Braiding the parallel rays into a dappled pattern

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

Since its publication in 1992, this book has come to be considered a modern classic. I remember Tim reading it around 12 years ago and loving it – indeed, he still remembers it in remarkable detail. So in my ongoing science-fiction education, this seemed like a natural step.

This book has a fascinating setting that, though complex enough to be slowly revealed over 470 pages, is at heart simple enough to not require masses of exposition at the start. Instead, Stephenson opens with an action-packed sequence that introduces our main character – the aptly named Hiro Protagonist – and his foil, YT.

Hiro is a freelance hacker. His home is a storage unit that he shares with an up-and-coming rock star, a cramped situation that suits him fine because he spends most of his time in the Metaverse anyway – an alternative space that anyone with virtual-reality goggles and what is effectively an Internet connection by another name can plug into. In the Metaverse, your avatar can own property, socialise and explore in the vast space created many years ago by Da5id – superstar hacker and old friend of Hiro’s. In the Metaverse, Hiro is a sword-fighting expert, but in Reality (always written with a capital R) he delivers pizza to pay the bills.

Continue reading “Braiding the parallel rays into a dappled pattern”

Such innocent words to drop like hot cinders

The Ship Who Sang

The Ship Who Sang
by Anne McCaffrey

As with most of my SF reading, this was a recommendation from Tim and it was one of his most successful recommendations, by which I mean I loved it and was happy to learn that it was the first book in a series.

This really felt like it had an original but somehow classic set-up. In a future with commonplace space travel and human settlements on other planets, science has found a fascinating way to help children born with certain birth defects. Those who are born with a body that is useless but a brain that is high-functioning are trained to become encapsulated brains, plugged into one of the Federation of Planets’ specially designed shells, such as a space ship, fully controlling it in every way. Each “brain ship” is partnered with a “brawn” – an able-bodied pilot whose job is not really to fly to ship (though they can, if needed) but to keep the brain company and be their “mobile half” as they run jobs for the Federation across the known universe.

“Shell-people were schooled to examine every aspect of a problem or situation before making a prognosis…Therefore to Helva, the problem that she couldn’t open her mouth to sing, among other restrictions, did not bother her. She would work out a method, by-passing her limitations, whereby she could sing.”

This book had me hooked from page one, and the way it did that is that we learn all of the above by following the brain ship Helva from her birth, through her schooling and transfer to ship 834 and on into her adulthood as a working brain ship. This is essentially an adventure story, one with plenty of heart and a great character at its centre. Helva is, in her own words, “all woman”, despite her useless body, and she has a wry sense of humour that often wrong-foots her passengers, especially those who think the voice speaking to them is that of a mere ship’s computer!

“He directed his bow toward the central pillar where Helva was. Her own personal preference crystallised at that precise moment and for that particular reason: Jennan, alone of the men, had addressed his remarks directly at her physical presence, regardless of the fact that he knew she could pick up his image wherever he was in the ship and regardless of the fact that her body was behind massive metal walls.”

I like that McCaffrey didn’t present the brain ships as ubiquitous and universally accepted. There are many characters who have qualms about this form of genetic engineering, whether that be for ethical reasons or just their own uneasiness about the end result. There are some thorny issues around their service to the Federation, as they do earn money, but this is deducted against their debt resulting from their training and brain ships can take centuries to pay off and earn the freedom to work for other employers.

“Theoda was talking nervously, her eyes restlessly searching over the supplies in the galley cupboards…’Do you enjoy your work? It must be a tremendous satisfaction.’
Such innocent words to drop like hot cinders on Helva…Rapidly Helva began to talk, anything to keep herself from being subjected to another such unpredictably rasping civility.”

The novel is very much episodic, which makes sense as five of the six chapters were originally published as short stories, but there’s still a through storyline that makes it work as a novel. In fact I’m curious how much was changed from those original stories, because if anything it flows too well as a novel for those stories to have properly stood alone. Perhaps I’ll have to hunt them out and see!

I loved Helva and was completely emotionally involved in her story. I really liked McCaffrey’s style of writing and fully intend to search out more of it.

First published 1969 by Rapp & Whiting. (Selected sections previously published 1961–1969 in various publications.)

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

Summer reads in brief

Sneaking this in while the weather’s warm enough to pretend that it’s still summer, even if it is September. Thunderstorms are summery, right?

Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors
by Neil Gaiman

This is a truly eclectic short story collection. There are tales told in poetry, in screenplay format, in one page or 30 pages. There’s comedy, reality, fantasy, science fiction, erotica; sometimes all five at once. There were stories that stunned me (“Changes”, “Babycakes”), stories that I loved unreservedly (“The wedding present”, “The goldfish pool and other stories”) and stories that were less lovable but perhaps more surprising in their inventiveness. There were stories that felt like familiar Gaiman fare, such as the stray cat that fights every night to protect its adopted family (“The price”) or a retelling of “Snow White” from the perspective of the stepmother (“Snow, glass, apples”), but there were also stories that felt very far from my previous experience of Gaiman and it gave me new love for the man discovering his wider talents.

“Memory is the great deceiver. Perhaps there are some individuals whose memories act like tape recordings, daily records of their lives complete in every detail, but I am not one of them. My memory is a patchwork of occurrences, of discontinuous events roughly sewn together: The parts I remember, I remember precisely, whilst other sections seem to have vanished completely.”

First published 1999 by Headline.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

A Stainless Steel Rat is Born
by Harry Harrison

A month or so ago, I had just read two very serious books indeed and badly needed some light-hearted fun, so Tim recommended this by his favourite writer. It’s a boyish adventure – it’s in the future, in space. The young main character, Jim diGriz, decides that he is going to be a master criminal. This creates many a situation where he has to survive on his wits and make use of his slightly unbelievable level of skill at everything. Only once or twice is he caught out by the naivety of youth, which makes him a tad irritating. However, the book is touching in the right moments and thrilling in the right moments. So overall, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Published 1985 by Random House.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous
by Dawn French

This was another fun romp, although about as different from the Stainless Steel Rat as you could get. Though I dislike the term, this is solidly chick lit: it’s funny (as you might expect from Dawn French), easy and quick to read but not particularly deep or moving. It’s the story of a nuclear family – mum, dad and two teenage children. It didn’t help that I disliked most of the characters. Mo (the mother) is cold. Dora (the daughter) is the epitome of brat. Peter/Oscar (the son) is a complete drama queen, but it’s nice that there’s a gay character where it’s not a big deal to anyone that he’s gay. And the dad, well he’s barely a character at all. A plot twist near the end is fairly unbelievable. However, before that point it’s mostly pretty believable, and readable despite some irritating turns of phrase.

Published 2010 by Penguin.

Source: Bought secondhand from a charity shop.

An infinite sadness took hold of him

Dan Yack

Dan Yack
by Blaise Cendrars
translated from French by Nina Rootes

Probably the most serendipitous book find of my life was in the Oxford branch of Blackwells Bookshop about eight years ago. From their bargain bins I randomly picked up a book I had never heard of by an author I had never heard of and I completely loved it; in fact it’s one of my top three or four books ever. That book was The Confessions of Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars, which is actually the second book about Dan Yack, so for years I had been intending to read this earlier novel but somehow it just sat there on the TBR.

This is a stunning piece of writing. If everything was written this way I would probably find it frustrating but in this case it works. It blends the poetic and the banal, even baseness. A couple of pages might include high adventure, stream of consciousness, erotica, boredom, detailed descriptions of settings and switch between multiple points of view.

“The Neva flowed past at eye-level. The rushing current swept the timber-barges down at full speed; crouched and menacing, they ploughed through the close-packed waves that were ruffled up the wrong way by the harsh wind of dawn. Sudden shivers rippled the wet fur of the river as it stretched itself nervously and arched its back.”

In its 130 pages we follow multi-millionaire playboy Dan Yack from St Petersburg to Liverpool to the Antarctic to Chile. Yack is an eccentric and initially appears frivolous and unthinking but gradually reveals both good business sense and a good heart. However, I never did completely warm to him – the combination of seal hunting and his never having read a book didn’t exactly make him my ideal hero – but I was certainly intrigued.

“Dan Yack suddenly fell silent. He felt uneasy again. His legs sagged. He was overwhelmed by fatigue. An infinite sadness took hold of him, drained him, blew him up again, oppressed him.”

I suppose you might call this a Modernist take on the adventure novel. The bulk of the story centres around Yack deciding to treat his heartbreak by spending a winter in the Antarctic. On a whim he invites three impoverished artists he meets at the end of a long drunken night of debauchery to join him.

I suppose one of the attractions for me of this book was the Antarctic setting. Cendrars ran away to sea as a teenager so he was almost certainly writing from true experience of the endless days turning into endless nights. Certainly that section had many of the same details and much of the same unease, even terror, of other books I have read with an Antarctic setting.

“Nine times out of ten, the weather was overcast, but when it was not, the night outside was like a fairyland. The icy cold was always intoxicating…sometimes, there is an austral dawn that shakes out its crackling draperies at the level of the ice; it is yellow, green, shot with fugitive gleams and punch-flames.”

The storyline is incredible, in a literal sense, but that’s almost beside the point. Cendrars unveils the human psyche, the revelation is what truly matters to Yack, not what happens to him. But while that sounds terribly serious, the book is actually a lot of fun, with an odd sense of humour, or at least a sense of the ridiculous.

“Deene had to wait a while before he could get a word in because a little nasal phonograph was filling the narrow cabin with a young, charmingly artificial female voice. Dan Yack swore it was a buxom little blonde, wiggling her hips as she sang…
‘Sir,’ the captain began determinedly, ‘I—’
‘Wait,’ said Dan Yack, ‘let me change the cylinder. It’s amazing…Can you see the old tart who’s singing now, Captain?…The sweat’s rolling down from under her ridiculous wig…She’s wearing thick blue stockings with garters at the knee, I adore that! What a marvellous invention!…Wait a minute, I’m going to have you listen to the cries of a sea-lion that’s having its throat cut.'”

While Modernist, this is certainly not an especially modern story. It is full of sexism and racism, not to mention the hunting (Yack’s family fortune is largely based on whale hunting). And yet I loved it. I was utterly spellbound. Huge credit must go to the translator here because every sentence was perfect. I quickly gave up picking out quotes because every line is quotable.

“Outside the storm raged. A sheet of corrugated iron was ripped from the roof. Then a pile of barrels came crashing against the door. The wind besieged the house.
It raged for many days and nights.
The first blizzard.
A white-out.

Apparently Cendrars was one of the founders of, the pioneers, of Modernism and it seems a shame that he is not read widely. I seriously must not wait another eight years to pick up the other Cendrars title on my TBR.

First published 1927 by Editions Denoël. This translation published 1987 by Peter Owen.

Source: I bought this secondhand, probably via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge and the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

The serious side of fluff

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
by Helen Fielding

This is a bit of a mishmash of a novel, combining hapless heroine, chicklit, rollicking adventure and post-9/11 paranoia. It doesn’t entirely work.

Olivia Joules is a freelance journalist with an awful lot in common with Fielding’s more famous creation, Bridget Jones – she’s man-obsessed, convinced she’s made for greater things than the job she’s doing and gives her imagination free rein without applying common sense – but Joules has a darker past and, when pushed, turns out to be a lot more capable. By the end of the book she’s a strong heroine but it takes her a while to get there.

The story is far-fetched and heavily influenced by 9/11. Possibly too much so. Joules is sent to Miami to cover an inane story for the Sunday Times’ Style magazine where she meets a man she’s convinced is up to no good on a global scale, with her usual ability to add 2 and 2 and make 7. However, this time there are an awful lot of coincidences that appear to suggest that her hunch was right.

Fielding’s style is very readable and Joules is likeable enough, but she still has too much Bridget Jones in her to be an interesting original creation. She makes lists. She jumps to conclusions from people’s initial appearances. It’s like Fielding started creating a much more interesting, strong character, but then held back. And threw in an awful lot of prejudiced nonsense to boot. Racially, mostly (I can’t explain that without giving away spoilers but if you read it you’ll see what I mean), but also against geeks/techies. In addition, she seems to be trying to write satirically and failing.

There’s a lot about this story that’s hard to believe, and I suppose to enjoy it you need to switch off from thinking that way, but I just couldn’t. I freely admit that I loved Bridget Jones’ Diary when I read it back in 1996, but I was a lot younger then and I think my tastes have changed somewhat.

Published 2003 by Picador.

UPDATE: See also this review by Judith of Leeswammes.

Lonely reflections

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and other stories
by Ernest Hemingway

This set of short stories starts with the sad and beautiful ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, a brilliant piece of writing, but for me the rest of the collection didn’t live up to its beginnings. This was a real shame after I recently read and enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea and looked forward to delving into more of Hemingway’s work.

‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ is about Harry and his lover Helen, camped out near Kilimanjaro, waiting for Harry to either die or be rescued after his leg had been badly injured. Harry passes in and out of consciousness, tries to hide his pain from Helen and tries to help her to accept that he’s going to die. He is also cruel to her, making it clear that the best part of his life had passed before he met her, picking fights and refusing to say that he loves her. It’s a painfully evocative bit of writing, intense and yet strangely peaceful.

The other stories were more varied in terms of whether they touched me. They are brief snapshots rather than whole stories, with some recurring characters, especially a man called Nick. The format is always the same: lonely man gets on with life, always an outcast in some way, often because of war. The introduction to each story is a seemingly unrelated snippet, generally much more violent than the main story. The themes of these are war and bullfighting.

The general mood is contemplative. The moments of action are brief flickers between longer scenes of loneliness, restlessness, thoughtfulness. Descriptions are very evocative and detailed. However, sometimes the lack of action or passion is just plain tedious.

The stories work together inasmuch as Harry, hero of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, frequently lapses into reminisces about his life – adventures he’s had, moments that stand out – and the rest of the stories could almost be more of his reminisces, if only the heroes were all called Harry.

Overall, though, after the first story I struggled to remain interested and am now a little put off reading the rest of my Hemingway boxset.

First published in Great Britain in The Fifth Column and The First Forty-Nine by Jonathan Cape, 1939.

Don’t open that door

by Neil Gaiman

This is one of that excellent trend of children’s books that don’t shy away from being scary or gruesome because, well, children like that kind of thing. I did. Far more so than I do now.

Coraline is a young girl who moves, with her parents, to a flat in a big old house one summer. Her parents rarely have time to spend with her and as the long holiday drags on she gets increasingly bored of rainy days with nothing to do and starts exploring the house and grounds until the only thing left is whatever’s behind the mysterious door in the drawing room. Despite cryptic warnings from the neighbours, Coraline finds a way to unlock the door and her ghostly adventures in a strange new world begin.

The story is excellent and the characters brilliant, either ghoulish or eccentric apart from Coraline herself, in that slightly exaggerated manner that makes sense in children’s books. The other world is cleverly imagined, starting off as a bright, attractive place and gradually becoming stranger and scarier. Coraline is a strong heroine who learns to appreciate her slightly absent parents and to solve problems for herself. The language is very simple, in fact possibly simpler than is strictly necessary. It reads like a children’s book and as an adult I found the language a little offputting. Clearly I am not the target audience but I do think perhaps Gaiman has tried too hard to distinguish this from his more adult fiction.

However, I did enjoy it. I genuinely flinched at the scarier moments and laughed out loud at some lines. I loved the downstairs neighbours, two retired actresses whose talk of treading the boards and famous Shakespeare quotes make no sense to Coraline but might to a well read (or read to) child. The main villain is chilling and original and described well enough to picture – the illustrations by Dave McKean help, of course. I would not hesitate to recommend this for a child but not necessarily to an adult.

First published 2002 by Bloomsbury.

A thing of beauty

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

I bought this book the day it came out. I never do that, but I have loved all of Mitchell’s previous books so I went to Waterstones and walked home with it, lovingly stroking the exquisitely designed cover. I started reading it that night. And yet here we are months later and I’ve only just finished. So what happened?

Well, first of all, this is a beautiful book. Physically beautiful, I mean. So I didn’t want to carry it around with me and risk damaging it. The hardback is clothbound, illustrated with a picture of Japan, highlighted in blue glitter. The endpapers continue the theme, with Japanese-style artwork in blue and white.

And it’s definitely well written. Mitchell weaves a spellbinding story, with a huge cast and what I think – though I’m not certain about this – is some serious attention to historical detail. When you get caught up in a big, complex plot it’s easy to not notice the writing but Mitchell’s writing is as excellent as ever. But it did take me a while to get into.

This isn’t a book to read for 5 minutes here and there, with another book in your handbag and a third one at work, which is what I tried doing. The opening section is set at sea and between the 18th century seafaring vernacular and large cast I struggled a bit. I even put it down for a few weeks at one point. Once the action moved to the book’s main location – Dejima – I settled in and found myself hooked.

The setting is fascinating, historically and geographically – the Japanese port of Dejima, near Nagasaki, in 1799. At that time it was the location of isolationist Japan’s only link to the west – a trade post of the Dutch East Indies Company. Dejima is almost an island, separated from mainland Japan by a well guarded gate that Dutch visitors may only pass through with special permission, which is rarely granted. Dejima is occupied year-round by a handful of employees of the Dutch East Indies Company, charged with keeping the Dutch warehouses and their goods safe between trading seasons.

The book’s hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a clerk who has reluctantly agreed to come to Japan to earn enough money and raise his social standing enough to marry the woman he loves, Anna. He has a five-year contract with the Dutch East Indies Company and must spend those five years in Dejima, stranded between trading seasons with the limited European staff and their liaison with Japan – the official translators.

Much of the detail of this book – and the humour – derives from the cultural and linguistic divisions between the characters. Mitchell does a fantastic job of the scenes where two or three languages are being spoken, none of them English, and you know who is speaking which language and who understands which parts of the conversation. It’s masterful, I think.

There’s a lot of mistrust and resentment between the different races depicted but there’s also sharing of knowledge. One of my favourite characters, Dr Marinus, is a Dutchman who has settled on Dejima and trains Japanese apprentices in the art and science of “Dutch medicine”. The Dutch tradeship brings him new European textbooks every year, which he studies and shares through the translators. He attends meetings of Japanese scholars where the men debate scientific progress, philosophy and politics, including the wisdom of Japan remaining isolationist. I loved these scenes and would have liked more of them.

This large book encompasses many things – there’s humorous stories of daily life, the personal and public ups and downs of Jacob de Zoet, philosophical discussion, great adventures and mysterious evildoers (particularly in the middle section in which Jacob hardly appears), and also romance. Jacob is certainly in love with his Anna but there is also a young Japanese midwife who catches his eye, making him question his allegiances.

I’m glad I persevered with this book because it became something quite extraordinary. It is as exotic, remarkable and rich in detail as its beautiful cover suggests.

For an alternative viewpoint, check out these reviews by Leeswammes and Farm Lane Books.

Published 2010 by Sceptre.
ISBN 978-0-3409-2156-2