August 14th, 2002

The Wednesday Morning "Before I Go Get A Train To Bromley" Review: Declare

Tim Powers is a master of modern fantasy. Over the last twenty years or so he's produced some of the most interesting and intelligent fantasy novels I've read. From the time-hopping steampunk of The Anubis Gates to the ghost eating California weirdness of Expiration Date, his books have been consistently well written and challenging, with stories that stay with you after slot the book back onto its shelf.

Declare is his latest novel. As Powers says, this is a homage to the British spy thrillers of John Le Carre, mixing the life of Kim Philby and the history of early Cold War espionage with a secret history of interactions with djinni. For Powers' world is one that's not quite the one we know, and elemental beings, of incredible force (the fallen angels of old), inhabit the wild and empty places. Andrew Hale, an academic in Weybridge, was once part of a hidden element of the British secret services tasked to investigate these strange beings. He's been retired since 1948 after a failed mission on Mount Ararat to kill a nest of djinni that live in what appears to be the Ark. But now he's been reactivated, placed under deep cover, and is being sent back to finally complete operation Declare. It's a mission that's going to take him back to his past, in Paris in the early days of the Occupation, and to Kuwait just after the war. He'll meet old friends, old enemies and, perhaps, himself.

This is an excellent book, carefully crossing genres and ideas. It's a mix that would defeat most writers, but in Powers' skilled hands not only do the real and secret histories mix and blur, so do the world we know and the fantastical. Perhaps djinni do exist in the deserts, perhaps the seal of Solomon can be remade, perhaps there is a truth in those old old stories. Maybe Kim Philby really did have an occult purpose to his betrayals. Powers' secret is to write his story in the gaps around the real - in those hidden parts where the gaps in biographies intersect with the empty places on maps. This then is the fertile soil for Powers' ideas and the flowering of his story.

Perhaps the best summary is just this: Le Carre meets the Arabian Nights. Enjoy. I know I did...
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    Radio 4: Today

Monetize that browser, baby!

Found on the rather excellent "Confessions of a Mozillian" blog, this strange and funny piece on how to make money from web browsers by capitalising on the facts that everyone has to use its menus, and that most of us are both clumsy and unobservant.

I had to laugh. But then I remembered a custom web browser we were having developed for our web based online service back in my ISP days, one that let us customise and control its menu bar. And then I realise what could well have happened had it not been one of the first victims of the browser wars...
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    Mike Oldfield - Tr3s Lunas - No Mans Land (Reprise)

AKICILJ

Well, thanks to a response by ramtops to a message by drpete, and then a conversation on a private IRC server with ramtops and spride in which they were described as "Early Pink Floyd meets Prefab Sprout", I escaped the Blue Room at lunchtime, and returned clutching a Porcupine Tree CD.

And yeah, they are good. Nay, excellent. Many thanks to all for the recommendation. A delightful dose of modern psychedelia to lighten another day in Bromley...
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    Porcupine Tree - Stars Die - Nostalgia Factory

A Wednesday Lunchtime "Well, This One's Jumped The Shark" Review: The Legend That Was Earth

Once upon a time, in an episode of "Happy Days", the Fonz jumped a motorcycle over a tank of sharks. As we now know, this was the point at which the series began its slow drift to cancellation, as storylines became more and more absurd. And a new phrase entered the critical lexicon: "Jumping The Shark" - the point at which you just know everything's going to get worse from now on...

James Hogan used to be a moderately entertaining mid-list writer of Analog-style hard SF. Sure, the characters made Gerry Anderson's puppets look animated, but there were good ideas behind the stories, and interesting extrapolations. If only that could be said for his latest novel, The Legend That Was Earth. Unfortunately this is the point where it's obvious his career has finally jumped that shark...

While Hogan's recent works have shown that his interests in Velikovsky's catastrophist creation theory have become a major influence on his writing, that's not really a problem for me - I can respect someone's deeply held views even if I disagree with them. Unfortunately Hogan seems to have let his proselytising get in the way of the story.

The Legend That Was Earth could have been a powerful anti-colonialism polemic, along the lines of William Barton's superb Acts of Conscience. Instead, its story of back door alien economic subversion of the Earth becomes a sub-Tom Clancy technothriller of the worst kind, with cardboard characters being put through the mincer of more and more dangerous situations (including the ridiculous scene of a military transport jet jumping the queue on a runway to avoid being attacked by an orbital maser beam - a scene that was done so much better in the alien invasion movie "Independence Day"...).

And while we follow the characters through the clockwork machinery of the plot we are preached at by the author, his didactic instincts overriding the story time and time again... Even David Gerrold's Chtorr novels at their most didactic, attempted some discourse with the reader. Here we're told that we're wrong and that's it, no chance of debate... I read books to be entertained, challenged, and educated - not patronised.

Thankfully my copy came as part of a $15 bundle of ebooks from the Baen.com web site. Otherwise, I know I would have felt cheated - as this is a book so poor that should never have been printed. And while I may argue with the catastrophist philosophies in the book, it's the poor story, the feeble politics and the ragged technothriller plot that really make me want to throw Hogan's book to the floor in disappointment. It's only the fact that I've been reading it on an expensive PDA that kept me from it...

Avoid this book at all costs, this is the sort of book that gives people completely the wrong idea about SF. What a pity that it came from the author of The Code Of The Lifemaker...
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    Porcupine Tree - Stars Die - Up The Downstair