Random Reading 2
David Langford

More paragraphs adapted from the Langford diary of books read....

James Barclay, Dawnthief (1999), vigorous standalone fantasy, though sequels follow. Dawnthief is the ultimate doomsday magic, the only countermeasure against a clutch of Dark Lords, and to deploy the spell – stop me if you've heard this one before – you need to find the dragon-guarded amulet that reveals the key to the dead wizard's hidden workshop that houses the dimensional portal leading to the demonic defender of the parchment inscribed with the spell itself, whose activation proves to require no fewer than three 'catalyst' talismans (not talismen, though the author fondly believes the plural of shaman to be shamen) which are concealed in widely separated and deeply unhealthy corners of the map, after which you merely have to fight through the entire Evil Army in order to detonate Dawnthief within the equivalent of Barad-dûr itself, etc. To be fair, Barclay puts a lot of energy into this and kills off his characters with a liberal hand; the attempt on Catalyst Talisman #1 turns into such a bloodbath that it seems seriously likely that the quest must stop right there, with no one left to carry on. Now that would have been original. In the event, there's this spare wizard who proves to have a nifty touch with Cure Irrevocably Fatal Injury spells....

Stephen Baxter, Origin (2001), concluding the Manifold trilogy (previous volumes cheekily titled Time and Space) and at last spanning its sheaf of alternate universes via a wandering Big Dumb Object, the Red Moon. This habitable satellite flips from cosmos to cosmos like a Fortean deus ex machina, using the now traditional glowing blue transporter gate to shuttle random groups of people to and from the current version of Earth. Expecting action on a cosmic scale, I was a little disappointed that Origin spends so much time chronicling Red Moon primitives from all stages of human evolution as they eat each other, chip flints, strive to become alpha male or female, and generally wallow in being nasty, brutish and short. I suppose it's all a frightfully mordant microcosm of human aspirations, but after so much primitive carnage the expected multiversal sense-of-wonder jolt comes as a belated infodump rather than developing via a long, effective crescendo as in Space. It's good, but it could have been better.

George MacDonald Fraser, The Pyrates (1985), splendid silliness which quite frequently made me laugh aloud. This is buccaneering on the Spanish Main as it ought to have been, with superheroic heroes swinging from the chandeliers conveniently installed in every cabin, hissable villains overacting madly, and gorgeous women with mysterious transtemporal access to nylons and the finest Helena Rubinstein moisturizers. The mixture of anachronistic excess and postmodern knowingness reminded me variously of The Princess Bride, of Brahms/Simon historical travesties like No Bed for Bacon and Don't, Mr Disraeli!, and even of Bored of the Rings. All very cheering and reprehensible.

Peter F. Hamilton, Fallen Dragon: as a change from the vastness of the Night's Dawn trilogy, this is a standalone work of a mere 647 pages, barely a novelette by Hamiltonian standards. Readers of the trilogy's final volume The Naked God will remember that, after a long and fraught interstellar chase, the entity of the title is finally encountered and proves to be a cosmic deus ex machina capable of fixing every single outstanding plot problem, which it duly does. In Fallen Dragon, after a long and fraught interstellar chase, the ultimately encountered 'dragon' proves to be ... but perhaps you're ahead of me already. Still, it's a rousing space-operatic read.

Philip E. High, Butterfly Planet (2000 copyright notice but really 1971), another 'classic reissue' from Cosmos, and the only novel by this minor sf author that I couldn't trace for my silly statistical look at his fiction in a long-ago New York Review of SF article. Many High themes are duly repeated, including a nastily dystopian opening; a finale of global unity, symbiosis with the ecosphere, predestined telepathic sex with the one right person, etc; a hero with amazing hidden powers that even he doesn't know about; unlikely small arms (congealers, spore-bombs); bad guys whose ultimate choice is to be chastened/reformed or to rot away from natural causes (here, those failing to see the light devolve at speed into feral animals who are Cowed By The Power Of The Human Eye); unnecessary alien invaders wheeled on to show what a tough proposition the unified Earth has now become.... A theme I missed in my original squib is High's fondness for splitting the human race into hostile factions along lines unrelated to race or nationality (here it's all-powerful organized crime vs. dwindling police forces), often as a result of insidious manipulation by aliens whose motto is 'divide and conquer'. The books have an appealing simplicity which may make them a useful experience for prentice critics: organisms which are transparent and all too easy to map, like the amoeba. Well, that's my excuse.

Don Malcolm, guest editorial in New Worlds #128, March 1963, a lonely voice from soon before the New Wave:

'What science fiction doesn't offer (or if it does, in Angstrom-sized doses) is Spillane-like violence, Greene-like maudlin religion, sex/strip-tease/animated foundation garment sagas – fill this one in yourself – and Waugh/Delaney-like homosexuality. It seems to be socially smart to have practitioners of the latter perversion littering modern novels. [...] Science fiction ignores these "facts of life" to its everlasting credit. Writers and editors would be a poor lot indeed if they resorted to, and condoned the use of, themes from the gutter. There is surely much in man that is worth writing about. In science fiction, man has stature, a maturity of sorts. He doesn't have to spend most of the story crawling his way out of a mire of vice.'

Sexual intercourse began in 1963, according to Philip Larkin; the Moorcock takeover of New Worlds followed a year later, and the controversial serialization of Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron began in 1967. At what stage, I wonder, did Don Malcolm cancel his subscription?

Alan Moore and others, Top 10 Book 1 (2000), utterly silly graphic-novel collection of this police procedural comic, something like Ed McBain's 87th Precinct in an sf city where everyone is a superhero, monster, mad scientist or whatever. There's the usual Mooreish density of allusive background detail, lovingly rendered by artist Gene Ha. Street scenes, for example, feature walk-ons from a million other comics: could that be the infant Dr Doom in child-sized armour? Particularly touching is the legless beggar still in his gaudy, skintight costume, sitting hopefully by a scrawled placard on the pavement: VICTIM OF THE '92 CIRCULATION WARS. I'm also enjoying collections of two other Moore-scripted series from America's Best Comics, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (imagine a Victorian X-Men team, conscripted from misfits like Dr Jekyll and the Invisible Man to tackle the insidious Fu-Manchu) and Promethea (witty, mystical and very, very weird). On the art front, League's Kevin O'Neill is very good indeed while the Promethea team of J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray achieves magical wonders.

William F. Temple, The Fleshpots of Sansato (1968, abridged pb 1970), modestly entertaining sf thriller featuring the urgent search for a Missing Man with a Cosmic Secret last seen in a far world's eponymous red-light district, whose joys are described with considerable spareness and restraint. What hot stuff, I wonder, was taken out during the abridgement?

Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), atypical and alarming fictionalized account of Waugh's personal peep over the edge of sanity when – after drifting into such habits as taking large, unmeasured doses of a favourite sleeping draught mixed with crème de menthe to improve the taste – he began to hear voices, generally talking about him in relentless personal detail. Not perhaps terribly effective as a story, but the real-life grounding (postmodernly emphasized on the final page as Pinfold begins to write up his ordeal) gives it a gruesome fascination. A cautionary tale for writers. Stay off the crème de menthe.

Walter Jon Williams, Aristoi (1992), a rather impressive presentation of galactic society run by human 'aristoi' with multiple talents and daimon subpersonalities. As in Iain M. Banks's later Excession, the resources available to aristoi allow tiny groups or even individuals to misuse them on an apocalyptic scale – here, seeding worlds with illicit evolutionary experiments involving billions of suffering spear-carriers. The story moves well despite a certain inherent arbitrariness in the firepower involved at any stage, with our hero conjuring up a vast interstellar battleship via a nanotechnological snap of his fingers, only for it to be casually destroyed offstage by the bad guys' even more ultimate weapons. Meanwhile, despite a purported intelligence orders of magnitude greater than mere readers who can see exactly what's coming, he personally infiltrates an enemy world in James-Bond fashion with little more than minor small arms and martial arts skills; and, guess what, the key confrontation reverts to old-fashioned, bare-handed breaking of necks. Enjoyable nevertheless.