Random Reading 5
David Langford

Iain Banks, Dead Air (2002), a 'mainstream' bestseller opening with the ominous deflation of a wild, wild London party by news of events elsewhere, since the date is 11 September 2001. An exploitative conceit, perhaps, but also one which isn't really followed up; the novel consists largely of ranting by a disc-jockey hero or antihero who's famously controversial, outspoken, etc. One list of his pet hates (far from the only such list) runs to eight lines and 28 items, from the Tories and New Labour, via George Dubya Bush, Ariel Sharon, Saddam Hussein and the entire Saudi royal family, to The War Against Drugs and The Cult of the Shareholder – yet is avowedly incomplete: 'How could you leave out Thatcher?' Something to annoy everybody. One gets the impression that this awful chap is parroting the favourite prejudices of Iain No Middle Initial Banks, in a deniable way – the author's heart may well be in all these outrageously over-the-top sentiments, but his tongue is safely in his cheek.There is a plot in there as well, but rather a silly one. Fun to read, though desperately lightweight.

Clive Barker, Abarat (2002): I may be guilty of excessive curmudgeonliness here, since several people have recommended this highly, and the magical premise sounds pleasant enough – but somehow Abarat didn't engage me as it should. The independent-minded young heroine's escape from the petty oppression of a horrible Midwestern small town into a fantasy otherworld is nicely handled, with an enchanted sea summoned to the boring grasslands. This sea contains a colourful archipelago whose major islands are each permanently at a different hour of the day or night. Interesting grotesques abound. One reason for my puzzling lack of interest may have been the introduction, amid more creative and whimsical inventions, of a dreadfully wicked Dark Lord who lives – where else? – on the island of eternal midnight. Another is that with very few exceptions I thoroughly dislike Clive Barker's paintings, here copiously reproduced in lavish colour on the expensively glossy paper, and incidentally stifling one's own imagination. For example, the Yebba Dim Day, the island at Eight in the Evening on the Straits of Dusk, which has been sculpted into a giant head, seemed promisingly evocative when set in a sea of prose but (according to me) is a lumpish disappointment when actually seen on the page. There are to be four books; maybe I'll give this another try....[LINK]

Stephen Baxter, Evolution (2002), yet another massive sf blockbaxter. This relentlessly dramatizes the history of the primates, from their big chance in the wake of the Dinosaur Killer comet impact 65 million years ago, to – with a little misdirection regarding a 2031 ecological crisis, which plot strand only seems to be the frame story – a final curtain some 500 million years in our future. Best typo in the bound UK proofs, concerning an early primate: 'He looked much like a small femur.' The author's presence can be a little obtrusive in earlier sections where pre-sentients are surrounded by similes involving aircraft, bombs, or Leonardo da Vinci sketches. For many millions of years, indeed, creatures incapable of thinking – let alone thinking ahead – are reduced to apprehending the foreshadowed future 'on a deep cellular level' or the equivalent. Although Baxter's meticulous research work and ability to convey the grand sweep of evolution are undeniably impressive, I found myself (perhaps a little unfairly) constructing parodic sentences like: 'Had the primitive postpithecine Langf possessed the concept, he might have compared the grim expanse ahead to the length of an L. Ron Hubbard dekalogy.'

Hazel K. Bell, ed., Indexers and Indexes in Fact & Fiction (2001), a British Library publication full of juicy and eccentric titbits from the wonderful world of indexing. Lots of fun though laden with rather familiar stuff in the form of strange and silly indexes I already knew about: A.P. Herbert indexing his own Misleading Cases, Hilaire Belloc's doom-laden index in Caliban's Guide to Letters where every entry leads to the same fatal page ('Affection, Immoderate, for Our Own Work, Cure of, see Pulping, p. 187'), The Stuffed Owl, the annotations in Nabokov's Pale Fire, that Ballard story 'The Index', etc etc. I was amused to note that although some of Bernard Levin's contentious index entries in The Pendulum Years: Britain and the Sixties are quoted, the editor is too mealy-mouthed to include the naughtiest one, however justified by the context of the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial: '"cunt", see Griffith-Jones, Mervyn' (the prosecutor). But there are novelties here too.

Julius Caesar, The Battle for Gaul (De Bello Gallico, A New Translation by Anne & Peter Wiseman, 1980). I'm deeply grateful to my wife Hazel for pointing out the passage in which Caesar, whose interest in nature was normally confined to the availability of woodland to be felled and converted into bridges or fortifications, suddenly found himself channelling Herodotus for a brief report on German wildlife and hunting techniques: 'There are also creatures called elks. These resemble goats in their shape and dappled skins, but are slightly larger than goats and have only stumpy horns. Their legs have no joints or knuckles, and they do not lie down to rest: if they fall down by accident, they cannot get up or even raise themselves. When they want to sleep they use trees: they support themselves against these, and in this way, by leaning over just a little, they get some rest. When hunters have noticed their tracks and so discovered their usual retreats, they undermine the roots of all the trees in that area, or cut the trunks nearly through so that they only look as if they were still standing firm. When the creatures lean against them as usual, their weight is too much for the weakened trunks; the trees fall down and the elks with them.'

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000): acquired soon after UK publication but long stranded in the To Be Read pile owing to intimidating bulk. Fascinating, if ultimately exhausting. The central idea of an ordinary American house that conceals an infinite, dark and mutable labyrinth is spun out remorselessly (though with some skill) and overlaid with all too much apparatus. We do not directly meet the house – a word almost always printed in grey (this is a paperback; it's blue in the hardback) – but its horrors are documented in the possibly nonfactual or nonexistent film The Navidson Record, described in an incomplete textual maze created by a blind man called Zampanó (who has apparently been at great pains to expunge his use of the word 'minotaur'), and arranged, footnoted, defaced and in part filtered through the understanding of the obsessed, streetwise 'Johnny Truant', who at one stage capriciously emphasizes his own potential unreliability.... Blind labyrinth-makers suggest an obvious homage, and sure enough Truant is completely flummoxed by Zampanó's citation of comments by one Pierre Menard. There is further apparatus, including a supremely unhelpful index which is a kind of parody of computerized indexing, with huge blocks of page numbers recording every instance of words like 'again', 'all', 'into', 'so', and 'you' (though not 'a' or 'the'). Very strange indeed, and rather impressive.

Harry Harrison, Stars and Stripes Triumphant (2002), third in a trilogy of alternate-1860s transatlantic war thrillers, transparently slanted for easy US wish-fulfilment. In book two, I remember, America solved the Irish Question forever by invading, kicking out the English, and ordering the country to become united, which it instantly did. Just like that! Why was nobody ever ingenious enough to think of such a cunning plan before? In book three, since the bloated and corrupt British Empire hasn't yet been humbled enough, the USA continues to develop a military-industrial base now about 70 years ahead of its time (1865) and invades England with brand-new tactics. As General Sherman resonantly puts it: '... If this new kind of army attacks in force it can destroy all who stand before it. The faster the attack, the quicker the end of the conflict. That is why I call it lightning war.' At least he refrains from helpfully translating it into German. After a near-bloodless (for the USA) mowing down of innumerable British troops by tanks armed with Gatling guns, the English Question is solved as readily as the Irish one – by granting independence to Scotland, abolishing the monarchy, separating church and state, and introducing US-style constitutional democracy, after which everything is bound to be OK. The politics of terrible simplicity. I live in fear of Stars and Stripes in the Holy Land.

Captain W.E. Johns, Kings of Space (1954): coming across the first edition at a local book fair, I couldn't resist a sort of anti-nostalgia trip. I first encountered this one when about twelve and, having read a load of goodish 1950s SF in a family friend's run of Galaxy magazine, could already sense that the legendary creator of Biggles was not terribly skilled at this genre. Professor Lucius Brane shows a team of intrepid friends around the Solar System in his home-made UFO, the Spacemaster, discovering such hazards of high vacuum as sudden long streaks of blue flame: 'I can only think we must have passed through some stray particles of hydrogen. Being an inflammable gas our velocity might have caused it to ignite.' Oh dearie me. In later volumes the Professor and crew chum up with humanoid aliens from Central Casting – that is, the subtly named planet Terromagna – who have names like Borron, Vargo, Gator, and Multavo, and who all develop a craving for mind-altering Terran herbs in the form of tea. Those were the days.

David E.H. Jones, The Further Inventions of Daedalus: A Compendium of Plausible Schemes (1999). A hundred daft yet eerily convincing – and sometimes even workable – technological excesses from the fictitious labs of DREADCO (Daedalus Research Evaluation And Development Corporation). The first piece, for example, proposes a new slimming technique which replaces body fat with some high-density natural fat such as Brazilian oiticicia oil, thus enabling one to become thinner without actually losing weight. Jones knows his SF and here includes a digression on H.G. Wells's 'The Truth About Pyecraft', in which the obese Pyecraft is granted his literal wish of losing weight and, though corpulent as ever, tends to float uncontrollably into the air. These deadpan squibs were a highlight of New Scientist's back-page column of light relief from 1964 to 1988, and are now published in Nature. Mindblowing in the way hard sf tries but so often fails to be.