More Masterworks

Monday 15th December: Best laid plans of mice and men were thwarted on Friday evening when the non-appearance of a bus put a stop to me going out to see the Mojos again. Instead, cold and wet, I wandered home to curl up with my wife and a book. I’ve got through a few (books, not wives) since my last burst of reviews, so here’s a very quick catch-up.
The Centauri Device (M. John Harrison, 1974) is yet another example of 70’s SF that I just didn’t get. It seems a simple enough story – John Truck, lowlife spaceship captain, is half Centauri and the last hope of defusing/activating a device found on Centaur after a long war. He is pursued across the stars by miltary groups descended from Arabs and Jews in a bid by both sides to get him to use the device for their aims.
Except, I hadn’t got a clue what was going on. Harrison’s style is overblown and verbose – “A Zen-master of prose” reads a quotation on the cover. Hmm, verbal diahorrea if you ask me.
Non-Stop (Brian Aldiss, 1958) was much more enjoyable. A small group of villagers set out to find “forwards” and find instead that their lives are a lie. The blurb on the back cover hints of secrets, twist and revelations and I was quite surprised to find, early on, that at least some of the characters already knew what I thought I had cleverly worked out. This didn’t stop my enjoyment of this book, though as the ending was an even bigger twist than I expected.
Good action sequences, good characters and a plot that has been done a few times since this book was published. Very enjoyable ane one of the best books in the Masterworks series.
Fountains of Paradise (Arthur C. Clarke, 1978) is, in my opinion his best book and this was actually a reread (although in a new format). The science and technology of building the great space elevator is so believable that you can almost reach out and touch it. Add to that the novel’s setting (a thinly disguised Ceylon), the mixture of technology and ancient religion (although Clarke frequently comes across as anti religion) and the truly believable characters and you get a very readable novel that should be held up to non-SF fans to show how good SF can be when written well.
OK, it does turn into a bit of a disaster movie derivative in it’s latter stages and Clarke can’t help but add in a benevolent alien intelligence but this is an excellent novel and one of my top ten of all time.
The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clarke, 1956) starts of well as Alvin, citizen of Diaspar (the last city on a far-future Earth) dreams of leaving his home and seeing the outside (some that very few Diasparans ever dream of). Falling in with a jester, whose job it is to bring uncertainty to the controlled environment of the city, Alvin discovers a smaller settlement at the end of an old transit line and, eventually, a spaceship in which he explores the stars.
As the book went on, however, I couldn’t help thinking of the two I had read earlier in the year by Olaf Stapledon. This should probably come as no surpise as the latter was the author who inspired Clarke, but I didn’t like those books and, as this one became more and more similar, I found myself liking it less than when I started it. Which is a shame, really, as this is regarded as one of Clarke’s finest works by most of his fans.
Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke, 1953) was Clarke’s second novel and is equally as respected. Fortunately, I liked this one a bit more.
Just as mankind is about to reach the stars, huge spaceships arrive over capital cities across the world. The occupants, Overlords, hide themselves from humanity for fifty years but bring about an end to war and usher in a golden age for mankind. When they do reveal themselves, they prove to be the visual equivalent of the Devil, igniting questions about their role in the development of Man. However, the Overlords themselves are only workers for the galaxy-spanning Overmind and it may just be the time for mankind to take its ultimate place in the universe.
This is quite possibly the least scientific of Clarke’s novel and falls in at barely 200 pages long. It is, however, full of ideas and speculations, not least on the place the supernatural has in our lives. Images from it have appeared in the likes of Independence Day and V but that just shows, again, the Clarke was way ahead of his time.
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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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