Sunday 26 July 2015

The Little Book of Cardiff by David Collins & Gareth Bennett

While preparing a great visitors' guide to Cardiff, I tried to read as many books about Cardiff as I could find. They range from some quite poor and long-outdated tourist guide books to dense texts about local heritage (interspersed with many B&W photos), via an entire series of almost impenetrable, rather pretentious stream-of-consciousness ramblings through the city written by a 'Beat Poet', whatever that is. So I was quite curious when I read that a new 'Little Book of Cardiff' was about to be published (it hit the shelves shortly after my own guide e-book hit the wires). It looked like just the sort of thing I was producing myself: accessible, light-footed, bringing the city to life without getting too obsessed with historical details...

Broadly speaking, the book delivers on those promises. It's excellent at the ancient history of Cardiff, and telling the highlights of the distant past. Things do get a bit bogged down later on: the sports section is almost entirely pointless and boring, unless you are a sports fan (the bit about baseball was interesting though), and the list of cinemas / gigs / pubs that used to exist is basically a nostalgia-fest for the middle aged / older folk.

In the end, the book didn't tell me a whole lot of new things, and the thing I'd hoped for the most, factoids and quirky anecdotes, were thin on the ground. It's not a bad Little Book of Cardiff, and pretty good at making history accessible, but it's not consistently interesting all the way through.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word for World is Forest is a title that suggests there will be environmental themes in this novel. What wasn't immediately obvious to me until I read the introduction (after I read the novel: too many introductions give too much away) is that it was written during the Vietnam War.

The novel starts with the viewpoint of Captain Davidson, waking up on the day after a supply ship has arrived on the planet. He's pleased that the women / prostitutes are finally there, as ordered, to serve him and the men working on exploiting the planet. Immediately, he is confronted by a well-meaning civil servants whose job is to ensure ethical conduct - and who is angry that the men are hunting and killing local wildlife for sport. Davidson, naturally, dismisses the weak leftie pencil pusher.

Captain Davidson is very much the villain of the piece. Mysoginist, rapist, warmonger, agitator, racist and genocidal maniac, he's a character who is easy to hate. Humanity's presence on this planet is driven by greed: Earth's resources have been depleted, so mankind is exploring space and finding other planets to tap into, other cultures to engage with (and occasionally destroy). Davidson is the embodiment of  humanity and militarism at its very worst.

The local hominids are small, green, fluffy humans. They either live as noble savages in small tribes in the forest, or they are enslaved by humans and made to serve in the logging camps and colony settlements. The first chapter ends, portentiously, with the first lethal attack by the natives on a logging outpost: until the events of the novel, they had been considered meek and incapable of violence against humans.

The rest of the novel follows Captain Davidson, the humans and the natives as they adapt to a new situation. It's virtually impossible not to see other works in this one - or rather, it is impossible not to realise that other science fiction movies have been heavily influenced by The Word for World is Forest - for the book came first. The local tribes are essentially Ewoks (but the book predates Star Wars) while the story is pretty similar to that of Avatar, except this time, it's not a white American man who saves the noble, but naive locals.

It's a short novel and a quick read. Ursula Le Guin admits that it is preachy, but that did not bother me much. My personal bugbear was the spiritual dream-time, world-time mumbo-jumbo, and the too-good-to-be-feasible original state of the natives. There's a difference between being peaceful and being incapable of conceiving violence against one's own species. These natives are, after all, predators, hunting and eating local wildlife with bows and arrows and spears. 

That said, the ending is poignant and wise, which is highlighted by the introduction. There is much here that can be learned - and it's easily a superior work to Avatar in terms of the intelligence of the messages in the book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 18 July 2015

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

It's been a while since I've seen a novel set on the moon. It's almost as if, after mankind has set foot on our nearest space rock, the moon has lost some of its magic and allure.

Luna: New Moon sets out to show us the moon in a different light. Set in a not-too-far future, the moon has become a resource, the permanent home to hardy settlers and the new frontier. There has been a moon-rush, the way there have been gold rushes, coal rushes, oil rushes in the past.

Frontiers can be lawless places. There is a reason the West used to be Wild. There is a roughness in places that are frontiers today: the Arctic, the great mining and logging areas of Latin America, the oil industry onshore and offshore... robber barons, speculators and entrepreneurs all have exactly the sort of energetic, ruthless hunger that Ian McDonald has found so fascinating in the novels he set in developing nations of the future. The moon is no different, except the power that run the moon - the Lunar Development Corporation (reminiscent of the East India Company or the Hudson Bay Company and other colonial corporations) - formalised the ruthlessness into a unique legal system. The only law is contract law. Everything can be negotiated. Every atrocity can be paid off with compensation, if there is someone left to make a claim.

I've been eagerly awaiting Luna since I first heard about it, at LonCon last year. Ian McDonald is a brilliant writer, and seeing the moon through his eyes promised to be an exquisite pleasure. I was not disappointed. At first, the character list at the start of the book scared me: so many people. so many names, so many relationships to remember (and so many unfamiliar terms: what is an 'oko' to another person, I wondered). Needless to say, I forgot them all and started reading. Fortunately, the book flows so organically that it's perfectly accessible even without the list at the start.

The story starts with aplomb: a 'moon run': naked teenagers leap out of an air lock and sprint through the vacuum in ten seconds, to another air lock and safety. It's a coming of age rite, dramatic, dangerous and heart-stoppingly tense.

The pace never really lets up. Soon, the viewpoint shifts to Marina Calzaghe, someone at the very bottom of the pecking order, a Jo Moonbeam, a new arrival who lost her job and is near the end of her tether: her accounts for air, water, food and bandwidth are all perilously low. You can survive without food for a while, and even water can be scavenged, but without bandwidth, you have no means to find a job, no chance to escape from poverty, and your ultimate death would be inevitable as all your accounts would run out.

There are five dynasties on the moon. Australian metal & rare earth miners. Ghanaian traders. Russian space transport tycoons. Chinese high tech / IT magnates. And, newest of all, Brazilian upstarts, the Corta-Helio family: Helium miners. Marina Calzaghe catches a lucky break and gets to be a one-off waitress at a Corta party. After that, much of the novel tells the tale of the Cortas - their matriarch's rise to wealth and power, their traditions and struggles, and the inter and intra-dynastic squabbles.

The moon is brought to life beautifully. People live in underground caves or on giant moving platforms perpetually cruising around the moon's equator on rails. The currrencies feel right and convincing. The dynasties and family politics are cut-throat, as they should be on a frontier. Everything about this moon is interesting, visceral and so very very alive. It's not at all a dead rock, but a buzzing frontier.

Ian McDonald is a virtuoso with prose. Luna might have some of the dynastic feudalism and tribalism that Song of Ice and Fire has made so very fashionable of late, but it's told in prose that flows and sings and dances on the page. It's seductive and mesmerising - a beautiful book to read.

If Luna has a flaw, it's that it's the start of something - a duology, a trilogy, a series: I don't know. It's a great, engaging and thrilling read, with some stunning set pieces, tension, great prose, but it does not feel as if its story has ended. It leaves me wanting more.

I can't wait to find out what comes next. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday 12 July 2015

One Night in Sixes by Arianne "Tex" Thompson

One Night in Sixes is a fantasy Wild West novel. I haven't read many of those - The Incorruptibles and Red Country are the ones that spring to mind - but I'm told it's a growing genre.

The novel starts at an annual market / fair, where Sil, one of our two protagonists, is failing to sell the horses he's been sent to sell. It's his first year in charge, and bar an early sale weeks ago, he has failed dismally.

Appaloosa Elim is a more experienced, but less eloquent guy. His job is to look after the horses, while Sil is basically the manager. When the fair ends and they still have almost all the horses they arrived with, Sil decides to head across the river / border, into the hostile country beyond the frontier, to sell the horses there at a premium. Elim objects - but when Sil rides ahead, Elim is forced to follow, for he wouldn't dare return without Sil, just as Sil would not dare return without Elim.

The journey to Sixes - the nearest town on the other side of the border - is a challenge for both of them. Sil needs to stay ahead, for if he is caught by Elim, he knows he'll get a beating and be dragged back like an errant kid. Elim, meanwhile, has to look after all the horses without losing them, try to catch Sil, and risk his own life, for he is a "mule", a half-breed, half-white and half-Injun / native, facing prejudice and hatred from both. (More so from the wild folk than the whites, it has to be said)

The novel is a struggle to read. It throws you right into a complicated universe without any preamble or context, without exposition and without any patience. Ultimately, you find out that the different tribes are all part-magical, with powers linked to the animal they are affiliated with. So the ravens/crows are sneaky and try to be clever, the fish people can breathe under water, the Northerners / palest of white people can draw heat from objects and turn them cold, etc. etc. etc.

There's been a war in living memory, and all the "mules" are presumed to be the outcome of rapes committed during the war, hated and scorned for that reason. Each tribe has different beliefs and rites, and all the natives / Injuns live in one joint territory, only barely at peace with each other, while the cowboys and whites have the rest of the country.

All of which could be a vaguely interesting premise, but the book falls very flat. Too many characters with too many names, too many tribes with too many motivations. While the author seems to have worked out motivations for each character (I think), none have been imbued with much personality to speak of. They all feel like cyphers - each tribe meant to have one or two characteristics, so each member of each tribe has those characteristics. This book made me realise how fundamentally racist fantasy fiction can be: when a person's tribe / race determines every aspect of their personality, without much room for individual traits, then the society being described is fundamentally racist, not just in characters' beliefs, but in actual fact - racism is justified when race determines everything about a person.

The "throw your readers in at the deep end" approach can be effective (pretty much every China Mieville novel does that), but in this case, it obstructs the reading. A huge portion of the book takes place on a day when one character is tied to a post and roasting in the sun, so for all that time, there is limited plot progress. And once the plot does move on, it's so confusing with so many people and so many different schemes intersecting that the complicated woven knots of Song of Ice and Fire seem simple and predictable in comparison. Even after reading the book, I have no idea why the Injuns are particularly keen on horses or horse people. Besides, with no character being particularly likeable (one protagonist has initiative but is an arrogant fool, the other has no initiative at all and is entirely passive), this particular reader couldn't care less about what happened to any of them.

The ending, meanwhile, is a non-ending, clearly setting up a sequel, so there's not even any particular satisfaction in getting to the end.

Arduous, confused and boring.

Rating: 1.5/5