Saturday 25 July 2015

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

Alan Garner has been a unique voice in British fantasy since his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, was published in 1960, followed by a direct sequel, The Moon of Gomrath in 1963, Elidor two years later and The Owl Service two years after that. Only one novel appeared in the 1970s (Red Shift, already reviewed on this blog along with the first two), then there was a pause of over twenty years before Strandloper, followed by Thursbitch and finally Boneland in 2012. He has also written short stories – I have an anthology in my reading pile.

There are two powerful elements which inform his stories. The first is his deep knowledge of British history and mythology; the second is a very strong sense of place which comes through, of both the visible geography and the magic that can lie beneath it. The author I am most reminded of is Robert Holdstock, and I think there may also be a flavour of Keith Roberts, whose novel Pavane made a strong impression on me long ago – I really must read it again.

Like most of Garner's stories, The Owl Service is set in the present day (well, the 1960s when it was written!) and focuses on a family on a long summer holiday in a remote house in central Wales, in a valley surrounded by mountains. We gradually realise (Garner doesn't go in for infodumps, readers have to work things out) that the family consists of a man and his new second wife, plus two adolescent children: his own son (Roger) and his wife's daughter (Alison). The other characters are a housekeeper and her adolescent son (Gwyn), plus a gardener who appears to be somewhat soft in the head (Huw). The storytelling viewpoint switches between the three children. One oddity is that while six of the seven characters are well drawn and very distinctive, constantly appearing on scene, Alison's mother hardly appears at all.

The discovery of an old crockery service decorated by stylised owls and flowers sparks a puzzlingly strong reaction in the housekeeper; the uncovering of a painting of a beautiful young woman also causes consternation. These both seem to be linked somehow to an ancient Welsh myth which appears to be coming to life once again and in which Huw plays a central role. As the tensions between the characters rise and their differences emerge, are the children in danger?

Garner has been characterised as a childen's or young adults' author, but judging by Red Shift he evolved away from that – it was more of an experimental novel in style; clipped, elliptical and with little description, focused mostly on dialogue. There is a flavour of that in The Owl Service: there are atmospheric descriptions of places, but the reader has to gain understanding of what is happening primarily through the conversations between the characters. This is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement that Garner makes his readers work a little harder than most authors.

The book is short (less than 200 pages) and I read it in two sessions. What was most significant to me – and sadly uncommon these days – was that I was really keen to pick up the book again and read the second half, I was so drawn into the world the author had created. My only complaint is that the ending seemed very abrupt and unexpected.

I already have all of Garner's other novels on my shelves or in the reading pile except Strandloper, which I am about to order. He is a distinctive author who is well worth reading.

Saturday 18 July 2015

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

The late Iain M Banks wrote nine novels in his SF Culture series (published 1987 to 2012), as well as three other, unrelated, SF stories and fifteen mainstream novels (as Iain Banks). Over the decades I have gradually worked my way through all of his SF books except for the last two Culture tomes and Feersum Endjinn (which I couldn't get into because much of it is in an invented dialect).

Surface Detail is the penultimate Culture novel, published in 2010. For the background I will repeat the summary I wrote a couple of years ago for my review of Matter, the previous volume in the series:

"…the Culture, a galactic humanoid utopia in which almost inconceivably advanced technology provides everything that is needed, immensely capable Artificial Intelligences sort out the mundane business of running civilisation (the most powerful, known as Minds, usually being established in vast spacecraft or space habitats with quirky names), and citizens are mostly free to do whatever they like – live forever, change gender or even species, travel the galaxy. There are various alien civilisations in close contact with the Culture and a lot of others that are not, plus human planetary settlements that don't enjoy the same benefits. Relationships with such peripheral groups are handled by an organisation called Contact, and they apply less diplomatic means when required by means of Special Circumstances, whose agents are kind of blend of James Bond and Jason Bourne with comprehensive bio-electronic enhancements."

As is the author's customary practice, the structure is complex with several different story threads set running, apparently completely unrelated. The first concerns the attempted escape by fabulously tattooed Lededje Y'breq from bondage to the powerful industrialist Joiler Veppers; their paths subsequently diverge to form separate threads for most of the rest of the story. Next up is Vatueil, a soldier involved in an endless series of battles in virtual environments as part of a mysterious war, being revived each time he is "killed". Then we meet Yime Nsokyi, an agent for Quietus, a Culture organisation which rivals Special Circumstances but is concerned with relationships with the dead – who are, more often than not, still "alive" in virtual worlds. Next we are introduced to another virtual world – a representation of a horrifying Hell to which virtual versions of those considered to be undeserving are sent after death. Two academics, Prin and Chay, have managed to make a virtual entry to the Hell in order to collect evidence to argue for it to be shut down. Finally there is the ancient, alien Tsungarial Disk, consisting of hundreds of millions of multi-purpose factories orbiting a star, which appears to be suffering an outbreak of uncontrolled replication. These multiple threads gradually converge into one coherent plot and the pace (mostly rather slow, as is usual with Banks) simultaneously accelerates to a climax involving the usual mayhem.

Other characters are of course the intelligent starships, without which no Culture novel would be complete. My favourite this time is Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, a warship associated with Special Circumstances, which while pretending to be an old Torturer class vessel, is actually (in its own words) "a borderline eccentric and very slightly psychotic Abominator-class picket ship"; a vastly more powerful vessel which reacts with infectious glee to any opportunity to demonstrate the level of destruction it is capable of.

It took me a while to get into this story and its 600+ pages look rather daunting, but the journey was well worth the time. Top-class entertainment laced with dry humour in the typical Banks style.

The final Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, is in my reading pile.

Saturday 11 July 2015

The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Greenberg and Turtledove (Part 2)

Manassas, Again by Gregory Benford. A boy is caught up in a war between humans and rebel mechs (robots) against a very different historical background.

Dance Band on the Titanic by Jack L. Chalker. A sailor gets a job on a very mysterious ferry, which travels to places not found on maps and contains a remarkable variety of people, many of whom seem not to recognise each other's presence.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward More. I read this long story a couple of years ago and reviewed it on this blog in January 2012, so I didn't read it again.

Eutopia by Poul Anderson. This is the other story in this collection that I had previously read, but so long ago that I didn't remember much about it (except for the punchline, unfortunately!). The key is a different world in which Alexander the Great had lived to an old age, establishing a Hellenic Empire which survived to the present day, developing advanced science including the ability to travel between alternative worlds. A Hellene exploring one of these worlds flees the wrath of a local ruler in an alternative America, having unwittingly broken a local taboo.

The Undiscovered by William Sanders. Told from the viewpoint of a native American at the time of the first European settlements, this world differs from history in that William Shakespeare is accidently transported to America and is captured by the natives, who he tries to impress by writing a play for them. Carefully researched, and simultaneously funny and sad.

Mozart in Mirrorshades by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. A nightmare scenario in which travellers to alternate worlds are only interested in pillaging anything of value and couldn't care less about their impact on the locals. One such visit is to Vienna when Mozart is a lad, with unexpected consequences.

The Death of Captain Future by Allen Steele. A spaceship crewman down on his luck is forced to work with a captain lost in a fantasy that he is the Captain Future of old comic-book fame, but the situation changes when they investigate a distress call. Not obviously an alternative history story.

Moon of Ice by Brad Linaweaver. A story that starts with the state funeral of Hitler in 1965 is obviously in the "Nazis won World War 2" camp, in this case by being the first to develop the atomic bomb. What happens next is seen through the eyes of Joseph Goebbels as he becomes caught up with the very different agendas of his rebellious daughter and fanatical son.

Taking both parts of my review together, this is a difficult group to pick favourites from. If I was giving out an award for story quality it would go to Kim Stanley Robinson's tale, which I think would appeal just as much to non-SF fans. Niven's brief story is perfectly crafted and Poul Anderson is a great story-teller, while Chalker's mysterious scenario has a strong appeal to me. They are all worth reading, however.

Saturday 4 July 2015

The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Greenberg and Turtledove (Part 1)

This book was published in 2001 and I have to confess that it has been sitting at the bottom of one of my reading piles for a long time (well it's a large-format book, therefore its natural position is at the bottom for obvious stability reasons!). Following one of my sporadic attempts to tidy-up my room it came to my attention again so I thought it was about time I read it.

Its 400+ pages contain fourteen stories, plus an interesting introduction by Harry Turtledove which summarises the history of alternate fiction, going back to Livy some two thousand years ago. The stories are a very mixed bunch, as follows:

The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson. I have to admit that I am not a KSR fan, but this powerful story is brilliant. It assumes that the first nuclear bombing raid on Hiroshima was carried out by a different crew, and focuses on the moral dilemma of the bomb-aimer.

The Winterberry by Nicholas A. DiChario. This was rather mysterious on first reading, written from the viewpoint of a man who has the mind of a child with learning difficulties, who for some unexplained reason is permanently kept inside a huge mansion. It wasn't until after I had finished the story that light dawned as to who the man was, but Americans may get there faster than a Brit.

Islands in the Sea by Harry Turtledove. Set in an eighth century in which Muslim forces were even more successful, conquering Constantinople and ending the Byzantine Empire. Now the Muslims and Christians are competing to convert the pagan Bulgars, and delegations from each faith argue their cases before the khan of the Bulgars, with the main viewpoint being the Muslim representative. Interesting and amusing, as the practically-minded khan tries to balance the pros and cons of having to give up alcohol and pork in return for being allowed more wives plus a hedonistic afterlife.

Suppose They Gave a Peace by Susan Shwartz. Another one where it's initially difficult to work out what's going on. A war veteran reflects on the past and the uncomfortable present in the early 1970s, when McGovern rather than Nixon wins the Presidential election and the accelerated withdrawal from Vietnam has personal consequences.

All The Myriad Ways by Larry Niven. A brief but fascinating exploration of the possible psychological consequences of knowing that there are indeed countless parallel worlds containing slightly different versions of yourself.

Through Road No Whither by Greg Bear. Two Germans, a courier and an SS officer, get lost when travelling through occupied France and ask the way from a strange old woman who claims to have maps of time.

To be continued