Sunday, December 30, 2018

the last book I read

Earthlight by Arthur C Clarke.

It's two hundred or so years in the future and Earth is getting a bit crowded and, in any case, living on the same old planet where your species originally evolved from small single-celled organisms is sooo last millennium, don't you think? So we had this amazing idea of knocking through to next door! We had the surveyors in and it turns out it's not a supporting orbit, so we moved some of the heavy telescopes into the Moon first and then moved across ourselves a few months later. I mean, it's a bit quiet, and there's not much atmosphere, if you see what I mean, but it's home, isn't it?

We'll come back to the atmosphere later. Actually in this particular imagined future Man has moved out well beyond the Moon, to Mars and some of the moons of the outer gas giants. The organisation that unites these far-flung outposts is called The Federation, a name that will be familiar to viewers of Star Trek and Blakes 7, among others, though their jurisdictions encompassed some considerably more exotic and far-flung places. They are unable to cut their ties to Earth and do the whole to-infinity-and-beyond bit, though, as much as they might like to, because they are reliant on Earth and its unique geology to get hold of certain raw materials that they need. Earth-dwellers, are in turn, simultaneously a bit scornful of these hoity-toity spacefarers, and probably a bit jealous as well, and are a bit grumpy about sharing. So there is a state of uneasy tension, and while there hasn't been a war for a couple of hundred years everyone's taken the precaution of having some continent-melting laser rayguns and the like stashed away just in case.

Into this charged situation comes a man called Sadler, visiting the Moon from Earth ostensibly on a tedious and mundane accountancy audit but actually on a TOP SECRET mission to try to root out a spy who has been sending classified information to The Federation, particularly about the TOP SECRET spacecraft landings and exploratory mining activity happening in the Mare Imbrium, just over the horizon from the main observatory which houses almost all of the Moon's permanent inhabitants.

Sadler interviews most of the major potential suspects, including the observatory's Director, Professor Maclaurin, but beyond categorising his interviewees by how likely he thinks they are to be a mole he doesn't get very far in terms of collecting hard evidence. Meanwhile two astronomers from the observatory have taken a jaunt in a roving vehicle on their day off and have discovered the mysterious dome in the Mare Imbrium, and had their collars felt by its security people into the bargain, so word is all over the observatory. Since they now know of its existence the same two guys get tasked with a vital mission: transport an Earth scientist out to the dome so that he can help implement a new weapon system in time for the attack which is expected to be imminent.

And sure enough no sooner has the boffin been successfully delivered than some giant ships materialise, hanging in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't, and swiftly getting into raining down some serious intergalactic death ray action on the dome, turning most of the surrounding terrain into a lake of boiling lava. The dome remains unscathed, though, at least for the moment, and eventually unleashes its own secret weapon, an electromagnetically-propelled jet of metal plasma which can cut a spaceship in half like a knife through butter. Unfortunately one of the crippled halves of the spaceship falls to earth (well, moon) on top of the dome, destroying it and killing everyone inside, but by this time the battle is won and the Federation ships are in retreat. Hurrah! Lest there be any hard feelings, one of the Earth ships helps to effect a daring rescue of the crew of a crippled Federation warship just before its central reactor explodes, tearful vows are exchanged never to fight again, and peace and serenity reign. There is an epilogue many years later wherein Sadler returns to the now much-expanded Moon settlement to reveal the identity of the mole, but it turns out he did it for well-intentioned reasons and it all turned out OK, so, hey, no biggie.

I was a fairly voracious consumer of science fiction back in the 1980s but this is, as it happens, the first Arthur C Clarke book I've ever read. My guys back in the day were Asimov and Heinlein, with a few excursions into the weirder stuff like Brian Aldiss and more modern fare like Greg Bear's Eon, which borrows a few of its major themes from Clarke's 1973 novel Rendezvous With Rama. What I can tell you on the basis of this one (first published in this form in 1955, though it's an expanded version of an original story published a few years earlier) is that Clarke is very good on the science bits and the interesting ideas, less good on the portraying of actual characters who appear to be normal functioning human beings. The structure of the novel is also, basically: a) everyone talks about how there's probably going to be a war, b) there briefly is one, c) it ends, with the first section occupying the first 120 pages of a 158-page novel.

I would describe it as a fairly minor science fiction novel, for all that there are some interesting ideas, not least the metal-plasma doomsday device (which inspired an actual project called, rather splendidly, MAHEM). One of the ways in which this is interesting is as an historical artifact, since it was written 14 years before man first set foot on the Moon, and proposes some things which we now know to be wrong, like the Moon having a wispy atmosphere that can support some primitive indigenous plant life. But it's good fun, fairly brief, and I've had it on the shelf for something in excess of twenty years, so it's nice to finally get round to it. Clarke himself is of course most famous for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and for presenting some readily-satirisable TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s.

Friday, December 21, 2018

the last book I read

A Landing On The Sun by Michael Frayn.

Jessel (no, not that one) is a mid-ranking civil servant in some anonymous government department in Whitehall, dutifully producing and reviewing various reports requested by mysterious superiors and then carefully filed and never read by anyone. One day a slightly more interesting piece of work lands on his desk: review the circumstances of the death of Stephen Summerchild, one of Jessel's predecessors in a similar job, who fell to his death from the roof of a government building 15 years earlier (which according the the novel's internal timeline would have been in 1974, in the early days of the second Wilson government).

There's been a cursory report on the incident on file for a while, but it's been rumoured that a television company are sniffing sound for some material for a documentary and might find the incident to be of interest, so Jessel is tasked with having another look and making sure there are no skeletons lurking in the closet. Jessel has some personal interest in the case because he vaguely knew Summerchild through being in an orchestra with his daughter Millie while they were both at school, though Summerchild's death scuppered any fledgling romance.

The first thing Jessel discovers is that Summerchild had been involved with the start-up of some ill-defined government Strategy Unit, part of whose initiation had involved the hiring of an Oxford professor of philosophy, Elizabeth Serafin, and the locating of the Unit (basically just Summerchild and Serafin) in a little-used attic room in a secluded corner of some government building. Jessel finds his way up to the attic and finds it little-changed since the Unit used it, and various boxes of documents lying around which he starts to sift through. Some of these documents turn out to be transcripts of discussions between Summerchild and Serafin which were originally recorded on cassette tapes; it also transpires that after the Unit's transcriber, Mrs. Padmore, resigned, further conversations were taped but never transcribed. Jessel finds these tapes in a cupboard in the kitchen next to the attic room and starts the lengthy job of listening to them.

And a rum experience it is too. The early exchanges are mainly about defining the Unit's terms of reference, which are very vague and have something to do with Quality Of Life, which Serafin takes to mean that part of their job is defining what that phrase means, and by implication (since the two concepts seem to overlap) what "happiness" means. Inevitably discussions around this subject start to pull in details from the two protagonists' personal lives: Summerchild is apparently happily married with a teenage daughter (Millie), Serafin is married to a famous philosopher and has two older sons but we are invited to infer that the marriage is no longer a very happy one, and further to infer that this is because of his repeated infidelities.

To Jessel's further appalled fascination, the conversations captured on the tapes go on to reveal that Summerchild and Serafin were conducting a clandestine love affair in their little attic hidey-hole, to the extent of basically moving in together. They'd brought cooking equipment in, an airbed, and had even taken to climbing out of the skylight in the kitchen to sunbathe on the roof.

But even poorly-defined projects have targets and people whose job it is to monitor them, and eventually the hands-off approach that had been taken to the Strategy Unit is put aside and management types come calling to check on progress. Finding Summerchild and Serafin ensconced in domestic bliss rustling up lunch in the kitchen with the airbed propped up against the wall prompts something of a review of the project's aims and viability, and when Summerchild next arrives he finds that the locks on the attic room have been changed. He's able to get into the room via some hair-raising manoeuvres round the outside of the building, but then finds that the phone has been cut off as well, so he can't contact Serafin to tell her. Escaping up through the skylight onto the roof, he attempts to find another way down, and, Jessel concludes, accidentally falls to his death while trying to scale a wall of the old Admiralty buildings.

There are a couple of things that we have to remember here: firstly that all that we're learning about the Summerchild/Serafin relationship and everything that went on up in the attic room is derived from Jessel's listening to the tapes, and a lot of the time he's trying to work out what's going on from various obscure distant banging noises. So there's a possibility that he's completely misinterpreted things and has constructed a whole fantasy world from some half-heard sounds on a tape; we are invited to assume that Jessel has it about right, though, and we don't get the sort of rug-pull that we get at the end of The Conversation which throws everything that has gone before into doubt. But the possibility remains. Secondly, it would have been fairly straightforward for Jessel, on the wholly justified pretext of government business, to have gone to see Serafin, still alive and living in Oxford, and talked to her about the whole affair, but he doesn't.

Frayn has lots of fun with the early business of the Strategy Unit as Serafin leads Summerchild through some philosophical discussions about happiness - some of this reminded me a bit of the sort of stuff you get in David Lodge's books (like, for instance, Thinks...). We never really get any feeling for why the two main protagonists fall hopelessly in love with each other, or exactly how they conduct their relationship under the bizarre circumstances they find themselves in. If they're humping on the desk then either Jessel is too polite to mention it or they've turned off the tape recorder.

This is a lighter and less serious book than the other Frayn on this list, Spies, for all that it ends with the death of one of the principal characters. It doesn't quite go where you think it's going to go at the start, and once you think you've got into the rhythm of it it doesn't quite go where you think it's going to go at the end either. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, of course, and while I didn't think it was as good as either Spies or Headlong, the only other Frayn I've read, I still enjoyed it very much.

A Landing On The Sun was made into a BBC Screen Two drama in 1994 (Frayn himself wrote the screenplay), starring Robert Glenister (who I have LITERALLY MET in real life, albeit briefly) as Jessel and Roger Allam (best known to those with small children as the narrator of Sarah And Duck) as Summerchild. No clips of this appear to exist on YouTube, although I did find what appears to be a complete Screen Two adaptation of an earlier entry on this list, The Children Of Dynmouth.

The book also won the short-lived Sunday Express Book Of The Year prize in 1991. I have read all but two of these (the entries for 1989 and 1992) and two of the winners have also previously featured on this blog: The Colour Of Blood and Age Of Iron.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

the last book I read

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

It's all ill wind, as they say, that blows nobody any good. Disasters in foreign countries, volcanic ash grounding flights, fewer people going abroad, more people taking staycations, more money for the domestic tourism industry. Everyone in the world going blind simultaneously after unusual meteor shower activity, good news for homicidal ambulant rhubarb.

Even the seemingly no-upside occurrence of a packed school bus crashing through a guardrail and careering down a slope into a watery pit causing the deaths of fourteen children, all from a small close-knit nearby town, presents opportunities for some, specifically lawyers hoping to get together a class action suit and sue someone's ass in a mutually lucrative manner.

So here is Mitchell Stephens, one of the group of lawyers who have appeared in the chilly upstate New York town involved in the tragedy. Stephens tells himself that he is different from the others, though, as he is motivated by a higher purpose: not just the money, though that provides some comfort, but also the public and financially painful punishment of those who are deemed to have failed in their responsibilities to keep people safe. So, in a very real sense, there is a moral obligation to bring legal action in the wake of these tragedies, in order to modify people's behaviour so that future tragedies can be avoided.

At least, this is what Stephens tells himself, and us, in the section of the book which is presented in his voice. But is he being honest with himself, with his potential clients, and with us? The same questions can be asked of the other people whose voices we hear in the book, in particular bus driver Dolores Driscoll and local man and Vietnam veteran Billy Ansel, who are the only people who could give a conclusive answer to how fast the bus was going - Dolores because she was driving it, and Billy because he was following behind in his pickup as he often did, waving to his two kids on the back seat of the bus. No-one wants to blame Dolores - the locals because she is a respected member of the local community, Mitchell Stephens because she hasn't got any money and would be a dead-end in terms of securing a substantial payout. Billy, whose wife died of cancer a while back, has also been knocking off local motel-owner Risa Walker for some time without her husband's knowledge, so he is at least on some level capable of deceit.

The real spanner in the works, though, comes from an unexpected source: Nichole Burnell, who survived the crash but at the cost of being paralysed from the waist down. Mitchell Stephens wants Nichole to testify at the hearing, because she is a real survivor of the crash (unlike all those dead kids who can't speak for themselves) and as a pretty former cheerleader now confined to a wheelchair will present a tragic figure and hopefully jack up the amount of damages that can be won. Nichole is conflicted about all this, for a number of reasons: she doesn't want to lie to the hearing about anything, she is troubled by her being of more value to the lawyers and her family half-paralysed than when she was healthy and, most importantly she can see a way of revenging herself on her father, who has been sexually abusing her for many years.

So Nichole cooks up a story about Dolores Driscoll exceeding the speed limit before the crash, which pretty much torpedoes any chance the lawyers have of making any money out of the case. That's all very cute, of course, and it gets the case thrown out, thus exacting Nichole's revenge on her father, but of course it effectively puts the blame on Dolores for the deaths of fourteen kids, something everyone, not least Nichole and Dolores, will have to live with.

Here is, in some ways, an answer to the question of why people read "literary" fiction, inasmuch as that is a thing that has any meaning. Plot-wise the actual key event is over before the novel's timeline even starts, and is only referred to in flashback, and even then not in any great detail. It's a novel all about people's emotional reaction to the almost unimaginable tragedy of losing a child (multiple children, in some cases), and the train of perfectly natural reactions which follow which only serve to make the general situation worse. That is the thing good fiction does: make you nod in recognition that yes, this is how people act, and also make you sit back and say, well, yes, I hadn't quite looked at it like that before.

I'm very suspicious of statements about how you can only really appreciate certain things once you become a parent, as if it's literally impossible to imagine that you might be devastated at the death of your own child without having a specific child to imagine being devastated about. On the other hand I suppose it does just give a specific focus if you're able to attach an actual face to the child in the back of the bus disappearing off a ravine into the cold murky water, never to return.

Just like Marathon Man, The Sweet Hereafter is most famous for its film adaptation, featuring Ian Holm in the lead role of Mitchell Stephens and the recipient of many awards. Mitchell Stephens is specifically depicted as a tall skinny man and so it's interesting to note that the actor originally lined up to play him was Donald Sutherland, much closer to his physical depiction in the book. I have seen the film, though, a long time ago, and as I recall Ian Holm does a pretty good job.

The novel was based on some true-life events; for once their fictional depiction actually seems less shocking and lurid than the events themselves.