Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gone to the dogs

Review I wrote for Vector last April:

Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt

George Stetchkin is a brilliant programmer and a not so brilliant drunk. He's on the trail of some bank robbers who've used teleport technology – which, of course, hasn't been invented. Lucy Pavlov is the mega-rich inventor of world-changing technology but she keeps having dreams about unicorns. And Mark Twain is the impenetrable alias of a very smart bomb. He's been ordered to destroy the Earth by a planet of dogs.

Blonde Bombshell is a rich, dizzy adventure chock-full of big ideas, all fighting for the readers' attention. That desperate effort to dazzle and amaze makes it pretty hard going. There are plenty of jokes but few that make the reader really laugh. Instead, you can hear the arched eyebrow all the way through, a comedy more droll than funny.

There are the painful puns and word plays: the neolithic period on the planet of the dogs is called the Bone Age and they've got a 'T'erier class' of space ship. There's lazy stuff about George being drunk or hungover at the wrong moments. Characters wilfully misunderstand simple statements and events.

Then there are the tortuous analogies, such as 'harder to swallow than a nail-studded olive', 'like trying to build a sandcastle out of semolina pudding' and, 'memories limped home like the survivors of a decimated army.' I quite liked, 'weird as two dozen ferrets in a blender', but the 'two dozen' blunts its simple, vivid effect.

The writing is often too fussy, the jokes too awkward and contrived. Though Mark Twain is as nicely inconspicuous a name as Ford Prefect, the arched style is more Robert Rankin than Douglas Adams. (I've never got Rankin's appeal, either.)

The characters are all rather generic – the drunk and rude but brilliant programmer, the icy, super-rich heroine, the machine that wants to live. There's some nice stuff between Mark and Lucy as they realise they fancy one another, but their own autistic behaviour and the arched tone of the writing makes it difficult to empathise with either of them. The book is big on ideas but leaves the reader rather cold.

Which is a shame because the story itself is often rich and surprising, and Holt keeps the plot moving quickly. There are some great ideas – the dog catching a stick that then lifts it off into space, the fresh, dead octopus that's so much more powerful than the aliens' computers. There are plenty of fine set-ups and revelations.

I didn't like the book at all to begin with, but having persevered for the first 100 pages, the plot then engaged my attention. The disparate strands and concepts are all neatly brought together by the end. But it could be – it ought to be – so much better, and would have been with a firmer editorial hand. As it is, too many bad and overworked gags stop the story from really blowing our brains.

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