Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : #8 - April 2003

It is part of the nature of things that regularly performed tasks are easier than performing the same task on an occasional basis. This is especially true of writing a column such as this. If I don't write it for a while I struggle to think what to write about. Partly it is because things fade in memory and partly it is because there is a desire after so long to make what I write about to be big and significant. And of course, big and significant can be in short supply sometimes.

Pretty big and potentially quite significant is Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. This debut novel has been getting quite a bit of hype and deservedly so. So what is it that makes this novel so good that Dymocks have trouble keeping copies on their shelves and the SciFi channel are reporting a possible film deal already? It may be one of the most exciting books I have read in a long time. It is an SF Noir style detective novel set in the 26th century. A violent murder mystery, it also does a good world building job to go with the detective action. A world where you can move about the world or even between worlds by transferring to another body. The actual murder mystery is not that big a mystery, but the journey to the conclusion is worth the ride.

There has been a bit of SF Noir fiction about recently. It is the fashion of the moment in the field although it is being replaced by Neanderthal fiction as the next movement. I have observed that most of the hard boiled detective future fiction (a.k.a. Noir) is of the Raymond Chandler school of hard boiled fiction. The Morgan novel owes much more to the more violent and random fiction of Dashiell Hammett. If you want something new and pretty good in the Chandler tradition, give Kil'n People by David Brin a try.

Brin has been around for quite a while and has produced a lot of good fiction. But recently he has suffered from a problem in his writing where he can't seem to make his characters stand out from one another. They all tend to blur together. In Kil'n People, he has developed a world where the creation of short term copies of yourself is routine. These copies do all the work of the world. We therefore have a detective story told from several points of view - all by the same character. By this device Brin has turned his weakness into a strength and produced his best book for a long time.

I think I may have mentioned it before - maybe five or six times - that Paul McAuley has a knack of picking up on trends and creating the definitive novel to finish off the trend. This time, he got in early with Whole Wide World. Actually, it may be a wee bit of a stretch to call this Noir, but it is a near future murder mystery so the themes are very similar. In this case the future world is one of constant observation. This is a tightly plotted book which has some astute observations about the impact of surveillance technology on society.

All this mention of Noir reminds me that I recently read Richard Paul Russo's latest book Ship of Fools. The connection is that Russo wrote a bunch of SF Noir stories featuring a detective named Carlucci. If you are at all into this area then you should check out those stories. However, Ship of Fools is not Noir in any way. It is a very smart bit of writing about a shipload of not very bright people searching for somewhere to live. The characters are fascinating and (deliberately) frustrating, while the setting is mysterious and yet fun. Russo has yet to write a bad book, but this may be the best yet.

Returning to the big and significant. Neal Stephnson has become a very significant presence in the field. His books have a rather interesting publication pattern. They don't get released in the order they were written. This happens because Stevenson isn't the most prolific of authors. The publishers have therefore pulled out some of his earlier work to fill in the time gaps for the public who demand more of his work.

The Big U was written in 1984 and is very much an early work. It is set in a mythical state university that is in a state of meltdown. The incompetent bureaucracy coupled with the anarchic students are combining to cause all structures and sanity to break down. There is a lot of humour and a lot of action characteristic of Stephenson's other work, but it has a number of rough edges. Really, a lot of rough edges. It also has a particular undergraduate quality that you tend to see from writers who have not actually got out into the real world yet. Its entertaining for your classmates but does not really work for others. Well perhaps it works a bit in this case because Stephenson really can write. Recommended only for those who can still remember university.

Nothing too significant about a new Jeffrey A Carver book, but it certainly is big. At 650 high density pages, Eternity's End packs an awful lot of content into one book. It is a good old fashioned space opera, complete with space pirates, space battles, space storms and space babes. Really, I'm not making this up, and it isn't a satire. In fact, Carver has written a bunch of books in a common "star rigger" universe which cover these old fashioned space opera themes. Before you laugh and dismiss Carver entirely, I should point out that this book and its fellows are tightly plotted books with well defined, if not deep, characters and a consistent set of scientific and cultural rules. You could almost say that Carver is writing old fashioned space opera the way it should have been written rather than the "Cowboys and Indians in space" way it was actually done all those years ago. Then again, maybe you like all the corniness.

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