Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

I picked this up in a charity shop in Aberdeen: I’ve been in that shop a dozen times and bought nothing. Then, I go in on a rainy September morning, on the way from one meeting to another, and find not one, not two, but three books. I’m reading all three at once; this one I have finished already.

“Dark Eden” explores what might happen a few generations down the line, if a very few people – in this case, just two – found themselves having to scratch a living having landed with little or no equipment on a deeply unsuitable world. Stephen Baxter covers similar ideas in his “pendant” short stories “Earth II” and “Earth III”. Heinlein touches on it in a brief aside in “Time enough for love”.

Beckett neatly side-steps the science. It is not necessary to explain the biology and geology of his strange sunless world, quite literally enlivened by bizarre geothermal trees. But we’ve seen the life on geothermal vents on the seabed – such things are more than plausible. His forests are islands full of life and light, in a sea of darkness, snow and ice. In the story, the protagonists travel from one such island to another, to make a new life where there is more game, more space, more resources. It is an ancient story, going back a million years on our own world.

Where the story excels, is in dealing with human relationships. It deals head on with the very serious consequences of inbreeding several generations in from just one man and woman. Many of the population have cleft pallettes, hare lips and club feet – and are looked after by their healthier, luckier siblings. Truly a dark Eden, but with the warm light of compassion only now starting to flicker. The primitive society that has formed from the original couple is matriarchal, and the heroine can see that the time for this is ending, and that “the time of men” is coming. The hero, John Redlantern, as well as being a visionary, a Moses who leads his people through the wilderness, is also the first to commit murder, a destroyer of tradition and stability, and also inherently self-centred – it’s all about him.

Wikipedia describes the novel as “Social science fiction” which may not be flattering. But, “social science” is all over the story. Many important ideas are discussed. We see how hunter-gatherers can lay waste to swathes of forest over generations. We see how a matriarchal society can work where there is plenty – but how such a society begins to break down when resources are scarce. We see the effects of inbreeding. We see the importance of tradition in retaining knowledge in a society where there is little or no learning.

What I liked is that this is no dystopia: though things are going wrong, though things are changing, from beginning to end, there is a positive dialogue with what is happening and what has happened. In a genre where so often we find stories focusing on the negative – the very dark but excellent work of Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds are just two examples – it’s refreshing to see a positive outlook.

Dune, by Frank Herbert

It is quite odd, re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, to see his ideas  – written down in the early 1960’s and ahead of their time then – in relation to how we stand today in relation to Islam.

Dune, at one level, is a sweeping space opera, an adventure where two noble families battle for supremacy in an imperial setting – but set in a strange and far future.  Imperial politics are what they usually are – but are also subtly controlled by a shadowy and all-powerful female priesthood, the Bene Gesserit.  Interstellar space travel is controlled exclusively by the Guild of Navigators – and they accomplish it only by use of a difficult to obtain mind-altering drug.  This drug is made from a strange spice available in one place only in all the universe – the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.  The novel is the story of two families fighting for control of the spice.

But at another level, Dune explores the culture of desert Arabs, and draws heavily on Islamic ideas such as jihad or holy war.  I don’t think a publisher would touch it if it was written today.  Indeed, even writing such a work would put you at risk from those who see Islam as completely beyond or above discussion – much less actual criticism.

Whilst is is broadly sympathetic to Islam and to desert culture, we see parallels drawn between the rise of the prophet, and the rise of Frank Herbert’s central character Paul Muad’Dib, and the holy war or Jihad that Paul Muad’Dib is so keen to prevent.  He sees it in visions and dreams: war, suffering, warriors and fighting, spreading out unstoppable from Arrakis, across the known universe.  And it is the last thing he wants.

As a writer though, two things to note: firstly, Dune as pure story seems much less sophisticated than later science fiction, and second, there is some wonderful mixing of metaphor and adjective, which I record here.  The central character Paul – at this point just fifteen but the son of a Duke – and his mother are marooned in the desert after a plane crash, and “…he inhaled, sensed the softly contralto smell of sage climbing the night…it had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paint brush. There was a low humming of light…”

I was charmed by the idea that moonlight could be heard, or that the smell of sage could be contralto, or stillness, unuttered.

Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.

Churchill and Orwell, by Thomas Ricks

As ever in my book reviews, the word “readable” comes near the beginning and is intended as a compliment. As Orwell himself wrote, the writer should be doing the hard work, not the reader.

Three writers of the last century, have influenced me greatly. Churchill and Orwell are two of them. The third is Ian Fleming. I knew I had to have a copy of this encouraging and inspiring work, the moment I set eyes on it on the shelf in a bookshop in Sevenoaks. A single book about two of my favourite writers, it did not disappoint. Part commentary, part biography, it revealed things that I did not already know. It made me think about my own position – how was I like Churchill, like Orwell? How was I dealing with the Lord Halifaxes, the Neville Chamberlains, the Franklin Roosevelts, in my own life? Neither man was perfect; both had feet of clay. As much can be learnt from a study of their flaws and failures, as from their successes and their greatness.

Churchill, as well he might, tends to dominate that part of the work dealing with their actual lives – the biographical section. Orwell is predominant in the latter part of the book dealing with their legacy. Orwell, virtually unrecognized in his lifetime, is today considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Ricks argues that Orwell was and is the more influential author and “thought leader” for today’s world, even if Churchill was the more influential at the time. It was interesting to read of the two characters being unrecognised and “in the wilderness” at different times.

There were a few unsure steps and odd passages, some occasional gushing and some arguably unnecessary detail in places, but in general, this was an excellent and worthwhile read. It is amongst those books which I might call “life-changing”.

2017 in reading

It has been a challenging year in a number of different respects. Difficulties at work, family bereavement, complexities in my volunteer role as a senior Scouter.

I’ve read nearly fifty books in 2017, though some of this reading will have been comfort re-reading – a bit like comfort eating or comfort shopping, but healthier. We’ll look at some of the more edifying reading, as well as some of the comfort food, here.

Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads

I started off the year reading this excellent overview of world history from the standpoint of trade.  Trade goes along roads.  This was a history of the world in roads, and had little enough to do, however excellent and readable, with the Silk Road or with Central Asia.

Stephen King On Writing

Perhaps the best and most inspiring read of the year, recommended to me by fellow members of the Woldingham Writers Group.  This was an encouraging and stimulating autiobiography, telling the story of how King wrote his first novel – “Carrie” – in his lunch breaks whilst working at a laundry. 

Stephen King – The Stand

Thought I’d re-read quality fiction after my interest in Stephen King was re-ignited by his autobiography on writing. The opening paragraph is unforgettable, classic Stephen King – “Arnette, a pissant four street burg in East Texas”.  Yet, he is never disrespectful of such a humble place or of the humble folk who hail from ordinary places.  King’s heroes in The Stand are not the Walkin’ Dude or the old lady Abigail, but common folk like Stu Redman, hailing from “pissant four street burgs”. 

Nicholas Monsarrat – The Master Mariner

Read masterly fiction – it should sharpen your eye and make keen your appetite for good writing. This is classic tale weaving.  Our hero Matthew, guilty of cowardice at a battle in the 15th century, is cursed by a witch to live on and on until he learns courage.  Clearly he had not managed it by the time of Trafalgar, centuries later.

David Eugene Smith and Louis Charles Karpinski – The Hindu-Arabic numerals

This is a nineteeth century work on the history of numbers, and is, for something hailing from that era, surprisingly accessible and informative.

Len Deighton – Declarations of War

Another fine writer whose work we would do well to emulate.  Deighton here brings us a series of short stories about war, some with amusing twists in the tail. We read one about the rise of right-wing politics amongst honourable and upright men – ostensibly in the UK – and only in the last lines  do we see the name of Herr Goebbels mentioned.  In another, men battle in the home counties against the German invasion, as the front rolls inexorably toward London.

Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Richard Morgan’s characters are bitter and twisted.  You don’t need to read more than a few dozen pages of his fiction to feel anger and frustration boiling off the page.  Here we have a dark detective story set in the San Francisco of 500 years hence.  An immortal man has killed himself – and it is important to find out why.

Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club

Why did I read this? It was on my daughter’s shelf.  It was certainly compelling, but ultimately a futile read about a futile subject.  And in any case, the first rule of Fight Club is, don’t write about Fight Club.  I should point out that I never watched the film, nor ever will I watch it.

W.H Murray – The evidence of things not seen

For me, the long-awaited autobiography of celebrated Scottish climber and environmentalist Bill Murray.  His work “Mountaineering in Scotland” is one of the best pieces of mountain literature available.  In this longer work we see the whole of Murray’s life laid out before us, from childhood, through his war service as a tank commander in the Western Desert, imprisonment in Germany, and onto his work in Everest reconnaissance in the Himalayas after the war.

Bruce Sterling – Holy Fire

I like Bruce Sterling; this earliest of the “cyberpunk” authors here tells a rather odd story of an old woman who through late twenty-first medical technology, is restored to full health and youth.  The holy fire, I think, is that of youth.

Peter Fleming  – Bayonets to Lhasa

Peter Fleming was the older (and today, less well-known) brother of Ian Fleming. Both brothers were capable and gifted writers. Here, Peter Fleming writes an account of William Younghusband’s assault on Lhasa in 1904.  It is an essential piece of reading for anyone like me interested in Central Asia or in “The Great Game”.

A. N Wilson – Our times

Another sweeping historical perspective work, covering the new Elizabethan era – our times – from the mid 1950’s until the early noughties.  Much changed in the first four decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  But, it might be said that more has changed in the UK since A. N Wilson finished this book, than in all the forty years before.

Geoffrey Wellum – First Light

A delightful boys-to-men account of a youth who longs to fly, joins the RAF, and becomes a great pilot, taking part in the Battle of Britain.  Even as I write this, I am reminded of Robert Mason’s classic “Chickenhawk” which tells a very similar story about a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.  But Wellum’s account is stiff upper lip throughout.  Mustn’t grumble, old boy….

J D Vance – Hillbilly Elegy

J D Vance has been condemned as a “poster boy of the right” for his Republican views, but what he surely is, is an example of conquering adversity and winning through against the odds.  It is the story of how a boy from the backwoods of Kentucky,  a hill-billy – made good.  Three things contribute to his success: the faith, love and support of his grandmother; serving in the Marine Corps, and a certain amount of luck.  Other reasons are available: ability, charm etc.  A very inspiring read.

Isaac Asimov – It’s been a good life

I set out deliberately this year, to read autobiographies of great writers.  Find me someone who thinks Asimov was not a great writer, and I’ll find you a fool.  Isaac was blessed with a mind far sharper than most of us, and as a writer was energetic, prolific, and wide-ranging in interest.  John Campbell said of him, I think, “Isaac Asimov once had writer’s block….it was the worst ten minutes of his life”.

Rick Broadbent –  Endurance – life of Emil Zatopek

This was encouraging to me as an erstwhile and very amateur 10km runner.  I first heard of Zatopek when I was just a boy.  I recall reading about his amazing triple triumph at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. That year, he took the gold medal in the 5000m, 10000m, and in the Marathon.  I found the book much more interesting in the first half, which dealt with Zatopek’s upbringing and his early success as an athlete.  The second half, dealing with his fame and his struggles with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, whilst important enough a subject, I confess I found less stimulating.

 

R.A Heinlein – The unpleasant professional of Jonathan Hoag

Representing the many sci-fi books I read this year, this is Heinlein’s only real horror story.  It would make an excellent movie if only someone would write the screenplay.  The story opens with a man trying to find out from a doctor what the substance is that is stuck in his nails. He goes on to hire a private detective – to find out what he does for a living. After that, things get macabre.

Hampton Sides – Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

This was spot on: whilst at one level, a biography of Kit Carson, at another level, it is a biography or history of the American nation in the late nineteenth century, as the imperial expansion out to the Pacific was made reality by the grit, determination and plain nastiness of men like Carson and his mentor Fremont.  A very worthwhile read.

Tim Harford – Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy

A first rate canter through some interesting technical and cultural developments that shaped the modern world.  The book is basically an extended version of some chats given on the BBC World Service.  I wasn’t sure which one of the fifty I would have chosen, if any, as the most important, but if I had to pick any one, it would be the JOint Stock company or the concept the Limited Liability Company or LLC.

Len Deighton – SS-GB

I remember when this came out; I tried to read it then as a youth and could not make headway against it, however well-written it is.  Len Deighton is a master of the written word and you’ll learn a lot by him: read him, emulate him.  Unsurprisingly much-copied, this is the grand-dad of all alternative history spy thrillers.  I was particularly gratified to find in his story that the side-streets around the back of Victoria Station, on Vauxhall Bridge Road, were considered one of the roughest inner city areas in Europe.  Go there now!

Tim Marshall – Prisoners of geography

I go this in a charity shop in St Ives. A most excellent account of history as seen through maps, cartography and the importance of where you live, where your country lies.  Straits, river mouths and estuaries, mountain ranges,  cliffs and forests – these are the difference between life and death, wealth and penury.  Even in the days of cruise missiles and cybersecurity, your location still matters.

Mud, blood and poppycock – Gordon Corrigan

This alternative or “revisionist” review of the Great War, written by former Army officer Gordon Corrigan, was always going to put a frown on some foreheads.  It’s always readable, though sometimes you find yourself disagreeing with him, and he is never afraid to editorialise and give his own opinion – always a mistake in my view.

He does repeat some tired old lies. “Britain has never been successfully invaded since 1066” is the purest nonsense, forgivable perhaps, from an Army officer but it would not be acceptable from a professional historian.

And his final conclusion on what it is that wars are won by? Again, rather as is to be expected from a British Army officer, he argues that it is not intellect but courage.  There may be a great deal of truth in that, but I disagree. Wars are won, neither with intellect or courage, but with money.