Reading of Late

I’ve been reading through more books lately than is usual for me, though I’ve been more faithful about updating the thumbnail images along the right edge of these posts than I’ve been actually commenting about what I’ve read. I’ll try to remedy that here.

First, I just finished Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I have to say is one of the best literary novels I’ve read in many years, and the best, or at least most expansive, of the four McEwan novels I’ve read recently (the others being Amsterdam, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach), confirming McEwan as my favorite current literary writer — the non-genre writer I would most quickly buy and read a new book by. I made a point of reading Atonement, which has been on my shelf unread since it came out in 2002, before seeing the high-profile Oscar-bait film just opening today in LA and NY, since I always prefer reading the source before seeing the adaptation. The reviews suggest the film is worthy as well; the most negative review, in NYT, suggests that the film so closely follows the book as to be a pointless exercise; well, I can live with that. I’ll try to see the film this weekend.

Of recent SF, I was quite happy with Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom (Tor), which is getting mixed reactions among the cognoscenti. At first glance only incidentally fantasy, concerning a young modern-day priest who, upon leaving his Cuban monastery, finds himself transported back in time to an era when pirate ships reigned in the Caribbean, the book does in fact focus on the practices and lore of pirates and buccanners, in impressive detail — I never knew precisely what “careen” means, and I didn’t realize where Tortuga was until I followed along in this book with Google Maps — with special attention to the ‘reality’ of pirate life compared to its fictional depictions, as the narrator contrasts his experience with the movies he’s seen (obviously, Pirates of the Caribbean, and others). Nevertheless, there *is* a substantial fantasy element to the closure of the book, as a time-loop of sorts closes; more to the point, perhaps, is Wolfe’s intent with this book, by placing his monastery in Cuba which is still but perhaps not soon controlled by communists, to contrast the religious life with the free-spirited, anarchic pirate life. There’s a lot of meat here for Wolfe aficionados.

There’s been a trend in recent years for hard SF writers to veer into thriller territory — Bear and Benford have done this, and so has Paul McAuley, while writers such as Richard Morgan seem to have started there. McAuley’s Cowboy Angels (Gollancz; no US edition scheduled) is exhilarating but exhausting. The premise is great — the discovery of a ‘Turing Gate’ has provided access to an infinite number of alternate Americas, giving the administration in the home world the ability to launch military expeditions into these alternate ‘sheaves’ so as to *impose* freedom upon them. Is there an obvious political commentary here? Of course. The plot is fiendishly involved and clever, as retired agent Adam Stone is summoned to investigate a mysterious series of murders by another former agent all targeting the same woman, Eileen Barrie, in a variety of alternate timelines. What is his motive? The investigation leads to a vast conspiracy within the parent organization, with a great deal of spy vs. spy trickery and violence. The violence is so extreme and casual that I zoned out by the end of nearly 400 pages, and had stopped caring how the book worked out one way or the other. Perhaps the thriller genre operates on different protocols; but I didn’t care.

Yet, comparable passages of extreme violence did not undermine, for me, Richard Morgan’s Black Man, US title Thirteen, which concerns ‘variants’ of human beings called ‘thirteens’, genetically modified to recapture the brutal aggression of primitive humans. The plot concerns one of the thirteens, who have been politically exiled to Mars, who’s escaped back to Earth while cannibalistically feeding on his ship’s crew, and a mercenary thirteen on Earth hired by authorities to track the renegade down. It’s a thriller plot about a serial killer, but with a lot of thoughtful dialogue about evolutionary roles and some pointed depiction of future US political divisions — as in McAuley’s book, this one portrays a British writer’s notion of US sociopolitical trends, here in its depiction of “Jesusland”… Despite its length (and I generally feel than any book exceeding 300 pages or so is too long), I found the book engaging and substantive; its emotional range is greater than McAuley’s, and its thesis, if not as clever as McAuley’s, is deeper.

More comments on other books soon.

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