Tag Archives: Science fiction

Use of Weapons

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Use of Weapons [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 3 of The Culture series.

Banks Use of Weapons

The third novel of Ian Banks’ Culture concerns an agent Zalkawe recruited for chiefly military work by the Culture’s Special Circumstances operative Sma. He is not himself a Culture man, nor is he especially sympathetic at his best, and in some ways this book felt like a return to the form of the first book Consider Phlebas, with the viewpoint agent working for the Culture rather than against it. The chapter IV that described Zalkawe’s first integration into the Culture was the most straightforward of such passages in the books so far.

The chronological structure of Use of Weapons is curious and effective. It alternates two series of numbered chapters, one running forward in time and counting up (One, Two, Three …), the other running backward and counting down (XIII, XII, XI …). The earliest episode of the novel takes place at its midpoint in chapter VII during a set of flashbacks, but these are not given their full context until the end of the book. The most recent events are set into bracketing Prologue and Epilogue passages, along with a short postfactory chapter “States of War.”

This volume was for some reason longer than I had expected it to be, and although it read at a good pace, it took a lot of attention to complete. I’m looking forward to the change of tempo offered by the next in the series, State of the Art, which collects short stories in the Culture setting.

Funeral in Berlin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Funeral in Berlin [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Len Deighton, book 3 of the Harry Palmer series.

Deighton Funeral in Berlin

Where Horse Under Water (the immediately prior “Secret File” by Deighton) had a crossword conceit, Funeral in Berlin is instead ornamented with chess tactics. I read it as a chaser to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it worked well that way, highlighting the distinctive styles of the two authors–not to mention the fact that Deighton’s book did in fact follow le Carré’s by about a year (i.e. 1963, 1964).

The anonymous narrating agent cracks wise with even more consistency than in the previous books. There are fifty-one short chapters, which tend to lengthen slightly towards the end. The extremely circumspect first-person prose is broken up with five chapters that use third-person passages to give the viewpoints of other key characters. There are also a set of six brief appendices furnishing overviews of relevant intelligence agencies and legal and technological contexts. These are helpful for readers enjoying the book more than a half century after it was written, but for some reason I was irked by the footnote method of referencing them during the story.

There were a couple of curious and welcome minor details during the closing chapters. Chapter 45 saw our man unwinding with a copy of J.F.C. Fuller’s Decisive Battles of the Western World. In chapter 49 he discussed with his superior Dawlish the organizational need “to take the social pressures off the homosexuals.”

The 2009 edition I read was equipped with a new author’s introduction regarding his “most successful book” by certain commercial measures. Deighton reflects there on his own experiences in East Germany and his disinterest in writing “serious literature.”

At the rate I’ve been reading these “Secret File” novels, I won’t finish them until 2035 or thereabouts, but they are all at the public library, and they read fast enough individually that I could mop up all of them next month. I certainly aim to continue at some pace or other.

Deighton Funeral in Berlin Penguin

The Beyond

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Beyond [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford, book 3 of The Well-Built-City Trilogy.

Ford the Beyond

“The Beyond exists on many planes and in many times,” says the plant-man (“foliate”) Vasthasha, speaking of the wilderness that exists beyond the realm and civilization, and sometimes, it seems, out of reality altogether. So too does The Beyond.

The third volume of Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy sends his protagonist Cley in a final bid for redemption into the Beyond. This vector is complemented by that of the demon Misrix, a native of the Beyond, who discovers and pursues his aspiration to become civilized, human, and humane. I’m floored by the profound wonderfulness of this adult fantasy saga, which doesn’t even seem to notice that it has discarded all of the threadbare conventions of its genre. Ford combines straightforward prose and a storyteller’s pacing with exotically proliferating images and ideas. The result is truly engaging fiction with characters and situations that encode true dilemmas of the human experience.

As the Green Star Rises

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews As the Green Star Rises [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Lin Carter, DAW cover and illo by Roy Krenkel, illo Michael Kaluta, part of the Green Star series.

Carter as the Green Star Rises

The fourth Green Star book was much like the third, continuing the plots begun in the sky city and the forest floor in the new environment of an inland sea and its jungle islands. It was perhaps a tad “spicier” than earlier arcs of the series, although largely through threat and peril, leaving it relatively tame compared to the larger sword-and-planet field. There is also an unwitting and highly ironic non-consummation of the love-quest central to the series. (Other reviewers have called that part of the story “contrived,” but in this sort of exoplanetary fantasy what isn’t?)

The most notable feature of the story was its blind narrator. The boy Karn had been blinded at the end of the previous volume, and while parts of the book held out some hope for recovery of his sight, he spent this entire segment unable to see. But despite the fast pace and surfeit of action, the story isn’t told as an immediate reportage. It instead recounts multiple threads of plot as companions and allies are separated and adventure in parallel. Karn is supposed to have learned later what had happened to his friends, but his telling interweaves the various developments along a synchronized timeline.

The illustrations in this book are collaborations between Roy Krenkel (whose pictures were in the previous one) and notable comics artist Michael Kaluta. None of them particularly thrilled me, though. Krenkel’s cover art is an adequate representation of the moment on page 60, when the women escape an island by means of a great hawk-steed. The rider is thus Arjala, while Niamh the Fair is hanging from the stirrup.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Anima [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by M John Harrison.

Harrison Anima

This volume is two novels under a single cover. They have similar scales and some thematic common ground, but no narrative coordination. The jacket copy calls them “love stories,” which is not completely off the mark, but probably fails to do justice to them. Publisher Gollancz has classed them as “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” which is again fair, but the subtlety of the fantasy (in the first) and the science fiction (in the second) is profound.

The first is The Course of the Heart. It has a vivid sense of place in its English settings, reminding me in some ways of a very adult version of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The novel impressed me with both its ability to be dreamy and icky by turns, and its verisimilitude in representing postmodern occultism. It’s not about occultism really, but it traces the troubled paths of three characters (one of whom is the narrator) in the decades following their initiation into “the Pleroma” by Yaxley, a loathsome magician who lives above the Atlantis bookshop in London. The closest comparison I could make for this book would be to the “Aegypt Cycle” of John Crowley, but boiled down from those practically Wagnerian proportions to a comparatively Beckettian economy, and with a distinctly different metaphysical verdict.

I found The Course of the Heart enjoyable and enigmatic enough for me to track down and read Harrison’s short story that it had elaborated: “The Great God Pan” (1988). Reflecting on the novel through the lens of Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1890) is certainly interesting. It places all three of the central characters in the position of Mary, the experimental subject who had her brain altered to expose her to the “real world” in Machen’s story. Harrison uses Gnostic language to figure this exposure as contact with the “Pleroma.” And he supplies each of them with different outcomes. But in an author’s note to “The Great God Pan” in the collection Things That Never Happen (2003), Harrison notes that the story owes more to Charles Williams than to Machen. And indeed, if John Banville were to write a Charles Williams novel, I would expect it to turn out pretty much just like The Course of the Heart, which tips its hat to Williams with a mention of War in Heaven on the final page.

As long as I’m making comparisons (still trying to take a measure of Harrison, who is a new author for me), I would note that the second novel, Signs of Life, reminded me of the work of Chuck Palahniuk — but less funny and consequently more disturbing. It partakes of typical Palahniuk tropes regarding vehicular speed and medical gore, along with laconic characters of inscrutable moral sense. I’m glad to have read this story, although I’m not sure I can quite say I enjoyed most of it, and there are certainly fewer people to whom I would recommend it than The Course of the Heart.

Warlords of Xuma

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Warlords of Xuma [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by David J Lake, illo Oliviero Berni.

Lake Warlords of Xuma

This sole sequel to Lake’s Gods of Xuma follows its Barsoomian models somewhat by progressing a couple of generations from the initial volume. Also, in a reversal of the first book, the human protagonist is female, and her Xuman companion matures into a male during the course of the story. (The paperback cover art by Oliviero Berni shows her credibly — if a bit overdressed — but he looks far too human.) In general, the content and tone of this story are more traditionally sword-and-planet than its predecessor.

If there were more of these books, I’d probably read them. They are quick, exciting stories with some worthwhile implicit philosophy. The four-stage lifecycle of the Xumans, with their resulting six genders, opens a lot of interesting narrative possibilities which these two novels certainly didn’t exhaust.

Time Trips

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Who: Time Trips [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] with stories by Stella Duffy, Trudi Canavan, Joanne Harris, A L Kennedy, Jake Arnott, Cecelia Ahern, Nick Harkaway, and Jenny T Colgan, with illos by Ben Morris.

Various Doctor Who Time Trips

Time Trips is an anthology of Doctor Who stories by accomplished authors All eight stories are novella length, previously published as separate ebooks. Each has a two-page title spread with an illustration by Ben Morris. Although a couple of the Doctors appear in two stories, and not all the Doctors are covered, the assortment does span six different versions of the hero from his sixty years of television adventures.

A.L. Kennedy’s “The Death Pit” is a delightful tale of the Fourth Doctor. It is 90% characterization, with an old-fashioned freak-of-interplanetary-nature monster. It takes place at a golf resort in the 1970s, and it has more than a whiff of Douglas Adams about it.

Jenny Colgan’s “Into the Nowhere” is entirely too much bickering between Clara and the Eleventh Doctor, with insular fannish features: demands that readers understand Clara’s ontological peculiarity, along with unexplained references to the Shadow Proclamation. The use of trappings from Christian myth reminded me unpleasantly of the episode “The Satan Pit” (first televised in 2006) where they likewise served to paper over weak plotting.

Nick Harkaway’s story “Keeping Up with the Joneses” has the Tenth Doctor managing a crisis inside the TARDIS, touched off by leftover ordnance from the Time War. The resulting instability creates an entire Welsh town within the hyper-architecture of the machine. This locale is called “Jonestown,” for reasons that make sense within the story, but the name still evokes the great 1978 massacre/suicide of the Peoples’ Temple in Guyana, which I find it hard to believe was Harkaway’s intention.

Trudi Caravan sends the Third Doctor and Jo to Australia for one of the shorter adventures in the book, “Salt of the Earth.” It might be the best tonal match for an actual representative television episode among all of them. It is set in the later 21st century and benefits from a closer view of that future than was available in the 1970s Pertwee era. Jo’s experiences with advanced technology are thus piquant for today’s readers who have already seen much of it developed.

“A Handful of Stardust” by Jake Arnott features the Sixth Doctor and Peri, allowing them to encounter both John Dee and the Master in Elizabethan England. It is cleverly written, and Arnott does seem to keep the protagonists irritating in the same ways they were in the 1980s show. The presentation of Dee isn’t very sympathetic, and in some ways he is eclipsed in the story by his junior contemporary Thomas Digges.

Cecelia Ahern’s “The Bog Warrior” is pretty bad. If it hadn’t been for the Ben Morris title illustration, I wouldn’t have been able to know that the protagonist was the Tenth Doctor. He is largely a bystander in a Cinderella-inflected exoplanetary drama involving zombie soldiers and a counterrevolution.

“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Time Traveller” by Joanne Harris has a little bit of Alice in Wonderland, a lot of Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” and a dose of McGoohan’s The Prisoner in a story supplementing the Third Doctor’s regeneration in “Planet of the Spiders.”

The last story is the earliest in the Doctor’s biography as well as Earth’s history. Stella Duffy sends Patrick Troughton’s Doctor with Jamie and Zoe to classical Alexandria in “The Anti-Hero.” Short chapters helped this one feel like an old television serial.

I borrowed this collection from my public library, and I foresee no itch to reread it, nor do I expect I will ever bother to own a copy. Still, most of the stories were clever and enjoyable, and I can easily recommend the book to Doctor Who fans.

The Brothel in Rosenstrasse

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Brothel in Rosenstrasse [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Michael Moorcock.

Moorcock the Brothel in Rosenstrasse

The Brothel in Rosenstrasse is a sweet-bitter story of the Continental fin de siècle. It is ever-so-loosely linked to author Moorcock’s Eternal Champion hyperwork through the von Bek family, but it has no fantastic or “speculative” elements, and it reads with the pace of an introspective literary novel, not a pulp action novella. There is a good deal of explicit sex and moral puzzlement, with a bit of political intrigue and some existential digust and despair.

The setting is Mirenburg, capital of the principality of Waldenstein at the close of the 19th century, and the story is structured as a memoir being written by the dilletante black-sheep younger-son aristocratic protagonist. Occasionally–and invariably mid-paragraph with no overt signals of the change of register–Rickhardt von Bek interjects his present circumstances of decrepitude and impending death. Thus he juxtaposes his much later physical mortality with the demise of his youthful dreams acted out in the Mirenburg reminiscences.

The novel has some admirable metaficitonal positioning, with references to Huysmanns and Salammbo, among others. Von Bek is supposed to have been the successful author of a prior memoir The 100 Day Siege: A Personal Record of the Last Months of Mirenburg, but that was superficial journalism for the reading public, while his real personal concerns are only written out in this deathbed manuscript. The whole thing is divided into three very long chapters, with the rambling narrative voice providing few natural stopping-places within them. I enjoyed it a great deal, and I recommend it to seekers of literary decadence.

FreakAngels, Vol 3

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews FreakAngels, Vol. 3 [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Warren Ellis, Paul Duffield, & al., part of the FreakAngels series.

Ellis Duffield FreakAngels Vol 3

The tension continues to increase in the third volume of FreakAngels. It turns out I was wrong about all of the FreakAngels having K in their names, Connor, at least, doesn’t, even though he’s got the sound of it. I’m really enjoying these trade paperback collections, but I’m not in the least tempted to read the original webcomic. The pacing, while wonderful in a printed book of this kind, seems like it would be insufferably slow, if taken one page at a time. 

This one ends with a multiple cliffhanger, literal and figurative.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy: The Royal Imperial Boxed Set by Ian Doescher has arrived at the Reading Room, a gift from the Librarian’s mom (presumably in celebration of my new prescription for glasses coming soon, which means I may be able to comfortably read again). This box set includes Verily, A New Hope [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]; The Empire Striketh Back [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]; The Jedi Doth Return [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]; and an 8-by-34-inch full-color poster. This collects the adaptations of the original trilogy from the ongoing William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series. (This might seem tangential, but these are, after all, books with monomyth in iambic pentameter, and more, so I felt like I’d mention the arrival. Plus, I intentionally and willfully cross the Town-Gown-Tau divide all the time …)

Doescher William Shakespeares Star Wars Trilogy the Royal Imperial Boxed Set

“Experience the Star Wars saga reimagined as an Elizabethan drama penned by William Shakespeare himself, complete with authentic meter and verse, and theatrical monologues and dialogue by everyone from Darth Vader to R2D2.

This Royal Imperial Boxed Set includes all three New York Times best-selling volumes in the original trilogy: Verily, A New Hope; The Empire Striketh Back; and The Jedi Doth Return. Also included is an 8-by-34-inch full-color poster illustrating the complete cast and company of this glorious production.

Authentic meter, stage directions, reimagined movie scenes and dialogue, and hidden Easter eggs throughout will entertain and impress fans of Star Wars and Shakespeare alike. Every scene and character from the film appears in the play, along with twenty woodcut-style illustrations that depict an Elizabethan version of the Star Wars galaxy.”

Doescher William Shakespeares Star Wars Trilogy the Royal Imperial Boxed Set Panorama