Friday, February 28, 2020

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

This account of the final year of the Trojan war is largely from the perspective of princess-turned-slave Briseis, although there are also a few chapters told from the point of view of Patroclus and Achilles.
"What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times [in the future, i.e. us]? One thing I do know: they won't want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won't want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won't want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they'll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers are.
His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave." (p. 324)
It's a violent story, but much of the menace comes from the constant threat of violence. For example, Briseis is hounded by the thought that Achilles - or Agamemnon - will tire of her and pass her over to the common soldiery. We follow the politics, the gamesmanship, of the women in surviving. It's haunting, oppressive and compelling.

It's a book full of complexity and nuance, enriching the familiar story. The men have the power and yet they are clearly trapped, too, on that beach in sight of Troy: trapped by their own pride, obstinacy, petty in-fighting. Barker makes it all vivid and fresh, but I found myself back in my secondary school classroom in the weeks after weeks that our classics teacher recounted, from memory, the Iliad and Odyssey. His speciality, I think, was in oral storytelling; those weeks felt at the time like we were getting away with not doing real work, and yet it all went in. I recall those lessons, that story, more vividly than pretty much any other moment of that school. It was, looking back on it, an ideal adventure for an all-boys' school: Odysseus the wily nerd besting the jocks of the Greek army.

But that meant the women played only minor roles. I've since read, years ago now, Elizabeth Cook's Achilles - recommended to me by a friend from that same school - but I haven't yet got to Margaret Attwood's The Penelopiad or Madeleine Miller's The Song of Achilles. There's clearly a movement to redress the relative silence of women in the archetypal myth of Troy. Here, as in so many versions, the irony of Cassandra is that even those who know of the curse that means her (true) prophecies are not heeded still don't listen to her anyway. But she's only one of the many unheeded women, their lives defined - and curtailed - by men.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Susan's War cover

Tom Webster's exhilarating cover to Doctor Who audio box-set Susan's War has now been revealed, along with the blurb for my story:
2. The Uncertain Shore by Simon GuerrierSusan and Commander Veklin are on the trail of a spy. Under cover on a ravaged world, they find a weary population, trapped, and waiting for the inevitable. But one among them is a traitor.
The Time War is coming to Florana, and Susan will face a struggle to simply survive…
Susan's War is out in April.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

Will Parry runs away from home and then into another world, where he meets Lyra Silvertongue and seeks to help her. But soon they're despatched on a whole new quest, to find a special knife sharp enough to cut through reality...

A long and stressful drive through Storm Dennis on Saturday was much alleviated by the Audible audiobook of The Subtle Knife. As with Northern Lights, which I enthused about last year, this extraordinary version is read by the author, Philip Pullman, but with actors doing the dialogue. The cast includes Julian Glover and Stephen Thorne, but it's not (as my poor, tired brain kept thinking) Camille Coduri as Lyra.

The Lord of Chaos like the fact he already knew some of the plot as it has been in the TV version of His Dark Materials. The only jarring thing is that the audiobook has much less diversity in its casting, so that it took a moment to realise some of the people we hear are characters we already know from TV.

Another change is that in the TV adaptation Will is from Oxford - a condensed version of what happens in the book, where he's says (on page 62) that he's from Winchester and has run away to Oxford. On page 85, he says he goes to St Peter's School. St Peter's in Winchester is a primary school - I know because it's the primary school I went to; I left when Will must have been about two. Will is 12 in The Subtle Knife so he must be lying to the librarian who asks him. But I find myself wondering if that's where Will did go, even if he's since moved to a secondary school, and thus whether the eventful trip to the supermarket with his mum was at the Sainsburys at Badger Farm, the villains of the Consistorial Court of Discipline stalking the lanes of my own childhood.

It's a thrilling story full of arresting images and moral dilemma, and it ends with the shocking death of two principal characters that still packs a punch. The Lord of Chaos was hunched forward in his seat listening keenly for those bits, but admitted to zoning out for the talkier stuff - all witches and philosophy. We've already ploughed on into The Amber Spyglass and just need another long car journey to finish it.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn

More than a decade ago, I was in the audience to see my clever friend Farah Mendlesohn interview Iain Banks. In preparation, Farah had read all his books again - the sci-fi and the non sci-fi - and was brilliant at spotting links and themes between them that seemed wholly original to me (I'd studied Banks as part of my MA and published a paper on his stuff in the academic journal Foundation). That evening was a perfect example of what I hanker for in criticism: diligent research to dig out something new.

Farah's new book The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein (2019) does the same thing: she picks carefully through everything Heinlein produced in a long and prolific career, and joins the dots between them. After an initial chapter of biography, there are sections devoted to: Heinlein's Narrative Arc; Technique; Rhetoric; Heinlein and Civic Society; Heinlein and the Civic Revolution; Racism, Anti-Racism and the Construction of Civic Society; The Right Ordering of Self; and Heinlein's Gendered Self.

I'd thought this might be a counterpoint to the description of Heinlein in Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding, which I so enjoyed last year (and reviewed for the Lancet Psychiatry). It is in some ways, but it's more a deep dig into the meaning and context of the work he produced. It's exemplary and exhaustive, often witty and insightful, packed with academic rigour in an engaging plain style. I like, too, that it's often very personal: Farah's own life experience informs her judgements and insights. If I struggled at times, it's simply because I don't know Heinlein's work very well. Farah has made me want to correct that, and then try her assessment again.

One thing in particular has really stayed me: a caveat in the preface that I think has much wider application to those of us who love old fictions of one sort or another:
"It is not terribly clear how much more influential Heinlein will become. The critical voices are getting louder, and although as a historian I frequently want critics to have a stronger sense of context ... we live now, in our context, and what was radical once we can recognise as problematic, and something to be argued against. For all I value Heinlein I do not require him to continue to be read or valued as contemporary fiction. Because I am a historian, discussing the really terrible Heinlein works can be enfolded into a discussion of his limitations (both rhetorical and political) and understood without serving as some kind of justification. As a historian, I am perfectly happy to know that I like Heinlein without feeling that it is essential that newcomers to science fiction need to read him," (pp. xii-xiii)

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson

The third Jackson Brodie novel (after Case Histories and One Good Turn) is another compelling read, by turns warm and funny, then utterly devastating. We start with a typically rich and vivid prologue of a mother and three young children, in just a handful of pages sketching in their characters, their peculiarities, their whole lives - before something really awful hits them.

That awfulness then haunts the rest of the book. We have Dr Joanna Hunter ("Call me Jo"), the lovely, high-achieving GP and new mum. There's Reggie Chase, the teenage orphan helping Jo and baby. There's Jo's useless husband Neil and his dodgy business - so far, so column in the Guardian. Then there's Mrs MacDonald, Reggie's former teacher now terminally ill and all set to embrace the Rapture. There's Reggie's ne'er-do-well brother, Billy, caught up in something criminal. And then there's Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe - returning from the last book - who has married the wrong man.

As past crises resurface and new crises erupt, Dr Hunter and the baby go missing without trace. Reggie is keen to investigate where Louise is not, and her one hope is the man whose life she saved in a train crash - former copper and detective, Jackson Brodie. Brodie spends a lot of the book on the periphery of the main plot, which only adds to the suspense. The longer we no absolutely nothing about the missing woman and her child, the more it's like twisting a knife. Atkinson is brilliant and hooking us with this stuff, offering us something keenly observed and fun, and then dropping a bomb. The light froth of the book is peppered with sudden, visceral horror, and the sense of threat is pervasive.

It's tricky to say much more without spoiling things, but the end hinges on one particular character acting with chilling ruthless steel, and getting away with it. It extraordinary and shocking, and yet looking back at all that's led up to it, inevitable. That's the thing about Atkinson's books: they're deceptively simple-seeming but intricate and clever. Delightful and devastating.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Celestial Toyroom 502

Issue 502 of Celestial Toyroom, the journal of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, features a big interview with the authors of various titles in the Black Archive series of books - which analyse individual Doctor Who stories. I'm one of those spoken to, about my study of 1967 story The Evil of the Daleks.

I've also got my name in issue 548 of the official Doctor Who Magazine - out today - with news of the Big Finish audio series Susan's War, for which I've written an episode. Oh, and writer Sophie Iles, who's been writing for the magazine for the last few months, has been kind enough to tweet that I've been secretly mentoring her.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Haven't You Heard?, by Marie le Conte

Subtitled, "Gossip, Power and How Politics Really Works", this is an insightful and often funny insider's account of the informal processes of Parliament, written by a political journalist. She's read widely and spoken to a lot of people involved - many of them off the record - and the result feels comprehensive and right. The informal processes are what make the formal bits of Parliament work; often what happens in the Chamber is rubber-stamping officially the deals done in the corridors and over dinner or drinks, what's called the "usual channels".

There's loads that made me laugh out loud, such as Francis Wheen's anecdote about a Christmas party held by the Special Branch protection people where they invited those they protected. That included an odd assortment of people: Salman Rushdie, Enoch Powell, various former and some largely forgotten Ministers. One old hand in protection who was about to retire took the opportunity to say something to the man he'd been protecting for years:
"When it was the harvesting season [on this guest's farm], when the pigs were giving birth, they [the protection people] would all get raked in to do basically farm labouring jobs, and it turned out that he was by far the most unpopular person they'd ever protected. They all compared notes among themselves, and he said, 'I have spoken to my colleagues about this, we have taken a vote, and you are definitely the most unpleasant person we've guarded over the years.' This is very revealing, that only the protection officers would have realised quite how awful Tom King was." (p. 78)
I'm fascinated, too, by the changing culture described here - the way gossip and exposure has made people behave better out of fear. The authorities got noticeably better in the years I worked there on issues of harassment, on wandering hands, on intimidating behaviour - though there was clearly still more to be done. At the same time, rumours of an MP being gay could until recently end a political career.
"The late nineties were a point where the wind was still just about turning on the question of homosexuality. Section 28 was still in place, and when the Guardian commissioned a poll to try and shut the Sun up, it found that 52% of people thought being openly gay was compatible with holding a Cabinet position; though 52% is a majority, it can hardly be called a landslide." (p. 250)
There's some excellent side-eye in that last clause. But Le Conte also says the day after this report was published, the Sun announced it would no longer out gay politicians without overwhelming public interest.

There's lots more, but I might use it elsewhere - once I've compared notes with some former colleagues in politics. This book is an excellent excuse to go out for drinks with them...