Review of Gaiman’s Norse Mythology


Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman

London: Bloomsbury, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4088-8680-9

XIX + 279 pp

The impact of Norse mythology on western culture and, particularly, British culture is enormous but often underestimated. Four of the seven days of the week are named after Norse gods, two named after pagan gods and the remaining one is named after a Roman god (the Romans demonstrate their influence through the names of many of the twelve months of the year). Most people have at least heard of Odin and Thor and might recognise the lightning bolt and the hammer, although knowledge is more likely to come from the Avengers these days. Yet the real nature of the original figures has been obscured by the imposition of monotheism and centuries’ of propaganda trivializing their lives and personalities. The great advantage of having a polytheistic view of the universe is that it can be acknowledged that some gods are better than others and that none is perfect. There is no need to pretend that the supernatural big brother is all-perfect and all-knowing and all the palaver about trying to explain how a good god permits evil to persistently to prevail, often unchallenged, can be forgotten. Instead, we can reflect in a more mature way on the nature of reality, the nature of our obligations to others and to society and, indeed, the answers to the great questions of life, the universe and everything.

Any retelling of these tales, to refresh and reinvigorate our interest, would be welcome. This one, by Neil Gaiman, is already apparently the biggest selling title of 2017 and the sales figures will probably only increase when his best-known book American Gods begins to be screened in television form later this year (as I heard on the Guardian Books podcast the other day). Despite Gaiman’s fame and renown, I had not read any of his books before (on the basis that I cannot read everything) but this seemed to be a good place to start and so I picked up a copy at San Min in Taipei the other week. I am glad that I did because this is a very readable and enjoyable collection of tales and one which covers both most well-known episodes and some lesser known ones as well. We have the opportunity to meet of course Odin and Thor but also Tye, Heimdall, Hel, the Fenris Wolf, the world-circling serpent and the unavoidable and inscrutable Loki. Thor is a bit of a buffoon but every creature is afraid of his hammer and without him Asgard would certainly be conquered. Odin is slightly enigmatic and has made a sacrifice of himself to himself, hanging from the world-tree Yggdrasil and giving up an eye to gain wisdom. His two ravens are constantly whispering the events of the world into his ears, as if he were connected with a precursor to the internet or at least to Twitter. He appears to be more creative than destructive but a little more about him would have been welcome. As for Loki, he is the principal mover behind many of the events, for good and ill and, even when he is not, he is often called upon to rescue the situation. He is not presented as evil or mischievous so much as he is constantly active. He has children who turn into monsters but that does not appear to be his fault as a parent. It is tempting to play the game of which god represents which part of the human psyche and this is one of the strengths of the book in that it is possible to consider the personalities of mythic creatures developed in the pre-Freudian era. That he is able to recreate these myths in a language different from the ones in which they were created is probably an advantage in this respect as he is freed from the need to use well-established adjectives and descriptive titles.

There remain many mysteries in this world of myths: why are there so many different realms, for example and why are the giants so much more powerful than the gods? What are the elves and the dwarfs (or dark elves)? What is the source of the magic and the magic artifacts that give the gods dominion over the world? The events that take place in a previous iteration of the universe and it is the death of the gods at Ragnarok that ushers in the current universe when mankind is born from Yggdrasil to claim mastery of creation. We do not live in the same world as the gods, therefore, who presumably cannot be judged according to our concepts of ethics and morality, unlike the gods of Greece who continually meddle with the lives of ordinary people, as well as princes and generals.

There is a slightly cartoonish element to this book in that dirty, sweaty and visceral descriptions are absent. Giants die often in multitudes but in silence and more or less off-screen. Gods and goddesses occasionally make love but have no body parts. It is a book that would not scare the horses. However, it is a very enjoyable book and one which is likely to inspire many people to take a more sophisticated approach to the myths that have done so much to influence the way we see or at least describe the world.



Review of Tetsuya Honda’s The Silent Dead


The Silent Dead

Tetsuya Honda

London: Titan Books, 2016

ISBN: 9781785651694

431 pp

Translated by Giles Murray

It is Tokyo in the middle of the first decade of the present century and we are in the presence of the police as they try to solve murders and other horrible crimes. In particular, we are following a young woman, Reiko Himekawa, who has reached the rank of lieutenant at the tender age of 30 and so has her own squad to command. The back cover blurb reveals the fact that there is a serial killer loose on the streets, although this does not emerge in the text until at least half way through. Still, one death never seems to be enough in books like this.

The timing of the action means that the characters have mobile phones but cannot send texts or photos to each other and so the coppers still have to put in the legwork even at the rank of lieutenant. Curiously, there do not appear to be any police cars available and so Reiko and her squad travel around by train and even taxi. Do they have to pay for this and then be recompensed later? That must be a nightmare for administration. Well, given that so many police officers here seem to use their own money in a variety of inventive ways, perhaps it is just par for the course to get the money back through the use of initiative.

This is a Japan that is on the edge of being brutal, sexist and corrupt, on a kind of casual basis. The characters also have to deal with the complications of living in a bourgeois society in which social relations can be very intense, complicated and stifling in the need for outward conformity. This is one of the reasons I enjoy Japanese crime fiction, especially when it combines these personal issues with the mundanity of everyday living, shopping, eating and travelling. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this in the book and that has the effect of reducing the credibility of the characters and the sense of really being part of the action. To be honest, in many ways this is a terrible book: the characters are one-dimensional and lack any kind of intellectual hinterland; the relationships are cliché-ridden and predictable; the plot itself does not really seem to make much sense. However, the action is brisk and the narrative zips along, which is helped by the large amounts of white space on every page. The translation is OK but a little too American for my taste – of course, there is a strong American influence on Japanese culture and, besides, no one really cares what I think.

My impression whenever visiting Japan is that the exaggerated manners people use in every social interaction and the care which people take in avoiding each other on the street are symptoms of the inner rage each feels about everyone else and that resembles British society. Both countries seem to be the source of a great deal of crime fiction and that is the dark side of the external politeness. Crime fiction is found everywhere, of course, although I imagine that American crime is often the result of gun culture and the everyday failures of capitalism, French crime considers the fundamental impossibility of tolerating the other and Chinese crime relates to the contradictions between authoritarianism and human aspirations. No doubt a more penetrating evaluation of this issue would provide more grounded and profound insights.

Despite its flaws, The Silent Dead overall is a pleasant romp and the cover claims that more than one million copies have been sold, which is quite an achievement. People who like this kind of thing will like this book.

Review of Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds


Poseidon’s Wake

Alastair Reynolds

This is the third and apparently final part of the trilogy written by the leading British million pound-advance sci fi author and fan of the mighty Fall Alastair Reynolds, which featured the earlier instalments Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Representatives of humanity – people, advanced elephants (known as Tantors) and artificial intelligences – form a new kind of post-religious trinity and have travelled through the stars using adopted and adapted alien technology. Great mysteries of the universe are on the verge of being unveiled and centuries’ long feuds may at last be settled. This must all be to the good.

In the earlier books, humanity – whose primary languages are now Swahili and Chinese – began to take its baby steps away from earth and away from its own nature. People became able for the first time to diverge from the limitations of their physicality and explore new forms of life as, for example, merpeople or massive denizens of the deep. The ability of people both to become a massive denizen of the deep and to travel in alien spaceships is, of course, limited for practical reasons but the prudent traveller is able to combine the two activities with some care. Although this is not a post-scarcity society, most of the protagonists seem to have enough money to do more or less what they want. Some characters are members of a well-established corporate dynasty, which explains their freedom, while others are able to become commanders of their fate through skill in arts, diplomacy, ability to attract research grants and so forth. Meanwhile, technology has started to develop to the extent that it has become less rather than more obtrusive and, so, does not really need to be discussed or described or justified. Be that as it may, the scene is set for interactions between the characters and the changing nature of their relationships that takes centre stage. It is a confident author of science fiction who disregards all the toys and paraphernalia of the genre to rely instead on characterization and dialogue. Reynolds is good enough to be able to achieve this. Characters are nicely paired and contrasted with others, while the development in the action as it switches locations may be considered to embody dialectical relationships.

The action progresses in a way that is both optimistic and humanistic. People make mistakes, certainly but one of the virtues of having a greatly extended life expectancy is that more opportunities for redemption will come around eventually. Nevertheless, people must still be ready to take those opportunities. Even so, it is pleasing that the plots move toward progress for the individuals involved and for humanity as a whole – some significant problems are, after all, circumvented.

It would probably be possible to pick up this final part of the trilogy and make sufficient sense of the action but probably only just. A better idea would be to start with the first part and then let the action continue from there. I myself will be looking forward to his next book.

Review of Esslemont’s Assail


I have been reading books about the Malazan empire for more than a decade now and was a little surprised when, half way through reading this one, noticed on the cover that it was to be the last. There were ten or a dozen novels in the original series by Steven Erikson, at least one prequel and a couple of books of short stories (which are adjacent to rather than part of the same universe) and several by Erikson’s partner Esslemont. Each of these books has been, like most fantasy novels seem to be these days, fairly weighty works of many hundreds of pages. So I have been reading this series for more hours than I care to imagine.

Read the full review here.

Review of Patent Ready by Gregory Kavounas


As advanced economies move increasingly towards the knowledge-based economy as a means of further economic growth, their need to protect the intellectual property (IP) that they are able to produce increases in importance. In capitalist societies, the willingness of people and firms to invest their resources in innovation depends to a considerable extent upon their ability to retain the benefits of that innovation for their personal benefit.

Read the full review here.

Review of Stapledon’s Starmaker

This is a book – it seems inaccurate to call it a novel – that receives no justice from a brief description or even a review of limited scope. In basic terms, the plot is quite straightforward: a man is sitting on a hillside gazing at the night sky when he is suddenly whisked up and sent on a mystical, time- and space-spanning journey across the history of the universe. Then, having seen the marvels of the universe, he returns to his family hearthside, wiser and better able to cope with mundane vicissitudes.

Read the full review here.