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Sat, 4 Oct 2008

2008 in books, part the third

Most of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In the third quarter of 2008, I read the following books:

1. Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
No, I haven't mis-typed the title. There's no apostrophe, and one of the characters in the book has a little grump about it. The background and the people are in many ways far more interesting than the story itself. The world that Vinge has built has a fair amount in common with some of his other work, in particular the ubiquitous networked computing that he elsewhere calls "localisers". The theme of surveillance is also something that readers of, eg, A Deepness In The Sky, will be familiar with. And what's more, a lot of the background is a reasonable extrapolation from the present day. Networked computing is becoming ubiquitous; augmented reality is in use in some industries and being played with by hackers the world over; and of course the Surveillance State is growing a-pace, all in the name of Stopping Terror - a justification that they use in this book too. Thankfully the Secure Hardware Environment that Vinge postulates doesn't yet exist, and something similar has proven to be a failure in the market so far, but I'd not be particularly surprised if something like it were to appear again soon. So the story is firmly rooted in the present.

The actors are believable too, if pushed just a little to extremes. But such is the nature of heroes and villains in all fiction. As is often the case with good fiction, I was left at the end of the story wondering what their lives would be like afterwards.

There are a few problems though. The "belief circles" - something that other reviewers have described as a blend of wikipedia, second life and augmented reality - don't make much sense to me, and while they only play a minor part in the story, serving as a distraction the bad guy manipulates to keep the "good" guys away, they could have done with more fleshing out, in particular explaining why individuals choose to put so much effort into them. But the biggest problem is that to understand all that goes on you need to understand public key encryption and authentication. And virtually no-one does. I do though, so it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the story, and with the one caveat that you should be at least on speaking terms with public-key crypto, I recommend this book. The biggest disappointment was that it was all fiction - one of the "belief circles" that Vinge invents is based on the fiction of one "Jerzy Hacek" who unfortunately doesn't exist. Shame, cos the Librarians Militant sound wonderful.

2. Taciitus's "Germania" and "Agricola", translated from the Latin by Edward Brooks
The Germania is Tacitus's description of the tribes inhabiting Germania, the area to the north of the Roman empire including modern Germany but also several other areas. It is pretty unremarkable apart from his charming description of a battle between two of the tribes: "they even gratified us with the spectacle of a battle, in which above sixty thousand Germans were slain not by Roman arms, but, what was still grander, by mutual hostilities, as it were for our pleasure and entertainment". Lovely.

The Agricola is a far more civilised work, his biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, governor of Britannia and conqueror of Scotland. From a literary point of view it is remarkable for the stirring speech that Tacitus writes for Calgacus, one of the leaders of the northern tribes: "When I reflect on the causes of the war and the circumstances of our situation, I feel a strong persuasion that our united efforts on the present day will prove the beginning of universal liberty in Britain" - an opening that is often alluded to even in modern times. What is surprising is the frequent comparisons of life under the Roman empire to slavery, compared to the liberty of those not yet under Roman authority. Rome wasn't exactly reknowned for literary freedom and it's remarkable that he could get away with writing such sedition. Calgacus's speech also contains the even more commonly misquoted passage "To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert they call it peace". Sound like any modern imperial adventures? Agricola's own speech to his troops on the eve of battle is equally stirring, and no doubt equally fictitious. The brief biography ends with another stirring passage, Tacitus's own goodbye to the man whose funeral he could not himself attend - "If there be any habitation for the shades of the virtuous; if, as philosophers suppose, exalted souls do not perish with the body; may you repose in peace and call us, your household from vain regret and [feminine] lamentations, to the contemplation of your virtues, which allow no place for mourning or complaining. Let us rather adorn your memory by our short-lived praises and, as far as our natures permit, by an imitation of your example. This is truly to honour the dead; this is the piety of every near relation". Splendid stuff. Recommended for cutting and pasting at modern funerals.

The Germania is, despite its reputation, nothing special. That reputation is deserved more as a work of historical interest than enything else. The Agricola, however, is fine stuff, an excellent example of un-critical biography verging on hagiography, with some good old-fashioned haranguing thrown in. And it's free, even in translation. I read the Project Gutenberg edition.

3. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S.Lewis
Book number two (chronologically speaking) in the Narnia series, is somewhat more patronising and irritating than The Magician's Nephew which I reviewed a few months ago. Perhaps that's understandable, given that this one was written first and was his first book written for children. While the christian crap is more evident in this one, it is still not particularly distinguishable from any other mythology. My verdict is the same as for The Magician's Nephew: you should own a copy. And your children should own copies.
4. The Horse and his Boy, by C.S.Lewis
Chronologically the third book in the Narnia series, set between the penultimate and last chapters of the previous book, but published fifth in the series, this story can stand alone, making only one passing reference to events in the previous books which might confuse young readers. It's a humourously written but fairly standard fairy tale of a journey, people growing up, and a lost prince. In this context, even ignoring the rest of the Narnia series, such fairy-tale staples as talking animals make perfect sense. And - mirabile dictu there's no preaching at all! I'm not quite so keen on this as on the previous two books in the series, but it's still worth owning.
5. Star Dragon, by Mike Brotherton
Mr. Brotherton is, I believe, another of those Real Scientists who has turned his hand to science fiction. And I'm pleased to say that he did a hell of a better job than Fred Hoyle, whose "The Black Cloud" I reviewed earlier in the year. This story is similar in concept to Blindsight, by Peter Watts - a bunch of disfunctional explorers are sent on a long, dangerous mission to investigate Something Strange, which they find to be far far more than they ever imagined. Unfortunately, none of the characters feel solid and real. And the technology is a mixture of the unbelievable (in the bad "yeah right" sense) and the superfluous (a gallery of living hunting trophies on a starship? I think not!). While I was left wanting to know more, it was more about their quarry that I wanted to know, not more about the characters and not about the changes in society during their journey or as a result of their discoveries. That said, the book is available to download for free from the author's web site, so at least I don't feel ripped off, but I am unsatisfied and glad I didn't pay for it.
6. Prince Caspian, by C.S.Lewis
Another thoroughly enjoyable tale in Lewis's Narnia series, this sees the protagonists from "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" returning to help a prince overthrow his usurping evil uncle. Predictably, good triumphs over evil. And again I wasn't offended by overt god-squadding - although there's quite a bit of Classical mythology thrown in. I can't recommend this as highly as the previous three books, partly because it's just a little too formulaic (even for a childrens' book) and because it wouldn't stand well on its own - reading The Lion the Witch and the wardrobe first is pretty much essential. Even so, worth having.
7. The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader", by C.S.Lewis
Lewis is, I'm afraid, going off the boil with this installment in the Narnia series. The story seems to be more of a selection of loosely connected episodes than a single story, it has no real beginning, nor a real end. And it's preachy, especially in the last episode. Not worth bothering with.
8. The Silver Chair, by C.S.Lewis
Despite not liking the previous book, I'm still soldiering on. This is just as poor. While the story is more of a coherent whole, it has nothing like the charm and inventiveness of the first three books in the series - which is odd, given that The Magician's Nephew and The Horse And His Boy, while being the first and third chronologically are the 5th and 6th in order of publication - and one of the key plot points is clumsily telegraphed very early on, when it should have been left as a "To Serve Man" twist in the tale. Even less worth bothering with than the previous book, although it's thankfully a little less preachy.
9. Hikaru No Go, volume 1, by Yumi Hota (in translation)
It's a Japanese comic book about a boy who is possessed by the spirit of a dead Go master. Sorry, a graphic novel. Sorry, a manga. The story is of course absurd. There's also not a lot of story - it appears to just set the scene for the remaining umpteen volumes. Even so, it was enjoyable. But probably only of interest to serious manga-heads or Go players.
10. The Jennifer Morgue, by Charles Stross
This, the second of Stross's "Laundry" novels, about a fictional occult spying agency of the British government, is more light-hearted than its pre-decessor "The Atrocity Archives". Indeed, it is presented as somewhat of a pastiche of the Bond stories - in particular the film versions. I found it thoroughly enjoyables. One potential weak point is all the geeky in-jokes. A reader who doesn't get 'em may be a little confused in a couple of places. With that proviso, go out and buy this book.
11. She, by H. Rider Haggard
I thought I'd give Victoriana another go, despite my last excursion into this genre - Moby Dick - being unreadable shite. This does indeed suffer from the same fault - the author is unnecessarily wordy in places. But to nothing like the same extent as Melville. Where Melville would go on and on for page after page, Haggard comes to his senses after maybe half a page. This makes it much easier to just skip the waffle. Much of the waffle is in the form of expository monologues where a modern writer would provide the neccessary background info differently. It grates somewhat, but more because it's unusual than because it's just crap. The story itself is a competently told exploration adventure with reassuringly stiff-upper-lipped English heroes in Tweed and stereotypically dastardly primitive natives - you could learn a lot about Victorian attitudes to race and class from it - which is set in motion through wonderfully Gothic-absurd means. Overall, I like this book. It's available for free on Project Gutenberg, and I'd probably like it less if I'd had to pay for it. Worth downloading or getting from the library, but don't pay more than 50p for a modern printing.
12. Rocheworld, by Robert L. Forward
Like Forward's other two well-known books (Dragon's Egg and Starquake) this is both scientifically literate and imaginative. Where it falls down is on characterisation. Dialogue is stilted, some characters are entirely undeveloped and so are just barely noticed scenery, and one of them is thrown away in a rather pointless and irritating episode which is entirely irrelevant to the rest of the story. This is somewhat surprising, as characterisation and dialogue work much better (as far as I remember!) in Dragon's Egg which was written after Rocheworld. I suppose I should re-read and review that soon. The work has appeared in at least four versions, of which I read the longest. I expect that the irritating sequence referred to above was one of the ones cut out in the shorter editions. I can still recommend reading Rocheworld, but only if you're a hard-core scifi nut.
Posted at 16:23 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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