s pieces had been ccaptured or taken over, but there was some sublte maneuvering when it became clear they were going to win, playing for positions that would become more important when the team agreement ended. Gurgeh missed this until it was almost too late, and when the second part of the game began he was by far the weakest of the five.

Vagueness and generalisations that could apply to any kind of generic competition. Every game in the book is described like this, and we get very little sense of what Azad is actually like. Gurgeh may as well have been playing chess or water polo or Starcraft. Granted, designing a fictional game (especially one that is supposed to be complex enough to represent life itself, as Azad is) is doubtless very difficult. But that’s the fruit that Banks picked when he decide to write a book called The Player of Games, about a game-player playing a game. And sure, such an attempt at designing an interesting game, and then writing exciting passages set within it, could also easily fail. But by deciding to avoid it entirely, Banks gives up without even trying, and that too is a form of failure. It contributed greatly to the sense of aimlessness and lack of urgency that I cited earlier.

There were a number of other things that irritated me. The book suffers mildly from the curse of sci-fi and fantasy writers, which is trying to fit too many ideas into one book. As Gurgeh arrives in the empire’s capital city, his drone points out a labyrinthine prison below their ship:

“The idea is that people who’ve broken the laws are put into the labyrinth, the precise place being determined by the nature of the offence. As well as being a physical maze, it is constructed to be a moral and behavioural labyrinth as well; the prisoner must make correct responses, act in certain approved ways, or he will get no further, and may even be put further back. In theory a perfectly good person can walk free of the labyrinth in a matter of days, while a totally bad person will never get out.”

Gurgeh’s moral character up to that point (and throughout the rest of the book, actually) was fairly grey, so I naturally assumed that he would find himself trapped within the prison later on, and both he and the reader would discover what kind of a man he truly was, while also being treated to an interesting literary set-piece full of riddles, puzzles and encounters. Instead, it never comes up again, the most egregious of several loose threads and pointlessly foreshadowed elements in the book.

I didn’t find The Player of Games to be a particularly bad book, but after hearing constantly about what a wonderful example of the Culture series it was supposed to be, I was very disappointed. I would still rank it more highly than Look To Windward, but lower than Consider Phlebas – which I didn’t exactly love. I’ll still read Use of Weapons, but if that doesn’t grab me, I may stop bothering with the Culture series.

The Player of Games at The Book Depository

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957) 220 p.

The last of Wyndham’s four greatest science fiction novels, The Midwich Cuckoos is the odd one out, in that it’s not apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. I suppose you might argue that it’s about averting an apocalypse. Actually, it occurs to me that most of my reviews on his books have been somewhat spoiler-laden, and that these are classic science fiction novels where it really is best to go in knowing nothing at all. Too late for the last three, but if you want to experience The Midwich Cuckoos to its fullest (and trust me, you do), stop reading now.

The Midwich Cuckoos is probably better known to most people as the 1960 film “Village of the Damned,” which, even if you haven’t seen it, has worked its way into popular culture with the striking image of golden-eyed children exerting their willpower on English villagers. (For my own generation, think of that episode of the Simpsons where the kids break curfew to sneak into a drive-in movie cinema to see “The Bloodening.”)

The story begins with the narrator and his wife returning home to the village of Midwich after a weekend in London, and finding the roads blocked by the military. Retreating to a pub in a neighbouring village, they find an old Army comrade who explains what’s going on. Anybody attempting to enter Midwich collapses unconscious, and the military has managed to map out an almost perfectly circular circumference of this mysterious field. After losing one observation plane from flying too low over the blackout zone, a higher plane reveals photographs showing what looks like a spacecraft resting at the centre of the village.

The effect vanishes the next morning, the spacecraft disappears, and the residents of the village wake up apparently none the worse for wear. The government covers the incident up, and life goes on. A few weeks later, the women of the village discover that nearly all of them are pregnant.

The Midwich Cuckoos may not be a grand tale of apocalyptic destruction, but it’s no less enthralling than any of Wyndham’s other novels, and it contains easily the clearest proposition of the most common theme that ran through his previous three books: that two alien intelligences will be incapable of co-operation, and will bitterly fight each other to the death. Several of the characters are more than aware that the children born in the village will, eventually, present a serious threat, but – like the mother bird that feeds the cuckoo – their survival instincts are hampered by their maternalism and consciences.

It’s not just this common theme that’s more present than ever in The Midwich Cuckoos; it’s also, unfortunately, Wyndham’s dated attitudes. Had this book been written today, even by a male author, there’s no doubt it would be told from a female perspective. Instead we get second-hand observations and impressions from male characters sitting around in parlours smoking and drinking, and there’s a lot said about the shame and the indignity of having children out of wedlock, or being a single mother. Again, though, Wyndham was a product of his time, and to his credit The Midwich Cuckoos does contain his first ever portrayal of the Soviet Union as something other than a stupid, childish empire which frames all kinds of obvious extraterrestrial perils as being a ploy on the part of capitalist imperialists.

The narrator in The Midwich Cuckoos is one of Wyndham’s weakest yet, a passive observer who isn’t even present for much of the novel, instead recounting stories he was told second-hand. The scholar and unofficial mayor of the village, Gordon Zellaby, is a far more important character (apparently the movie cuts the narrator and focuses on Zellaby entirely) and the novel would have worked much better from a third-person point of view.

Rather than criticisms, these are largely observations from an adult perspective, since I first read this novel in early high school. I really find very little to be critical of other than Wyndham stubbornly clinging to his favoured first-person perspective. The Midwich Cuckoos is a product of its time – an engaging, fascinating, brilliantly conceived classic from the golden age of science fiction.

Pure by Andrew Miller (2011) 346 p.

Towards the end of the 18th century, at the heart of the Enlightenment, the cemetery Les Innocents at the centre of Paris is full. The ground is swollen with the dead. Basement walls break open under the pressure, corpses tumbling into them. The very air is tainted, poisoning the food and the breath of those who live nearby.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young provincial engineer, is hired by the government to “purify” it – to dig the corpses up, remove the tainted earth, make the place clean again. From the very beginning he is uneasy about the project, sitting on a bench outside the palace in Versailles after he is issued his orders, trying to convince himself that “it cannot be impossible to conceive of this work as something worthy, serious. Something for the greater good.”

Pure is a heavily allegorical novel, the destruction of the cemetery tearing apart Baratte himself, and prefacing the greater “purification” that is to come with the French Revolution, just a few short years away. I suspect some of the novel’s metaphors and allegories are quite explicit, but if your knowledge of French history is thin – as mine is – you might have trouble picking up on them.

Pure is also one of those novels that’s difficult to review, because I didn’t feel particularly strongly about it. I would describe it as: “good… not great.” It’s certainly not forgettable; the concept is fascinating, and it creates a powerful image of a cemetery being disinterred, bone by bone, fires burning day and night, a kind of hell at the heart of Paris. But – although it’s certainly a good, competent novel, and one that has received critical acclaim – I personally wasn’t captured by it.

It does, however, have the most awesome cover ever. (And yes, I know where it comes from.)

 

This week I spent my life savings on a motorcycle. That’s how I live my life!

Melbourne was recently voted the most liveable city in the world by the Economist, whose liveability rankings have long been a joke because they obviously equate liveability with speaking English (there is no fucking way Perth is the seventh most liveable city in the world.) Monocle’s more opened-minded survey ranks it #5, and last year Mercer ranked it #18. So clearly it is a pretty neat city – as long as you don’t go more than ten kilometres from the CBD, beyond which it becomes the same bland Aussie suburbia that can be found from Bunbury to Bundaberg.

The Age recently conducted its own survey to see which is the most liveable suburb in “the world’s most liveable city.” Of 318 suburbs examined, my suburb of Sunshine West comes in at 233. Crime, lack of trees, poor public transport, distance from the CBD and the bay, and lack of shops and restaurants all hurt it.

There are two factors the survey didn’t take into account, which Sunshine West would rank poorly in anyway, but which I think were serious omissions. The first is pollution. Sunshine West sits at the edge of the largest industrial estate in the metropolitan area, and the smell is quite often “noticeable” (if we’re being polite). There is a pollution measurement station on my street, aerials and instruments humming away, which is kind of like seeing regular police patrols in your neighbourhood. It’s good that the authorities are concerned for your welfare, but the fact that they need to be is worrying.

The second is architectural aesthetics. By the standards of the study, an old-established suburb that has existed for hundreds of years has no benefits over one in which every structure was erected in 2010. Apart from trees, topography and distance to the city and bay, the study makes no allowance for things unrelated to infrastructure. Although it admits that “liveability” is a nebulous notion, it seems to argue that a vibrant city and a liveable neighbourhood could be scientifically designed and built.

Compare Southbank and Docklands to South Yarra and Collingwood. Compare Canary Wharf to Bloomsbury. Compare Atlantic Yards to Greenwich Village. Which of these areas are indisputably the heart and soul of their respective cities? Which of them, on the other hand, feel like generic committee-designed redevelopment projects where everything, even the roads and footpaths, was built from scratch and is unsettlingly new? A Ballardian landscape of skin-crawlingly clean modern architecture?

Architecture is something I’ve been thinking more and more about in the past few years. It’s a field in which I have no education or experience, merely a bundle of deep-seated feelings I find difficult to express. I instinctively lash out against brand new apartment buildings and McMansions, with their maroon-and-purple colouring and interior design dominated by straight lines and white space. It’s boring and ugly. I see more beauty in a run-down brick factory with graffitti stencils and broken windows than I do in a white Mirvac Fini apartment building in Docklands with a thousand identical balconies.

Why is this? Are new things objectively less beautiful? Buildings in bygone eras – Victorian, Edwardian, whatever – had a tendency to add decoration. The spires of the Forum Theatre, the brick pyramids atop each storefront along Sydney Road, the splendour of Flinders Street Station, the cornices and cupolas that adorn the buildings of the central city. Modern structures seem to be built with cost in mind – ease (and therefore cheapness) of assembly, of maintenance, of cleaning. The walls of Southbank’s towering structures are lined with plain white slabs; they remind me of China’s grown-overnight white-tiled cities. But surely capitalism was no less entrenched in the Victorian and Edwardian eras? Have we entered hyper-capitalism? Has the almighty dollar become even more vital than it was in times gone by? This is the intersection of two completely different sciences, neither of which I know much about.

Roger Ebert, in an article on the decline of architecture far more articulate than mine, seems to agree that finance is the one and only factor these days:

I walk around Chicago, and look up at buildings of variety and charm. I walk into lobbies of untold beauty. I ascend in elevators fit for the gods. Then I walk outside again and see the street defaced by the cruel storefronts of bank branches and mall chains, scornful of beauty. Here I squat! they declare. I am Chase! I am Citibank! I am Payless Shoe Source! I don’t speak to my neighbors. I have no interest in pleasing those who walk by. I occupy square footage at the lowest possible cost. My fixtures can be moved out overnight. I am capital.

Eureka Tower obviously shows some more thought and imagination than the rest of Southbank – perhaps a concession that, as the tallest building in the country, it was going to draw the eye, so they should at least put in some effort – and it’s not outright awful. But does it compare to an Empire State Building – or even a Rialto, or a 120 Collins Street? Stylistically it’s in line with Federation Square or those jutting sticks on the north-south Citylink. Modern architecture, when it does try to show flair or individuality rather than the cheapest available option, seems to embrace whatever looks the most garish or unnatural.

Yet I can’t help but feel that perhaps I’m biased, and in one hundred years’ time people will be doing their damndest to preserve the buildings I hate now, and decrying whatever monstrosities the architects of the day are putting up. Is it the newness itself that causes my dislike for these buildings and places? When the Age interviewed Robyn Annear for the liveable suburbs coverage, she had this to say:

If I were adding indicators, it would be something intangible about the past and a sense of what happened in a place before, and being able to see that authentically, not through plaques. There are still some really old, left-alone things among the multi-storey townhouses, some weird gargoyles, places that offer evidence that there was something quirky going on in the minds of the people who built them. There are these layers that speak to me about what the place was once like.

This reminded me of something William Gibson once said, regarding Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner vision of a realistic future city:

The simplest and most radical thing that Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner was to put urban archaeology in every frame. It hadn’t been obvious to mainstream American science fiction that cities are like compost heaps — just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe, that’s just life — it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. But in American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand-new, every square inch of it.

Southbank and Docklands may be rich and desirable neighbourhoods, but there’s a certain stigma to them for their newness. More judgemental Melburnians look at them as they do Sydney – being all about glitz and money, lacking some certain vital aspect that makes old neighbourhoods like Carlton and Fitzroy more appealing. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I had a choice between a townhouse in Fitzroy or an apartment in Southbank, I know what I’d choose. Some places lack stories, legends, a past. They’re designed by committee, funded by private investors out to make as much money as possible or government bodies trying to “re-develop” areas to get re-elected. They are neighbourhoods created from scratch, by people who should not be in the business of creating neighbourhoods. Perhaps because nobody should, or can, be in that business. Neighbourhoods should create themselves.

Gentrification is an inevitable and not entirely negative process. But it bothers me when developers move into an old neighbourhood and demolish old structures. In Footscray they are tearing down factories and warehouses from the 1930s to make way for ugly, identical, brand new apartment blocks (you can have your choice of white, grey or maroon). In Fitzroy I once visited a warehouse apartment, with brick walls and catwalk balconies. It’s not necessary to throw away the past to repurpose the present. It can be preserved, and it is better to do so. Maybe not cheaper, but better.

I think the disconnect I feel with modern architecture is a combination of both factors. I think modern architectural design is objectively ugly. Even when something is clean and neat and not particularly offensive, it’s boring. White cubes are boring. Big glass windows, if they only give a view of a hundred identical Mirvac Fini apartment towers, are boring. Clean blank space is boring. And a neighbourhood in which absolutely everything was built a few years ago – no matter how well designed, no matter how many cafes and restaurants and bookstores it has – will always feel a bit too much like a hospital or a government office. Utilitarian, sterile, lacking that vital connection to what came before it.

And I am surely not the only one who thinks that. I’ve quoted from several above, and the existence of preservation groups and the price of 19th century townhouses in Melbourne must be evidence that this opinion is, if not majority, at least widespread. Why can we not build old buildings that look like new buildings? I see the refurbishments and conversions of old, dilapidated buildings into new apartment blocks, which is good, but when something is built from scratch it’s either a McMansion or a glass and steel Southbank rectangle. Where has the vision gone? Have we lost our ability to design beautiful things? Or do we just not care?

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