400 pages (in manuscript)
published in 2008
It was james_nicoll who suggested to hold a Matt Hughes reviewathon of his latest novel Template, since Hughes was kind enough to offer an advance copy to any reviewer or blogger who was willing to do something with it. James wanted a reviewathon because he found it "tremendously annoying that Hughes is not better known than he is". I figured it would be an easy way to sample a writer I knew of but had not yet read so this week I found myself reading my first Matt Hughes novel.
Had it not been for James and his reviewathon I don't think I would've read this novel, as the plot description didn't sound that interesting. Conn Labro is an indentured duelist on Thrais, one of the Ten Thousand Worlds, happily fighting all kind of duels and games for his employer, making them lots of money while never quite paying off his indenture, though he is now one of the top ranked duelists in all the Ten Thousand Worlds. He was indentured as an infant you see, so has a lot of indenture to work off. But all this changes when Hallis Tharp died. Tharp's an old man, the closest thing to a friend Conn has, who has been coming to Conn every week for most of his life to play a game of paduay. Conn sets out to see what happened to Tharp when he doesn't show up for his game, discovers he's died and he has inherited what's left of his meager possesions, only to see his employer's game house blown up before his eyes when returning home. It then turns out he's inherited a bearers deed to some offworld possesion and after he and Jenore Mordene, another friend of Tharp are attacked again, Conn sets off with her to find his destiny elsewhere in the Ten Thousand Worlds.
It all sounded a bit too much like a half dozen other science fiction novels. Hadn't Heinlein done something similar in Citizen of the Galaxy? And wasn't that in fact, a bit of a ripoff of Rudyard Kipling's Kim? Matters weren't helped by the first few chapters, which were a bit too rich with infodump to me, with Conn thinking to himself and explaining the system he lived under. Fortunately this turned out to be a momentary hiccup. Once the story proper got underway things moved much smoother and it becomes clear what Hughes is trying to accomplish.
Template is a classical coming of age science fiction story, in the best tradition of Heinlein and Clarke. Conn himself is somewhat of a tabula rasa, a big innocent outside the context of the gaming house he was indentured too, little more than a cog in the machine, convinced of the utter rightness of the anarcho-capitalist society he grew up in without ever having thought deeply about it. Once he's forced to leave it and come into contact with other cultures and ways of living, other moral structures he starts to grow as a person, questioning some of his society's values, but without this becoming a conversion story. The central conciet Hughes builts this story on is the idea that all of the cultures encountered in the novel embody one of the seven deadly sins, which of course means all of them are flawed in some essential way and hence none has the right answer.
Looking over the reviews James Nicoll has collected so far, one writer Hughes keeps being compared to is Jack Vance. I can see why this would be a tempting comparison, as Vance is perhaps best known for his inventiveness in creating new, exotic and often utterly alien cultures. With his Ten Thousands Worlds set in a future long after our own times have been forgotten, Hughes seems to be trying to do the same. Yet it's not a comparison I would make, as he misses some of the outlandishness, the exoticism, some of the sensuality of Vance. Instead I come back to another science fiction grandmaster, one I've mentioned before: Robert A. Heinlein. Hughes style of writing has some of the same bluff, no-nonsense tone of let me tell you how the world works Heinlein had in his juveniles, and he also has the same knack of undermining some of his explenations by the actions of his characters.
In the end then, what Hughes has written is a classic sort of science fiction novel, which in a just world should be coming out as a mass market paperback with a huge print run, to be bought for thirteen year nieces and nephews everywhere. It's far removed from the usual modern science fiction I read, not something I would've sought out on my own, but I'm glad I've read it.
(If you like this review, why not visit my my incomparable booklog?)
Another month gone by means another list of books read. Seventeen in total this time, bringing the grand total for the first third of the year up to fifty exactly. I found this to be a little bit too much reading, as it left little time to digest the books properly. Links to proper reviews will be added when they're put up on the booklog.
Madame de Pompadour -- Nancy Mitford
Following on from her biography of Frederick the Great. This was written much earlier, in 1954 as opposed to 1971 and I found it slightly harder going. It's also longer, which doesn't help. After a while Mitford's light, teasing style began to annoy a bit.
The Clan Corporate -- Charlie Stross
The third novel in the Merchant Wars series, charlie's attempt at writing a proper epic fantasy series, though it owns more to H. Beam Piper than to J. R. R. Tolkien.
London: A Social History -- Roy Porter
This was published in 1994, so it misses the developments of the past fourteen years, but this is still an excellent one volume history of London and its peoples. It's not as comprehensive as Peter Acroyd's later London the Biography, but it's not as up itself either.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar -- Michael Parenti
Takes the murder of Julius Caesar and puts it in a class war context.
The Year of Our War -- Steph Swainston
Interesting fantasy novel by a new and unknown to me writer.
The People of the Talisman -- Leigh Brackett
Another short Eric John Stark novel, in the vein of the Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels, but much better written.
Tanks in Detail -- Panzer III -- Terry J. Gander
What should be an indepth look at one of the more important German World War 2 tanks is let down by its shortness and doesn't contain much not already known to the tank enthusiast.
Tanks in Detail -- Sherman & Firefly -- Terry J. Gander
Another entry in the same series as above, suffering from the same flaws and with a less interesting selection of pictures and drawings to liven it up.
Stations of the Tide -- Michael Swanwick
Okay but not spectacular science fiction novel by a writer who has done better. It never quite gelled into a coherent story.
Postwar -- Tony Judt
Flawed history of postwar Europe, too focused on the big countries (Germany, France, Italy and the UK) in my opinion.
The Voyage of the Sable Keech -- Neal Asher
The first Asher novel I've read, not the best starting point as it needs a lot of backstory knowledge to make sense out of.
The Great History of Comic Books -- Ron Goulart
A nicely chatty history of the American comic book, which largely confines itself to the socalled Golden Age (1920s-1950s). Dated, sketchy but a reasonable overview still.
Worlds of the Imperium -- Keith Laumer
Fun fast-paced adventure sf by the master. Not an unmissable classic by any means, but good enough to pick up secondhand.
A Plague of Demons -- Keith Laumer
Another sf adventure novel by Laumer. It was interesting reading those two so short after each other and see the simularities. Both are set partially in North Africa - Algeria to be precise, both feature tough loners whose name starts with a B, etc.
The Prefect -- Alastair Reynolds
This is a prequel to Revelation Space and its sequels, set at a time when the Glitter Band was not yet destroyed and as a consequence somewhat of a less sombre novel than Reynolds usually writes. It took a while for me to get in it, but once it did it was rather good.
Chain of Command -- Seymour Hersh
A good though dated (written in 2004) overview of the crimes of the Bush administration in their war on terror, going from what happened in Abu Ghraib all the way back up the chain of command to the crimes at the heart of the War on Iraq.
Rainbows End -- Vernor Vinge
Once upon a time I would've said Vernor Vinge was the science fiction author with the most convincing view of the future. Now however it just seems old fashioned, even slightly dull. Nevertheless this is still an accomplished novel, though not half as convincing in its depiction of the near future as e.g. Halting State or Brasyl.
Yes, this is the most exciting thing we've experienced this week.
Another month gone by means another list of books read.
The Thief of Time -- Terry Pratchett
The first time I reread this. A typical late Discworld novel.
Flat Earth News -- Nick Davies
Nick Davies is an acclaimed journalist who here exposes the news media for the shallow spreaders of lies they are. Something of a Manufacturing Consent for the 21st century, though with less analysis and more anecdotes.
Vellum -- Hal Duncan
A brilliant fantasy novel that will annoy the fuck out of a lot of people for being so deliberately vague and confusing.
Matter -- Iain M. Banks
Banks' latest Culture novel, which doesn't disappoint.
Last Days of the Reich -- James Lucas
This details the last phase of the struggle in Europe during World War 2, from the battle for Berlin until the final surrender of German forces on May 9, 1945. It's somewhat marred by the author being slightly too keen to document the outrages undergone by Germany at the hands of the Russians while largely omitting the context in which these outrages happened.
Farthing -- Jo Walton
A cozy murder mystery set in 1949, in a world in which Britain and nazi Germany made peace in 1941. The horror of the situation creeps up on you.
Petty Pewter Gods -- Glen Cook
An entertaining hardboiled detective story set in a fantasy worlds where the Gods come quite literally knocking on our hero's door...
Imperial Earth -- Arthur C. Clarke
Dated but still interesting late science fiction novel by the last of the Big Three.
The Compleat Enchanter -- L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
Yngi is a louse! Classic fantasy stories from a time before Tolkien.
The Testament of Andros -- James Blish
Classic science fiction stories, some of which now hopelessly dated, some of which deserving of being called classics.
Frederick the Great -- Nancy Mitford
Nancy Mitford's biography of the great Prussian leader. Nicely written, very English in that teasing, slightly patronising manner of hers.
The Secret of Sinharat -- Leigh Brackett
Eric John Stark, fugitive from the law for supplying the Mercurian tribes with guns, has to stop the Martian tribes from rising in revolt in return for his freedom.
Does anybody have any advice on what to do with a cat who's used to doing his business outside but either can't or can't be bothered anymore to do so? Getting a littertray in is difficult in our teeny tiny postage stamp of an appartment.
The Red Pavillion - Robert van Gulik.
A mock-historical detective story, based on an 18th century Chinese mystery novel starring Judge Dee, who was himself based on the historical Judge Dee and whom van Gulik appropriated for his series. You could call it orientalist, if not for the matter of factness with which the series treats its setting.
The Peoples of the Hills - Charles Burney & David Marshall Lang.
Worthy but slightly dull attempt to chronicle the early history of Armenia, Georgie, Eastern Turkey and the Caucasus by an archaeologist and a historian. The edition I read was from 2001, but this book was written in 1971, so it's probably dated by now.
The Steep Approach to Garbadale - Iain Banks.
An enjoyable novel about a large sprawling Scottish family with a deep dark secret at its core, yes, somewhat like The Crows Road
The Jennifer Morgue - Charlie Stross.
The sequel to The Atrocity Archives, a fun spy romp mixed with geekery and high doses of Lovecraft.
The Earth: an Intimate History - Richard Fortey.
An excellent overview both of geological history of Earth and how geology developed as a science, told by one of the best writers of science books I know.
The Battle of Venezuela - Michael McCaughan.
An introductionary history of Hugo Chavez, the Boliverian Revolution he spearheads and the response he called forth against it. Slightly out of date, as it was written in 2004 but sharp, to the point and not too partisan.
The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality - Wolfram Wette.
After the Second World War Germany was quick to embrace the myth that while they were on the wrong in the war, the Wehrmacht was just doing its duty, did it "with clean hands" and that it was Hitler, Himmler and the SS who were the villains, not the ordinary mwn serving in the army. This book explodes these myths.
Ammonite - Nicola Griffith.
Excellent science fiction novel by a writer I need to read much more of. Feminist in a very natural way.
Selling Hitler - Robert Harris.
Robert Harris on perhaps the biggest publishing fraud in history: the fake Hitler diaries.
1610: a Sundial in a Grave - Mary Gentle.
A cast iron bitch of a novel, as you should expect of Gentle: a mixture of history, science fiction Hermetic magic, esoteric knowledge and kinky sex.
Rivers in Time - Peter D. Ward.
A non-fiction book examining the three major extinctions that shaped our world, as well as the fourth one currently going on. Interestingly enough, while the idea that we are currently in a mass extinction event is not new, Ward argues that actually much of it has already finished millennia ago...
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut.
I last read this when I was thirteen or fourteen or so, it still held up, though it does feel much more dated than something like Catch-22, an anti-war novel of similar vintage.
It had been over a year since the last time I'd visited the UK and as always it struck me ahow harsh and hard it looked. So much seeming neglect of public spaces, combined with relentless commercial messages everywhere, as well as uberpresent surveillance and security measures, like CCTV cameras prominent on pedestrian crossings! All made me feel uncomfortable everytime I was outside.
I have the horrible feeling that this is the future that is awaiting the Netherlands if we're not careful.
The End of Eternity, - Isaac Asimov.
The first Asimov novel I've read since at least 2001, an old favourite of mine, one of the first sf novels to introduce me to the idea of altering history.
The Big Time - Fritz Leiber
Also an author I hadn't read since at least 2001, another favourite and another time war novel. Brilliantly claustrophobic.
The Player of Games, Consider Phlebas and The Use of Weapons - Iain M. Banks.
The first three Culture novels, read in order from weakest to strongest. The first one was a breeze to read, I struggled a lot with Phlebas which felt a bit padded and Use of Weapons was not as amazing as the last time I've read it. Still incredibly good novels though, some of the best space opera ever written.
The Fall of Rome - Bryan Ward Perkins.
Short history of how the Roman empire ended, which spents much of its time argueing against the allegedly fashionably view that the Fall of Rome was highly exaggerated and in fact went almost unnoticed. However, though the author is very adamant in insisting this fall did happen and was a disaster, his own description does make clear the Gibbonian idea of civilisation collapsing with the end of the Roman Empire in the West is indeed wrong and the revisionists actually do have some grounds for their views. In short its rhetoric is much stronger than its disagreement.
The Diversity of Life - E. O. Wilson
Very readable book explaining clearly how resilient and abundant life on Earth is, how ecosystems grow and evolve, how even large extinctions are repaired over time, only to break your heart in the end with the description of the human caused extinctions now going on. Especially after you realise that this was written sixteen years ago and things have only gotten worse...
Upheaval from the Abyss - David Lawrence
enjoyable if sometimes slight history of the idea of continental drift and how it got accepted, as well as the mapping of the ocean floors and how this contributed to the acceptance of this theory.
The Celtic Empire - Peter Berresford Ellis
Conventional but misleading general historic of the Celts up until the Roman conquest of Britain. Supposedly this is about the whole Celtic era from 1000 BC until 51 AD, but instead it largely focuses on the Roman wars against the various Celtic tribes. Lots of names and dates, not much attention to culture and all that good stuff. Not that I didn't learn something, but it wasn't quite the thing I was looking for.
First, the universe isn't built, it just exists.
Second, the fact that (our kind of) life exists is because our universe is the way it is. It has certain inherent qualities that ultimately gave rise to carbonbased lifeforms like yours truly. To imply that the universe exists the way it does because that's how life can exist, is confusing cause and effect. Had the universe been different, another sort of life, or no life at all would exist.
Stories like this, of a Devon woman who became ill when on holiday in the US, had to go to hospital and her two daughters who were on holiday with her where sent to an orphanage and strip searched:
The family flew out to New York on 27 December. When Ms Bray began coughing later that day, she initially put it down to her asthma and the air conditioning on the flight.
The following night, she became more unwell with laboured breathing and was admitted to the Queen's Medical Centre in Harlem.
But Ms Bray was told her daughters could not stay with her at the hospital as they were minors.
"A doctor told me they would make the arrangements, then a few hours later a social worker arrived and said they'd try to find a foster family for the girls," she said.
"Instead of that they were taken to a orphanage and subjected to the kind of treatment you wouldn't even expect criminals to go through."
The frightened teenagers had their clothes, including their underwear, removed and were issued with a uniform of T-shirt and jeans before being spilt up and given a medical examination.
It's the automatic assumption that anybody foreign who comes into contact with the authoritians, no matter which authorities has to be a criminal and has no human rights while in the US. Even though the odds are small something like that would happen to me (after all, my parents managed to get in and out of Seattle with no problems last year), but the risks are too great. At best, it would be a humiliating, expensive experience, at worst a one way trip to Guantanamo.
And no, even after Bush is finally gone I won't chance it; this attitude is too ingrained in the US mentality to disappear with him. In thirty years maybe.