Sunday, 30 September 2007

New Coupland

I've just started Douglas Coupland's latest novel, The Gum Thief. Which, as an aside, isn't even supposed to be out yet according to my beloved Wikipedia! (Obviously I've placed a comment on the article's talk page to correct this uncharacteristic error of Wikipedia ...) Nothing much to report on it so far, but it provides an excuse for my to jot down my thoughts on his earlier works.

The Gum Thief is Coupland's 11th novel (excluding one only published in Japan), and he's one of the few authors of which I've read all of their fiction (bar said Japanese novel). Rightly or wrongly, he's still associated in the public eye with his first novel, Generation X, a novel sufficiently famous that some people mistake it as being the origin of the expression "Generation X". While I don't think it's his best work, it completely omits the flaws that dog some of his later works, and it does feel (to get all postmodern about it) like it captures something very specific about the listlessness of "my generation" (= me). In terms of plot, there's really not a lot there, or, at least, one that I much remember. It's the characters and the situations they find themselves in that make it stand out. Well, these and the frequent dictionary definitions of eminently 1990s concepts such as McJobs, brazilification, the cult of aloneness, knee-jerk irony, etc. These definitions are accompanied by cartoons that ironically comment on the existential problems that feature prominently in the emotional landscape of "generation X" (e.g. "Dad, it says here [newspaper] that you can choose to have a life or a house - I'm choosing a life!").

Coupland followed this up with Shampoo Planet, a tale about a consumer products-obsessed teenager (hence the shampoo of the title) gradually growing up. I don't remember a whole lot about this one, but I enjoyed it, although the shallowness of the protagonist did take a bit of getting used to at first. His unselfconscious materialism does make him rather difficult to get interested in.

The next book, Life After God, is a very different affair. Rather than being a novel, it's essentially a set of short stories that overlap in tone and theme. They overlap to the extent that I first mistook it for a novel with a jumpy narrative, and the stories appeared to me to be organised such that they led to the climatic story ("1,000 Years (Life After God)"). Despite the title, the stories deal with God only tangentially, more as an absence rather than a presence. Which, I suppose, is probably what Coupland is trying to communicate. Perhaps surprisingly, given my predilections, I really took to these stories. Obviously, a connection with religion is beyond the pale for me, but part of me does recognise something missing in modern life. Not something that was present in the past (heaven forfend!), but a sort of awareness that much (almost all) of modern life takes place in a complete absence of awareness about our place in the universe. Not that one need worry too much about this really - obsessing about one's fundamentally inconsequential place in the grand scheme of things isn't terribly useful. But I do find comfort, of a sort, considering the vastness of things, and there's something of a similar feeling (to me anyway) in this book. Anyway, despite the foregoing, I don't think that Coupland (at this point in his life) has a huge amount of stock in God, but he's certainly beginning to lean this way. Nonetheless, I wasn't put off in the least by this aspect of the book, and overall Life After God is one of my favourites of his books.

His next book, Microserfs, is easily my favourite of all his works. I could go on at some length about why (I probably will in some later post), but a few of its qualities are illustrative. Firstly, its characters are great. This might just be because both they and I are pretty geeky, and that I identify with the self same issues that they do. That is almost certainly true, but to me they have similar vulnerabilities and a cute, low-key romantic view of the world that I'm always a sucker for. There's far more to say about the characters, but I'll stop for now. Secondly, the setting. At a surface level, a small IT startup doesn't sound like the sort of backdrop that would make for a good novel. However, it is, or was I suppose, extremely zeitgeisty back when it was published. More importantly, at least as far as I'm concerned, the scale of the setting made for very compelling in-group dynamics that rang true for me. That I was in such a group (albeit an academic one) around the time that I read Microserfs probably has some bearing on this. Anyway, I'll stop before this turns into a love-in for Microserfs. Suffice to say, in terms of its narrative, its themes and its characterisation, Microserfs wins hands down for me.

Something strange seems to have happened to Coupland as a novelist after Microserfs. Rather than writing realistic, zeitgeisty novels full of neologisms, product placement and contemporary themes, all of his subsequent novels introduce events that, at times, stretch credulity or place the novels at the borders of modern realist fiction. As it happens, the most extreme of these (and the one I've liked least) is, probably, the book he's most famous for after Generation X, Girlfriend in a Coma. While starting from a realistic, if unusual, premise - a comatose girl awakes after a decade or so - the novel ultimately runs riot introducing a compelling (at first) apocalyptic "end" to the world (aside from the central characters, people all over the world begin lying down, as if to sleep, and then dying), and finishing off with an explicitly religious message. While later novels have mostly not taken up religious themes (slightly non-conventional ones I might add), what they do share with Girlfriend in a Coma is its drift from the real world. All of them involve some sort of narrative break or discontinuity with everyday reality. In most cases it's simply some sort of improbable event, a deus ex machina, but to my mind it always detracts from the novels to some degree.

Anyway, I'd better just post this up. I'll return to Coupland when I finish his latest. So far it hasn't jumped off at the deep end, but there's plenty of time for that yet!

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Rotters' Club

The Rotters' Club, Jonathan Coe, fiction

Not one for the charity shop this time. This one has been sitting on our "good book" shelf for quite some time, but I finally read it in response to a plug by MJF.

It's quite an overarching read, taking in teenage angst (primarily), industrial relations in the 1970s, IRA bombings and even a whiff of the Yorkshire Ripper (I presume). It uses multiple character perspectives, incorporates several very amusing articles from a school magazine, and (almost) ends on a 35 page stream-of-consciousness narrative with no punctuation save commas. It's also framed somewhat ambiguously with "present-day" bookends that hint at events that otherwise undescribed in the novel (my edition concludes with a reference to a sequel).

Overall, it's very enjoyable. There are many highly amusing schoolroom incidents, and the novel generally handles life at school very skillfully. Despite many differences with my own experiences at highschool, there are plenty of familiar situations and characters. The pranks of one particular character, Harding, reminded me at times of a not dissimilar joker in my school year (though his were considerably more tame). The obsessions of teenage life are also very familiar, although I certainly wasn't anywhere near as successful with girls as most of the characters in the novel are.

The other portions of the novel that deal with industrial unrest are somewhat less satisfying, not so much in their execution, more in how they communicate (or fail to) the bigger picture. However, that's possibly more to do with my reading of another novel, Tim Lott's Rumours of a Hurricane, which focuses much more closely on the political events of this time (well, more the 1980s). Here, I sort-of lost the thread of the author's story, spliced as it is into the rest of the novel. I suspect that the author originally wanted to write a novel about growing up in the 1970s, and only latterly decided to put some wider context into it. The novel might well have been more successful without the extra political baggage, as it could then have been more realistically myopic about the teenage lives of its main characters. For instance, although I was aware of politics while I was growing up, my own life and friends were far, far more important to me.

Still, an excellent read. Although, given my recent intake of pulp science fiction, I'm perhaps a little too grateful to get back to more wholesome reading.

Incidentally, for the historical record, I finally swallowed my pride and bought myself an iPod to replace my ailing XClef player. The latter served me well over five years, but finally seems to have given up the ghost. Anyway, I'm now the proud (ish) owner of an "iPod classic", 160 Gb of music-storing, photo-showing, video-playing techno-toy. I'm sure I'll witter on more about it some other time.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Something harder

While Neal Asher's science fiction owes something to the medium-hard (or medium-soft depending on one's personal science fiction "Mohs scale") work of Iain Banks, another recent discovery, Alastair Reynolds, is far more in the mold of harder writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford. Anyway, the books to be consigned to the charity shop are ...

Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds, 2005, science fiction
Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds, 2000, science fiction
Redemption Ark, Alastair Reynolds, 2002, science fiction
Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds, 2003, science fiction

While Pushing Ice is a standalone novel, the other three novels are part of Reynolds Revelation Space series, and requires something more by way of description.

This series is (again) set several centuries into the future, and in neighbouring solar systems to that of Sol. The setting is a universe with plenty of evidence for alien civilizations, but a distinct absence of aliens (bar some odd phenomena that hint at hiding aliens). In Revelation Space, humanity has expanded from the Earth and, on a planet called Resurgam, is living alongside the ruins of an apparently "recently" extinguished species (only 1 million years dead). The novel follows the exploits of an archaeologist set on uncovering the truth behind this extinction regardless of the cost. Many other characters and subplots are brought it, but the crux of the novel is the gradual revealing of the fate of the previous inhabitants of Resurgam. The latter two novels explore the consequences of the revelations of the first. In essence, machinery put in place by early civilizations in deep time (early galactic history) acts to extinguish emerging civilizations to spare yet-to-come civilizations from a predicted future calamity. Humanity has been fortunate to arrive on the scene during a calm period, but its actions have triggered the emergence of the civilization-curtailing machines (one of whom even features as a character at one point).

As with many fictional series, the first novel is by far the best. The set up and gradual revealing of a carefully thought-through universe is always fun. Diminishing returns, however, set in relatively quickly here. Mostly, I think, because Reynolds forces his characters through some very odd contortions (I'm thinking of the enmity between Clavian and Skade here). These don't ring true, and distract from the wider events.

In keeping with many science fiction writers from the latter few decades of the 20th century, Reynolds tries to grant his characters plausible emotions and personal evolution (as set against earlier novelists who focused solely on plot or ideas). To my mind, however, he's not terribly successful on these points. Some characters work and their changes fit the events surrounding them; others seem unhinged or respond unconvincingly to events. Not enough to markedly damage the novels, but enough to somewhat strain credulity (always dangerous in science fiction, where credulity is routinely strained). Part of this stems from using more or less the same cast in the novels. I thought he might try the trick of completely switching cast each novel such that one gets to see the consequences of familiar events through new eyes (which allows gradual revelation as a plot device again), but unfortunately not.

Still, despite these negative remarks, the underlying science fiction is very exciting, and rather plausibly drawn (no faster-than-light travel, etc. here). As with Asher, I'll doubtless keep checking up on Reynolds, but Revelation Space isn't as captivating as The Culture, the Galactic Centre saga or the Eight Worlds.

Having said all of the above, I should add that Pushing Ice is a much, much better novel than any of the Revelation Space titles. It follows the fate of a single spacecraft and its crew after they are sent to check up on the strange behaviour of one of Saturn's moons. The "moon" turns out not to be a moon at all, and winds up taking the crew on an extraordinary journey. While somewhat similar to Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, the novel is populated with interesting and engaging characters that, this time, do seem plausible and behave that way. Interpersonal conflicts are set up, and they evolve in a believable way. And it's all set alongside a cracking plot that gradually reveals a very interesting universe, and some very engaging aliens. Like the original Rendezvous, the reader is left at the end with both a widened sense of perspective and a ton of questions still dangling (while a sequel would be gobbled up, it might not be for the best; c.f. Revelation Space).

Saturday, 22 September 2007

An oversupply of Neal Asher

Iain Banks just doesn't write his science fiction titles often enough. Inbetween his books, I'm forced to scout around for other authors to take up the slack. John Varley, Greg Egan and Neal Stephenson have filling in for him in recent years (though regular fiction more so), but I've also discovered a guilty pleasure in Neal Asher's novels ...

Gridlinked, Neal Asher, 2001, science fiction
The Line of Polity, Neal Asher, 2003, science fiction
Brass Man, Neal Asher, 2005, science fiction
Polity Agent, Neal Asher, 2006, science fiction
These are a series of four (thusfar) novels typically centering around the exploits of a single character (the unfuturistically named Ian Cormac). Set several centuries in the future, Cormac's universe is dominated by the Polity, a government operating out of the Earth. Like Banks' Culture, which it borrows heavily from, the Polity is both semi-utopian and organised, and run by, artificial intelligences.

The novels' plots deal with a range of themes: separatists trying to overthrow the Polity; aberrant theocracies at the edge ("The Line") of the Polity; alien intelligences with hidden agendas; biotech or nanotech out of control; the relationship between humans and their superior artificial offspring. Narratively, the novels are all structured with a number of viewpoints, but this really only serves to advance their plots. Nothing clever or literary is going on here. The plots themselves generally take the form of action set-pieces separated by brief periods of build-up.

One notable feature of Asher's writing are the regularly brutal fates of his characters. More interestingly, he populates his universe with a plethora of worlds filled to the brim with similarly brutal ecologies. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed. I think he goes over the top a bit here at times, but it's refreshing to read a novelist who tackles the hostility that characterises ecology.

Anyway, they're all very enjoyable romps, but (typically for science fiction) are weak on characterisation. Characters here serve mostly to move plot along. Despite the brutality that he metes out to characters, Asher does have a soft spot for his "heroes". Bad, sometimes very bad, things happen to them, but somehow they pull through in the end. Usually. Sometimes even his anti-heroes do too. This does tend to remove tension after the first book, but usually he's inventive enough with the plot for it not to matter.

In summary, perfectly enjoyable, but very much tending towards the pulpy end of science fiction. I'll continue reading him, but I won't be clamouring for each new title to hit the bookstores. As with many fictional universes, diminishing returns apply - the set-up novels are the most enjoyable.

Books for the recycler

It's time again for a purge of books to create space in the house for yet more books. Before the current condemned are sent off to the hereafter (= the charity shop), I thought I'd record some impressions of them lest I forget I've ever read them. Of course, being condemned, they're not among my favorites to say the least. Still, it seems somewhat wasteful to spend hours reading them, only to consign them to the less than tender mercies of my rubbish memory. Anyway, taking from the top of the pile ...

Ringworld, Larry Niven, 1970, science fiction
In a word, disappointing. Ostensibly this is a classic (indeed, my edition is part of some "SF Masterworks" series), and its central concept, the Ringworld, is a staple of subsequent SF (c.f. Iain Banks' orbitals; the videogame Halo). It has its moments, particularly during the setup and exploration of the eponymous Ringworld, but it has dated badly. A particularly grating example lies with the sexual politics which are straight out of the Ark - although, its date is no excuse for this really, there were plenty of contemporary novels, even science fiction ones, less dubiously status quo. From a science fiction standpoint it also makes a number of gaffes. Firstly, it invents and develops a bizarre system of luck for its characters. As well as trouncing the novel's claim to be hard science fiction, it's just stupid and does the novel no favors. Secondly, it has some truly awful aliens as major cast members: one a seemingly cowardly member of a long-lived race who is obsessed with securing a chance to breed; the other a semi-feline alien who seems like a Klingon knock-off. Admittedly, I'm judging this from a position 30+ years down the line, but there are plenty other 30+ year old novels that deal with aliens more sensibly. Finally, for all its careful setup of an extraordinary artificial structure, the Ringworld, and the mystery of its apparent emptiness, the novel resolves this all rather quickly and clumsily. Overall, it feels like the author came up with this great central idea, the Ringworld, but hadn't thought much further ahead than this when he wrote the novel. Still, I'm conscious that I'm judging from hindsight, and I've certainly read a lot worse. I'd prefer though if it were viewed more realistically these days when it's touted as a science fiction great. Although it's driven by pure action, the plot of the videogame Halo is, sadly, far more convincing and interesting.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Strange News From The Plankton

I wonder what people write on their very first blog posts? The obvious: "Hello world"; "Testing, Testing, 1-2-3"; "This is the diary of Adrian Mole aged ..."? Or do people just get right into it and start as they mean to continue: "Had meeting with Ron at 12 noon ..."; "Excellent dinner at Claridges ..."? Getting over the initial bump of self-consciousness seems to be the most important thing from here. Because it's a blog, I suppose there's a risk that someone other than me might one day read it, but it'd be missing the point to write for an audience. This is simply a way to backup my memories in the face of my appalling memory, and the likely event of inherited Alzheimer's. On that note, I'm just going to self-consciously publish this and then and get on with the rest of my life. What's the worst that could happen?