Reviews #3

Last time I shared my recent reading experiences, I commented that a large number of Science Fiction stories are set in San Francisco. A quick qualitative review of my library reveals that there are not really that many works set in San Francisco. Its just that writers from that region tend to use their city in their fiction while others tend to use generic or fictional places. The upshot being that SF in SF tends to stand out.

So what does this have to do with anything. Not much really, but it came to mind as I was reading the Tales from the Out Of Time Cafe. The reason for this was that the tales have a number of references to places in Wellington. I enjoyed these references - they add an extra bit of colour and identity to the work. Not that the tales of Bob, Amelia, Herb and Manny are lacking in colour. But I donít need to review this book. I would think that all of you reading this article will also read the book - if not then shame on you.

Anyway, I have turned my attention as far away from San Francisco as I can. I recently rewatched the TV series I Claudius on video. That prompted me to re-read the books on which the series was based. The books are I Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. Graves was a notable classical scholar who took the outputs of his work and turned them into novel form. Published in 1934, they tell the story of the Roman imperial family from Augustus to Nero (about 40BC to 40AD). They may not be science fiction, but the world and attitudes they describe are more alien than most sword and sorcery fantasies. At first Gravesí style seems clumsy and then you realise that he is doing it deliberately as a way of building the character of the Emperor Claudius. Once you have read these books, you might want to go to the next step and read the works of Tacitus and Suetonius - these are the first/second century writers on whose works the novels are based. Try reading these after you have read the Graves novels. I suppose the next step is to read them in the original Latin.

Moving forward in time to Victorian England, we have The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter. Well, the book starts in that time zone but moves around quite a bit. Baxter has written a sequel to H.G. Wellsí The Time Machine a century after that work was published. I guess if you have a time machine, gaps like that donít matter. Baxter has rapidly become one of my favourite authors with his hard science tales of "impossible" universes made real. But this time, he has been a bit of a disappointment - brought about by his own skill I suspect. The Time Machine may be a masterwork of its time, but by modern standards the writing is slow paced, overblown and loosely plotted. Baxter has written a work which duplicates all these as he gets into the Victorian style. If you have just (re)read The Time Machine, and enjoyed it, then I commend this book to you. Otherwise read one of Baxterís other works - they are excellent.

Staying in the 19th century but his time getting closer to California, I have read The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove. The premise is that a bunch of white supremacist types travel back in time to the American civil war and arm them with AK47ís. Of course this dramatically changes the course of the war and the book follows some key personalities as the altered future takes shape. As always, Turtledoveís research is superb and the characters believable. The problem is that the story does not work - it crawls along without much point or structure. Pity really - he can do the job well - witness his excellent Second World War series.

Finally a surprise. Over the years I have listened to various comic lovers expound the virtues of their chosen form of printed expression. Each time I check out the titles they promote but always find them less than advertised. But for reasons which should be obvious, I found it desirable to check out Neil Gaimanís Sandman. I read a collection of short Sandman stories called Fables and Reflections. The stories span a couple of years of Sandman comics and each have a different illustrator. Even though the artists differ considerably in style, the stories all follow a common thematic style which overrides the pictures. Each story may only have a few hundred words but contain a full story of detail and power. The subjects vary from Orpheus to the Emperor Augustus to The French Revolution to Marco Polo. Oh yes there is also a story about the only Emperor of the United States - his name was Norton and he lived last century in the city of ... well you know where.

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