Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I just finished The City & The City by China Mieville.

(Spoiler alert)

Mieville's latest novel is, at heart, a hardboiled detective/police procedural style mystery. The setting is what sets it apart, at puts it with one foot in the SF field. The protagonist works in a strange city in the Balkans that has become mentally bifurcated. Some people live in Beszel and some live in Ul Qoma, though they are physically co-located. Both sets of citizens are trained from birth to ignore the other city and its populace unless they cross between them through a border crossing. Inadvertent, and intentional, illegal crossings are investigated by a feared and mysterious group known as Breach. When a foreign student is killed in one city and dumped in the other, the resulting investigation threatens to undermine the whole setup.

The weird setup gives it the feel of a SF novel, without actually involving any fantasy or SF elements. And overall, the mystery elements work. There are the standard sinister businessmen, threatening thugs and people who want to shut down the investigation, but they all feel fresh enough in the telling to work. The climax of the novel is a little of a let down, but this kind of mystery is more about the process then it is about the solution. The most similar mysteries are probably Martin Cruz Smith's Renko novels.

Overall it's nice to read a Mieville novel that is not set in the same world as most of his fantasy novels. This one is not as disturbing to read as some of his others, more like a middle ground between the feel of Perdido Street Station and his YA novel Un Lun Dun.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I just finished The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

The Age of Wonder covers what Holmes calls the second scientific revolution in Britain. Specifically he covers the careers of Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Humphrey Davies as well as the craze for ballooning and the early careers of Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and John Herschel.

One of the main points of the book seems to be to put this new crop of scientists (a term that was only created towards the end of this period) in context and show how art and science were more closely aligned. Most of the scientists above wrote poetry of one form or another and were friends with some of the great Romantic poets like Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge, who also wrote poetry that used scientific themes and inspiration.

The topic is an interesting one, but the books main strength is the writing. The author has a strong, clear style that brings out the various personalities and keeps the narrative interesting and informative without getting bogged down in details.