October 23, 2006
Backwards and forwards
pompe weighs into the "What's wrong with sf" debate (via Ian McDonald): "We don't need more nostalgia sci-fi. Seriously. Sci-fi once had a progressive slant which it must rediscover. But not recreate. ... Forty years ago, brave Americans from NASA in clunky spacesuits would colonize Titan with trusty fusion-powered dozers. The solution for 2006 is not to tell the same story but with uploaded Indians working for SkyCorp Inc. and nanite swarms colonizing Titan."
July 15, 2006
The last chapter of the history of the world
Twenty years after The Solitudes, the fourth and final volume of Aegypt is finally on its way.
April 27, 2006
John Crowley has a weblog. Quite strange to read him writing in a chatty, slightly uncertain style so different from his polished prose: would John Crowley, Literary Titan ever refer to a computer as a "pooter"?
April 14, 2006
Comics writer is literary fellow
University of Auckland: "Dylan Horrocks, award-winning graphic novelist and comic artist, has been appointed University of Auckland/Creative New Zealand Literary Fellow 2006."
May 22, 2005
Lie detectors for plants, and other wonders
Arty Bee's Cabinet of Curious Bibliophilia, brilliantly, opens its review of How to Build a Lie Detector, Brain Wave Monitor and Other Secret Parapsychological Electronics Projects with "Actually a very interesting read, if you're into this kind of thing." Uh, right. Hands up everybody who is "into" building lie detectors... for plants. Even more brilliant is the picture of "a depressed philodendron after receiving excessive threatening."
Other high points: The History of Lesbian Hair, Secrets of Fascinating Womanhood ("Actually the first woman looks like an old boyfriend if you add a beard and moustache"), The Message Given to Me By Extra-Terrestrials ("We have decided to take the path of tolerance and let the cover speak for itself. Except that the man has a truly bodacious comb-over. And obviously he's completely nuts.") and actually the whole site.
(Note: the site is framed so the link takes you to the Arty Bees' home page. Sorry, I couldn't link to the Cabinet itself without losing the site navigation.)
November 05, 2004
China Mieville, Perdido Street Station
"For once," squeaks a breathless Jon Courtenay Grimwood on the cover, "comparisons to Gormenghast are justified." Well, true, in the technical sense that "nothing like" is a comparison, but surely such an evasion is not what the moral arbiters of the Guardian intended. Nor, despite what you may hear, is it much like Viriconium, though there are constant reminders (the phrase "a storm of wings"; the lassitude of the dream-sickness, so like the plague of In Viriconium; and in the sequel, The Scar, even a restaurant called the Unrealised Time).
No, the touchstone we are looking for is very definitely Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles.
This is not a complaint: I loved Rats and Gargoyles, and I loved Perdido Street Station. They are hugely entertaining and imaginative adventure stories, deeply bound up with fascinating and intellectually engaging city settings and themes. Neither book is a revolution, a rediscovery of the fantasy genre, but they're still rewarding and fun.
Perdido Street Station is about a vast, timeless city, the bloated, sluggish metropolis of New Crobuzon. You recognise the genre already, of course: you can already hear resonant one-line paragraphs like "Mieville vomited architectural nightmares into the fatty adjectival froth." You are already ready for the my-grotesque-is-more-grotesque-than-your-grotesque grotesques, the my-building-is-bigger-and-weirder-than-your-building architecture, the my-cosmic-force-is-more-arbitrary-and-incomprehensible-than-your-cosmic-force supernaturals. You are ready for the eccentrically plausible pseudo-science, check, the familiar-and-yet-not-familiar profanities, check, the strangely archaic technologies that are yet strangely futuristic, checkedy-check, checkedy-check. Here they all are, present and correct.
And for the most part they are doing magnificent service. New Crobuzon is beautifully realised, with copious incidental detail making it much more than a mere backdrop. The cliques of artists, thaumaturges and revolutionaries are brought fully to life. The aliens are adequately alien, and the mad science is moderately scientific and gloriously mad. Minor plot hiccups aside -- and let's face it, we are not here for the plot, whose schtick of "How do you beat up something you can only look at in a mirror" is little more than a flimsy excuse given the novel's 850+ pages -- the delivery is faultless.
And yet, and yet... the problem is that Perdido Street Station feels like an exemplary genre novel in a genre which has not yet been defined. It is a wonderfully professional execution of a story without surprises or challenges. It is a wonderful page-turner, but never transcends that. It is hugely imaginative, but in oh-so-predictable patterns. The whole feels less than the sum of the parts.
Is it worth reading? Yes. The pages fly by, packed to the brim with ideas and images. Is it the literary triumph fans and critics have touted it as being? No. Clearly that is Mieville's ambition, but this is still a journeyman work. A superb journeyman work, to be sure; but different in its very nature from a masterpiece.
October 30, 2004
Page 45 celebrates ten years
If you're the slightest bit interested in comics, sign up for the shop's email newsletter. It's funny and personal and absolutely bursting with reviews that are readable, passionate, detailed, intelligent and informative. And it will hoover your wallet until there's nothing left but lint. Fact.
August 02, 2004
The library of unwritten books
The Library of Unwritten Books: "In Portsmouth recently, one day saw the [librarians] collect stories from a man with cerebral palsy about education, a man who went on an anti-Hitler pilgrimage to Austria, someone who had done children's illustrations of a family of conkers but not yet written the story, and an author of Chinese philosophical poetry."
April 13, 2004
Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code
One of my favourite Bloom County cartoons has Opus reviewing a film. "Bad acting," he complains. "Bad effects. Bad everything. This bad film simply oozed rottenness from every bad scene. Simply bad beyond all infinite dimensions of possible badness." Long pause. "Well, maybe not that bad, but Lord, it wasn't good."
The Da Vinci Code is like that. Bad plotting. Bad writing. Bad "brainy" bits. Somehow, it manages to be not as bad as that -- after all, I did manage to finish it -- but Lord, it isn't good.
Let's start with the brainy bits, as these are what supposedly lift this out of the ordinary. The book is crammed with excursus on art, architecture, cryptography, mathematics, Christian mysticism and secret societies. Most of these are lifted directly from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, though this is forgivable as most people won't have read this. The purpose of these excursus appears to be threefold: (a) pad out the book; (b) prove that Brown has done lots of research; and (c) break up any tension or pace that Brown manages to establish. For example, in the middle of our heroes' escape from the Louvre, Brown breaks off for 5 (five!) pages to deliver a lecture on the golden ratio. Not only is this a completely inappropriate time and a completely excessive length, the concept and the examples that Brown trots out are completely irrelevant to the story as a whole.
Most annoyingly, the "brainy bits" exhibit galloping Foucault's Pendulum syndrome. In Eco's book, "Everything is connected to the Templars" was a self-adopted challenge to the main characters as well as a satire on conspiracy thinking; Brown seems to have missed the joke. His characters are all to eager to take anything and everything he foists upon them and reveal that -- wow -- it is connected to the sacred feminine. Or the Templars. Or the number five. Or Leonardo da Vinci. Or-- well, you get the point. Once Brown's heroes have achieved "connnection critical mass" they can link any old cod to something on the list of "things connected to the sacred feminine," and thereby to everything on the list.
Then there's the fact that the plot is founded on a nonsense. And I'm not talking about any dispute as to the plausibility of the underlying mystery of the novel: on the contrary, I've been at home that that particular theory for twenty years. And that familiarity is exactly why the plot falls fundamentally apart. The crux of the story is that there is a secret which, if revealed, would precipitate the greatest crisis in the history of the Christian church. The problem is that when this secret was revealed some twenty years ago, the church remained conspicuously unrocked. Brown even cites the book and TV show which publicised the secret, and admits that the controversy was a nine days' wonder. But if the revelation of the secret was a non-issue then, why would it be a big deal now?
Finally, there's the writing. Normally I wouldn't worry about the quality of writing in a thriller. After all, what we look for in a thriller is to be efficiently transported out of our drab little lives for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, Brown's writing is so bad that the imagination continually stalls as it tries to take flight. One is the predilection for inopportune product placement: our heroine actually stops during their escape from the Louvre to tell our hero what mileage she gets from her SmartCar (tm). Another is character naming. I can forgive "Bishop Aringarosa" as merely infelicitous (the playground rhyme "a-ring-a-ring-a-roses" makes the name distracting and silly to British readers, but this is just a local quirk). But naming a major character "Leigh Teabing" was a fatal mistake. As a tribute to Leigh and Baigent, two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, it would have been a nice touch for a minor character. Assigned to a major character, the clearly artificial moniker becomes a continual irritating reminder of the author's presence.
But the worst part of the writing, by far, is the dialogue. Oh God, the dialogue. Even I could write better dialogue while having my nadgers sanded down with a box jellyfish, though this is not intended as a boast: anyone could write better dialogue by copying their video recorder manual inside a pair of quotation marks. Here's a sample of our hero's conversational style: "The documents had long since been entrusted to the Templars' shadowy architects, whose veil of secrecy had kept them safely out of range of the Vatican's onslaught." Acceptable, if a little purple, as populist historical exposition, but this is meant to be dialogue. Try prefixing it with "As I was saying to Brian in the pub the other day," and tell me this is anything less than ludicrous. Every other time a character opened their mouth I had to put the book down in disbelief and go for a walk.
And this is the fundamental problem with The Da Vinci Code. Nobody should expect great writing from an airport thriller, but we are entitled to expect that the writing shouldn't break our suspension of disbelief. That, not literary quality, is the sole benchmark of escapist literature. But the writing and plotting in The Da Vinci Code are so obviously broken -- so intrusive, so distracting and so cringeworthy -- that it is impossible to relax into it and get carried away.
So there is really no reason to read The Da Vinci Code rather than Foucault's Pendulum or The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Even if all you want is a page-turner tastily spiced with art, history and mysticism, the originals are far more absorbing as well as more convincing. This is a bad book, and it oozes rottenness from every bad page. Please, please do not buy this book. Even at airports.
December 13, 2003
Scott Hanselman must live
Scott Hanselman: "Books that should be made into movies before I die."
Please, no. The movie industry has already ruined dozens of perfectly good books with dumbing down, glutinous boilerplate subplots and a hateful conviction that special effects, rather than plot, character and theme are the way to greatness. The savagery meted out to Philip K Dick alone should be enough to convince anybody to be careful what they wish for.
Actually, of Scott's list, I wouldn't mind seeing Ender's Game being ruined since I never much cared for the book, and Ringworld, as a pure Big Dumb Object adventure, would probably make quite a good film if you like blockbusters. But can you imagine what Hollywood would do to The Sparrow or Snow Crash? The former would end up being turned into a sickly piece of moralising (or possibly even turned into a war film -- don't underestimate these Hollywood execs). And the latter would get turned into The Matrix, all the interesting "language is a virus from outer space" background stripped out in favour of action sequences and virtual-reality special effects.
No, these books should never be made into movies. The evil day must never come. Scott Hanselman must live!