March 22nd, 2009

earthsea

March Books 13) Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

Of Heinlein's four or five Hugo-winning novels (Double Star, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and retro-Hugo-winning Farmer in the Sky) this probably is the best. (Reserving judgement on TMiaHM as I haven't re-read it yet.) Which I not to say that it's a perfect piece of work. The things that make a lot of Heinlein's later work deeply annoying are all here - the cringingly awful dialogue, the gender stereotyping, the know-it-all Author's Voice character - but somehow not as bad as they later became; the targets of his humour in politics, religion and society are fairly well chosen and to a certain extent still relevant; and Valentine Michael Smith is actually rather fascinating as a concept - we're in the territory of Candide and Rasselas, but with Martians offstage. Heinlein must have been a bit surprised that his libertarian parable spiced up with sex and aliens became popular with the counter-culture of the later sixties, but readers do not always take away what writers think they are bringing to a work.

It's striking that I don't think I have even heard of, let alone read, any of the other 1962 nominees (Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye, Sense of Obligation/Planet of the Damned by Harry Harrison, The Fisherman/Time Is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak and Second Ending by James White).
cyprus

March Books 14) The Cyprus Conflict: Looking Ahead, edited by Ahmet Sözen

This is a collection of papers from a 2007 conference in Famagusta; I am one of the contributors (though on Kosovo and Macedonia rather than Cyprus). The standout papers are by Nathalie Tocci, reviewing the EU's role in failing to reach a solution up to 2004 and since; Georg Ziegler of the European Commission, which I'm sure he would rush to assert contains nothing new but does pull together the crucial EU documents and policies; and Maria Hadjipavlou, analysing how the opening of the Green Line in 2002 has affected perceptions - not always positively. Some of the material is now out of date because of the renewed talks process. Two of the contributors, Alexander Lordos and Erol Kaymak, have in fact just finished a new opinion poll which will be published in the next couple of weeks.
earthsea

March Books 15) Elizabeth's London, by Liza Picard

A book that ties in with two of my projects, Sir Nicholas White who was educated in London in the 1540s and died in the Tower in 1592, and of course Shakespeare. Picard has written several other books about London in different eras, but none the less makes her material here sound entirely fresh. There is a mass of detail on most aspects of London life, and I understand much better the role of institutions like the foreigners' churches and the city companies; plus I have more on my reading list for the moment when I crank my research on White up a gear. Unfortunately she doesn't say much on the two subjects I most wanted to read about: the court (though this does come up in discussion of clothes) and the Irish in London - I think I spotted precisely one mention, of an Irish woman who died and whose children were therefore supported by the parish. On the other hand she has plenty of entertaining asides, the majority of which are buried in the endnotes (yet another book which irritatingly does not have footnotes), including numerous reminiscences of Tanganyika in the 1950s, some of which are even relevant to Elizabethan London.
war

March Books 16) The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

I had forgotten just how good this is. Its 200 pages far outshine all later (and mostly longer) invasion-of-Earth stories (or even just disaster stories like The Stand). It feels so very fresh, one of the basic plots of science fiction being written for the first time. Yes, of course it's strongly reliant on tales of human wars, both those set in the contemporary late nineteenth century and those set in the (then) near future; but this chilling sentence - of mildly dodgy grammar but impeccable pace - in the first paragraph makes it clear that this is not about the Germans:
Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

In the earlier chapters, there's a fixation with circumstantial detail - especially of the geography of Surrey - which gives the whole narrative an immediacy which is curiously intensified as the conflict goes on and fewer and fewer characters get names - "the artilleryman", "the curate", and rather oddly to today's reader, "my wife". (And "my brother", though his lady friends, the Elphinstones, do get names.)

So much here is reminiscent of later stories and indeed of history - the rescue of the English refugees by small boats from the rest of Europe is an odd inversion of Dunkirk; the tripods pop up in John Christopher; the gas warfare waged by the aliens against London was soon to happen in real life.

Anyway, a really excellent, short read.
cyprus

The Karpass Peninsula

I'm just back from a few days of work in Cyprus, but decided to take yesterday exploring the Karpass peninsula, the long thin panhandle of the northeast of the island. (Top marks, by the way, to Sun Rent A Car who fixed me up with an efficient Fiat Panda for €23 for a generously measured 24 hours.) My work keeps me in Nicosia, with occasional evening excursions to Kyrenia, and I wanted to see a bit more of the island.

Collapse )