Random Reading 6
David Langford

Iain Banks, The Business (1999), an almost effortless-seeming romp whose background assumption is the actually more or less benign global conspiracy of the title. Full of enjoyably offbeat ideas, from the lunacy of transmitting a significant number via binary-coded tooth extractions performed on an unwilling victim, to the ingenuity whereby our tough heroine wrenches vital information from an alpha male by locking herself in his beloved Ferrari and boosting the revs into the red zone until, outside, he cracks at the shriek of tortured metal. I didn't believe a word of it, but for all its frothiness The Business oozes charm and sophistication. May alienate some sf readers with its genre-spurning refusal to overthrow, expose or even (more than minimally) reform the world-dominating Business.

Avram Davidson, Vergil in Averno (1987), which like the better known The Phoenix and the Mirror belongs to Davidson's unfinished sequence 'The Vergil Magus Matrix'. Its promising basis was to assume the truth of the medieval legends of Virgil as sorcerer; the kind of stories which tended to attach themselves to learned men, most notably Roger Bacon and Johann Faust. In this dark novel – eccentrically paced, crabbed and crusted with strange erudition – Vergil Magus is obscurely summoned to the 'Very Rich Town' of Averno, where volcanic activity provides cheap power for the arts of fire and metal, all under a thick haze of associated pollution. The city magnates apparently want him to do something about their dwindling subterranean fires; but secretly they 'know' what needs to be done, they have laid plans which only begin with appointing a madman as King of Averno, and they make appalling use of our hero's ingeniously salamander-researched maps of the underworld. Despite many fine scenes and an apocalyptic climax, there is something unsatisfactory about Vergil's ineffectiveness here – forever groping in fog, slow to understand the sinister motives and portents all around him, saved only by a barely foreshadowed magical intervention. A very tasty read, though, and I liked the irony that quite falsely weaves the ultimate fate of Averno into Vergil's own legend, as the natural retribution for not paying your hired magus. Also notable are brief flashbacks to a harsh school of magic which makes Earthsea's look wimpish. One test requires the class of would-be mages to compare two fungi for a set period ('the smallest of sandglasses, such as the frugal housewife uses to time the boiling of a pigeon's egg') and use all their carefully honed skills to identify and discard the specimen unsuitable for the pot. Then, of course: 'That one which now remains in front of you. Pick it up. Eat.' It is so characteristically Davidsonish to skip straight from this line to a brief exchange which ends the flashback:

'Ser Proctor, was it needful that those who erred did die?' [...]
'Their clients will not die.'

David and Leigh Eddings, The Elder Gods (2003). My first ever encounter with these prolific authors, undertaken solely for corrupt personal gain. The enormous sales of the Eddings fantasies had somehow led me to hope for better dialogue from self-confessed gods than (resonantly closing a chapter): 'It's the only way we have to save Dhrall from the forces of the Vlagh.' Meanwhile the human races are called things like Maags and Trogites. Thus a Maag freebooter confides: 'The notion of picking Trogite vessels like apples off a tree lights a warm fire in my belly.' Oh dear, oh dear.

Greg Egan, Teranesia (1999), a belated catch-up. It's an odd coincidence that another Greg tackled issues of rampant genetic reprogramming in the same year: Bear, with Darwin's Radio. Egan's story moves well for most of its length, but eventually defied my (fairly well developed) power of suspending disbelief with a closing scene in which the story's nightmare McGuffin, a species-crossing gene which rebuilds its victims into forms it 'thinks' better adapted to survive, displays a sufficient collective understanding of evolutionary game theory that it can be reasoned with or even bluffed. To paraphrase brutally: 'Oh good, I've been given an opportunity to reproduce myself outside the hero's body, which satisfies my biological imperatives, so now I can halt his hideous ongoing metamorphosis and restore him to normal....' Sorry, Mr Egan, I just can't believe it.

Edward Gorey, The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium (1999) – a happy surprise, one last chapbook by this great man that I hadn't known about. Certain characters from his Christmas Carol-influenced The Haunted Tea-Cosy (1997) are wafted from one allegedly morally improving scene to another, with suitably bizarre illustrations captioned in doggerel. A characteristic moment of post-seasonal charity when all is over:

Fruitcake was sawed in blocks and sent
To Havens for the Indigent,
Where it was used for scouring floors
And propping open banging doors.

Alan Moore and others, Promethea Book 3 (2002): yet more of this weirdly mystical comic, in which action-adventure tropes (zapping demons, socking supervillains on the jaw, saving the world, etc) are increasingly upstaged by exploration of the multiverse as Moore personally sees it in terms of ritual magic. In past episodes we've had a dose of planetary and elemental symbolism, an entire issue devoted to Tantric sex, and another complexly pondering the Tarot trumps; now our eponymous heroine is engaged in a vast metaphorical tour of the Kaballah's Tree of Life, and I gather that some fans are getting a little jaded by the relative dearth of two-fisted action. It still looks beautiful, though.

Bill Napier, The Lure (2002), scientifically literate novel of SETI and alien signals, presented as a technothriller rather than sf – less concerned with the impact of awesome biochemical revelations from Out There than with paranoid governments trying to suppress it all by, if necessary, assassinating entire research teams. Perhaps the book's US President would indeed take theological advice from ghastly fundamentalists in such a case, but Napier's fundies are such unbelievable caricatures.... Too much routine chasing around, I felt, while the real story was skimped; but no doubt paying attention to large-scale and long-term concerns would havc been regarded as just too skiffy, fatally compromising The Lure's placement in the Thriller/Bestseller niche.

E.S. Turner, Boys Will Be Boys (1948, updated 1975), a jolly survey of ripping yarns which reminded me of a friend's playful suggestion that the recent Savoy book Zenith the Albino by Anthony Skene might be a clever modern pastiche rather than a 1930s rediscovery. For what it's worth, Turner's long list of Sexton Blake's regular foes does include 'Zenith the Albino, afflicted with a colourless skin but far from colourless personality, whose possession of infra-red binoculars put all London's wealth at his peril'. It is also confirmed that narratives revolving around absurdly many plot coupons have been around a lot longer than commercial fantasy: e.g. a 1920s 'story of twelve seaports scattered all over the world in which were twelve sailors each with different portions of a map tattooed on their backs; all would have to be traced before the sunken galleon with the gold aboard could be located. [...] It did not follow that a series involving seven feathers or twelve pieces of map would necessarily run for seven or twelve instalments. If the series was a flop the hero could recover two or more keys or pieces of map in one instalment; if it was a success he could be tricked out of the whole lot and have to start again.' Witty and knowledgeable, though a little disdainfully hazy about modern (1970s) superhero comics as compared with the meticulous treatment of 'classic' pulps.

Chris Wooding, The Weavers of Saramyr (2003). A fantasy which I admired despite reservations. Yes, this trilogy opening has much of the pace, inventiveness and sense of danger expected from the gifted author of The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. But I have an unworthy feeling that the liberating thrill of at last writing for adults has gone to Wooding's head. (It's not as though he pulled that many punches in work for 'younger readers'.) The bad guys of the title aren't just ugly, arrogant, treacherous, murderous, semi-insane, and responsible for both poisoning the land and putting the blame for this on innocents, but are hideously rotted and afflicted with cancer as a side effect of their nasty practices, and have drifted into the habit of repeatedly raping and killing children (sometimes, for variety, elderly women), to which everyone turns a blind eye because the Weavers' psychic powers are so jolly useful. At one point, seven horrified men stand for two hours listening at the door as a Weaver has his repellent way, again and again, with a twelve-year-old boy who does not survive the experience: 'None would move, for it would be an unpardonable shame to turn their backs; and yet none dared intervene, either.' All of which, I submit, is overdoing things. Plausible villains whose motives we could (however slightly) share would play so much better than these absurd, nightmare caricatures.