June 23rd, 2009

laughing

June Books 20) Sunset at Blandings, by P.G. Wodehouse

This was Wodehouse's last book, unfinished when he died aged 93 in 1975, here published just as he left it, with extensive notes by Richard Usborne. It is a Blandings Castle story, with the usual clutch of romances: one of the Emsworth nieces is in love with with a young man deemed unsuitable by her mother but who Galahad Threepwood smuggles into the castle; slightly more unusually, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is in love with one of the Earl's widowed sisters, but feels his wooing style is being cramped by his police guard; and the Earl himself, of course, remains dreamily obsessed with the Empress (his pig). It is all very familiar, comforting and funny. I lent it to an eastern European friend last night who had never heard of Wodehouse, and she was laughing out loud by the second paragraph. I may see how easy it is to find cheap paperbacks of his earlier, complete books on eBay. (Especially the early Blandings ones, Summer Lightning, Heavy Weather and Full Moon.)

I must say that I approve heartily of the decision to publish the book as it was when Wodehouse left it, with Usborne's detailed notes (which include also appendices on the floor plan of Blandings Castle and the train timetable). In the sf and fantasy world we have seen a number of posthumous or near-posthumous collaborations, and I have not yet heard of one that was any good.
thoughtful

June Books 21) How To Make Good Decisions And Be Right All The Time, by Iain King

A quirk of my self-imposed reading schedule means I got to this shortly after Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, to which it is somewhat related. I know the author from our shared careers as political activists and operators, but this book is entirely about ethics, attempting to establish a universal code of how to make the right decision. Ethics and politics are not always considered in the same breath, but they are not far apart in their intellectual roots, and indeed my father was nominally professor of both at University College Dublin (they were put in the same department when the National University of Ireland was created, though I understand they have since been split).

King's book is entirely about ethics, and while he refers to earlier writers (such as Rawls in particular) he seems to be putting forward a new schema, taking the search for value in one's life as an axiom and working forward from there through empathy and obligation towards one's fellow human beings to the Help Principle, that we should help other is the value of our help to them is worth more than the cost of that help to us. The second half of the (short) book works through practical examples of this principle in politics, romance and law.

I am not well enough read in philosophy to know how original all of this is, let alone how fairly King represents the views of other philosophers, but it is a very attractive and comprehensible argument, told in a chatty but far from superficial style. It reminds me most of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though without the motorcycles, and it possibly has the potential to become a similar cult classic with the right sort of marketing. (Certainly has a catchy title.)
tardis

June Books 22) Byzantium! by Keith Topping

There are some aspects of this book that are so awful that I almost wanted to claw my eyes out. It is set in the city of Byzantium (the future Constantinople / Istanbul) in the first century AD. The city's population appears to be mainly Jewish (divided between Zealots, Christians and those in between), with a Greek minority and a settled Roman ruling class.
It has minarets.
Huge thudding mistakes and discrepancies abound in the Latin phrases (one recurring example - the senior Roman government official in the city lives in the villa praefectus).
And the first century city has minarets.
The presentation of characters' names is horrendously inconsistent - some are Latinised, some Grecianised, some Hebrew (or possibly Yiddish), and one who is called "Fabulous" (sic).
And he seems to think that there were minarets in the city before the Turkish conquest of 1453, and six centuries before the foundation of Islam.
Even the transcription of the opening of St Mark's Gospel in Greek is incorrect, which is pretty astonishing as all you have to do is find a copy of Nestlé-Aland - I've got one I can lend you if you like. But (as you may have noticed) I keep coming back to the minarets; it's only one word in one of the book's rare descriptive passages, but it demonstrates the utter superficiality of the author's research into the historical setting.

The train-wreck of the author's attempts at world-building made it difficult to absorb the actual plot, but I did my best. It is set between the first and second scenes of The Romans - it turns out that the Tardis falls off a cliff near Byzantium and the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki all get separated when they get swept up in a riot in the city. A thinly contrived sequence keeps them separated until the end of the book when they discover the Tardis has been taken to Italy; in the meantime the Doctor has helped the local Christians write the Gospel of St Mark. Topping writes Barbara rather well, Ian very badly, and the Doctor and Vicki tolerably. (There is a framing narrative with Ian and Barbara, now married in 1973, taking their son to a museum where they see Ian's old sword.) The most memorable of the supporting characters are some nymphomaniac Roman ladies, and that is not saying much.

I am having difficulty deciding whether or not this is the worst Doctor Who book I have read. The only ones that approach it in awfulness are Eric Saward's novelisation of The Twin Dilemma and Topping's Telos novella Ghost Ship. In the end I think Byzantium! takes the prize for sheer quantity of awfulness; it is roughly twice as long as the other two combined. I will send my copy to the first person who asks nicely; I have no interest whatsoever in keeping this book in my collection.