July 21st, 2009


July Books 27) Misspent Youth, by Peter F. Hamilton

This book is about a rich old man who gets rejuvenation treatment in a future Britain subordinated to a federal Europe. Hamilton has a pretty good reputation, but I think that must be based on other works than this. It is an odd mixture of bits which work very well and bits which don't, sometimes both at the same time.

To start with the less political: this is one of the best treatments I have read of rejuvenation. This is a rather low bar; I am comparing it with Robert J. Sawyer's Rollback and John Scalzi's Old Man's War, and a bunch of recent terrible Hugo nominees mostly in the short fiction categories. But I thought Hamilton's account rang very true: Jeff Baker's newfound youth totally disrupts his existing relationships, makes him even more of a celebrity than he already was, and enables him to shag every woman he wants to, particularly including his teenage son's girlfriend, who ends the book impregnated with their genetically engineered embryo. The biggest narrative flaw - and it is a big one - is that none of the characters is particularly nice.

On the political front, the book combines impressive forward thinking with a lazy Europhobia. Hamilton's depiction of how the internet might be used for political marketing and grassroots mobilisation is very impressive: this was starting in 2001, when he was writing, but that was still several years before YouTube, never mind Twitter. His description of the organisation of the anti-Europe demonstration at the end of the book is reminiscent of this year's events in Iran and Moldova (and like those, it doesn't actually achieve the desired result).

Hamilton's depiction of European politics is repugnant. His near-future Britain uses the euro as currency and has a Blair-like prime minister who is running to be president of Europe. But the restive population is chafing under the yoke of Brussels rule, and is finally invaded from the continent by shock troops arriving via Eurostar. The end of the book has the dying Jeff Baker in a live webcast (reminiscent of Princess Diana's famous 1995 interview) blaming Europe per se for his demise, without any apparent challenge from other characters or the author. As I said above, this is lazy stuff, barely more advanced than the paranoid fantasies of Andrew Roberts; it's a shame that Hamilton's interesting thoughts about the internal wiring of future politics are combined with a cardboard concept of the bigger picture.

This was obviously the wrong place to start reading Hamilton. I would be interested to hear recommendations of which of his other books to try, and also which to avoid.

July Books 28) The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

We Belgians celebrate the anniversary of the inauguration of King Leopold I in 1831 today, and I have been doing so by sitting in the garden, ignoring the current internet slapfight, and reading the gripping account of one man's battle with a huge fish. (And other things too, but that was the book I finished.)

It is very good. Hemingway must be rather easy to pastiche - those sentences that have two or more clauses linked by "and", moving from statis to dynamic: "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated." But somehow he gets it just right; as I sat in the garden reading, I was very much out on a small boat in the Gulf of Mexico, wrestling with the marlin, exhaustedly accepting the victory of the sharks. This is, believe it or not, the first Hemingway I have ever read, but it won't be the last.