Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein

I had been meaning to check out the work of Robert A. Heinlein for a while, but was a little unsure where to begin. Well, I took the plunge by checking out The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, first published in 1966.

Basically, the novel is set in the latter part of the 21st century.  The Moon has been turned into a penal colony, to where Earth's convicts and "undesirables" are transported. A group of revolutionaries, with the help of a "self-aware" computer, seek to overthrow the authority of "Terra" in the lunar colony.

The story is narrated by one of the main characters, Mannie, and he employs a curious Lunar dialect, which may take the reader a little while to become accustomed to. However, once this minor issue is overcome, the book will absorb and captivate.

Only a short way into The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, I found myself rooting for the characters and their aspirations, even if their methods were sometimes questionable. I had emotionally invested in their fate and their destiny.  A diverse bunch, and this engendered some friction, and a strange chemistry.

The scientific and technical aspects of the story were for me secondary in importance, although I am not sure that by 2075 computers will have advanced to the degree envisaged here. To be frank, I'm not sure that I would want them to, either.  In truth, I usually reverted to "auto-pilot" mode when elaborate telephone systems and the vagaries of "Mike" the computer were being discussed.

I was impressed by the way in which justification for the Lunar revolt was presented, not just in "abstract" matters of freedom and self-determination, but by bringing ecological issues, economic liberalization and free trade into the equation. This demonstrated a real confidence on the part of the writer,  and added depth and credibility to the story.

Much of the nitty-gritty of how the revolt was organized is not presented in exhaustive detail, and the reader is invited to use his or her imagination, and to read between the lines. From this perspective, the novel does require concentration and open-mindedness, to grasp the rationale and implications of some of the deceptions which are committed by the "revolutionists", for example. A similar approach may be necessary when comprehending the social structures and customs which are shown to have evolved on Luna.

This book has a reputation as a "libertarian" novel,  although I think that conspicuous "preaching" on ideological matters is kept to a minimum.  Rather than being obtrusive, such things are generally woven quite seamlessly into the text, and at appropriate points.

The climax to the novel I found truly gripping, largely because, as mentioned above, I had been drawn in by the characters and the subject matter, and the outcome mattered to me.  The moral questions posed by the story line are not straightforward;they are awkward but timelessly pertinent. My curiosity and my senses had been animated, a good barometer, I find, for how worthy and substantial a work of fiction is.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is well worth a read, and not just for dedicated science-fiction fans.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Norman Conquest - Marc Morris - book review

It is a curiosity that, in reading about history, I have tended to skip over The Norman Conquest. Perhaps this is because when I was young, 1066 and all that, or at least the "official" version of the story, was constantly rammed down our throats. I recently sought to remedy this anomaly by reading a book by Marc Morris, simply titled The Norman Conquest.

There is some valuable and well-argued material concerning the years preceding the Conquest - the power struggles, the fluctuating fortunes of the various factions, kingdoms and rulers, and the social landscape which existed then.

The account of the "prelude" is highly entertaining, and helps to explain why so many people find this epoch so stimulating. The overlapping and inter-mingling of "Vikings", "Anglo-Saxons", "Normans" and "French" is also part of the draw. The dynastic squabbles and horse-trading, the strategic inter-marriages, the occasional ostracized rebel.

For my own personal tastes, I would have preferred a little more detail about the Viking/Norse origins of the Normans, and how they came to be so powerful and vigorous. In fairness, the author does stress what his remit is, in the introduction to the book.

I liked the writer's fluid and economical style, which is erudite but accessible. A good deal of space is given over to assessing and comparing the reliability and motivations of the available written sources. One of the key skills required by a historian covering the Middle Ages is the ability to see through the propaganda and bias of those sources, and make informed deductions and judgments.

The author's interpretation of events feels very plausible and rational, and it passed a kind of test by refreshing my addled knowledge. The power-politics of medieval "France" are documented in compact fashion, and it is surprising how closely linked the fortunes of Normandy and England really were, even well before the Conquest happened. The 21st century may find many of the values and mentalities baffling or quaint, but it makes for engaging reading.

Whilst reading this work, I was reminded just how superficial and even misleading the "history" served up by the mainstream media (i.e. television) can sometimes be. We are regularly reassured that such depictions serve a purpose, by encouraging people to delve deeper, by reading books and studying. I hope so, but remain unconvinced.

The military elements of the story, such as tactics and weaponry, are not deal with in exhaustive detail, and I found this refreshing. The emphasis is on the politics and the grand strategy. In any event, clear and unambiguous information about the major battles has always been difficult to come by.

As a born and bred Yorkshireman, the suffering of, and defiance by, the North of England in the aftermath of 1066 was of great interest to me. Indeed, the chapters about the numerous rebellions against Norman rule were among the most interesting and absorbing sections of the book.

Naturally, the Domesday undertaking comes under scrutiny, particularly its true purposes. The author also employs the areas of architecture (churches, abbeys, castles etc) as a measure and symbol of the changes which were seen. The focus on the allocation and redistribution of land ownership struck a chord with me, as this is an area which has seized my attention with regard to modern times. In the end, a lot of life boils down to land and rents....

Morris undertakes an honest and nuanced appraisal of the merits and debit-sides of the Norman takeover, pointing out areas where the invaders were comparatively "enlightened", and where their impact and methods were less appetizing. It is rather facile to adjudicate on whether things were "better" or "worse", and the author wisely does not try.  How does one quantify such a thing, anyway?  Drawing up a simplistic balance sheet?

There is a lean, urgent and energetic spirit to the writing here. I found it enjoyable and illuminating, and was left feeling a strengthened appreciation of the age and the subject, and how it relates to what came before it, and what came afterwards.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Strawbs - From The Witchwood - album review

Of the many sub-genres which featured on the British rock scene in the period beginning in the late 1960s, those of progressive folk, or progressive folk-rock, spawned some interesting, inventive and highly listenable music. Prominent among the acts which fell into these categories were Strawbs.

To many more casual observers, Strawbs are best-known for having Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman in their line-up at different times, and for their rather quirky hit single "Part Of The Union". However, closer evaluation of their 1970s work reveals a highly talented group.

One record which stands out for me is their 1971 album From The Witchwood, which showcases strong songwriting and musicianship, and acutely tuneful, compact sensibility.  The production capabilities of Tony Visconti also help to ensure that a cohesive and lively ambience prevails throughout.

Tracks such as the opener, "A Glimpse Of Heaven", mix authentically folk-inflected sections with more exotic instrumental flourishes. Rick Wakeman's keyboards add some texture and occasional dynamism to the arrangements.

Some of the lyrics tackle "traditional" folk topics, centering on rural life and pastoral imagery, but they very rarely descend to the "maypoles and apple scrumpy" territory which characterizes some British folk and folk-rock of the period. Crucially, most of the compositions fall short of being over-earnest.

The captivating, and slightly eerie, title track is one of the highlights of the record. "Thirty Days" carries distinct echoes of the Beatles' work circa 1964/65, by dint of its melody and its vocal harmonies. "Flight" is another number whose vocal sound is rather Beatlesque in flavour.

The contribution of Rick Wakeman is perhaps most keenly felt on "Sheep", and on "The Hangman and The Papist", with their prominent organ components.  In addition to its dramatic words, the latter is another song with a strong melody. And the consistently strong running order is sustained by "Cannondale" and the beautiful and striking "The Shepherd's Song", with its eclectic and surprisingly effective mixture of influences.

From The Witchwood closes with two intriguing and affecting songs.  "In Amongst The Roses" typifies the contemplative and enigmatic leanings of the album's subject matter. "I'll Carry On Beside You" is more upbeat and strident, and features an intricate piano "engine" courtesy of Wakeman. Like many of the pieces on the LP, it is performed with conviction and vigour, and this is important.

Overall, this record is a strong and purposeful collection of songs, well-crafted, controlled and appealingly organic in their execution, the relatively sparing use of electric guitars strengthening this impression. Combining the lyrical and poetical hallmarks of folk music with the odd infusion of rock energy, and the occasional "experimental" passage, it is a most satisfying listen, which still sounds fresh and credible today.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie

I must confess that detective fiction, or crime novels, have not featured that highly on my list of literary priorities over the years. However, the lure of Agatha Christie's work proved too strong, and I therefore recently sought out The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, first published in 1926, and often cited as one of the most important detective novels of all time.

Almost as soon as I commenced reading the book, the thought struck me that its impact had been dulled by the fact that I had seen the British television adaption, starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, even if that adaptation differed from the novel in several respects. On the other hand, the small-screen version did assist me in my "visualizations".

The employment of a central character as "narrator" helps to give this story its distinctive feel. Again, the effect might be different, more pronounced, to those who are unfamiliar with the story in any format.

For me, the character of Hercule Poirot both irritates less and charms less when his idiosyncrasies emanate from the printed page. Even so, one can readily appreciate how Agatha Christie supposedly came to dislike the character, her own creation. I guess that modest, anodyne characters do not inspire strong emotions, or persuade people to read books. Perhaps the reader should develop a method of "tuning out" Poirot's less agreeable traits?

I should stress that my evaluation of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd may have been coloured by the slant of my fiction-reading in recent times, which has tended to focus on meatier, "philosophical" fare, such as Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. So, when a sense of time and place, and historical perspective, seems largely absent, as with this novel, the natural reaction may be "what is all the fuss about?".  An adjustment has to be made, to accept things on their own terms, and to concentrate on the detective elements and the "human nature" angles.

The plot has some compelling elements. Suicide, blackmail, jealousy, resentment, avarice, deceit and of course murder.  The characters themselves are projected quite strongly in the novel, so that one acquires a reasonable understanding of their attributes and vices. The ending can be seen to fulfill more than one function. It surprises, especially to newcomers, but it is also left sufficiently enigmatic to leave some people wondering, and even proffering alternative, if sometimes fanciful, interpretations...

I did enjoy this book, but I wish earnestly that I had experienced it before I saw the television version. Its novelty and "shock" value was much diminished, I think. Repeated readings may alter my attitude, but it does surprise me a little that The Murder Of  Roger Ackroyd is revered to the extent that it is. I guess that opinions depend largely on the personal tastes and literary palate of the reader.

Despite the cleverness of the plot, and its gripping nature, I was not heavily engaged emotionally or spiritually. I was not left feeling inspired or emboldened, or moved by any sense of being uplifted or animated. I had finished the book, and that was pretty much that. It was an interesting and well-constructed novel, but its alleged status as a masterpiece was, I admit, lost on me, during this first encounter.

To my mind, there was little genuine examination of the motives behind the culprit's deeds, or of his underlying grievances, if he had any.  Also, the story is not really placed in any contemporaneous social context, in a way that could penetrate this reader's conscience and imagination. I would have recoiled at the callousness of the murderer, whilst simultaneously pondering any injustices or iniquities which might have been perceived to have fuelled the tragedy.

I think the message to me is either that I prefer pure crime stories to be audio-visual, or that glossy and atmospheric TV shows with lavish production values have tarnished or distorted my approach towards the crime novel genre....