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Fri, 2 Dec 2011

November 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In November 2011 I read the following books:

1. On The Beach, by Nevil Shute

I've got myself a Kindle, which I shall be reviewing later, and so most of my reading this month was on that. This book is also available on paper.

Shute wrote this towards the end of his life, in 1957, and despite his having emigrated by then to Australia his writing is still very much that of an Englishman. His Australia, in which this book is set, is very much a middle-class Englishman's idyll, if only with slightly different plants and seasons. The plotting is also reminiscent of English science fiction of the time, being yet another example of the "cosy catastrophe" so beloved of John Wyndham, and Samuel Youd (aka John Christopher) in books such as The Death Of Grass, A Wrinkle In The Skin, and The World In Winter. In all of these stories, nice middle-class English men and their pretty wives are faced with an unstoppable disaster that utterly destroys their civilisation, which they face with admirable stoicism, often while all those about them fall into barbarism.

My first impressions were not good. Shute's writing is detached from his characters, who consequently appear to have almost entirely suppressed all their emotions - the odd exception here and there being "womanly hysteria". Sentences are short and simple, and for a while I thought I was going to absolutely slate the book for simply being a sequence of "this happened. And then that happened. And then that happened." But over time it grew on me, and the very simplicity of the writing and the objective view in the end produced a rather touching tale. A wholly unrealistic tale, of course, in which people have no drive for self-preservation, but touching and enjoyable nevertheless.

Dealing as it does with nuclear war, we can't really expect scientific accuracy - to start with, while we can model and theorise as much as we like, we have no actual experience of even a limited nuclear exchange. However, Shute, like most other people of his age and, indeed, although with less excuse, like most people of our age, thought that Ray Dee Ay Shun was an absolute evil and a terrible killer. For example, at one point a submarine captain about to lead a voyage to see what is happening outside of southern Australia is instructed in the "obvious necessity that neither you or any member of your crew should be exposed to a radioactive person" - by which they mean a person who has been exposed to fallout. It's almost as if they think of it as being a communicable disease. Other errors include that plant life appears to be wholly immune to the effects of ionising radiation and of metabolising unstable isotopes, that some mammals have significantly greater immunity than others, and that consumption of large quantities of alcohol delays the onset of radiation sickness. All nonsense. And even if Shute just made them up to suit the story - it's fiction after all, not a scholarly paper, so doesn't have to be true - I'm afraid I have to ding him some points for this. Writing like this, by people who damned well should have known better is at least partially responsible for the ridiculous and unfounded modern fear of nuclear power and all forms of radiation, and the holding back of research and industry on a massive scale. Shute was an engineer by training, and should have known better.

So, three stars, and my recommendation that you read it.

2, 3 and 4. Quarter Share, Half Share, and Full Share, by Nathan Lowell

I'm reviewing these three together because they are really just three sections of a single work, seemlessly going from one to the next. They are also available on paper, and as free audio-books from podiobooks.com.

The conceit of a "solar clipper" - a space vessel which uses the solar wind to travel - is a handy way to bring tales of sailors and their shenanigans up to date. Certainly the "golden age of sail", with its sharp merchants, long voyages, running away to sea, and slow communications, has all kinds of dramatic possibilities, but a modern audience may find it hard to understand, and would certainly have no notion of the importance of all the various jobs that have to be done on a sailing ship. Sailing through space is far more understandable. Instead of scampering around the rigging to splice the mainthwart abaft (or whatever it is that sailors do) Lowell's sailors perform more comprehensible tasks such as cleaning air intakes so that the crew don't suffocate in their own exhaled CO2.

At their heart, these three fairly short books document the "coming of age" of a young man, from his signing on as unskilled labour, as he gains skills and knowledge, becomes an accepted and valued member of the crew, and after a suspiciously short time leaves the ship to begin a new phase of his life as an officer cadet.

From a literary point of view, there's nothing special about the books, and there's little here that hasn't been done before, but regardless of that, they're entertaining and cheap, so I recommend them.

5. User Friendly, by Spider Robinson

As I've come to expect from Robinson, this collection of short stories, which also contains a couple of non-fiction essays on the craft and business of writing, and the text of a speech he gave which was more of an impassioned rant, is fine stuff. Letting it down a bit is the presence of a couple of "raps", which are, as expected, dreadful. The stories are immediately accessible, inventive, human, humane, comic, dark and hopeful. Often all at the same time. Recommended.

6. Dominant Species, by Michael Marks

This is only available as an e-book, and for good reason. It's awful. Even the publishers - a rather amateurish outfit, judging by their ungrammatical website - seem embarrassed by this book, so embarrassed that they make no mention of it at all that I can see on their website. No sane publisher would commit actual money to printing this drivel.

So, can I back all that up? Well, the story is one-dimensional: Hero Space Marines (oh god) in powered armour (oh god) have an adventure in which they shoot lots of stuff (oh god), get lost (oh god) and have to defeat unknown foes to return home (oh god). I make that five clichés. These gentlemen are very much modelled after the image of themselves that US Marines like to project. They are gung-ho loudmouths, completely different from the quiet professionalism of the Royal Marines, and consequently we kinda hope that they'll just get shot so that they'll shut the hell up. Of course, there is some God Tech to make sure that even when they are put out of our misery they come back anyway for a happy ending.

They don't have personalities, they have stereotypes, and even those are not executed well. In particular the Australian marine who is obviously there merely to be funny is atrocious. It seems that Marks has read a coupla words of Australian dialect and so every second word is "crikey" or "dinkum".

And I'm not at all sure what the title has to do with the story.

I can say one good thing about it though. At a few points I got a feeling that there was some Giger or Lovecraft trying to break through, and the bio-mechanical antagonists are clearly inspired by him, but they are a poor shadow of Giger's art. Being inspired by Giger is good. At least it shows that the author has some awareness of culture. Or maybe he just watched Aliens a few too many times.

I'm not going to say that you shouldn't read this. It's dirt cheap, and mildly entertaining. If you're stuck in a motorway service station with nothing to do, why not wash your junk food down with some more mindless junk. Otherwise steer clear.

Posted at 18:39 by David Cantrell
keywords: books
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