Summertime Reading

Sunday 27th July: The hot Summer weather is finally here, which means sitting in the garden with a good book. At least, it did before we had a family… Still, I’ve managed to finish another three books.

Antarctica (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1997)
Antarctica basically follows three people as they visit, live and work in the Southern continent. Wade Norton is a Senator’s aide, sent to investigate claims of ecological sabotage; X is a general worker at an icebase, disillusioned with his job he resigns and joins an oil company; Valerie is his ex-lover and leader of adventure tours retreading the footsteps of Antarctic explorers. Their stories intertwine and, eventually, converge as the terrorists strike and another faction living on the ice is discovered.

If I remember correctly, I bought this novel before I had started reading Robinson’s highly regarded Mars trilogy. Eventually, I got round to reading the latter and, personally, found it quite hard going. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, it just wasn’t what I was expecting.

Antarctica got vey good reviews when it was first published but, again, I was disappointed. Robinson imbues his novels with huge chunks of real and extrapolated science. This one, set in the early years of the 21st century, needs little extrapolation. His descriptions of the frozen continent are superb and really bring the ice to life, helped immensely by a writer’s trip during which he seems to have visited all the areas he incorporates into the novel.

Unfortunately, the rest of the writing is dry and dense. Some full pages of text include just two paragraphs and, at times, the book reads more like a science text or geologists handbook than a novel. Reasonably interesting are the discussions of Scott and Amundsen’s famous treks, alongside debates on their sanity but, in actual fact, very little actually happens. It is halfway through before the terrorists strike, throwing characters together as they try to reach safety (bizarrely, stopping off for a bit of fun on the way) and the novel ends with a frsutratingly unsatisfactory ending.

It is, perhaps, indicative of the dullness of this novel that I completed the next two books while I was still reading it. I doubt I’ll be buying any more books by Robinson, no matter how good the reviews are.

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960)
Every so often I come to the conclusion that I should diversify from the SF and fantasy fare that I usually read and try something different. Usually this means a reasonably lightweight crime novel but, even more rarely, I decide to try a “classic”.

To Kill A Mockingbird is the only book written by Harper Lee, which is a shame. Through a series of short happenings (almost vignettes) she paints a picture of a smalltown in the Southern United States in the 1930s. Everything is told through the eyes of Scout Finch and her elder brother, Jem. They are the children of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who is defending a black man against charges of rape. I was under the impression that the law case was the main story of the book but it is, in actual fact, mostly in the background. The novel shows how Scout and her brother discover the world around them, including a mad dog, their first site of snow and the strange Radley family living opposite, against the backdrop of the court case.

The writing is light and humorous, given such a heavy backstory and it is only towards the end of the book that things start to become dark and, at times, dangerous for the Finch family. Throughout it all, though, Scout’s humour and inquistiveness shine through. The characters and the town they live in are superbly brought to life and, while there are one or two passages that are dated (if only by referencing things I had no knowledge of) the book has a sense of almost timelessness. A joy to read.

Return to Mars (Ben Bova, 1999)
Bova’s sequel to Mars (1992) tells the story of the, ahem, return to the red planet. In the first novel lichen was discovered on Mars and Jamie Waterman thought that he saw signs of intelligent life in what looked to be a wall built in a niche in the wall of a canyon. Now he returns, as mission director, with a whole new crew, to carry on the explorations.

Unlike Robinson, Bova writes accessible science fiction. In a way you can tell that, if you were to scrape away the extrapolation and conjecture, you could actually learn a bit about science from reading his novels. Return to Mars and its prequel are part of his “Grand Tour” series of linked novels, set a few years from now when corporate and private space flight is a reality and man is actively exploring the solare system. Situations, hardware and, in some cases, characters cross over between the novels. So far, I have read the two Mars and the two Moon novels and enjoyed all four.

The cover blurb of Return to Mars, notes that one member of the expedition is unstable and Bova uses diary entries throughout the novel to give hints of what is to happen. Cleverly, he writes his characters in such a way that few of them could be discarded as candidates for the upcoming problems and I spent most of the first half of the novel trying to work out who it would be (I ended up being correct) and, it must be said that if we ever do send a manned mission to Mars I hope the crew are analysed a bit better than this one appears to have been. (Although that could be partly down to the fact that this is a corporate-funded trip with both familial and political members.) However, the actual ending feels a little rushed.

In terms of the whole story, however, the search for Waterman’s “wall” only kicks off late in the novel, the first part being taken up with genuine scientific research and the associated dangers of working in such a hostile enviroment. Like the Robinson novel, little happens but it is an engrossing little. When the wall is rediscovered and its secrets revealed, it feels a little pulpy but still works.

This is an excellent book and well worth reading.

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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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