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HMS Surprise by Patrick O’Brian (1973) 379 p.
I’ve been enjoying the Aubrey-Maturin series thus far, but this was the first instalment that gave me a real inkling into why the series is so loved; why writers and readers from Philip Reeve to Jo Walton to Christopher Hitchens don’t just recommend it, but rave about it. A series of novels, I suppose, has the same advantage that a TV series has over a film: you have a greater amount of time to spend with the characters, and become more comfortable and happy with them.
After returning to England from the naval action at the climax of Post-Captain, Dr. Stephen Maturin is disappointed to discover that his name has been dropped at a large and insecure meeting by a newly appointed member of the Admiralty who should have known better. This seemingly minor indiscretion sets off a chain of events (largely off-screen) which results in Maturin being captured and tortured by the French in Port Mahon (Jack’s old haunt from Master and Commander), necessitating a rescue mission. This sounds like the set-up for the entire book, but it’s actually done and dusted in the first hundred pages; the bulk of HMS Surprise is about a long voyage to Kampong in what was then Malaya, going via Brazil, South Africa and India – the first voyage in the series which takes us away from the familiar waters of Europe and plunges out into the broader oceans of the world.
HMS Surprise is my favourite of the series thus far, for a number of reasons. It leans far more heavily to the Maturin side of things (espionage, adventure, travel) than the Aubrey side of things (naval battles, ships, ladder-climbing, prize money). I know I have no right to complain about naval battles in a series of books about navy ships in the Napoleonic wars, but I was secretly pleased that not a single one took place in HMS Surprise, until right at the end when Aubrey has to defend a fleet of East India Company ships from attack. The novel works very well as a single adventure – not in the sense that you could read it as a stand-alone book, but in the sense that it feels like a well-contained little package, much like the long sea voyage it covers.
It’s also the first book in which I’ve been deeply impressed with O’Brian’s prose style. He’s always been a good writer, above and beyond what one might expect from naval historical fiction, but so many moments of HMS Surprise were well-captured enough to really stick out in my memory: Stephen standing at the edge of the water at an Indian funeral pyre; the lonely, feverish death of the ambassador on a nameless island at the edge of Sumatra; Stephen’s hateful duel and the cardiac surgery he performs upon himself with the help of a mirror; his horrible heartbreak on Madeira, walking alone up the slopes of the volcano to lie in the snow in the shadowed ridge.
One moment that particularly struck me was a sequence in which Stephen asks, in the middle of the Atlantic, to be rowed out to a rocky islet to inspect the birds there. No work is supposed to be performed on a Sunday, but he is loved enough by the crew that a lieutenant named Nicolls takes him out anyway, and they speak about the isolation of life at sea and Nicolls’ estrangement from his wife. He is miserable because he had no letters from her at Gibraltar, but Stephen says he had none either, because their own vessel likely overtook the mail ships, and reassures Nicolls that they will probably both have mail waiting for them in Rio. While they are on the islet a storm strikes, and Nicolls is washed out to sea and drowned. Later in the book, in Rio, Jack gives Stephen his letters. Stephen asks if there were any for Nicolls, to which Jack replies, “Nicolls? No, I don’t think so,” and the conversation immediately moves on to something else. It’s a subtle, easily overlooked, and terribly affective moment; the sort of thing O’Brian deftly accomplishes.
As I said: the best in the series so far, and I look forward to the next one, The Mauritius Command.
Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006) 381 p.
Back when I was slowly trying to read my way through all the Clarkesworld issues, one of the stand-out stories was Peter Watts’ “The Things,” a retelling of the John Carpenter classic The Thing from the point of view of the shapechanging alien which terrorises Kurt Russell and his companions in a remote Antarctic research base. Telling a well-known story from the point of view of the monster feels as eye-rollingly predictable as having characters turn out to be God or Hitler or Adam and Eve, but I was surprised by how well Watts handled the concept. Speaking as the Thing, he narrates from a mindset that is so different, so fundamentally alien, it doesn’t understand that it’s hurting its victims.
The same basic puzzle of perspective lies at the heart of Watts’ novel Blindsight, in which the human race is shocked in the late 21st century by the sudden arrival of thousands of alien probes, which capture and transmit an analysis of Earth and then burn up in the atmosphere. “Caught with our pants down,” as the protagonist Siri Keeton puts it, the human race scrambles to prepare for what they assume is incoming first contact. Blindsight follows a crew of five cutting-edge transhuman scientists as they emerge from hypersleep at the edge of the solar system, sent to investigate a mysterious signal coming from a previously undiscovered gas giant. Upon finding the gas giant being terraformed by a fleet of self-replicating drones, and a smaller alien object orbiting around it, the crew begin the frightening process of figuring out if the aliens are friend or foe.
Blindsight is very much hard science fiction. Not in the classic sense, which always makes me think of 1950s stuff about physics and chemistry and the speed of light, but in a more modern scientific sense: Watts is fascinated by questions of consciousness, artificial intelligence, psychology, evolution and xenobiology. How much you’ll get out of this book is dependent on how interested you are in those things yourself, and in particular, how much you can tolerate long passages of exposition about them. I found the opening half of Blindsight quite compelling in an Alastair Reynolds sort of way: alien mystery, creepy goings-on at the very edge of known space, a sense of horror and dread at the danger the universe might contain. This waned as the book went on, especially as Watts became more focused on the interactions and reactions of the crew. Character writing doesn’t have to be your strongest point in the science fiction game, but it does if you’re going to spend this much time around them, more so if you’re going to insert lengthy flashbacks to your main character’s failed romantic relationship. There are ultimately at least two plot twists in Blindsight, but I didn’t find them all that shocking, because by that point I’d sort of lost the thread of Watts’ hypotheses.
The other thing that bothered me was the vampires. In the world of Blindsight vampires are a long extinct apex predator which humanity has revived by gene splicing into functional sociopaths and high functioning autistics; walking computers, tightly-controlled monsters. There’s nothing supernatural about them, really, but it still felt uncomfortably pulpy every time the word came up in a story about spaceships and aliens; crossing the streams, so to speak. It felt even weirder given that they have nothing to do with the broader plot, although Watts did end up tying them in thematically at the end. Still, it didn’t sit right with me.
If none of that puts you off, check it out – Watts released it under Creative Commons license, so you can download it for free. He’s a talented writer in a poetic sense; it’s just a shame it tends to get drowned out under the weight of all this scientific theory. And certainly read “The Things,” which is up there with Jeff Vandermeer’s “The Third Bear” as one of the best short stories I’ve read in Clarkesworld.
Pyramids by Terry Pratchett (1989) 368 p.
Discworld #7 (stand-alone)
I still remember when I first read this one: on a family holiday to Rottnest, borrowed from the tiny library there because I hadn’t brought anything to read, part of some larger volume of three Discworld books. I’d been reading the City Watch books backwards from The Fifth Elephant and this was the first non-Watch Discworld book I’d read, so I was dubious about it. It was a relief to find that Pratchett’s a wonderful writer regardless of which band of characters he’s following.
Pyramids takes us to the nation of Djelibeybi, meaning “child of the Djel,” one of Pratchett’s most loveably terrible puns. Clearly modelled after Ancient Egypt, it’s a river valley hundreds of miles long and a few miles wide which acts as a buffer state between the enemy kingdoms of Tsort and Ephebe. The main character is Teppic, heir to the throne, who was sent away to Ankh-Morpork as a boy to receive an education from the Assassin’s Guild. The opening of the book details the night of Teppic’s final practical exam before graduating as a fully-fledged assassin, intercut with flashbacks to his earlier youth and arrival in Ankh-Morpork. It’s a great piece of writing, which reminded me of Esk’s tutelage under Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites – never mind the jokes, Pratchett’s on great form here purely for fantasy and adventure, as Teppic stalks the rooftops of Ankh-Morpork avoiding traps and deadfalls set by his examiner. (I’ve heard that Pratchett apparently wrote this sequence completely on the fly, and it was one of his favourite bits of his own writing.)
The story proper begins when the old pharaoh dies and Teppic becomes the new king, his footsteps suddenly sprouting grass in the cobbles of Ankh-Morpork. Returning to his ancestral home and taking his place on the throne, Teppic soon finds himself a stranger in his own land: a cosmopolitan young man from modern, thriving Ankh-Morpork thrust into the leadership of a kingdom in which nothing has changed for seven thousand years. Most of this plays out in his interactions with Dios, high priest of Djelibeybi and one of Pratchett’s best early characters. The only other noteworthy villains Pratchett had written up till now were the Duke and Duchess in Wyrd Sisters, who were really just Macbeth stand-ins, and both of whom were insane. Dios, on the other hand, is perfectly sane and an excellent villain: a man slavishly devoted to ritual and symbolism, whose steadfast refusal to accept change in the kingdom stems as much from his own failings and weaknesses as from his genuine belief that he’s doing the right thing. Reading this book again as an adult I was struck by how similar he is to Sourdust and Barquentine in the Gormenghast series; a master of ritual who perhaps wields more power than the monarch himself, and who treats Teppic as nothing more than a placeholder.
Other parts of Pyramids fell a little flat for me; the banter between the pyramid-builder Ptaclusp and his two sons, an accountant and an engineer, is meant to reflect the tiresome cost overruns and planning tedium of the modern building industry, like the drama in an episode of Grand Designs. It works quite well as an introductory gag but these characters go on to take up far too much of the novel. There’s a diversion to Ephebe, the Discworld’s stand-in for Ancient Greece, with a lot of jokes about philosophy which I thought were a bit stretched. And Teppic himself, while a likeable protagonist, is not a particularly well-rounded character; too often he feels like Pratchett’s voice, an author surrogate making wry comments about the fanaticism of the Djelibeybians. There’s nothing to distinguish his dialogue from that of, say, Rincewind or Mort or even any of Pratchett’s many minor characters and nameless extras who exist to make a witticism and then exit stage left. (And indeed we will never see Teppic or Djelibeybi again.)
Pyramids is a decent novel, certainly one of the better ones in the early series, but a bit of a come-down after Wyrd Sisters. Next on the chart, fortunately, we have Pratchett’s own recommended starting point and the beginning of the best character and the best story arc in the entire series: Sam Vimes, the City Watch, and Guards! Guards!