Book Review: Christopher Galt, The Third Testament – continued

So what did I think of this book?

Very well-written, intriguing, intelligent and exciting. The tension is maintained. That is not only – or even, for me, mainly – tension about some cataclysm. It’s tension about what’s going on. In that respect it resembles a crime story in which the focus is on detection. There must be an explanation for these events. What can it be?

Right away the fact that a supercomputer is involved and characters recognise that the computer, becoming self-aware, might create its own virtual world, raises the possibility that the world John Macbeth lives in might not be real. There are other possible explanations – for example, that there are parallel worlds of equal reality and these are somehow getting mixed up. Something of the sort seems to be happening because time is being disturbed, though only in people’s minds: they’re “seeing things” which really happened centuries or millions of years ago. There are also shadowy groups mentioned which might be orchestrating something – one violent Christian fundamentalist group and an obscure network of scientists. There is also that worrying American president.

It would be spoiling the read to let on what the answer turned out to be. Enough to say that there is a dramatic twist right at the very end which makes you reinterpret everything. For me that left some questions, some things I couldn’t quite relate to the solution.

I liked the book enormously. Criticisms? Three, I think. I picked up very early that the standpoint of the author seemed to be strongly anti-religious. You can argue that this reflects his characters, but then it’s odd that all the main sympathetic characters are atheists, with the possible exception of a Californian police sergeant whose Latino surname suggests he’d very likely be a Catholic, but for whom religion isn’t mentioned. There is a tendency to equate religion with crankiness. The young priest featured at the very start trying to talk down a potential suicide lectures the man in a way I find quite unlikely. I suspect priests get some training in how to handle emotionally unstable people: they have to do it often enough. Admittedly this one is inexperienced, but he talks to an apparently desperate man as if he were a rather stupid pupil.

That’s one. The second is that the poetic writing, while fast-paced, is sometimes a little overdone, I think. Russell uses words I’d never heard of – “pearlescent” for one. The third is that the strand or sub-plot about the sinister US president is developed to a point where it seems very important and then left hanging. The denouement does shift our perception of her in a neat and clever way, though.

In summary – I’m glad I discovered this book and this writer.

 

 

 

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Book Review:The Third Testament, Christopher Galt

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Sorry for a long delay since I last posted. There’s no overwhelming excuse like death or complete demotivation. I’ve stopped posting poetry for publishing reasons, I mean to post and then don’t, I have no desire to share every seemingly significant moment with an almost random pond-dip of the world… and when I tried to post a while back, I got in a tangle with positioning an image in relation to the text.

Still, here I am.

An advantage of just picking up books at a library or bookstall, as opposed to a ruthless and systematic electronic hunt, is that you occasionally find things you never suspected.This book is one. The cover says it’s by Craig Russell writing as Christopher Galt, which is unusual for a start. If authors want to use a pen-name they usually don’t put their real name alongside. Some real identities are genuinely meant to be secret and others are not really meant to be secret, more a matter of marking out A1 type writing from A2 type, but the Russell/Galt thing intrigued me. Turns out Craig Russell is a well-known Scottish crime writer and Galt is his SF/thriller alias.

I was also a bit puzzled when, after reading the book, I started to research it online and found reference to an apparently different book, “Biblical”, by the same writer with apparently the same plot. Puzzlement ended: it is the same book, but re-issued and re-titled. “Biblical” was the old title.

OK: American Psychiatrist John Macbeth is working in Copenhagen on a project to create a super-computer that mimics the human mind. The idea is that once it’s up and running, scientists can generate psychological problems and test treatments, finding out a huge amount about how the mind works. One worry is that the computer will be self-aware and no-one quite knows how it will react. That introduces one big question and tension.

The next is apparently quite separate and more urgent. People all over the world start doing strange things. A party of employees of a cutting-edge computer games company jump off the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Macbeth witnesses a student jumping from a roof, taking with him the priest who had been trying to talk him down. People have hallucinations. They suddenly stop in the street as if frozen, seeing things no-one else can see. A plane crashes trying to avoid a vast volcano that did exist in that place millions of years ago. John Macbeth, on a visit to Boston, shares with the whole population an experience of an earthquake that seems very real, that causes deaths through car crashes and so on, but that leaves no evidence of structural damage at all. The US President, someone with a dangerous psychological make-up, is seeing visions. Macbeth is put under pressure to join a US group working to understand what is happening, but refuses to leave the Copenhagen project.

Now I think for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, I’ll stop just here and come back next time with my thoughts on the book and just a little more on how the story develops.

 

 

 

Book Review: Matt Haig, The Humans

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An alien from a vastly more advanced distant civilisation is turned into an exact outward copy of a leading human mathematician at Cambridge University, whom the aliens had neatly and coolly murdered because he was on the point of a mathematical discovery which would have revolutionised human civilisation and led to this violent, unpredictable, retarded species gaining powers far beyond what it could handle. His task is to impersonate the dead Professor while he deletes all records of his discovery, including people he may have told about it, starting with his wife and son.

Things start going wrong immediately: his knowledge of human culture is very incomplete, so he doesn’t understand why wandering naked down a motorway at night may lead to what seems a rather extreme response and a brief acquaintance with other people who claim to be aliens.

He deletes one academic colleague. Then something else goes wrong. He starts becoming fond of his supposed wife and child. The rest of the book works out his dilemma.

At least since Montesquieu wrote about imaginary Persians visiting Europe, perhaps since some Roman writings achieving seeing something of the Romans from the viewpoint of conquered tribes, people have used very different strangers as a way of seeing their own culture anew. Some of the best Science Fiction now does this with aliens. The puzzlement and investigations of Matt Haig’s Vonnadorian do help us see ourselves more clearly. This is particularly so because the Vonnadorian culture – maths based, with little individuality and with death having long been banished, is so different from ours. His hero’s problem is that he starts feeling as human as Vonnadorian – an experience some people who are classed as terrestrial aliens, immigrants or refugees may relate to.

The whole thing is very well done – well-written, well-plotted, oddly credible.

In a postscript Matt Haig confides that the roots of this story are in a period of his own life when he was subject to panic attacks and human society and world seemed about as odd to him as they do to his hero at the start.

This is just the best book I’ve read for a long time.

Book Review: Joyce Carol Oates, Mudwoman

Hi!

I’m easing back to normal after almost full-time politics for a month. So here’s a book review.

I came across the now aged American Joyce Carol Oates’ writing a long time ago and I found the short stories compelling, sharply-described and often chilling. Later I tried one of her novels and couldn’t get into it for some reason. Then came “Mudwoman”.

The basic story is powerful. A mad mother drowns her two small children in a muddy creek but one of them survives and is adopted. She does very well in life, becomes a well-regarded academic and while still quite young, Principal (or whatever the title was) of a prestigious university. But she’s done this by suppressing her past, which comes back to bite her.

I ought to have been enthralled, but I wasn’t. Oates seemed to me to lay some things on with a trowel, especially the contrast between the top academic’s authority and intelligence and her vulnerability – and her femininity. While the question of how her two worlds would interact had plenty of mystery, some things seemed too obvious, not done enough by suggestion and indirection, and there was a subtext which might legitimately offend feminists. There can be conflict between masculinity and good leadership and administration, too. The descriptive writing was powerful, but I was not carried along.

There was another issue. The girl had been adopted by a Quaker couple and as a Quaker, I read with that mixture of interest and suspicion typical of someone deeply into something who finds it described by a writer less into it. I know people reading from that position can be hyper-critical, but still, it seemed to me Oates didn’t understand Quakers. Of course, there are differences between British and American Quakerism – some American Quakers have paid ministers, which for us is a bit like finding Catholics who refuse to have anything to do with the Pope – but from what I’ve seen and heard, the similarities are enormous.

Yes, I could recognise the vague goodwill of the couple, but not the always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life attitude. Plenty of Quakers I know can and have felt the depths. Oates refers three or four times to Quakers putting the communal ahead of the individual and that seems to me a misunderstanding. My perception (and I wasn’t brought up a Quaker) is that Quakers are both intensely individual (to the point of magnificent stubbornness sometimes, or eccentricity) and communal – that we don’t see the two as conflicting. I did check online to see what Oates’ religious background was – Catholic upbringing and now atheist.

Now here’s an admission for a reviewer. I didn’t finish the book. It was on loan from a library and someone else wanted it.

Maybe the real reason for my struggling was that the book had so little joy in it?

Book Review: Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery

In Britain Umberto Eco is chiefly known for “The Name of the Rose”, that brilliant detective story evoking, and depending on, the learned culture of the high Middle Ages in Western and Central Europe. By the way, if you’ve only seen the film, apart from Sean Connery’s restrained performance it’s a travesty and has got about as much in common with the book as a nursery rhyme with Hamlet (only nursery rhymes are short). I’d got the impression he was a bit of a one-book sensation: “Foucault’s Pendulum” had got the kind of reception common for disappointing follow-ups to a masterpiece, like “Shardik” following “Watership Down”.

 

I was wrong. “The Prague Cemetery” is brilliant and extremely readable.

 

As with “The Name of the Rose”, Eco has more than done his homework. His story reeks of the unstable politics of the middle to late 19th century in Europe. He states that most of the characters are real people.

 

His main character, Captain Simonini, a Northern Italian spending most of his life in Paris, is profoundly unpleasant. At any stage if chance or miscalculation had left him dead, I wouldn’t have been remotely bothered except it would have cut the book short. It’s remarkable that Eco can centre the story on such a uniformly unpleasant character and hold our attention.

 

Simonini is not exactly a spy, but he operates in the general area of spying and official skulduggery, while earning his daily bread forging wills. He has a very long list of hates – women, Jesuits, Freemasons, Germans, Jews – and the only thing he seems to really like is eating and drinking well – but he is never drunk. He has no religion and no secular ideals. He will do anything for money as long as it isn’t too dangerous or too distasteful. He befriends people and then kills them if it suits him.

 

He finds himself used by four different states, by the Catholic Church and by Freemasons, and he exploits and in part deceives them all. He loves inventing credible conspiracies and selling the information as true. He is the origin of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the notorious forgery which presented the Jews as tightly-organised in pursuit of world domination. This was used to justify pogroms in Russia and then the Holocaust. Simonini would have been proud, if frustrated that he hadn’t made more money from it.

 

There is an clever passage early on where Simonini meets Sigmund Freud in his preaching-the-benefits-of-cocaine period. Freud’s theories (not on cocaine) seem relevant to a mystery that is maintained for most of the book. Simonini has a kind of double, a priest called Dalla Piccola, who seems to know everything he has done, reminds him of the worst things and condemns them.

 

It’s just brilliant. It must sound depressing and in a sense it is, but I enjoyed it. Why?