Book Review – The Caltraps of Time by David I Masson ( Gollancz – 2012)

On initial inspection of this book, I really liked the idea of it.  It’s in the SF Masterworks series, it represents all of the published short stories of a writer I’ve never heard of and it has a great title. (I had no idea what a Caltrap was and had to look it up). It seemed to have forgotten classic written all over it.  However, the proof of the book is in the reading and the initial promise evaporated pretty quickly 

Another reviewer has commented that the SF Masterworks series seems to publish everything, which whilst being a tad unfair does raise an interesting question about quality control and who actually regards the titles in the series as classics.  

In the first story, Traveller’s Rest’ a soldier is relieved from front line duty in some hideous war where no-man’s land appears to be a rip in space-time.  It quickly becomes obvious that time moves faster at the front line than at the rear.  The main characters’ name gets longer the further he gets from the front and the prose also becomes more descriptive.  I quite enjoyed the story even though the pay-off at the end was a bit obvious.  

‘A Two Timer’ tells the story of a man from 1683 who stumbles across a time machine and jumps into 1964.  The use of archaic period English is quite nice but Masson stretches the point of how an Elizabethan would be amazed by 20th century technology a bit thin.  

Masson was clearly interested by language, the introduction points out that he was fascinated by

The functions and effects of phonetic sound patterning.

This interest s clear in ‘Not So Certain’, which is a rather tedious exercise in the study of alien language that is resolved by a punchline that was not with the effort of reading the story.  

Masson’s interest in language means that many of these stories are hard to get to grips with and feel like they were written for his own amusements there than for an audience.  As an example, here is the last line from the story ‘The Transfinite Choice’ (I don’t believe that this can be seen as a spoiler, you’ll see what I mean when you read…)

It was his reality which had been fractionated by infra-hypo-subquark shunt.

Really, it was like trying to read the fitting manual for a gas cooker in a foreign language.

I won’t distract you much further with this review but I will mention the following:

  • Psychosmosis – In my notes I have simply written ‘What?’
  • The Show Must Go On – A SF satire in which the author grumbles about how modern life is rubbish. I suspect it would have been more amusing in the 1970’s.
  • Doctor Fausta- More time travel explained in tortuous fashion and a truly dreadful ‘Bizarro world’ set up.

Whilst I would admire attempts to bring true great works to a wider audience, this volume proves that not everything that is old and has been out of print for a long time is a ‘classic’.  This would have been best forgotten.  Claptrap of Time.  

Book Review: Yellow Blue Tibia – Adam Roberts (Gollancz -2009)

My introduction to Adam Roberts came through reading his superb novel, Jack Glass. Since then I’ve started to follow him on Twitter where he reigns as the Pun-finder General. Those with a masochistic tendency may be impressed by his tweets, which I would liken to your Dad reading you Christmas cracker jokes whilst stamping on your face …. forever.

Yellow Blue Tibia apparently sounds like ‘I love you’ in Russian- I had to Google it, the Russian is pronounced like Ya lyublyu tyebya, doesn’t really sound like yellow but who cares.

The story centres on science fiction writer turned lowly interpreter Konstantin Skvorecky, who was one of a group of SF writers brought together after the war by Stalin to create an alien threat that would unite the Soviet people. This immediately made me think of the alien threat in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. However, the threat in Yellow Tibia Blue is more complicated than it at first appears.

Forty years on, Skvorecky finds himself caught up in a plot to blow-up the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. The story he helped to create at the orders of Stalin appears to be coming true.

Adam Roberts writing is very inventive and I found myself being surprised by novel descriptions and turns of phrase. I have never heard of light being described as sarcastic before, but it was exactly the right word in the circumstances. Elsewhere, a person’s face is described as looking like something drawn in felt-tip pen upon an elbow. It’s funny and you can picture it straight away. Another line I liked was when Skvorecky comments that “The only true ground for amazement is rarity”.

Adam Roberts drops in other cultural references and is self-referential in parts. At one juncture, a character in the book refers to an earlier page. Like the obedient reader that I am, I checked the page in question and it made sense. A suitcase full of explosives is thrown into a cooling pool at Chernobyl to which a KGB agent responds with the old Goon Show line ‘It’s fallen in the water’.

Much of the book is farcical but in a deadpan and droll manner, befitting a book based in the USSR. It is funny but sometimes it did make me think of old 1970’s and 1980’s TV farces (think Terry and June – or maybe Juneski). The character Saltykov, a nuclear engineer/taxi driver with many irritating ‘syndromes’ is a stand out character. He’s funny and excruciatingly annoying in equal measures,

A couple of American Scientologists feature in the book. The obese Dora Norman seems to have no real role to play, apart from the belated love interest, but there are hints that she is key to proceedings. Dora is central to an exchange that I thought was the funniest in the book. Skvorecky is translating Ms Norman’s speech into Russian at the Office of Liaison and Overseas Exchange.

Skvorecky -“She says she’s the world’s biggest fool”.
Polanski – “She’s certainly got the world’s biggest arse. How do these Americans get so fat?”
Skvorecky – “It certainly contrasts severely with the universal slimness of our Russian women.

Straight out of the ’70s, but it made me chuckle for which I feel I should apologise.

The end of the book was a bit flat, there was no big twist or reveal and I felt that a more satisfactory resolution was needed. However, the journey to the end was funny and enjoyable. If you like some humour in your SF, you will like this book. IMG_1677.JPG