What I Read In March

UntitledAustin Wright: Nocturnal Animals Teacher Susan Morrow used to be married to a failed writer called Edward. Twenty years later, divorced with two children and comfortably re-married to a physician, she receives a manuscript from Edward, from whom she hadn’t heard for all that time. Over Christmas, when her husband is away at a conference, she dives in and discovers a terrifying crime story in which a husband, wife and teenage daughter are hijacked on the freeway during a vacation. Much of the rest of the novel consists of Edward’s novel seen through Susan’s eyes, interspersed with Susan’s reflections on her own past and present life, all the while asking the question of why Edward has sent her this novel, after all these years — a question that’s, teasingly, never answered. This is one of those novels that’s gripping at the time but which one forgets as soon as it is finished, even though, so it says, it is now a ‘Major Motion Picture’, a strap line that seems to ensure obscurity for almost any book to which it adheres.

UntitledMichael Reaves and John Pelan (eds) Shadows over Baker Street I had never before heard of this cobwebb’d grimoire: news of it was bruited forth to me, no doubt by some eldritch form of astral projection, by my associate Mr. C___ D___ of Leeds, our correspondent in all matters chthonic. The great thing about fanfic, I suppose, is that the author is free to do mashups of otherwise separate tropes of popular culture. Offspring#2 and I have wondered, for example, whether the egregious intrusion of Tom Bombadil into The Lord of the Rings might be spun as an incursion into Middle-earth by Dr Who circa Matt Smith, with Alex Kingston as ‘the River Woman’s Daughter’. But I digress. Conan Doyle’s well-loved stories of the tenants of 221B Baker Street have inspired a legion of knock-offs; as have H. P. Lovecraft’s demented demonology that is the Cthulhu Mythos. Some of these are really good — I cite for example the TV series Sherlock in which Holmes and Watson are re-cast in modern dress, and the novels of Charles Stross set in ‘The Laundry’, the government’s department of the occult. But what if Holmes and Watson were themselves to encounter the Elder Gods? Think about it. Holmes succeeds by the application of pure reason. Lovecraft, by the conjuration of an ectoplasmic atmosphere of supernal terror (or so they tell me) which almost by definition defies ratiocination. So here we have a collection of stories in which Holmes and Watson are invited to investigate cases of reanimation, eructations of ancient cults, and people who seem to be turning into fish. The best one is the first, A Study in Emerald, by Neil Gaiman (of course) and most of the rest are a lot of fun. Real people such as H. G. Wells get stirred into the mix, along with — on one occasion — William Hope Hodgson’s character of Carnacki the ghost hunter. The High Victorian atmosphere lends itself to excursions into orientalism that might not be welcome nowadays except in the guise of pulp pastiche. There’s a lot about Watson’s time in Afghanistan, for example, and the abhorred Necronomicon of Abdul Al-Hazred makes several appearances. I could have had more about Moriarty, to be honest (he only features in two of the eighteen stories) and overall they get a bit samey after a while, though nothing less than enjoyable for those of a certain cast of mind. I am struck by Philip Ball’s contention in The Modern Myths that the literature that gets into the popular imagination is that which is formulaic, and not necessarily very good. One cannot deny the power of the Music of Erich Zann Cheap Music. Your powers of deduction amaze me, Holmes, how did you work out that our visitor was an acolyte of Nyarlathotep, the blind idiot God who resides in the very vortex of the void, whisperings of whose existence have only otherwise reached our ears through the terrified murmurings of those who have delved too deeply into the occult, the forbidden, and the arcane? Elementary, my dear Watson. It’s the tentacles.

UntitledCixin Liu: The Three-Body Problem When one is listening to audiobooks, the program will sometimes come up with suggestions of the if-you-liked-that-why-not-try-this variety. So imagine my puzzlement when after listening to Barbra Streisand’s memoir My Name Is Barbra the algorithm came up with hard science fiction from China. Naturally, I dived in. I’d heard vaguely that Chinese SF is cool and trendy, and that the big name in the field is Chinese-American Ken Liu, but hadn’t heard of Cixin Liu, a Chinese author, here translated by Liu (sensu Ken). I shall ask no further questions of the algorithm, as  The Three-Body Problem is one of the very best modern SF novels I have ever read. The novel starts in 1967 when a young girl, Ye Wiejie, witnesses her father, a physics professor, beaten to death by high-school students during the Cultural Revolution. This traumatic event shades her future, and — eventually — that of humankind. We see her brutal exile to a remote logging camp, to her involvement as a technician in a secret radio-astronomy program of initially unknown purpose,  to her political rehabilitation, and, finally, retirement as a physics professor at Tsinghua University, where her father had once taught. But there is another strand to this — or, rather, several, as the novel is somewhat nonlinear. In the present day, Wang Miao, a materials researcher working on a super-strong nanofilament, is coopted by a bluff, hard-drinking, hard-smoking cop Shi Qiang to investigate the mysterious deaths of several scientists. This leads us, through various diversions, to a secret scientific society charting the very limits of science; eco-terrorism; an eerily realistic computer game set on a planet orbiting chaotically in a triple-star system (hence the title); and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The scope is vast, and some of the set-pieces are truly staggering. Witness, for example, an analog computer consisting of thirty million soldiers arrayed on a vast plain using black and white signal flags as ones and zeroes. And the efforts of alien scientists to create sentience by etching microcircuits inside protons. It shouldn’t really work, but it does. There is a lot of exposition, which I don’t mind, but others might find it holds up the action. I was captivated by the sense of exoticism: Ken Liu’s translation is compelling for an English-language reader or listener while maintaining the original novel’s distinctive Chinese flavour. Imagine my surprise, when looking up from this bravura feast of diamond-hard SF, to learn that there are sequelae, and, not only that, a televisual version on Netflix. Unlike Nocturnal Animals, I don’t think I’ll forget this one, and I have already cued up the sequel. I may be some time…

UntitledSerge Filippini: The Man In Flames To the modern mind, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) is a martyr to an embryonic science in an age of intolerant religion, burned at the stake for his doctrine that each star was a Sun with its own system of planets. There was more to it, of course. In addition to his cosmological speculations, Bruno evolved a philosophy — even a religion — based on the idea that God lived in all things, and that people should be free to worship as they wished. It was a dangerous time to hold such views, and Bruno was nothing if not tactless in promoting his prolific works and disparaging of anyone who didn’t agree with him. Not surprisingly he made more enemies than friends and was forced to leave the city in which he resided at any time and hit the road. He never stayed anywhere long, and lived the life of a perpetually peripatetic scholar (nowadays we’d call this a ‘postdoc’), picking up lecturing jobs where he could before the tides of religion and politics turned against him. Born in what was then the Kingdom of Naples and initially a Dominican monk — before he was (inevitably) excommunicated — he progressed through Italy, Switzerland, France, England, France again, Germany and was lured back to Italy where, in Venice, he was betrayed, imprisoned, tried, transferred to Rome, tried again, and finally executed. The Man In Flames is the autobiography he (probably) never wrote, during the final ten days of his life, as revealed to author Serge Filippini and translated from the French by Liz Nash. The book stays fairly close to what is known of his life, but of course takes some license,  allowing us to meet, through Bruno’s eyes, contemporaries such as Montaigne, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Giacomo Archimboldo, Philip Sidney, King Henri III of France, Queen Elizabeth I of England and even a young William Shakespeare. A story of passionate love runs through the book like a thread: the love of Bruno’s life is Cecil, a brother of Philip Sidney, who, as a diplomat to the Venetian Republic, is unlike Bruno in every way. Cecil is calm and urbane where Bruno is an excitable loudmouth who promotes his heterodox views to everyone he meets, whether they are welcome or not. Even Cecil cannot save Bruno from a fate that he seems to have brought upon himself. As a book, The Man In Flames is an enjoyable, occasionally scatological romp through an often lethally turbulent time in early modern history.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
This entry was posted in Writing & Reading. Bookmark the permalink.