Friday, 28 October 2011

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days

I first read Alastair Reynolds' d├ębut novel Revelation Space last year. At the time, I'll confess to being underwhelmed for much of the book's 500+ page duration. There was no doubt in my mind that Reynolds could write, but that he had a problem with his pacing. What's the point of an exhilarating last 100 pages or so when the 400 before are glacial to the point of sending the reader to sleep? Events were slow and carefully constructed, but it was almost as if that care had sucked the energy from it.

However, I'm a quite a fan of Reynolds' short fiction. Over the past 18 months I've come across half a dozen short stories and novelettes by the Welsh writer, each of which has entertained me. Reynolds' style suits the short form very well; it is very correct, with a satisfying brevity to it, but that brevity doesn't undermine some excellent evocations of fantastic environments.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days was my first foray into Reynolds' longer fiction since Revelation Space. It's a single volume containing two novellas, both set in the same universe as Revelation Space.

The first of those novellas, Diamond Dogs, is the better of the two (at least, it is for me). Anyone who's read Robert Browning's epic poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came' will instantly see the inspiration behind it. Through the eyes of Richard Swift we see an expedition under the leadership of Roland Childe to the uninhabitable world of Golgotha where there's a mysterious Blood Spire, complete with layers of challenges.

I may be spectacularly misreading this, but I read Diamond Dogs as being Alastair Reynolds' take on Browning's poem, just as The Dark Tower is Stephen King's. In each case there's an obsession about the object at the heart of the tale; in each case, that object is a tower of some description. Reynolds' take is wildly different from King's and Browning's in that the focus of the tale isn't so much the Blood Spire, but, rather, is the interactions going on around the setting. It's a bleak story, but one that's thoroughly worth reading.

The second novella is a little less impressive and a little more abstract. In fairness to it, it's actually a more complex tale than Diamond Dogs, but Turquoise Days just doesn't quite manage to do justice to the concept behind it. Had I more of an understanding of the Revelation Space universe I might appreciate it a little more, however, I can only work with what I've got. For that reason, a couple of the concepts - perhaps familiar to veterans of the series - were slightly lost on me.

Take the Pattern Jugglers. I understood what they were on a basic level - a form of collective waterborne life with a quasi-consciousness which have an alternative understanding of mathematics - but I needed to reference what I already knew about the series and its universe. A newcomer would struggle.

In all fairness, Turquoise Days would be a satisfyingly complex novella to a veteran of the series, containing subterfuge and subtleties suited to much longer books. And these two novellas have done much to re-ignite my interest in Alastair Reynolds' longer works. I have noticed that the difference between now and the time I read Revelation Space is that at the moment I'm not pre-occupied with work and I've got the chance to get my head round it a bit more, so it's probably a good time to give it a second chance.

So, if you're a veteran of the series, give Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days a spin. You'll enjoy it. If you're a newcomer, you might struggle with the latter story, but if you like dark, thoughtful space opera with a literary twist you'll enjoy Diamond Dogs.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The Lost World

Seemingly at every turn I'm confronted by dinosaurs. The BBC in particular seems keen to shove its Planet Dinosaur series in my face at every opportunity (despite the fact it's a cheap and less good version of Walking With Dinosaurs). So it's perhaps natural that, when stuck for something to read, I turned to the classic SF collection on my Kindle for entertainment.

Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for Sherlock Holmes. The Lost World is hardly unknown, however, and comes almost as highly-recommended as Baker Street's finest detective. It was first published in 1912, being serialised in one of the major publications of the day prior to being published in book form. The story is fairly well known: irascible Professor Challenger claims to have found a place in the Amazon where prehistoric life still exists, and forms an expedition to the isolated plateau, where dangers of varying varieties await the intrepid explorers.

The story is told through the diary/correspondence of one Edward Malone, a journalist who tagged along with the expedition. It bears many of the staples of SF of that era: the writing is bombastic and a little pompous, with the narrator given to exclamations which no modern writer would make. But it's not a bad thing when used well, as it is here, and it helps to place the book in its time. To compare the styles of different eras is a fool's analysis. However, I can't help but mention that the narrator tells us far too many of the characteristics of his fellow explorers, rather than showing them, as is the modern style. There's plenty of the good old 'said-bookism' on display, which always annoys me. Let the dialogue speak for itself! But still, it was the style of the time so a certain amount of overlooking has to go on.

The story is set in its time as well. Ninety-nine years after its publication we know that dinosaurs died out 65.5 million years ago. We know that there's no undiscovered plateau in South America where they could live. These days we'd see genetically engineered monsters in a theme park with some sort of technobabble explanation behind them. In 1912, however, it didn't take too much to suspend the incredulity of the reader and make them believe in this plateau, because it wasn't totally beyond the bounds of possibility that it could exist; there were vast tracts of land unexplored, away from which modern satellites and air travel have taken the mystery.

But anyway, back to the story. Ten years ago I'd have loved The Lost World, and it feels like I missed an opportunity to have a favourite book back then. Dinosaurs attacking, wars between primitive peoples and other such tales of high adventure would have piqued my immature interest. The story is suitably exciting for the 'boys own' audience, and for younger readers there's plenty to get stuck into. But as a slightly older reader, who has read plenty of better SF from a similar time period, it doesn't quite get me all excited as I would once have been. Which is a real pity.