Friday 31 July 2009

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, and Coyote by Alan Steele

Two books for the price of one this week, simply because I didn't finish either of them. This has happened several times recently, which I find rather exasperating. It seems to affect recently-written books rather than the old classics. The main problem is their length: the more of my precious time they take to read, the better they have to be before I slog on to the end. The two this week both showed initial promise which didn't last.
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco concerns an actual device of that name made to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth (the track of the pendulum gradually changes over time). In the 1988 novel, it has a symbolic significance (although not one which is at all obvious for much of the book).

The plot is a satire on ancient international occult conspiracy theories. The Knights Templar are in there, of course, as are the Rosicrucians, secret codes and the Holy Grail. The story focuses on three men who work for an Italian publishing house, which among other things churns out self-published books on such conspiracy theories. They decide they can do better and invent their own theory which links into the others, only to find that some people are taking that very seriously…

I was looking forward to reading this book and expected to enjoy it but I have to say that I found it very hard going. It is exceedingly long-winded and rambles about all over the place, packing in a vast number of references, most of which I failed to recognise. I struggled with it intermittently for a couple of weeks but kept finding that I'd lost the thread and was becoming increasingly reluctant to pick it up, so I eventually admitted defeat when about half-way through its 700 pages.

If you're interested to know more about this book you can read the Wiki entry
but be warned, it contains a comprehensive description of the plot with many spoilers.
There are two problems with Coyote by Allen Steele (the book chosen for August's Modern Science Fiction discussion group), both of which are similar to those which afflicted another long book I failed to finish recently, Silverberg's The Alien Years. One is that the plot is over-familiar; in this case a colonisation attempt by a human starship on an apparently suitable world free of intelligent life, which turns out to have hidden dangers which pose problems for the colonists. The other is that the focus is very much on the people and their sometimes antagonistic relationships, in exhaustive detail. I am also reminded of another long book which I never finished because of this second characteristic, S.M.Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time.

Despite this, Coyote is acceptably well-written, often excitingly so. The early chapters in particular, dealing with the gradually-revealed plot by dissidents within a future fragmented America to hijack the starship, are full of page-turning tension. The familiarity sets in as the colonists arrive at their destination and begin to establish themselves, with all the usual problems and hardships. With only a few plot changes, this could be about the survivors of a vessel shipwrecked on a deserted island in the days of sail, or indeed any pioneers trying to establish a community in virgin territory. I felt that the SF element was very much in the background rather than central to the story.

It makes an instructive contrast with Cherryh's Foreigner, reviewed earlier in this blog. This also concerns human colonists trying to establish themselves on a new world after a one-way trip, but this planet turns out to be already occupied by an intelligent humanoid race. The focus of that story is on the relationship between the humans and the aliens and that held my attention throughout, despite the book's length and Cherryh's slow-paced writing.

I did manage to get more than halfway through Coyote, but then gave up due to steadily declining interest. However, if you like this kind of plot and approach to story-telling, you may well enjoy this book. There are also a couple of sequels.


Fred said...

I did get through _Foucault's Pendulum_. As typical of many books today, I found that it picked up the second half. Much of the first part, as you point out, is taken up with Eco's ramblings, but those diminish considerably during the second half.

I didn't find the first part that obscure since I enjoy reading about conspiracies and "secret wisdom of the ancients," and therefore most were familiar. In addition, I have a friend who is a believer, and he keeps me informed about all the latest conspiracies and occult occurrences.

I did enjoy _F's P_, but not nearly as much as his _The Name of the Rose_, which was the first work I had read by him, and one that I have reread several times. I also have the DVD of the film (one of the few that I have).

I haven't read _Coyote_. I think I've read Silverberg's _The
Alien Years_, but remember little about it. I also started Stirling's _Island in the Sea of Time_ and couldn't finish it, even though it was for a book discussion group, which is a strong impetus for me to finish the work, no matter how difficult.

Cherryh's _Foreigner_ was excellent and read the first trilogy.

I agree that the SF element in too many stories today is minimal.

Anthony G Williams said...

I enjoyed 'The Name of the Rose' too, Fred, which added to my disappointment over FP.

I have the next two books of the 'Foreigner' trilogy and am looking forward to reading them.

Fred said...

I have read the first three books in the "Foreigner" series. They are real sequels in that they are of further developments in the changing relationship between the humans and the aliens (name escapes me now).
They are not just "samo, samo" as so many sequels are.

Anthony G Williams said...

Good, that's encouraging to hear!