Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (literatoris convivium)

Literary Feasting

One of the delightful things about Reginald Hill is that now he has made his name, now that his reputation is safe, he can afford to indulge himself. His new novel, Dialogues Of The Dead is another Dalziell and Pascoe book. Chronologically it follows on directly from Arms and the Women though the events of that book are barely referred to in this one.

An AA repair man is drowned, a musician is run over by a car. Just accidents – these things happen. But the local newspaper is running a short story contest and two entries (the so-called dialogues) claim responsibility for the deaths.

To begin with, the words are not believed. But there are more deaths – unequivocal murders, and the writer of the dialogues claims responsibility for these as well. Interest in the dialogues steps up.

The real hero of this book is a detective constable known as "Hat" Bowler. His girlfriend is a librarian and is one of the judges of the short story competition. Many of the dialogues are seen first by her. The author of the dialogues is referred to as the Wordman - the punch line of a truly appalling joke that Hat makes early on in the piece. It does not endear him to anybody. But the situation soon stops being funny. Deaths mount up and the dialogues become ever weirder. There are many clues buried in them. (Hill has always loved word games). And the revelations at the end in a final, literal dialogue – not a written one - will take your breath away. To say too much would be a spoiler of massive proportions. Let’s just say that nothing is what everybody thinks it is and leave it at that.

For those who care, Hill also plays the game of self-reference. One of the prime suspects is a character from an early novel (Francis Roote from An Advancement of Learning He also appears in Arms and the Women) but truly you don’t have to have read these books in order to appreciate Dialogues Of The Dead. It’s just a bit of literary fun. Indeed the entire book is literary fun in one way and another – but it is also darkly sinister. I am amazed at the skilful way that Hill can make you laugh, make you cry and make you shudder, often within the space of a single paragraph as he plays on the strings of your emotions with the sure and certain touch of a master.

Eugene Byrne’s new novel, Things Unborn, takes place in the year 2008. The political situation is a bit fraught. The atom war of 1962 devastated much of the world and seems to have had a most unfortunate side effect – the dead are coming back to life. Anybody who died before their time has a good chance of being resurrected in the post-1962 world. As the novel opens, Guy Boswell, a World War II Hurricane pilot who was shot down in 1940 has just been resurrected. Once he has acclimatised himself to the new world order, he becomes apprenticed to a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Scipio Africanus, a resurrected African slave from the eighteenth century. It soon becomes clear that a group of conspirators are planning a coup. They mean to depose King Richard III (yes, him – he has written his memoirs which reveal the truth about the death of the Princes in the Tower, but the book won’t be published until after he retires. He needs the money from the royalties to support him in his old age because he hasn’t got any savings).

The novel tells the story of the anti-royalist conspiracy and the efforts of the police to prevent it happening. It also has a lot of fun with resurrected characters from all over history making their living in the twenty first century (Lord Rochester, a Restoration playwright is writing scripts for the BBC, and doing very well out of it too). The book is screamingly funny in a very deadpan British way and utterly enthralling from start to finish. I read it in a single sitting; it just grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go.

On the other hand, Let There Be Lite by Rupert Morgan is profoundly unfunny and ungrabbing. The blurb claims that it is:

"Brilliant…like Ben Elton at his wittiest"

"It rattles along with the pace of a thriller. As an
inventive swipe at the Establishment, it will make
you laugh while you wince."

They’re all wrong – the book isn’t funny at all and the so-called satire, the "inventive swipe at the Establishment" is so pathetically obvious that it is almost embarrassing. Furthermore the book is so filled with contemporary references that in a few years time, when the events have largely been forgotten, the book will become utterly incomprehensible to the average reader. It has a picture of a funky chicken on the cover, but don’t let that overcome your better judgement. Just leave the book on the bookshop shelf. You won’t regret it, trust me.

Back to a bit of good, dishonest fun. The Burglar Diaries by Danny King is a series of vignettes told in the first person by "Bex" (Adrian Beckinsule) a not very bright and not very successful burglar. He tells us about his life, the jobs, how they went wrong. It doesn’t sound a promising plot but it had me in fits of laughter. There are hints that this might be the first of many "Diaries" from Danny King. I certainly hope so.

Supertoys Last All Summer Long is a new collection from Brian Aldiss. The title story was purchased by Stanley Kubrick, and Aldiss and Kubrick worked closely together on a screenplay for Kubrick’s proposed movie. (Aldiss has an illuminating essay in the book on the difficulties of working with Kubrick). But the film was never made, and Kubrick died. Eventually the rights were purchased by Steven Spielberg and the story will be filmed under the title AI. It is unclear how much (if any) direct input Aldiss will have on this.

Frankly the collection was disappointing. Aldiss is an old man and I suspect also a tired one. His best work is behind him and now he appears merely to be marking time. This is a weak collection, and many of the stories are shallow, barely fleshed out at all. Even the title story that Kubrick liked so much is thin and trite; full of artificial emotion. It is a tale of a small boy who does not know that he is a robot. It tells of his efforts to try and make his mother love him. There are two sequels to the story, each more mawkish than the last. The remaining stories in the collection are all slight and (dare I say it?) dull. Aldiss seems to have lost his edge. You could accuse him of many faults in the past, but never before, I think, could you call him dull.

Xlibris is a print on demand publisher that effectively allows authors to self-publish their work at little or no cost. After all, since the books are printed on demand, the only costs are associated with guaranteed purchases, so it should be gravy all the way. It is a brave experiment and I hope it succeeds, but judging by Avenue X, I feel that the experiment might be doomed to failure.

Nancy Collins is a well established writer and I was somewhat surprised to see her venture into self publishing. The stories in the collection have (mostly) been published elsewhere before being collected here. And (mostly) they have been immediately forgotten. They are quite weak horror stories (even the new Sonja Blue story is not one of her strongest). One of the stories is an interminable and very predictable tale about Robin Hood’s evil twin brother Thomas. The word that springs to mind is "routine". The plots are obvious and there are few surprises. I suspect that the stories were self published for the very good reason that nobody else wanted them…

Gerald Botting has written a biography of Gerald Durrell. It is an "authorised" biography in the sense that Durrell’s family co-operated fully with it and allowed Botting complete access to Durrell’s papers. Often such efforts are sanitised. But not this one. Botting tells the tale of Durrell’s life, warts and all. He doesn’t pull any punches.

Gerald Durrell has a very special place in the hearts of English people of my generation. Firstly, of course, there were the marvellously entertaining books that he wrote about his family and other animals. But there was also a philosophy, an attitude towards the world and a respect for the creatures in it that meshed well with the way we viewed things in the 1960s and 1970s. Long before it was fashionable, Gerald Durrell was green.

In my childhood, zoos were very different places than they are today. Animals were often kept in cramped cages and their purpose was to entertain the public. Little thought was given to their comfort except insofar as the basic needs for keeping them alive were met. I remember going to London Zoo and seeing Guy the Gorilla. He was in a cage that was so small there was no room for him to walk around. There were no distractions for him, no stimulations other than the throng of people around his cage. All he could do, day after day after interminable day, was sit in his cage, look at the people and (when the mood took him) masturbate. The story was that he tended to do this a lot when there were nuns in the crowd.

His behaviour, and the behaviour of many of the other animals, was quite psychotic. In a lot of ways zoos were very sad places. Gerald Durrell recognised this very early in his life. Even then, in the 1950s, he realised that many animal species were endangered. He believed that zoos had a sacred duty to preserve these animals, to act as breeding centres and, where necessary, to seed and re-establish native populations. Everybody thought he was mad. Such radical ideas flew in the face of the accepted wisdom and Durrell made some enemies because of his outspoken comments and criticisms of contemporary zoo practices. George Cansdale, a high mucky-muck at the London Zoo was a particularly virulent opponent and used his influence against Durrell on several occasions.

Eventually Durrell established his own zoo on Jersey in the Channel Islands. He ran it according to his own principles, his own ideas, and he and his zoo were always at the forefront of the conservation effort. Almost single-handedly, Durrell was responsible for changing the way that zoos throughout the world approached their responsibilities. The zoos of my childhood are almost dead (thank goodness) and these days the model that Durrell pioneered is the norm.

In a sense he was lucky. The mood of the times changed. The radical, extremely eccentric ideas that Durrell had proposed in the 1950s came to be the accepted wisdom in later years. It may be that Durrell was simply more in tune with the times than he was influential in changing them, but I like to think that it was a combination of both.

The books that he wrote have given him a literary immortality, but his most important contribution the world has been his philosophy and its practical application in his Jersey zoo.

The biography is a truly enthralling read. Durrell was nowhere near as affable as his own books suggest. He had a lifelong problem with alcohol and in his cups (and he was often in his cups) could be very unpleasant to be with. The idyllic childhood picture that he painted in his best seller My Family and Other Animals had a certain truth in it, but the times were much harder than he claimed and the family was not as closely knit as it seemed. His brother Leslie, for example, was always a misfit who led a disturbed and unfortunate life. He died tragically, always lost in the shadows of his more famous brothers (Gerald’s elder brother Lawrence was a writer – his most famous work was the Alexandria Quartet). His sister Margot was quite colourless in Durrell’s books and she remains so in the biography.

Botting has done a superb job. His book captures Gerald Durrell, the person, the philosopher, the naturalist, the husband, the lover, the animal. As an example of the art of biography in cannot be bettered. As an insight into what made one of my childhood heroes tick it cannot be beaten. This is a wonderful, wonderful book.

David Lodge is back, doing what he does best, writing a gentle novel full of cuttingly precise, cruelly accurate and charmingly witty insights into academic life. Thinks tells the tale of Ralph Messenger, Director of the Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Science at Gloucester University. He is much in demand on the cocktail circuit, being a very charismatic man and a pundit on artificial intelligence and human consciousness. Helen Reed is a distinguished novelist and woman of letters. Her husband has recently died and she has rented out her London house and taken a position for a year as writer-in-residence at Gloucester University. The novel concerns itself with the events of that year, with the deepening relationship between Messenger and Reed and with a quite extensive discussion of the state of the art of artificial intelligence.

As with all of Lodge’s books there is a surface story which is very enjoyable in itself for the dazzling wit that illuminates the incidents – the plot twists and turns are themselves really quite mundane, being merely the daily routine of living and loving. Perhaps their very familiarity is part of their attractiveness. However the sometimes quirky viewpoint and wickedly witty view of the world enlivens them immensely.

Below the surface, though, there is a whole other book. There is the general eccentricity of academia to explore (a constant theme in David Lodge’s novels) and also some very interesting speculations about the specific nature of human consciousness as opposed to artificial consciousness and the light that the one throws on the other. It isn’t always clear in which direction that goes. You could almost call it science fiction, for the AI speculations push it close to the frontiers.

There are wheels within wheels. The novel has a pleasing complexity hidden inside a seeming simplicity. Oh – it’s also very funny.

Jonathan Carroll’s fantasies have been getting weirder and weirder of the years and The Wooden Sea bids fair to being the weirdest one of all. Police Chief Francis McCabe is a small town policeman in Crane’s View. One day a very ugly three-legged dog stumbles into the police station and dies. McCabe buries the dog, but it keeps coming back. There is also a feather – strangely shaped, multicoloured, which insinuates itself into crisis points in his life in the present and the past and the future. McCabe finds himself re-living aspects of his life, both past and future, but they don’t always go as they should. He knows that he is being given clues. It seems that he has only a week to save himself and perhaps the world as well, but he isn’t allowed to know why or how unless he can deduce it himself from the clues in his past, present and future. How do you row a boat on a wooden sea? The answer might actually matter.

This is an extremely peculiar book. I have absolutely no idea whether I liked it or not.

Lodestar and Falling Stars are respectively the third and fourth novels in Michael Flynn’s future history series. With luck, the series is now at an end – Falling Stars reaches a very satisfying conclusion.

The story began with Firestar. Industrialist Mariesa Van Huyton dreads the thought that one day an asteroid might hit the Earth. Being head of a large industrial conglomeration, she is actually in a position to do something about this phobia and she institutes a policy of research and education, the result of which is a renewal of the interest in space exploration. She uses this as a framework to support an effort to map the orbits of all the known asteroids and to keep a careful eye on the sky. In the second novel Rogue Star, an expedition is sent to explore one of the nearer asteroids. Rather to the surprise of the explorers, traces of alien life are discovered and Mariesa’s phobia takes a new turn. Now she starts to wonder if the asteroids could be deliberately aimed at the Earth by the aliens. However by the end of the book, her pet project has got so out of control and is taking so many resources away from what others consider to be more important things that she is manoeuvred out of her position of authority and other people take over the running of her industrial empire.

In the fourth book of the series, Falling Stars, an asteroid is discovered on an orbit that will definitely collide with the Earth in a few years time. And then another is found, and another. Now they have to take Mariesa’s ideas seriously and efforts to investigate these asteroids and perhaps do something about them are instituted. An expedition is sent to the first of them. It has indeed been aimed directly at the Earth – the control room and the huge engines that move the asteroid are investigated.

What do they find? Why did the aliens aim the asteroid at us? Does the Earth survive? Read the book and find out for yourself – you won’t be disappointed, it is good old fashioned sense of wonder traditional SF and it had me on the edge of my seat.

But what of the third book, Lodestar? Frankly it is a bit of a waste of time. It is involved mainly with the political machinations that occur after Mariesa is removed from her post and the manoeuvrings for power in the vacuum she left behind. It is very much a marking time novel, setting the scene for the truly powerful fourth book. A lot of the novel also concerns itself with the internet and with the hacking and cracking that helps and hinders the main players in their plotting for position. In order to demonstrate this Flynn has invented some embarrassingly naff jargon and slang and also demonstrates a very na´ve understanding of just what a computer is and how it works, which renders many of his explanations and bits of business remarkably unconvincing.

Overall the series as a whole is a tour de force. It is an almost perfect example of everything that science fiction does well. By and large it is beautifully written and it grabs hold of you by the throat and it doesn’t let go. Also, unusually for this kind of story, the revelations at the end of the last book about the aliens motives are not a trite cop out. Flynn has some original ideas and he dramatises them well. I whole-heartedly recommend books one, two and four. Ignore the third one though.

Reginald Hill Dialogues of the Dead Harper Collins
Eugene Byrne Things Unborn Earthlight
Rupert Morgan Let There be Lite Bantam
Danny King The Burglar Diaries Serpents Tail
Brian Aldiss Supertoys Last All Summer Long Orbit
Nancy Collins Avenue X Xlibris
Douglas Botting Gerald Durrell – The Authorised Biography Harper Collins
David Lodge Thinks Secker and Warburg
Jonathan Carroll The Wooden Sea Tor
Michael Flynn Lodestar Tor
Michael Flynn Firestar Tor

Previous Contents Next