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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (biblio bibulus)

Book Binding In The Marsh

Neal Stephenson’s new novel Quicksilver is a sort of prequel to his earlier blockbuster Cryptonomicon. It bills itself as volume one of The Baroque Cycle and it weighs in at a massive 916 pages (plus eleven pages of dramatis personae). Goodness knows how large the next two volumes will be.

It is principally a historical novel. It tells the tale of the feud between Newton and Leibnitz over which of them really invented the calculus. Observing all this, and reporting much of it to us, is one Daniel Waterhouse, a junior member of the fledgling Royal Society. Various historical personages strut and fret their hour upon the page – Robert Hooke, Judge Jeffreys, Samuel Pepys et al. And Newton and Leibnitz of course. Enoch Root (from Cryptonomicon) flits through the pages as well, and there are strong hints that he is either an immortal or a time traveller. Doubtless the nitpickers will use this as an excuse to consider the novel SF.

The action pops hither and yon all over Europe (and a little bit into the Americas). There are lots of great individual scenes. Newton conducting experiments on optics and the properties of light - staring at the sun until he is almost blind, and thrusting a blunt knife into his eye socket and distorting his eyeball this way and that in order to see how his perception of shape and shadow changes. Hooke vivisecting dogs and drinking mercury as a specific against disease. There are lovely descriptions of hideous illnesses – syphilis and the stone. And there is the great plague in London, followed a year later by the fire that almost destroyed the city. The book is full of high drama and tragedy, religion and politics, science and philosophy. It’s an intellectual raree-show and I soon lost count of the number of balls that Stephenson was juggling with. But great scenes do not, by themselves, make a great book and I found it very hard to struggle to the end (I got there, but I was glad when it was over).

The novel irritates on several levels. Despite its enormous length, and despite the fact that it is stuffed (perhaps over stuffed) with incident, it appears to have no plot and no resolution. Stephenson has obviously immersed himself in the history of the period and I think he has shared every single item that his research threw up (and I use that term advisedly) with us. The book is stuffed with minutiae and infodumps (which largely accounts for its 927 pages of course). Perhaps the next two volumes will turn it into a story – but I doubt it. Stephenson is a notoriously bad plotter and seldom brings any of his books to a satisfactory end.

The characters never sound like seventeenth century people – they speak to each other in twentieth century American voices. I don’t object to this too much (dialogue that was true to the times would make this difficult to read book even harder to come to terms with) – but I strongly object to the fact that his British characters all sound American. I also find it extremely irritating that one particular character keeps referring to the King of France as "Leroy" – he extracts this nickname from the French words for "The King" - Le Roi – and this proves that either Stephenson has never heard Le Roi pronounced, or he has heard it pronounced but he has a tin ear. Either way he reveals himself to be an ignoramus. This same character also keeps referring to the British King Charles as "Chuck", and again Stephenson reveals the awesome depths of his ignorance. No (British) English speaker would ever use Chuck as a diminutive of Charles. They might say Chas – but given that they are referring to the King, I doubt it.

But of course Stephenson is demonstrably not an ignoramus and for every solecism and anachronism there is a brilliant scene to contrast it with, an insight that takes the breath away, a view of history that just feels right. (And there’s Qwghlm as well. Who can hate a novel with Qwghlm in it?).

Stephenson has taken the whole history of modern Europe (and by implication the modern world) as his theme. Marx to the contrary, there are epochal moments and people of importance. History is not just a vast, impersonal force. People matter and some have a huge effect. Stephenson knows this and is struggling (sometimes incoherently) to show us this. Quicksilver is a huge curate’s egg. Sometimes the smelly bits threaten to overwhelm the good parts. He keeps his authorial head above water (just). I’ll reserve final judgment until the whole trilogy is available – he may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat.

And so we are left with a rollicking roller-coaster ride, full of sound and fury. The jury is still discussing its significance.

With Singularity Sky Charles Stross, despite being an avowed disciple of Vernor Vinge, proves quite conclusively that Vinge is an intellectual lightweight.

Vinge and his disciples believe in something they call "the singularity". They claim that the human race is approaching an intellectual crisis. Artificial Intelligences are reaching a state that will leave us behind, lost and gasping, as the new intelligences grapple with concepts that are forever denied to us because their way of thinking is so foreign to us. The old models are thrown away and a new reality rules. The forces of change (both technological and societal) may come to be measured in hours if current exponential growth rates are any indicator. Neither we nor our current society will be able to cope with such rapidity of change and thinking. Therefore, says Vinge, contemporary pre-singularity fiction cannot be set after the singularity for it is literally unimaginable. And after the singularity has occurred it won’t be possible to write science fiction any more. Indeed it may not even be possible to write any meaningful fiction at all because meaning will no longer be comprehensible in terms of the post-singularity world, whether it be us looking at them or them looking at us. The singularity is a great apocalyptic divide.

Stross proves that the whole notion is ridiculous. Singularity Sky is set long after the crisis of the singularity. But it is all perfectly comprehensible. Yah, boo, sucks!

In the twenty first century, a faster than light drive was discovered and the singularity was ushered in by the AI known as the Eschaton. Four hundred years later, a remote colony which calls itself the New Republic, is attacked by an information plague known as the Festival. The colony has attempted to isolate itself from the Eschaton. The influence of the Festival causes huge turmoil. But a battle fleet has been despatched from Earth to help.

There are wheels within wheels. The wheelers and dealers in the fleet and in the colony have a myriad hidden agendas, and the Eschaton is not indifferent to the outcome.

It’s a great, rollicking, paranoid tour de force. I don’t see how anyone can ever take Vinge seriously again.

I think Terry Pratchett wrote Monstrous Regiment while his mind was on other things. It never really takes off and the jokes aren’t funny.

Polly Perks cuts her hair, dresses in trousers and joins the army. That’s it really – that’s the gimmick. And Pratchett ruthlessly wrings it dry of any trace of humour it may once have had in utterly predictable ways.

And also, the book is About Something. Almost every paragraph sledgehammers home a message. It is an incredibly unsubtle book about the futility of war and the stupidity of the military mind, all wrapped up in some not very funny set pieces straight out of the stock cupboard.

It’s Discworld-by-numbers. Boring, boring, boring. Dull, dull, dull. And those of us who are aware of the derivation of the phrase ‘monstrous regiment’ will not find the surprise ending at all surprising.

OK – I’m a geek. I’ve got a certificate to prove it. Next time you meet me, ask me about my RHCE and I’ll make your eyes glaze over with terminal (ho, ho) boredom. Like a Dalek, I’ll xterm-inate you. I can type awk, sed and grep. And I know what they mean. And so The Art of UNIX Programming was a book I simply had to have in my library.

It’s a companion piece to Mike Gancarz’s The UNIX Philosophy and it covers much of the same ground. But the two are complementary (twos complement, geddit?). Raymond’s book perhaps goes deeper, though Gancarz is broader.

I’ve always maintained that programming is an art and not a science. It is creative in the same way that painting a picture or writing a poem is creative. It cannot be tied down to a prescriptive formula (though goodness knows many people have tried to tie it down; they failed, one and all).

Raymond discourses on the philosophy, design patterns, tools, culture, traditions and quirky world-views of the people who designed the UNIX operating system and explains just why it is such a joy, a pleasure (and a privilege) to write UNIX programs. No other environment has ever been so productive, so exciting, so much sheer fun.

UNIX was born in the late 1960s and it grew up in the 1970s. It reflects the philosophy of the times. One major variant of UNIX was developed at the University of California, the Berkeley campus and it is known as BSD UNIX (the letters stand for Berkeley Software Distribution). The saying goes that two amazing things came out of Berkeley in the 1970s. BSD and LSD. And it isn’t a coincidence.

There’s something extremely Zen about UNIX and Raymond makes this very clear – Appendix D – The UNIX Koans of Master Foo encapsulates this beautifully. It’s enlightening.

People look at me strangely when I equate mysticism with programming, but I can see the relationship very clearly even if I can’t explain it fully. Raymond can explain it; that’s why this book is so incredibly good, so incredibly clever.

Art needs people who can explain it. Those of us who feel it inside sometimes can’t find the words to express the feelings. We need people like Eric Raymond, and we need great books like this one.

And besides – it’s also screamingly funny. Don’t read it in public. People will give you odd looks as you snort and snigger.

The Collected Martin Millar is a compendium of three novels. The Good Fairies of New York is the longest and most elaborate. Heather and Morag, thistle fairies, overdose on whisky and magic mushrooms and end up in New York, extremely hung over, in the apartment of a down and out busker called Dinnie who is the worst violinist in the world. Several of their fairy friends who were also at the party find themselves lost in Central Park and soon get into trouble with the Negro fairies and the Chinese fairies and the Italian fairies.

Heather and Morag each consider themselves to be the best violinist in the world and they constantly feud with each other. The fact that they both belong to rival Scottish clans only adds fuel to the flame. Dinnie’s playing hurts their ears.

Kerry, who lives across the street from Dinnie, is making a flower alphabet. This is bound to win the East 4th Street Community Arts Association Prize and will therefore be a powerful weapon against Cal who has reneged on his promise to teach her every guitar solo by the New York Dolls.

The ghost of Johnny Thunders (late guitarist of the New York Dolls) comes down from heaven in search of his old 1958 Gibson Tiger Top guitar.

The fairy King of Cornwall is becoming somewhat of an industrialist and a small band of revolutionary guerrilla fairies are trying to sabotage his efforts.

Somehow Millar tangles all these disparate plot threads together, brings them to a logical and very satisfactory conclusion, has a lot of fun with fairy jokes along the way and has quite a serious subtext concerned with lack of privilege, disenfranchisement and the miseries of Crohn’s disease.

The second novel, Ruby and the Stone Age Diet, concerns Ruby and her flat mate. They live a precarious life in various squats. The unnamed narrator is in love with Cis, but she has rejected him. However he has an Aphrodite Cactus and he is sure that when it flowers, she will come back to him. He drifts in and out of casual employment and the dole. He does a lot of drugs and he has a cosy relationship with the various Gods of the people who live in squats. He is marooned on an alien planet with only an uncooperative robot for company. Ruby doesn’t think much of that story. Ruby has arguments with her boy friend Domino and she is writing a novel about Cynthia the werewolf.

By turns aimless and sad, funny and grim, this is a novel of life in the slow lane, a story about the absurdities of life on the giro. It is painfully observed; full of light and laughter shot through with drugs and darkness.

The last novel in the collection is Lux the Poet. The eponymous poet likes nothing better in life than declaiming his poems to people. He’s been doing it for thousands of years through untold incarnations and he is very good at it. Currently he is a punk who spikes his hair with KY jelly and sugar, much to the chagrin of his gay flat mates who can’t screw because Lux has used all the lubricant.

Kalia has been exiled from heaven. She was framed in a celestial coup that went wrong and she won’t be allowed back until she has done a million good deeds. She’ll need a lot of incarnations to manage that, particularly since her enemies in heaven have sent down an agent to sabotage her.

Kalia first meets Lux in ancient Athens in 420BC. He was always hanging around the theatre trying to get his poems and plays published. He never succeeded. Aristophanes had it all sewn up.

The action of the novel takes place during the race riots in Brixton. Lux finds the TV cameras an irresistible attraction and tries to declaim poetry in front of them. The camera crews are not impressed. Riots are more interesting than poetry (though Lux finds this attitude hard to understand).

Violence swirls around Lux, though he pays it little attention. He can’t understand why he has to die for something he wasn’t involved in.

Oddly for a Martin Millar book, Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving involves no fantasy elements at all. Perhaps that adds to its strength. It is a (reasonably) realistic novel about Elfish, a down and out in Brixton, Millar’s old stamping ground. Elfish rarely eats and never washes. She lives on beer, whisky, sex and ecstasy. She wants to front a rock band and she wants to call it Queen Mab. Unfortunately her ex-boyfriend Mo also wants to call his band Queen Mab.

Inspired by her brother Aran (who is programming the world’s most boring computer game while simultaneously suffering from depression and trying to complete his cigarette card collection by smoking too much), Elfish gets Mo to agree that on the night of the gig she will declaim the ‘Queen Mab’ speech from Romeo and Juliet, thus giving herself title to the name. Mo is certain she will never be able to get herself together enough to learn the speech, and he agrees.

There’s nothing for it – she’ll have to lie, cheat, steal and screw her way to the name Queen Mab. Fortunately Elfish is very good at lying, cheating, stealing and screwing. That’s why nobody likes her. Mind you – she’s a champion stage diver!

Elfish has no redeeming features whatsoever. She smells, she’s crusted with crap, she lies to everybody, she is utterly without a conscience and she hates cats. Nevertheless Millar somehow manages to make her attractive (don’t ask me how; I don’t know) and I spent the whole book hoping she would succeed in her quest for the name of Queen Mab. Does she succeed? Read the book and find out. And squirm a lot.

Martin Millar is a superbly good novelist, and these are superbly good novels.

Sparkle Hayter is well known for her light hearted detective novels. With Naked Brunch she tackles a more science fictional theme. Annie Engel is a secretary in a mega-corporation by day and once a month, on the night of the full moon, she transforms into a werewolf. As a human she is a vegetarian but as a werewolf she smells out the souls of the corrupt and kills and sometimes eats them.

There are many lovely comic moments. Since Annie is a vegetarian, she tends to feel rather sick when she wakes up in her human form with a tummy full of meat from her werewolf kills. Often she throws up. On one occasion she is horrified to see what looks like an eyeball slither down the drain. She resolves not to kill again. She covers the bed with saran wrap so that she can safely pee on it, and then ties herself to the bed so as to be unable to escape when she becomes a wolf. No sooner has she immobilised herself than her landlord and a plumber enter her apartment. The drains are blocked and they need to investigate the pipes in her room. Bemused though they are by her seemingly solitary sex games ("My boyfriend just went out to the shops, he’ll be back soon."), they concentrate on the business in hand and unblock the pipe. Something that looks like an eyeball is pushed to freedom and the water runs free again. Must have been a marble. How could it have got there?

This is a vastly entertaining and hugely funny book, though the message is rather too overt for my taste. Werewolves can smell corruption; werewolves are keeping the city clean. Lots of black and white there, not a lot of grey.

But nevertheless, Sparkle Hayter has thought out her plot rigorously and cleverly, and the incidental bits of business are superb. Close your mind to the hammer blows of the subtext and just enjoy the jokes.

Shadows Over Baker Street mixes two worlds together. It is an anthology of short stories about Sherlock Holmes, but all the stories involve Holmes in conflict with beings from the world of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. What a magnificent conceit! If you love Sherlock Holmes and you love H. P. Lovecraft, then this is the book for you. (But if you are indifferent to either, then I suggest you ignore it).

On the other hand, My Sherlock Holmes, edited by Michael Kurland, is much less successful. These Holmes stories are narrated by many of the characters from the Holmes canon (but excluding Dr Watson himself). There is a story told by Mrs Hudson, a story told by Mycroft, a story told by Sebastian Moran, a story told by Moriarty.

"Moriarty! Pass the finger bowl!"

"Here you are."

"You swine! You’ve eaten them all!"

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist. Spike Milligan wrote all the best jokes in the world.

The reason that the stories in this collection fail so badly is that many of them ignore Holmes’ salient characteristics. The fascination of the Holmes stories was Sherlock’s ability to deduce vast, complicated plots from minimal clues which he coupled with his own huge store of esoteric knowledge. Remove this ability, this character trait, and Holmes is just another private eye, just another cardboard cut out. And mainly, the stories do remove this trait and Holmes becomes dull as a result. The stories do not remain true to the character and so they suffer.

However in Shadows Over Baker Street, despite the much more esoteric nature of the cases that Holmes investigates, we never lose sight of his true nature. Holmes investigates in the traditional way and never forgets his dictum that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And improbable though Cthulhu may be, he’s what remains. Enjoy him.

Mary Roach likes to look at dead bodies. Stiffs is a study of the details of death, a study of what happens to cadavers, a discourse on decay. The book tells the story of 2000 years of death. She describes experiments to measure the weight of the soul, and how to test the efficiency of the guillotine. She tells us in detail about all the ways that dead bodies come apart in car crash experiments. She tells us about the grotesqueries that happen to the corpses of people who donate their bodies for medical research. The book opens with a description of a team of plastic surgeons refining their techniques on a room full of severed heads sitting in what look for all the world like roasting trays. She interviews the lady who cuts the heads from the bodies. After that it gets macabre.

Gorgeous grue! I loved it.

Alexander McCall Smith is a genius. Tears of the Giraffe is the second volume of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Precious Ramotswe certainly has her work cut out for her this time. She has been hired to investigate the disappearance of an American student on the edge of the Kalahari desert ten years ago. She has other, more immediate worries as well. Her secretary, the invaluable Mma Makutsi wants to be promoted to detective. Precious gives her some small cases and is extremely pleased, not to say surprised, at how well she does. One of the small cases turns out to be a big one, but Mma Makutsi copes brilliantly.

Meanwhile, Precious is having a little trouble with her fiancée Mr J. L. B. Matakoni, the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. His maid does not want him to marry Mma Ramotswe for she will lose her job if he does. She hatches a fiendish plot to protect herself (but naturally it all goes wrong and Precious Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matakoni triumph). More worrying is the fact that Mr J. L. B. Matakoni appears to have acquired two children overnight. Most odd! How will Precious resolve this, and all the other, mysteries?

Needless to say she succeeds and everything is brought to a highly satisfactory conclusion. Will they all live happily ever after? I doubt it – there are currently three more books in the series, with more on the way.

Heavenly Date is a collection of short stories about love, perverse couplings and romantic encounters. It is quirky, weird and witty. And often very dark, despite the levity. Love is hilarious to the outside world, but serious to the lovers. Smith recognises this incongruity and highlights it unmercifully. At one and the same time, the stories are light, airy and tragic. You’ll weep as you laugh. That’s artistry, baby.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs are collections of short stories concerning one Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld, a linguist and proud author of the dullest tome ever to grace the linguistic library shelves. I refer of course to his monumental study Portuguese Irregular Verbs.

The first collection is a little uneven, almost amateurish in its construction. Smith seems unhappy with the short story form and each peters out to an unsatisfying end with little resolved and the situations still up in the air. The character of Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld is beautifully drawn – Smith has a positive genius for sketching in the dry academic, the dull (and somewhat naïve) scholar, the obsessive linguist. But the stories never really take off.

However The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs is something else again. Here Smith is fully in control. Each story is a little polished gem. There is a unifying theme (which again was lacking in Portuguese Irregular Verbs). Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld travels abroad. In the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, because of a curious similarity of names, he is mistaken for a world-renowned veterinarian and must address a conclave of vets on (you guessed it) The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs. Needless to say he succeeds brilliantly and his speech is positively inspired. Flushed with success, he travels to Italy in order to research linguistics in the Vatican library. An irritating old man disturbs the scholastic silence and Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld tells him to shut up. The Pope (for it is he) takes this in good part and they become firm friends. Just as well – the Duke of Johannesburg is up to no good again.

What did I say at the start? Alexander McCall Smith is a genius. Oh yes he is.

Neal Stephenson Quicksilver Morrow
Charles Stross Singularity Sky Ace
Terry Pratchett Monstrous Regiment Doubleday
Eric S. Raymond The Art of UNIX Programming Addison-Wesley
Martin Millar The Collected Martin Millar Fourth Estate
Martin Millar Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving Fourth Estate
Sparkle Hayter Naked Brunch No Exit Press
Michael Reaves and John Pelan (editors) Shadows Over Baker Street Del Rey
Mary Roach Stiffs Penguin/Viking
Alexander McCall Smith Tears of the Giraffe Abacus
Alexander McCall Smith Heavenly Date and other Flirtations Canongate
Alexander McCall Smith Portuguese Irregular Verbs Polygon
Alexander McCall Smith The Finer Points Of Sausage Dogs Polygon
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