Random Reading 12
David Langford

John Crowley, the "Aegypt" sequence. Hard to believe it began so long ago: I was bowled over by the original Aegypt – since retitled The Solitudes, with "Aegypt" becoming the overall series name – when it appeared in 1987. Love & Sleep followed in 1994, Daemonomania in 2000, and the concluding Endless Things in 2007. In late 2008 I finally read them all in sequence, one house of the zodiac (each volume is divided into three houses) each evening: Vita, Lucrum, Fratres; Genitor, Nati, Valetudo; Uxor, Mors, Pietas; Regnum, Benefacta, Carcer. What to say? It is, of course, beautifully written. The elusive mechanism of secret history, in which magic is always something that happened then and has vanished even from the past of the mundane now, is endlessly fascinating – and sometimes convoluted with what Douglas Hofstadter calls Strange Loops, as when Doctor Dee (in the historical novel-within-the-novel) unravels ciphers to reveal the opening words of the first book's prologue and initial chapter, or when he peers into a scrying stone to meet the eyes of the child who in the outer novel is examining the "same" stone. It seems entirely in keeping – especially remembering the high density of Alice references in Little, Big – that Giordano Bruno should confidently quote Humpty Dumpty. But can Bruno be saved from the wrath of the Vatican? Yes, and no: Endless Things repeatedly invokes the Y-shaped bifurcation of history which in Terry Pratchett's Discworld is invariably termed the Trousers of Time. The grass is always greener down the other path. Even while turning away from the high fantasy of the inner book, and writing of deeply divided characters, Crowley shows a Chestertonian delight in the magic of the mundane. One telling point, perhaps indeed the central one, is his indication that the extraordinary irruption of a unique messenger into our universe in the first book's "Prologue in Heaven" is – viewed in orthodox astrological terms – no more and no less than the story of every human birth. If I ever write at length about this tetralogy I'll need to read them all again and this time take full and proper notes, which will be a pleasure. Thank you, John Crowley.

Mary Gentle, 1610: A Sundial in a Grave (2003). An enjoyably swashbuckling homage to Dumas and his Musketeers, with familiar genre elements – including swordplay, cross-dressing, assassination, headlong pursuits, disguising one's fugitive party as strolling players, and conspiracy against the royal succession – given an sf rather than fantasy frisson by the introduction of a mathematical predictive technique (allegedly pioneered by Giordano Bruno: that man again) which seems distantly related to Isaac Asimov's psychohistory. Here the Hari Seldon figure is the English astrologer Robert Fludd, who has charted Earth's future and sees a comet-impact disaster in the twenty-second century. To unite humanity against this, he dubiously reasons, we need a strong English monarchy and lots more of the Divine Right of Kings. Therefore history must be reshaped by getting rid of King James I as a first step towards eliminating the blasphemous execution of Charles I from the timeline. What I couldn't quite swallow was Fludd's ability to predict, through many previously calculated mathematical iterations, a future opponent's every possible reaction in a duel – enabling this untrained scholar not only to humiliate an expert swordsman (the book's hero, or antihero) but to teach his hirelings to do the same at will. Hmm! But it makes for a rousing story, spiced with mild sexual perversity. Oh, and besides the customary adventuring across France and England there's an excursion to Japan with profound effects on that country's history....

Gerald Heard aka H.F. Heard, A Taste for Honey (1941), Reply Paid (1942) and The Notched Hairpin (1949). Sherlock Holmes famously retired to keep bees, and the first of these offbeat detective novels – delicately flavoured with Holmes pastiche – is a clash of ruthless apiarists with the hapless narrator caught in between. One is a mad scientist who, without much motive beyond general homicidal enthusiasm, has bred lethal killer bees which can follow airborne trails of scent (the word "pheromone" is not actually used) to suitably tagged and thus doomed victims. His opponent has retired from a life of "estimating human intelligence not by its books or words but by its tracks", and has studied bees so effectively as to devise means of subduing them with amplified but inaudible sounds – the word "ultrasonic" is not actually used. All quite science-fictional in a borderline way. Even when the duel is over, Heard teasingly refrains from dropping the name "Sherlock Holmes". In the original US editions the aged sleuth is known only as Mr Mycroft; this hint was apparently thought too broad for readers in Britain, where he became Mr Bowcross. Either way he is lean, energetic, and clearly not intended to echo Conan Doyle's vastly corpulent and lazy Mycroft Holmes. This was lost on at least one publisher (Nelson Canada Ltd), which billed all three books as "The Mycroft Holmes Mysteries" and prefaced them with an Encyclopedia Sherlockiana description of Mycroft, though none of Sherlock.

Reply Paid also has fantastic touches, including the consultation of a psychic medium to crack the first part of a tricky cipher clue, and a new forensic theory of teeth, which here have internal rings exactly analogous to tree-rings and record the various traumata of life. If my teeth had been steadily growing over the years by accretion of new layers, I think I'd have noticed. The central McGuffin proves to be a extravagantly radioactive meteorite in the Utah desert which, having brought its finder to a sticky end, promptly evaporates into pure energy and provokes speculations about the asteroids having once been a planet or two planets – so far, so familiar – where "some mad form of life must have monkeyed with matter's make-up". Atomic-war theories of asteroid formation were commonplace after 1945 (for example in Robert A. Heinlein's 1948 Space Cadet: "artificial nuclear explosion ... they did it themselves"), but this was 1942. Alas, after these quasi-sf excitements The Notched Hairpin is a rather dull locked-garden murder mystery, combining devices all too well known from such classic detections as G.K. Chesterton's "The Oracle of the Dog" and Carter Dickson's The Judas Window. It feels like a short story padded to book length with a lot of talk, including one of those protracted flashbacks in which – as in two of the Sherlock Holmes novels – the murderer's and victim's shared background is most laboriously explained.

Terry Pratchett, Nation (2008). A standalone novel, notionally for younger readers – the Carnegie Medal win is blazoned on the British hardback's front cover – but a long way from being childish. Discworld and especially its central city Ankh-Morpork have grown increasingly ramified and labyrinthine through many sequels; this alternate-nineteenth-century adventure has an effective, hard-edged simplicity. Somewhere in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean our young hero Mau, fresh from the lonely ordeal of becoming a man, returns home to find his tiny island Nation destroyed by a great wave. Nothing is left but vegetation, pigs, birds, angry ancestral voices, and – on a cast-up ship of the British Empire – a white "ghost girl" called Ermintrude, who quickly takes the opportunity to reinvent herself as Daphne. Droll communications problems are only the overture. Refugees soon begin to straggle in. How to feed a baby that needs milk? Mau's solution is heroic, comic and horrific at the same time. How to deal with the sick and wounded? Daphne works her way resolutely through the appalling Manual of sea doctoring, up to and including the sawing-off of legs. How to tackle an invading cannibal tribe now led by a British seaman who is one of Pratchett's nastiest smiling killers? (He's reminiscent of Carcer in Thief of Time, but with a better gift of the gab.) The ultimate challenge is that of being rediscovered by Britain itself, which has marked the Nation on its charts – in red, claimed for the Crown – as one of the lowly Mothering Sunday Islands. But the Nation has its surprises, not of any expected kind, for the Empire. Without any lessening of comedy, Pratchett sets up a tension between various loyalties – to individuals, countries, governments, history and truth – which shapes a highly effective finale and aftermath. Funny, thoughtful, touching ... and with land-dwelling, tree-climbing octopi too!

Charles Stross, Saturn's Children (2008). I confess to slight nervousness about a Stross homage to, or send-up of, Robert A. Heinlein, but this cheerful romp works rather well. Our heroine Freya echoes the title character of Friday, not only in name but by being an artificial person – in fact a robot concubine who's out of a job because the human race is extinct – despatched on a smuggling mission whose organic payload is concealed within her own body. At one stage, joyously echoing "The Number of the Beast", her faulty nipple goes spung! Also very much in late Heinlein mode, there is good sex with an older male, a robot Jeeves who is in fact of more recent construction than Freya but was built to project middle-aged reassurance. The experience of having one's free will overridden by a "slave chip" is reminiscent of being slug-controlled as in The Puppet Masters, and (reverting to Friday) the ending sees the most likeable characters outward bound on a starship, leaving all the solar system's complications behind. Stross stitches all this into a jolly adventure plot – with such Perils of Pauline setpieces as Freya being tied to Mercurian railway tracks along which an entire terminator-following city is rolling inexorably towards her – and is characteristically liberal with what the late Bob Shaw called "wee thinky bits". Gradually we begin to appreciate the horror with which a robot-peopled Solar System regards the possibility of recreating beloved humanity after the fashion of Jurassic Park. The slave conditioning inherent in those Laws of Robotics would instantly kick in, marking the end of all the characters' freedom and independence. No wonder the cybernetic Pink Police are constantly on the alert for this "Pink Goo" threat. We have met the enemy and he is us.