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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915) 89 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathon Lethem (1999) 311 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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