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Troubles by J.G. Farrell (1970) 446 p.

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Across the turbulent years of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), Troubles – the first of J.G. Farrell’s loosely connected “Empire” trilogy – follows the upper-class British residents of The Majestic, a seaside hotel in County Wexford. The Majestic has, to put it bluntly, seen better days; Farrell paints a marvellous portrait of crumbling decay, the hotel’s three hundred rooms mostly empty and mildewing, the swimming pool stagnant, the main courtyard overgrown. There’s a touch of Gormenghast to the place, and Farrell is such a talented writer that even though the symbolism is present in every scene it never feels overwrought. The Majestic clearly represents the last disintegrating years of the British Empire itself, the green-eyed orange cats overrunning the upper floors represent the newly ascendant Sinn Fein, and the stiff-upper-lip old Tory who owns the place obstinately refusing to acknowledge the obvious truth that it’s falling down around his ears… well, that represents something still quite relevant to those of us well-versed in British politics in 2019. Particularly the way in which he eventually embarks on a sort of Apocalypse Now descent into madness.

Troubles is regularly interspersed with extracts from newspapers – real ones, I assume – discussing the situation not just in Ireland but in other far-flung parts of the Empire like India and Egypt. There is a familiar tone to these extracts: a delusional steady-hand-on-the-tiller attitude, a refusal to acknowledge that other nations and peoples might have interests and desires which differ from England’s, and a ridiculously unfounded optimism that borders on deranged. A century later, little has changed. Troubles is a brilliant skewering of the Tory mindset and a perfect book to read in October 2019, as the British slouch towards either a no-deal Brexit or yet another extension of their Indefinite Leave to Remain.

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett (1998) 416 p.

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This isn’t a book about Australia. It’s a book about a place that just happens to be a bit… Australian. Following another mangled geo-spatial spell at the end of Interesting Times, Rincewind has found himself not in the familiar comfort of Unseen University, but instead stranded in sunburnt country – XXXX, or Fourecks, the Discworld’s equivalent of Australia. And with the Librarian unexpectedly, magically ill, the University Faculty decide the only way to bring him back is through a magical cure – but the only person who might remember his real name for spellmaking purposes is Rincewind. So they set off to retrieve him, instead finding themselves inadvertently stranded on a desert isle. Pratchett weaves the usual disparate story threads together with something less than his usual aplomb – what unfolds across the book, and the manner in which Rincewind and the Faculty are eventually reunited, is generally just via authorial handwaving. This is definitely one of the Discworld novels which puts any serious plot or commentary to one side and just has fun making a bunch of jokes; so be it.

The British relationship to Australia, at least for a man of Pratchett’s generation, was of a sunny and far-away place which they would never personally visit but would experience second-hand through pop culture and the waves of Aussie backpackers infesting London throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Australian pop culture was curiously prolific in the 1980s – Crocodile Dundee, Mad Max, Neighbours and all that – which meant that for a long time after, foreigners had a perception of the country that was somewhat dated. I was interested to see that by 1998, when The Last Continent was published, Brits like Pratchett had apparently already started to encounter Australians who (no doubt affected in the first place by our long-standing cultural cringe and nagging sense that we’re an unimportant outpost at the edge of human civilisation) were miffed at that portrayal:

The bar went quiet.
“An’ you’re gonna come here and make a lot of cracks about us all drinkin’ beer and fightin’ and talkin’ funny, right?”
Some of Rincewind’s beer said, “No worries.”
His captor pulled him so they were face to face. Rincewind had never seen such a huge nose.
“An’ I expect you don’t even know that we happen to produce some partic’ly fine wines, our Chardonnays bein’ ‘specially worthy of attention and compet’tively priced, not to mention the rich, firmly structur’d Rusted Dunny Valley of Semillons, which are a tangily refreshin’ discovery for the connesewer… yew bastard?”

…which is more or less the same joke used straight-faced twenty years later in this Tourism Australia Superbowl ad. My own personal experience on the changing relationship between our countries is deeply coloured by the year I spent living in a post-GFC Britain, in which most of the young people I met expressed bafflement as to why on earth any Australian would move to the UK. To British people – young British people, at any rate – Australia’s material standard of living and level of opportunity is higher than anything they can expect in their own country. (And this was before the Brexit vote). Who knows whether that will remain the case in the future, but it’s an interesting thing to consider how the relationship has changed over the decades.

Overall, The Last Continent is… fine. The jokes are cheap shots at Australia, like that Simpsons episode, and like that Simpsons episode I love them. I prefer the Discworld novels that have a stronger plot holding them together, but these are fine.

Rereading Discworld Index

The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian (1981) 368 p.

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For a book called The Ionian Mission, the Ionian mission itself doesn’t come into play until about the last quarter – but who cares? By this point in the series it’s clear that this is one very long story which is split into separate volumes merely for the sake of tradition and the necessities of the publishing industry. The Ionian Mission is merely the latest chapter in a setting I’ve grown very comfortable with, among characters who seem like old friends and real people – which is why I picked it as reading material for a hellish 26-hour flight I had to endure, and why I polished off nearly all of it on the Hong Kong to Helsinki leg alone.

The book is largely about Aubrey and Maturin both being assigned to the Mediterranean squadron – Aubrey due to one of O’Brian’s plot devices to prevent character of his experience and rank being given more prestigious but less literarily-exciting duties, and Maturin because he has a cloak and dagger rendezvous scheduled on the French coast. The Ionian mission itself fits rather oddly with the rest of the book, sending the characters off to the Ottoman Empire where it soon became clear to me that this was another of O’Brian’s attempts to insert his characters into Real History – there’s a little too much back and forth politicking with various Turkish power brokers, in a section which felt like it should take up an entire book rather than the final 60 or 70 pages of this one. But never mind – not one of O’Brian’s strongest efforts, but I still greatly enjoyed it, as I imagine I will every book for the rest of the series.

The Day After World War III by Edward Zuckerman (1984) 407 p.

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Back on my bullshit thinking about nuclear war, I mistakenly ordered this little-known book from AbeBooks thinking it was a Warday-style speculative future history. It’s not, but that didn’t make it any less compelling. The Day After World War III is a long, in-depth examination of precisely what kind of planning the United States had in place to cope with a nuclear war: everything from civil defence to brinkmanship strategising to evacuation plans to recovery and reconstruction. It’s obviously dated, but it’s also clear that much of it is probably still relevant, and perhaps more relevant than ever given how many more nuclear powers there are in 2019 than 1984. (In the last few hours, as I’m writing this, Pakistan and India have started shooting down each other’s fighter jets in their latest skirmish over Kashmir; both countries are nuclear powers.)

Zuckerman alternates between primary chapters describing contemporary nuclear plans, and secondary chapters examining how America got to that point. The early secondary chapters, revolving around the Manhattan Project, the development of the first nuclear weapons and the development of a doctrine around their strategic use and purpose, are very interesting; the later ones, which tend to revolve around budgetary disputes, congressional committees and successive political tweaking by various presidents, not so much. But overall this is an approach which works well – perhaps even more so from a contemporary perspective, considering most people under fifty remember the Cold War as a vague notion of foolish warring powers risking all our lives by playing with fire. But the reality of two superpowers pointing missiles at each other in a deadly stand-off did not emerge from a vacuum: the development of nuclear weapons and the resulting Cold War was a direct geopolitical consequence of World War II. As Dan Carlin reminds us in his podcast episode Destroyer of Worlds: “Remember what these people have seen.” The politicians, generals and scientists who developed nuclear arms and strategised their use in the late 1940s and early 1950s had all born witness to the greatest massacre in human history, from the gas chambers of Auschwitz to the beaches of Normandy to the Rape of Nanking. They were under no illusions about what mankind was capable of. They had also just managed to defeat one genocidal empire; but the Soviet Union was still under the rule of Joseph Stalin, a blood-soaked dictator, and with Germany and Britain exhausted, that left two superpowers dictating the fate of an increasingly globalised world. We know, from our 21st century vantage point, that the end of World War II ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. They didn’t know that. The statesmen, generals and scientists of the late 1940s could just as well have seen a brief reprieve before another confrontation. There are any number of parallel universes peeling away from this one in which the 1950s led to another great war and a nuclear holocaust. The existence of nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems is an unalterable fact of technology; the fact that we have all been safely borne into the 21st century without seeing any further use of them indicates maturity and wisdom on both the American and Russian sides, across successive generations. (Which is not to discount sheer dumb luck, and also not to discount the disarmament movement, which – however idealistically – strives for the best of all possible worlds.)

It’s interesting to re-examine your own beliefs about nuclear war, especially for those of us who grew up after the Cold War, with only a vague notion that the combined stockpiles of Russia and the US are enough to wipe out all life on Earth. Zuckerman actually spends quite some time discussing the dispute throughout the Cold War between the disarmament movement, who insisted that a full-scale nuclear war would lead to the extinction of humankind (or at least of advanced human civilisation) and the strategic hawks, who insisted that with correct defence planning and a limited exchange, both the US and the USSR might emerge from such a war as functioning, viable countries: horrifically scarred and devastated, and possibly no longer the world’s pre-eminent powers, but certainly a far cry from ending all life on earth. Zuckerman himself takes no side in that debate, and indeed shows us how it’s simply impossible to model such a scenario, but does point out the obvious truth that tens of millions dying in nuclear hellfire is still far too high a price to pay to ever countenance a nuclear war. It is true, however – as FEMA representatives protest in the hot seat at congressional committees – that it would be remiss of the US government, and of their agency in particular, to have no plans whatsoever to defend the populace from nuclear attack.

What makes this so interesting is how unrealistic those plans seem. I’m a long-time reader and writer of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. The interesting thing to me about that genre is the human factor: how certain people cope, or don’t cope, when the threads of society begin to unravel. How people react, how people behave, what people are capable of doing. That’s why it’s equally fascinating to me to read the plans of a bunch of FEMA wonks with a strong grasp of logistics but a poor grasp of human nature, meticulously considering the most efficient way to transport large numbers of civilians, or how much square meterage of extra dirt cover is needed for a fallout shelter, or how much manpower is required for this or that task – without ever considering the human factor, without ever considering that maybe a good chunk of their assumed volunteer workforce is more likely to drive right past their assigned fallout shelter and keep going until they get their family to Canada. One FEMA guide details how civilians evacuated from high-risk areas to low-risk areas would be put to work piling dirt over their shelters, adding that their numbers would be reinforced by minimum security convicts released from prison, which instantly conjures up an image of a white suburban insurance broker being asked to work a dirt-bucket chain alongside a tattooed black ex-con, and invites the question of precisely how FEMA intended to enforce these plans. Zuckerman maintains a great dry sense of humour throughout these examples:

The sudden news… that half a million black and Hispanic residents of the Bronx are heading for rural Ulster County is likely to create tremors in Ulster County… In 1980, FEMA ordered a special study “to examine the question of whether or not Blacks and other minorities might experience special problems in the event that a nuclear war became likely and the President ordered a massive population relocation.” It concluded that they would.

If you’re wondering how any of these evacuations would have time to take place, the answer is that government planners expect a nuclear war would most likely occur after a prolonged build-up of tension; a “bolt from the blue” attack is considered unlikely. This feeds into another myth many of us grow up with, which is that Mutually Assured Destruction means you aim your weapons at the enemy’s cities, like holding a gun to his children’s head. Not so; nuclear arms do not make conventional arms and conventional warfare entirely obsolete. So you wouldn’t want to be in Los Angeles or New York or Washington when the bombs fall, but only because major cities tend to be the location of military bases, government offices and critical infrastructure like deepwater ports, major airports and steelwork industries. Nuclear arms were developed as strategic weapons of war, and they’re intended to be used as such; from a strategic perspective, bombing a purely civilian target merely means your enemy no longer has to feed and care for those civilians, and you’re down one bomb. This would of course be cold (or hot) comfort  to the civilians who have the misfortune to live too close to a military target. (Sidenote: I’m Australian, and given that Australia is a major US ally, it doesn’t seem unreasonable the Soviets would have spared a dozen or so nuclear bombs for us – certainly Exmouth would be toast. My office in Melbourne is about five hundred metres away from a major Department of Defence site; I’ve played around with the Nuke Map and determined that it would depend on the tonnage of the weapon in question as to whether I died in the fireball, died in the collapse of my brick office building, or merely died a slow and lingering death of radiation poisoning.)

This is also the reason the US built its missile silos in the Upper Midwest: not just to decrease the range American missiles would have to travel to Russia and increase the range submarine-launched Soviet missiles would have to travel to the silos, but also to keep them away from the cities. Nuclear missile silos are another thing we don’t ever really think about, and it’s fascinating to remember that there were other people – designers and engineers and strategists – who spent much of their careers thinking about them. Zuckerman describes how the missiles in these silos are, by the 1980s, hardened against attack by being slung on cables and braced with rubber and foam:

While unused missiles are swaying gently in their slings to the rhythm of Russian hydrogen bombs exploding nearby, surviving missile launch crews will be sitting tight in their aircraft-style seats, lap and shoulder belt fastened to keep them from being thrown to the floor by shockwaves. Their launch control capsules are mounted on giant shock absorbers.

An Air Force crewman at one of these silos tells Zimmerman that most of this strategising seems to end at the point of launch. Each silo contains emergency rations, and a .22 rifle – “The idea is you can shoot rabbits with it.” Much of what makes The Day After World War III great is the cumulative effect of these fascinating details. After describing the U.S. Air Force’s ‘Looking Glass’ flights (a fleet of AWACS planes, at least one of which is always in the air, to serve as a mobile command post in the event of an unexpected nuclear strike) Zuckerman describes what would happen in the event of an actual nuclear war:

The plane’s crew will be flying by instruments – even if the sun is shining and the weather is fine. The crew members’ view of the sky will be blocked by aluminized fabric curtains they will place over the cockpit windows (the only windows on the plane) when the war begins. Their eyes will need that protection from the blinding light of the hydrogen bombs exploding below.

Another Air Force crewman, assigned to refuelling squadrons, explains how he would wear gold goggles to protect from the same hazard – but at night, too dark for goggles, the refuelling teams wear eye patches: “If you get flash effects, you’ll lose one eye, but you’ll still have one that’s operable.” No fiction writer could come up with stuff like this. Only an entire nation’s military and political apparatus, working over successive decades, could deliver these morbidly fascinating small details.

Even if you have an interest in nuclear war, I’m not sure I can recommend this book – it’s out of date, and possibly out of print, and in any case I feel it did ramble on a bit too much and sometimes repeat itself. I can say that I found it a very interesting read, and I learned a lot from it. It’s a good deep dive into a subject we all know about but which few of us ever give much thought to, and which corrects a number of the default assumptions we build up over life.

The Cabin At The End Of The World by Paul Tremblay (2018) 201 p.

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This is one of those thrillers where the blurb sets the scene pretty well. It’s a basic premise, opening from the point of view of seven-year-old Wen, a Chinese adoptee daughter of a gay couple who are vacationing in a remote cabin in New Hampshire. She’s catching grasshoppers out the front when a stranger approaches her – a big friendly man, all smiles, whose mere presence is threatening to an adult reader despite no overt signs of trying to lure her away. Soon his “friends” show up, bearing makeshift weapons, and Wen runs for the cabin, and even though all four of them are apologetic and polite, their message is horrifying: in the home invasion stand-off that ensues, the interlopers tell Wen’s family that one of them must be sacrificed to avert the apocalypse.

That’s the elevator pitch. You’d assume that given the scenario, a lot of the novel’s impact would hinge on the are they/aren’t they question of whether the four horsemen of the apocalypse are telling the truth, or whether it’s all a mindfuck. Except we get point-of-view chapters from them fairly early on, and so we know that as far as they know, they are telling the truth. Which makes it tedious, but not as tedious as the page-in-page-out waffling, padding and bloat that results from Tremblay stretching out a concept for a short story – or maybe, with a talented cast and crew, a film – into a 200-page novel. The vast bulk of The Cabin At The End Of The World consists of astonishingly repetitive internal monologues, thought patterns, and back-and-forth arguments between the thinly drawn characters on both sides of the conflict. I started skim-reading it not long after Tremblay thought it was a good idea – in the middle of the intruders’ initial siege of the cabin – to digress from the action at hand and instead give us several pages of expository background about one of the main characters and his upbringing, including (I shit you not) the kinds of authors his parents enjoyed reading. That fact alone should tell you everything you need to know about this book and about Tremblay’s baffling inability to create or maintain narrative tension.

The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary (1942) 221 p.

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One of the things that’s struck me – looking back at history as an adult with fresh eyes, rather than with the received background wisdoms we get through early schooling or pop culture – is an appreciation of looking at past events through the eyes of people alive at the time, and how those events then compared to their own past. World War I, for example, seems to us like an inevitability, and a rather old-fashioned sort of war compared to the blitzkrieg of World War II; but for those living through it, it was the point at which the future started looking bleak instead of hopeful, the unhappy dark conclusion to the industrial revolution, the optimism of the Gilded Age and the green agrarian fields of Europe turned into the muddy, rusty, mechanical hell of a machine war. It must have felt like the end of the world.

Similarly, the Battle of Britain is such a proudly-remembered, immortalised landmark of history that we ironically don’t appreciate it as much as we should. It was the first great air battle in human history. For thousands and thousands of years human beings had killed each other across Europe, and for nearly a thousand years Britain’s geographic fortune meant it was largely protected from foreign invasion by sea. When the British Expeditionary Force packed off to France in 1939, they expected this war would turn out largely like the last one: a stalemate in the muddy trenches of the Low Countries. They certainly never expected that Britain’s sovereignty might be threatened, or that the skies above London – the ultimate home front – would play host to a battle between flying machines that simply hadn’t existed two generations ago. (One of the most striking images of the Battle of Britain, to me, is the contrails in the sky above St Paul’s Cathedral.) The flyleaf of my copy of The Last Enemy has the oldest inscription I think I’ve ever seen in a book I own: “To Les, March 1943.” The worst of the danger had passed by 1943 but it’s still strange to think Les received this book as a gift from somebody while the war was still ongoing, when the outcome was still in play. It certainly makes history feel less far away.

Richard Hillary was an Oxford student in the 1930s who signed up to the RAF when the war broke out. The Last Enemy is an interesting first-hand description of what it was like to be one of the men so rightly idolised these days, the fighter pilots who defended Britain against the Luftwaffe and a potential invasion. Hillary was by calling a writer, though it’s fair to say that this is one of those books (like Alive by Paul Piers Read) which is compelling not because it’s told with any particular flair but simply because the events it describes are so compelling.

It’s also very much a book of two halves. Hillary was shot down over the North Sea during the Battle of Britain and was badly burned on the face and hands, and the second half of The Last Enemy details his hospital treatment and recovery. In many ways this is the more interesting story: going straight from being a glamorous hot-shot fighter pilot to a pitiable and broken thing, blinded, awash on a tide of pain and morphine in a hospital bed, rendered a helpless bystander in a war he desperately wanted to go back to fighting. It also, at great length, details the kinds of things which put the lie to any notion of glamour. It’s one thing to die for your country. It’s quite another thing to get your eyelids burned off, have crude replacements cut from the skin of your forearm to replace them, spend months immersed in 1940s healthcare, undergo saline baths, listen to the screaming of the other patients, incubate a terrible infection in your burns, and eventually leave hospital disfigured for life to face a society that doesn’t quite want to look you in the eye anymore. Hillary would certainly never say it, and maybe it’s just my own medical squeamishness, but the feeling I got was that this kind of ordeal was a far worse experience than anything active combat could put you through.

One remark of [my mother’s] I shall never forget. She said: “You should be glad this has to happen to you. Too many people told you how attractive you were and you believed them. You were well on your way to becoming something of a cad. Now you’ll find out who your real friends are.” I did.

Hillary himself is quite an introspective fellow, though strangely for a memoir I couldn’t say I really got to know him. It very much feels like he’s building his own image up. More telling, I think, than any aspect of his personality he shows to the reader is the truth of his fate, which obviously isn’t included in the book. He eventually managed to pass the medical board and go back to flying – not in combat, but still flying for the RAF – even though, by the account of his fellow officers, he could barely hold his knife and fork in the mess hall, got splitting headaches and had trouble reading the altimeter. Clearly there was some burning drive within him to risk his own life (and that of others), to ignore his own medical condition, to go back if not to battle than at least to the skies. He inevitably crashed and died on a night training flight in Scotland in 1943. He was twenty-four years old, which, to me these days, seems terribly young.

An interesting memoir written by a hero. A hero who joined the RAF for self-admittedly selfish reasons and was probably a bit of a narcissist, but a hero nonetheless.

Just before dawn the rain began: fine misty rain blowing cold and clean in soft mountain air. Buford’s pickets saw the dawn come high in the sky, a gray blush, a bleak rose. A boy from Illinois climbed a tree. There was mist across Marsh Creek, ever whiter in the growing light. The boy from Illinois stared and felt his heart beating and saw movement. A blur in the mist, an unfurled flag. Then the dark figures, row on row: skirmishers. Long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist. He had a long paralyzed moment, which he would remember until the end of his life. Then he raised the rifle and laid it across the limb of the tree and aimed generally toward the breast of a tall figure in the front of the line, waited, let the cold rain fall, misting his vision, cleared his eyes, waited, prayed, and pressed the trigger.

– From “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1994) 432 p.
Discworld #16 (Death #2)

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I remembered very little of Soul Music from the first time I read it, and now – about a month after I reread it – I remember very little of it again. It’s not a memorable book. It is, easily, the weakest book in the Discworld’s teen years and probably one of the weakest overall.

Soul Music is a story of two halves, and they’re both variations on themes we’ve seen before. One of them is something from our real world taking spark as a brief fad on the Discworld – we saw this with film in Moving Pictures, and we see it now with rock music in Soul Music. As before, this is mostly an excuse for Pratchett to jam as many jokes and references in about the subject in question as possible. The second plot is the third story in the Death arc, and is about – you guessed it – Death going AWOL and experiencing the real world, resulting in somebody having to step up to take on his duty; in this case his granddaughter Susan Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabel from Mort.

The gem at the heart of this story is Death’s grief over his adopted daughter’s death, which occurs at the beginning of the novel as she and Mort go over a cliff in a runaway carriage. It’s never outright stated, it’s never even suggested by any of the other characters, but grief is clearly what Death is experiencing – a new and frightening concept for him, and one which jars against his duty to guide souls into the new world. He does this without question, only briefly entertaining the possibility that, yes, he could have done something to stop her death from happening, but Death nonetheless abandons his duty henceforth and spends the rest of the book trying to forget all about his daughter to end the pain of having lost her.

It’s easy to miss that this is his motivation – I don’t think I picked up on it when I read it as a teenager – not just because it’s the third time we’re going through the motions of Death Takes A Holiday, but also because it’s drowned out by what’s going on in the foreground of the novel, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We have a story about a magical pawn shop sidling into Ankh-Morpork from another dimension, an aspiring young musician finding himself in the possession of a magical guitar which begins to possess his soul, and a new kind of music launching itself onto the Discworld. Cue predictable jokes like the avaricious CMOT Dibbler becoming the first rock band’s manager.

All of the interesting stuff in Soul Music – Susan’s repressed childhood memories about visits to Death’s Domain, Albert’s carefully hoarded precious seconds of time in the hourglass hidden beneath his bed, a flashback to the showdown at the finale of Mort – is divorced from the main storyline, much as the touching fairytale at the heart of Reaper Man bears no resemblance to the oddball story about predatory shopping trolleys that felt like it made up more than half the bulk of that book. The dissonance isn’t quite as jarring, but at the same time the Death storyline doesn’t feel quite as good as that in Reaper Man. I’m not surprised I’d forgotten most of Soul Music’s plot – forgettable is the right word for it.

Next up is a return to Rincewind’s story arc in Interesting Times.

Rereading Discworld index

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008) 473 p.

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I was lukewarm about Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel Revelation Space but recently found myself going down a Wikipedia wormhole of his fictional universe while I was bored at work, remembered that in terms of sheer creativity and ideas I actually quite liked him, and figured he was worth another crack. The Revelation Space sequels are exactly the kind of books I was happier to read the Wikipedia synopses of rather than slog through hundreds of pages of more padding and thinly drawn characters, so I thought I’d jump ten years further into his career and read House of Suns.

I’m glad I did, because it’s really quite good. Revelation Space took place in a universe a few thousand years into human colonisation of the galaxy: a cold, bleak and frightening place full of extinct alien civilisations, decaying cities and autocratic governments, where humanity is clinging to life rather than prospering. House of Suns takes a rather different tack: humans are still the only intelligent life to arise in the galaxy, but after six million years we’ve splintered, evolved and gene-tweaked our way into a million daughter species who have flourished in every corner of the galaxy – a steady tide of thousands of different stellar empires rising and falling. The novel is built around the concept of “shatterlings,” the thousands clones of wealthy industrialists who – back in the solar system, six million years ago – sent them forth to explore the galaxy. Thanks to the time-dilating effects of near-light travel, cryogenic freezing and generally advanced medicine, these clones operate on an entirely different timescale than other human civilisations; at one point a different kind of near-immortal describes the protagonist as “a bookworm who has tunnelled through the pages of history.” The shatterlings have powerful starships, conduct engineering feats on grand scales, trade with other civilisations for their immense amount of accumulated knowledge, and are generally perceived by lesser human civilisations as something like angels or gods.

Plotwise, House of Suns revolves around the shatterlings Campion and Purslane of the Gentian Line, i.e they are both clones of a woman named Gentian. They’re engaged in a taboo love affair and are on their way to one of the regular reunions held by the Gentian Line  every few hundred thousand years. Upon their late arrival at the designated system they discover their Line has been ambushed and nearly wiped out. Most of the book is a mystery, as Campion, Purslane and the other surviving Gentians try to figure out who tried to annihilate their Line, and why.

House of Suns grabbed me right from the beginning. Over ten years of his writing career Reynolds has really improved: there’s far less bloat, the plot moves along at a cracking pace, and information is never brazenly withheld from the reader (a repeated sin in Revelation Space). The characters are still a bit flat, but I found it nice to read about people who are friendly and helpful to each other, rather than the cast of Revelation Space, who were bafflingly hostile and suspicious of each other even when they were natural allies. The plot gets a bit complex towards the end, but most of the loose ends are tied up and the conclusion is really quite nice. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1974) 270p.

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It took me about fifty pages to realise why I was finding it difficult to get into Ragtime: there’s no dialogue. Which is not to say the characters don’t communicate with one another, bur rather that the entire book is summary, not scene. When there is dialogue it’s of the free-flowing, single-paragraph, no-quotation-marks sort of style, which absolutely drives me up the wall. It makes me feel as though the entire book takes place in a dream – underscored by the fact that none of the central characters have names, referred to simply as “Mother” or “Younger Brother.”

Which is a shame, because Doctorow writes quite beautifully in other ways, painting an evocative picture of New York in the very early years of the 20th century: the Lower East Side slums, the communist meetings, the power of the great industrialists. Probably not since Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have I read a book which so joyfully celebrates the zeitgeist of another era without ignoring its moral failures, its racism, its poverty.

It’s not bad. It’s fine. I just wish Doctorow had written Ragtime as more of an actual, you know, narrative. One with characters and talking and other shamefully passe concepts.

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