The latest season of Doctor Who is in my view the weakest of the relaunched series. The basic problem is that the scripts were generally quite weak, and failed to follow through on the promise of their premises, or contribute to the ongoing developments in the series.
As usual, my ranking of episodes this season from best to worst:
- Asylum of the Daleks
- The Name of the Doctor
- Cold War
- The Bells of Saint John
- The Rings of Akhaten
- The Snowmen
- The Crimson Horror
- Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
- Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
- The Angels Take Manhattan
- Nightmare in Silver
- The Power of Three
- A Town Called Mercy
(I’m excluding last year’s Christmas special, “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” from the list because I don’t think it’s really part of the season. But if you’re curious I rate it a “shrug”.)
Also as usual, there are spoilers ahead!
Read on, Macduff! »
I picked up this mystery – the first in a series – because of its core hook: In the present day (around 2003, when the book was published, I guess), a bomb goes off in London destroying the headquarters of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, and its key investigator, Arthur Bryant. His partner, John May, is left to find out who killed him, and finds that Bryant was researching his memoirs and had recently been looking into the details of their first case together. The majority of the book chronicles that first case, when May first joined the unit and the pair searched for a killer at the Palace Theatre during the Blitz, at the end of 1940.
The story chronicles the assembly of the Peculiar Crimes Unit at a time when most able-bodied young men are fighting in World War II, and with some opposition from the police leadership. Bryant and May are introduced to the theater life and investigate the murders of several performers in a soon-to-open run of Orpheus in the Underworld. While the book features some detective work and some action, it’s at its best when it’s chronicling life during the Blitz, and in introducing us to the characters of Bryant and May.
The pair have a certain Holmes-and-Watson dynamic, with Bryant being the book-smart, eccentric one, while May is more the man of action. But Bryant is also highly eccentric, believing in spiritualism and being somewhat sickly, while May is a rationalist and merely Bryant’s sidekick. Both men are in their early 20s in 1940, and Bryant puts on an air of experience and competence, while May is greener and admits it to himself. Interestingly, Fowler eschews the “odd couple” approach and paints them as a pair of men with personal and professional respect for one another, united in their common cause rather than divided by their differences. Readers might find the story at times has echoes of Sherlock or Life on Mars, though the novel predates both of those series by several years.
For all that, the mystery – in both time periods – proves to be a little disappointing (the 1940 mystery’s culprit bears more than a passing resemblance to a considerably more famous – and older – work, which I won’t name since it would be a huge spoiler), both solutions feeling a little like they were pulled out of nowhere (the questions that I thought the reader could reasonably anticipate turned out to be red herrings). They serve, rather, to illuminate the characters of Bryant and May further, which works fairly well, but makes the book feel different from a standard mystery.
Fowler has a facility for a wry turn of phrase, and I found myself reading lines that amused me out loud to whomever was around when I was reading. It’s a sense of humor that is playful but understated, and it’s perhaps the best part of the book.
While overall a fun book, it felt a little lightweight when I got to the end. Still, I was entertained enough that I’ll head on to the next in the series and see if things get better fleshed out now that the characters are established.
In The Other, Matthew Hughes returns to his character of Luff Imbry from one of his early novels, Black Brillion. Imbry is a confidence man and handler of stolen goods, and the novel opens with one of his rivals getting the drop on him and shipping him off to the planet Fulda. This is a hardship for Imbry in several ways: Fulda is not very advanced, so he’s forced to put in real labor to support himself, and there’s something strange about the Fuldans which prevents Imbry from ever fitting in with them. Fulda is also very isolated from the rest of the galaxy so there’s no clear way for him to get off the planet.
He’s dropped on Fulda with a man named Tuchol, who is not very nice, but it’s unclear if he’s willingly in the employ of whomever nabbed Imbry. Tuchol turns out to be associated with what seems to be a small circus – at least, people who are able to perform various feats which they do for show – and Imbry falls in with them. Unfortunately Imbry soon comes to the attention of the police, one of whom takes a very strong disliking to him. So the story involves Imbry trying to stay alive, trying to avoid the police, trying to find a way off the planet, and trying to figure out the secrets of Fulda, four tasks which are all intertwined.
The challenge with writing a character like Imbry is to make the reader get behind him. Imbry has a jolly facade, but the reader is always aware that this guy is a criminal, albeit of the thieving rather than murdering variety. One of the reasons Black Brillion worked so well was that it played a more straightforward heroic protagonist off against Imbry, allowing Imbry’s amusing personality to shine without having to carry the book. Hughes mostly makes it work here, because what’s been done to Imbry is clearly so wrong that you can’t help but root for him to get out and exact his revenge. But I found it difficult to embrace him entirely. In a way, Imbry is the opposite number of Hughes’ Sherlock Holmesian character Henghis Hapthorn: Imbry is a criminal but is amusing and amiable, while Hapthorn is a good guy but also basically a jerk.
Imbry gets wrapped up in two different mysteries: First, what’s so queer about the Fuldans, and what makes some of them so irrationally hostile towards Imbry (if you’re familiar with Phil Foglio’s graphic novel Psmith then you might find some echoes of that here). Second, he gets dragged into a prophecy the Fuldans have circulated among themselves (with varying belief levels), leading to an even larger revelation which turns out to be rather clever.
Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from seeing how Imbry deals with the burdens placed upon him. He faces a variety of people who won’t listen to him, view him with suspicion, and to whom he cannot ingratiate himself. But his cleverness and personality often allow him to find a way to get by even among such people. The wit which works its way through all of Hughes’ work is in full flower here.
While I enjoyed The Other, I don’t think it measures up to some of Hughes’ other work, and I think Imbry’s status falling between hero and antihero is a big part of that. Though given how the book ends, I would be willing to read a sequel in which we see Imbry working a little more in his natural element. But I’m doubtful that Imbry is a strong enough character (without a significant development in his character beyond where he started) to carry a series of novels.
Blue Remembered Earth is near-future SF, taking place in the 2160s. Following two centuries of climate change (global temperature shifts, depletion of traditional energy supplies, rising sea levels), Africa is on the cusp of displacing China as the dominant world power. The powerful Akinya family dominates Africa and has interests throughout the solar system, to which humanity is still confined.
Geoffrey Akinya and his sister Sunday are inheritors of the Akinya legacy, but both are marginalized by their family due to a shared lack of interest in its business affairs: Geoffrey researches elephants, while Sunday is an artist on the moon. But when their grandmother Eunice dies, their business-oriented cousins enlist Geoffrey to go to the moon to check out a safety deposit box she left behind. What he finds sends him and his sister on a treasure hunt throughout the solar system, following her path as an early explorer of Mars and beyond, despite great resistance from their cousins.
The novel has two major characteristics: It’s a world-building endeavor, and it’s a science fictional mystery involving a trail that Eunice left for her family to follow.
In general, I’m not a big fan of near-future SF, because the ideas are not big enough to satisfy me, and I’m just not terribly interested in extrapolating our current situation out only a century or two (i.e., a period where things are largely similar to our world today with some fairly straightforward changes). I appreciate what, for example, Charles Stross is doing in Halting State and Rule 34, but it’s more the story than the setting which pulls me along. I particularly dislike settings like that of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, with dreary settings, little hope, and unlikeable characters.
Blue Remembered Earth falls into a slightly different category: The setting isn’t dystopic, and the story is a mystery wrapped in the shrouds of history (a bit like Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels in that way). Rather than the characters playing out a set of movements implied by the setting, they’re involved in their own story against a slightly exotic locale. And the mystery implies that there’s something a little more advanced out there as well, assuming it pays off properly. (I’ll talk about the mystery in more detail behind a spoiler cut below.)
This is one of Reynolds’ best efforts at world-building, and he does a good job of laying things out without it becoming tedious (although I did find Geoffrey’s research with elephants to be hard going). Some of the big hooks involve an omniscient surveillance system called the Mechanism which has essentially eliminated violent crime, aquatic transhumans, and most humans having virtual reality implants. There’s also a tension in manned space exploration being potentially supplanted by unmanned, as artificial intelligence gets to the point that it can take on the risks so humans don’t have to. (And if that sounds like a disappointing development, well, that’s one of the themes of the book.)
Geoffrey and Sunday’s quest operates as a travelogue of the solar system, as Geoffrey goes to the moon where he visited Sunday in the “Descrutinized Zone”, which is free of the Mechanism. There’s also a trip to Mars, which is just barely on the civilized side of being a frontier and has a few amazing wonders of its own. They’re accompanied in this by a telepresence simulation of Eunice herself, who embodies the character of the woman but naturally lacks many of her memories. But as Eunice was both family to the pair, and a significant figure in the exploration of the solar system, she plays a significant role.
Reynolds’ characterizations are not his strong suit, and BRE is not out of step with the rest of his work in this regard: Geoffrey, Sunday and Eunice are reasonably drawn, the other characters are largely two-dimensional. And there’s not a lot of character development – Geoffrey struggles a bit with not wanting to make waves with his family beyond what’s necessary for his research, but doesn’t want to just roll over and do whatever the cousins want, either. This tension does come to a head, but the resolution is somewhat dictated by outside forces, so there’s not a moment of epiphany or a significant character shift for him.
Blue Remembered Earth is sometimes noted as the first volume of a series titled “Poseideon’s Children”, but there’s almost no indication of that in the edition I have (save an offhanded comment in the author’s afterward), and the book in fact stands on its own perfectly well, not so much the first of a series as a novel which could have sequels.
Overall it’s a pretty good book, an enjoyable ride, probably sitting somewhere in the middle of Reynolds’ oeuvre in my opinion.
As promised, a little more spoilery commentary on the mystery side of the story after the cut:
Read on, Macduff! »
I read Matter last year around the same time I read Surface Detail, but they’re two very different books. While I quite enjoyed Surface Detail, I found Matter to be fairly tedious, and the ending to be a big letdown. This review contains mild spoilers.
The story revolves around members of the royal family of the Sarl, a medieval-level humanoid race who live on one of the levels of the artificial shell world of Sursamen. Ferbin, the heir to the throne, is forced to flee his nation when his father is betrayed and overthrown by his second-in-command, tyl Loesp. His younger brother, Oramen, is installed as regent, but tyl Loesp plans to kill him and become king himself when the time is right. Thirdly, their sister Djan Seriy Anaplian was gifted to the Culture years earlier where she’s become an agent of Special Circumstances, a group tasked with especially difficult and important missions.
While Anaplian travels back to Sursamen – a little tricky since it lies outside Culture space – Ferbin works to get out into space to contact her, while Oramen works to stay alive even as he is effectively exiled to oversee excavation of the Nameless City on the adjacent level the Sarl have recently conquered. He also learns that the Sarl’s advanced patrons, the Oct, are up to something in the Nameless City. That something turns out to be of extreme importance – and danger – to all of Sursamen, which Anaplian and Ferbin find they have to stop once they get to the planet.
When I started reading the book, my first reaction was, “Uh-oh, another medieval-setting Culture novel,” having not been especially enamored of Inversions. It’s better than that novel in many ways, as Ferbin and Oramen both being forced to grow up and deal with the new realities of their lives is expertly handled. And Anaplian’s adventurs outside Sursamen are also entertaining.
Unfortunately, the larger threat from the Nameless City really undercuts all of the nice character development, truncating the growing tensions in much the same way that Janet Leigh’s stop in the hotel truncates the story in Psycho. It then becomes a very different story, which itself has an unsatisfying ending, as nearly everyone comes to grief. While it’s a page-turning ride, the conclusion feels devoid of meaning and borders on a throw-the-book-across-the-room experience.
The enduring character of the story is Ferbin’s aide, Holse, who is a lower class man who is devotedly loyal to his master, largely at sea in the advanced environments he and Ferbin travel to, but who has enough presence of mind and sense of self not to be overwhelmed by them. But he’s not enough to save the book.
Banks’ Culture series is pretty uneven, with some great books and some weak ones. Matter is towards the lower end of the spectrum, which is too bad because it starts promisingly.
I’ve given McDevitt a hard time over his Alex Benedict novels since the terrific A Talent For War, but I’m happy to report that the latest in the series, Firebird, is the best since that inaugural effort, with a genuine sense of wonder, a nifty plot twist and a satisfying conclusion.
The story opens with antiquities dealer Benedict’s aide, Chase Kolpath, being approached to sell some items from the estate of Christopher Robin, a physicist of some note who disappeared several decades earlier. (Yes, unfortunately the disappeared man has the same name as the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh, but oh well.) Chase doesn’t know who he is, but Alex fills her in: Robin was notes as being a proponent of there being alternate realities, and supposedly having been trying to find a way to them. One evening he returned from a trip with his pilot, who dropped him off in front of his house, and he disappeared. The pilot then volunteered to help with rescue efforts in a major earthquake and was killed in the process. While Robin is assumed to have died, no one knows for sure. Maybe he found a a way to other realities and simply stepped into one.
Alex doesn’t really believe this, but hits the talk show circuit to build up Robin’s mystique to make the most money for his client. But then, as always happens, he gets bitten by the bug to find out what really happened to Robin. THe investigation turns up a few facts: That Robin had become interested in reports of mysterious ships that occasionally appear near worlds, stations or other ships and then disappear without ever being identified. That he had a friend he went on missions with who was killed on one of them. That he was interested in a world named Villanueva, where human life had died out centuries ago but the trappings of it had been left intact. And that he had bought several old spaceships and taken them out in the 15 years or so before his death, returning without any of them. It all adds up to something that doesn’t equal parallel realities, but does equal something just about as cool, which even raises the specter of one of the earliest background elements of the series.
McDevitt often stretches to put Alex and Chase in danger, sometimes a little too far as neither of them is a fighter, and the risks they take sometimes seem ridiculous. But he does a better job of balancing this than in recent novels. He also does a good job of taking one of the side plots and turning it into a serious moral dilemma and distraction from the main plot.
Best of all, once we learn what’s really going on, he lets Alex and Chase get to the meat of the problem, and there are several wrenching scenes where we learn what happens to several characters. Fortunately there’s also a satisfying afterward which ties up one of the loose ends. So McDevitt really gets just about everything right in the novel.
Overall the story doesn’t have quite the impact of Talent, and the nature of the series takes just a little wind out of the sails of the potential of the story (in a true standalone novel, there’s the potential for a lot more exploration of the plot twist which can’t really happen here without revealing more about Alex and Chase than can really happen here). But it’s still a really fun novel, and quite a page-turner too. If you’ve bailed on the series prior to this, I suggest getting back on board at least for this installment.
“The Angels Take Manhattan” was the “mid-season finisher” of season seven of Doctor Who, and the final episode of the series for the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory. But despite having the fan-favorite villains the Weeping Angels, I don’t think the episode was successful, either internally or as a send-off for the pair. For two reasons:
- The Angels have passed their expiration date as villains, and
- The story fails in its emotional resonance.
My spoilery explanations after the cut:
Read on, Macduff! »
Wrapping up my set of items I came back with from my east coast trips, there are these (click for larger images):
I decided only to take my Mom’s paperback mysteries; I don’t really have space for the hardcovers. Who knows when or if we’ll get around to reading these, but if I ever get the urge to read some Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh, then I’m all set.
Echo is another entry in Jack McDevitt’s run of far-future antiquarian mysteries, in which antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot/aide du camp Chase Kolpath unravel a long-buried mystery. This time around, the mystery involves a stone from the former estate of one Somerset Tuttle, best known for devoting his long life to searching for intelligent alien life, in a galaxy humanity has been roaming for thousands of years and in which only one other intelligent life form has been found. The stone contains markings that don’t conform to any known human script, but before Alex and Chase can procure it, another party makes off with it.
The other party turns out to be Rachel Bannister, who had been Tuttle’s lover up until the time they both walked away from their quest – and she walked away from her job as a pilot – with Tuttle dying in a boating accident a few years later. Alex and Chase pull on the slender threads of the mystery before finding out what really happened.
I’ve discussed what I think are the failings of the Alex Benedict series in earlier reviews (low tech universe, somewhat superficial story), and Echo doesn’t really remedy those flaws. Clearly, the series is what it is. Yet I keep reading it, and indeed I devoured this book in just a few days (quite rapidly, for me!), so just as clearly, I enjoy it despite the fact that McDevitt clearly isn’t going to overcome its limitations and produce another A Talent For War.
The success of Echo is partly the suspense of who’s trying to stop Alex and Chase in their quest (and whether they’ll succeed), and partly the fundamental question, did Tuttle find aliens or didn’t he, and if he did, why didn’t he announce it to the universe? McDevitt does a pretty good job of resolving this mystery satisfactorily – if anything, he underplays his hand in the last few chapters, robbing the climax of some impact. And the last third of the book is a fairly rousing adventure exploring the star system our heroes’ quest takes them to. It reminds us that, fundamentally, they’re amateurs at this “brave new worlds” thing, surviving by their wits and the skin of their teeth. Alex in particular is far more at home dealing with people than with environments or animals (and Chase is only slightly better).
If you enjoyed earlier volumes in the series, then you ought to like this one.
The latest of Banks’ Culture novels is also my favorite since Use of Weapons, as it’s a good crunchy book with some interesting moral considerations and a lot of insight into how the Culture works.
The book opens by introducing the major characters, two of whom die in their first chapters (but, this being a Culture novel, that’s merely a minor impediment). First, Lededje Y’breq is a slave, indentured the Joiler Veppers, the richest and most powerful man on the planet Sichult, consigned to that fate because of the failings of her father years before. (Veppers’ point of view is also part of the book.) Second, Vatueil, a soldier in a war (about which more in a minute). Third (but least), Yime Nsokyi, an Culture agent of the arm of Contact called Quietus, which works with the electronically stored remnants of the dead. Last, Prin and Chay, a pair of aliens who have sent copies of their minds into their planet’s simulated hell, where the minds of the dead whom their world have deemed worthy of eternal punishment are sent, their goal being to expose the truth of the existence of this hell to the rest of their world.
In fact the framework of Surface Detail is a virtual war (a war game, if you will) between two sides supporting and opposed to these electronic hells; the Culture opposes them, but for various reasons is not part of the actual conflict. Vatueil is, and his side has a difficult decision to make as the war progresses. Veppers is also contracting with one side in the war, which makes Lededje’s existence interesting to various parties once people learn about her. Yime’s role might seem the most important given her job, but she’s actually a peripheral character to the plot overall. And while Prin and Chay don’t contribute directly to the plot, their stories are the most emotionally powerful, as one of them executes the mission in the real world while the other is left to suffer in the hell they entered.
Surface Detail is full of moral conflicts. The war over the hells seems like a proxy for the moral conflicts of the modern day (abortion rights, for instance), in which each side is utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause, while still being a believable science fictional concept. Banks doesn’t pretend to provide a balanced view, fair enough as this is a Culture novel and all of the characters are more-or-less aligned with its point of view on this matter. So the arguments in favor of the hells don’t hold much water in this book. And Prin and Chay’s experiences wholeheartedly support the Culture’s point of view.
Other conflicts are muddier. Lededje naturally enough wants revenge on Veppers, but the Culture (1) doesn’t hold dominion over Sichult, and (2) isn’t about to get directly involved in someone else’s desire for revenge. Of course, this being a Culture novel, there are deeper games going on here, and the Culture is perfectly happy to help transport Lededje back to her homeworld.
The best parts of the book involve two things: First, the insight we get into how the Culture works – people being revived after death, outsiders acclimating to life in the Culture, the degrees of personal freedom that people have in the Culture, and the nature of responsibilities in its post-scarcity civilization. And second, some of the crunchier high tech bits in the story, most notably the fast picket Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, which transports Lededje back to Sichult. There are also some nifty remnants of a much older civilization lying around which cause some issues.
The various plot threads dance around each other, most of them not directly meeting, but all relating thematically. Although there’s a rather nifty twist at the end which ties up some elements in a particularly satisfying manner. Although there are bits that seem superfluous (Yime’s presence in the book, for instance) and could have been edited out, and the story builds slowly until really getting going in the final third, overall Surface Detail is a thought-provoking and engaging adventure – quite satisfying, especially considering that some of Banks’ books leave me more baffled than entertained.
Why can’t they all be like this one?