Thursday, 20 September 2007

Review: "The Execution Channel" by Ken MacLeod

By a happy coincidence, a friend of mine recommended a book by Ken MacLeod ("Newton's Wake") a while before I interviewed for and ultimately accepted a position in Scotland. It turns out I now live in the birthplace of the author (Stornoway), which is convenient, as the public library has a fair number of his works. In the last few months, I've read "Newton's Wake", "The Highwaymen", "The Stone Canal", "The Sky Road", and "Learning the World", and have enjoyed all of them.

So I was pleased to discover his newest book, "The Execution Channel" on the stands at a book store in Inverness. Like "Black Man" by Richard K. Morgan (see my earlier review), "Execution Channel" focuses on a closer slice of the future, a future that leads outward from 9/11, 7/7, and the daily headlines.

MacLeod's work is always ambitious and nuanced. He has a good sense of how to present technology as a constant part of our present and future lives. This was a satisfying part of previous works, and "Execution Channel" is no different. From blogspace and its impact on media relations to surveillance and its varied effects on society, MacLeod thinks through issues in a way that is satisfying. I've never found myself asking "why didn't they do this?" when reading his work, which is a pleasure if your suspension of disbelief requires a bit more imagination to sustain.

I will resist the urge to go into too much detail, as I sincerely wish to avoid spoiling the experience for anyone else. Suffice to say, if you like his previous work, or are a fan of nuanced Science Fiction with a great ear for technology, character and politics, "Execution Channel" is worth checking out.

Review: "HMS Surprise" by Patrick O'Brien

I actually read this months ago, but had apparently left the draft lying around unpublished...

My friend Sean Boles and another online friend with whom I play chess got me interested in Patrick O'Brien's series of novels involving the characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Although I have to admit that I don't consume the Aubrey-Maturin novels as regularly or with the same gusto as other books and authors I follow, I enjoyed "Surprise" quite a bit, just as I enjoyed the previous two in the series ("Master and Command", and "Post-Captain").

I will again avoid spoiling the work for anyone who hasn't read it by describing particular details. The serial nature of the work makes it especially important to encounter the events in sequence. Instead, I will focus on the qualities of the writing that I find particularly appealing.

I won't presume to be able to do better justice to the period authenticity or O'Brien's ability to portray the seagoing life, many other reviewers have commented on this, including the afterward in the particular edition of "Surprise" I picked up, which was written by Charlton Heston. (As an aside, I wonder about his other reading tastes, in particular whether he read "I am Legend" before being presented with the script of and agreeing to portray the lead role in "Omega Man").

What I admire so much about the series is O'Brien's ability to start with truly excellent characters and to continually give us a more intimate understanding of their lives, their growth, their interactions with each other. He also has a fine sense of detail, narrative, pacing, and is on the whole a great writer in every sense.

Reading this work, I can't help but think of "Moby Dick", "Middle Passage", and any number of sea-going works (sadly few of which I've read). The Aubrey-Maturin series is written for a relatively modern ear, making it easier to parse than Melville. However, far from diluting the spirit of the age he describes, O'Brien's writing is believably rooted in the time and culture he describes, and does not engage in obvious revisionism by inserting overly modern characters and situations.

I look forward to continuing to read the series, and would love to hear from others who enjoy the series.

Review: "Voices from the Street" by Philip K. Dick

I've been a fan of Philip K. Dick's writing for quite a while, having purchased and hungrily read every novel on which he was the single author, most of his short stories, and a fair bit of his nonfiction writing. If you aren't familiar, it's very hard to pick even a small handful for the novice, but I would recommend in particular:
  • "Now Wait for Last Year" (my favorite)
  • "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said"
  • "The Man in the High Tower"
  • "A Scanner Darkly"
To return to the point: as a long-time fan of PKD, it was a pleasure to discover (while following up on a friend's recommendation of the PKD biography "I am Alive and You Are Dead", review to come shortly) that not one, but two of the author's mainstream novels are now being printed widely for the first time, and over twenty years after the author's death. "Voices from the Street" is in fact the last of his unpublished novels to go to press, adding to my excitement in devouring the work.

Like his other mainstream novels, "Voices" is a work steeped in the culture of 1950s California. The salesman and their world, the attitudes of the characters toward race issues, even the details regarding music sales are familiar from PKD's mainstream works like "Mary and the Giant" and (my favorite) "In Mliton Lumky Territory". As always in both his mainstream and Science Fiction novels, the relationships between women and men are complex and often strained, as in "Mary", "Milton Lumky", and "Confessions of a Crap Artist".

"Voices" is an earlier effort along the same rough lines as his later mainstream work, and it shows a little. I was reminded of my experience in reading Henry Miller's "Moloch" a few years ago, which was a similar mining of an author's early work, with similar rough edges. A friend of mine who is also reading the book pointed out that the characters' voices are a bit too obviously mouthpieces for the author and not characters in their own right. I would reluctantly agree, although I tend to enjoy Dick's descriptive detail and narrative rather and not be bothered by his characterizations.

I won't go into the details of the story much further, as I'm increasingly wary of spoiling anything for future readers. I will say, however, that like so many of PKD's works, whether or not the end resolution is positive depends largely on the reader's perspective. For those of you that make it through the book, I offer this: the main character reminds me of Grady at the end of Michael Chabon's excellent "Wonder Boys". For anyone who's read both, I hope the comparison makes sense, if not, that's what the comments section of this blog is for.

Although I am far from an unbiased consumer of PKD's work, I enjoyed "Voices" very much, even though it was emotionally exhausting to read in comparison with his Science Fiction novels. If you have read and enjoyed "Milton Lumky" or other mainstream PKD novels, I highly recommend it. If you're unsure, you could do a lot worse than picking up one of the many new editions of his work that are now being reprinted.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Scottish Country Dancing...

Elaine found a group that holds a couple of dances each week in Stornoway and Barva. We went for our first time Friday night.

We need to work on our dancing fundamentals (our waltz and box step, for example), but on the whole the group is forgiving enough to be good for learners, and the dances were easy enough to get into.

We had a really great time, and hope to go back whenever we can.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Cooking: Lamb Ghosht

Just finished making my first batch of Lamb Ghosht. It came out quite well, even with my additions (red peppers, spinach) and subtractions (no cayenne). Here's the recipe:

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Iolaire Memorial

Elaine and I took a nice bike ride out to the Iolaire Memorial, which commemorates the sinking of the HMS Iolaire while carrying soldiers returning from World War I home to the Isle of Lewis.

It was a lovely day (if a bit windy). You can see our photos (including a few nice panoramas) here:

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Mapped Out a New Route...

I combined parts of previous runs into a new loop that was just short of 6 miles:

It stopped short of raining outright, mostly it was spitting the whole way and incredibly windy. I know that in a rough loop I should get an equal balance of head and tail winds, I'm sure it only seemed like there was a lot more head than tail.

Anyhow, I could probably add enough to top 6 miles just by turning right along the trails at the entrance to Lews Castle, will have to give that a try on a nicer day.