Tag Archives: science fiction/fantasy

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (Orbit 2012)

I picked this fabulous book up from our local street library, and it was a perfect fit for my personal tradition of reading a big SF novel over the end-of-year break.

According to Wikipedia, Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his Mars trilogy. I read the Red Mars (1992) and Green Mars (1993) decades ago. Though I loved them, was totally absorbed in their world, and felt that I was learning a lot about the practicalities of space travel, the realistic possibilities for terraforming Mars, and the opportunities for new political beginnings provided by leaving the Earth, I somehow didn’t get around to Blue Mars (1996). Now I don’t know if I ever will, because 2312 takes up the story some centuries later.

This novel begins on the surface of Mercury, where the domed city of Terminator moves on rails, staying always in darkness, because the direct heat from the sun would devastate the city and kill any living thing. There are ‘walkers’, who stay outside the city and by walking briskly remain just ahead of the dawn, though they will often turn back to watch the first flames of the sun spread across the eastern horizon, and (most of them, most of the time) tear themselves away from the spectacle before destroying their retinas or worse – much worse.

And so it goes. Mars is long-established. Earth, the sad planet, still recognised as humanity’s home, is as strife-torn and irrational as ever. Venus and some of Saturn’s moons have been settled, and any number of asteroids have been hollowed out to make space ships, known as terraria. Every settlement and every asteroid has its own distinctive qualities and challenges, and the passage of time has meant humans have begun to diverge: there are smalls, and rounds, and talls. Most spacers live for more than a century, and most have had some form of gender modification surgery – because it has been discovered that gender fluidity (not the term they use) increases the human lifespan significantly.

At every moment it feels as if Kim Stanley Robinson has lived in the world of the novel. It’s an amazing feat of imagination. We see how the light falls on the surface of Mercury, we feel the heat on Io, we struggle with the effect of Earth’s gravity after living so lightly on Mercury. We look about with wonder at the stars as we float, marooned in space.

There’s a lot of hard SF. Between the mostly short chapters of story there are numbered sections labelled ‘Extract’, which comprise fragments from texts explaining the science or history behind events: instructions on how to terraform an asteroid, the science of longevity, ‘human enhancement’, and so on.

There’s a romance, about which I’ll say only that it’s unexpected but (to me at lest) completely convincing. There’s a mystery, involving quantum computers (‘qubes’), organised crime and political skulduggery. There are loose threads, whose effect isn’t so much to make us want a sequel as to reassure us that this world will continue after the book ends. There are music, and microscopic alien life forms, and huge explosions.

This future world has cultural tendrils reaching back to our time and beyond. Andy Goldsworthy and Marina Abramović have become lower-case names for art forms. Emily Dickinson is quoted at a climactic moment; Beethoven animates more than one key scene; Philip Glass recurs. There are lovely snippets, like this:

After a while she said, ‘Mozart’s pet starling once revised a phrase he wrote. The bird sang it after he played it on the piano, but changed all the sharps to flats. Mozart described it happening in the margin of the score. “That was beautiful!” he wrote. When the bird died, he sang at its funeral, and read a poem to it. And his next composition, which the publisher called A Musical Joke, had a starling style.’

(Page 158)

There are moments that remind us that Kim Stanley Robinson is an environmental activist:

Obviously most in the bar felt they were only helpless observers of a giant drama going on above their heads, a drama that was eventually going to suck them down into its maelstrom, no matter what they said or wanted. Better therefore to drink and talk and sing and dance until they were stupid with exhaustion and ready for a stagger through the early-morning streets

(Page 387)

There’s an account of life on Earth, as seen by the Mercurial protagonist, Swan Er Hong, on a visit:

The dead hand of the past, so huge, so heavy. The air seemed a syrup she had to struggle through. Out in the terraria one lived free, like an animal – one could be an animal, make one’s own life one way or another. Live as naked as you wanted. On the God-damned Earth the accumulated traditions and laws and habits made something that was worse than any body bra; it was one’s mind that was held in place, tied in straitjackets, obliged to be like all the others in their ridiculous boxed habits. Here they were, on the only planetary surface on which you could walk freely, naked to the wind and the sun, and when they had a choice, they sat in boxes and stared at littler boxes, just as if they had no choice – as if they were in a space station – as if the bad old days of the caged centuries had never gone away. They didn’t even look up at the stars at night. Walking among them, she saw that it was so. Indeed if they had been people who were interested in the stars they would not have still been here. There overhead stood Orion at his angle, ‘the most beautiful object any of us will ever know in the world, spread out on the sky like a true god, in whom it would only be necessary to believe a little.’ But no one looked.

(Page 387)

As far as I know, there is no sequel to 2312. But New York 2140 (2017) and Red Moon (2018) look as if they belong on the same universe. Perhaps the former gives the history behind 2312‘s images of Manhattan as a city of canals as a result of sea-level rises. Maybe it can be my big SF book next December.

Rhoda Lerman’s Book of the Night

Rhoda Lerman, The Book of the Night (©1984, Women’s Press 1986)

This book is on a list of SF/F must-reads I stumbled on some years ago, a list that has since introduced me to some wonderful novels from the dark crannies of the genre, as well as its spotlit centre-stage (some of my blog posts about them are here, here, here and here). I took The Book of the Night down from my TBR SF/F bookshelf thinking it would be a bit of light reading before I move on to Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do or other demanding reads. Ha! A 1984 Kirkus Review may have been a tad negative, but it captured something of the feel of the book when it called it an ‘an over-riddling allegory, steamy as a cow shed with unprocessed invention and quasi-feminist murk.’

This is a book set on the Irish island of Iona in the 10th century CE, though elsewhere in the world it’s the late 20th century: coke-bottle caps turn up in the first chapter and a tourist group comes visiting at one stage. On the island is a monastery whose monks who are caught up in that great moment when the Irish church was resisting the call to be obedient to Rome. And there is traffic between the world of the living and that of the dead. The main character, Celeste, is brought to the island as a young girl by her father who becomes increasingly lost in incoherent quasi-mystical wordplay. He sends her, disguised as a boy, to join the monastery, and through a series of misadventures, including some spectacularly metaphorical sex, she becomes – as you do – a cow.

There’s a man who by flapping his arms and farting flies out a window. Celeste’s father has unmetaphorical sex with a woman who comes to the island as a cook, and Celeste, who at that stage is believed to be a (human) male, is cast out of the monastery as the putative father. There’s a bloody battle, a walk through the underworld, an underclass who deliberately split their noses to avoid paying a nose tax. There’s more than one scene where a human man and a cow have consensual sex – told from the cow’s point of view. At least, I think that’s what’s happening among all the fiery language. Above all, there’s elaborate punning wordplay, and the whole story seems to revolve around the philosophical concept that, according to an authorial note, under certain circumstances, ‘An organism is able to reorganise itself into a higher level of order, to transcend itself.’

Take this as a confession of my thickness, but none of it made much sense to me. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride. The Kirkus Reviewer was wrong to describe the book as an allegory. That’s like wanting the zombies in zombie movies to mean something: maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but if you don’t respond to them viscerally as zombies, there’s no point. Rhoda Lerman may be have been exploring serious ideas, but (did I mention the farting man who flew?) she’s not po-faced about it. I did go back and skim-read the first couple of chapters again, and it turns out that this is one of those books where that’s a fruitful thing to do: what felt like gobbledygook on first reading now casts light on the confusing and tumultuous final few pages. I’m not going to read it all again, at least not right away, but I’m prepared to believe that in the midst of the exuberant, self-contradictory, sometimes chaotic eventfulness and wordiness, which are a blast in their own right, there’s something coherent going on.

As far as I can tell, this was Rhoda Lerman’s only fantasy novel. I have no idea what impact if any she had on the genre. It’s a long way from The Lord of the Rings.

William Gibson’s Agency

William Gibson, Agency (Viking 2020)

It’s more than a decade since I’ve read any William Gibson. Picking him up again has been a joy.

The book starts in San Francisco, in roughly our time. Verity Jane, our hero, has just come out of a period of hiding away from the tabloids after breaking up with a celebrity tech billionaire, and has got a job testing a cool new device. The device consists of a headset and glasses: when she puts them on, she is immediately in contact with an entity who identifies herself as Eunice, who sees through the glasses, has a great line of patter and a vast store of knowledge whose origin she herself doesn’t know. Eunice is pretty bossy. She shields her conversations with Verity from the surveillance of the company that owns her, amasses a fortune by playing on the internet, and has soon organised a network of agents who know her only as Verity’s PA. As the story develops we realise that this is a world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, and Brexit didn’t happen, but things aren’t all roses: there’s a threat of imminent nuclear war over an incident in Turkey. Eunice is a miraculous new form of AI who may be on track to prevent the nuclear disaster.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, a group of characters in a weird, technologically advanced future (implanted phones, invisible flying driverless cars, animated tattoos, and un-described things with names like stub, peri, controller) go about their lives looking after babies and getting by in a society dominated by a group called the klept, with ‘the pandemics’ and ‘the jackpot’ mentioned as major past events. These characters are taking a godlike interest in Verity and Eunice.

That’s the set-up. It’s all told with an infectious delight in detailed invention,

Paragraph by paragraph, it’s witty, surprising, and inventive. The stakes are high, the humour is sly. The unexplained technologies and relationships are tantalising. As far as I was concerned nothing could go wrong.

And, though for great slabs there was a lot of colour and movement that didn’t amount to much, and some bits were complete nonsense, I loved every moment.

I was enthralled by Gibson’s first three books of dazzling and often incomprehensible science fiction, the Sprawl trilogy – Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). I was less thrilled by the Bridge trilogy, which came next – Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). I read the first two books of the Blue Ant trilogy – Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), and didn’t bother with Zero History (2010). These six books are also science fiction, but set in a time and on a planet very like ours with technology not that different from ours, with a lot of virtual reality, location-based art and social media.

It turns out that Agency, a birthday present from a friend, is the sequel to Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral. If I’d read that book, the not completely unpleasant disorientation I felt in the first half of this one might have been mitigated, though – this being William Gibson – maybe not. I’m attached to these characters and to these (spoiler alert) bifurcating time lines. The Peripheral and whatever comes next are now on my to-be-read list.

Joyce Carol Oates’ Hazards of Time Travel

Joyce Carol Oates, Hazards of Time Travel (4th Estate 2018)

Maybe I’m being harsh, but this strikes me as an example of a literary novelist deciding to write science fiction in the spirit of someone slumming it. It’s a dystopian novel in which the world building is fairly slapdash and awfully familiar even to someone like me who doesn’t read a lot  of dystopian fiction. It has a number of twists that don’t really turn. The timing, especially in the final pages where there is a faux happy ending (or is it?), just doesn’t work.

Having said that, I think there is a serious argument that J F Skinner’s psychological theories are useful in understanding the creeping totalitarianism of our times: a young woman who asks questions (not too many questions, but questions at all) in the repressive future is exiled to a rural university in the US in the 1950s where Skinner’s theories are seen as cutting edge, and … oh I don’t care.

I haven’t read anything else by Joyce Carol Oates, so I may be missing something. Edward Said’s On Late Style warned that contemporaries dismissed the work of any number of great artists as they moved into the apparent carelessness of their late style. Perhaps that’s what is happening here. I’m open to argument

China Miéville’s Scar

China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002)

scar.jpgThis was another gift from the Street Library gods. A couple of pages into it, I realised that it was set in the same world as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which I read many years ago. It’s not a sequel. As far as I recall (which I admit isn’t far) no characters have made the transition from the earlier book, but it packs a similar narrative punch and is populated by a similar range of fantastical creatures who engage in the same blend of steampunk science and magic (thaumaturgy) in the same teemingly complex universe (which I hope never gets made into a CGI-based movie).

The story involves an immense sea monster that is tamed and/or drugged into towing on huge chains a pirate city made up of hundreds of lashed-together vessels small and large. It features sentient beings known as the anophelii, whose chronically famished females attack any creature with blood in its veins and suck it dry in seconds, and whose males, whose mouths resemble anal sphincters, live lives of weirdly passive abstraction. It includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.

I read somewhere that a secret of good fantasy writing is to give the reader cool stuff now, and then cooler stuff later – that is, not to have a terrific climax preceded by a hundred pages of so-so build-up. The Scar is profligate with cool stuff.

I could go on, but I’ll finish off with a taste of Miéville’s prose (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that the characters are descending in a tiny deep-sea vehicle):

After uncountable minutes, the darkness outside was momentarily broken, and the crew gasped as time returned to them like an electryc [sic] shock. Some living lamp was passing them by, some tentacular thing that inverted its body with a peristaltic wave, enveloping itself in its luminescent innards and shooting away, its austere glimmer snuffed out.
Chion ignited the lamp at the bathyscaphos’s front. It stuttered on, its phosphorous glow casting a cone of light. They could see its edges as clearly as if they were marble. There was nothing visible in the lamp’s field except a soup of minute detritus, particles that seemed to eddy upward as the Ctenophore plunged. There was nothing to see: no ocean floor, no life, nothing.That crushing emptiness they had illuminated depressed them more profoundly than the darkness. They descended unlit.

The book may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it full of delights.

Grand Master C L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry

C L Moore, Jirel of Joiry (©1934, 1935, 1936, 1939; Ace Fantasy Books 1982)

joj

This book reminded me of something the late poet Martin Johnston said about H P Lovecraft: ‘The writing is terrible but it gives you great nightmares.’ In this tremendously inventive fantasy the main character, the fierce but beautiful warrior lady Jirel, takes five separate journeys into four different demonic worlds. Think Dante’s Hell without the theology, the politics or the poetic vision, but plenty of gusto, gore and unspeakable horrors.

Jirel of Joiry has been on my list of recommended science fiction/fantasy books for a long time, probably because its protagonist was among the first women to star in heroic fantasy genre fiction. I began reading it now for reactive reasons: I was irritated by a recent egregious bit of click-bait that dumped on adults who find some YA and children’s literature and by extension fantasy seriously interesting (no argued rebuttal needed beyond invoking Sturgeon’s Law); and a ham-fisted, over-analysed fantasy episode in a mainstream novel made me yearn for some unabashed genre writing.

Weird_Tales_October_1934

The book’s five related short stories were first published in the 1930s. The first, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’, inspired the cover illustration of the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared (see left). You don’t get much more unabashed than that.

The Weird Tales cover actually owes more to its assumed readers’ tastes than to the story itself: in the scene it purports to illustrate, Jirel is clad in armour and holding an unsheathed sword, and the black god, encountered in a black building on a dark, dark night, is described as follows (on page 29):

The image was of some substance of nameless black, unlike the material which composed the building, for even in the dark she could see it clearly. It was a semi-human figure, crouching forward with outthrust head, sexless and strange. Its one central eye was closed as if in rapture, and its mouth was pursed for a kiss. And though it was but an image and without even the semblance of life, she felt unmistakably the presence of something alive in the temple, something so alien and innominate that instinctively she drew away.

This goes easier on the emotive adjectives and adverbs than most of the writing, but it’s fairly representative.  I particularly like the way, having used nameless a little too often in recent pages, the writer reaches for an alternative and finds innominate, for this is a book in which there are many things that the narrator tells us are beyond the power of words to name or describe. Do I need to tell you that within an overwrought page Jirel is compelled by mysterious global forces to kiss those pursed lips, with chilling consequences?

The stories are all fast moving, violent and dazzlingly inventive, easy to mock when paraphrased, but told with a gleeful lack of irony. The sexual politics are fascinating: Jirel is a formidable warrior who is violently ambivalent about the idea of being dominated by a male, whether human or demonic, and who has deeply antagonistic relationships with the only other significant female characters. But even more fascinating is the play of black and white. Jirel herself is identified as red, because of her hair; the attractive/deadly male figures are all at the darker end of the swarthy-to-black spectrum; and an emphatic white is reserved for lost, spectral figures such as the blind, galloping horses in the cover illustration of my edition of the book, or the fabulously evil characters such as the witch in the fourth story, ‘The Dark Land’:

It was a woman – or could it be? White as leprosy against the blackness of the trees, with a whiteness that no shadows touched, so that she seemed like some creature out of another world reflecting in dazzling pallor upon the background of the dark, she paced slowly forward. She was thin – deathly thin, and wrapped in a white robe like a winding sheet …

But it was her face that caught Jirel’s eyes and sent a chill of terror down her back. It was the face of Death itself, a skull across which the white, white flesh was tightly drawn. And yet it was not without a certain stark beauty of its own, the beauty of bone so finely formed that even in its death’s-head nakedness it was lovely.

And it goes on – the word ‘white’ occurs four more times in the next paragraph, which also mentions the absence of colour and shadows, twice each.

It was impossible not to think of Toni Morrison’s 1992 essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison describes a mythologised blackness ‘pulled from fields of desire and need’, and ‘the silence of an impenetrable inarticulate whiteness’ that occurs again and again in fiction by white US authors. I don’t know if she has a taste for genre or may even have read Jirel of Joiry, but I hope she would enjoy the way it allows images and motifs from white US’s Africanist imagination to thrum with innominate energy.

Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia

Cordwainer Smith, Norstrilia (Ballantine Books, 1975, 1978)

1norstriliaNorstrilia is on a number of impressive lists, including Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time, David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, The Classics of Science Fiction. It has been on my ever-growing and much-neglected SFF TBR pile for years.

Cordwainer Smith was a pseudonym of US author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, who under his own name was Sun Yat Sen’s godson, an expert in psychological warfare and an adviser to the US military in a number of  combats up to but not including Vietnam. He wrote quite a lot of science fiction (can you tell I’ve looked up Wikipedia?) of which this is his only novel, but many if not all of his short stories and novellas are set in the same universe as Norstrilia – and they leave tantalising traces in the narrative here, such as a number of references to the much feared but never explained Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, or the likewise never explained ‘underhuman’ saint D’joan.

‘Norstrilia’ is of course a corruption of ‘North Australia’: the story begins and ends on the planet of Old North Australia 15 thousand or more years from now. The Norstrilians are fabulously rich but deliberately simple people, presumably based on the impressions Australians made on Linebarger when he spent six months in Canberra in the 1950s. The Norstrilians’ wealth comes from giant sheep, not from wool but from the by-product of a sickness that has infected all the flocks … But I’m not giving a story outline. Suffice it to say that the book is very funny, and full of bizarre inventions – such as a lethal sparrow the size of a football, or beings known as underhumans who are basically animals genetically engineered to have human intelligence and other qualities, or the more or less self-explanatory Department Store of Heart’s Desires, or a future Earth where illness and enmity have had to be artificially reinvented to stop humans from going extinct from boredom. Some of the inventions are of the ooh-he-thought-of-that-in-1964 variety (the novel was first published as two separate stories in the 1960s) , such as in this exchange:

‘What’s postage?’ said the Lord Redlady, really puzzled.
‘Payments on messages.’
‘But you do that with thumbprints or eyeprints!’
‘No,’ said Rod, ‘I mean paper ones.’
‘Paper messages?’ said the Lord Redlady, looking as though someone had mentioned grass battleships, hairless sheep, solid cast-iron women, or something else equally improbable. ‘Paper messages?’ he repeated, and then he laughed, quite charmingly. ‘Oh!’ he said, with a tone of secret discovery, ‘You mean antiquities …?’

There are computer networks, videophones and CCTV. There’s cheerful female-to-male transition (anatomical details passed over in discreet silence). The plot hinges on spectacular manipulation of the global financial markets, though as this is fantasy there is no crash. There’s a totally gorgeous cat underhuman, named (according to the internets) after Linebarger’s own cat. At one point the hero has to restrain himself from running to kiss his computer – a moment imagined 40 years before the iPhone was invented. And there’s a revolutionary movement motivated, almost certainly without deliberate reference to Che, by love both for the oppressed and the oppressor.

It’s a rollicking read, rarely a dull moment, that reminds me of why I love genre fiction.

Doctor Who and Lindalee

Decades ago someone did a study of three different audience’s responses to an episode of Doctor Who. From memory, the focus groups were made up respectively of four-year olds, 13 year olds and PhD students respectively. All three groups loved the show. The first saw it as very funny because the Doctor was tricky. The second enjoyed the action–suspense. The third just loved the references to Buddhist cosmology.

Here’s a very young person recapping the first episode of the new season – be warned it’s full of spoilers, but be prepared to be delighted by a completely coherent reading. (Thanks to Stubby the Rocket at tor.com)

Barry N. Malzberg’s Galaxies

Barry N. Malzberg, Galaxies (1976, Carrol & Graf 1989)

A while back the Art Student and I went to the Gleebooks launch of a book called something like The Brain, at which the author spoke entertainingly about hypergraphia, or perhaps graphomania, which he said was a biologically-based disorder suffered by, among others, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Cervantes. We came away knowing little about the book, but the fantasy that a deformed hypothalamus or whatever was responsible for the creation of Raskolnikov, Hamlet and Sancho Panza has a certain lasting, sick appeal. If such a condition existed, Barry N. Malzberg would be one of the few recorded sufferers to have recovered. He wrote a phenomenal number of books in his 20s and 30s and then, apparently, pretty much stopped.

Galaxies is a multifaceted, challenging, joyous, anguished outpouring (or perhaps, though I doubt it, carefully crafted facsimile of an outpouring). It begins, ‘To define terms at the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a series of notes toward one.’ The writer, referred to throughout in the third person, is a hack writer of science fiction and other genre, as Malzberg was, and there’s plenty of complaining about the pay levels and other drawbacks of the life. In the novel, a spacecraft carrying a cargo of 515 cryogenically preserved dead people, falls into a ‘black galaxy’ and its sole crew member lives seven thousand lives, converses with a trio of mechanical Job’s comforters, and finally makes a decision. But there are also the notes, which shoot off in all directions – lampooning the conventions of science fiction, canvassing the relationship between it and literary fiction, between it and science, discussing the craft of writing, all with tremendous energy and reflexive irony.

What he has to say about science fiction may be dated. I don’t know enough to say. I imagine a knowledgeable reader would enjoy this even more than I did – certainly I got a kick out of the references I did spot. For example, talking about the kinds of fate that science fiction hacks can expect, he gives examples whom he calls A, B and C. It was fairly clear to me that the first two of those innocent sounding letters actually stood for Asimov and Ballard. Later in the same paragraph he refers to himself as M, confirming the suspicion and capping the joke.

The book is funny and serious and pained and exuberant. On almost every page there are paragraphs that cry out to be quoted. I finally weakened towards the end of the book and folded down a page on this:

Success teaches nothing; failure presents limits, gives us the tragic sense without which understanding is impossible. Successes are composed of a thousand failures like the way the photographs in newspapers reduce on inspection to myriad scattered dots, each expressionless, all comprising vision.

Terry Pratchet’s Snuff

Terry Pratchett, Snuff (Harper, 2011)

Apart from the Tiffany Aching books (which are for children, and also for adults, and brilliant), I have been out of touch with Discworld, though each Christmas I’ve given the current novel to my younger son, who has been a fan for half his life. Last year he reversed the flow and gave me Snuff. I decided to read it just now for light relief from a string of books about grim subjects – only to find that it’s pretty much about a genocidal slave trade. I don’t know if Terry Pratchett had the European-American slave trade in mind, or Queensland blackbirding, or the Nazi Holocaust, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had read Sea of Poppies – both books feature a drug trade conducted by establishment people and a vessel (the Ibis/the Wonderful Fanny) carrying a viciously oppressed human cargo (not exactly human in Snuff, but certainly sentient) that makes its way down a personified river (Mother Ganga/Old Treachery) and encounters many kinds of turbulence.

There are three overlapping strands in the Discworld series: the witches, the wizards and the City Watch. This is a City Watch story, starring Commander Sam Vines, who when I last saw him was a mere Captain, but has now been elevated like his creator to the peerage. Sam is dragged from his putrid native habitat, the streets of Ankh Morpork, for a holiday on his wife’s ancestral country estate. It takes a while, but of course the country turns out to contain just as much nastiness, danger and corruption as the city, and just as much stumbling heroism, awkward romance and unexpected beauty. A Discworld Jane Austen makes a cameo appearance, and a scatological children’s writer plays a significant role.

Sam is a wonderful character, an uncompromising servant of the law and believer in the rule of law who is all too aware of his own dark side, his own demons (and this being fantasy, both the darkness and the demons are literal). He discriminates among kinds of evildoing. For example, when the main atrocity has been exposed one of the villagers who had failed to intervene approaches Sam, who is having a snack at the village pub:

‘Well sir, yes, of course we knew about the goblins and no one liked it much. I mean they’re a bloody nuisance if you forget to lock your chicken coop and suchlike, but we didn’t like what was done, because it wasn’t … I mean, wasn’t right, not done like that, and some of us said we would suffer for it, come the finish, because if they could do that to goblins then what might they think they could do to real people, and some said real or not, it wasn’t right! We’re just ordinary people, sir, tenants and similar, not big, not strong, not important, so who would listen to the likes of us? I mean, what could we have done?’

Heads leaned a little forward, breaths were held, and Vimes chewed the very last vinegary piece of crisp. Then he said, directing his gaze to the ceiling, ‘You’ve all got weapons. Every man jack of you. Huge, dangerous, deadly weapons. You could have done something. You could have done anything. You could have done everything. But you didn’t, and I’m not sure but that in your shoes I might not have done anything, either. Yes?’

Hasty had held up a hand. ‘I’m sure we’re sorry. sir, but we don’t have weapons.’

‘Oh, dear me. Look around. One of the things that you could  have done was think. It’s been a long day, gentlemen, it’s been a long week … [Addressing the barman] Jiminy, these gentlemen are drinking at my expense for the rest of the evening.’

This is the third book Sir Terry has written since he revealed to the world that he has Alzheimer’s. He can no longer type, but – with the help of voice recognition software – he can certainly still write. For those who have kept up this book may be showing signs of flagging mental ability, but it’s full of wit and passion and sheer inventiveness, and also wisdom. If you haven’t read any of his books I wouldn’t start here. Try Guards! Guards! or Witches Abroad or Mort or The Wee Free Men.