Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: Feersum Endjinn

Feersum Endjinn
Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven't read much SF since I was a teenage fan of Asimov. I'm a big fan of Iain Banks, so who better to introduce me to the modern form of the genre, especially when I've just finished the magnificent [b:The Crow Road|12021|The Crow Road|Iain Banks||950451], which he must have been writing at the same time as Feersum Endjinn?

SF writers have always grumbled that they're not taken seriously by the literary world, and clearly they're trying to do something about it. I found the complexities of the plot tortuous to the point of bafflement, with the book slowly resolving itself into four main characters operating in different places, with storylines that don't come together till the very end. Each is in a different part of a completely alien future Earth – one that includes its own alternative reality – which makes it a struggle to keep track of what's going on and to identify which details are important to the plot and which are mere colouring. It doesn't help that Bacsule toks in weerd fonetick teckst speek & u ½ 2 konsentrate reel hard coz it goz on 4 payjiz an payjiz lyk dat.

As far as I can grasp it, the Earth is entering a dust cloud that will extinguish all life. Two factions are fighting for control of some power that might save the planet. At various times they can transport themselves into an alternative reality; one that is infecting the real reality and where time moves at about 1,000 times the speed of the real world.

Gadfium works for the king and is trying to decipher the messages from a mysterious plain of stones, which she thinks might be messages from an earlier race of humans who abandoned Earth centuries before. Count Sessine also works for the king but keeps getting assassinated and is pretty soon down to his last life as he tries to work out who keeps killing him and why. Asura has no idea who or what she is but is trying to find out. Bacsule has lost his pet ant Ergates and is trying to find him. One, many or all of them might hold the key to saving mankind and saving the reader from his utter confusion about what is going on.

What Bacsule calls the "feersum endjinn" isn't even mentioned till the last page, and how it works and exactly what it does isn't adequately explained even then, as if Banks had collapsed over the line, mentally exhausted, hoping his readers wouldn't think it mattered.

This is Iain M Banks (he uses the 'M' to distinguish his science fiction from his literary fiction), so the characterisation is brilliant, there is a subtle vein of humour running all the way through and the prose style is masterful. In anyone else's hands this story would have collapsed under its own weight, leaving the novel with as much structure as a bowl of porridge.

You've got to admire Banks for the feat of imagination that created this richly detailed world and for holding it together all the way to the end. Considering the complexities of the plot and the bizarre universe where it takes place, I'm amazed that I understood it at all, though it still needed an unsatisfactory passage at the end where one character explains to the whole world exactly what was going on. That's always a sign of failure in any novel. And two days after finishing it, I'm not sure I could explain to anyone exactly what it was all about.

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: HHhH

HHhH by Laurent Binet

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In seeking to be oh-so-clever, HHhH abandons fiction, history and narrative in favour of a post-modern meta-narrative that becomes so tangled and confused that it undermines itself at every turn. Binet claims to despise fiction, yet his book is classified as fiction, yet nothing in it is fictitious – unless the story about how the book was researched is itself fictitious. But if so, the whole premise of Binet’s obsession with truth falls to the ground, because how can a book obsessed with telling the truth require the reader to do his own research to determine whether the author is telling the truth or not? More importantly, it’s boring.

Binet flails between fact and speculation, and despite his stated veneration of facts and contempt for fiction, he gets many of his facts wrong. He claims to have seen the damage to the rear door of Heydrich’s car, even though the car didn’t have a rear door; he says that Heydrich changed the spelling of his first name – a claim found nowhere else – and he declares that the Hussite rebellion was crushed at the Battle of White Mountain, which didn’t happen till two centuries later.

HHhH is confused and muddled, neither fiction nor non-fiction, neither story nor history, with a pedestrian style that’s easy enough on the eye but hardly great prose, and the lack of page numbers is a pretentious irritation.

Binet totters from denouncing fiction to filling his account with baseless speculation. He wants to make his story personal but makes it impossible to care about him, making his account of his research bland, impersonal and tedious. It’s all flat, self-indulgent anecdote and I’m baffled as to how Binet – still less his publisher – imagined that anyone would care. Giving a book an unusual structure isn’t enough to make it a classic, whatever Martin Amis says. Most of the time it comes across as simply lazy, not to mention arrogant and hypocritical.

Considering the fulsome praise it has received, HHhH is a monumental disappointment.

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: The Old Inn

The Old Inn
The Old Inn by Bettine Manktelow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Old Inn is an old-fashioned, workmanlike play that makes a decent choice for amateur drama. There's nothing much bad about it: the characters are standard types but well-enough created and the plot is sound. I enjoyed it well enough, but the last half-hour could have been cut to ten minutes as character after character re-enters to tie up every conceivable loose end, even irrelevant ones or ones that were so obvious that the audience had already worked them out.

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