Random Reading 1
David Langford

Paragraphs from a sporadic diary of books read, March-September 2001.

Joan Aiken, Midnight Is A Place (1974), an enjoyable Victorian romp in which well-brought-up kids are reduced to penury and subjected to the joys of sewer scavenging (signs here of intensive research in Mayhew's London Labour and London Poor) and a Dickensian factory even less concerned with safety regulations than the real thing. My one small grump is that the evocative title sounds like fantasy, the Puffin blurb describes it as fantasy, and had I read this when young and eager for fantasy I'd have felt very much let down by the first-paragraph discovery that the story just happens to open in a big old house called Midnight Court.

John Brunner, The Crucible of Time (1984), episodic novel with an all-alien cast which John B. got very excited about at the time. It's strong on historical sweep, covering generations of progress as sympathetic aliens get to grips with problems of biology and climatology on a planet so radically awful that the only hope is escape into space. All this reads well enough, but with two recurring tics that eventually got on my nerves. First, even from my atheist viewpoint it seems unfair that religious feelings in this race are (a) almost without exception side-effects of deficiencies or toxins, from starvation and (the analogue of) scurvy to radiation poisoning and mind-bending drugs; (b) always uncompromisingly anti-progress, anti-survival. Including a few mellower believers might have reduced the sense of a heavily loaded argument. Second, the characters' alienness is constantly underlined by phrases like 'on the other claw', 'I've felt in my tubules [guts] how right they are', 'his pith [heart] wasn't in it', 'Have you padded across [met] her?', the rejection of proposals 'out of claw', and a family tradition being 'in the ichor'.... There's even a Stephen R. Donaldson moment involving one of those cryptic organs: 'Awb's mantle clenched around him.' Also perhaps overdone is the use of modified English words for alien equivalents, with a special fondness for the letter Q. Thus living vessels called briqs and junqs sail a sea full of sharqs, mollusqs, qrill, sponqs, and (just for a change) porps. On land we have oaq trees, sluqs leaving trails of slime, knives made by chipping flinqs, and spuder-webs. Above fly hawqs, hauqs (perhaps a typo), yowls, and fish-hunters called gorborangs. Oh dear.

Randall Garrett, Anything You Can Do ... (1963), a somewhat embarrassing pulp adventure featuring a beastly alien who eats people and terrorizes all Earth for years and years while our wise leaders (who know exactly where the bad guy is hiding) take the only logical course of action by rearing and training a human superman who will be capable of socking the foe on the jaw. Which duly happens in a climactic punch-up lasting just three pages. Er, that's it.

Mauri Kunnas, The Canine Kalevala (1992, trans Tim Steffa), selected stories from the Kalevala (Finland's national verse epic) adapted for children with a comic cast of anthropomorphized dogs, cats, wolves, etc, and enjoyably silly cartoon illustrations. Just like everyone else in those antique days, the Swan of Tuonela wears a little iron helmet. There's even a plausible picture of the Kalevala's repeated McGuffin the sampo, a magic mill that can grind out all manner of useful goodies. My first moment of culture shock at Helsinki airport was the discovery that Sampo was now the name of a cash card (actually, of the relevant bank); it also turned out to be a brand of matches.

Ian McDonald, Ares Express (2001) – back in the Martian magic realism territory of Desolation Road but with a grandiose storyline, indeed a Story which the heroine, like various characters in Little, Big, is aware she's living through. At the daftest moment she realizes: 'this was the Point of Worst Personal Threat when all the Feisty and Resourceful (But Cute With It) Heroine's efforts to attain her Dramatic Goal hang by a thread, and Something Big Happens that rolls it over into the End Game. Here narrative creatures like Coincidence, Chance and Serendipity were all the FR(BCWI) Heroine could trust to save her.' So she throws herself to certain death, and ... Meanwhile, gigantic trains with locomotives the size of ocean liners coexist with spells to summon 'Aid Beyond Comprehension in a Time of Direness', and there's a string of little homages to past Martian sf and also The Book of the New Sun: a green man who knows the future, the heroine's internal 'secret sharer' (apparently her dead Siamese twin; Severian, Wolfe hinted, is a twin who never knowingly finds his sibling), angels, a flying cathedral, mirrors as the key to travel between realities, the use of children as furniture, a ruined town that reassembles itself, a time traveller who fades as he moves away from the location where his probability is highest....

Adam Roberts, ON (2001), sf with a physical setting of trans-Baxterian daftness (my review duly cited Raft and The Integral Trees) and a storyline which after the inevitable and rather enjoyable Cook's Tour of this weird geography doesn't so much move towards closure as stop with a bone-shaking jolt. All credit for audacity, although even accepting the premise and the handwaving about space-time physics, I don't believe the environment could remain habitable for generations as described. Without giving away the big surprise, there's so much free kinetic energy available – literal perpetual motion – that its inevitable degradation to heat would surely cook everyone in short order. The theme of a world on its side, an infinite cliff, made me wonder whether the gnomic capitalized title conceals a 90° rotation of the Greek root ZO (life on its side?) or even of OZ (insert suitably deep po-mo interpretation here).

Keith Roberts, Lemady (1998), a sort-of-autobiographical ramble in surprisingly sunny vein, despite some snideness about the Kerosina small-press collective who impudently brought the great man back into print when no one else would (how dare they trade on his fame and talent, the swines!). Reading it feels like being at the kind of cheery pub session recalled by Rob Holdstock, with KR telling all his best anecdotes, some of them perhaps improved from mere reality. One phrase quoted as an example of tiresome fanzine reviews seemed vaguely familiar, and after a while I realized it was me, writing in the very fannish Foundation: a grudge cherished since 1980. Oops.

Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events 3: The Wide Window (2000). Still good, gruesome, Goreyesque fun as the hapless and wretched Baudelaire orphans are farmed out to another unlikely relative in menacing surroundings (the leeches of Lachrymose Lake are substantially more horrid than book 2's mere snakes), pursued by wicked Count Olaf in another transparent disguise ('This does not mean that the person is wearing plastic wrap or glass or anything else transparent ...'), etc. Perhaps the formula needs to vary more? Perhaps it will. Next: The Miserable Mill.

Edgar Wallace, The Law of the Four Just Men (1921), acquired in order to check out the borderline-sf 'The Man Who Hated Earthworms', wherein a Just Man assassinates the title's planner of worm genocide. I loved the subtle characterization of this mad scientist, whose worm obsession is of course rooted in childhood trauma: 'we had a nurse called Martha, a beastly woman, a wicked woman, who dropped one down my neck. Imagine the horror of it!' Hence his tendency in later life to declaim, 'In a million years' time man may dwindle to the size of an ant and the earthworm, by its super-intelligence, its cunning and its ferocity, may be pre-eminent in the world!'

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), continuing my intermittent programme of reading books I should have read long ago. Another of those stories whose distillation into myth may be better than the mere original, which despite nice trademark epigrams (and grimly routine ones too: 'there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about', boom boom) tends towards the florid and implausible. For a long while Dorian Gray's wickedness appears to consist entirely of jilting a young actress and reading J.K. Huysmans's À Rebours again and again, evilly compounded by successive interest in mysticism, perfumes, music, jewels and – treading ever closer to the abyss – embroidery. Presumably the extreme vagueness of hinted worse stuff in the background indicates that he was engaged in doings too frightful for a contemporary audience, such as having it off with Lord Alfred Douglas. It's almost a relief from these mumblings of unmentionable crime when Dorian finally commits an honest murder and can in due course go to damnation, go directly to damnation, do not pass GOD, do not collect 200 indulgences....