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Ian R Macleod

What I'm Reading

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Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

791galileoNot sure if this work signals the end of SF, but, for all its many qualities, it doesn’t exactly show a bright way forward. The historical account of Galileo’s life stands up so well on its own that it’s hard not to imagine either Robinson himself or his publishers toying with the idea of dropping the SF part entirely. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say that the great astronomer is given glimpses of a far future human culture, which thus also involves an overview of all of subsequent history and science. This raises so many issues and questions, it’s hard to know where to begin. Add to this the lack of any proper sense of a believable culture, environment or characters in this future world, not to mention a noticeable drop in the quality of Robinson’s writing, and you’d imagine you’d have a recipe for a pretty turgid 600 odd page read. But not at all — the fine descriptions of Renaissance life and Galileo’s struggles with the church which dominate the book, along with the sense Robinson conveys of the man’s irrepressible humanity, make most of this work a thrillingly entertaining and stimulating read, whilst the SF sections feel more like sitting through the adverts whilst watching a good film of television. So don’t be put off; do read this book. Or, at least, two thirds of it. And there is always, of course, fast forward…

 
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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf_HallThis was recommended to me by a shadowy figure (i.e. - I’ve forgotten who it was) as a piece of historical fiction with strong elements of fantasy. As Hilary Mantel is a writer I’ve never read, which for me is always a good reason for trying anything, I decided to give Wolf Hall a go. The Booker Prize winning business was a bit of downside, to be honest, as in my experience, books which actually win awards rather that simply being short listed are generally disappointing. Of course, I exclude my own works from this…!

Anyway, and after some early “scenes from childhood” which are mostly atmosphere and not much exposition, this long book held me enjoyably gripped. Even though the whole “another novel about Henry VIII” thing might seem about the last thing even a good writer could wring some new angles from, Mantel succeeds triumphantly. Thomas Cromwell emerges as deeply convincing figure, in part threatening, in part man of his time, and in part a universal expression of our need to make the best of the strange workings of the human soul. Things move at an appropriately stately pace, but a sense of danger always lies just beneath the courtly surface, and even the worst characters have their redeeming features, whilst even the best often behave stupidly or selfishly. In other words, you feel that you are experiencing something real.

Yet the mention of fantasy in terms of this book is entirely appropriate. Any readers who enjoy George R R Martin’s big fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice, for example, will find many parallels here. In fact, they will see in the machinations of a Renaissance court almost all of the tropes which the better and more aware writers of high fantasy use. But I have to say that this is a far better work than, say, Martin’s A Game of Thrones. This isn’t, perish the thought, because one book is about something “real” and the other isn’t. Good a writer though Martin is, Mantel simply gets deeper into her characters and has a fresher use of language. A real Thomas Cromwell once existed, but all worlds in all books are the writer’s creation, and I’m grateful to the shadowy figure who pointed me in the direction of Mantel’s compelling vision.

 
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Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem 

chronic_cityI have my uber-website designer and keeper-upper Jim Goddard to thank for this book, although Lethem has been a writer I’ve long followed. What most struck me reading this instalment of Lethem was a sense, which I guess has occurred to me before, that you’re really tapping back in to a continually unfolding piece of writing, rather than an entirely new statement. As usual with his recent work, ideas and themes rise and fall in a way which is both pretty loose but also impressively organic. Lethem shares my admiration for Fripp and Eno’s seminal ambient work No Pussyfooting, and the effect, at its best, can be said to be somewhat the same.
The main character’s astronaut girlfriend may (or may not) be stuck up in orbit without hope of return; indeed, she may or may not be his girlfriend. Some phenomena which may (or may not) be a tiger, or perhaps a tunnel-drilling mole, surfaces and resurfaces. As does the idea that Marlon Brando may (or may not) be dead. And so it goes. You get the idea…?
All of this is appealing to a degree, and Lethem’s writing is a thing of exceptional grace and poise, but if you’re looking for earthiness or clear plotting you’d be better off going elsewhere — also, it has to be said, if you like characters with whom your feelings and sympathies can be involved. There’s a very strong sense of place, however, and of what I suppose you might call a certain kind of New York. White, well-off people go to parties and glimpse minor celebrities and talk in clever ways and eat exotic and complicated food. Funnily, though, the main character somehow kept reminding me of the guy Hugh Grant plays in the film version of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy. If you recall, he doesn’t have to work because he’s rich enough from the money he makes from the royalties of the Christmas song his father wrote – ‘Santa’s Super Sleigh.’ Lethem’s main character is in a similar position from his royalties as a child actor, and the idea raises similar “what exactly is this person for?” questions, which, without Hugh Grant’s charm and Hornby’s stronger sense of plot (and weaker sense of irony) remain, like most things in this book, unresolved.
So, a book to be visited (and maybe re-visited; there’s a hell of a lot of stuff swishing oh-so-subtly around) and enjoyed. But all in all there is for me a slight sense that, rather like the characters Lethem is describing, or Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, there’s a danger that he’s disappearing up his own fundament, leaving little behind other than a few elegant contrails amid the skyscrapers and an enigmatic Manhattan smile.

 
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Under the Dome by Stephen King

underdomeI’ve been too long away from What I’m Reading. So long, in fact, that, in this current case and more and more often, it should be called “What I’m Hearing”.
This is a big book even by King’s standards, and I don’t think that I would recommend it in print format to any but his most patient (and uncritical) readers. But I absorbed this huge 900 page wodge as an audio book with almost unadulterated pleasure. The reader, Raul Esparza, does a superb job in bringing out the voices of the many different characters, and displays real glee in immersing himself in King’s ever-muscular and vivid prose. Pouring into your ears as the many hours tick by and you drive or walk or sit on the train or potter in the garden, the looseness and profligacy of King’s invention works particularly well.
The premise is pretty much what it says on the tin. Those of you who have seen the Simpson’s movie need not fear, however, that they are witnessing a re-tread. King is King, and the characters are treated with consideration and depth before they are killed and injured in an impressively gooey variety of ways. Although this book is clearly in part an allegory about modern America and the mess we’re making of this planet, the thing which really comes though for me is King’s continuing fascination with the gulf between the good that people are capable of doing and the bad that also gets done. That, and then the way that bad things just come along and happen anyway. There’s a theme he develops about kids toying with ants and gods toying with humans, but the real cold-eyed monster who has trapped all these scurrying smalltown beings under the dome’s microscope is of course King himself.
So, and after quite a few years which have spanned his late books prior to his “retirement” and the ones since when I’ve avoided him, it’s been a reminder to me of why I’m in awe of King. Page by page, he really is a brilliantly incisive writer. I’m also in awe of his level of output, of course, and his continued willingness to try the seemingly difficult thing. No other writer I can think of, with the possible exception of the now-departed Updike, would even think they could succeed in taking such a crude premise and then saying something serious with it. But, being King, and this is another reason why I’m in awe of him, you know that he’s not going to entirely succeed. The premise is dodgy from the start, and the fact that he manages to sustain it at all despite failing to inject any real sense into the idea is a reflection of just how persuasive and self-confident a writer he is. But this gung-ho, bash-em-out approach will only get even a writer of this talent so far. As a result, there are plenty of false notes along the way, and the denouement is a predictable mixture of the risible and the brilliant. But, coming into these ears at least, King’s Under the Dome is still an immensely enjoyable mess of a curate’s egg.

 

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