Book Review

Photo by Vadim Burca on Unsplash

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

Book Review

Photo by Mina FC on Unsplash

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is possibly the best known of Asimov’s stories, but the book with this title is, in fact, a series of nine short stories, published individually between 1940 & 1950, plus a fictitious introduction, in a connected thread, and it is also one of five ‘robot’ books written by Asimov; the epithet ‘seminal’ can surely and safely be ascribed to it, in the science fiction genre. Younger readers might initially associate the title with a 2004 film of the same name, directed by Alex Proyas, and starring Will Smith; given that it is a few years since I watched this film, from what I can remember, it bears little resemblance to Asimov’s original: the Wikipedia ‘blurb’ tells us that the original screenplay, Hardwired, was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection of the same name.” The underlying message of the film might not be too far removed from the original, however, because Asimov’s portmanteau essentially uses the technology of robotics as a vehicle for psychology, philosophy and, possibly, even morality: how much autonomy can we, should we, give to what are machines or, perhaps, cyborgs; if they have organic content in the form of a positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov, and now very well known in science fiction); and if we do, how far would we be able to trust them, in view of their likely superiority, both mental & physical?

Of course, AI (Artificial Intelligence: “founded as an academic discipline in 1955”, according to Wikipedia, so very much springing out of, if not necessarily inspired by, Asimov’s thinking) is now a very widely known, if not necessarily understood, concept, and it is used in a plethora of applications, from internet search engines to what are now referred to as ‘smart’ devices; the worry, which some technologists are probably quite happy to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theory’, is that much of the work that AI does goes on unseen, in the background, so it is virtually impossible to monitor its activity and the repercussions for society, especially where privacy & human rights are concerned: perhaps these wider implications weren’t obvious to Asimov when he was writing the stories in the American post-war, white heat of technological development, although it is pretty clear that he was aware of the dangers that intelligent, autonomous robots could present.

These creations, initially of mankind but, before very long, self-reproducing, can be made to be beneficent (probably the best-known example of which is the android Data, from the Star Trek Next Generation series) just as easily as they can be made bellicose, as they would be when (rather than if) the military were allowed to dominate their development: the difference would be governed by the primary programming of the neural net (another name for the positronic brain), and it must be assumed that the military’s killing machines would not be given the fundamental & inescapable guidance of Asimov’s wonderfully precise & concise Three Laws of Robotics, “designed to protect humans from their robotic creations”, hence the clear & present danger which would be obvious to all, including (but expediently ignored by) the military.

The protagonists of these stories are three main characters, the primary one being, to Asimov’s credit, a female ‘robopsychologist’, Dr. Susan Calvin, the other two being engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who have to deal ‘on the ground’ with different situations involving robots, in the chronological course of the narrative. It is structured in the form of a memoir of a series of interviews with Calvin by an unnamed future version of a journalist (he is only ever referred to by Calvin as “young man”: he is thirty-two), who is acquiring background information on her for his “feature articles for Interplanetary Press”: he already “had her professional ‘vita’ in full detail.” The year is 2062, and over the course of the interviews, Calvin gives the journo her thoughts on both her life, to that point, and sketches in the scenarios involving the main & supporting characters, which are described in the third person, including Calvin herself.

There are many interesting aspects to this series; the first is the obviously, and occasionally, in our terms comically, antiquated manifestation of the future technology as it could be conceived in the late 1940s; another is the way that everybody, across this future society, is quite comfortable with anthropomorphism of robots, primarily derived from their nomenclature: “Dave”, from DV-5; “Cutie”, for the QT series; but the first robot mentioned only has a human name, Robbie, rather prosaically, although ‘he’ cannot vocalise, being “made and sold in 1996. Those were the days before extreme specialization [sic], so he was sold as a nursemaid…” Also, and somewhat depressingly for me, it is taken for granted that capitalism will still be operating in this technological future, but it doesn’t have to be so: there is at least one highly developed ‘alternative’ system, Resource Based Economy, embodied in the work of Jacque Fresco and his collaborators in The Venus Project — it is difficult to pin down exactly when his work would have first achieved some prominence, but he was born in 1916 (died 2018!) and, according to the website, “Fresco’s lifelong project stems from his firsthand experience of the Great Depression, which instilled in him the urge to reevaluate how many of the world’s systems work.”, so it is possible that Asimov was aware of this concept, but whether he chose to ignore it is a moot point.

The impression given by Dr. Calvin’s reminiscences, for all her obvious genius professionally, is that she is distinctly ambivalent about the advisability of humanity’s inexorable & irrevocable reliance upon robots and AI, and her empathy, for all she could come across as occasionally cold & arrogant, is presumably the vehicle by which Asimov conveys his own reservations: any tool, or weapon, has no impetus other than the autonomy which is bestowed upon it, so an inert tool is subject to the use to which a human being might put it, but it appears that Asimov was wanting to warn us of the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box. Thankfully, those concerns are being addressed to some extent, but inevitably, secrecy associated with humanity’s protectionism embodied by global military forces means that it is possible that wider society will have no inkling of how far development of autonomous AI has progressed before it passes the point of no return: perhaps the best we can do is hope and work for peace wherever possible. The paperback edition of the book I read was published by HarperVoyager, London, in 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-827955-4.

Book Review

tompile2

The Disappearance of Tom Pile, by Ian Beck

This is a relatively new book (published in 2015 by Penguin Random House UK, ISBN 978 0 552 56776 3), whose full title, too long for the paperback cover, is The Casebook of Captain Holloway: The Disappearance of Tom Pile, and the author is new to me, but I have to confess that I was drawn to the book by the cover (thereby refuting the well-worn adage) and, given the author’s background, I was surprised that he didn’t design the cover himself: “Ian Beck has worked as a freelance illustrator for many years (including such notable artwork as the record [remember those?] cover for Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). Ian turned to writing and illustrating children’s books when his own children were born.” This isn’t a particularly long book at 267 pages, so it is an easy read, especially if, like I do, you enjoy science fiction which has a reasonable plausibility, even if one’s disbelief does have to be suspended to some extent. The book also includes some monotone photographs which have been edited to support the narrative although, somewhat perversely, they don’t always exactly match the section of the story they support; that’s only a minor quibble, however.

Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, the story concerns the eponymous Tom Pile who, we learn, went missing and was quickly presumed dead, in the year 1900, only to inexplicably return forty years later, having not aged at all, in exactly the same location, which is a part of Dorset I know slightly, having had family whom I occasionally visited with my parents, living there, and some still do. The area, according to the story, has been subject to strange lights in the sky going back to some years before Tom’s disappearance; the author claims not to “know if strange lights have ever been seen over the hills of Dorset…”, and that could well be true, but there are military establishments not too far away (although they possibly didn’t exist when the lights were first noticed), so that would lend some credibility to the theory that curious extra-terrestrial visitors (since that is the obvious, albeit not initially stated inference to draw from these events) have been investigating earth’s military capability. However, to use a well-known saying of the time, “there’s a war on”, so the fictitious (probably) government department investigating these phenomena has to use the threat of a German invasion to cover its enquiries, in the person of a young, precociously gifted Londoner by the name of Jack Carmody, who is sent to deepest, darkest Dorset, to see what he can find.

There is a twist at the end which is not entirely unexpected, and the dénouement could have been extended somewhat, but what could have been a tragedy turns out not to be so, entirely anyway, and it would appear that this is the first book in what could be a series, given that there is at the end of the book an “exclusive extract of the next story about Captain Holloway [Jack’s superior officer], Corporal Carmody and Tom Pile: The Miraculous Return of Annick Garel”; however, one disappearance (this book) and a “miraculous return” (the next book) don’t necessarily suggest an open-ended series: time will tell, of course. This is definitely not hard-core science fiction (apologies if that upsets hard-core science fiction aficionados), but I think that will make it more attractive to a broad audience, including perhaps a lucrative demographic, the ‘young adult’ readers, although this book doesn’t appear to be specifically targeted there. If the paranormal and/or unexplained phenomena irritate you, this is probably a book best avoided, but given that there are indeed many reports globally of people who have mysteriously vanished, and/or experienced time loss (they can’t all be mad or looking to make an easy buck, surely?), as I said earlier, it does (in my opinion, of course) have a reasonable plausibility, so if you can handle that, give this little book a whirl. If it helps to convince you, on the Penguin Books page marketing the book, no less an icon that Philip Pullman gives the book a glowing, albeit oddly brief, endorsement: “A cracker . . . Utterly convincing”: it works for me!

Book Review

Westwind, by Ian Rankin

ian-rankin-westwind

Image credit: The Reading List

I like Ian Rankin’s work; or, I should qualify, what little of it I have read hitherto; but, given that this is not a detective novel per se, in the Rebus oeuvre, I thought it would be worth reviewing. It is almost science fiction, but (so don’t panic) not quite, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this review. It is also presented, on the cover of the 2019 edition which I read, as “The classic lost thriller”: hyperbolic, perhaps, but it seems that one doesn’t win many prizes in publishing for understatement. After the probably inevitable, and understandably somewhat grudgingly undertaken rewrites, the book, actually his fourth, was published on March 1, 1990, to an almost deafening silence: one small review in The Guardian. “So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” Somewhat later, a surprise: Twitter to the rescue! Fans using this estimable service, and one in particular, combined to persuade Rankin to look again at this book, which he duly did, and it was republished in 2019, after giving “the original printed text a polish, … [a] few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser . . .”

The story, which is set in a slightly alternate version of our world in 1990 (where Germany is still divided, for example), begins with parallel situations of a British government listening station, monitoring satellites, especially ‘our’ spy satellite, called Zephyr (the significance of which will become clear near the end of the book), and a space shuttle mission, Argos,  to launch a satellite ends disastrously (not unknown, unfortunately), when the shuttle crash-lands, killing four (all American) out of the five astronauts (or are some of them already dead?), and as a consequence, the British surviving astronaut becomes a hate-figure, because American military forces are being unceremoniously kicked out of mainland Europe, which considers that it is capable of defending itself against the old Adversary, Russia. At the same time, there has been a panic at the listening station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, that has lost contact with Zephyr for over three minutes, which is unprecedented: it was not a drill, and yet the military overlords do not seem unduly concerned. One of the monitoring operatives, Paul Vincent, who is relatively new to the job but very well qualified, thinks he has spotted something worthy of mentioning to his superiors, but before his older friend, Martin Hepton, can quiz him further, Vincent is mysteriously sent on sick leave, to a nursing home, even though Hepton knows him to be very fit & healthy. Hepton is able to visit Vincent on a day off, but their eventual clandestine conversation appears to have been observed by two well-muscled ‘orderlies’, so when Hepton drives away, he becomes fearful for his colleague’s safety.

After this, the story develops into a cat & mouse chase, with an assassin thrown into the mix, and the British astronaut, Mike Dreyfuss, is brought back to England to assist the British security services get to the bottom of what has happened, and how much of a threat Hepton’s suspicions, and Dreyfuss’s near-death experience might be; not only to Britain, but to the whole world. There is many a slip along the way before the purpose of the satellite launched by the Argos mission is revealed, and as usual in any story involving security services, the reader is given clues as to who might be untrustworthy, or actively working for ‘the other side’: it is suggested that one of the main characters might be a wrong’un, but this turns out to be a red herring. It is clear (to this reader, at least) that, despite being one of Rankin’s earliest efforts, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller, and the pace of the action increases to a pitch where the book, which is not overlong at only 288 pages, not including the new introduction by the author, attains that epithet that has become something of a cliché: ‘unputdownable’! The story isn’t a classic in the way that, say, Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, or Lolita are considered to be, but it is a thumping good mystery, and I recommend it.

Book Review – 3001, The Final Odyssey

This book was a revelation to me, primarily because I hadn’t known it existed! The title gave me to expect, and in which I wasn’t disappointed, that it was a sequel, of sorts, or at least a further instalment of the story, to the original novel by Arthur C. Clarke, which was written as the narrative for a truly iconic film of the late 1960s, created by the maverick director Stanley Kubrick: 2001, A Space Odyssey. I’m sure that most other avid readers, especially those of science fiction, would have come to the same conclusion. I was aware that there had been what appeared to be a direct sequel (but see below) to 2001, called 2010, Odyssey Two, although I wasn’t sure if there had been a book before the second film; this question was answered in the helpful notes at the back of the book (which were appropriately titled Valediction, and I often smiled as I was reading this section, imagining Arthur Clarke himself reading the notes in his rich Somerset burr), and a further surprise came with the revelation that there was a second sequel, called 2061, Odyssey Three, before the final volume that I had just finished.

Very briefly, the chronology of the series is as follows. Clarke’s original story was written for a BBC-sponsored competition at the end of 1948! It didn’t win, but the story, which was published just over two years later in a British Sci-Fi magazine, was the basis of a “proverbial good science-fiction movie” for which Kubrick asked Clarke in 1964 if he had any ideas; the book & the film were released four years later. The unmanned Voyager space-probes in 1979 sent back such fascinating images of Jupiter and its moons that “the temptation [for Clarke] to explore it was irresistible; hence 2010 Odyssey Two [1981], which also gave me the opportunity to find out what happened to David Bowman, after he had awakened in that enigmatic hotel room.” The film was made in 1983 by Peter Hyams, using “actual close-ups of the Jovian moons obtained in the Voyager missions”. Odyssey Three was already being conceived thereafter, on the basis that the forthcoming Galileo mission would provide “a detailed survey of the major satellites over a period of many months.” Unfortunately, this mission didn’t happen, because the Challenger disaster ruled out a launch from the Shuttle in 1986; nevertheless, Clarke decided to press on, and the 1985 return of Halley’s Comet suggested the theme for the story, based around its next return in 2061.

Clarke is unequivocal that “Just as 2010 was not a direct sequel to 2001, so [2061] is not a linear sequel to 2010. They must all be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe. … So this Final Odyssey has discarded many of the elements of its precursors, but developed others — and I hope more important ones — in much greater detail.” So it would appear that the ‘reboot’, which nowadays causes so much consternation & debate among sci-fi fans, is by no means a new phenomenon! I certainly don’t want to give the impression that a reader new to the Odyssey saga, if I could refer to it so, would struggle without reading any of this book’s precursors: quite the opposite, so don’t feel inhibited by a lack of previous knowledge.

After a brief prologue (the details of which I won’t reveal), in which the background to the whole odyssey is laid out, the story starts, and it features ‘Dave’ Bowman’s erstwhile colleague from the USSS Discovery, which was on a “Top Secret mission to Jupiter”, Deputy Commander Frank Poole. He wakes up feeling rather confused, in a hospital bed on what he presumes is a space station, but before long, he is apprised of the fact that it isn’t, and how he came to be there. Without wishing to reveal significant elements of the plot, he decides to complete his mission, in a manner of speaking, by discovering what happened to Dave, after HAL’s mutiny; which he does.

Along the way, Frank has some romantic involvement; one abortive liaison, subsequent to an exhilarating flying experience, then a slower to develop, but longer lasting relationship. I’m very pleased, as an avid fan, to relate that Star Trek, which was already quite long in the tooth, gets an honourable mention. There is a jeopardy here, of course, as there should be in an engaging story, but I feel that there is a very slight ‘cop-out’ at the end: even though I do prefer a nice, neat ending generally, this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, however. For me, the most salient point that it makes is delivered as a quote from one of the book’s main characters, Dr Theodore (a.k.a. Ted) Khan, who resides on Ganymede, “curing any True Believers he can find there … all the old religions have been discredited.”, and which includes the name for the first monolith that was found on earth, TMA ZERO:

‘Ted’s fond of quoting a famous palaeontologist who said “TMA ZERO gave us an evolutionary kick in the pants”. He argues that the kick wasn’t in a wholly desirable direction. Did we have to become so mean and nasty to survive? Maybe we did … As I understand him, Ted believes that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the wiring of our brains, which makes us incapable of consistent logical thinking. To make matters worse, though all creatures need a certain amount of aggressiveness to survive, we seem to have far more than is absolutely necessary. And no other animal tortures its fellows as we do. Is this an evolutionary accident — a piece of genetic bad luck?’

This sounds rather like another nod, albeit inadvertent, to Star Trek: a reference to the Vulcans, who deliberately modified their nature over centuries, to rid themselves of the inherent aggression that they felt was destructive. Human nature: a subject about which there will probably never be any agreement (for as long as we have the free will to debate it)! At 253 pages (the edition I read: this might vary) the book is by no means too long, and there is a very brief, but in the context of the narrative, rather portentous epilogue, right at the end, before the notes, acknowledgements and valediction. We are left to draw our own conclusions about this portent and the possible necessity for the manipulation of human nature, perhaps emulating the fictitious Vulcans. The pace of the story is just right, for me, and even though it is now over twenty years old (the book was first published in 1997, by HarperCollins Publishers, London), the future technology does not feel unduly antiquated by contemporary standards. A very satisfying read for a sci-fi buff; this one, anyway.