Month: May 2016

A Review of Planetfall

I first became aware of Emma Newman at the Olympus convention a few years back; I was attending a panel she was on and she seemed to be talking more sense than all the rest up there with her put together; made me sit up and take notice and I’ve ‘followed’ her since.

A highlight so far was last year’s Octocon, where I got to sit in on a live Tea and Jeopardy and where she was interviewed and talked a lot about her upcoming Planetfall.  Now there’s a thing about me and new authors – considering starting on someone new, I’m like a hobo deciding where to invest his last nickel.  I’m picky, I know what I like and it takes a lot of time, a lot of critical mass for me to take the plunge.  Anyhow, Planetfall was that plunge moment for me.

I often read books concurrently and at the time Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise was the bedtime doorwedge and slim, compact Planetfall became the travelling volume.  Both have a major character called Mack – which caused me no end of confusion. Don’t think I’ve ever had that happen to me before.

Anyhow, to Planetfall.  It’s an effortless read, beautifully written.  Some writers’ prose you just fly through (I always finish Christopher Priest’s books in two or three days) and this was right there with them.

The basic premise of the book is 2001 with plants instead of monoliths, leading to an expedition to colonise another world.  A succession of bad things happen in the early days of the colony; some colonists are lost and abandoned, presumed dead during the initial planetfall, then the leader of the expedition vanishes.  Cover ups for both of these events occur and then the colony gets on with the business of existing, next door to a strange organic ‘city.’

It’s a slow burner of a book that kicks into overdrive for the last quarter as the colony is simultaneously visited with a savage retribution and narrator Ren gets her transcendent David Bowman moment.  Ren is a brilliantly drawn character – part of the colony management and their 3D printing guru – she has an OCD that requires her to hoard stuff; the ultimate sin in a place where everything is 3D printed and waste needs to be assiduously recycled to feed the printers.  Emma Newman’s greatest coup in the book is to find the perfect McGuffin to fit; just what is lurking beneath the tons of hoarded junk that stuffs Ren’s home to the gills?

Planetfall has flaws, chief of which is that the other characters never really get to come out of Ren’s shadow.  One never really comprehends, for example, how Suh-mi was so charismatic as to attract people to follow her and to back and man the expedition in the first place.  Then the chief antagonist in the book, the returned wanderer Sung-soo, apart from being mind-bogglingly, relentlessly irritating, is such a clear existential threat to the colony that you really wonder why the previously ruthless Mack hasn’t printed a gun and shot him dead by chapter 20.  Is Mack trying to atone for past deeds or has he just gone soft; it’s never really clear.

The size of the colony is never really clear either; the events at the end of the book made it seem much larger than it had been, to me in my head up until that point.  It’s rather sketchily drawn too – I wondered about the apparent absence of young children to the point where I thought it might have plot importance; similarly there appears to be no functioning police force in a place that definitely needed one.

Planetfall is very much worth reading despite these flaws.  Ren is one of the great modern characters of SF and probably counts as one of the best OCD studies in all fiction, done with honesty and not a little humour.  The exploration of the scope and scale of 3D printing in this sort of expedition is bang up to date and right on the button.  The last quarter of the book, with the themes of retribution and transcendence really works too.


Jimgrim – the Palestine Years

Talbot Mundy (1879 – 1940) has long been one of my favourite writers and I suppose at this stage I must have read well over half his works.  What I’ve just finished, several years after starting, is the first part of his Jimgrim cycle, set in post-WWI Palestine and comprising the following stories:-

  • The Adventure at El-Kerak
  • Under the Dome of the Rock
  • The ‘Iblis’ at Ludd
  • The Seventeen Thieves of El-Kalil
  • The Lion of Petra
  • The Woman Ayisha
  • The Lost Trooper
  • The King in Check

The first two were later revised and collected as Jimgrim and Allah’s Peace, the second two were collected as Jimgrim and the Devil at Ludd, while the last is also known by the title The Affair in Araby.  All were serialised in the pulps in 1921-22 and reprinted in book form in the early 1930’s.

All told, they form a single narrative of some 1200 pages, in which Jimgrim and his crew (American adventurer Jeff Ramsden (the story’s narrator), Sikh policeman Narayan Singh and later ANZAC trooper Jeremy Ross) foil various plots by third parties (Zionists, the French etc.) to destabilise the region by pitting Arab against Jew or Arab contra Arab, with the backdrop of the slow reveal of Jimgrim’s overarching plan of trying to lay the groundwork for Feisul to become the king of a single Arab state encompassing Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

The story concludes with Jimgrim and his crew captured following the French assault (mustard gas and all) on Feisul in Damascus. They get packed off on boat out of Beirut and fetch up in Egypt where, while recuperating, they are made a proposition by multi-millionaire Meldrum Strange, as a result of which they quit the armed forces and become a sort of 1920’s A-Team.

The last part occurs at the beginning of the next volume, Jimgrim and a Secret Society, the first book of the second half of the cycle, that sees the gang battle ever more fantastical foes all across Egypt, India, Tibet and last but not least, in supervillain Dorje’s secret hideout in the Gobi Desert.

But that’s a story for another day.  Let’s return to Palestine and ask, just who is Jimgrim?  James Schuyler Grim is an American secret-service agent in the employ of the British armed forces in Palestine as a fixer.  Just how this arrangement came about is unclear but Mundy claims to have met the real ‘Jimgrim,’ on whom he based the character during his own time in Palestine, editing the English language Jerusalem News, as president of the Anglo-American Society of America.  Some modern blurb writers have characterised Jimgrim as a mix of Lawrence of Arabia, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and The Shadow.

Jimgrim is unquestionably one of the principal pulp-heroes of the 1920’s and it seems extraordinary that the character has never been the subject of any movies or TV series. Of course the Palestine setting of the early works may be deemed a little sensitive, especially given Mundy’s pro-Arab position but the historical background in the books seems impressively accurate, especially in setting out the duplicity towards Feisul on the part of the British and the French, following his support versus the Turks in WWI.

Mundy actually met Feisul during his time in Palestine and secured his permission to use him as a character in The King in Check.  The Jimgrim Palestine stories were widely read when first published and undoubtedly served to educate the reading public on the situation there.  More than that, there is still much for a modern reader to gain from them, in terms of understanding the root causes of what we still see unfolding in the Middle East today.