Monday, 19 April 2010

Solomon Kane—A Creation of Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard, in his short, flawed, but prolific life, brought into existence a variety of manly and heroic characters, the most famous being Conan—the Cimmerian warrior and king—who was immortalised (if that is the correct word) on the silver screen by Arnold Swazenneger. However, it is not about the famous Conan I shall write about today, rather I shall turn my pen (or at least keyboard) to discuss one of Howard’s lesser known creations, that of Solomon Kane, an Englishman, who travelled the world armed with rapier, flintlock, and dagger, but most of all—his unswerving Puritan faith.

In a connected series of short stories Howard describes Kane to us. Kane’s demeanour is stoic, his resolution total, and he is devoted to fighting evil, in all its forms. From zombies, to troubled ghosts, in England and Europe, deep in the dark jungles of Africa, and in the frozen north of Europe, he battles bad people, monsters and things, supernatural and otherwise, in his eternal quest to subdue evil.

There is not a great deal of personal introspection to be found here (or in any of Howard’s work). Kane never doubts or finds his goals conflicted, rather to him the world is black and white: good v. evil. He sees injustice and, un-diverted by externals, he seeks out and kills the perpetuators. End of story (literally). Even Howard describes Kane as a ‘fanatic’.

The stories are entertaining and engaging, though lacking what some would call depth, however, this does not hinder the enjoyment. Regrettably, the stories are few in number—seven short tales, and a number of fragments. Speaking of such, there are subsequent stories (and comics) of Kane, written by later authors, however, I have not turned my attention to these. I prefer to read the original, not later adaptations.

There is a 2009 movie, which lead me to Kane. It is only loosely based on the Howard character, but the movie is entertaining nevertheless.

Influence? When I read my first Kane story I was immediately reminded of the protagonist of the “The Jerusalem Man”, Jon Shannon, written by the fantasy author David Gemmell. As with Kane, John Shannon is a cold killer, who wanders the world fighting evil without fear or favour. Both are motivated by a strident christian faith. Did David Gemell know of Howard and Kane? I would suspect so.

Solomon Kane—worth a read.

The 'Solomon Kane' Stories:
  • Red Shadows (1928) The first Kane story. It establishes the character and leads into on of the longer Kane stories.
  • Skulls in the Stars (1929)
  • Rattle of Bones (1929)
  • The Moon of Skulls (1930)
  • The Hills of the Dead (1930)
  • The Footfalls Within (1931)
  • Wings in the Night (1932)

These stories can be found, free of charge, here:

Sunday, 11 April 2010

“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi: A Review.

“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi: A Review.
(This novel is a finalist for the Hugo Award 2010)

“The Windup Girl” is a science fiction novel set in an unspecified future Thailand and Bangkok, perhaps in the late 21st century, when environmental problems have devastated the world, and countries and people fight a bare holding action for survival against virulent and constantly mutating diseases.

The eponymous title comes from the derogatory nickname given to artificial persons of this era, who, in conservative Thailand, are regarded as soulless abominations. To give some of the story away, this particular windup girl kills the regent of Thailand, partly in self defence, precipitating a civil conflict in Bangkok, which results in the flooding of the city.

In short, I was not impressed with this novel. I am someone who enjoys a good technical exposition. I like to know what is happening, and why. Perhaps not to the level of Poul Anderson, who devoted pages to describing the biochemistry of his worlds, or to that of Greg Egan, who devotes pages to abstract discourses of advanced physics, but still, I like to know. None of the background was explained or even revealed in the novel. The details of the environmental collapse are entirely missing, as are the political and technological responses. This, to me would have made the story richer and more credible.

Also, the tech used in Thailand to survive is questionable. In short, power is largely generated by muscle action, be it human or megodont (mutated elephants), and this power is stored in high tech springs, and then released when needed. Ummmm. Would it not simply be more efficient to use the calories more directly, without human (or megodont) intermediaries?

The story itself revolves around a farang, who is a secret agent for an agribusiness, which wishes to ‘secure’ the secret seed bank of Thailand, and to recover a genius level generipper, who is hiding out in the Kingdom. He masks his presence by running a business in Thailand. The background to all of this is a squabble between two rival political factions in the city. The result of this squabble is the destruction of Bangkok, as one of the commanders of the losing side decides to destroy the city by destroying the pumps that hold back the surrounding waters.

More, why did I not enjoy? The story concentrates more on the human side of things, emotions and feeling and so forth and so on. Not entirely my thing. Yet, in comparison, a similar novel, though set in the us of a is “Hot Sky at Midnight” by Robert Silverberg. This novel also wallows in the human emotional side of the destruction of the Earth’s environment, however, I would rate Silverberg’s novel far higher than the “Windup Girl”. Silverberg supplies more background, and more tech than Bacigalupi, and better and more human emotional/interaction detail.

To be fair (and I am a fair person), this is Bacigalupi‘s first published novel, and his quality of writing is high. He describes his world well, his characters shine though. The steamy complexity of Bangkok, with its deep sea of people and events, is revealed in engaging detail. But, the story is not for me. It dragged at times, and I do not believe it is one of those reads I will be reading again.

Red Shirts: The Battle turns Violent

It is Sunday the 11th of April as I write this. Yesterday, in the city of Bangkok, approximately 18 people were killed and hundreds injured in street fighting (the numbers vary). The details as to who did what, when and why, are far from fixed, but it is clear that a new stage has been reached between the conservative, Bangkok supported government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and the Red Shirts of provincial Thailand.

Yesterday the two sides pushed each other back and forth in the city of Bangkok, and the conflict escalated to a new level. Bullets flew and people fell. The main tourist entertainment areas of Sukhumvit (the wealthier centre of the city)—filled with tourist hotels, malls, and restaurants—were closed for business. Here, the skytrain stations were closed, and the streets filled with soldiers and protestors. Before the 11th I was willing to tell potential visitors that it was still ok to visit Krung Thep—The City of Divine Beings (Bangkok, City of Angels), but now I would not.

For weeks the main tourist destinations of the city, the Grand Palace area, and the areas around were filled with Red Shirts, as this was their main rallying point. Even so, it was still safe and possible to visit the tourist sites (in fact, the Reds themselves were a tourist site), however, now most of these sites are blocked off by police, and the safety factor has declined.

So far Sunday the 12th has been quiet. Both sides have pulled back somewhat, however, no ground has been given. The Reds have shown great resolve, and political skill. The government less so. I now believe that the end of this process will be a back down by the current government, which is steadily losing credibility, and new elections. Will this bring peace and prosperity to Thailand? I do not know, but I suspect not.