Singing Psalms Astride a Slow Horse

An intriguing first novel from an Australian screenwriter, and a review of an enjoyable spy/thriller novel in the form of a TV series.

Issue #34, Wednesday 23 November 2022

Bookish News

Nothing this time as I haven’t had time to keep on top of recent releases and so on. There’s a heap of “Best of the Year” articles already coming out, though, and so I’ll try to cover some of those next time.

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Psalms for the End of the World by Cole Haddon

My thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy of this book.

It’s strange about this book. I’m finding that I’m enjoying it more having finished it and thinking back on it than while I was reading it. I’ll try to explain this feeling later on.

This novel certainly has an intriguing concept, which I don’t think I’ve seen as well explored anywhere else. The concept is that the everyday world we see around us, and all the people we meet and the events which happen to us, are all a part of a vast simulation run by an intelligent species on an unimaginably powerful computer. If such beings had the capability of simulating whole worlds, you could reasonably ask, why wouldn’t they? And if they did, and you were part of such a simulation, how could you ever tell?

It takes a while, of course, for this underlying concept to become clear in the book. Instead, we start in the 1960s with a man called Jones in his apartment in Pasadena, listening to the account of the test of a hugely-powerful thermonuclear weapon by the Soviet Union. There are hints of something strange about Jones. He looks at himself in the mirror—he’s extremely handsome—and his face “still startles him sometimes”. He responds to the report of the nuclear explosion by thinking “none of this bullshit is real”.

Jones puts on a suit and heads off in his car but takes a break in his journey to wherever he is going to drop in to a diner where it appears he’s been a regular customer for months. The young waitress, Gracie, greets him warmly and serves him pie. Gracie keeps hoping Jones, who she calls “Bobby”, will ask her out. But he tells her he won’t be around for a while as there’s something he has to do. He’s away for several weeks, but when he returns to the diner, he doesn’t appear to recognise Gracie at all, and has no recollection of ever eating pie there. She’s beginning to get very upset when suddenly the FBI arrive, heavily armed and with a warrant to arrest Jones on a charge of setting off a bomb which has killed 23 people at Pasadena City Hall. Jones protests that he knows nothing about this, but when the FBI agents move to handcuff him, he manages to escape. It takes a while before we figure out why Bobby behaved so strangely on his return to the diner, and who he really is.

The relationship between Bobby and Gracie is the heart of the book and eventually it turns into a tragic romance.

Along with this core story, however, we have many threads of other characters in different times and places; all of these eventually link together cleverly to shape a picture of what is going on. We have a David Bowie-like character who calls himself Damien Syco or “The Moonman”, who sings songs challenging his listeners’ perception of reality. We have a reclusive painter, Bertrand Lambriquet, in 18th Century France, who has locked himself away obsessively painting canvases which depict scenes so grotesque and alien they drive people crazy to look at them. We have Betrand’s son, Xavier, who grows to adulthood and has his father locked away in an asylum before wandering across Europe to India and Tibet and trying to join a monastery there. We have Abdul Fattah, a teenage Muslim boy in Sydney in the year 2000 who has been commanded by Allah—in the form of a caged piebald rabbit—to blow up the Sydney Opera House. His journey takes a very strange turn indeed. We have several other characters who I won’t attempt to ennumerate.

The picture this collage of characters eventually fills out is that this world really is a computer simulation, but it’s not unique, there are hundreds of Earth simulations, all run by the equivalent of a corporation in the Outside—the world of the alien creatures running the simulation. Bobby is one of the alien software engineers who has “retired” in order to live inside his own creation, but who has become increasingly concerned by what it does to the humans living here, including particularly Gracie, with whom he’s fallen in love. He decides to try to sabotage the control of the world from Outside. Because of his actions, he’s being hunted by the Master Control, the operating system software, which also becomes embodied in the world and takes human form, the better to track Bobby down and stop him.

The key theme here is an important ethical one: if you had the ability to simulate a whole world populated by intelligent beings, you would surely be responsible for the sufferings of those beings. Even if these beings are simulated, their grief and pain would be real to them and you would be morally responsible.

It’s an argument which is millennia-old in the form of the theological discussion of the problem of evil (how could a benevolent God create a world which includes so much suffering?), but it’s given real point here in that those who created the simulation aren’t omnipotent gods but mortal entities, however alien. And Psalms for the End of the World doesn’t hold back from depicting terrible human suffering throughout history, some of it inflicted directly by Bobby and the Master Control as they contend for the fate of the simulation.

I said at the start that I’m actually enjoying this book more in retrospect than while I was reading it, which seems a strange thing to say. But it’s a very long book (529 pages, some 165,000 words) and my review copy was in a PDF format which was rather awkward for me to read. So it took me a long while to get through it and at one stage I became rather exasperated by the sheer number of different threads the author throws at you, threads which at first appeared unconnected. It’s only on finishing the book and thinking back on it that I can see how all these threads are very cleverly connected, and who certain characters in them turn out to be in the light of later revelations. I do think the book could have been shorter, but apparently it started out at over 600 pages long so perhaps I should be grateful!

My final conclusion: this is a very clever novel which isn’t afraid to tackle interesting ideas and themes, and it certainly makes you think.

Cole Haddon is an Australian writer. This is his first novel, but he has a number of screenwriting credits on television series and movies, for example the 2013 series Dracula. It will certainly be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

I read this book only after I’d seen the Apple TV+ series based on it, so I’m going to take the unusual step here of reprinting my thoughts about the television series, since the plot and characters closely follow those in the book.

My wife and I recently re-subscribed to Apple TV+ because we’ve been on a bit of a Tom Hiddleston kick this year, and she saw that this new series called The Essex Serpent was on there, featuring Hiddleston and Clare Danes.

We only managed to get through two episodes of that before giving up in disgust, the stellar cast notwithstanding. Poor writing, highly improbable situations and attitudes for the Victorian era, over-the-top dramatics.

But since we’d got Apple TV+ for the month, we went looking for something else to watch on the service and spotted Slow Horses, which I recalled Perry thought was pretty good (and had recommended the series of books written by Mick Herron, on which it is based). So we gave it a try and loved it. There’s a second season coming, and we’ll subscribe again to Apple TV+ when it arrives.

Gary Oldman stars as Jackson Lamb, the foulmouthed, farting, generally disgusting head of a branch of MI5 in Slough House. This is the dumping ground of various spies who have stuffed up in various ways, sent to Slough House to be kept out of the way of anything important.

The show opens with young MI5 trainee River Cartwright (played by Jack Lowden) who we watch in a heart-pounding sequence making a spectacular mess of trying to stop a terrorist exploding a bomb in an underground train station. Only later do we discover that no one was actually killed, it was all just part of an in-the-field training exercise. Nevertheless, Cartwright is shunted off as a failure to Slough House.

Things start to hot up when a young man of Pakistani descent is kidnapped by a group of white supremacists, who are threatening to behead him live on the Internet. MI5 are keeping close tabs on this and trying to locate where the terrorist group is holed up. Then we start to get a plot twist or two as we discover the true motives of the “Second Chair” of MI5, Diana Taverner (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), who is playing a double game in which Slough House is going to be blamed for any failure.

Gripping and often very funny stuff. Oldman is brilliant, as always. We liked it a lot. As I said, we’ll be keen to watch the second season when it comes out (and I’ll have to hunt up the rest of the books in the series, of which there are many).

Currently Reading

The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner by Grace Tame

This is Tame’s biography and her angry account of the sexual exploitation of children. She herself was raped by a teacher at the age of 15 and has come to prominence for her campaign against the cover-ups and enabling of such actions, which led to her being named as Australian of the Year. I’m only a little way into this so far. I don’t think I’m going to enjoy the book, but I think it has a very important message.

Recently Purchased

A box of books from Readings arrived today, all to be added to my already towering To Be Read pile. Here’s a snapshot:

Waiting on the Shelf

I’m hoping that I can get to these before they need to go back to the library:

And that’s it for this issue. See you next time.

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