Wednesday, 31 May 2023

Book review: Gaudy night

PXL_20230527_103909564 Wiki says: Gaudy Night (1935) is a mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the tenth featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and the third including Harriet Vane and I have no reason to disbelieve it. I enjoyed it; it is a good book to read in Oxford.

For me, who comes back to Oxford every now and again, the most interesting part was the coming-back-to-Oxford thread. It is well handled and suited my mood, on a weekend when I was back to watch Eights. There are two or three other threads, which is nice in itself, as a multi-thread novel is more complex. But it has to be well-handled; they have to be threads woven together; unlike say Eversion where the threads are largely unlinked.

Wiki quotes Orwell saying "her slickness in writing has blinded many readers to the fact that her stories, considered as detective stories, are very bad ones. They lack the minimum of probability that even a detective story ought to have, and the crime is always committed in a way that is incredibly tortuous and quite uninteresting" and there is a good deal of truth in his words. In this case, about 2/3 of the way through and I was wondering whodunnit, and was struggling to think of any of the characters being interesting enough; in the sense that any of them could have, but it would have been arbitrary. It doesn't help that all of the dons are thinly sketched and rather blur together. In the end (faint spoiler) the guilty party emerges as somewhat distinct from the rest, linked by another thread, but it all turns out to be not really the main point of the book at all; which in another sense is nice.

Other threads - and you can take your pick as to which are the real point - are Women's rights, doubtless exciting at the time and not completely extinguished as a topic even now; the balance between work and life; and the balance between man and women in a relationship.

The latter, though, is examined mostly through the HV-LPW nexus, and since LPW is an idealisation of a caricature little is learnt there.

Perhaps the book would have been better with the crime thread removed entirely.


Book review: The Documents in the Case

Book review: Whose Body?

Saturday, 13 May 2023

Book review: In Ascension

PXL_20230429_115535191 In Ascension by Martin MacInnes: read in Waterstones, initially promising, gets lost about the half way mark. I ended up skipping a lot to get to the end, where I found nothing. I recommend this Goodreads review.

The "backstory" of the central character is unhappy; and she swims, in Rotterdam, or something. But it is all pointless. It reads as though the author knows that sci-fi books often lack "real" characters and so decides to bolt some on. But a whole pile of "character" that is nothing to do with the story is pointless; effectively, it makes two books, unhelpfully shuffled together. But apart from that...

The best bit is the exploratory vessel investigation, and life on ship. This almost reads like the author knows something about it, or has at least talked to people that did. And the weird bits - just how deep is the hole? - kind of work... as long as you don't think: hold on, if the hole really were that deep, that would be like mega-important and the govt would be all over it.

The segue into deep space is odd, in many ways. The mystery space drive... doesn't work. I mean, the way it fits in the story. I think it is implied, or the possibility left implied - its that kind of book - that it might be alien tech; but that doesn't really fit. The decision to grow food on the trip, rather than just bring it, doesn't really make sense either; nor does the "oh it would cheer people up" motivation. And therefore neither does her presence on the ship. It kinda reads like it should have been written by Gwyneth Jones who would have handled it better.

But in the end it is just another exploring the mystery of aliens maybe visiting, and trails off into nothing once it realises it has no idea what to say.

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Book review: Eversion

PXL_20230511_113959899 By Alistair Reynolds. See Goodreads. TL;DR: it's OK but, as with so many books, better if you stop before the end. He does better than many others because you should stop 3/4 or perhaps even 4/5 of the way through.

As always, spoilers follow.

The idea of the lead voice continually running through the same events but with successively later technology is quite cute and handled quite well (in particular, although it is to some extent the same story multiple times, this works: because it isn't the same, it evolves). The characters, and the reader, slowly realise that he is approaching, and shying away from, something. I think in the end though there's a confusion: the shying-away-from relies on human reactions to being near death, which isn't true for an AI (much is made of the horror of the skull-in-the-spacesuit. For a human, being that would be horrifying. For an AI, it is rather less clear). The existence of (only one) sub-AI isn't really clear either.

So I wanted another plot twist near the end, something that would be horrifying: that our doctor has been lied to; he really is a human, trapped in there, somehow.

The nature of the (extra-solar-system) entity, The Edifice or whatever, is never clear, and that's alright: it is come to do some intelligence gathering, that makes some sense; what doesn't really make sense is how the crews of two ships, one of which is forewarned, would have been dumb enough to fall into its grasp. Nor is it clear how it was going to report its intelligence back to base; although - and here we come to the eversion of the title - perhaps it is broken.

The eversion concept comes from the Morin surface and Sphere eversion. They aren't strongly connected to the rest of the book; the entire thing could have been written without them, really; and this is dissatisfying; it becomes just plot candy.

My picure of of the college associated with Lady Margaret boat club.

Friday, 14 April 2023

Book review: Saving the Appearances

1681505024298-6bde5bf6-2632-4c7c-b9e0-9198406149c4_I confess that I got nothing out of Owen Barfield's "Saving the Appearances". I read it because it was "recommended" by C S Lewis in some aside in The Discarded Image, and from that and the title I assumed that it was in some way about, errm, saving the appearences as the concept in antient science.

But, it isn't about that. What it is about I'm afraid I can't tell you, as it all bounced off. None of it meant anything.

In retrospect, the quote from the Church Times and OB's anthroposophy should have been a hint. OB has a knack for using words with unclear meanings in a vague way to apparently build up to something, but not actually get anywhere; and later on refers to those "conclusions" as though they meant something.

Towards the end it becomes explicitly Christian-Spiritualist, but again without saying anything that I was unable to understand - but I was skipping by the time I'd got to there. To the extent that it was C-S at the end I am, of course, uninterested in it; to the extent that (I now suspect) it was aiming at that all along; ditto. This I think tends to justify my opinion that it is valueless, to me.

Somewhere near the start is some stuff about rainbows; to quote from a 5-star reviewBarfield starts with the apparently innocuous example of a rainbow. Obviously the rainbow doesn’t exist except when it is seen. The particles of water which physically exist in the air-space of a thunderstorm are not the rainbow. The rainbow is constituted by that phenomenon and the human eye and brain in concert. This is ‘Kant for dummies’, and very effective. This seems somewhat confused: the particles of water are not the rainbow; the rays of light are. These exist regardless of whether they are perceived or not. Non-concious cameras can take images of them that people recognise as rainbows, without supposing that the rainbow is "in" the images. It is possible to say that "the rainbow" - perhaps in the sense of "oh-it-is-beautiful, and regarded as a sign from god" - only exists in human perception; but when defined in that way it is empty of content: you have made your definition to get the answer you want. Whether OB regards the ordinary physical universe as independent of perception is unclear, again undermining his work.

To take another work which this vaguely reminds me of: Why Materialism is Baloney is without doubt Woo; but at least it is honestly and clearly so, and indeed does its best to explain what it is trying to say.

Tuesday, 11 April 2023

Book review: Glory Road

1681239562268-968b240b-23e1-46d4-a458-2ac865558d58 Another Heinlein. In some ways reminiscent of Starships Troopers, in that it is an adventure story combined with somewhat heavy-handed philosophising. I have fond memories of this from my childhood, but I was probably about 14 then and I fear it has not aged well. The story remains decent, although really rather brief; without the padding it would be a novella, and perhaps all the better for it. Indeed, whilst I'd remembered a few bits, I'd quite forgotten just how brief it is. I won't trouble to summarise the plot; doubtless as usual Goodreads will do that.

To digress on the cover, which is the one I remember: the heroine is, errm, striking, and is much as the book describes her, except it still makes her face a bit weird; the slain dinosaur as backdrop and dwarf elegantly proffering a glass as refreshment are all fitting. The backdrop should not be level desert, but it emphasises the foreground so meh.

I realised after a bit that the tone grated, in a way that ST doesn't. The hero speaks directly to the reader, just as in ST, but badly. I now discover that GR was his first fantasy novel, but actually post-dates ST. Somehow the fake-chumminess is too condescending; the lead-like prose doesn't help. Perhaps this review's "Alas, "Glory Road" is a preview of the old, pervy and insane Heinlein to come" is correct; I recall eventually abandoning him in disgust; perhaps stick to the early stuff.

Igli: the book is fantasy but it is fantasy-with-pretence-of-science, i.e. what happens is supposed to be high-enough-tech-looks-like-magic. That explains away most things, but it doesn't explain Igli disappearing down his own throat. The book kinda realises this because Our Hero asks Our Heroine for an explanation, which she deflects with various unsatisfactory words which somehow placate Our Hero.

The Egg: the object of the Quest. Nowadays, this would be desperately dull, because it would just be backed up. I thought I'd throw that in.

And finally, the philosophy: I'll skip the bits about personal conduct, because I think that is just RAH's wish-fulfilment. But what about govt? It turns out that the ideal govt system is to give one individual ultimate power. This we will instantly recognise as Plato's failed philosopher-king junk again, everyone's favourite answer, and a step backwards from what he propsed in ST: a sign I think of an old man growing impatient with how-to-fix-the-world. He attempts to save himself by making it clear that the individual's power is freely granted; if this was entirely so it would be a good defence; but it is unlikely that the people or peoples that are ordered killed really consented to their own deaths; this point is not explored in depth. I'm more sympathetic to his suggestion that most problems should be left alone.

He does get some points for what everyone mentions: not ending the book with the successful culmination of the Quest, but with Our Hero struggling to find some meaning in life afterwards. Unfortunately he can't find any answer other than go-on-another-quest.

And: the book veers off towards comedy-of-manners, criticising various aspects of society. Most of which fails badly. For example, Earth turns out to be the only planet with prostitution. WTF? (Errm...). For something that occurs in practically every independent society on Earth, this seems wildly implausible. And this isn't because females are chaste, no, it is because they have a much more sensible attitude to sex, see above re lustful old men.

I feel like mentioning The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, which I also read young and was very impressed by; and re-read recently and still like. That gets bonus points for weirdness, though it loses a little for the hero and heroine being too typical-RAH.

Sunday, 9 April 2023

Book review: The Alchemaster's Apprentice

1678912849249-86a350c6-b575-4e13-af74-090bd22b05d0 During our recent trip to London I visited Foyle's and bought a copy of The Alchemaster's Apprentice by
Walter "Captain Bluebear" Moers. I haven't read Capt BB, though both D and E had; and I now have their copy to read at some point.

But what of tAA, I hear you cry? Well, its OK. I'm sorry not to be more enthusiastic; it is nicely filled with whimsy whilst somewhat dark; the trouble is that the whimsy is just a bit too forced, somehow. I enjoyed reading it though. I think that's all I have to say.

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

Book review: The Green Odyssey

1676493340961-c3a12f10-613b-4d23-8c2e-5b757a6e803a_The Green Odyssey by Philip José Farmer was, according to wiki, Farmer's first book-length publication. I "know" Farmer mostly through the Riverworld series, which I enjoyed countless years ago, and a vaguely-remembered... The Stone God Awakens; oh, and of course some of the The Maker of Universes stuff.

Anyway, it is all good clean fun - unlike, apparently, some of his other stuff - in what someone better educated might call a picaresque fashion.

It is perhaps notable for having a rather implausible-looking cover that turns out to be quite well related to the actual story.