Saturday, May 31, 2008

17. Sweeney's Island by John Christopher

Sweeney's Island pictureFrom the few biographical snippets I've read about John Christopher, he was a very prolific writer in the early part of his career. It really was a career for him and until the success of the Tripods trilogy, he had to write as much as possible. He cranked out several books a year, in several genres. He also never did any rewriting beyond the first chapter, supposedly. I don't know, his books read pretty well to me. Sweeney's Island is one of those, written in 1964. It's about a group of London bourgeois hangers-on of a very wealthy and connected guy named Sweeney. During one of his cocktail parties, Sweeney asks them to stay after where he proposes an impromptu trip on a new yacht he has just bought. He has clearly planned this very carefully, knowing that each of them either is dependent on his future generosity or is free enough to be able to just take off for a few weeks of ocean paradise.

However, it becomes apparent that Sweeney's plans are a little more elaborate than that when the ship ends up going into untrafficked routes far into the Pacific and then stops at an uninhabited tropical island far from any shipping lanes. Well, seemingly uninhabited. There are signs of previous habitation and even surprisingly organized agriculture. A constant cloud hangs over the islands larger two peaks, hiding it from view and there are other disturbing signs which I won't reveal.

The core of this book is about the people, the power and personality struggles that arise among them. Normally, I am not so interested in that path being emphasized but Christopher takes things to a pretty awesome extreme here. Shit gets really twisted. In some ways, this is very much like a Lord of the Flies with adults. Or more specifically, Lord of the Flies with british bourgeois adults from the mid-60s, a social group that Christopher rips to pieces in this book. Very satisfying.

I really enjoyed this book. The element of isolation and the social hierarchy reshaping itself once released from the strictures of authority and civilized society put this very much in the Post-Apocalyptic tradition, even though there isn't actually an apocalypse. Even if that genre isn't interesting to you, this is still a really entertaining and enjoyable book. It's turned up the intensity of my appreciation of John Christopher. I was at first only interested in checking out his PA books, but now I'm grabbing anything I can get my hands on.

Monday, May 26, 2008

14, 15, 16 The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher

The Tripods trilogy picture

Got these through the 50 books network. Jarrett found the first one and sent it on to the Lantzvillager, who passed it on to me with the second one as well. I found the third (in a special reprint with a new forward from the author) at the bibliotheque nationale. I am compressing all 3 in one post because my two predecessors did a better job than I in providing the overview of the plot of each book. In short, it is the story of a young man brought up in a post War of the Worlds earth, where humans are kept docile by a "capping" ceremony done to them when they reach puberty. Giant metal tripods patrol pastoral and sparsely-populated human lands. The young man avoids the capping and discovers a cell of rebels. He joins them and works to take down the alien oppressors.

I found these books to be fast, a bit shallow, but thoroughly enjoyable. I think the lack of depth is actually the lack of "boring stuff" that most 13-year old boys would not find interesting. In that view, these books are extremely tightly structured. It does get richer, though. I found Christopher's portrayal of the aliens nuanced. At first, you hate them, but you also get enough of a glimpse of them that you can't hate them. Since their behaviour very much reflects our own human colonization (of other humans and animals), you can't ultimately hate them without hating humans. Christopher is smart like that. He doesn't let his readers off easy, which is great for adolescent boys who just want to kick some alien ass (though there is a good amount of that as well).

The period where the heroes are in the alien city is quite disturbing and frightening as well. It's all been quite well thought through. The other thing I enjoyed was the pastoral nature of the world. The lack of technology and competition for resources kind of makes the alien-controlled earth a medieval fantasy land, which Christopher does a great job of describing. He throws out enticing details like food in a market stall or modes of dress that efficiently add richness to the atmosphere.

These really are fantastic books and I strongly recommend them for anyone looking for a gift for a young reader (probably better skewed towards the males).

Lantzvillager's review of the first and second books (I guess he hasn't finished the trilogy yet!)

Jarrett's review of the first, second and third books

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

13. The City Dwellers by Charles Platt

City Dwellers pictureFound this one at a crazy, disheveled used bookshop way out on Mont-Royal. In the basement floor they had a few bins of english books, mostly crap from the late 80s and 90s, but I found this old british sci-fi book. It was thin and nicely yellowed, perfect for my travels to come. I didn't really know much going in, beyond that it was about characters in growing and dieing cities and it had some nice written language at the beginning.

The uniting story line is the concept of our future world becoming completely dominated by cities and the human race slowly dying out because of them. For unknown reasons, we stop reproducing. There are four parts, each one at least a generation after the previous. The first story is about a hyper-decadent rock star trying to find meaning. The second about a pair of hipster artists who have fled the city, only to have it (in the form of their decadent friends) come to them (with news about the forced devacuations as the cities die). The third is in the rundown ruins of the crumbling cities where only a few cling to tradition and the rest run around destroying things. The final chapter is a dystopia of a few running humans surviving off the empty cities, while teeny enclaves of mostly men hunt down any women they can find to reproduce with.

It's an interesting read and, though the central conceit of humans stopping reproducing (if only) due to some kind of urban malaise and special surrender is a bit far flung, I found that it held some interesting conjectures and ideas. The situations were cool and the characters engaging, but because it was more like 4 novellas strung over a greater concept, it lacked the overall narrative that would have made me really loved it. Cool find, though.

Friday, May 16, 2008

12. Night Walker by Donald Hamilton

Bad Company pictureI have toyed with Donald Hamilton in the past. It was a reading encounter with great promise that led to a real deflating letdown. He is best known for the popular Matt Helm series of manly paperbacks found in drugstore racks in the 60s and 70s. His early books were also said to be a big influence on the Parker books (written by Donald Westlake under the nom de plume Richard Stark), otherwise known as the best crime books ever. There were one or two books in particular whose titles I forget that I did read and they really did kick ass. I was so psyched because Hamilton had written so much more and they are so easy to find. I even had hope that the Matt Helm series might be competent. Unfortunately, something happened to Hamilton along the way and the other books I read by him had lost the tight, cold intelligence that had attracted Westlake. They were, instead, pandering to the audience (obvious macho tropes) and, far worse, demonstrated inefficient and emotional character behaviour. So I had to let the other Hamilton books on my on deck shelf and let go of that relationship.

I found Night Walker in a box of paperback discards that Lantzvillager was trying to get rid of (though there were many attractive covers there, they didn't quite reach the high standards of his paperback collection shelf). This looked like it might have come from the early Hamilton and I needed a book for the flight home, so I gave it a whirl (I think Lantzvillager was hoping I'd take more than one book).

It's about a Navy officer after the war on his way back to the base after leave. He is really reluctant to go back. His reluctance is given temptation as he gets a lift from a friendly salesman, who then knocks him out and leaves him for dead in the burning wreck of the car. He also leaves him his identity for some reason. Our narrator finds this out when he wakes up in a hospital room. He decides to take on the identity and see what happens. It's an interesting moral situation with an intriguing set-up and I got caught up in it.

In the end, it is a decent read. It reminded me a lot of a non-Travis McGee John D. MacDonald novel, in the setting, the situation and the nature of the ultimate antagonist. I'll put early Donald Hamilton back on the list of books that won't be too painful to read on the plane.

(Note: the edition I got is the original, not the Hard Case crime reprint. I just couldn't find the image online and didn't have time to scan it. Hard Case Crime is doing great work in any case.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

11. Bad Company by Liza Cody

Bad Company pictureI picked this one up at the Kitsilano branch of the great Pulp Fiction bookstore in Vancouver. The British packaging caught my eye and the blurbs made it sound like it might have the right stuff. The protagonist is a female private investigator in contemporary London. Bad Company might not have been the best place to start since the heroine spends the whole time kidnapped, but it was an entertaining and well-written read nonetheless. The London underworld is richly portrayed and the lowlifes, from the stupid, inexperienced thugs who pull off the kidnapping to the serious hard and well-dressed ones who are trying to stop them as well fit well into the British empirical mold. The ending was a bit anti-climactic, but I think realistic. I'll be keeping an eye open for other Liza Cody books.

Friday, May 09, 2008

10. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

Journey to the Centre of the Earth picture

Again, a really cheap buy. I probably should have done my research first (actually probably should have sucked it up and read the original in french) because I'm pretty positive this is one of the many badly-translated, brutally chopped english versions of Verne's books. His books were translated as children's books and had a lot of their heart removed from them. It was only recently that proper, faithful translations had been released and I'm pretty sure this wasn't one of them.

It was still an interesting book that moved forward very steadily and intriguingly. It is taken from the perspective of a young man who follows his scientist uncle to discover the centre of the earth. There is a lot of traveling and not a lot of conflict, but the voyage is quite fantastic and the ideas imaginative, so you get caught up in it. I think I owe Verne a second, proper read.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

9. A Story of Days to Come by H.G. Wells

A Story of Days to Come pictureThis is a short (as many of his novels are) H.G. Wells novel that I found somewhere while traveling. It has a hilariously wrong yet accurate cover of a man and woman fighting off a dog in some ruins. It's wrong because though this scene actually happened, the picture looks like a Vallejo-esque barbaric fantasy. In the book, it is two wimpy future city-dwellers who, dissatisfied with modern life, make out for the country. At one point, they do get attacked by dogs, but the scene emphasizes how hopelessly unprepared they are for life outside of the city. I really should have scanned that cover, but I left it in the free bookshelf in the laundry room of my mom's apartment. Somebody took it so maybe it got read again, which would make it worth it.

The plot follows a young couple who fall in love. The woman had been promised to a rich but unattractive industrialist, but she is in love with the idealistic young man and chooses him instead. The industrialist goes about ruining the young man. It takes place in a future where the countryside has been almost entirely abandoned by humans. Agriculture and fuels are produced by automatic machines and everyone lives in vast cities, with an extreme social and economic hierarchy. The story is a romance but also a condemnation of man's separation from nature and the skills of survival. It is also an opportunity for Wells to do all kinds of interesting speculation on technology, the future and how it will affect human society.

It's a fun, quick read, with some crazy ideas. Wells was a man of his time but beyond it as well. The class structures in the book are strongly Victorian but still don't seem wildly off (though one could argue that nothing has really changed for us since the Victorian age in terms of class). The tech is much farther off course, though much more the fun for it. One cool conception he had is a giant ring of moving platforms inside the city. The rings on the inside and outside move at 5 miles per hour. Each consecutive inner ring moves at 5 mph faster so that by the time you get to the middlemost ring, you are moving at 70 miles per hour. You can step from ring to ring quite easily because the difference between each ring is easily manageable, thus allowing you to move short or long distances quite quickly.

H.G. Wells is as cool as Evil Spock: