You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2022.

The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian (1994) 351. p

After seventeen books Patrick O’Brian finally runs out of fiscal and political excuses to keep Captain Jack Aubrey from climbing the career ladder any further. Returning from a four-book mission which ultimately saw he and Stephen Maturin circumnavigate the globe from west to east, Aubrey finds himself promoted to the rank of commodore and placed in charge of a squadron to disrupt the (now illegal) slave trade off West Africa.

Despite the title, this is very much Maturin’s book. He learned of the birth of his daughter Bridget several books ago, in letters received in New South Wales, but meets her now for the first time as he returns to England; now in the care of Clarissa Oakes, as Stephen’s fiery wife Diana has once again absconded for emotional reasons. Bridget is surely at least three years old now; strict chronology is not the series’ strong suit, having been stuck in an ongoing 1812 or 1813 for some six or seven books now, like M*A*S*H* taking eleven years to cover a three-year war. In any case, Maturin is dismayed to realise that his daughter is autistic (the word isn’t used, but to a modern reader it’s obvious) and one of the more heartening sequences of the entire series is when it becomes clear that Stephen’s monoglot Irish manservant Padeen has a particular gift for communing with such children, and Bridget begins to speak to other people for the first time, but only in Irish. Echoes of espionage plots past soon come back to haunt Maturin, however, and he’s obliged to escort Clarissa, Padeen and Bridget to the safety of his relatives in Spain before carrying on to join Jack en route to West Africa.

This book is ultimately another welcome adventure with well-loved characters, even if Jack has been raised to a less exciting middle management position: a story of slavery and marital discord, of yellow fever and Irish revolutionary fervour. There’s a touch of deus ex machina to the conclusion, and even if I didn’t know there are only three books left in this vast series, I might nevertheless conclude that it was past its prime. But being past your prime as an Aubrey-Maturin novel still means you’re excellent.

At first glance it might appear that I’ve once again failed to reach an appropriate-sounding number, however, in two of these entries I’ve actually rolled in four books together, therefore technically making it my top 11 books of the year. You’re welcome.


5. The Ministry for the Future

I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive. Inside I am hot beyond all telling, and yet my outside is even hotter. At my touch you burn, though I spin outside the sky. As I breathe my big slow breaths, you freeze and burn, freeze and burn. Someday I will eat you. For now, I feed you. Beware my regard. Never look at me.

A thoughtful and wide-ranging consideration of a possible future; a step away from nihilistic cli-fi dystopia towards an attempt to grapple with how we might work our way to a positive outcome to the crisis bearing down on us all. It would rank higher if it weren’t for the fact that Robinson is very much a science fiction author who very much does not understand human nature or behaviour, and there are multiple chapters here where his reach exceeds his grasp – notably the one about the federal government rep who successfully convinces American red-staters to abandon their towns to re-wilding, which reminded me of the bit in 2312 about how the space elevators all play Philip Glass symphonies. It’s nonetheless an excellent and timely novel, not least for its unforgettably harrowing opening sequence depicting an unprecedented heatwave killing nearly every last soul in a city in India.


4. The Pier Falls

On the eastern side of the pier a farmer from Bicester is trying to prise the six-year-old boy from between his parents. The boy can surely see that they are dead. Half his father’s head is missing. Or perhaps he can’t see this. He won’t let go of them and his grip is so tight that the man is afraid he will break the boy’s arm if he pulls any harder. He asks the boy what his name is but the boy won’t answer. The boy is in some private hell which he will never entirely leave.

“If you are writing a short story,” Mark Haddon said on the press junket for this collection, “and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.” The stories in The Pier Falls are almost all remarkable, in the literal sense: they’re actually stories about unusual events, the kind of things you’d talk to an acquaintance about if they happened to you in real life, rather than the plotless and stylised renditions of what it feels like when someone has a wistful recollection about their failed marriage or whatever. From the tragic collapse of an English pier to the fate of astronauts stranded on Mars to an absolutely brilliant magical realist modern-day retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, almost every story in this collection is an unforgettable gem.


3. Down to a Sunless Sea

“As of now, you may act independently to take whatever action you may consider necessary to achieve the survival of crew and passengers. Preservation of the aircraft is totally irrelevant.”

A Boeing 747 carrying around 500 passengers on a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to London is a few hours out of JFK when a nuclear war suddenly breaks out. With armageddon erupting behind them and ahead of them, the pilot and his crew scramble to find somewhere – anywhere – safe enough to land their precious cargo of human lives. An edge-of-your-seat apocalyptic techno-thriller which, ironically enough, would be a great book to read on a plane.


2. Aubrey and Maturin’s circumnavigation

“Killick, there. Clear the decks and bring another decanter of port.”
“Which it is getting wery low, sir,” said Killick. “At this rate we shall have to rouse up your feast day eighty-nine, or be satisfied with grog.”
“Rouse it up, Killick: let us live whilst we are alive.”

Books from the Aubrey-Maturin series unfailingly end up on this list. These four in particular comprise a mini-arc which sees the characters depart England and, via Malaysia and Australia and Peru, ultimately circumnavigate the globe. This is approaching the end of the series entirely, very much at the point where you might call the books historical romance or romantic adventure rather than the purer historical fiction of the early novels, but they’re still an unalloyed delight at all times. They make the reader want to live a more involved and adventurous life; to truly appreciate the beauty in the natural world all around us; to take an Epicurean joy in pleasures as small as a glass of port or as large as imminent fatherhood; to live, as Jack says, whilst we are alive. I will be forlorn when I finish the series, having first begun it with Master and Commander in 2014; but I strongly suspect I’ll just start re-reading them all over again.


1. The Revelation Space universe

It was a time of horror.
It is not yet over.

I’m including in this the short story collection Beyond the Aquila Rift, the standalone novel Chasm City, and the sequels to Revelation Space – which I first read in 2014 – Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. They all exist in the same fictional universe and are all really part of one larger work: Reynolds’ imagined future history, mostly occurring between 2200 and 2727, in which humanity has begun colonising nearby stars and has inadvertently become the latest species to provoke a very ancient galactic mechanism designed to exterminate intelligent life.

Reynolds’ work has many flaws, but what I really admire about it is how atmospheric it is: a combination of the aesthetics of Gothic horror with the genuinely frightening notion of how big, cold and apparently empty the galaxy is. It’s not a gee-whiz Star Wars future with dozens of alien races hanging out in a bar, where blasting off in a spaceship is as easy as swinging a leg over a motorcycle; it’s a bleak world of Orwellian governments, horrific nanotech plagues, bizarre religious cults, rarely-encountered alien races which are either extinct or unfathomable, and in which near-light-speed travel between the stars remains a time-consuming matter of relativistic decades.

I distinctly remember the first time I watched the film Alien, and the combined sense of awe and dread as the search party approaches and then enters H.R. Giger’s derelict alien spacecraft. More than anything else I’ve ever seen or read, Alastair Reynolds grasps the frisson of that kind of moment. All the best horror writers know that what’s most frightening is what’s unknown, and there’s nothing more unknown than what might be lurking in interstellar space. Whether it’s Sky Hausmann approaching the silent vessel shadowing his colonisation fleet, the kilometres-long starship Nostalgia for Infinity twisted into a bizarre cathedral-like shape by an alien virus, the mind-boggling scale of the Inhibitors deconstructing entire planets to fashion into vast weapons, or an alien explaining that its race’s naive excitement at finally encountering another intelligent culture was dashed by the fact that they “didn’t want to… tolerate us,” Reynolds has crafted a strange and frightening future which is a fascinating place to visit but absolutely the last place you’d ever want to live.

Archive Calendar

January 2022