Book reviews 2018 - #21 through #23

#21 - “Moon Tiger”, Penelope Lively (1987)

This won the Booker Prize when it came out and was shortlisted for the Golden Man Booker Prize in 2018.  I noticed that Lively was ‘in conversation’ somewhere with Anne Enright, probably as part of the PR, and since I think Anne Enright is fab, I thought I’d give 'Moon Tiger' a go.

And I really wish I’d enjoyed it more than I did.  It’s beautifully written, to be sure.  And it’s cleverly constructed, and it has the sort of élan-with-gravitas that major works ought to have.

But the central character…  I just didn’t buy it.  Her.  I didn’t believe her.  I didn’t believe in her.

I didn’t like her, either; but that’s beside the point.  It felt to me as though the character ‘Claudia Hampton’ had been constructed in order to allow Lively to tell the story she wanted to tell: if ‘Claudia Hampton’ had been a fully-developed character, she would still have been appalling, but I’m not sure that this would be (how she would have told) her story.

Now I know that Sarah Perry is quite upfront about designing characters as plot devices, and having had my own attempts at creating fictional characters I have some sympathy with this perspective, but when the entire story is by and about one principal character I think the power of the actual character cannot so easily be squeezed into the service of the writer’s artifice.

Which is how I felt all the way through, sadly: I enjoyed the writing and I admired the cleverness, but I was continuously aware of the conceit.  I just couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief.

#22 - “Best Science Fiction Stories”, ed. Edmund Crispin (1955)

If you’re serious about suspending your disbelief – go sci-fi.

I picked this diminutive collection up in a second-hand bookshop somewhere accidental and it sat in the tsundoku for ages before presenting itself for reading.  There are nine stories, all of which I enjoyed.

Two things were particularly striking.

First, just how science-y the stories were.  It was almost as though the authors were actual scientists.  All the stories were at pains to explain themselves, to make it clear how the science in the story actually worked.  It made me reflect on the time of their writing: the early to mid-1950s.  The dawn of the nuclear age.  The foothills of actual space travel.  The beginning of the shift from the mechanical and visible to the electronic and the invisible. And that’s how the stories felt whilst reading them: as though they were being written by people imbued with the old world but who had visions of the new.

And the second striking thing was the introduction by Edmund Crispin (a man previously unknown to me but who seems to have been a prolific writer and composer in the 1950s).  After explaining a little of what science fiction comprises, he writes:

In the simplest analysis, then, a science fiction story is a straightforward Tale of Wonder, aiming to astonish and awe and delight its readers by recounting prodigies and marvels.”

He goes on to point out that the almost inevitable consequence of such Tales of Wonder is to reduce the apparent significance of human beings in the greater scheme of things: “A genre so insistent on human unimportance ought in theory to be repugnant to human readers, rather than attractive.”  However, “science fiction is a specialised variety of fairy tale, to be sure, but still at bottom a fairy tale for all that, and its basic appeal is consequently the appeal of fairy tales in general.”

Fairy tales play all sorts of valuable roles in human culture, not least that of the cautionary tale: thus Crispin concludes “it is valuable if science fiction reminds us that we are, after all, only very tiny pebbles on a very big beach.”

#23 - “Use of Weapons”, Iain M Banks (1990)

And if you’re serious about sci-fi… you must do Iain M Banks.

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all the Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, a few of them (including this one) more than once.  They are, for me, the perfect escape: whenever I’ve had enough of the poetry and philosophy, of the high-falutin’ literature and the socio-political shenanigans; whenever the news or politics or life in general becomes too much - Banks is my go-to guy.

What sublime fairy tales!  Heroes and villains, space travel and aliens, mind-boggling tech and mad names and crazy characters and awe-inspiring adventures, all imbued with gritty philosophy and cunning humour and a teeming profusion of observation on the human condition.

Among many astonishing things, one of the most astonishing is Banks’ ability to create emotionally accessible entities that are, in our contemporary terms, artificial intelligences.  In 'Use of Weapons', the main such example is Skaffen-Amtiskaw.  (Eh?)  Skaffen-Amtiskaw is a floating drone with a fully developed personality and truly incredible capabilities: it can change shape, it can talk, it can destroy things in nano-seconds, it can tell jokes.  (On the occasion that a leading character is decapitated, rescued and then given a new body, Skaffen-Amtiskaw sends a hat as a Get Well gift.)

This is all obviously ridiculous – and yet. And yet and yet and yet.  Once you’re inside a Culture novel, it all becomes perfectly acceptable.  Banks, a human being, was capable of imagining an artificial intelligence, then writing about it, in such a way that another human being (in this case me) could read it and be completely convinced that this is indeed how an incredibly advanced artificial entity would behave.

This is a miracle.

The miracle works precisely because it’s a fairy tale.  In fairy tales, we have no problem with talking mirrors, pumpkins that turn into coaches or goats butting trolls.

But try writing a fairy tale.  Just a short one.  It’s not easy.   Then multiply the fairy tale to the size of a galaxy, design various pan-galactic civilisations and technologies, imagine the whole thing running for several tens of thousands of years and then find within it a story that’s worth telling.

That’s what Banks did.  Repeatedly.  A total bloody genius.


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