Seeing Red

A lot of varied reading to talk about since my last issue, but the first couple of books I discuss do have a certain colour in common.

Issue #49: Sunday, 20 August 2023

I recognise that my publishing schedule for Through the Biblioscope has become very erratic. I hope to get back to a more regular routine shortly.

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Several of my friends have been nagging me for years to try out the “Murderbot” series by Martha Wells, of which this is the first book. It won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella in 2018, and has been followed by a bunch of other novellas, many of which won awards and then a novel, Network Effect, which won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2021, as well as the whole series winning the Hugo for Best Series in the same year. More are coming, I understand.

So all in all, a set of pretty good recommendations for the series, you’d have to say.

I recall trying this first novella in an ebook version available from my library, but for whatever reason I didn’t get far into it before it had to be returned. So when I saw that it was available as a “free” audiobook from Audible I decided to give it another try. (It was free in the sense that it is included at no extra cost with an Audible subscription, which I’m trying out at present).

Alas, despite all those awards and personal recommendations, I found this story very disappointing and I am not the least tempted to go on to read the rest of the series. Let me see if I can spell out why.

Let’s look at the story. It’s all told from the first-person point of view of a “security unit”, or SecUnit, which appears to be a hybrid of robot and organic being, so we might call it a “cyborg”. It carries powerful weaponry and is employed or hired out for security purposes. It tends to call itself a “murderbot”, so let’s call it that (I don’t think it has a name as such). Murderbot has somehow managed to hack and deactivate its Governor Module, which means that it now has free will and is not subject to the control of its employer or the people who have hired it. With no restraints, it could go on a murdering rampage, but no, it prefers, it says, to watch the endless hours of human soap operas it has downloaded:

As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

OK, I guess, if you can swallow this faintly-humorous premise. Mind you, there’s no real explanation of why Murderbot was able to do this but all of the hundreds of other security units which exist have not been able to do the same. There’s some hand-wavy stuff about a defective upgrade patch (but again we’re supposed to believe that this is the only security unit in the universe which got that defective patch?).

In this story, Murderbot has been is hired by a small team of humans belonging to the PreservationAux group who are surveying a planet for its resources. As the story opens, Murderbot is busy fighting off a vicious monster which has erupted from a crater. This however, is the only time we encounter such beasts in the story, so it’s a bit of a throw-away plot item. Murderbot gets its humans back to safety, though only after incurring some severe damage itself. There are five or six humans in the team, but other than the team leader Dr. Mensah, I found them all but indistinguishable and without any depth. The dialog between them is completely banal. It’s as though they are all cyborgs or robots themselves. This lack of characterisation was Strike One against the story, for me.

The team debates why warnings about the vicious native fauna aren’t shown in the package of information they obtained from the company leasing out exploration licenses, and we begin to get a sense of some deliberate sabotage. Not long later, they discover that communications from another, rival, survey party, have ceased. This team, Deltfall, is much larger than their own, and until recently they had been fairly friendly and had been responding to calls from the PreservationAux team. Fearing some problem, half of the PreservationAux team head off to investigate, taking their SecUnit, Murderbot, with them. They discover that every one of the humans at the Deltfall site has been violently killed, apparently by rogue SecUnits.

We eventually discover that there is a third survey team on the planet, and we quickly find out that they are the Bad Guys in the story: so bad that they are prepared to carry out gruesome mass murders of the other teams to gain a commercial advantage. But I wasn’t at all convinced that there was even a need by the Bad Guys to kill off the others. There’s no convincing explanation in the story as to why anyone would be this cold-blooded, or why the risk would be worth taking. Perhaps they are just really Dumb Bad Guys (something which is reinforced later). But that was Strike Two, for me.

The PreservationAux team manage to leave their own base before the Bad Guys arrive to kill them all, and need to send up a distress beacon in order to be rescued. But, oh no, the Bad Guys have destroyed the PreservationAux beacon.

Then there’s a bit of simple trickery by Murderbot and Dr. Mensah, and bam! before you can blink, the Bad Guys are defeated, a beacon launched, the team rescued, the Bad Guys are in jail and everyone lives happily ever after. The action is over almost before it begins, a case of a very poor handling of tension and climax, in my view. That was Strike Three for me.

Nope, didn’t like it, only gave it three stars on Goodreads. Can’t see why I would be ever be bothered with the rest of the series.

Red Notice by Bill Browder

This is a non-fiction book, whose true story ends up reading like a powerful spy thriller, and with good reason.

It is to a large degree a work of autobiography. In the early part of the book, Bill Browder tells of his upbringing in a strongly socialist-leaning family. His grandfather, Earl Browder, was a prominent communist activist who became the General Secretary of the American Communist Party during the 1930s, and who during the McCarthy Era was grilled for days by the U.S. Congress. His father, Felix Browder, was born in Moscow, and after Earl Browder returned to America, became a top-ranked mathematician, as did his brothers, though not without initial difficulty because of the notoriety of their communist father. This strain of high-achieving intellectualism was passed down in the family: Bill Browder’s older brother Tom is a particle physicist.

However, as Bill Browder tells it, as an act of familial rebellion, he broke away from the family socialist and academic tradition and decided that he was going to become a capitalist, which indeed he did, through a series of very interesting career moves, eventually setting up an investment fund to invest in Eastern Europe and Russia. This fund, the Heritage Fund, became the world’s single largest investor in Russia in the 1990s, acquiring more than $4.5 billion in assets. Running this fund, Browder came up against some of Russia’s oligarchs, and the deeply entrenched corruption that was enriching them. Using every available legal means, he fought back against these oligarchs, a move initially supported by Russia’s new leader Vladimir Putin. But after jailing one prominent oligarch, Putin used this threat against the others to start funnelling some of their profits his way, at which point Browder’s activism became unwelcome, and in 2005 Browder was deported and banned from Russia, and furthermore declared a threat to Russia’s national security.

What followed his expulsion makes for quite a complicated story, but Browder manages to tell it very clearly and well. I can’t do anywhere near as good a job and I’m obviously not going to try. Let me say simply that the levels of corruption and blatant disregard of law, ethics and even humanity in Russia under Putin are quite staggering. Browder’s lawyers and associates in Russia came under severe threat after Browder’s group began to expose some of this corruption, and several of them fled the country. One young lawyer, though, Sergei Magnitsky, refused to leave because he felt he had done nothing wrong and in fact had exposed a huge fraud on the Russian people. For that, he was arrested and jailed. During his time in jail he was very badly treated, possibly poisoned, fell seriously ill and was denied any medical treatment, all the time refusing to sign the false confessions which were put before him. Eventually, under the pretext of taking him to hospital, he was thrown into a cellar and literally beaten to death.

Shocked, outraged and full of guilt over Magnitsky’s death, Bill Browder took up the cause of activism against Putin’s Russia to such an extent that his business affairs declined and were passed to other hands. He was eventually able to lobby members of the U.S. Congress to pass a law to sanction those Russian officials and oligarchs who were involved in Magnitsky’s death, ban them from travel to the U.S. and freeze their assets. This law, now known as the Magnitsky Act, was signed into law by President Obama in 2012, infuriating Putin. Since then, Browder has continued his activism and pushed to have several other Western nations pass Magnitsky Acts of their own.

All of this, of course, has made Browder deeply hated by Putin and his cronies, and there’s no doubt that he must be high on Putin’s hit list and has therefore had to take serious steps to protect his security and that of his family. I believe that Browder’s follow-up book, Freezing Order talks a good deal about this. I must try to track that down.

Look, this is a great read. The early parts of the book make it clear that Browder is no kind of saint, and indeed for a time he became very rich by his involvement in Russian investment; but his actions since the death of Sergei Magnitsky are, to my eyes at least, highly praiseworthy. At the very least, his exposure of the depths of brazen corruption in today’s Russia is very important.

Highly recommended.

The Moon Maid by Edgar Rice Burroughs

This was a production which I did for Standard Ebooks. I chose this as a fairly simple production to give me light relief from a massive work I’m doing for them, James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD. That one still has a year or two’s work to go.

The Moon Maid is actually a compilation of three novellas, linked by a framing story to do with reincarnation. The three original books, serialised in Argosy magazine were: The Moon Maid (early 1922), The Moon Men (late 1922) and The Red Hawk (1923).

The core concept of the first part of the book spins off from Burroughs’ earlier novels At the Earth’s Core and Pellucidar, in which it is discovered that the Earth is in fact hollow, and lit by an internal sun. It also has a variety of inhabitants including intelligent gorillas and highly intelligent pterodactyls (go figure!).

In The Moon Maid, a voyage sets off from Earth to travel to Mars but because of the sabotage carried out by one of the crew is forced to land on the Moon instead. The landscape is inhospitable, but eventually the ship travels into a crater and down into the depths of the Moon, where lo and behold, it is discovered that the Moon, too, is hollow, and that within its shell it has a breathable atmosphere and its own inhabitants. Much entertaining derring-do goes on as our hero is captured by evil cannibal centaurs, and helps free a beautiful human princess (the Moon Maid of the title).

In the second part of the book, a malevolent race of Moon-Men, the Kalkars, have invaded the Earth and imposed a totalitarian regime (originally the book apparently featured communist invaders from Russia, before being re-written as a work of pure science fiction).

We have to wait for the third part of the book when the Red Hawk, the leader of a group of Native American-equivalents, is able to attack the Kalkars and drive them out.

This book was quite readable, I thought, and on a par with his other science fiction like A Princess of Mars, The Land That Time Forgot, and his Tarzan novels. Readable for 12-year-olds, at least. But there is some excruciating stuff to do with what Burroughs considers “romance”:

“I have brought you only suffering and danger, and now death, Julian,” she said, “when you deserve naught but happiness and peace.”

I suddenly felt very strange and my heart behaved wretchedly, so that when I attempted to speak it pounded so that I could say nothing and my knees shook beneath me. What had come over me? … Then, at last, I managed to gather myself together.

“Nah-ee-lah,” I said, “I do not fear death if you must die, and I do not seek happiness except with you.”

She looked up suddenly, her great, tear-dimmed eyes wide and gazing deep into mine.

“You mean—Julian? You mean—?”

“I mean, Nah-ee-lah, that I love you,” I replied, though I must have stumbled through the words in a most ridiculous manner, so frightened was I.

“Ah, Julian,” she sighed, and put her arms about my neck.

“And you, Nah-ee-lah!” I exclaimed incredulously, as I crushed her to me, “can it be that you return my love?”

Oh dear.

I can’t recommend this book, really, unless you want to be a Burroughs completist. But nevertheless, it wasn’t all that bad, on its own terms, for a 100-year-old work of science fiction. If it sounds interesting to you, you can download a free, beautifully formatted ebook of it here.

The Wrong One by Dervla McTiernan

This was also an audiobook, another “free” title from Audible. They claim this is an Audible original, an exclusive, so whether it will eventually appear in print, I can’t say.

Dervla McTiernan is an Irish writer who recently became an Australian resident, and her first three novels set in Galway and featuring her detective Cormac Connor, were pretty good. The Wrong One, however, is set in the United States, and is only novella-length, just over three hours to listen to.

The story starts with a detective, Simon Miller, receiving a phone call late one night from a teenage boy, Sebastian. In the audiobook, the story is told in the first person by these two people, Simon and Sebastian, in different chapters, and each character is played by a different voice actor, both of whom were very good.

Sebastian, it seems, is the son of Miller’s best friend and colleague in the police force, Will Coleman, who died a few years previously. Simon is surprised by the call because he tells us that he and Seb aren’t on good terms, for reasons we discover later. Seb is ringing Simon nonetheless because Seb’s mother Clara has just been arrested for murder and he wants Simon to come and convince the local police that they have made a terrible mistake.

Though Simon is suffering from a serious knife wound to his shoulder that has sent him into mandatory sick leave and largely disabled his left arm, he sets off to drive to Lavender Valley, a couple of hours away. Clara is unaware that Seb made the call to Simon and is shocked when she sees Simon in court the next day. Clara and Simon are also no longer on very good terms. Despite that, Clara’s lawyer manages to convince the court to release Clara to home detention, provided that Simon, a serving police officer, lives at the house to keep an eye on her. Clara, once she hears this plan, is seriously displeased but has to acquiesce or spend perhaps up to a year in jail awaiting trial.

It takes us a long while to find out who Clara is accused of killing, something I found a bit annoying, I have to admit. It turns out that she’s accused of stabbing to death another resident of Lavender Valley, Rachel Stapleton. Rachel was an older woman who had been suing Clara over the purchase of the house where Clara and Seb are now living. A knife is missing from Clara’s kitchen, and drops of Rachel’s blood were found in Clara’s house, so there’s a strong if circumstantial case against her.

Despite these facts, Simon sets about trying to prove Clara’s innocence. Towards the end of the novella, however, there is a very clever plot twist which I for one didn’t see coming. I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that as you listen to the story told from the two points of view of Simon and Sebastian you start to understand that one or perhaps even both of them can’t be trusted to be truthful narrators.

Unfortunately, however, McTiernan wasn’t satisfied with this ingenious turn in the plot and apparently felt the need to also introduce a supernatural/fantasy element which I could very much have done without. The story would have worked perfectly well without that, and in my view would have been much better for it.

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

This is a novel of historical fiction, but based very solidly on the true story of the travails of two men, Colonel Edward Whalley, and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe. The year is 1660. After leading a revolution, replacing the monarchy with a Commonwealth and ruling England as Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell has died two years previously. His son, Richard Cromwell, was a failure as a national leader, and Parliament has restored the monarchy in the form of Charles II. Many in the nation, and indeed many in Parliament who had supported the Puritan cause during the English Civil War are in a precarious position under the new regime. It is for this reason that Parliament passes the Act of Oblivion which wipes out actions now seen as crimes, to give the country a clean slate and stability.

There is one major exception to the Act of Oblivion, however. The “regicides”, those men who signed the death warrant of Charles I, and who presided at his trial and execution, are never to be forgiven, and indeed the process begins to identify them, declare them as traitors, and condemn them to the gruesome traitor’s death: to be hung, drawn, and quartered. So fanatical are the new royalists that even Oliver Cromwell’s body is exhumed and hung and his head removed and put on a spike.

The novel opens with the return to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts of Daniel Gookins, long awaited by his wife and young family. To her surprise, however, he brings two men with him whom he met on board the ship. The two men are Edward Whalley and William Goffe, who received enough warning to flee the country before they were apprehended. At first they try to keep their identities secret in America, but on an ill-advised visit to Boston, they are recognised and hounded back to the Gookin’s house in Cambridge, which eventually they also have to leave.

All of this, and almost all of what follows in the novel is true history, thoroughly researched, but the author cleverly introduces a fictional character, Richard Nayler, who becomes obsessed for personal reasons in tracking down the regicides. He accounts for many on his long list, but a number remain, including Whalley and Goffe. Nayler’s obsession and his search for the two men adds a great deal of drive to the plot of the story.

It’s a fascinating and moving account of the long drawn-out suffering of the two regicides as they move from place to place, further and further away from the major English colonies, always fearing pursuit. They spend a couple of years living in a cave in the hills, trapping fish and small animals; after their discovery there, they flee further west. Several times they find Puritan communities who will hide them for a time, but when the English Government (prompted in the novel by Richard Nayler) offer a reward of a hundred pounds each for the capture of Whalley and Goffe, dead or alive, they have to assume that the temptation of this huge sum will be more than many can resist.

The relationship between the two men, initially close and friendly, becomes greatly strained by their circumstances, forced into close contact by their concealment together for months or even years at a time. The younger man, Goffe, is deeply religious, almost fanatically so, a fervent piousness which several times exposes them to great danger.

We’re also introduced to Frances, Goffe’s wife, left behind in England with several small children. She is left in poverty and hounded from place to place by the authorities as they try to determine the location of her husband. Nevertheless she survives and her love for, and faith in Will is not shaken even as the years pass.

As he ages and becomes less able, the older man, Ned Whalley, begins to write a restrospective account of his life, which gives us great insights into what Cromwell was like, and the twists and turns of his leadership during and after the Civil War.

I found this to be a very moving and compelling story, one which I’ve said appears to be largely accurate based on the historical record (there’s a long list of references at the end of the book), but which has been turned into an excellent piece of fiction. Even if the fictional parts are invented, even leaving those aside, what a terrific story it is.

Highly recommended.

Currently Reading

And that’s your lot for this time around. Sorry, no “Bookish News” this time. I may even drop that segment and just let this newsletter focus on my reading.

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