Book Review:  The Ship – Antonia Honeywell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson – 2015)

This is the first novel by Antonia Honeywell and what a book it is.

Described as a coming of age adventure, the principal character is Lalla (or Lalage to give her her proper name) the only child of Michael and Anna Paul.  Lalage (pronounced Lal-a-dgee) was born at the end of the world, almost literally as the Earth has been blighted  by environmental, political and military catastrophes.  Cities have been burnt, drowned or otherwise obliterated.  

Lalla and her parents live what at first appears to be a fairly spartan existence in a London where Oxford Street burned for 3 weeks before a military government took power and life for those remaining became nasty, brutish and (for many) short.  To allocate scarce resources, the government uses the Dove, a hardware/software system developed by Lalla’s father Michael .  The Dove allows the government to track its citizens at all times and makes it very difficult to use non-approved websites.  People without the correct ID must live in hiding or face death at the hands of the army.  This is the most brutal soul-destroying dystopia I have read about but it is logical in the apocalyptic circumstances described.

Lalla dotes on her parents, they are all she has.  As mentioned, the Paul’s live frugally but you soon realise that they have forme more than many other people.  Lalla’s mother roasts a chicken as a birthday treat and has to close the windows to stop neighbours picking up the scent.

Lalla is lonely, she has no siblings or friends and we feel sympathy for her whilst at the same time recognising her privileged position, even if the gap between her and the less well offer is wafer thin.

As a young girl Lalla visits the British Museum on an almost daily basis.  It is an education.  Lalla’s mother talks to her about the dwindling exhibits but her main focus is on the hundreds of people who have taken refuge there. 

As the situation worsens, Lalla’s parents discuss ‘the ship’.  We discover that Michael Paul has used his wealth and influence to purchase, fit out and supply a large ship for 500 chosen refugees.  Michael Paul is their saviour but Lalla just wants him to be her Dad.  Anna Paul hints that her husband doesn’t just want to save people, he wants them to know that he saved them.  Anna resists going to the ship whilst there is still hope in London.

Lalla’s mother is injured which prompts Michael Paul to put his plans into action.  Anna Paul dies just as the ship leaves the port.  With her only constant companion gone, Lalla’s grief is absolute.  

Life on board the ship settles into a routine, whish Lalla seems to enjoy at first.  She has a job, a purpose and begins to take an interest in a boy called Tom.  There is plenty of leisure time on the ship and people take up hobbies, a book group is formed (perhaps a nod to the potential readers of this book). 

Michael Paull wants people to be happy, which they cannot be if they cling to memories of the past and lost loved ones.  The people of the ship still watch news bulletins but Michael persuades them to stop, to focus on the present not the past.

Like most of us, Lalla takes meaning from the past and needs to know what the future will hold.  The rest of the passengers learn to let go of their pasts and seem content not to know what the future will bring.  The people they have lost or left behind are named and remembered in an impromptu ceremony.  

The  people of the ship seem to be the embodiment of a ‘mindful’ philosophy whereby pleasure comes from fully living in the moment and not being distracted or made unhappy by thoughts of the past or future.  Lalla rejects this and sets up her own ‘museum’ to maintain a connection to people and things.  “Without connections, there was no learning.  Without learning, there was no journey of discovery.  And without discovery, there was nothing but a full plate at dinner and a soft bed at night.”  

I have to say that given the dire situation they escaped from, I could fully understand why the passengers were content to live without worry.  Lalla wants choice and freedom, her attitude and rebelliousness grate on her shipmates.  To all but Lalla, the ship is an earthly Eden.  Lalla is given an apple as a present but finds out it is fake, alluding to the mock paradise that is the ship.

A ‘cult of personality’ develops focussing on Michael Paul as a saviour, father and quasi messiah.  Lalla and Tom fall in love but Tom is committed to Michael Paul.  Lalla is cajoled into marriage but the ceremony ends in ashowdown  where she decides that she would rather live in an uncertain, violent world with hope rather than slowly dying on the safe predictable ship.

This is a tremendous book that I just had to keep reading. It made me think a lot about my own life and also what I would have done in Lalla’s position.   This book deserves to be a ‘book-club’ staple as it would lead to some fantastic discussions.

A great read.  Highly recommended.  Go and get yourself a copy. 

Book Review:  Planet Run – Keith Laumer and Gordon R Dickson (Berkley Medallion Books – 1968)

Despite having a cover that appears to feature a gargantuan tumour with a massive nipple on it, I decided to give this book a go.  

Captain Henry, an ancient space pioneer who has undergone life extending medical procedures is lured out of retirement by the corpulent and devious Senator Bartholomew of the Statistical Average political party (great name!).  Bartholomew wants him to go to Corazon, a planet that Henry has visited before but is seen as the last great frontier planet.

Henry agrees to go but only if Senator Bartholomew’s son Larry goes too.  Larry is the boyfriend of Henry’s granddaughter and Henry wants to make a man of him, the fact that he has the option to hold him hostage should Senator Bartholomew get funny ideas is an added bonus.

Corazon is to be divided up between the frontiersmen who enter a Planet Run, an old fashioned western ‘Land Rush’.  It seems strange that, in the future, land is apportioned based on a method previously used in Oklahoma in the 19th Century. However, this very point is made by Larry to which Captain Henry responds “You don’t tame alien worlds with busloads of bureaucrats.”  This is a rather neat way of explaining why a more civilised method is not used.

The Run itself is not subject to much scrutiny as far as sabotage and murder are concerned.  There are rules, but there are few referees to enforce these over the badlands of Corazon.  Men are killed and their vehicles blown-up with impunity.  

I was expecting this book to be a fairly straightforward ‘western in space’ story but suddenly found that Henry and Larry had discovered a warm oasis in an icy landscape.  They find alient bones and some kind of door, or portal.  It appears that Captain Henry has visited this place before.  This came as a bit of a twist in the story and made it more interesting.  I did wonder whether one of the authors had handed over to the other at this point as the difference in the narrative was quite striking.

After planting their markers, Henry and Larry have an arduous trek across icy wastes to register their claim.  Henry is captured and tortured quite gruesomely.  There is a happy ending however, Larry has proved his worth to Captain Henry and the two men have opened up a pathway to new knowledge and adventures.

This was quite an easy read, I was going to say ‘fun’ but you feel some of Henry and Larry’s pain during their ordeal to register their claim.  Enjoyable. 

Book Review:  The Languages of Pao – Jack Vance (Mayflower Books 1974 – first published 1957)

I’ve never read anything by Jack Vance before and I didn’t find the title of this book too exciting, but what a good story this turned out to be.

The book is more science-fantasy than straight science-fiction and reminded me a little of Ursula K Le Guin’s books in that there is a richness in the descriptions of socio-political activity, ethnicity and diversity.  However, Vance’s story is predominantly about men (of various planets).  Indeed, one planet is inhabited solely by men and their sons, women being sent away when they have stopped giving birth to sons.

Rather than being an anachronistic throwback to the casual sexism of the 1950’s, Vance seems to be exploring the logical conclusion of the basic drives of men being taken to their extreme.

The  story begins on Pao, home planet to a docile, homogeneous population of 15 billion.  The Paonese are not a warlike race and deal with threat and invation by being sullen and difficult, which appears to take the pleasure out of victory for invaders.

The Emperor, or Panarch, of Pao is seemingly assassinated by his brother.  The Panarch’s son and heir, Beran, is taken to the planet Breakness by the mysterious and powerful Palafox.  Beran’s life is saved but he soon discovers that he is a pawn in a very complex and long political game.

Breakness is the planet populated by men and their sons.  Palafox is patriarch of a research institute where every person, except  Beran, is his son.  On Breakness, the prestige of a man is increased by the number of sons he has.  Palafox seeks a kind of immortality by stamping his genes on the future population.  Pao is the long-term target of Palafox’s plans.  He is a megalomaniac but is powerful enough for his plans to be realistic.

Beran’s uncle realises that he needs Palafox’s help to stop Pao being a galactic whipping-boy.  Palafox’s solution is to change the nature of the Paonese gradually by introducing new languages and, therefore, new patterns of though and behaviour.  These are the Languages of Pao from the title.  Separate languages are created for military, commercial and research purposes.

Jack Vance makes a very interesting point about how the structure of a language can shape thinking, beliefs and action.

Beran grows into a young man on Breakness and trains to be a linguist.  He becomes increasingly homesick and concerned by news from home, which indicates that the essence of the Paonese is being lost.  

Beran returns to Pao where a reckoning with his uncle and the seemingly omnipotent Palafox await.

This story is gripping and the ideas it propounds are absorbing.  It is interesting to consider the influence that language has on thought and action, even if you come to different conclusions to Jack Vance.  The writing is of a high quality and will certainly be aiming to read more by Jack Vance in the future.  Recommended. 

Book Review – Inconstant Moon – Larry Niven (Sphere Books 1986) first published 1973

So, a book by Larry Niven.  He wrote Ringworld right?  That’s pretty good isn’t it?  This collection of short stories might be worth reading then, mightn’t it?

Unfortunately no.  This collection of seven short stories written in the mid to late 1960’s starts off poorly, improves imperceptibly and then occupies a plateau of disappointment to the final page.  The only reason I stuck with it is because it is only 200 pages and the pain was short-term. 

For me, the main problems were the unsympathetic characters, corny dialogue and an unshakeable feeling that the stories were written backwards from the big idea or reveal that the author wanted to impart.  

A case in point is the eponymous first story, Inconstant Moon.  Freelance science writer Stan notices one night that the moon is brighter than it normally is by a huge amount.  He wonders why this is and, being of a scientific persuasion, reasons that the Sun has gone nova and that the dayside of Earth has been barbequed.  Stan realises that his time is short and the remainder of the story revolves around him acting as a lothario with one of his girlfriends whilst having illuminating scientific insights. 

One of the lines Stan uses on his girlfriend Leslie is “Tonight isn’t a night for sleeping.  We may never have a night like this again.  To hell with your diet.  Let’s celebrate.  Hot fudge sundaes, Irish coffee…”  Without a reasonable explanation many of us might respond with “Go back to sleep you daft bugger, it’s 1am in the morning.”  However, his lines seem to work on Leslie who duly gets up to go in search of hot fudge.

Astoundingly, there has been no news of what fate has befallen the other side of the Earth.  Not a word.  This conceit is necessary to generate some kind of suspense in the story.  The suspension of disbelief is necessary to make stories work but I felt like I would have to be cretinously gullible to accept this story.

Stan has a thought about the US space program.  “The men of Apollo Nineteen must have died in the first few minutes of the nova sunlight.  Trapped on a lunar plain, hiding perhaps behind a melting boulder…Or were they on the night side?  I couldn’t remember.  Hell they could outlive us all.  I felt a stab of envy and hatred.  And pride. We’d put them there.  We reached the moon before the nova came.  A little longer, we’d have reached the stars.”

The story ends with Stan and Leslie organising an impromptu picnic and wondering whether their children will recolonize Europe and Africa.

Things got worse with the next story, Bordered in Black, which was an excruciating read.  It featured two space explorers ‘driven mad’ by what they had seen on another planet.  Rather than having the ‘Right Stuff’ these ‘spacers’ act like capricious, brooding teenagers.  The word ‘stroppy’ also springs to mind.  The dialogue was truly awful, there are amateur writers out there who can do much better.

How the Heroes Die is a story based on a Mars colony on which a man called John Carter (yes really!) threatens the lives of all the colonists because he killed a man in a homophobic rage.  In Niven’s world NASA seems to have become less rigorous in its selection and training procedures.  Perhaps they recruit at the Jerry Springer studios.

The story boils down to a slow buggy chase in which Niven hopes we will be gripped by mental calculations of distance from the based versus the remaining air supply.

Things did get better, but only marginally, for the remainder of the book. I’ll spare you the details as I’m sure you get the picture by now.

Not recommended at all.  Avoid.