Monday, December 08, 2008

Hitting the books

I've a couple of reviews in the new issue (#257) of Vector, “the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association”. Dalek, I Loved You by Nick Griffiths and Debatable Space by Philip Palmer are both “lively” and fun but neither is quite as bright or insightful as perhaps their authors think. Might post the reviews up here one day.

I’ve also gabled through a bit of other reading. Eden is Tim Smit’s own account of the space-age bubblewrap project he set up in Cornwall. There are some great photos and some fun moments, but I’d hoped for a bit more insight into the design and philosophy of the place, something to add to the brilliant but brief Architecture of Eden, which places the thing in the context of whopping crystal palaces and train stations.

Instead, Smit lists staff and incidents like one almighty 284-page acceptance speech. There are rants about all the forms and hoops you have to dance through to be given several million pounds and a few aphorisms about comfy, fluffy business. A good edit would crop out all the dying metaphors, and I finished feeling it had been written too soon after the opening, so we don’t really get a sense of how successful things have been. The paperback edition includes an odd addendum, in which Smit was being filmed for This is Your Life when news broke about 9/11. I read it again just to check there wasn’t a point to it.

The Looking-Glass War is a typically bleak John le Carre. Three spies are sent out to gather scraps about what could potentially be a new missile base aimed at London. They’re variously screwed up by their own foolishness and the infighting of their superiors. George Smiley can only shake his head.

There's some fun to be had in it hailing from 1965. Betty listens to “dance music” on a gramophone on page 136, and there's confusion when guns go metric on page 181: the “three-eight” is now a “nine millimetre”.

But this is compelling in its tedious anti-Bond detail; the drudgery, the pettiness, the ruptured mental health of anyone stupid enough to get caught up in spying. And, as so often the case, the ending underlines Britain's delusions of grandeur in the face of the cold war.
“'They're crazy people, the English! That old fellow by the river: they think the Thames is the biggest river in the world, you know that? And it's nothing! Just a little brown stream, you could nearly jump across it some places!'”

John le Carre, The Looking-Glass War, p. 286.

I’m now reading The Envoy by Edward Wilson, a 50s-set spy shocker in a similar vein to le Carre. So far it's superb.

3 comments:

Mark W said...

Liked your river Thames quote (it will amuse Jodie). Have you seen the rather splendid Mark Lawson interview with 'Le Carre'? Caught it on Sunday. Very interesting.

Le Mc said...

You like spy novels don't you?

Have heard similar lukewarm comments about Dalek, I Loved You.

0tralala said...

Mark, yes I saw the Lawson interview - and mentioned it here. Though I heard it on the radio first...

Leslie, yes I like spies. And I have written about why.