Science fiction and fantasy stories always have one hurdle to overcome that novels set in the ‘real’ world do not have, and that is a need to explain where our worlds differ. The author has to find a balance between easy, but sometimes clumsy, exposition and allowing the reader to determine the differences through the dialogue and context. I was reminded of this when reading Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, a hard-boiled science fiction story set in a future where people are largely immortal. Upon birth everyone has a recording device embedded in their spine, not dissimilar to the Black Mirror episode The Entire History Of You, but with they key difference that this perfect recording can be inserted into a new body, a new sleeve when the old one wears out or is located inconveniently. Morgan does an excellent job of drip-feeding the reader the technical details of his future, though sadly I would have preferred more than a brief skim over the philosophical repercussions of immortality and a downloadable consciousness. There’s certainly plenty of scope for it, though it’s barely touched on.
The characterisation is very good, as long as the character is male. The protagonist, his male antagonists and employer are well-rounded and realistic. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the female characters, who tend to come across as one-dimensional. I know this tends to often be the case in the hard-boiled genre, but an exception to this is almost always the inevitable femme fatale archetype. The archetype is certainly present in Altered Carbon, but she has very little depth.
Storywise, the plot is well structured and well paced and is overall very enjoyable and the ending is somewhat satisfying, always an important factor in a mystery or detective story. Though it did feel that the flow of finale revelations was somewhat rushed.
Altered Carbon won the Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel in 2003 and I certainly enjoyed it. But I must confess I was hoping for a little more from it. It was very good, but it wasn’t amazing.
I started off really liking Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction; it began as an intriguing coming of age tale of a boy growing up around magicians, outlaws and anarchists. In between this was the mystery of a family tragedy. The characterisation of the boy was a little flat, but I considered him a tabula rasa, a blank slate befitting the themes of the book, upon which would be written the incantations of life. Sadly, that particular slate remained blank. There are some wonderful characters in the book, teachers and random encounters, but the most interesting and vivid are visited too briefly and rapidly dropped.
Furthermore, it is said that Dodge wrote half the book, ran out of steam, put it away for a long while and then started up again with fresh thoughts. Sadly, that’s the way it reads as well. Half way through, the protagonist leaves the mystery of his family tragedy to others to start on a quest for a mystical artefact. This quest then forms the backbone of the plot in the second half. Sadly, the slate is still blank.
By the end, the quest storyline is resolved with hand waving, the mystery is resolved with an anti-climax and it feels like the book never really got going.
I was really looking forward to Stone Junction, it was recommended to me most emphatically by a friend and the first couple of chapters had promise. Unfortunately, all that promise quickly evaporated and by the end I just wanted the book to be over. There is a chance that I’ve missed a symbolic layer of this book, which would have unlocked its secrets and allowed me to enjoy it in its entirety. But I spent too long wading through the mud to relish the idea of fishing around in it for gems.
Sometime late last year I realised that while I like writing in the genre of crime and mystery, I haven’t read much modern crime, my reading in this had mostly been Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The rest had all been derivative genres, such as steampunk crime, urban fantasy detective noir etc. So, to expand my familiarity with the genre I put some requests in for Christmas.
One of those was Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. I’ve seen some of Christie’s plays, most memorably The Mousetrap, which I very much enjoyed, but I had never read any of her books. I quite enjoyed her style in the book, her voice was instantly apparent and consistent. However, the story fell down for me by being a little too obvious in places; in other places clues would only be apparent to the reader familiar with children’s toys of the 1930’s. Overall, it was a quick, easy to read and fun, but I doubt I’ll be reading many more.
The next were’s Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books. For some reason my mother gifted me with books 13 and 14, Resurrection Men and A Question of Blood, which worried me; I didn’t want to get bogged down in 15 years worth of backstory. However, I needn’t have worried. In fact the thing I thought was most accomplished in these two books was that the books stood exceptionally well on their own. Resurrection Men worked as a completely independent work and was very good for it. Furthermore, reading A Question of Blood didn’t mean covering a lot of history all over again. The background and personalities of the characters is shown, rather than spelled out in exposition. Not an easy task to accomplish and Rankin executed it excellently.
Also, the mystery was a unfolded in a very good balance of continual revelation and early foreshadowing. The best mysteries are ones where the reader is not light-years behind or ahead of the protagonists. Both frustrate the reader, by either making them feel stupid, or by coming to the conclusion that protagonist is an idiot.
I’d like to read more Rebus novels, but I think my next experimentation in crime fiction should be Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series.