Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Bookman

"Writing a summary of background events to the Bookman, which sound so mental... must have been high to have written that book." Lavie Tidhar on Twitter, discussing The Bookman

One advantage - in its way - of being unable to walk is that I no longer have an excuse not to catch up on my reading and writing. Thursday night's knee injury, complete with my kneecap's attempt to launch a space programme, launching from my knee joint following an attempted shot on goal, means I'm well and truly laid up. Books that have been sitting there waiting for my attention suddenly look quite attractive.

I'd already read The Bookman when I picked up the single-volume omnibus of The Bookman Histories, Lavie Tidhar's maiden trilogy of steampunk novels. It had been a 99p Kindle purchase two years ago, and I'd enjoyed it at a time when I wasn't enjoying much at all; it's not easy to lift yourself out of what feels like the terminal depression of unemployment simply to enjoy a 300-page novel, rollicking adventure though it might be. And thus when the opportunity arose to read the entire trilogy in one handy - if oversized - paperback came about, I leapt at the opportunity.

My appreciation of The Bookman the first time through might have been jaded by my own circumstances, but not this time. Much of yesterday was devoted to surging through the rich melange of Tidhar's AU Victorian London and the other rich and beautifully realised locales. I was reminded strongly of China Miéville's Bas-Lag world, home of Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, and in particular the bustling metropolis of New Crobuzon - hardly surprising, as New Crobuzon itself is a grotesque tribute to London, but unusual because of the richness of the setting. Whales populate the Thames; airships dominate the skyline, with skyscrapers such as the Babbage Tower rearing from the rooftops to occupy the same space; lizards are in government, and have been for hundreds of years; literary characters walk the streets and rub shoulders with their creators. I found it impossible not to get sucked into the melange of Tidhar's world.

Tidhar himself says in his introduction that this is a book about books. They certainly play a central part, not least in the constant references to other works. Familiar characters Victorian literature make appearances - as do their creators. Allusions are constantly made to deeper culture and mythology (Gilgamesh is a central character). And at certain points it's clear that Tidhar is having a tremendous amount of fun with the licence he gave himself. There's a point where Orphan, the protagonist, goes looking for a particular book in the bookshop where he lives. Titles he finds include Eustace Clarence Scrubb's Diary, In My Father's House by Princess Irulan (as a Dune fan this delighted me and I'll admit that its use made me laugh out loud), and The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein. The whole book absolutely revels in its allusions to writers and writings of the past, and it helps to give The Bookman a sense of fun that's almost infectious.

It helps that the main plot itself is a rip-roaring adventure in the finest Victorian tradition. There are overtures of Verne at his best (with the man himself being a character, and numerous references to both The Mysterious Island and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I can't help but think that this was Tidhar's intention). Orphan, the protagonist, finds himself caught up in a series of incidents linked to the Bookman, an anti-lizard-establishment terrorist that see him narrowly escape death once and witness the death of his fiancée Lucy not long after. Forces come into play that push him into action, and he finds himself as a pawn in a game being played between greater forces than he. Espionage, intelligent robots, piracy, aliens, and Sherlock Holmes all play a part in bringing about a climax that's hugely satisfying.

The Bookman is a novel that everyone can enjoy. It's not a difficult read, and it has a sense of fun that it's difficult to find in most works these days. It's not too long, but it's long enough that it's possible to get caught up in events and the world. Everyone will have their own personal favourite part. It's a rich, rewarding read. In many ways, it's a readers read whilst being easily accessible to everyone. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Rendezvous With Rama

Arthur C. Clarke was an SF behemoth. Not only did he pen dozens of bestsellers and collaborate with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey in a 50-year fiction-writing career, he was also at the forefront of scientific thinking. You may have Sky TV; Clarke was the man who first mooted the idea of geosynchronous orbits. The world owes him a debt of gratitude for more than just his literature.

But his literature still draws readers today. I've read about a dozen of his works, some written in conjunction with other leading writers like Stephen Baxter and Frek Pohl, and although they lack with regards to characterisation and fluency of language they still grip me in their thrall for their - often short - duration.

Rendezvous With Rama is probably the best of his works, in my view. At the very least it ranks alongside Childhood's End, 2001, and The City and the Stars. It focusses on a deep-space mission in 2130 to investigate an intruder into our solar system, an artificial cylinder kilometres long and kilometres wide dubbed Rama.

Rendezvous With Rama is a novel of humanity's first contact with an alien race, but there's none of the violence of a Hollywood imagining. There's tension, there's suspense, but there's no alien hostility. And that's probably one of the reasons I like it so much. It's almost easy to write a lazy story about how aliens want the Earth's resources and the ensuing war. It's not easy to create an engaging story almost purely about exploration, and to evoke a sense of wonder at what is found. And it's that very thing that Rendezvous With Rama does so well. Every step into Rama's awesome superstructure is a step into the unknown. We're as uncertain as the crew of the Endeavour, the ship tasked with exploring the alien artefact, about what we'll find next.

The plot outside of exploration is threadbare and I get the feeling that it's there more out of convention than because Clarke particularly wanted to have people firing missiles at Rama. There's some tension amongst the United Planets about what Rama's purpose may be, and an aside about Mercury firing a missile at Rama, but it really is all very much beside the point. The point is to glory in the sense of wonder evoked on a stunning scale.

Some would - and do - criticise Rendezvous With Rama for its substandard character development and superficial external plot details. But to do so is like criticising a brick for not being a football. Instead it's necessary to sit down and fall in love with the vast scale and the sense of awe brought about by the world-building. As pure exploration it is unsurpassed.

And remember: The Ramans do everything in threes.