A review of Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon.”

This is the genre source novel for a lot of recent SF on science and human intelligence, for example the novel, book and spin off tv series ‘Limitless;’ the drama of someone failing suddenly boosted to genius status, the excitement of that journey, but also a commentary on what it does to their soul, and the recognition that humanity is profoundly more than it’s shared IQ. But I don’t think this tale has ever been told with the tragic weight and pathos with which it is told here.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ is a Nebula Award wining novel from 1968. And as such it has that period feel of determined smoking by men in suits and in white coats, a drama back-lit by hard, white clinical lighting. And yet the story is heartbreakingly human.
Charlie Gordon is, in the language of the day, retarded, but with a determination to learn and improve himself that brings him to the attention of Messers Strauss and Nemur, scientists ready to try their new treatment of enzymes and brain surgery that, following succesful experiments on the titular mouse Algernon, they believe will make a breakthrough in treating human mental retardation.
Slowly Charlie’s progress reports move from the barely literate, priamry school spelling journal entries to more intelligent, insightful and sophisticated prose, as Charlie’s intelligence grows, all the while gainong momentum. Along the way he starts to remember the abuse suffered at the hands of his mother. The scientists have added therapy to Charlie’s treatment as they foresaw that a boost in IQ would cause emotional issues in their patient. Meanwhile Charlie’s co-workers at the bakery where he works in a janitorial role view him with increasing bewilderment and fear, as he moves from warm and likable idiot to a much colder, frighteningly intelligent and emotionally aloof persona. Charlie finds himself coming to terms with sexual attraction and love, and soon he comes to resent the scientists who seem to refuse to believe he was a genuine person before the operation. Particularly as that genuine person, the frightened retarded child, still peeps fearfully out from the new Charlie’s gaze, making his presence felt at unexpected times. Most notable of these are when he attempts to make love to Alice, a woman who taught him in a ‘special school’ in his past life and who recommended him to the University hospital for their new research, because of his passion to learn. The ‘old’ Charlie had his early sexual urgings met with physical and emotional abuse as a boy, and that boy surfaces when new Charlie tries to move beyond it.

And so the drama plays out at all these different levels. There’s the excitement of the growing intelligence, the thrill of learning, the astonishment and fear of old friends and colleagues, the hostility, the mysteries of Charlie’s boyhood and the family trauma to unravel, and Charlie’s struggle to move into adult sexuality. Then the next phase, the outstripping his mentors as he become a genius, his intelligence reaching up to the Heavens…and then you get the fall of Icarus. Algernon the mouse grows sick, frenziedly throwing himself against the walls of his cage and diminishing in intelligence. Charlie has to face up to the fact that the science may have overreached itself, and that his house is built on treacherous sand. The story can and does go in only one direction, it’s no spoiler to say, as it’s telegraphed clearly though-out the novel (and on the back blurb). And it is a heartbreaking journey, very bleak, but with the hopeful recognition that the human condition is richer than IQ alone, and that the journey, for Charlie and for humanity, is still a noble one.

This is an excellent novel, true landmark SF. As stated it has a steely, clinical prose, but this does not undermine the very human drama. The litereary trick of the incremental development of Charlie’s prose in his journal entries to signify his growing intelligence is masterfully done.
So if you are looking for an antidote for the sprawling, multi-verse spanning ‘hard SF’ that’s in favour today, or just want to read a SF classic, pick this up.

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A review of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon,” is a rich (no pun intended) and thought provoking read on spiritually opposed value bases on wealth.  On the one hand we have Mammon, “the love of money” which the Bible tells us is at the root of evil (not just “money” as some suppose).  That is when, in our hearts, we believe that everything is a resource for our own enrichment (we may build in an ethical get out clause on “trickle down” economics), then we will see, value, and interpret everything in that light.  Christ will be a threat, as he was in his day, to those holding that value.  Chapter 1 of the Archbishop’s book explores this, with reference to Matthew 13 (the Pearl of Great Price) and John 11 (the death of Lazarus), on the different ways we can value what we see.
Moving on from this, there’s a danger that we will see everything as a finite resource to be assessed and measured accordingly, driven by ethics of scarcity, i.e. we have to acquire and pile up wealth as otherwise someone else will.  And we will aggressively defend and acquire accordingly.  We are put into an adversarial position with the rest of creation.  The opposite to this are the economics of Grace.  We have a generous God who gives abundantly and outrageously.  No one deserves or earns Grace.  With Grace at the centre  the Archbishop begins to draw out how else we might understand wealth, in the light of having no fear, and faith in an infinitely abundant and generous God.  It posits a very different approach to the world around us, and how we find and use our resources.  The key texts here is John 12, with Mary anointing Jesus with very expensive perfume, apparently wasteful but in fact an act of Grace and love that is not motivated by the scarcity of the resource or the need to frantically hold onto it.
Chapter 4 expands on this, looking at the relationship between money and power, and how Jesus’s servant-leadership subverts this, especially in the key act of the washing of the disciples feet (John 13).
Chapter 5 further looks at how apparent motiveless and wasteful generosity can in fact be Grace in action.  Something as apparently of no benefit to people or the world as acquiring and anointing for burial the body of Jesus (John 19), are in fact Kingdom actions, actions that show that real wealth as decisions to give money and time based on no hope of reward, but as service to God, actions that can ultimately transform the world, as they move away from fear, to faith, to generous and transformative action.
Chapter 6 moves to Revelations, the end of all things, with the ultimate dethroning of Mammon (Babylon) by the eternal and redeemed creation of the City of God.  This moves into an action plan as to how we can start to live this message now, through listening, repentance and action.This book is intelligent, wise, and written with a clear integrity.  There are points of reflection throughout the book, questions to help individuals and groups preparing for Lent share and understand the material.
Much recommended then as a Lent book, or to be read at any time.  You’ll find it’s messages live on in your mind and heart after reading.

A review of Stephen Donaldson’s The Augur’s Gambit

This is a companion novella to Stephen Donaldson’s “The King’s Justice” reviewed on this blog here.
It’s a very different beast to that book.  Whereas that book had the pace and tone of a horror thriller, this has a more deliberate pace and is a tale of courtly intrigue in a fantasy realm, with the chief supernatural element being the predominance of alchemy and augury (the practice of ‘scrying’ through examining the entrails of freshly killed animals) in the land.
In an fortress island, Indemnie,  comprised of ruling Baronies and ruled over by a Monarchy (currently Queen Inimical Phlegathon deVry IV), her Chief Hieronymer (practitioner of Augury),Mayhew Gordian, is at his wit’s end.   A trusted confidant and often summoned to secretly observe his Queen’s audiences with her Barons, he is observing an apparently destructive and catastrophic course of action by his Queen.  As she promises to wed each Baron in turn, turning them against each other and against her, surely the only outcome can be war?  And Mayhew’s scrying has revealed a series of dooms for Indemnie with no scenarios of hope.  His Queen says he must look deeper, and this means sacrificing a child, something Mayhew refuses to do, risking his Monarch’s wrath.  In the meantime his deepening regard for Princess Excrucia, his confidant and friend, makes him more than ever determined that the key to his Monarch’s behaviour, and possible salvations for Indemnie, must be found.
This is a book that demands a bit of patience, even with its short length.  It’s a compact piece of world building, and for the most part this is what the narrative focuses on, that and the intrigue between barons and barons and Monarch.  However it builds in it’s last act to a gripping and dramatic siege by cannon armed pirate vessel.  Mayhew acts as Parley for each but he has a last desperate gamble to play, one that involves the hazard of all, and the deepest secrets of augury and alchemy.  This novella amply rewards your patience.
The characters are skilfully drawn, their dielemmas believable and compelling.  Those who knows Dnonaldson’s writing will be aware of his wordsmith talents, his Scrabble defeating vocabulary that sings from the page.

A review of Michael J Sullivan’s “Theft of Swords.”

Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world.  At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs.  Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination   They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire.  Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure.  And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc.  The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community.  Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development.  Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love.  Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin.  Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter.  He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner.   As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice.  Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly.  As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity.  Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building.  Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes,  but in a way that balances real-world politicking  with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones.  There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue.  But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire.  These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.

A review of Bruno Vincent’s “Five Go On a Strategy Away Day

I thought I would flag this because here is a rare thing:  a book that will be found on the crowded table at your local bookseller reserved for humorous stocking fillers that is actually very funny.

It follows the “Ladybird Book of…” series that revisits childhood favourites in a format similar to the original publishing templates, including fonts and images taken from the originals.

Here The Famous Five get a makeover, given contemporary first world problems and put in a lot of situations of current relevance, such as Brexit, modern parenting dilemmas, and here a work strategy away day.

The humour is well observed and works perfectly.  Anyone who has been on such an away day will cringe with recognition.  It undercuts all the pretension perfectly, as it does the stereotypes of the original, e.g the bossy leader of the gang, the Tomboy, and so on.  There’s a rivalry with Secret Seven going on which I presume runs through the other books.  The use of line drawings from the originals but relabelled with a line from the new story is also very funny.

Recommended.

A review of Riyria Chronicles Tales “The Jester” and “Professional Integrity.”

Both of these short stories, set in Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy series “The Riyria Chronicles,” are available separately and are currently free on Audible UK.

They are both gems, and they compelled me after listening to buy the first volume of the Riyria Chronicles.

‘The Thief’ is a fantasy archetype used in fantasy literature and gaming.  Their skill-set usually includes stealth and lock-picking, usually framed in a rouge’s exterior but (sometimes) grounded nevertheless with a moral sense.

Here all of the above would be true, but from these two short stories I felt I got to know the characters very well, as they are so well drawn.  It helps that there is a lot of humour, fresh, funny, character driven and enriching to the story, but not the familiar satire you would expect from Terry Pratchett (God rest his soul) and his imitators.

The protagonists are Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, a team of two thieves for hire in a world of traps, dungeons, treachery, and feuding lords and kingdoms.  In “The Jester” we are introduced to our heroes and other protagonists in mid plummet as they find themselves on the wrong end of a trap.  It’s a wonderful opening.  With a cowardly pig farmer and the determined candle maker who hired them, they must solve the mystery of missing map pieces that may or may not lead to treasure, the quest having been set by the titular Jester. They find themselves in a sealed flooded room, with an angry monster on the other side of one door, and possible traps leading from a lever, another door, and a treasure chest.  They must activate or go through one of these to get out of the chamber.  Only one will lead to freedom (a previous wrong choice led them to the opening plummet) but which?

The story is told rapidly in flashback, or rather the key bits of it we need to know.  It’s a good way of quickly filling in the backdrop for this short story.  The humour is in the bickering and interplay between these very different characters.

A 40  minute listen that got me hooked to the characters, their world and the narrative style, this is testament to the writers skill.

I followed this up with “Professional Integrity.”  This is an ingenious mystery of the “locked box in a room” variety.  Hired by a naive young woman to arrange her own kidnapping to attract the attentions of a suitor who she presumes will come to the rescue, Royce and Hadrian are intrigued, especially when the girl explains that she is locked in a box by a father when this beau comes to visit.  Things soon, of course, escalate and unravel in highly entertaining and unexpected directions.

Lovely stuff, and looking forward to exploring this world more.

Good, clear, characterful narration from Tim Gerard Reynolds.

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength.”

The last of his “Space Trilogy,” this is widely held to be the most problematic of the series, and / or people’s least favourite instalment.  See my reviews of the previous books here and here.

My feelings are indeed mixed.  On one level it thoroughly gripped and engaged me in places, and even the most problematic sections are full of powerful and rich imagery. In the end I was left reeling and troubled, challenged and entertained, and definitely left with a book I won’t forget.

Mark and Jane Struddock are a young married couple recently ensconced in their first married home in the fictional University town of Bracton, part of the equally fictional area of Edgecombe.  In his Preface Lewis says that if these places are based on anywhere, then they are based on Durham.  Mark has a teaching post there, and has recently been initiated into the in-crowd there, the smart set ostensibly bringing about progress. Through the influence of the Charimanship of Lord Feverstone, aka “Devine” from the previous novels, Mark is then introduced to the organisation of N.I.C.E at their headquarters “Belbury” on virtue of his work as part of that University smart-set in helping NICE to buy a piece of the Bracton University grounds that it has a strong interest in.  N.I.C.E is ostensibly set up to propagate the values of science in advancing the progress and welfare of mankind through eliminating troubling “red-tape” on areas such as vivisection and the “curing” of criminal behaviour. It is gaining national political and media support by the day.  Mark begins to advance through the organisation and become embroiled in an Orwellian world of fear and double talk, where he is torn between advancing his career and influence there, and the terror of losing his soul…

Jane meanwhile has been troubled by dreams including the decapitation of a well known scientist / criminal Alascan, and the unearthing of a mysterious sleeping figure beneath Bracton wood.  Jane learns from her involvement in a Christian community at the nearby village of St Annes that she is in fact a seer, and her dreams have a direct bearing on reality, including the machinations of N.I.C.E and their interest in Bracton wood.  Jane meets the Director of St Annes, a spiritually and physically powerful man who we learn as interplanetary traveller Ransom from the previous novels.  The St Anne’s community must stop the evil of N.I.C.E which turns out in fact to be under direct control from the forces of Hell and their “principalities and powers.”  And the figure under the Bracton woods turns out to be none other than Merlin of Arthurian legends, whose old powers will decide this titanic struggle once and for all.

So as you can see from the above, this really is a heady brew.  What I loved were the descriptions of political intrigue first at the University then at N.I.C.E.  Lewis nails the insidious nature of organisational corruption, and the slow, corrosive drip by drip effects of evil talk and decisions on advancing poisonous agendas.  He’s good at describing evil, and how it feeds on itself, always ravenous for new souls, always pitiless in its elimination of weakness, and how this can be justified by facile agendas in the name of progress.  Keen readers of Lewis’s wider works including his essays will recognise many of his recurring themes: the seduction of the smart set as a gateway into evil society; why vivisection is not justified; the hidden horrors of a “curative” as opposed to a penal approach to punishment; the romance and hidden realities of myth; how “myth” is misunderstood and is in fact a valid expression of reality; his views on the primacy of masculine roles in religion and marriage and the misunderstandings of equality; and more.

The baddies are hugely entertaining too.  Like “Paradise Lost” and various works of Shakespeare, this is a work where we get impatient for those on the wrong side to take the stage.  There is the vague and vacuous Deputy Director Wither, who behind the facile reassurances of his conversations and political double talk is a mind of terror and horror. There’s the clinical nihilism of Frost, the bonhomie masking the sexual sadism of Police chief “Fairy Hardcastle,” and more.  Seeing this lot ensnare Mark Struddock, and their battles with each other, is vastly entertaining.  At the same time, they remain an utterly ruthless and frightening foe, a massive fascist regime no less, capable of taking over a whole town with its own Police Force and instituting a reign of terror where all manner of evil is sanctioned.

What I found problematic are found in the following strands:

Mark and Jane both undergo a slow conversion to Christianity through the pages of the book.  Their marriage was almost dead as it was not earthed in sustainable values.  Mark is converting through disillusionment, horror and terror.  Jane through the influence of the Christian community she is driven to and what she sees there.  This includes a Bear and Jackdaw both under Ransom’s healing spell.

This turns out to be a decisive battle between the cosmic powers of good and evil on Earth, and when Merlin joins the fray, much rich imagery abounds from the mythic heritage of Arthurian Britain and “Logres.”

In the past instalments and especially “Perelandra” Lewis really nailed a magical and nourishing marriage of theology between imaginative fiction and theology.  The conflict between Ransom and the “Un-man” in preventing another Fall of creation on Venus is gripping and powerful stuff. The integration of some theological themes and the fiction of “That Hideous Strength” was to me not as successful.  His views on marriage and equality are hard to reconcile with our lives now, and I found them immensely challenging.  And the introduction of the Arthurian themes, and the “tame” animals threaten a kind of imaginative confusion and incoherence.  It’s nothing if not audacious.

Definitely a not good jumping on point for those new to Lewis and although he says the book can be read as a standalone in his Preface as well as the culmination of a trilogy, I would only recommend the latter, because it can be bewildering already and if you are not familiar with Ransom and some of the background on the cosmic powers, it will for many I fear be too much.

To sum up, a flawed but powerful culmination of the Space trilogy of C.S. Lewis.