Books I Read In June 2012
The Dreyfuss Trials – Guy Chapman
As the title suggests this is an overview of one the notorious miscarriage of justice that occurred when in 1894 a French soldier was falsely accused of treason, framed by a military court and held in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island for nearly five years. The events are covered clearly and comprehensively, however I did find it a little lacking in context. The poisonous atmosphere of anti-semitism, nationalism and deranged militarism that seemingly hung over fin-de-siecle France is not really shown in as much depth as I’d have liked. As it is, the book does kind of give the impression that everyone in Paris suddenly went mad for several years. On the other hand, Chapman does depict vividly the confusion that surrounded the case, with some of the protagonists cynically lying and forging, some defering to the authorities and failing to properly examine evidence, others using the affair to settle existing scores etc. The overall impression is of a horribly complicated disaster, with everything wildly spinning out of control as the affair was turned into some kind of public referendum on the soul of France. There were a few bits that seemed kind of odd to me – the German governments repeated denials that Dreyfuss was working for them are cited as important evidence that was ignored by the prosecution, which seems a bit naïve to me. After all, they’d have had to deny it even if it had been true. Anyway, the book in general is perfectly serviceable but nothing particularly special.
The Pale King – David Foster Wallace
I was late getting into David Foster Wallace for some reason, I only got around to reading the wonderful Infinite Jest last year and now I’m trying to catch up as fast as I can. Or as fast as his books get released in eBook format anyway. This is the book he was working on when he killed himself; I was a bit wary beforehand that it might be an attempt to cash in on his death or just unreadable, but neither of those things is the case. It’s difficult to tell just how finished the book is since although the plot is disjointed and in places hardly there at all, it’s entirely possible that this is deliberate. The overarching theme seems to be boredom, presumably in the way that Infinite Jest was about excessive stimulation, with painstaking clerical work, endless bus journeys, traffic jams etc. The main spine of the plot involves a group of people working for the IRS in the 1980’s, of whom one is apparently psychic, one is named David Foster Wallace, claims to be the author1 and gets mistaken for another person named David F Wallace, and another who seems to have a very similar background to the actual David Foster Wallace. Nothing really happens, which might be the point or it might be because he simply hadn’t written it yet. Whatever else it is, it’s brilliantly written especially considering it’s essentially an early draft – aside from a few phrases being repeated too often there’s little to separate this from any of his other published work. The feeling of total, crushing boredom and depression is conveyed perfectly, though admittedly it doesn’t sound all that enticing when you put it like that. As with Infinite Jest, I found that Wallace could explain things I’ve always felt but not been able to put into words. All in all, the main problem with talking about this book is that there’s no way of knowing exactly what it was trying to do – it could have been nearly finished, or it could have been barely started. It’s a terrible shame that he couldn’t live to finish it, because what’s here suggests that the finished article could have beem something very special indeed.
King Rat – China Mieville
The debut novel by weird-fiction master China Mieville. Saul’s father has been murdered and the police think he did it. But then something very strange breaks him out of prison and takes him down into London’s underworld – King Rat has come for his kin. Someone very, very dangerous is in the city, and King Rat needs Saul’s help to stop him. If you’ve read his other work it’s pretty easy to tell that this is Mieville’s first novel, it doesn’t have the richness or depth of ideas that characterise his work, and it isn’t quite as polished either. Of course, I’m a huge fan of his, so ‘not quite as good as his best work’ still translates to ‘rather good’. On the other hand, if you’ve again read his other work you could definitely identify this as one of his; familiar motifs such as back-street urbanism2, supernatural forces in a non-traditional setting, left-wing politics etc. are all present even if he’s not fully worked them out yet. The writing is good, though it lacks the florid prose of his later work; I suppose some people might consider that a plus point though personally I don’t. It’s a good book, but it’s probably more for Mieville completists – if you’ve not read any of his books before you’d be much better starting with Perdido Street Station or Kraken.
Revenge of the Lawn/The Abortion/So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away – Richard Brautigan
A collected edition of two novels and one set of short stories by someone whose name seems vaguely familiar to me for some reason. They’re all very slight, so much so that it’s hard to think of anything to say about them. The third book, about a man remembering the childhood events that led up to a terrible accident, is probably the best. Thinking about these books is like trying to hold on to mist, I can’t seem to get any kind of a hold on them. Perhaps it’s me. I enjoyed reading them well enough I guess, and I can see why the author was so popular with the hippies.
Infidel – Kameron Hurley
The follow-up to the excellent bug-punk God’s War, which I read a few months back. In the six years since the end of the first book, not much has changed for former Bel Dame turned bounty hunter Nyx other than her becoming even more embittered and damaged3. Her usual run of petty violence-for-hire gets interrupted when she once again becomes involved in politics; a faction within the Bel Dames is plotting against the queen and Nasheen is on the brink of outright civil war. Since Nyx is extremely capable and totally desperate she gets the job of stopping them; nothing goes right for anyone and everyone gets hurt, physically, mentally and spiritually. A tale of espionage, deceit and violence against a background of unending total war on a planet where skin cancer is as common as a cold, Infidel is definitely not for the faint-hearted. As with it’s predecessor, the violence is brutal to the point of savagery and all the characters seem broken in some way; none of them really want to live like they do, but they feel like they have to. Constant conflict has poisoned everything, from the brutalised individuals to the militaristic governments to the lethally contaminated landscape. Most of this story is set in Tirhan, the safest and most prosperous place on the planet. Except that this prosperity is gained through selling weapons to Nasheen and Chenja, the two main powers who’ve been at war for centuries; nothing is clean. Infidel is definitely as good as it’s excellent predecessor, the writing is I think a little improved, it feels tighter and more stripped-down as befits a story like this. The fascinating background is expanded without clumsy infodumps, although this time around it doesn’t have quite the same impact, probably because by now the shock of the new has worn off a little. Still, the sheer hostility of the world is well portrayed, always staying just shy of the point where you wonder why everyone hasn’t just given up on living by now. Highly recommended, with the proviso that if you don’t like graphic violence or insects you might be better off reading something else.
Band of Brigands – Christy Campbell
The story of the somewhat ramshackle, chaotic beginnings of armoured warfare during the First World War. It makes interesting reading, I knew the rough outline of events but I hadn’t realised that things were quite as complicated as they were. The constant infighting between for- and against-tank factions within the British government takes up at least as much of the book as the actual fighting does. To say nothing of the disagreements over what sort of tanks should be built, and how they should be used, and of course over who should get the blame/credit. . . Some of the early ideas for armoured vehicles sound brilliantly mad – giant tricycles, back-to-back tractor units with flexible links, enormous mobile fortresses, basically a lot of things that would probably fit right into Warhammer 40,000 if you added a few more spiky bits. It was interesting to read this after having read Heinz Guderian’s Achtung-Panzer! a few months back. This is rather more grounded, making it clear that although they were effective under the right conditions, the early tanks were not the paradigm-shattering change claimed by Guderian. In fact I was surprised by how vulnerable the first tanks apparently were; I knew they were highly prone to mechanical failure and getting bogged down in mud4 but the descriptions of them being crippled and destroyed by machine-guns and trench mortars make it clear they weren’t quite the armoured leviathans envisaged by their creators. Although the author never outright says this, the book strongly gives the impression that the war would probably have turned out more or less the same had tanks never been built. The apostles of the tank were right about the potential they had to redefine warfare, but at the time the technology to realise this potential just didn’t exist. A well-written book that’s surprisingly light on obscure jargon and arcane mechanical details5.
The Kingdoms of Dust – Amanda Downum
Third in the Necromancer Chronicles6, one of my favourite fantasy series in quite a while. Necromancer and spy Isyllt has been forced to flee her home following events in the previous book and has ended up in the desert kingdom of Assar, pursued as ever by intrigue and danger. As with each of the previous books, the story is set in a well-realised non-traditional setting, in this case, a pseudo-Arabian society dominated by a powerful church dedicated to suppressing the spirit world. I don’t think it’s quite as effective this time around, probably because this kind of setting has been done before in fantasy, albeit rarely, but nonetheless it’s unobtrusively and effectively portrayed. There’s a lot of the little details that bring the world to life and make it feel like a concrete place rather than a generic stage-set. There’s a definite undertone of H P Lovecraft here as well, although not in the common ‘Cthulhu, East Coast fishing villages, inbreeding’ way but rather in the vein of ‘ancient desert kingdoms, hidden secrets, destruction from the stars’. Once again the setting informs the feel of the story, with the vast, sun-beaten, inhospitable desert mirrored by the characters – they’ve had the humanity more or less burned out of them by the weight of responsibility and power, and they make their decisions slowly and inexorably. Although the plot this time has far higher stakes than the earlier stories, the action is slower and more measured. It’s more about how the characters come to their decisions and how they feel about those decisions than it is about fights and chases, though there are more than a few of those too. I’m assuming this is the final volume in the Necromancer Chronicles partly because these things usually come in threes and partly because it ends in a way that seems to provide closure for it’s central character, though another sequel wouldn’t seem impossible. All told, this is a more than worthy addition to a series that I definitely recommend.
My Elvis Blackout – Simon Crump
Slim volume of deranged, mostly gruesome stories involving Elvis. Or involving ‘Elvis’, as depending upon the story he varies from being a drug-addled washed-up singer, a serial killer, a cannibal, a quiet man in Yorkshire, subject of obscure medical experiments, and so and and so forth. Most of the stories are very short, just a page or so, and a few of them are interlinked. By and large they work well, although they suffer from being quite repetitive; the pattern of ‘Elvis does something crazy, someone gets killed/mutilated’ crops up often enough that it ceases to have any shock value or impact. I suspect they’d work better in isolation, if you came across one in the midst of a collection of other stories they might well be quite disturbing but once you’ve read a couple of stories about Elvis being hassled by the corpse of Chris de Burgh or being a teenage murderer with a wig fetish it’s hard to find any of it shocking. The sudden descents into gory violence aren’t exactly surprising when you’ve been expecting them from the first line. Still, a fair few of them are entertaining in a mondo way and at points the sheer weirdness is it’s own reward.
Exponential Apocalypse – Eirik Gumeny
Amiably crazy slacker comedy. There have now been twenty-two separate apocalypses, including various robot uprisings, zombie plagues, nuclear holocausts, corporate wars etc. The remaining people have more or less stopped paying attention to whatever the current end-of-the-world is. One of the ways the world hasn’t ended yet is Ragnarok, much to the irritation of Thor – the former Norse god has been condemned to mortality following the victory of Science over Religion and now works at a failing Holiday Inn in a New Jersey swamp. In the grand tradition of slacker comedy, the protagonist does very little beside hang around with his friends and colleagues until he gets dragged into some kind of mad scenario that leads to all kinds of lunacy. Obviously in a novel like this it has to be a particularly mad scenario; what actually happens is that an Aztec god with a drinking problem takes control of the Hobo Empire and begins to conquer what’s left of the United States. The plot meanders about, taking detours every time a potential joke appears, before culminating with a knock-down battle in Las Vegas involving robotic Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a trio of cloned historical figures7, a psychic superhero squirrel and a replica Eiffel Tower. It’s actually kind of like an American take on one of Robert Rankin’s pun-filled shaggy dog stories. Basically, it’s all very silly, profane and highly entertaining. What more can you ask for 79 pence?
1 He isn’t really.
2 Specifically, London as usual.
3 To be fair this is no small achievement.
4 A bit of a drawback on a WW1 battlefield.
5 Not that I have anything against these things you understand.
6 The first two instalments being The Drowned City and The Bone Palace.
7 Two presidents and one queen.