Wednesday 29 June 2022

The City and the Stars


This one crept under my skin:

Men had built cities before, but never such a city as Diaspar; for millennia its protective dome shut out the creeping decay and danger of the world outside. Once, it ruled the stars. But then, as legend had it, the Invaders came, driving humanity into this last refuge. It takes one man, a Unique, to smash the legend and discover the true nature of the Invaders.

It's the first Arthur C Clarke I have ever read, and one of those legendary names you know you should get around to at some point. The first thing that really stood out was that this book was first published in 1956, yet it feels so contemporary. It could have been written a decade ago or less. The second thing was that, in parts, I thought I heard the voice of Douglas Adams. There was a sort of dry wit about it that made me think that Alvin and Arthur Dent probably would have gotten along.

In a 2000 interview, Adams said:

When I originally described The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, over twenty years ago, I was only joking. I didn't see myself as a predictive kind of science fiction writer, like Arthur C. Clarke who more or less single-handedly invented the communications satellite. The Guide was just a narrative device which allowed me to run off at tangents whenever the story seemed to be getting a bit dull.

You know what else Clarke predicted? The freakin' Metaverse:

Of all the thousands of forms of recreation in the city, these were the most popular. When you entered a saga, you were not merely a passive observer, as in the crude entertainments of primitive times which Alvin had sometimes sampled. You were an active participant and possessed or seemed to possess free will. The events and scenes which were the raw material of your adventures might have been prepared beforehand by forgotten artists, but there was enough flexibility to allow for wide variation. You could go into these phantom worlds with your friends, seeking the excitement that did not exist in Diaspar and as long as the dream lasted there was no way in which it could be distinguished from reality. Indeed, who could be certain that Diaspar itself was not the dream? No one could ever exhaust all the sagas that had been conceived and recorded since the city began. They played upon all the emotions and were of infinitely varying subtlety.

Spooky, huh? What seems so obvious today with our VR headsets, must have appeared completely preposterous back when this was first published. 

Though, there was one little line that really stood out as a watermark of its time...

Yet perhaps her motives were not entirely selfish, and were maternal rather than sexual. Though birth had been forgotten, the feminine instincts of protection and sympathy still remained.

Oooh, yuck, yuck, yuck.

But it was the 50s, so I guess we can forgive.

I really did enjoy parts of this, especially this bit, which made me stop and think. I'm a huge Star Trek fan and, all of my early years, I enjoyed programs about space exploration and other planets - exploring the stars. But I think I always thought like everybody else - that we would find our equals among the stars, but not that the stars would destroy us with our own insignificance and force us further into ourselves. It's quite an interesting consideration:

Despite his failures, man had never doubted that one day he would conquer the depths of space. He believed too that if the universe held his equals, it did not hold his superiors. Now he knew that both beliefs were wrong, and that out among the stars were minds far greater than his own. For many centuries, first in the ships of other races and later in machines built with borrowed knowledge, man had explored the galaxy. Everywhere he found cultures he could understand but could not match, and here and there he encountered minds which would soon have passed altogether beyond his comprehension. The shock was tremendous, but it proved the making of the race. Sadder and infinitely wiser, man had returned to the solar system to brood upon the knowledge he had gained.

Star Trek certainly would have been a very different sort of programme based on that premise.

I did enjoy this passage on religion. Travelling and observing people and cultures around the world, it's hard not to be persuaded that progress is largely secular in nature: 

While still a young man, he had been forced to leave his native world, and its memory had haunted him all his life. His expulsion he blamed on vindictive enemies, but the fact was that he suffered from an incurable malady which, it seemed, attacked only homo sapiens among all the intelligent races of the universe. That disease was religious mania. Throughout the earlier part of its history, the human race had brought forth an endless succession of prophets, seers, messiahs, and evangelists who convinced themselves and their followers that to them alone were the secrets of the universe revealed. Some of them succeeded in establishing religions which survived for many generations and influenced billions of men; others were forgotten even before their deaths. The rise of science, which with monotonous regularity refuted the cosmologies of the prophets and produced miracles which they could never match, eventually destroyed all these faiths. It did not destroy the awe, nor the reverence and humility, which all intelligent beings felt as they contemplated the stupendous universe in which they found themselves. What it did weaken and finally obliterate, were the countless religions, each of which claimed with unbelievable arrogance, that it was the sole repository of the truth and that its millions of rivals and predecessors were all mistaken. Yet, though they never possessed any real power once humanity had reached a very elementary level of civilization, all down the ages isolated cults had continued to appear, and however fantastic their creeds they had always managed to attract some disciples. They thrived with particular strength during the periods of confusion and disorder, and it was not surprising that the transition centuries had seen a great outburst of irrationality. When the reality was depressing, men tried to console themselves with myths.

It also reminded me a little of Scythe with the concept of Central Computer caring for and regulating a society of immortal humans for whom disease and death are but a distant memory. Also love Great Polyp.

I shall leave you with this last little quote, and recommend The City and the Stars as rather a good read. As is The City & The City... in fact, anything with 'city' in it:

There is a special sadness in achievement, in the knowledge that a long-desired goal has been attained at last, and that life must now be shaped toward new ends.

Monday 20 June 2022

The Way of All Flesh


This is the first in the Raven and Fisher Mystery trilogy.

Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder. Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson. Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education. With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

I was slightly confused when it got to the very end of the book and the credits mentioned Christopher Brookmyre. I saw him at the Cheltenham Literature Festival years ago, with Jasper Fforde. So I went to look this up and apparently: 

Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.

I found that a fascinating concept that two authors could combine to create an entirely new author. What a wonderful idea. 

I also enjoyed the nod to Barry Lyndon. I mentioned that recently in my review of Thackeray's other work, Vanity Fair. Though I must admit, I was a bit uncertain with the title for this one as I was sure The Way of All Flesh was already quite a famous novel. When I looked it up, it was a 'a semi-autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler.' Apparently it was a satire about the Victorian bourgeois.

There was some great opening descriptive of Gargantua unfolding into this great, hulking henchman. It reminded me so clearly of the blob men unfolding in the animation of Howl's Moving Castle. Very evocative of a visual style. 

Also some nice observations on human nature:

He would simply have to endure it. His time at Herriot's had taught him that sometimes people could take an instinctive or irrational dislike to you, as you could to them. In such instances there was nothing you could do to change that and it proved a fool's errand to try. 

And I smiled at the detailed description of how to make a calotype. They handled it with more grace and economy than I did in Secure the Shadow. It's a lengthy and tricky process, and not easily put to paper. They did it the same way I did, having the expert explain it to the neophyte in a friendly and instructive manor. I suppose the other way you could do it would be to have the expert observe themself making the photograph, but dialogue pulls people in and holds attention much better. Just for kicks, I wonder if you could write it as the photograph becoming aware of its own existence as the latent image strengthens and becomes fixed? An interesting short story, perhaps?

I counted three instances where the main characters were forced into a tight space together, inches apart. I'm not sure whether it was intentionally three - as in, third time lucky - or just a motif that the authors really, really liked. 

All in all though, a good read. Great suspense as Raven is racing to the dinner party. Likeable protagonists and a solid whodunnit. 

Sunday 5 June 2022

The Children of Lir Book Trailer


A little book trailer for The Children of Lir. Busy working on the audiobook at the moment. You can pick up the paperback and ebook format here