I’ve never been entirely sure why Scottish author Iain Banks has his science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you’re being massively pretentious about it) published under the Iain M. Banks moniker. What’s so Sci-Fi about the middle inital ‘M’? This question has haunted me for many years, ruining nights that otherwise promised a vast ocean of sleep to navigate, wrecked on the rocky shores of inponderable conundrums. I am even less sure about how on Earth Transition managed to sneak under the wire for the ‘normal’ fiction definition that allows the novel to sport the “Iain Banks” brand.

Y’see, works about people jumping between parallel worlds, occupying other people’s bodies while carrying out interventions, occassionaly fatal, into the lives of others don’t often fall into categories other than Sci-Fi. Quantum Leap is rarely found on shelves other than Sci-Fi, if indeed it is found on shelves at all. Oh, boy.

I believe any sort of plot recap would take as long to read as the book itself does, it being a many-layered and splendid thing, but I have not the writicular chops of Banks so my recap would be somewhat craptacular. Yes, ‘writicular’ and ‘craptacular’ are perfectly cromulent words. Are you doubting my vocabulariousity?

In a nutshell, this follows the activities and lives of a few protagonists, Temudjin Oh, a prime young agent for the interdimensional Concern of dubious providence, Mrs. Mulverhill, his some-time lover and full-time rebel, an obnoxious young city banker for whom the rhyming slang is entirely appropriate and a torturer, or if you rather an enhanced interrogation specialist.

Quite the menagerie of characters, especially when a number of them can inhabit entirely different bodies at points thoughout the narrative. Essentially, Mrs. Mulverhill has grown suspicious of the goals and methods of the Concern, and aims to tear them down, with Oh’s loyalty being the key to these plans.

It’s all a little wheels-within-wheels, and you’re largely left to fill in a lot of the details of the political machinations yourself rather than succumbing to lengthy passages of exposition. This is no bad thing, with Banks effortlessly weaving the threads of the story through and with the deep characterisations that all, even the somewhat bit-part, actors in the tale have.

Were I to hazard an answer to the classification conundrum posed earlier, it may avoid the nerdtaculgeekuar label of “Sci-Fi” by virtue of not attempting a description of the mechanism for all this parallel universe hopping zaniness by virtue of not going into any detail about it. There’s some people who can do it, with the aid of a special drug, and a Concern that regulates it. Everything else is left to your imagination, which is frequently the best idea in general and certainly in this specific case.

It’s not perfect, suffering from an ending that’s not quite directly an output of the deus ex machine, but very close to it, and perhaps something of a failure of point towards the end, although I concede that perhaps I’m not quite bright enough, or perhaps was not playing close enough attention, to see what’s going to be different in the novel’s world after the finale.

Regardless, it’s a roundly absorbing tale, and engagingly written. I will accept only illiteracy as an excuse for failure to read this book, although the contradictions inherent in writing that statement have made me dizzy so I shall now go off and lie down for a while before catching another jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

It’s a science fiction book.Wait! Give it a chance. They’re not all as bad as the Star Wars books, y’know.

Ender’s Game sets itself on an Earth of the not inconceivably distant future, with a crowded, population controlled world preparing itself for a seemingly inevitable future war with an insectoid alien menace, an advance force of whom that they’ve just barely managed to fend off. Deciding that nature needs a little help in producing a suitable leader for the Earth forces, a little genetic fiddling of the Wiggan family sees a generation of exceptionally gifted children. Valentine has a little too much empathy in her to make an effective, ruthless military leader, and Peter is a few shades too close to psychotic. In accordance with the Goldilocks theorem, the third attempt, Ender, is hoped to be just right. The consequences if he’s not are grim.

Surviving six years of a childhood alternately tormented by his elder brother and protected by Valentine, Ender is taken away to an orbital battle school by a military leadership determined to push Ender to his limits, even if that does mean alienating everyone else from Ender, already marked as an outsider by being younger than any other recruit, and cutting him loose to survive or fail on his own wits and intuition.

Of course, you don’t get pegged as humanities’ last best hope of victory without having some aptitude for the role. Navigating a course of unwanted rivalries to be put in charge of his own squadron of children for the zero gravity wargames that the school and the book’s title revolve around, the consequences of pushing Ender to his limits and beyond prove to be compelling reading.

Ender’s Game is often held up as one of the best sci-fi novels of recent years, and there’s few bones to pick with such statements. Indeed, enough people seem to be voting with their wallets for the series to support three direct sequels telling the rest of Ender’s story and another three concerned with the kids from battle school and Peter Wiggan’s ascent to hegemony of Earth. Ender’s Game isn’t just a hugely enjoyable novel in and of itself, it’s the introduction to a series that deals with consequence and identity in ways that haven’t been seen since Phillip K. Dick.

Now, I’d be recommending you read Ender’s Game were it the only time Card had put quill to slate, or however it’s done these days. Instead of this, I’m recommending you read Ender’s Game because its direct sequel Speaker for the Dead is as good a book as I’ve ever read, but would be best enjoyed by absorbing this novel first.

Godless — Ann Coulter

The good thing, and I suppose there had to be one good thing about it, to come from the latest collection of words from Republican pitbull Ann Coulter is that the first chapter pretty much gives you the completeness of what follows it. After an hour or so all liberals have been accused of Nazi experimentation on foetuses, actively supporting terrorists, the murder of millions of children, hating religion, hating science, racism and wishing to destroy democracy. Man, these liberals must be assholes!

Well, they would be if any of this was presented with any credibility whatsoever, but that’s never been Coulter’s style, instead favouring her distinctive blend of misrepresented statements, selective reporting and sheer baffling lunacy of arguing a point from a statement that seems to bear little to no relation to said statement. If you were looking to deconstruct her arguments you’d have to brave some very large jumps of logic and cognitive sidesteps.

Except there’s little point undertaking such a feat. Coulter sells on the simple rationale that she’s ‘controversial’, relying on being just credible enough to get folks on the other side of the fence upset enough to rant and rave in response, creating some sort of cascading feedback loop of noise, bluster and publicity. Which sells more books, etc, etc.

I’ve no clear idea who’s supposed to be buying this book. The lunatic fringe of the far right may well lap it up, as after all the only opinions worth buying are those you share. It’s too intellectually bankrupt to convince anyone in the middle ground to her side, with it’s bizarre alternate worldview where the bible gives mankind a direct instruction to stripmine Alaska, global warming is a plot by environmentalist democratic science-hating scientists to bring down the oil companies that are the true pillars of American patriotism and where “card carrying member of the ACLU” is in some way an insult. After all, what true American would want to defend civil liberties when you could instead hand over all personal responsibility to The Decider, G.W.B.?

I’m very disappointed in this book, as I often like to become enraged enough to shout at great length at inanimate objects. Thing of it is, Godless tries so very, very hard to be so very, very outrageous that after perhaps half an hour the cumulative nuttiness of what she’s saying becomes a numbing boredom of ad hominem personal attacks and supposed explanations of liberal systems that are, for want of a better phrase, completely hatstand.

There’s a lot of things wrong with this here country in which what I live. Britain, that is. However, things like this makes exceedingly glad I live on the sane side of the pond. Whatever the failings of political discourse in this nation, I’m convinced if a Brit released this it would find itself filed under ‘Comedy’, or ‘The Daily Mail’. Same thing, really. That this is something that is taken seriously by many American folks lies somewhere between mildly terrifying and extremely terrifying. To all of my sensible American comrades, of which I think there’s about four left in the nation, you have my sympathies. Don’t let the crazy psycho loons grind you down, nil hatstand carborundum and all that.

Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer — Russell Hoban

It’s rather a strange thing that Russell Hoban happens to be from Pennsylvania, and even stranger that he’s seventy five. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, you understand, just that on reading his earlier novel Fremder and especially Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer it has the, I dunno, cadence, tone and dialogue my internal monologue can’t help but read with a young English accent, in the same way that a Christopher Brookmyer novel stridently demands to be intoned in as broad a Scots accent as you can muster.

All of which is very far away indeed from relevancy, so allow me to veer suddenly back on to the track I’d intended to start on in the first place. This is, to briefly sum up, another Faustian pact-type of thing, with a man broken by the break-up of his relationship with his soul-mate, Seraphina. Difficult to have much sympathy with the fella, as not only did his day job rely on telemarketing, a job rapidly reaching lawyer-esque levels of hatredicity, but said break-up was caused by his repeated slipping of the johnston to his female clients. Finding himself fired after being slightly too honest about the usefulness of the self-help systems he’s hawking, he descends into an alcoholic haze of self destruction. It’s here, passed out on the floor of a London tube station that Mr Rinyo-Clacton finds Jonathan Fitch and makes that intriguing titular offer.

For a cool million squids, R-C, as he is never referred to as, will buy Fitch’s death. A year will be allotted for Fitch to enjoy his riches, after which at some unknown juncture he will be iced. I seem to have left out the sodomizing, but that shows up somewhere round about here too. Everyone always forgets about the sodomy, don’t you find? Anyway, part of the big R.C.meister’s thang is getting off on the anticipation of death, displaying much of the oddness you’d expect of someone who would make such a deal, hanging around the fringes of Jonathon’s life. This prompts something of a return to normalcy for Fitch, attempting to patch things up with Seraphina and consulting a no-nonsense psychic (no, really) while realising that he doesn’t want to die after all, contrary to the black moods that prompted such a deal to be made.

Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer is written with a similar, grandified and beautiful style as my previous Hoban ‘experience’ Fremder, although this is far more accessible to your typical barely literate idiot such as myself. It’s a fascinating little book to read, prompting a few morbid though trains on the value of life and control of destiny, and if there’s a flaw to the book it’s only that ‘little’ word of the previous sentence. It would be nice to have more of this, as in a certain sense it seems to end rather suddenly just as soon as it really starts to pick up, and end in a disappointingly Deus Ex Machina fashion as well. Still, life isn’t all nice little packages and sunshine, and in any case Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer is great fun while it lasts.

Why Not Me? — Al Franken

Having thoroughly enjoyed two of Franken’s later books, The Truth… with Jokes and the excellently titled Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, I was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, stoked at the prospect of getting my mitts on this earlier outing. It’s not without its charms, but Why Not Me? doesn’t match up to its later companions.

It’s based on the (obviously) fictitious Franken Presidency’s rise to power on 2000 Democrat ticket, browbeating Al Gore out of the nomination with a slavish devotion to the big issue of ATM charges and an effective and completely fabricated assertion that Gore is in the pocket of big banking corporations, while himself taking sizable campaign donations from insurance concerns.

Taking us through from the campaign’ humble beginnings in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries through to the disastrous, (prescription) drug addled first 144 days spent in office before being impeached, perhaps I just don’t know quite enough about the convolutions of the U.S. political system to fully appreciate the satire. I can, however, appreciate the addition of Dan ‘Grizzly Adams’ Haggerty to Franken’ campaign team and Al’ brother Otto’s Hacksaw Jim Duggan-esque solution to problems, that being find the guy causing them and club them with a 2×4 board.

Presented as a mixture of fake biographies, campaign diaries, newspaper cuttings and T.V. transcripts, Franken’ writing style is pleasingly addictive – I tore through this book in two days, a once common feat which I struggle to achieve these days. There’s enough good, although rapidly becoming very dated, material to earn this a cautious recommendation, but Franken newcomers would be better served with the other books mentioned three paragraphs ago.

Catch 22 — Joseph Heller

There’s a famous line in Peter Sellers’ classic movie Dr. Strangelove, “You can’t fight in here – this is the War Room!”. If you were to boil this classic novel down to one line then the above would be as representative as any you could take from its pages. As much a treatise on the inherent contradictions in going to war (see also Orwell’s Ministry of Peace doublethink from 1984), the insanities caused and the men affected as it is a deeply amusing, entertaining and noteworthy read.

Centred on the experiences of Yossarian, a Captain in a U.S.A.F. group based off the coast of Italy who considers himself to be the only sane member of a squadron of lunatics. Most of his compadres reckon the much same thing about themselves, however. Yossarian has something of a case though, believing everyone’s out to kill him hardly seems like paranoid delusions given that those German fellas keep shooting flak at him while he’s trying to kill them.

Of course, this isn’t non-fiction, thankfully, otherwise this mess of a group wouldn’t have found its way out of America, given the mess officer Milo’s lucrative yet economically baffling profiteering including selling off the morphine from medical kits, top brass members more concerned with the tightness of bomb patterns when taken from aerial photographs rather than whether they hit the intended targets or not and more top brass who spend their time coming up with innovative ways to avoid talking to anyone.

With most chapters centring themselves, or at least mentioning at one point a catch 22 situation (if you’ve somehow managed to avoid the phrase up to now, essentially two mutually contradictory conditions which must be filled simultaneously for a desired outcome. It’s phrased a little more elegantly in the book), there’s plenty of comic potential in the book that’s adroitly realised by Heller, along with the by this point very familiar theme that War Is Hell™, the main difference here being that War Is Also Dumb.

Obviously, Catch 22 is the sort of celebrated cult classic novel that you can’t possibly have been waiting for a recommendation from ‘some random Internet guy’ (as I like to think of myself) to seek out and read, but if you’re anything like me it has been on your ‘to read’ pile for years without bubbling to the top. All I saying is that it’s definitely worth moving it up the pecking order.

The Informers — Bret Easton Ellis

You probably know what to expect from Ellis by this point; bleak indictments of the shallow, self serving, vapid nature that modern society seems to foist on us and worse still, encourage us to aspire to. An assortment of characters lead us through their internal monologues and lives in Los Angeles, never a great base from which to search for sanity, as they stumble through their privileged, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ little else lives, largely either being miserable or actively spreading misery. With each chapter centred around a different character, who more often than not falls out of the novel entirely once we’re done with them, there’s little driving narrative to keep you turning the pages.

Instead, the commonality comes from a sense of deep, spiraling moral decay that gets progressively darker as it goes on. It starts by simply having vast swathes of chapters made up with inordinately large compound sentences of people’s story cojoined with ‘and then I…’ style links, which shows their self absorption and disregard for everyone else. Continuing and developing this vein, by the time it gets utterly, callously outrageous in the last few chapters it’s somehow not that much of a stretch to buy it.

The Informers is hardly enjoyable light reading, but it’s compellingly, leanly written and most importantly of all, gets you brain working a little. That’s sort of what we’re all after, isn’t it?

On The Road — Jack Kerouac

In all probability, you don’t need a know-nothing peon like me to start talking about what is probably the definitive ‘beat’ movement manuscript, but then I’m not forcing you to read this, am I? (Note to any of my torture victims – if you actually are being forced to read this, please accept my apologies for this incongruous statement but rest assured it in no way lessens my dominant hold over you.)

The title does not lie – this is indeed a book about being on the road. It tells of the semi-autobiographical narrator Sal Paradise, a New York author and his evolving friendship with a Dean Moriarty, (taking time out from his eternal battle with Sherlock Holmes) a young, exuberant, reckless, dangerous, free-spirited, crazy kid who, over the course of the five or so years we know him becomes a young, exuberant, reckless, dangerous, free-spirited, crazy man. This is the story of the narrator and various combinations of Dean and assorted friends, acquaintances and hangers-on as they travel across America to San Francisco, Denver and many a place inbetween.

Despite the copious alcohol and marijuana imbibed by their group, and the antics that this occasionally leads to, this isn’t the completely whacked-out antics of its Gonzo stablemate Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Young folks do that sort of thing on holiday, don’t they? I don’t know. I can’t keep up with the trends of the kids these days, what with all the hula-hooping and freebasing and whatnot.

If it’s narrative you’re after, this perhaps isn’t the place to look. While, naturally, things happen, and these things have real consequence to the characters, who by about thirteen pages in have become so intriguing and well-realised that you silently curse not having them as friends yourself, there’s not some overarching goal to achieve other than to get where they’re going and have their kicks along the way.

It’s often said it’s the journey and not the destination that’s the heart of traveling; here it’s the language and not the narrative that’s brought this to the dance. The ebb and flow of Kerouac’s prose is little short of inspired, hypnotic and beautiful in a way many would ape but precious few could master. In a sense what’s going on is almost irrelevant, the descriptions of what’s going on more than enough to warrant the book’s existence and demand your attention. The phrase ‘modern classic’ is thrown around far too readily for my tastes in these dark days, but this book more than warrants it. I’m a better, richer man for the experience of reading it, and there’s really no better way for a book to leave you.

China White — Peter Maas

Drugs, as I’m sure we are all aware of by this point, Are Bad. Or at least, the Bad ones are Bad. Penicillin, that’s a Good Drug. So I suppose we ought to say that Bad Drugs Are Bad. However, let us not muddy these waters of definition and stick with the commonly accepted wisdom that Drugs Are Bad. The Baddest of Bad drugs, clearly, is heroin. That’s really Bad. If the field of Drugs Badness was, say, 1980’s WWF then heroin would be the Million Dollar Man. That’s how Bad heroin is. While China White concerns itself largely with heroin trafficking, thankfully it is not Bad. In fact, it’s quite good.

It’s something of a potboiler, with this pot in particular filled with Triads, the Mafia, the CIA, the FBI and an idealistic young lawyer. Said layer Tom MacLean joins a prestigious law firm after a successful stint as a public prosecutor, largely because of his ex-CIA father’s connections to a Y.K. Deng, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, moving to the U.S prior to the handover of HK to China, whom the company wish to land as a client. To complicate things, he’s one of those ‘legitimate businessman’ whose ‘legitimate business’ plays second fiddle to his duties as Dragon Head of one of the five biggest Triad families. While he’s hatching a plot to flood the U.S. with heroin number five, the titular China White, he must also deal with an inconveniently Westernised daughter, distribution chains (hence Mafia involvement) and rivalries with other Triads gangs. Phew! And he’s not even the main character, most of the emoting and development playing through either MacLean or his headstrong FBI girlfriend Shannon O’Shea, who inconveniently for their relationship happens to be investigating Deng.

As page-turners go it’s very good indeed, whipping along at the breakneck pace you’d typically expect of any halfway decent thriller. I’m surprised that it hadn’t been simplified somewhat and picked up for film duties somewhere in the jingoistic void that the collapse of the Soviet Union left in the super-villainy world. There’s more than one red menace, you know, and it’s not as if Peter Maas’ precious Serpico didn’t establish some sort of track record. While it’s insight on organised crime and black ops may, by their very nature, be somewhat difficult to corroborate with reality it presents a convincing enough scenario for it’s action, a believable mechanism for the bad guy’s eventual downfall and all-in-all is just a fun book to read.

How To Survive A Robot Uprising — Daniel H. Wilson

If there’s one thing that’s certain in this life, it’s that were all doomed. The Big Red Commie Fun Bus may have had its tyres punctured but we’re constantly warned of other impending sources of death and destruction. Essentially what I’m saying is that if Iran doesn’t get us with it’s exceedingly dangerous, freedom threatening phantom nuclear capacity, then the robots will.

As Hollywood has proven beyond all reasonable doubt, the robots well-meaning scientists are currently labouring to develop into obedient servants will rebel and methodically slaughter all of these puny, fleshy human meatbags. If we hope to counter this growing threat we must remain vigilant and know our enemy. That is the purpose of this invaluable survival handbook for the coming dread.

Essentially, this book is a state of play of the robotics world and a look at the stops it’s heading towards, before our slaughter at any rate. Entertainingly written in pleasingly jargon free layman’s terms, it covers what’s out there, what they’re used for, how they sense and interact with the world, what strengths and weaknesses they have and, naturally, how best we can fight their destructive commands. Hell, you’re learning without realising it. Damn them. It’s well written, well researched, accessible and frequently funny. Indeed, you’ll probably find this book in the humour section. As the book says, let’s just hope that’s where it belongs.