Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book reviews: Gentle, Sharpe, Stross & Voltaire

In as far as I'm ever 'off' books, my first and best intoxicant, I've been going through a lean patch recently. Now, the reading bug has returned with a vengeance. Here's a quick digest of my labours.

Charles Stross - Iron Sunrise: I skim-read this as an appetiser for the Fuller Memorandum. It's Stross in hard SF mode this time. If you read one of his books in this vein, I'm afraid it's not Sunrise - the singularity gone wild tale of Accelerando is much better. Instead, what we've got here is just okay. I'm torn between saluting him for his believable adult relationships (I mean, c'mon, this is SF) and berating him for a) failing to make me care about the tragedy at the centre of the book, b) having Nazis in Sppaaaacce as the main villains of the piece and c) one somewhat exploitative and unnecessary scene with his female lead.

Wilt - Tom Sharpe: This came as part of a book-swap deal with a work colleague and co-conspirator. I'd never read any Sharpe despite his reputation as a great comic writer because I'd been put off by the dreadful covers.

Note to publishers: you could sell a lot more of his books by ditching whichever seaside caricaturist you got to do the original artwork. While you're at it, fire Josh Kirby as well.

So how does the reputation compare to the reality? Well, at least fifty percent justified, which is pretty darn good. The sections in particular, where Wilt, wrongly accused of murder, faces down the detective, his accuser, are absurd brilliance, like The Outsider or The Trial replayed as peculiarly English farce. Carry on existentialism, anyone?

On the other hand, the sections with Wilts' wife and the American free-love academics lost on a boat in the fens work only as a tale of a collection of grotesques and the book loses its way a little as a result.

Voltaire - Letters Concerning The English Nation. Part of my informal reading list for the eighteenth century, this is V's love-letter to the English enlightenment. Very interesting for what he has to say about the Quakers, and for a point-by-point demolition of Pascal's Pensees, championing rational enquiry. My head's with Voltaire, but surprisingly my sympathies on this one are with poor, tortured Pascal and his absurd faith in Christianity. But then I didn't like Candide either, so V must be one of those authors who has my admiration but not my allegiance.

Mary Gentle - Left To Her Own Devices: MG is one of those authors who reinforce my half-serious contention that really all the best SF and fantasy authors are women. This is her cyberpunk novella about artificial intelligence, with her two recurring anti-heroes The White Crow and the (deep-breath) Lord-Architect Baltazar Casaubon plucked from their usual seventeenth century and re-placed in a near-future London. And none the worse for it.

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