Seven Days of Swollen Hands.

So, I’ve not posted all that much lately because I’ve been busy with various things which were followed with a weeks holiday (it was lovely, thanks for asking).

Of course, holidays and a lack of a reliable internet connection do afford one the opportunity to do some reading. I mostly enjoyed the books I took with me, so in lieu of full write ups, here’s a little about each of them.

Fugue for a Darkening Island - Christopher PriestFugue for a Darkening Island – Christopher Priest

I’ve already read a couple of Priest’s novels and found them to be excellent. Before you even consider the way he treats his themes, there is much to admire and enjoy in the quality of his prose.

The edition of his 1971 novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island, that I have in my possession is revised by the author. He explains in an introduction why he decided to make amendments to the text. His novel is set in a near future (from the vantage point of the early seventies) where war has ended the African continents ability to support human life.

This results in an exodus which takes millions to all areas of the globe in an attempt to find safety and restart their lives. The novel is centred on the life of one British man and those closest to him. The sudden arrival of millions of refugees leads to a breakdown of life in the UK. Through this – a British catastrophe novel much in the tradition of Wyndham and the like – Priest attempts a literary exploration of the effects of a catastrophe upon a character.

Indeed (and somewhat opposed to some of my concerns about the novel), it is a peculiarly British novel in that it does mourn the demise of the British spirit of tolerance and fair play. Also, it is interesting to me to consider how deeply that runs and – in light of our previous empire building – to what extent we can really argue that a country which had such an extensive empire can really claim to have such lofty ideals (an idea which has a certain resonance today in light of the recent actions of western governments).

As it happens, I think in this he largely succeeds. However, this is not to say that this novel isn’t problematic. As previously noted, this novel has been revised. Priest notes that he had, after initial reviews praised him for his handling of his subject, found himself being identified in later criticism as a fellow traveller of the far right. He notes that his intention was to write a novel that was actually politically neutral, though he was not happy that his work could be interpreted as racist which accounts for some of his amendments.

The problem I had is that, while I don’t entertain any notion that Priest is a racist, immigration is an emotive subject and one which I can’t really view from a neutral standpoint. In this novel, the catastrophe arises as a result of the refugees carving out their own state within the borders of the UK. Though, in fairness, it is noted that in large part this is prompted by ill treatment.

The more problematic aspects of the novel are in part brought about through the focus upon the characters rather than the situation. This in itself is no bad thing. I like literary SF. There were some aspects that troubled me, though. For example, I often felt that the refugees had become a homogeneous ‘other’ rather than individual people each of whom had a differing cultural background. It is this kind of thing that I found troubling. There are other things that are said or happen which would seem worse on a more superficial level, but generally I think they are attributable to the views and actions of the characters rather than any fault on the part of the author.

I have to admit that I felt that I was being a mite unfair when I was doubting the novel – I fear that it may be a product of my own politically correct liberal left inclinations as much as any faults in the text. However, I did decide a long time ago that worrying about this kind of thing is preferable to complacency.

All that said though, I still believe that, though it isn’t Priest’s finest work, it is worthy of your time.

Greybeard - Brian AldissGreybeard – Brian Aldiss

This was excellent. Another British catastrophe novel, Aldiss’  novel is set in a future in which atmospheric nuclear tests had rendered the human race and many of the larger mammals, sterile. It follows the titular Greybeard in a meditation on life and death.

If some of this sounds familiar, that’s probably because you’ve seen the film Children of Men or possibly read the P.D. Smith novel upon which it was based. While I enjoyed the film well enough, I can’t say I have a lot of time for the novel.

My dislike of Smith’s novel has only increased since reading Greybeard. As noted in the introduction to the SF Masterworks edition, it’s not unreasonable to accuse Children of Men if stealing a great deal from the far superior Aldiss novel. Of course, borrowing from other works and riffing in that which has gone before is fine. Bad fiction, however, is not. The disappointment at reading a poor novel is only compounded when one learns that something else did a similar thing and to greater effect.

As well as the ideas about mortality and life, there is plenty about the logic of economies devoted to production and consumption and the dangers of destroying our environment. The accident in the novel destroys the ability of the human race to propagate itself, but the world goes on, just down a slightly different path.

I still haven’t read enough Aldiss, but the themes he explores in this and the skill with which he does so make this one of my favourite novels he has produced.

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo IshiguroRemains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

Been meaning to read this for a while, given that it was my understanding that it contained themes that were relevant to my interests.

Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, recently bought by a wealthy American following the death of the original owner, sets out on a journey to visit the former housekeeper after receiving a letter from her. On his way, he shares his memories of the times he spent working for Lord Darlington and his relationship with Miss Kenton, the former house keeper.

This, tied up as it is with the upper echelons of the British class system, is an examination of British social life. It seems clear that the devotion to Lord Darlington by Stevens has led to his inability to lead a full life – for example he barely mourns the death of his father. Although it would seem that he is perversely proud of this and it seems that it is something that he might believe that his father would give approval as it demonstrates dignity. It would also seem that his over-devotion to his master means he was unable to have a fulfilling love life. Every time he remembers something of his relationship with Miss Kenton, even those times where they fought, it seems clear that it was a relationship that they both treasured. His devotion to Lord Darlington destroyed any chance that would have had to flower.

There is plenty more to the novel, but the idea of the British aristocracy showing sympathy for the defeated Germans (post-Great War) to the extent of admiration for Hitler is an interesting theme to explore. It is also tied (and explicitly in this case) to certain beliefs about the British spirit of fair play. In this case that the treaty signed at Versailles was an affront to this and rested on French desires to weaken the defeated German nation. Without going into this in too much depth – it’s complicated after all. Though my instincts are towards the pacifist, I’d note that it’s a bit too easy to criticise the French in this. The Great War had a huge impact upon the French population and its countryside and, let’s not forget, the French had suffered defeat in 1870 – 1871. Not that the French Empire at the time was innocent, but one can see why their leaders would be wary of a strong Germany.

This leads to an interesting dilemma for Stevens. He believes his master to be infallible and that it is not his place to comment upon the affairs of those he considers his social betters. Lord Darlington’s sympathy for the right leads to a horrible incident where he requests that Stevens dismiss two of his staff because they are Jewish. It seems clear that Stevens feels this to be wrong, but he is so entrenched in his own social position that he makes very little protest. Interesting, Miss Kenton whose staff they were, is far more vocal in her opposition, but she finds herself unable to do the right thing in protest (resign) as she fears for her own future.

I’m barely scraping the surface of this novel here. It is a fantastic piece of work. Looking forward to reading more by Ishiguro. Great stuff.

The Accident - Ismail KadareThe Accident – Ismail Kadare

Well, it’s Kadare, isn’t it? So it must be good. Well, almost. As with all the things I’ve read by Kadare, it has an excellent line in the process of storytelling.

The story of the relationship between Besfort Y and Rovenna is told in flashback in a slightly disjointed manner jumping between times and places. The use of the relationship as a metaphor for the relationship between Hoxha and the Albanian populace is perhaps signposted a little to obviously and I do worry that perhaps the younger Rovenna is a bit too close to male wish-fulfilment than a real character, though this might, again, be as much to do with me as any fault on the part of Kadare.

So, worthwhile (again) though I wouldn’t suggest it as a starting point if you are unfamiliar with Kadare’s work.

The Russia House - John le CarreThe Russia House – John le Carré

Spying is Waiting.

Not really read a lot by Le Carré. Read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a while ago. That was decent enough, so I thought I’d give some of his other things a look too.

The Russia House is his first post-glasnost novel and concerns the secret services obtaining a bok which it seems demonstrates the lies upon which the cold war is based.

It’s quite an interesting novel. You’d think that final proof that the Soviet Union had nothing like the capability to wage war ascribed it would be a cause for celebration. As it transpires, there are several issues. Not least one of trust. Do they trust the message? After all, they are all engaged in work subterfuge. Also, there are interests which rely upon the invincibility of the Soviet war machine. The US military and defence industry don’t really wish there to be evidence in the public domain that the USSR is weaker than it would appear.

There is a certain hope to the novel. Le Carré admits in an afterword that maybe some of his hope was a little premature in the light of the rise of the oligarchs and authoritarian nature of the post-Soviet government. But he hopes that he was just a little early.

I don’t know where this is ranked amongst le Carré’s finest work (I hope not, looking forward to better) but this was certainly an enjoyable enough novel.

The Weight of Numbers – Simon Ings

Not actually finished this one yet. Only about a quarter of the way through, but I am finding it to be superb stuff so far.

Looking forward to his forthcoming Dead Water with greater anticipation, now. Also, I learned yesterday that he is working on a history of Soviet-era science. I’m informed that it seems likely he’s done a fair whack of research for this. It can’t come soon enough for me.

AThe Penguin History of Early India - Romila ThaparThe Penguin History of Early India – Romila Thapar

I’ve only just started this, but it looks as though it should be a fascinating and (to the extent that one could be thorough on such a huge subject in around 500 pages) thorough exploration of the growth of India. As indicated by the subtitle, this novel covers the origins of India to 1300 AD.

I’ve also read a few of the stories in Kit Reed’s The Killer Mice, which were rather good and some of Katie Ward’s new novel, Girl Reading. So, all in all, some most enjoyable stuff read.

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9 Responses to Seven Days of Swollen Hands.

  1. iansales says:

    The only Ishiguro you really need to read is Remains of the Days. The rest aren’t a patch on it. Never Let Me Go isn’t bad, and I enjoyed When We Were Orphans. But definitely avoid The Unconsoled.

    • Richard says:

      Ah, curses. Started at the top! Hah, yes, I seem to remember you bemoaning the crapness of The Unconsoled a few weeks back on Twitter. Have you seen the film of The Remains of the Day, though? Worth watching? 🙂

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    I promise, I’ll get to Greybeard soon! I’m glad you liked it — did you like it more than Earthworks (which I still hold to be a highly flawed novel)?

    • Richard says:

      Undoubtedly – it’s certainly the best thing I’ve read by Brian Aldiss. IIRC, you liked Earthworks even less than I did. I thought it was OK, but not much more, so it started to bug me. If this is on the TBR, bump it up, definitely! A superb novel (and really don’t bother with CoM, that’s awful).

      I’m intrigued by Helliconia, though that, as I have it in the omnibus that Gollancz recently put out, looks to be a bit more of a time sink!

      • iansales says:

        Best thing by Aldiss? Somewhere East of Life, by a long way. Although Equator, a 1950s “entertainment”, is a favourite.

  3. Richard says:

    Cheers, will check them out. I might be wrong, but it appears to me that not as much of his stuff is as available as it might be. Local second hand shop to me had a few of the Granada editions available, though, so I’ve some more stuff to read.

  4. Joachim Boaz says:

    I need to check Somewhere East of Life out as well. I did LOVE Starship — but that’s about it so far…

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