Archive for December, 2014

Ahhhhhh…..

Some books are like taking a duvet day in December with a warm fire burning in the corner. And hot chocolate. Even though I don’t like hot chocolate, the idea of hot chocolate. And in the arms of someone who loves you.

These books are comforting. Warming. Safe.

And so it is with Good Omens, the 1990 collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/117/32686586/files/2014/12/img_6065.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/117/32686586/files/2014/12/img_6066.jpg

This is a re-read for me, which is really unusual, but I had fond memories of it, albeit with only a patchy recollection, and Radio 4 are broadcasting an adaptation over the Christmas period starting on 22nd December. I felt that with the end of a long and difficult term at work, I was in need of the duvet day that this book offered. It is perhaps the literary equivalent of a Christmas Mince Pie: warming, spicy and familiar.

Which is an odd way to describe a book which essentially is about the Apocalypse. The biblical, end-of-days, Book-Of-Revelations Apocalypse.

Gaiman and Pratchett do bounce around numerous points of view but essentially each and every character is hugely likeable, even and perhaps particularly the Anti Christ Himself, Spawn of Satan, Adam Young. We are introduced to the novel’s world by Aziraphile and Crowley, an Angel and Demon respectively, who have spent so much time on Earth and around humanity that they have grown to like the place. And each other. And are therefore rather aggrieved to find that the Apocalypse is imminent. Their attempts to thwart that Apocalypse are wonderfully inept.

Also working to thwart the End Of The World is the intriguingly pragmatic – and deliciously named – Anathema Device: witch, Practical Occultist and aura reader. She is armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the eponymous Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter from whom she is descended, which comes in handy when she loses the actual book.

Ironies abound in the novel – most notably the fact that the most appalling acts committed by humanity are born from human rather than demonic imagination – and the Witch Finder Army, which consists of a mere two members, Sergeant Shadwell and Private Newt Pulsifer, are in the employ of both Aziraphale and Crowley. And the With Finder Army teams up with Anathema Device, witch, as well as Madame Tracy, medium and painted Jezebel.

Amongst various cameos we also meet the Gardener’s World team, the Satanic Nuns of the Chattering Order of St Beryl, the Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse – War, Death, Famine and Pollution (who took over from Pestilence once penicillin was discovered).

It is a rollercoaster of a novel, written with massive flair and fun by two fantastic writers who seem to have just had a whale of a time writing it. Some reviewers have grumbled that they only liked the Pratchett bits or the Gaiman sections – often claiming the same episodes for their championed author. I couldn’t unpick them and didn’t really see the need to try. It was all just a riot!

Oddly, the section that I found I had remembered most clearly was the arrival of Adam’s Hellhound, Satanic Hellhound and Devourer of Souls – complete with glowing red eyes – who is reduced by the will, desire and sheer humanity of His Master to a small and scruffy cat-chasing mongrel. And is named Dog.

Roll on Monday!

With regard to the adaptation, the BBC have announced that the cast includes

Colin Morgan (Merlin, The Fall) as Newton Pulsifer, Josie Lawrence (Skins, EastEnders) as Agnes Nutter and Paterson Joseph (Peep Show, Green Wing) as Famine, as well as a host of delightful cameos, from the Gardeners’ Question Time team to Neil and Terry themselves….
Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing, Stardust) and Peter Serafinowicz (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Shaun Of The Dead) will be taking the central roles as angel and demon, Aziraphale and Crowley, respectively. The star-studded cast will also include Clive Russell (Game Of Thrones, Ripper Street), Julia Deakin (Spaced, Hot Fuzz), Louise Brealey (Sherlock), Simon Jones (Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Arsher Ali (Four Lions, Complicit, Beaver Falls), Phil Davis (Silk, Whitechapel, Being Human) and Mark Benton (Waterloo Road, Land Girls) to name but a few.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/117/32686586/files/2014/12/img_6067.png

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/117/32686586/files/2014/12/img_6068.png

I’ve been reading some weighty books recently. Miéville. Ali Smith. Haruki Murakami. All brilliant.

But sometimes, just sometimes, a slightly lighter read is called for: fun, engaging, escapist. And Aaronovitch delivers exactly that in his Peter Grant novels. An authentic police procedural with an engaging first person narrator whose wit is warm and genuine. With added magic.

Following Broken Homes which concluded with a face off between Grant and The Faceless Man and an unexpected and painful betrayal, Aaronovitch has given his embattled PC Grant a countryside break: the sinister Faceless Man arc is set aside almost entirely (save for a few hints setting up book six!) and we swap London for Herefordshire.

Peter Grant meets Midsomer Murders.

I was a little concerned by that. You know what it’s like when you take a set of characters that are closely related to a particular setting and give them a trip away. Only Fools And Horses in Spain. It usually doesn’t work.

This did though.

IMG_5931.JPG
Grant was as engaging as ever with witty one-liners such Nightingale’s refusal to memorise any police acronym which has not survived ten years. Beverly Brook joined Peter on Herefordshire which gave him the chance to develop their relationship, especially their physical relationship in the rustic setting. The new characters introduced for this stand-alone novel were pleasant enough although just a little two-dimensional.

The plot was, primarily, a straight forward police procedural: two girls had gone missing from a Herefordshire village and Peter Grant lends a hand, just in case the perpetrator is a fae creature or hedge wizard. We also get the chance chance to meet the retired wizard Hugh Oswald – from whom we hear a little more of Nightingale’s war record and from whom Nightingale acquire a definite article and becomes The Nightingale – and his grand-daughter Mellissa the etymology of whose name is significant and emphasises by the unnecessary double l. I wonder whether we’ll see them again.

And the magic in this one? It seemed a little downplayed and almost incidental until the final few chapters. Unicorns, changelings, faeryland and the Faery Queen all appear, albeit briefly but done well.

Overall, a really enjoyable read and a pleasant warm escapist holiday from December chill.

IMG_5846.JPG

Hmmm… where to start with this one?

It’s a book on which I am still ruminating and which is still rattling away inside my brain after a couple of days. Nagging at me. Gnawing at my consciousness. And Miéville’s writing does that: it dwells and lingers and questions and challenges you. That is why Miéville is one of my favourite authors.

Embassytown is a novel about language – with or without a capital L – and imagination, identity, and thought. And, as always with Miéville, a city. A divided city.

This novel is Miéville’s entry into science fiction so the city is located in a far distant planet. The planet is home to the Ariekei, a particularly alien and enigmatic race known as Hosts to the colonists in the human town embedded in the Ariekene City. The divide here – unlike the sublime The City And The City – is very physical: the Ariekene atmosphere is unbreathable to humans and they are limited to artificially produced atmosphere called Aeoli. Our first introduction to the city follows the attempts of our protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, to penetrate

what was not quite a hard border but was still remarkably abrupt, a gaseous transition, breezes sculpted with nanotechnology particle-machines and consummate atmosphere artistry – to write Avice on the white wood. Once on a whim of bravado I patted the nest’s flesh anchor where it interwove with the slats. It felt as tight as a gourd.

The Hosts aren’t described in detail but remain enigmatic and hard to picture: their motion is crablike, and sometimes insectile; they walk precisely but on hooves; they have both fanwings and giftwings; they see through multiple eye-corals. And, critically, two mouths which speak simultaneously. There is something H. R. Giger about the organic insectile Hosts and their organic “biorigged” City.

The dual mouths creates obvious problems for communication which is exacerbated because their Language

is organised noise, like all of our are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen…. Hosts’ minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue.

The words are the thoughts which they refer to. The signifier is the signified, in Saussarean terminology. As a result, computer generated voices could replicate the words but not the thought and therefore could not be understood as words. The solution? To use twins and, eventually create clones embedded with augmentations to create the impression of a single mind speaking through two mouths who act as Ambassadors between the humans and the Ariekei. Their names with their artificially capitalised second syllable reflect the strange artificial construct that the two people are a single mind: CalVin, MagDa, EzRa, YlSib, BrenDan.

Another complication of the Ariekeis’ Language is their inability to lie: because the thought is the word, the word can only be true. Metaphors are – literally – unthinkable. Even similes can only exist if the actual comparison has occurred and, to that effect, people are co-opted into acting out similes to become enLanguaged. And one such enLanguaged is our heroine Avice Benner Cho. I’m sure that such a language-steeped book has not chosen the ABC of our protagonist’s name coincidentally!

So, does the book work? Yes. Oh gosh yes. In the main.

The City and Embassytown are wonderfully evoked albeit perhaps less rendered than New Crobuzon, Armada or Kraken‘s London. There are fewer textures to the city and fewer dimensions, perhaps simply because Embassytown is a smaller and less diverse culture as a colonial outpost than these other older cities.

Miéville also delights in the opportunity Science Fiction gives to explore his own language with reasonable and credible etymologies and he often throws the reader in without glossing. His characters speak Anglo-Ubiq, a ubiquitous English; humans are described as Terre, derived from our Terran origin; non-human species are known as exots or exoterres from outside the Terran system; computers are Turingware; holographic three-dimensional messages are known as trid, the etymology of which may be clearer if a dash is added tri-d; and miabs deliver post and goods like messages in a bottle. I loved the way these neologisms jarred momentarily before becoming accepted just as part of the architecture of the world.

You do run into the occasional exposition in the novel: Avice’s husband, Scile, is a linguist and her friend Bren is a (part of an) Ambassador and both of them offer explanations of the Hosts’ Language. I had no problem with these occasional expositions: they were done well, timed effectively and weren’t hugely obtrusive.

I was far less convinced by the (fortunately brief) space travel section. The Immer – a strange alternate subspace in which distances were altered – was intriguing but very much in the background. It was little more than an excuse to take Avice off-world in order to have her return and occupy that liminal space of the outsider-native. There is potential within the concept of the Immer – warped dimensionality, fluid distances, strange pseudo-animalistic creatures – the possibility of it being sentient itself…

Did I love this book? Yes. Yes I did. I’m still baffled by it. But that bafflement feels good. I don’t know whether the book’s ending is triumphal or defeatist or, like the Ariekene Language, both simultaneously. At an intellectual level I love that the novel explores language and linguistics so explicitly and dwells on the power of language to enable thinking. Can we imagine that which we cannot articulate? Can thought be circumscribed by words? The book also works as a cracking science fiction adventure: the new Ambassador heralds in a catastrophe, war rages, our lone hero uncovers conspiracies, secret societies and embarks on a dangerous quest.

The narrative drive is suborned to the intellectual and linguistic explorations more than occurs in the Bas-Lag trilogy and the characters are less colourful but it does still work at that level.

Perhaps not my favourite Miéville novel but a great stand-alone challenging read.

Before you finish reading just cast an eye over the following image, the gorgeous cover art for Miéville’s works. See how that duality underplays each image: divided, distinct, disparate and yet conjoined, cohesive and collective. I was struggling a little to maintain the somewhat arbitrary alliteration there! Just gorgeous sensual covers.

IMG_5847.PNG