31 October 2013


The Hydrogen Sonata
by Iain M. Banks

It would be gratifying to report that the last Culture novel is a triumph, but maybe that would be an ending too much like fiction. In fact, The Hydrogen Sonata is probably the least successful instalment of the series. It is verbose, repetitive and often clumsily written. Banks always had a tendency to over-write, especially in his science fiction, but this was normally held in check, possibly by judicious editing, and was partly justified (or at least excused) by the fine imaginative and stylistic effects he produced. Here the effects just aren’t there.

The story, too, is thin. The Gzilt, a humanoid race of equivalent technological advancement to the Culture, are about to Sublime (transcend four-dimensional reality and effectively disappear from physical space) when a message is received that places the whole project in doubt. Some of the great and good among the Gzilt move to suppress the news. This involves some serious skullduggery, which attracts the attention of the Culture.

A group of Culture Minds (ships) sets out to discover what was in the message, circumstantially (and somewhat involuntarily) assisted by a young, female Gzilt musician who has a lead to the only person who might know its contents, an incredibly ancent Culture citizen named QiRia. The reader may ask why the Culture decides to get involved in the first place, and having done so, why it chooses to place its own assets — and numerous innocent Gzilt — in grave danger in order to learn the contents of the message. Banks realises the question will be asked, but his answer — simply that it is the right thing to do — is not very convincing.

The Gzilt musician, who plans to Sublime along with nearly every other Gzilt, has set herself a final ‘life-task’, that of playing an ugly but technically impressive piece of music, the Hydrogen Sonata, on a famously unplayable instrument. To be able to play the instrument, she has been surgically augmented with another pair of arms. If there is some symbolic connexion between this and the actual plot, I am afraid I did not spot it. The whole conceit seems rather contrived and pathetic, but serves to furnish a title for the  novel.

A long, tedious sequence set in a sand-garden in the middle of a desert and some rather wordy erotic passages further extend, and detract from, what would probably have been a much better book at half the extant length.

One thing I did find interesting is that Subliming, which Banks had presented hitherto as the culmination of civilisational attainment, is shown here as a strictly temporal process with no ethical or ‘spiritual’ dimension to it at all. This makes a kind of sense, but unfortunately results in Subliming becoming nothing but a kind of scientific or technological attainment, unsatisfactorily described and sketchily presented. There is nothing about the Gzilt that suggests to us why they should even be capable of Subliming — and when the big moment does finally come, we learn absolutely nothing about the process; we don’t even get much of a visual description.
Requesciat in pace, Iain Menzies Banks. You gave us much pleasure, and much to chew on, with the Culture, your most glorious creation. Now that you have attained your own personal Sublimation, we – Remnanters or Scavengers in the terminology of The Hydrogen Sonata – must make what we can of your legacy. It is a great and glorious hoard, but this is the poorest of its treasures.

23 September 2013

Still the Best of A Bad Lot

The Life and Death of Democracy 
by John Keane

This isn't the kind of book you could honestly call a good read – not unless, perhaps, you had a particular taste for the subject. It's thick and square and crammed with facts, not always as digestibly presented as they might be. The prose is not terribly elegant. And whatever your views on democracy, you will almost certainly, at one point or another, find yourself bemused, repelled or angered by what the author has to say.

Yet this almost impossibly learned history of democracy presents a fresh and challenging way of looking at its subject, and is passionately convinced of democracy's vital importance to mankind. As an educational and thought-provoking read, it deserves full marks. There have, apparently, been very few histories of democracy; the last, we learn, was written in 1874, when democracy was still a relatively new development in modern Western society. So Keane has a clear field and plenty to talk about; and he exploits both to the full.

Keane rejects the arguments for democracy that invoke abstract ethics, divine will or Utopian views of human societies and relationships. He debunks the idea that democratic states are inherently peaceful. He shows that democratic institutions do not necessarily produce fair or effective governments. And he insists that nationalism or restrictive definitions of 'the people' have nothing to do with democracy. His final conclusion is that democracy is necessary because it is the only human institution that allows men and women to live their lives free of bullying and coercive violence, that controls the excesses of power and the hubris of the mighty; but he also points out that democracy is always under threat, never fully realised, never fully delivers on its promises and is constantly in need of repairs and modifications to adapt it to the prevailing conditions of time and place. There is no complete or ideal form of democracy, he says; demoocracy is always a work in progress.

The case he makes for this view of democracy is powerful; it convinced me. I learnt a lot from this book — which traces the growth of democracy back to such unlikely roots as the Code of Hammurabi and the Cortes of Léon — and perhaps it even changed my views a little. Though a convinced democrat, I tend to be somewhat of an elitist and have always interpreted democratic equality as equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome; this book has made me think twice about both those attitudes.

29 March 2013

Robes and Cudgels

I wonder if the people currently attacking churches and mosques in Sri Lanka have ever considered the damage they are doing to their own faith—Buddhism.

Christianity and Islam are strong world religions. Some buildings and valuables will be lost in these attacks, there may even be some martyrs, but persecution in Sri Lanka will only make them stronger. No Christian or Muslim is going to abandon his belief or practice because of these attacks.

In contrast, Buddhism itself will take generations to recover from the damage inflicted on it by these extremists. It may never recover at all.

Buddhism gets a good press, by and large, in the non-Buddhist world. In the twentieth century, it enjoyed perhaps the most felicitous reputation of all world religions. Buddhists were thought to be peaceful, kindly, reasonable people: a little unworldly perhaps, as befits those who practise detachment as a spiritual discipline, but certainly none the worse for that.

Many non-Buddhists—some religious, others not—have found great wisdom in the teachings of the Buddha, as well as practical instruction on how to live calmer, less stressful, more peaceable lives. I am one of these people, and although I will never be a practising Buddhist, I have a great deal of affection, sympathy and respect for the religion. There are millions like me around the world.

Sri Lanka’s latest gift to world Buddhism—the image of a robed monk at the head of a violent, thuggish mob—is going to change all that. Indeed, it has already begun to do so. The world media are carrying such images, and the story of crimes committed in Sri Lanka in the name of Buddhism, into hundreds of millions of homes around the world. Buddhism has lost its innocence. It will now be obliged to face the same charge of crimes against humanity that Christianity, Islam and Judaism have faced for centuries. It will be judged, like those faiths, and like them it will be found wanting. Its hitherto unstained reputation will be sullied and tattered.

I have heard many concerned Sri Lankan Buddhists disavow any fellowship with the extremists, insisting that the latter are not true Buddhists. They may well be right, but this defence won’t stand up in the court of history. Faiths—like political institutions, like social movements, above all like people—are correctly judged by their actions, not by their words. As far as any non-Buddhist is concerned, these people are what they profess to be: Buddhists. What they do, they do in the name of Buddhism. This will never be forgotten by the world. These people are making history, and it is their faith which will bear the stigma of it for all time to come.

There is only one escape from this judgement and the opprobrium that will follow from it. Sri Lankan Buddhists, both as individuals and as members of various Buddhist social groups and communities, must publicly and unequivocally condemn the acts of the extremists, repudiating them as unBuddhist.  They must demand that the persons bringing Buddhism into such disrepute be spurned by the Buddhist community, and any who commit violent and criminal acts in the name of Buddhism should be brought to justice and punished. Above all, they must state clearly and publicly that as Buddhists, they recognise the right of non-Buddhists to their own religious faith and practice. And they should apologise, unreservedly, for the wrong that has been done in the Buddha’s name.

Only if these things are done can Buddhism ever hope to recover from the damage presently being done to it in Sri Lanka, by people who claim to be Buddhists and to speak for Buddhism.

11 March 2013

Low-Water Mark

The Hungry Tide
by Amitav Ghosh

I'm sorry to say I could not finish this. I got about a third of the way through.

I greatly enjoyed The Calcutta Chromosome and Sea of Poppies and have liked other books by this author, some more and others less, but this was unbearable. The setting is squalid and hellish, an island half-drowned in the mud of the Ganges delta. The characters did not interest me, and a developing romance between an Indian-American marine biologist and a Bengali fisherman seemed preposterously unlikely, although in fairness I didn't read far enough to see whether they actually got together. The author keeps harping on Bengali grievances, which are now becoming something of a pedal point in all his writing; frankly, I think it's time he took his foot off that particular pedal.

Oh, it has river-dolphins in it. I've just finished editing a book on Indian Ocean cetaceans, which means I'm in the throes of a fading but still-strong professional fascination with whales and dolphins. For all that, however, Ghosh still managed to bore me with his.

12 February 2013

A Nasty Piece of Work

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

Ah, the unreliable narrator. Almost de rigeur in highbrow contemporary fiction these days, it seems. Barnes’s narrator in The Sense of an Ending actually warns us on Page One that he’s unreliable. It turns out he’s right—not because he means to lie to us but, more interestingly, because he’s emotionally stunted, hopelessly self-centred, and blind to the characters and needs of people around him. Due to these (rather common) handicaps he perceives falsely, acts inappropriately, and reports inaccurately. He can’t help himself. He is also a rather dull person, of no great utility to anyone, and a nasty piece of work in a petty, unprofitable sort of way. The book is about him coming to realise all this, much too late in life to do anything about it.
     If reading about such a mediocrity sounds like an attractive proposition to you, you will like this book. But what if it doesn’t?
     It happens that this reviewer is a middle-aged man facing retirement with many hopes unrealised and ambitions unfulfilled. He was thus easily able to comprehend and appreciate the numerous insights appropriate to such a condition (which is also that of the narrator, Tony) that fill this book. They ring true—laceratingly so at times. Reading them was not exactly enjoyable, but there was a kind of satisfaction in it.
     Apart from the dubious pleasure of reading unpleasant home-truths, the other main diversion on offer in this book is the challenge of figuring out the truth of the tale Tony tells us. Not the literal details of the plot, but the emotional truth about the characters and their relationships to one another. It’s not really that hard. If (forewarned by Tony) one reads with care from the beginning and takes nothing for granted, one is likely to reach the end of the book with a pretty clear picture of what is going on, and the final revelation, even if not guessed beforehand, is hardly a great surprise.
     The Sense of an Ending is beautifully written, very readable and all too true to life. However, it is a nasty book about a foolish, cowardly, not-very-nice man whom Life punishes in a cursory but very effective way simply by happening to other people. Others may like this kind of thing, but I have to say it isn’t really my cup of tea.

10 February 2013

High-Class Confectionery

Sweet Tooth
by Ian McEwan

I think this must be what the critics call a tour de force.
     Ian McEwan dines at the high table of contemporary English authorship. You expect his stuff to be good, and he rarely disappoints. He exhibits all the conventional auctorial virtues. His observant, insightful psychology is second to none. If he has a weakness, it is that his writing is so absorbing and instantly digestible that you devour it unreflectingly and may find it hard to remember anything about the plot or the characters afterwards. In other words, he’s the ultimate ‘good reads’ author – so good you may fail to notice his artistry.
     Sweet Tooth is a good read, to say the least. Serena Frome (rhymes with ‘plume’)—Anglican bishop’s daughter, Cambridge maths graduate, MI5 employee and self-acknowledged beauty—is sent off to recruit T.H. Haley—redbrick university lecturer, writer of incisive essays and short fiction, reputedly hostile to Communism and the Soviets—into a small stable of authors it intends to support as a counterweight to the dominance of left-wing thought in Western cultural circles (the year is 1973). The support is extended through a dummy foundation and the authors don’t know they’re being used.
     Naturally, Serena falls in love with her target, and complications follow.
     Espionage, love, sex, betrayal, mystery, an artful intermingling of real life with fiction—Sweet Tooth has it all. But there is more to it than a mere rearrangement of well-loved fictional themes. McEwan, the master of the good read, has taken on the challenge of writing a novel that experiments in a postmodern way with the conventions of fiction. In other words, he has taken on the challenge of making a good read out of the kind of literary showing-off that usually results in a very bad read.
     And he has succeeded brilliantly. Sweet Tooth reads just like any other Ian McEwan novel—engaging, easy to swallow, so true to life that disbelief is not so much suspended as abandoned altogether on the very first page. The story is never compromised, never fails to entertain and make you want to read on to find out what happens next. There is not the faintest hint that anything highbrow and postmodern is happening.
     Oh, but it is. The literary experiment is hidden, as Americans say, in plain sight. McEwan leaves plenty of hints in the text to let suspicious readers know something is up. For example, when Serena and her lover are discussing books, we get this:
 Without leaving the chair he stretched forward and picked up John Fowles’s The Magus, and said he admired parts of that, as well as all of The Collector and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page. He said it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks.’
Sweet Tooth features a manipulated reality like the one in The Magus and a readers’ choice of endings like The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It also has an unreliable narrator (whose identity, too, may not be the one we are given) and sundry other postmodern auctorial tricks. However, none of these are apparent to the reader until the end of the book. And when they are revealed, the result is not the usual disappointment – a breaking of what Serena, a voracious reader of novels herself, would call ‘the contract between the writer and the reader’. It actually redoubles the reader’s pleasure in the book, making it an even better read than it was before. And this, I think, is unique. I've never read an ‘experimental’ work that fully satisfied the terms of that contract before. In fact, it works so brilliantly that today, three days after I finished Sweet Tooth, I keep looking at it and wishing there was some of it still left to read.
     What an absolutely marvellous book this is.

30 January 2013

Humour in Chainmail

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain

Re-reading this after 35 years or so, I found it alternately entertaining and tedious. The amusement-value of dropping a nineteenth-century Yankee technophile into chivalric society and making the most of the ensuing fireworks has not diminished; but neither have the preachiness, political naivety and frequent spells of tedium that mar this not-so-great novel by an undeniably great author.

Mark Twain employs three different styles in this book. There’s his usually zippy, hyperbolic, idiosyncratic but unmistakably American humorous voice, familiar to readers of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi. Then there’s a second, less showy, more conventionally Victorian style that he uses for the framing narrative (attributed to ‘M.T.’, no less). He also falls into this style when Hank Morgan, the hero, launches into yet another homily about the evils of monarchy, established churches, social stratification and inherited privilege, or rhapsodises upon the great superiority of democracy, egalitarianism and nineteenth-century gadgeteering. Some of Hank’s harangues are very trying, and I found myself skipping them with ever-increasing frequency as I advanced through the book.

But for tedium, nothing can compare with the third style Twain favours, which is Malory’s style from Le Morte d’Arthur – sometimes presented as pastiche, sometimes quoted directly from the source. In fact, its tediousness is commented upon in the text itself – but that doesn't make reading it any less stultifying. The quality of storytelling, too, declines steadily through the novel. Somewhere along the line Twain seems to have stopped caring about the plot, perhaps having growing too wrapped up in all the secular sermons he wanted to preach. Towards the end of the book, he completely takes his eye off the narrative ball – for example, when Hank Morgan and King Arthur are captured by slave-traders, the King never thinks to ask why Hank, whom he regards as a magician with powers superior even to Merlin’s, cannot use some enchantment to free them from their captivity; it would have been the natural question to ask. And when Hank finally escapes by picking the locks of his manacles, he immediately buys new clothes to disguise himself – where did he get the money? Surely the slavers would have taken all his possessions when they captured him? Straining credibility yet further, Hank’s escape is viewed by his gullible fellow-prisoners as magical – as if lock-pickers had not been in the world as long as locksmiths!

And while we’re on the subject of magic: right through the book, it is presented as mumbo-jumbo and charlatanry, and the great Merlin is shown to be an incompetent fake and a dotard into the bargain. Yet, when the time comes for Hank Morgan to leave the sixth century and return to the nineteenth, it is Merlin's magic that effects the displacement. Surely the author could have found a better recourse than this?

And, finally, a word about centuries. Twain put Camelot and King Arthur in the sixth, smack in the middle of the Dark Ages. That would be about right, I suppose – just before the coming of the Saxons to Britain – if Arthur had, in fact, existed at all. However, the Camelot Twain describes – and it is recognisably the same one we visit in Malory, Tennyson and every other conventional re-telling of the Arthur legend – is a mediaeval society, and one that had to have existed after the Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century, indeed after the Crusades, which is when the concept of chivalry was elaborated. Of course this tells us nothing except that Malory anachronised, like all authors of his era, and his successors followed his lead. Still, it might be amusing to imagine what a real sixth-century Camelot might have been like; pretty foul, I imagine. Has anyone written a King Arthur story like that?

03 January 2013

Less Than Human

More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon

One I missed back in the early Eighties when I was going through the classics of science fiction like a hot knife through butter. Maybe I’d have liked it better if I’d read it back then. Probably not.

It's an act of charity to call this book SF at all.  It’s supposed to be about the emergence of a new species, but from an evolutionary point of view the emergence described could not possibly take place – the whole concept is ridiculously unscientific. The story does contain one authentic science-fictional device – an antigravity generator – but it has only peripheral relevance and the author doesn’t even bother to make it credible. In fact, his account of how the thing is made and used positively insults the reader's intelligence.

The real story here is about a group of subnormal or disturbed young people with parapsychological powers. That’s right, telepathy, telekinesis and so forth. Such mumbo-jumbo, good reader, makes up the ‘scientific’ content of this ‘science fiction classic’ – justified by one lame paragraph in which the author asserts that credible evidence for such things exists. It does? Show me.

Oh, all right then, never mind: let's shove the ‘science fiction’ definition and ask how this works as fantasy. I think the answer is: it probably works all right if you’re a lonely, disturbed teenager who wants to believe your social ineptitude is a sign that you’re different and special. Readers over the mental age of sixteen, however, are likely to find it all a bit infantile and pathetic.

The writing has moments of genuine quality, but Sturgeon tries too hard and is much too fond of the egregiously quirky metaphor or syntactical conceit to be able to write good prose consistently. The general structure of the novel is messy and contains several confusing chronological shifts, which seem to exist only because the author couldn’t find a better way of telling the story. The consistent ferment of juvenile anxiety is exhausting and, if you’re a grown-up, tedious to a degree. As for the ending, it is irritatingly moralistic and even the genuine surprise at the end is spoiled by too much preaching.

So why was this ever a classic? I suspect the answer lies with those lonely, disturbed teenagers mentioned above. It spoke to them. It told them they were special – that maybe, just maybe, they were... more than human.

But they weren’t special, and neither is this book.