What I’ve been reading lately, part 9

[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]

The Man who Sold the Moon — Cory Doctorow

Not the Heinlein novel of the same name — which I assumed Doctorow would name-check, but he doesn’t. A pleasant enough near-future story of finding love in the midst of technology and music festivals. Passed the time painlessly enough.

Cards on the Table — Agatha Christie

And enjoyable romp with a particularly constrained set-up: the host of a party is murdered as he sits by the fire in the same room where a game of bridge is happening. One of the four players must have murdered him, but they all had very limited opportunity.

Better or worse than other Poirots? It’s hard to say. Although I am enjoying my chronological Christie trawl, I have to admit that the books are rather blending into each other. I may take a break soon.

Murder in Mesopotamia — Agatha Christie

Uh … something about a nurse on an archaeological expedition.

Thud! — Terry Pratchett

Not one of the Pratchetts that appealed to me most on first reading, but it’s grown on me. It begins with ethnic tensions in Ankh Morpork, between the trolls and the dwarves. It’s been a throwaway joke in Discworld books going back some way that the battle of Koom Valley (Between trolls and dwarves) was the only one in history where both sides ambushed each other. Here it becomes the foundational plot point.

Are the trolls and dwarves condemned to a repeating cycle of conflict based on their resentment over Koom Valley? No, as it turns out, and it’s fun to see how that works out — though there is some very far-fetched and ill-fitting business with a painting holding a historic clue.

It’s hard to know what to make of a book like Thud. It’s the 39th of 46 Discworld novels (depending on exactly what you count) — written in the early 2000s, before Pratchett started to suffer from Alzheimer’s, and therefore when he was at the top of his game as a craftsman. On the other hand, there is a definite sense of going through the motions. Characters like Mister Shine feel like they have been invented because, well, something like him is expected in a Discworld novel. I wonder how engaged Pratchett himself was with this book, and others written around this time, or whether he had started to bore himself a little.

Despite the unevenness of tone and inconsistencies in the setting of the earlier Discworld books, I find that they are the ones that stay in my memory. There is a wild profligacy of imagination, a joyful overabundance of invention, in novels like Equal Rites, Mort and Sourcery. There’s no single point where that evaporated, but I do have a sense of the books settling into something of a routine, so that by the time of, say Soul Music (#18, which feels very much like a retread of #10, Moving Pictures), the books’ qualities have shifted, and we read them more for a satisfying narrative than for that dizzying sense of untrammelled creativity that led so many critics to compare the early Discworld novels with the work of Douglas Adams.

By any standard, Pratchett left behind a fine body of work. But I can’t help wondering how much greater his legacy would have been if he’d written half as many books but put twice as much love into each one.

Poirot Loses a Client — Agatha Christie

Someone is murdered and Poirot figures out who did it.

Going Postal — Terry Pratchett

This is another one that I enjoyed more on re-reading it. It’s the first appearance of slightly reformed con-man Moist von Lipwig, who is coerced into the job of restoring Ankh Morpork’s much-neglected post office. Like Thud!, it’s late-period Pratchett (number 37 of 46 Discworld novels); but unlike Thud!, it has a powerful sense of momentum, a driving quality in which the prose itself reflects Lipwig’s obsessive need to keep moving, and the sense that if once he allows himself to slow down, he’ll fall off the bicycle of life. Probably my favourite of the later Pratchett novels.

Thief of Time — Terry Pratchett

An enjoyable enough end-of-the-universe story, though it does feel in places rather like it’s re-treading ground from earlier books like Sourcery and Hogfather. What I will say about Pratchett is that even when he’s low on inspiration, he’s always an easy and entertaining read — something to slip easily into after a day’s work.

Tremendous Trifles — G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton, on the other hand, is not always easy — he requires you to think — but he’s enormously rewarding. Tremendous Trifles, freely available from Project Gutenberg, is a collection of 34 short essays, each one originally published in the Daily News. It’s hard to imagine a modern newspaper ever publishing anything as idiosyncratic and challenging as these — I suppose the closest thing now might be some of the newspaper-affiliated blogs, such as Comment Is Free section of the Guardian.

Chesterton’s columns look at unspectacular everyday objects — trees, a piece of chalk, the contents of his pockets — and take them as the starting point for thoughtful but wild meditations on, well, everything. The nature of God, humanity and the universe. The short form serves him well: each essay has moments of characteristically lucid brilliance, insights that first make you say “Huh”, then “But wait a minute”, and finally (most of the time) “Actually, he’s got a point”.

Highly recommended.

A Fall of Moondust — Arthur C. Clarke

This is Clarke’s sixth novel — which is odd, as it feels much more early-career than Childhood’s End, which was published eight years earlier. While the earlier novel is a large-scale cosmos-spanning meditation spanning centuries and multiple star-systems, the later book is decidedly small-scale, claustrophobic even. It is set on the surface of the moon, mostly on the inside of a tour vehicle that sinks into lunar dust. The story is that of the people inside the vehicle finding ways to stay sane while helpless, and that of the scientists and engineers on the surface trying to find and then rescue the trapped vehicle.

Much like The Martian (which by the way has been adapted into a very good film which I highly recommend), A Fall of Moondust is brutally technical, and sticks religiously to problems and solutions relating to real science and existing technology (or at least, what was known in 1961, when the book was published). It’s hard SF, and I think all the better for it. Well worth reading, half a century on.

3 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 9

  1. Quick link: Since you’ve mentioned reading Agatha Christie you might enjoy this essay by David Bordwell about a new Library of America collection of 8 novels by female crime writers of the 40s and 50s.

    I don’t know that you’d be interested in any of the novels described (which tend towards noir, rather than the mystery) but it’s an interesting piece with a good sense of the historical patterns in detective novels.

  2. As a side note, Doctorow didn’t name-check Heinlein because you’re expected to not only know about the Heinlein work but have read it before reading the Doctorow. He’s done this repeatedly, sometimes more than once for the same work (“I, Robot” and “I, Row-Boat”).

    See http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?489 for all the other examples of this strange habit of his, which I can only compare to Gene Wolfe’s quadruplet of subtly linked works from thirty years earlier, “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”, “The Death of Doctor Island”, “Doctor of Death Island”, and “Death of the Island Doctor” (though as usual Wolfe is immensely better at the craft of writing than Doctorow could ever hope to be).

  3. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 38 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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