Sunday, 30 December 2012

2012: We Survived

I may be speaking prematurely, but I'm fairly certain the year 2012 will end without the end of the world. The much-discussed end of the Mayan calendar didn't bring with it scenes akin to The Day After Tomorrow or Krakatoa's eruption. North Korea's continued attempts to blow itself (and by extension the rest of the world) up with an ill-thought-out nuclear rocket prestige programme have, as yet, failed to cause mayhem in the Pacific. My completion of my first novel in six years caused little other than a small ripple of applause from fellow writers and was not, as predicted by some experts, the harbinger of doom that it should have been.

It's been an odd year. From a personal stand-point, I spent the year employed as a paralegal at a solicitors in Dewsbury after spending the last six months of 2011 despairing of unemployment, and I'll start the year continuing to discharge my duties there. Work has brought structure and discipline back after half a year of lacking both those things, no matter how hard I tried. I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed all my work - I don't - but it's a good job, and one that gives me a good starting point in the chase for pupillage.

Away from work, I've had an interesting year in terms of relationships. I won't go into depth here, other than to say that the last four months have, in a strange way, been a relief. Being single and under no pressure has been nice, though I can't shake the feeling that I should be meeting someone soon.

The sporting year has given unforgettable highs and very few lows. Huddersfield Town's promotion at Wembley in May goes down as one of the best moments of my life, never mind in sport. The Olympics gave everyone hundreds of wonderful memories, and with the right support they will prove to have inspired a generation. And then there was the raw drama of the last day of the Ryder Cup, and the Miracle of Medinah. In terms of my own status as a sportsman, I've started playing for the Mirfield Panthers after a 3-year hiatus - one goal in sixteen games since we started playing again doesn't sound impressive, but it's been great to get back into competitive football, even more so as I've not struggled with injuries like I did in my last few months playing in 2009.

In my spiritual life, I've been all over the place - physically, if not mentally. I'm now on the planning committee for OneWord, the bi-monthly youth worship event in the Kirklees circuit, and I've graduated on from doing the lights to doing the words on the screen. The next event is scheduled for 26th January - so pop by and say 'hi', all Christian folk. I've been going to a youth group in Huddersfield (and intermittently attending the church itself, but I have my misgivings about the leadership, if truth be told, even if I like the rank and file), and doing more than a little private study. But I'm still Methodist at heart.

My writing year has been up and down. After setting myself a target of 100,000 words this year, I've managed to make it to 70,000, over 50,000 of which came in NaNoWriMo. Despite this shortfall, I've managed a couple of what I believe to be reasonable short stories. But by and large, it's been frustrating, despite these successes. Too many projects have been left half-complete or not even started. This is a situation that needs remedying in 2013.

It's also been a frustrating year for reading. A quick check of Goodreads tells me I've read 73 books this year, 18 of which have been re-reads. I've only rated 2 new books as being five-star reads. Either I'm getting more cynical, or I haven't read very many books of the very highest quality. Embassytown by China Mieville stands out as probably the outstanding book of the year, being a richly complex and experimental read that at least tries to break out from tired narratives and engage the reader in intelligent discourse. A full review of it would be difficult, such is it's complexity and depth, and I'd rather leave that to the people who have the time to really analyse it.

I've not read as many short stories as I would like. Counting stories I've listened to on podcasts in the total, I've read perhaps 150. As ever, Interzone provided a good source for high-quality short SF. 'The Indignity of Rain' by Lavie Tidhar was one of the best short stories it published this year, as well as its sequel 'Strigoi' - both form part of his connected Central Station series. The always excellent Jason Sanford entertained with 'Mirrorblink', though in my opinion it wasn't as good as some of his other work, such as 'Sublimation Angels' and 'The Ships Like Rain...'. Other short stories that impressed me included 'Ship's Brother' by Aliette de Bodard, and, from Interzone's sister magazine Black Static, 'Sunshine' by Nina Allan.

So what do I want from 2013? The world continuing to not explode under my feet would be a fair start. I'd like to get the mini-pupillages that make it possible for me to apply for pupillage in October, and continue in my post as a paralegal for the time being. It'd be great if I could meet someone, obviously, but in the mean time, being single isn't the worst thing that could happen. I want to stay fit, and score a few more goals for the Panthers, hopefully getting up to 100 games for the team in the process. I want to read more quality work, and increase the quantity of short fiction I get through.

But in terms of all my personal non-professional targets, the most important has to be in my writing. I have to start finishing work far more often. I can't keep stopping stories halfway through because of an over-sensitivity to it not being good enough. I know I won't improve until I start completing things and then working on them. Of all my targets, this has to be one that takes precedence.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Blackout/All Clear

A quick glance at my bookcase(s) should tell you that I'm no stranger to either the doorstopper or the epic series. So when I start a review talking about a book's length, you need to bear in mind that I got A Dance With Dragons in hardback on release day, read The Stand in under a fortnight, am in the process of re-reading Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings series, and in general don't mind a good long read.

Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear is certainly a long read. It's one of few novels I've read that's had to be split into two heft volumes, such is its length - 1,400 pages of time travelling, the Blitz, and agonising over whether the course of history has been changed.

For such is its premise. A group of historians are sent to England in 1940 on separate assignments from the time travelling labs at the University of Oxford in 2060. Once there, they find they can't get back home. The greatest worry of the protagonists - Polly, Eileen, and Mike, to use their 1940s cover names - is that they might do something that cost the Allies the War through their actions in the Blitz.

If that sounds like it isn't enough to fill a 1,400 page novel, you'd probably be right. There's a large incidental cast of characters, and the plot isn't quite as simple as it sounds from above (more of that later), but my main complaint does come down to the fact that there's about 400 pages of filler over the two volumes. Willis would no doubt argue that her world-building (which is excellent) and character development (which is less so) justifies the length, and she'd have a fair argument. What could be argued on the other hand is that she'd done so much research that she felt obliged to include it, hence the dragging middle section.

For that criticism, however, it does have to be said that the research is put to good effect. Although much of it fails to advance the action, it lends an authentic feel to events. Constant references to real bombings slipped in to speech remind the reader that the Blitz is a real and present danger in 1940, and the day-to-day lives of Londoners in the Blitz are faithfully represented in the shelters and the department stores where the protagonists sleep and work. However, it's as if Willis felt every aspect of her research had to be represented, hence long sections where little happens but characters point out things that were bombed in the middle of repetitive conversations about how they'll return to Oxford, or make side-journeys that serve only to bog down the pace.

But when the action does advance, it can be exhilarating. There's a section surrounding 29th December 1940, the night the fire watch saved St Paul's Cathedral, which is tense and fraught and genuinely exciting. Multiple plot threads come together and are expertly handled in a brilliant sequence which takes place while bombs hit London and characters are forced away from their introspection and into decisive action.

And, of course, there's the plotting. Connie Willis needs congratulating on her handling of a dozen intricate plot-threads. Some twists can be seen coming from a mile off, it has to be admitted, but when everything comes together it can be seen how well the novel works as a unit. Time travel as a plot device does give a writer licence to obfuscate and then reveal, and if done badly it can be painful to read, but Willis does it quite beautifully.

Blackout/All Clear is too long by some distance. But when it gets things right, which is more often than not, it proves to be an excellent read. As the winner of the Hugo for best novel in 2011, I was expecting a good read, and so it proved to be. It's difficult to think of too many books I've read this year that either equal or better it. And to quote a great man, you'll like it if you're into the wibbly wobbley timey wimey... stuff.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Hyperion Cantos

If I were to be asked right now what books I would take onto a desert island, with a maximum limit of ten, there would be very few automatic picks. Dune would go, as would The Windup Girl and Use of Weapons. However, beyond those three there would be very few easy picks. Would I take A Game of Thrones? Is Perdido Street Station worth reading again and again as one of very few books I'd read for the rest of my life? In short, I'd struggle to pick, in no small part because I would only want the very best with me.

Books one and two of the four-volume Hyperion Cantos would be among the contenders to go. If anyone hasn't read my reviews of both of them (Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, if you don't know the titles), I'd recommend they go and read them now. If you just need a recap, I think they're two of the finest space opera novels I've ever read. Both offer something different, with book one being a scene-setter for the apocalyptic second volume. Book two takes a more traditional structure, whereas book one adopts a structure not dissimilar to The Canterbury Tales, forcing each of the Shrike pilgrims to recount their backstory amidst a trek to save the universe as humanity knows it.

What I don't have is the time or inclination to explain in detail the world of Hyperion, other than that it's a richly detailed and multi-layered complex of advanced humanity. It's not simple. To get a real grasp on it, you need to read the books and gain understanding of the subtle interplays. We have the familiar extrapolated into the future. Familiar institutions such as the Catholic church and Judaism play an integral role. And then there's the mixture of the political and the personal and the technological, ranged against a backdrop of humanity's fundamentally fragile position.

With humanity in the form of the World Web under threat from the alien Ousters, the Shrike pilgrims are sent to Hyperion, a backwater planet, to visit the Shrike in the Time Tombs. One of the pilgrims will have their request - as explained in their back-stories - granted. The others will find themselves killed by the Shrike. In the mean time, we have the political intrigues and other dramas away from Hyperion, which mostly take place in The Fall of Hyperion.

The richness and the complexity of those two books is nothing short of remarkable. Without reading them it's difficult to appreciate all that goes into them. It would have been so easy for Dan Simmons to have written a simple adventure with cardboard cut-out characters and wafer-thin intrigue, but he didn't. The quest itself takes on an almost mythic scale as it progresses. The decision to go back and have each character tell his or her own backstory and motivations in what count as 80-page novellas helps this scale no end. The immersion is wonderful, made even more so by Simmons not taking us away from the main quest until the second book. But by then we've already seen the World Web, and it doesn't feel jarring to be moving among a separate set of characters - especially as the stories in the first book cover such a range of the experiences to be found in the World Web.

Clocking in at over 1,000 pages in total, the two books aren't short reads, but then this is the sort of duology you don't want to be short. I'd be lying if I said that it was a perfect space opera (because it isn't), but it's an absolutely essential read for anyone who likes a range of fiction. At times gasp-out-loud horrifying and at others heartwarming, this half of the Cantos might just be on that list of desert island books. That the ending actually manages to surprise and live up to its billing only adds to that high recommendation.

Unlikely to be on that list, however, are volumes three and four, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. I'll start by pointing out that this isn't because they're bad books: far from it. When I read them over the summer I thoroughly enjoyed them both, but they fell a way short of the standards of the first half of the Cantos. The depth of the previous duology just doesn't exist in these books, which is what most readers will feel the most keenly. Never mind that there's another brilliant connection to be felt with the characters, nor that the story itself is a pretty good one overall, the comparable shallowness comes across starkly with every page.

At the outset, Raoul Endymion is a tour guide on Hyperion, when he comes to commit murder - or so the courts say. At his execution he finds himself rescued by Martin Silenus, one of the Shrike pilgrims of the original books, and sent out on a quest through human space to protect the new messiah, Aenea. With the all-powerful Catholic church on his tail, it becomes a two-volume epic of high adventure.

Taken on its own, the Endymion part of the Cantos is excellent space opera. It just struggles with not being as deep or as epic (despite being longer) as the first two. It might just be me, but the prose never felt as dense or rich as it had been formerly, but that had no impact on how much I enjoyed it. The characters were still superbly drawn and there were still scenes to thrill and shock. Once again the ending of the second volume lived up to billing and brought with it a glorious poignancy and emotional depth that hadn't been seen since halfway through Hyperion. Everything ended up tying together in a satisfying - and most definitely not happy - ending.

However, there were drawbacks. Certain things felt cheap and ill thought-out. Take the re-emergence of Colonel Kassad, who feels like he's been thrown in simply as filler to make the last volume longer. It's not as tight, and there's a very little amount of bloatedness to it that doesn't become the lean, mean machine that The Hyperion Cantos is as a whole. But, that said, the drawbacks weren't integral to the book, and practically everything else was well plotted and superbly executed.

There's a lot I've missed out in this quick review of the four novels that make up the Cantos. There are a few reasons behind this (one of which is laziness, if truth be told - it's a Sunday afternoon and I don't particularly want to work too hard at anything), one of which is that I don't think I can do the series justice in just a few hundred words. The best thing anyone can do to do The Hyperion Cantos justice is to read it, because I guarantee a sensational read.