A Year in Books – April

The Secret Visitors – James White

The Escape Orbit – James White

Second Ending – James White

Hospital Station – James White

Sergio Leone – Michael Carlson

The Trojan War – Barry Strauss

 

The Secret Visitors/ The Escape Orbit/ Second Ending/ Hospital Station – James White

 

As is probably obvious, I’ve been on a bit of a James White binge , mostly by way of research for an upcoming article on White in the Honest Ulsterman (part of a series of articles on Irish fantasists, which so far has covered Lord Dunsany, Fitz-James O’Brien and Bob Shaw). But, equally, I’ve never read any of White’s work before although I’ve been aware of it for quite some time.

Never a major figure in sf, James White maintained a devoted audience for his work and even garnered a few nominations for the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Broadly speaking, his work fell into the Anglo-American tradition of science fiction, colourful, exotic and with the Competent Man firmly centre stage. His best known work was the Sector General series – beginning with Hospital Station – comprising of a dozen novels published between 1962 – 1999 and set on a vast space hospital – the Sector General of the series title – where humans, humanoids and a wide array of alien species live, work and interact

Hospital Station is a fix-up of stories first published in New Worlds between 1957 – 60 and introduces several of the characters, such as Drs Conway and Prilicla and the Monitor O’Mara, who would go on to appear throughout the series. What is most striking about the 5 stories here is how they subvert the Humanity Uber Alles vibe which ran through science fiction at the time. In ‘Medic’, for example, O’Mara is charged with the care of an alien child and the story bears thematic comparison with, say, John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’ or Walter M. Miller’s ‘I Made You’. In both the Miller and Campbell stories, the ‘Other’ is a destructive and murderous force, one which must be fought against and destroyed (or not). In ‘Medic’ the Other is no less destructive (although in no way murderous) but must be understood and healed. The other stories in the collection follow a similar path, often as medical mysteries to be solved, but always with a deep sympathy, rather than repulsion, for the alien characters.

The Escape Orbit (1964) aka Open Prison takes the Robinson Crusoe trope to a new extreme. During an intergalactic war, human POWs are dumped on a hostile and primitive prison planet and must learn to survive and, ultimately, to escape from captivity. Nominated for the Nebula Award, Escape Orbit is a pacey read with a twist at the end which gives the novel a delightful and subversive tone.

Second Ending (1961), nominated for the Hugo, is a great little book. A ‘last man on earth’ scenario which, again, subverts the reader’s expectations time and time again and even manages to have a happy ending without seeming contrived.

The Secret Visitors (1957) was James White’s first novel and, to an extent, it shows. Part Cold War thriller, part alien invasion story, it’s a difficult read, meandering at times, but is at least indicative of greater things to come.

I have quite a few James White books to read this month and, I’m delighted to say, am looking forward to them immensely.

 

Sergio Leone – Michael Carlson

 

A short but sweet introduction to one of my favourite film directors, published by Pocket Essentials.

Of course the definitive book on Leone, his life and work is Sir Christopher Frayling’s magnificent Something To Do With Death, but Carlson’s book makes for a good, quick overview of the films and the state of western movies prior to, during and after the Spaghetti Western boom of the 1960s.

Mind you, it helps that Sergio Leone produced relatively few films (just seven) so each chapter is able to give a decent amount of information about each, from the sword and sandal of The Colossus of Rhodes, though the Eastwood starring ‘dollars trilogy’ and the epic sweep of Once Upon A Time In America.

It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know but for newcomers to the cinema of Sergio Leone it’s a good enough place to start.

 

The Trojan War, A New History – Barry Strauss

 

When was the Trojan War, did it really happen or was it just a myth, how was it fought, was the Wooden Horse real, did it really last ten bloody years?

All these questions and more are addressed by Barry Strauss in his excellent history of the Trojan War, from the moment that Helen absconded with Paris to the final bloody days when Troy finally fell.

It’s an absorbing read, and one which helps to put a little flesh on the bones of otherwise legendary or mythical heroes. Menelaus comes across as a sullen brute, Achilles as a bloodthirsty, temperamental dandy, Hector as a glory hunter and Helen herself as capricious as they come.

This is Troy as a long and dirty war, where the heroes are often less than heroic and their actions self-serving, where the innocent suffer because of the truculence of Kings. In this respect, it owes something to John Keegan’s hugely influential The Face of Battle, stripping away the ‘glory’ of warfare in order to show its brutal reality.

A great book, vital for anyone interested in ancient warfare.

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