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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

One of the subtle pleasures of adulthood that they don’t tell you about as a youngling is the opportunity to revisit things from your childhood many years later and see how they match up to your fond recollections. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t – c’est la vie, as we say in the language classroom. The modern world being what it is, you don’t even have to spend hours and months trawling through second-hand bookshops in order to track down some half-remembered volume from your youth: chances are it’s already available for Kindle download. So it proved when some half-formed impulse made me return to Douglas Hill’s The Last Legionary books, nearly 35 years after I first encountered them.

At the time I didn’t get to the library that often, so my long-suffering mother would trundle off there every couple of weeks and return with a pile of sci-fi and fantasy books selected almost at random from the municipal library’s impressive collection. Most of these were pretty unmemorable and I remember labouring through a lot of them quite joylessly; I seem to recall (though, caveat lector, this was 35 years ago) that Monica Hughes’ The Keeper of the Isis Light was a particular ordeal (in the interests of balance I should probably have another look at that, too). Douglas Hill’s books were different, however: they were snappily written and easy to read, an absolute pleasure at the time.

The story concerns the adventures of Keill Randor, the last surviving inhabitant of the planet Moros (not surprisingly, Keill’s isolation does mean he tends to be quite morose, ha ha). This being pulp SF, he is an exceptional member of a planet of superb warriors, the greatest fighters in the Inhabited Galaxy (who, needless to say, only hire out their services to the virtuous and deserving). Evil forces are at work behind the galactic scenes, however, and as the first book in the main series (Galactic Warlord) opens, Moros has been cleansed of all life by a devastating radiation weapon. By a fluke, Keill Randor was not killed along with everyone else, but left with a progressive, eventually fatal dose of radiation, and he is doing his considerable best to find whoever killed his planet before he succumbs to his condition.

Well, it doesn’t quite work out that way, as Keill is gathered up by a secret cabal of benevolent geniuses who have determined the existence of a malevolent being attempting to plunge the galaxy into conflict and bloodshed; this individual they have christened the Warlord, though they have no idea who or where he is. Their plan is for Keill Randor to act as their agent in the galaxy, and he is initially reluctant, even after they have cured his terminal condition (by replacing his irradiated bones with a synthetic alloy, naturally).

By the end of the first volume Keill has come to accept the existence of the Warlord and his role in slaughtering the Legions of Moros; he has also discovered the existence of the Warlord’s elite cadre of followers, the Deathwing, and sorted one of them out (with extreme prejudice). The next two books in the series, Deathwing over Veynaa and Day of the Starwind, move the story along in unflashy style – while investigating a planetary rebellion, Keill encounters the man directly responsible for the death of his people, and then later discovers a plan to breed legions of clone warriors in the Warlord’s service, happening on a planet with the worst weather in the galaxy.

Everything comes to an appropriately rousing conclusion in Planet of the Warlord, in which Randor discovers the true nature of his opponent, is briefly brainwashed by him into becoming one of his agents, and then recovers his identity so a final reckoning with the Warlord can take place.

The series also contains a further prequel volume, Young Legionary, which is basically a series of very loosely linked short stories concerning the teenage years of Keill Randor on Moros. I would advise reading these ahead of the main series, not least because they do flesh out the society and culture of Moros – well, a bit at least – making it seem like an actual place, rather than the vague piece of backstory from the other books.

So how does this series stand up to the harsh light of 2018? Well, you can’t really get away from the fact that these are juvenile pulp SF books, aimed at an audience of (most likely) pre-adolescent boys. Characterisation is minimal, the plots are pretty simplistic, and the emphasis is very much on non-stop action and adventure – the books have subheadings like ‘Betrayal in Space’ and ‘Asteroid Apocalypse’. They were written between 1979 and 1982, so very much qualify as being part of the post-stellar conflict boom in this sort of thing. Some people have suggested they are basically a simplified version of the same sort of story as in the Lensman series; I wouldn’t know about that (my to-read list keeps getting longer), but the books enthusiastically make use of all sorts of Golden Age SF tropes – needle guns, vibro-knives, mutant telepaths, cloning, and so on.

Keill himself is a protagonist in the classic mould, with his secret special power (his unbreakable bones usually save him at least once a book), and his alpha-male peak human strength, stamina, reflexes, and unarmed combat skills (‘a cybernetic Bruce Lee’ in the words of one not-wholly-impressed reviewer at the time). He’s a man on a mission with no time for soppy stuff like feelings or romance – just as well, because there’s only one major female character in the whole sequence, and that’s Keill’s alien sidekick Glr, a sort of psychic pterodactyl. Keill Randor doesn’t muck about: he’s an action man.

The books are regularly punctuated by sequences of Randor leaping into action against one or many opponents, and reading the whole series back-to-back one inevitably becomes a little fatigued by all the references to ‘flashing chops’, ‘crushing elbow smashes’, and so on. The level of violence is much greater than I recalled back at the time – fight scenes invariably conclude with someone having a crushed larynx or an impacted cranium, described in so many words. All good clean fun for the kiddies, I suppose.

One inevitably finds oneself wondering if Hill is attempting to insert any particular subtext into these books. There certainly appears to be an implicit message about self-discipline, self-reliance and rugged individualism. The notion of a superior warrior elite isn’t necessarily a political one in the usual sense of the word, but the opening sequence of Young Legionary in particular inevitably recalls the start of 300, as a pre-teen Keill is left in the wilderness by his people and required to make a hazardous journey, alone and unequipped, in order to qualify to begin his training as a full legionary. The Legions of Moros do seem very similar to the Spartans of antiquity, and – again thanks to 300 – the Spartans are now almost synonymous with a certain kind of muscular right-wing ideology. The tendency for Keill’s featured opponents to be mutants of various kinds – departures from the human norm of which he is such an exemplar – also feels slightly suspect.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, therefore, to learn that Hill was the literary editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune throughout the period he was writing the Legionary books. I suppose this may just prove that if you move far enough away from the political centre ground, you eventually find yourself approaching it again from the other side. On the other hand, Hill is always at pains to point out that the Legions were not truly acquisitive, not imperialistic, not aggressors: the people of Moros are explicitly identified as collectivists. Even so, it is curious that the final movement of this series reveals it to be a story concerning an individual locked in a death struggle with a truly collectivist entity, a being with the power to consume identity and individualism. Or maybe it isn’t: Hill was apparently a socialist, not a raving communist.

None of the above occurred to me when I was first reading the Legionary books (you may not be greatly surprised to hear), and I’m not sure any of it is really important now. The values of these stories are traditional and – it seems to me – wholly commendable ones: loyalty, honour, restraint, responsibility. You can perhaps take exception to the fact they are so obviously books for boys, and to some of the subject matter (specifically the lovingly-detailed violence), but that’s about all. Looking at them again now, they remain as pacy, diverting and entertaining as they were back in the early eighties. I suppose I should call them a guilty pleasure, but to be honest I’m really struggling to feel at all guilty.

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As I write, the story of the Trump administration is one without a definite ending. It is therefore surely rather precipitate for anyone to be writing its history. And yet, at first glance, this is perhaps what Michael Wolff seems to be trying to do with his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the juicy bits of which have been all over the news media for weeks and which I have finally got around to reading.

I find myself in a slightly odd position here, not least because I am viewing the ongoing Trumpclasm as (thank God) a foreigner, but also because anyone likely to be remotely interested in Fire and Fury will not only already know the key claims made within, but also the details of how the book came about. That said, of course, the extent to which we can all agree on anything about Fire and Fury is extremely limited, something to which we shall return.

Nevertheless, there is always the remote possibility that this small corner of t’Internet is all that remains to inform and illuminate future generations (in which case: hail, posterity! I bring you greetings from the past and can only imagine the strange world you must inhabit – for instance, did Star Trek ever recover? So much to wonder about), so I suppose a little background information would not go amiss.

The transition period following the rather unexpected election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the first few months of his administration were documented by the writer and journalist Michael Wolff, who (he claimed) had more or less free access to the incoming regime. Wolff’s many hours of interviews with key players, not to mention hanging about the White House taking notes, are the basis of Fire and Fury.

Like I say, all the really explosive stuff in Fire and Fury hit the media at the start of the year – suggestions that Donald Trump is mentally incapable, or at least not up to the standards required of the job; that he spends long evenings alone in his bedroom eating cheeseburgers and looking at an array of TV screens, before making rambling, self-pitying phone calls to casual acquaintances; that his wife was reduced to tears of despair by the news he had won the election in the first place.

Certainly, the first big revelation in the book is one which kind of got lost, compared to all the others: the suggestion is that Trump did not expect to win, and indeed never expected to win – his presidential run was essentially a massive exercise in self-aggrandisement, designed to make him the most famous man in the world, which fame he would later use in the launching of his own TV network. Actually becoming president was never part of the plan.

But, of course, become president he did, and with Trump installed in the White House Fire and Fury provides a whistle-stop recap of all the peculiar things that have happened since then – the ‘alternative facts’ squabble, the tweeting, the sacking of the director of the FBI, allegations of collusion with Russia, the strange, rambling speeches, the other sackings, the strange personnel choices, the legislative ineptitude – and, if Wolff is to be believed, an almost inconceivable level of political in-fighting within the administration itself.

It’s not so much The West Wing as a cross between I Claudius and The Addams Family, a bizarre narrative populated with a coterie of grotesques – right-wing guru Steve Bannon, who for some reason seems to think that being known as ‘the brains behind Donald Trump’ is somehow a positive thing; Trump’s androidal daughter and her husband, apparently referred to as Jarvanka; the hapless press secretary Sean Spicer; the alarming Kellyanne Conway; Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramuchi… it kind of makes sense that all of these people would congregate together, as you can’t really imagine any of them finding a role in a more conventional administration.

Not that they appear to have got on, of course: the Bannonites, the Jarvankans, and the few mainstream Republicans involved all battling for control of the legislative process, not to mention the ear of the president. Wolff returns again and again to Trump’s apparent flaws – his tiny attention span, his inability to recognise his own lack of expertise, his refusal to grasp the principle of cause and effect, his almost pitiable need to be liked, and the vulnerability to flattery that comes with it. The biggest problem of the Trump presidency, Wolff suggests, is that it has Donald Trump at its heart: ‘a moron’, in the alleged words of one senior cabinet member.

It should be an alarming, or at least deeply depressing account of an epic historic misfire in the democratic process, and I suppose it is to Wolff’s credit that the book reads more like an absurd black comedy than anything else. He is unstinting in his evisceration of many of the key players, and forensic in his analysis of Trump’s many media fumbles. It almost goes without saying that if even a small fraction of this book is factually accurate, then the USA is in very serious trouble: not just because Trump is president, but because he was able to get elected in the first place.

And yet it seems to me that Fire and Fury is symptomatic of a wider problem. There’s not a lot of wriggle room here: either the book is, broadly speaking, truthful, in which case the leader of the free world is an incompetent narcissist overseeing a compromised administration notable for its ineptness and nepotism, or it is an absurd hatchet-job of blatant untruths, executed by a member of a biased liberal media determined to destroy a threat to it. You’re either on one side of the fence or the other.

And this, I think, is the main problem with the United States today – it’s not a very united set of United States. While it is notable that even people who support Trump hardly do so in an unqualified manner – there’s always a hint of ‘Yes, but…’ when they defend the latest presidential fiasco, and the general tenor of Trump’s Twitter pronouncements is certainly in keeping with Wolff’s depiction of him, the fact remains that people seem very reluctant to agree on anything beyond the most basic facts. Either you believe what you see in the media or you believe in the Trumpian ‘fake news’ conspiracy theory; there’s not much in the way of middle ground.

By being quite so gleeful in its savaging and Trump and those around him, Fire and Fury makes it rather too easy for anyone disagreeing with its central thesis to dismiss it as just another crude hatchet job. Wolff certainly seems a bit too keen to deliver a zinging phrase, even if it comes at the expense of conventional journalistic style – ‘Trump found himself at the promised gala dinner seated on one side next to a guy who looked like he had never used a utensil and on the other side Jabba the Hutt in a golf shirt’. This near-tabloidese is largely the idiom in which the book is written, and is hardly likely to make anyone inclined to dismiss it as trash reconsider. No doubt Wolff would suggest that Trump supporters would dismiss the book no matter what, but that’s just another way of acknowledging the great divide.

The book arguably has other flaws – Wolff seems mesmerised by Bannon and all his works, and as a result arguably overlooks some other key figures – Mike Pence barely gets a mention – but this seems to me to be the key one. You have to ask yourself what this book is trying to achieve and just why it’s coming out now. One answer to the latter question is the distinct sense that the Trump presidency might implode at any moment, one way or the other, but another might be that it’s an attempt to sway how the administration is perceived and thus influence the 2020 election. As I say, the simple tone of the book makes this highly unlikely, which means that Fire and Fury is essentially just comfort reading for anyone distressed and appalled by Trump’s presence in the White House: don’t worry, Wolff often seems to be saying, he really is even more stupid and ridiculous than we all thought. Pretty cold comfort, I would say, even if it’s true, and I don’t see that mocking the darkness is much better than cursing it – though how one would go about lighting a candle right now, I’ve no idea. As I say, Fire and Fury is much more part of the problem than any solution to it.

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As regular readers may recall, not too long ago I shared my thoughts on David A Goodman’s The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard, which is hardly a great book, but still hardly deserves some of the venom heaped on it by dedicated Trekkies. What caught my eye was the fact that Goodman wasn’t actually being dissed for writing a bad book, but for ignoring what was apparently a much better one: namely, Christopher L Bennett’s The Buried Age. Now, I don’t much go in for tie-in fiction these days, but I was somewhat intrigued, so I decided to check out Bennett’s novel and see if it was as good as everyone seemed to think.

The Buried Age differs from the Goodman book in that it only seeks to cover one interlude in the life of Jean-Luc Picard, albeit a significant one: namely, the almost decade-long gap between the loss of the Stargazer to a Ferengi ambush and his assuming command of the Enterprise in the early 2360s. Bennett discharges his responsibilities with great punctiliousness – the book opens with Picard on one bridge, minutes before the attack, and concludes on another, just as the TNG pilot is getting underway. The question is whether the author does so in a way which is both satisfying and entertaining.

Anyone criticising Goodman for disregarding other tie-ins in his ‘autobiographies’ has a point, but then again he is equally wont to disregard generally-accepted parts of the canon if he doesn’t like them (the animated show and at least one of the movies, for instance). It’s certainly true that there is no way to reconcile the two books, for all that they cover the same events and the same period – the Stargazer has different bridge crew, just for starters, and The Buried Age depicts Picard taking a lengthy sabbatical from Starfleet, whereas Goodman just has him piloting a desk for many years.

It’s actually rather peculiar to compare the two books. Obviously both authors have done their research when it comes to the TV show, and are aware of certain established points of history which they have to abide by – Picard first saw Tasha Yar negotiating her way through a minefield, for instance, and met Geordi LaForge when he was on a piloting assignment – and as a result there are weird moments of them echoing each other, momentarily coming into synch.

But for the most part The Buried Age follows a wildly different path. It opens with an extended prologue, not having much to do with the rest of the story, depicting the Ferengi ambush, the loss of the Stargazer, and the subsequent court martial of Picard.

Following this, our man leaves Starfleet and becomes a mature student of archaeology at the University of Alpha Centauri, where he seems well on course to get his doctorate and become an academic. Guinan, of course, has reasons of her own for wanting to get Picard back in a captain’s chair, and beguiles him with tales of artifacts left behind by lost alien civilisations from two hundred and fifty million years ago, in the hope this will stir his spirit of adventure.

It does, but there are inevitably unintended consequences, chief amongst them the resurrection of the Manraloth, a frighteningly advanced and subtle alien civilisation from the ancient past of the galaxy, and an existential threat to the Federation as Picard knows it. Feeling responsible for the appearance of this new menace, Picard dedicates himself to ending it – but what will the cost to him be?

I don’t read much tie-in fiction, as I say, partly because I can’t help thinking of it as second-order stuff, and there’s still a lot of original fiction I’d like to get through in the comparatively few decades left to me. Also, so much of it is undemanding stuff – I used to write fan fiction myself, and I quickly learned that all you needed to do to be acclaimed as a ‘master storyteller’ was to have a reasonably competent prose style and insert the requisite number of continuity references for other fans to spot and feel smug about understanding.

Well, Bennett seems to have got this part of the job down pat, for The Buried Age is shotgunned with references to various bits of Trek, ranging from fairly obscure Enterprise episodes to song lyrics from the original series. There are doubtless many I didn’t even notice, what with me not being a Trekkie and all. However, they don’t get in the way, and many of them are there because they serve the plot.

One level, the book serves as an answer to one of those questions about the Trek world it never occurs to most people to ask – just why are there so many dysfunctional godlings knocking about the place? It also attempts to reconcile the different versions of Picard from the TV show, and explain just why he’s initially so aloof and withdrawn as TNG is getting underway (no spoilers, but let’s just say he’s been through a rough time) – also why, for such a keen archaeologist, it’s a couple of years before he even mentions this on the show.

Suffice to say that, yes, Bennett does a much more satisfying job of this than Goodman, and writes the Star Trek universe much more deftly too – I knew I was going to have a good time reading this novel when Bennett’s extrapolation of Ferengi culture included the fact that the commanders of their ships have to bribe the rest of the crew to do their jobs properly. He writes an excellent, authentic Picard, a superb Data, and pretty good versions of Troi, Yar, and Worf, too. How he deals with Janeway probably depends on how much you like Voyager: here, she’s a smirking cleverclogs.

However, The Buried Age goes beyond this and into the realm of what I would describe as genuinely classic literary science fiction – not just because the book attempts a higher standard of scientific rigour than most Trek, although it does (there’s a lot of stuff about quantum physics, and the intersect with how this influences and is influenced by transporter function), but also because it has clearly been influenced by the likes of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic myths and Iain Banks’ Culture stories – in some ways, the book is about the difference between the Federation (a society still recognisably based on our own) and a genuinely transhuman milieu not entirely unlike the Culture itself.

There are well-drawn characters here, thought-provoking ideas, and well-written action sequences. Picard is, perhaps, written as a little too gullible in places, but then the point of the story is that he’s dealing with intelligences vastly older and more experienced at manipulation than he is, so perhaps this is forgiveable. On the whole, however, this is an enormously satisfying book, both as a Star Trek novel and a piece of science fiction. At the very top end of the tie-in genre; highly recommended.

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The idea that Starfleet might make a first strike was a terrible precedent and undermined the philosophy of peace that the Federation had lived under for centuries. – Captain Jean-Luc Picard (who would presumably be as surprised by the new show as everyone else)

Hmm, well, quite. When David A Goodman and Titan Books published The Autobiography of James T Kirk a couple of years ago, the entity that is Star Trek had been coasting along amiably enough for many years, keeping a nice low profile most of the time, with only the occasion trial of an Abrams-directed movie. No-one would have suspected that the power converters would come off the warp core quite as spectacularly as has been the case over the last eighteen months or so, with the most recent movie underperforming at the box office and the release of Discovery being scorned, mocked and reviled by various elements of the fan base (personally, I’m a mocker, and I’m not even that big a Trekkie).

Such is the world that The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard finds itself sent forth into, once again by Goodman (presumably with just a little help from the man himself, I’m not an expert on how these things are done). Once again, the aim of the book is to tell us Picard’s side of the story and basically join together all the dots that the various TV episodes and movies laid out over the years.

Before we go any further, let us take a moment to consider who is most likely to be reading the autobiography of a fictional character from Star Trek. If you are completely unfamiliar with Trek, especially the late 80s and early 90s version of it, then you are unlikely to give this book much time (also, what the hell are you doing reading this blog? Is there no paint drying or grass growing near where you are?). The pleasure of this kind of thing, surely, is not necessarily that of learning anything new, but of feeling rewarded for all those hours and days spent watching TNG episodes again and again: specifically, that moment of slightly smug recognition when the book covers an event only mentioned as a tiny aside on the actual show.

Goodman potentially has a bigger job on his hands than he did when dealing with Kirk’s memoirs, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Kirk was still a young man when his TV career got underway, and the general details of the second half of his life were established fairly clearly by the TV show and the movies. With Picard it’s different: the show makes it quite clear that Picard had a long and distinguished career prior to the start of TNG – one way and another, he spent more time on the Stargazer than he did on any version of the Enterprise – and naturally the book has to reflect this. Also, the history of the Alpha Quadrant during Kirk’s younger life is generally quite vague (or was, if you still think Discovery actually happens in the original timeline, in which case the Kirk book instantly becomes apocryphal), but for this one Goodman has to make some sense of the occasionally confused references to relations between the Federation, the Klingon, and the other main powers in the mid-24th century, not to mention the peculiar fact that the Federation has supposedly been at war with the Cardassians for years prior to TNG‘s fourth season, yet this was never mentioned in any of the previous episodes.

To be fair to him, Goodman does a pretty decent job of trying to get it all straight, although a couple of very obscure continuity points still manage to trip him up (he implies that it’s a youthful Picard who makes first contact with the Cardassians, which seems unlikely given that the episode Destiny reveals that a Cardassian exile was apparently on Vulcan prior to 2250) – and hey, this kind of thing is surely forgiveable, it’s not like he retcons a new magic warp drive that runs on mushrooms, or something. And it’s not as if the series itself is exactly consistent about everything – for the record, Goodman seems to go with the TV series’ suggestion that Picard went bald while captain of the Stargazer, rather than as a very young man (as implied by Nemesis).

Certainly every major reference to Picard’s past that I can think of is picked up on rather deftly, the only time it becomes laborious is when the fact of his presence at Spock’s wedding has to be explained. Given that we know nothing else about this event, Goodman is obliged to turn it into low comedy, with Picard never quite managing to find out who Spock is getting hitched to, not even her name, despite being in the front row of the ceremony.

To be honest, the book has bigger problems than this. There is, for one thing, the fact that there are at least three different versions of Picard that have to be reconciled in order for this book to really work – there’s the young, ambitious, rakish officer who we hear a lot about, the dry and stiff-necked functionary of the early years of the TV show, and finally the warm, subtle, witty man of enormous moral authority whom Picard eventually developed into.

The thing is that none of these guys really show up in the book, or at least not consistently. Goodman just isn’t a good enough writer to make you believe you’re actually reading something from Picard’s own hand (you’d expect Jean-Luc to have a more elegant prose style, for one thing). It’s all a bit pedestrian, not helped by the same simplistic and slightly gloomy cod-psychology that was a feature of the Kirk book – Picard’s life is dominated firstly by the fact of his poor relationship with his father, and secondly by the fact that he is quietly and deeply in lurve with Dr Crusher throughout his screen career. Goodman is palpably much more enamoured of this second notion than Picard ever seemed to be of Crusher on screen, to be honest, but there you go (the book seems to suggest that the possible future of All Good Things is largely how things will turn out).

This is one of the reasons why this book has picked up some fairly toxic feedback on everyone’s favourite on-line site named after a big river – this, and the fact it apparently disregards an actually pretty good novel someone wrote about the decade or so between Picard losing the Stargazer and being given command of the Enterprise. To be honest, none of the things that Goodman suggests happen to Picard and the rest of the gang after the end of Nemesis strike me as remotely convincing (including his role in the back-story of the first Abrams movie, but that’s another set of gripes).

I would have to say the bad reviews are onto something, for the reasons mentioned above, although it would be unfair to say the book has no merit at all. It’s technically competent and very readable, and Goodman pulls off one big moment that the TV show never managed, by making the captains of many of the ships that Picard/Locutus destroys at the battle of Wolf 359 old friends and colleagues previously established and fleshed out in the earlier sections of the book. This gives the battle emotional stakes and sense of personal horror that just wasn’t there in an event which was talked about much more than seen, in TNG at least (I suspect we will not be seeing future volumes on the other Trek captains, and will have to settle for brief appearances by Sisko and Janeway in this one – Picard describes Sisko as ‘ferocious’, which is just, well, odd).

I suppose the book will also be helped by the sincere affection many people have for Jean-Luc Picard as a fictional character – the most nuanced and interesting of the Trek captains, in many ways. The same goes for his crew – reading this book, I was suddenly aware of how well-rounded and textured his senior staff are as characters, much more so than the supporting members of the original crew. I mean, Scotty’s a beloved character, but even Riker or Troi seem closer to three dimensions than he does. If nothing else, The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard will remind a lot of people of just how fond they are of TNG.

As I say, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any further books in this series (the consensus seems to be that DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise-related books are less commercially viable), and I would have to say that on balance it’s less successful than the one about Kirk. But then it has a harder job to do, covering more ground and dealing with a much more complex central character. Even so, Trekkies should find something to engage them here, one way or another.

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People seem to easily forget that the word ‘is’ is different from the word ‘should’. If we choose to redress the sexual differences between the minds of men and women through policy, we are going against nature, but no more than when we outlaw murder. But we should be clear that we are redressing a difference, not discovering [that men and women are innately identical by nature]. Wishful thinking that they are the same will be mere propaganda and no favour to either sex.

We seem to be going through one of those periods in which the question of what it means to be a human is rather up for debate. Normally I’d be quite encouraged by any tendency for people to actually discuss big topics, but the current circumstances are, to say the least, dismaying: ever since the initial revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which as I write must have been nearly a month ago, there has been a ripple effect throughout every level of society – mostly taking in actors and politicians, so far, but I’m sure it has every possibility of spreading into other areas, too.

The composite picture of the masculine human created by the recent revelations is not one likely to make one feel proud of being in possession of XY chromosomes. Men are, it would seem, basically unpleasant pieces of work (when it comes to their relationships with women, anyway), and unaware of the fact of their own unpleasantness. What’s wrong with us? How did we get this way? Are we just stuck in the past, following the principles of a male-oriented chauvinistic society, something best consigned to the bin of history?

Hmmm. As it happened, I spent the last month or so reading Matt Ridley’s 1993 book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, and despite the fact that the book is two decades old, I was repeatedly struck by how pertinent it was to the current discussions – also by the fact that so few of the book’s ideas seem to have entered the popular consciousness, despite the fact they seem eminently logical and reasonable.

matt-ridley-the-red-queen-sex-the-evolution-of-human-nature-1993-1-638

But then I am perhaps biased: I have thought for many years that our behaviour as humans is influenced by elements of our evolutionary history that we are reluctant, to say the least, to acknowledge, and that there is little prospect of widespread social happiness until we achieve some kind of accomodation with our biology and instincts.

Ridley’s thesis runs more or less as follows – humans do not occupy a special or privileged position in the world; we are the products of evolutionary processes every bit as much as chimpanzees or elephant seals or peacocks are. This extends to our social behaviour, and particularly our sexual behaviour. As evolution is solely influenced by the transmission of genes via sexual reproduction, it follows that sex is likely to have been strongly influenced by evolutionary pressures. Ridley argues that it is impossible to make sense of human behaviour without accepting the crucial influence of sexual selection.

Coupled to all of this (if you’ll pardon the expression) is what Ridley calls the Red Queen: the idea that evolution is an endless, unwinnable ‘arms race’ (the reference is to Lewis Carroll, whose Red Queen stayed in the same spot no matter how hard she ran). Mice evolve to come out at night, when it’s safer, so owls evolve to see in the dark; mice evolve better ears to hear the owls coming, so the owls evolve silent ‘stealth feathers’ for noiseless flight. You are never safe; the contest never ends.

Ridley starts from first principles, however, and begins by examining what sound like initially rather odd questions – why have sex at all? And why are most animals arranged in the manner that they are, with two sexes, a father and a mother?

It would, after all, be simpler and less stressful just to bud off a clone of yourself whenever you felt was a propitious time – you could save all that time looking for a partner and just concentrate on having children, thus maximising your genetic legacy. Or, if we absolutely have to have sex as a species, why not all be hermaphrodites? Again, this would double (on average) the number of offspring resulting from successful procreation (both participants could give birth), again improving the genetic legacy one left behind.

I must confess that this is the book I very vaguely alluded to a while back when discussing an episode of Star Trek which dealt with a triple-gendered race of aliens. I had been wondering how such an arrangement might evolve and how it would actually work in real life. Ridley’s treatment of the subject is bad news for all but the most heroic and dauntless of SF writers: while it turns out there are sound reasons for sexual reproduction to exist, the same cannot be said for species with more than two genders. (Not without a fundamentally different mechanism for recording and transmitting genetic information, anyway.)

In any case, what the book goes on to make clear is that human sexuality is not a cultural construct but something which has evolved, the focus always being on securing the maximum number of healthy children. So it is that men have evolved to be naturally opportunistic and polygamous, with very powerful men throughout the history of every culture expressing this by leaving behind vast numbers of descendants. Men are likewise particularly attracted to the appearance of youth, as this indicates the potential to produce a larger number of children.

Women, on the other hand, have much less to gain by polygamy – a man can have several women carrying his children at the same time, while a woman can only carry one man’s child at once – and are as a result more naturally monogamous. Similarly, a man’s value is less in his reproductive potential, and more his capacity to provide for his children. Hence the question of exactly what they see in each other turns out to be a matter of evolution.

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This is all discussed in quite exhaustive detail, but Ridley is at pains to keep it all as accessible as possible and generally succeeds. He also takes pains to point out that there is no moral subtext to the book – his attempts to identify the ‘natural’ behaviour of humans does not imply he approves of it or considers it in any way desirable. Men may have a natural tendency for infidelity, especially with much younger beautiful women, but then we also have many other antisocial tendencies which we succeed in resisting on a routine basis. And surely it’s the case that a better understanding and awareness of this kind of behaviour is only likely to assist in controlling it.

In the end, as Ridley suggests at one point, it comes down to the question of whether you believe in original sin (our flaws are inherent and inescapable) or the perfectibility of the human race (we are born as tabula rasa, with no inherent tendencies). Neither is particularly flattering or satisfactory, and indeed the author argues this is a false dichotomy anyway.

This is all very interesting stuff, and I did find myself wondering what a discussion between Ridley and Noah Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, would sound like – Harari does ponder the mystery of why most societies have been male-dominated at once point, and I’m sure Ridley might have some ideas on the topic.

All I can offer is the suggestion that virtually every major culture has developed in a male-dominated form, and as a result they embody certain intrinsically masculine values and attitudes. However, we are still in the middle of a cultural shift to another set of values, ones which may even be rationally- rather than evolutionarily-derived. Hence the current conflict between opportunistic and exploitative masculine instincts, with millions of years of evolutionary pressure behind them, and notions of equality, respect, and human rights, some of which are very recent adoptions, culturally speaking. What can be done about this? I’m not sure. But as Ridley suggests in the quote at the top of this review, recognising that men and women are some levels innately different creatures, rather than being essentially identical and even somehow interchangeable, might be a good start. The key thing to bear in mind about men, is that they are men. On the other hand, being men is something that men are quite good at. We just have to figure out what that really means, and how to make the knowledge work for everyone.

 

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One of the particular pleasures of infiltrating my family’s parties, as I do a couple of times a year, is the opportunity to catch up with my semi-cousin, His MBEship. In addition to being the only person even vaguely connected with the clan to have been honoured by HRH, His MBEship is a well-read fellow and seldom lets a visit go by without pushing a book in my direction and saying ‘take a look at this.’ Many of these are things which would not necessarily show up on my radar in the usual course of events, but they have always turned out to be interesting and worth taking a look at. Back in July, His MBEship’s pick was Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, which is such a substantial tome (nearly 950 pages) that I’ve only just finished reading it.

It’s a little difficult to pin down exactly what kind of book this is. A brief summary of the plot makes it sound like a thriller: the protagonist, an Australian escaped convict whose real name we never learn, arrives in Bombay on a stolen passport at some point in the early 1980s. He finds he rather likes the place, makes friends with a comic-relief local guide, falls in love with another member of the expat scene, becomes a black-market fixer, slum doctor, prisoner, gangster, peripheral member of the Bollywood scene, and unwilling mujahideen, all over the course of about five or six years.

However, one must also bear in mind that this rollicking tale of an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ends up living in India for years has been written by an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ended up living in India for years, and one of the questions floating around this book is just to what extent it is some sort of roman a clef, and how much of it is based on stuff which actually happened to Roberts. ‘They’re novels – it doesn’t matter how much of it is true or not,’ is the author’s official position on the topic, and whatever else you can say about his writing, he hides the joins supremely well. My personal suspicion (apologies to the author if I’m wrong) is that he did not, in fact, nearly die of frostbite in Afghanistan after being hit by a mortar shell while fighting the Soviets, but he tells this part of the tale with all the vividness and detail that he does the rest of it.

And there is rather a lot of it, as I mentioned before. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a good epic, and the author mixes things up and varies the tone rather deftly – the narrative goes from a nerve-wracking visit to the chilling madam of a high-class brothel, to a considered discussion of the nature of good and evil with an Afghan crime lord, to a comic vignette about trying to get a bear bailed out of jail, in the space of as many scenes. Some of the transitions are so outrageous it’s hard to believe they’re not based on true events.

And as a thriller it’s a good story, set in a world not much covered by mainstream western media – you can see why a film version has been in the works for years (it is such a no-brainer that Joel Edgerton will be playing the protagonist that even I was able to guess as much), although I wish the screenwriter luck in getting the story down to under six hours of screen time.

The thing is, though, that Shantaram (the title is Marathi for ‘Man of peace’, and it’s not clear whether this is meant to be ironic or not) seems to have aspirations to be more than just a hefty airport novel and actually become Proper Literature. It tries really, really hard on this score; so hard that I would say the strain occasionally shows.

Well, look, there are lots of books and movies about gangsters – it’s one of those genres that never seems to go out of fashion. Roberts’ protagonist cloaks himself in the dubious glamour of the outlaw, the gangster, the wanted man, in addition to the various other ways he arguably self-aggrandises himself – he talks a lot about guilt and regret but it never feels particularly palpable. The subtext seems to be ‘Yeah, I was a bank robber and a gangster, but it’s not as if there’s much wrong with that, because I did it as honourably as I could, never personally killed anyone, and I came away with all these valuable life lessons which I will now proceed to share with you.’ Gee, thanks, I think.

One of the reasons His MBEship was so impressed with Shantaram is the sheer level of detail and local colour woven into the text. Well, yes, Roberts clearly knows Bombay well, but I suspect there was less research involved – when you live in a place even for a short time, you do pick this stuff up surprisingly quickly. Nevertheless, you do learn a lot of practical bits and pieces from reading the book: how to win a knife fight in the prison laundry, how to make a fortune by dealing in stolen passports, various philological and geographical tidbits too.

For me the problematic stuff comes when Roberts decides to start waxing eloquent about the important truths of life. He writes naturalistic dialogue and action scenes very well, but whenever he gets his descriptive hat on you get a sense of someone slightly overreaching himself – we get lots of mentions of ‘the psalm of her hair’ and ‘the archery of her mouth’, and my gut reaction was ‘what on Earth are you on about.’ Roberts’ slightly overenthusiastic approach to this sort of thing gets its fullest expression in the Bad Sex Scenes he occasionally includes – ‘our tongues writhed and pulsated in their caves of pleasure,’ he helpfully informs the reader, as one amorous interlude gets underway. Maybe that gets you in the mood; I just want to go ‘ugh’.

Beyond this, not a chapter goes by without Roberts making multiple portentous declarations about What It Is All About – Every dead body is a temple in ruins. Every door is a portal to both the past and the future. Now, he does occasionally come up with some very good lines – ‘some truths don’t make us love the world more, but they help us to hate it less’, for instance. But I found a lot of this wisdom to be Reader’s Digest-standard and not nearly as profound as Roberts appears to think it is: things frequently get just a bit pretentious. It also seems to smack of a certain level of self-regard – we are frequently reminded that Shantaram‘s semi-autobiographical hero is an outlaw, a gangster, a tough man, a man of peace, a writer (other characters occasionally come up to him and tell him what a good writer he is, even though this has zero bearing on the plot) – luckily we’re never told what a humble and modest chap he is, because that really would be pushing it.

So I was never really able to fully commit to Shantaram – ‘to enfold my heart in the quiet wisdom of its many pages’, as Roberts might possibly put it – even as I enjoyed its colour and vibrancy. It’s an interesting and extremely readable book, very funny in places and occasionally quite moving. But too often it almost feels like Paulo Coelho trying to write Goodfellas – a promising epic adventure-thriller frequently sidetracked by philosophical and poetic discursions which are not really all that insightful. But the ratio of impressive storytelling to pretentious waffle is good enough to make this worth a look, I would say.

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The 23rd century used to be a very different place. I am old enough to remember when the Star Trek films were very new and rather exciting additions to the world created by the original TV show, a world which was enthusiastically studied and extrapolated upon by a generation of fans throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. At that point, Star Trek really belonged to its fans, and they happily seized upon every little point of lore and casual reference as they expanded the universe of the show.

The lack of any prospect of new Trek gave this project a freedom to innovate and go beyond the limitations of the TV show – not necessarily by dragging it into a mature readers ghetto of gratuitous sexual content and other graphic material (although there was certainly an element of this), but by treating the show like the serious SF it had always aspired to be. In the 1990s, certainly, Star Trek became the McDonald’s of science fiction, omni-present, reliable, safe, samey. But some of the early books from the 1980s are much more like the real stuff: they’re SF set in the Star Trek universe, rather than simply TV tie-in books.

Time moves on, of course, and while some of these books have lasted reasonably well, others have fallen foul of subsequent developments in the TV and movie canon. Looking at these books now is an undeniably odd experience – they often still have that authentic Trek feel to them, despite the fact that they are frequently totally at odds with the ‘real’ history of Trek.

This is particularly noticeable with The Final Reflection, a novel by John M Ford. This book was originally published in 1984, the same year that Star Trek III was released. One of the noteworthy things about Star Trek III is the fact that it’s the first movie that deals in-depth with the Klingons as we have come to know them today – although their presentation in the film is not exactly in depth, the ‘standard’ Klingon make-up debuts here, along with the familiar Bird-of-Prey ship design, and of course Marc Okrand’s Klingon language. Other writers, most significantly Ronald Moore, would take these things as a starting point and go on to develop the Klingon culture in much more detail.

The thing is, however, that John M Ford was there first, creating his own vision of how Klingon society functioned, and doing so with the approach of a fan rather than a professional. The makers of Star Trek did not explain the radical difference in appearance between the Klingons of the original TV show and those in later versions until the mid 2000s, but fans of the show had come up with their own explanation decades earlier – not being as adverse to genetic manipulation as their Federation rivals, the Klingons had re-engineered themselves into a number of different sub-species, some of which (the lumpy-headed ones) were more pureblooded, while the fusions (the ones more closely resembling human actors in face paint) had been created for the purposes of interaction with other species. This and many other things form the fabric of the story of The Final Reflection.

The story itself is partly a coming-of-age novel, partly a political thriller. There is a very brief frame story set aboard the Enterprise some time after the end of the TV show, but most of the novel takes the form of a story set nearly half a century earlier (TV characters are referred to or implied to appear). Krenn, an orphaned young Klingon, finds himself adopted into the house of a senior strategist, joins the Imperial Navy, distinguishes himself in border skirmishes with the Romulans, and soon rises to become captain of his own ship, no mean feat given the omnipresence of both rivals and Klingon Security.

This leads to him being given a singular mission: to travel to Earth and collect Emanuel Tagore, the first ambassador from the Federation to the Klingon homeworld. To say there are political tensions and factional disagreements on both sides regarding this is an understatement. Is Krenn’s mission even intended to succeed? Could it just be intended to provide a pretext for the war which some in both the Federation and the Klingon Empire seem to desperately want?

The Final Reflection is written with considerable elegance and skill, Ford skating through some potentially tricky areas (involved descriptions of space battles) with impressive deftness. I would have to say that the different sections of the story don’t quite tie together to form a thematically satisfying whole – the early chapters’ desire to provide an insider’s perspective on life in the Klingon Empire don’t really have a direct connection to the more involved plot of the rest of the book.

On the other hand, I imagine that many people reading this book will just be wanting to read about Klingons being Klingons, and Ford does not disappoint, expanding on the (actually really tiny amount of) information from the original series and The Motion Picture to create a rich and coherent culture. Ford’s Klingons have their own naming conventions, their own set of idioms (the seat of Klingon emotions is apparently the liver, not the heart), and their own pop icons – apparently the most popular entertainment franchise in the Empire is the suspiciously familiar-sounding Battlecruiser Vengeance, a long-running series about the exploits of a Navy cruiser and its senior officers. Central to all of this is the notion of ‘the Perpetual Game’, the idea – fundamental to their culture – that all Klingons are involved in an unending struggle for success and glory. The Final Reflection takes its name for a term from klin zha, essentially Klingon chess, which is a motif throughout the book (needless to say, rules for playing klin zha – though presumably not the most prestigious version using live pieces – are available on the Internet).

Most of this is created out of whole cloth, but somehow it all feels ‘right’ and convincing – for original series Klingons, anyway. Reading the book does remind you of just how much of what we learned about the Klingons in those initial episodes has been quietly erased from history – you can argue that references to Klingon slave camps are just hearsay based on faulty intelligence (in one episode a Klingon character seems equally convinced that the Federation practices slavery too), but we do see Klingons using personal torture devices on-screen, and the brutal methods employed by Kor in Errand of Mercy seem to be institutional, not just an example of one psychopath in a position of power. Certainly The Final Reflection acknowledges the existence of slave races within the Empire, and the paranoid, vicious nature of Klingon society (Vulcans travelling within the Empire, for instance, must consent to having the telepathic centres of their brains excised). One of the few criticisms I’d make of Ford’s world-building is that his Klingons do come across as, well, rather more Romanesque than the Romulans themselves, with their adoptions and slave-holdings and gladiatorial games. It’s difficult to think of an alternative set of cultural reference points, though.

Fascinating and thorough as this mostly is, virtually none of it meshes with the details of Klingon culture established since, mainly in Berman-era Trek (let’s not even get started on the Klingons of Discovery). The canon Klingons are almost wholly different – the inconsistencies in their appearance have an alternative explanation, and their biology is hugely different too – Ford’s Klingons mature and age more rapidly than humans, with sixty counting as a very ripe old age, whereas one of the biologically peculiar things about canon Klingons is that while they do grow to adulthood at a highly accelerated rate, compared to humans anyway (Worf’s son Alexander is conceived in 2365 and only ten years later is serving as weapons officer on a warship), they remain healthy and capable for a very long time (Kang, Kor, and Koloth are all senior officers in the late 2260s and are still around and active, albeit a bit elderly, a full century later).

The same goes for the Klingon language developed by Ford (he names the Klingon homeworld Klinzhai, by the way), which seems to be completely different from the entity unleashed upon the world by Marc Okrand. Okrandian Klingon translates the word ’empire’ as wo’, for example, whereas Fordian Klingon opts for komerex or kemerex (literally ‘that which lives and expands‘, thus providing another window into the Klingon mindset). It says something about the lasting impact of Ford’s book on the perception of the Klingons amongst a certain type of truly dedicated fan that even today you can find websites for a Klingon fan group calling itself Khemerex Klinzhai.

The thing about Ford’s Klingons is that they are subtle and nuanced and oddly ambiguous in a way which canon Klingons aren’t, really: canon Klingon society is basically just a red-lit room with a bunch of guys shouting ‘Honourrrrrrrr!’ and head-butting each other – easy to get a handle on for an hour-long TV show, I suppose, but probably less interesting as the protagonists of a genuine novel.

But then again, as I say, the influence of this book has been huge and enduring, although not always very obvious. One of Krenn’s more unexpected traits is his great fondness for fruit juice of different types, which is apparently not unusual amongst Klingons – this must surely be the source for Worf’s well-known love of prune juice. And, by one of those strange coincidences, literally hours after finishing The Final Reflection, I came across The Hidden Universe Travel Guide to the Klingon Empire, a – for want of a better word – spoof travel handbook for anyone planning a holiday in Klingon space. It’s all very much in line with Berman-era canon, but odd little things jump out at you – the Klingon star is named Klinzhai, for instance. The guidebook recommends visiting a klin zha parlour in the First City of Qo’noS. There is a box-out describing the enduring appeal of the Battlecruiser Vengeance franchise, and an advert for a Vengeance theme park ride. And page 94 is dedicated to a sidebar entitled ‘Appreciating The Final Reflection’, which tells of how a Federation anthropologist named J.M. Ford wrote his famous novel while living undercover in the Empire, basing it on historical events.

Not many three-decade-old tie-in novels are still well-regarded enough to get this sort of shout-out, especially ones which have no claim whatsoever to even apocryphal canonicity. Yet it seems entirely appropriate in this case – you can’t honestly claim that John M Ford wrote the book on Klingons – at least, not any more. But he did write a book on Klingons, and one which is still influential and entertaining today. Practically essential reading for the serious student of all things Klingon; a fine SF novel for everyone else.

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