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Tag: fiction

New Year’s reading: CRISPR

Wednesday, 3 January, 2018 0 Comments

We’re devoting time this week to the books that were the presents of Christmas past. On Monday, it was The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from Noel Donnelly, yesterday it was Five Escape Brexit Island, put in the Rainy Day Xmas stocking by Ian McMaster, and today it’s Change Agent by Daniel Suarez, a gift to this blogger from himself.

At the end of March last year, The Hollywood Reporter posted an “Exclusive” story titled “Netflix Options Upcoming Sci-Fi Novel ‘Change Agent’.” So, before the publisher had stocked up on ink to print the novel, its author was laughing all the way to bank. Nice one! What’s all the excitement about, then? Well, Change Agent is thriller about genetic engineering that combines CRISPR with non-stop action in Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar. At the centre of the story is Kenneth Durand, an Interpol agent who’s given the face and body of a scary villain, thanks to some deft in vivo gene editing that threatens to eliminate the very notion of individual identity. In telling the yarn, Suarez creates a near-future world of cryptocurrencies, drones, surveillance, AR glasses, trade and terror. Snippet:

Early evening and Durand sat in the conditioned air of a private autonomous comcar as it merged into the close coordination of rush hour. His daughter’s wrapped birthday gift sat on the seat beside him. He leaned back and felt the stress of the day leave him.

In the distance he could see the glowing logos of synbio firms on the Singapore skyline. Licensed AR video ads played across the surfaces of several skyscrapers — although they were really only being beamed into Durand’s retinas by his own LFP glasses. The contract for his LFP glasses required exposure to specific layers of public advertising. At least he’d opted out of the low-end ads, but opting out of all AR advertising was prohibitively expensive.

Just the same, Durand frowned at the shoddy data management employed by the advertisers. He was clearly not in the target demographic for an ad gliding across the neighboring buildings, alive with images of Jedis, Starfleet officers, and steampunk characters: “Singapore’s premier Star Wars, Star Trek, and steampunk cosliving communities…”

Cossetted young professionals at the big synbio firms were a more likely demo for their product — single people with a couple million to blow on living in a theme park.

But by then the ad had shifted to CRISPR Critters. Gigantic, adorable neotenic cats cavorted from building to building, pursuing a virtual ball of yarn.

Durand decided to close his eyes.

He clicked off and followed other commuters down a narrow lane between old brick buildings. This MRT crowd skewed young — twenties and early thirties. Lots of expats. Well dressed and all talking to people who weren’t there. Snatches of conversation floated past him in Hokkien, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, English, Russian, Swahili, German, Korean — and more he didn’t recognize. They’d no doubt come to Singapore to make their killing. To work threads in a blockchain corporation or license their own cellular machinery. XNA programmers. Genetic engineers. Entrepreneurs. And they all had to have impressive CVs to get a work visa in the city.

Change Agent

Book of the Year: Conclave

Wednesday, 21 December, 2016 0 Comments

With Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, Robert Harris explained ancient Rome to an intrigued modern world. Now, he does it the same for the Vatican with Conclave.

As its title suggests, the novel is about a papal conclave. This one takes place sometime in a near future where the pope has died and the cardinals are gathering to elect his successor. All the classic elements of the English mystery novel format are here: a locked room, intrigue, rivalries, enmities, sex (!) and a surprise ending. Robert Harris writes about power, secular and religious, with an insight that places him beyond all his peers, and that’s why Conclave is our Book of the Year.

At the end of the aisle, where the nave gave on to the cupola of the dome, they had to pause beside Bernini’s statue of St. Longinus, close to where the choir was singing, and wait while the last few pairs of cardinals filed up the steps to kiss the central altar and descended again. Only when this elaborate manoeuvre had been completed was Lomeli himself cleared to walk around to the rear of the altar. He bowed towards it. Epifano stepped forward and took away the crozier and gave it to an altar boy. Then he lifted the mitre from Lomeli’s head, folded it, and handed it to a second acolyte. Out of habit, Lomeli touched his skullcap to check it was in place.

Together he and Epifano climbed the seven wide carpeted steps to the altar. Lomeli bowed again and kissed the white cloth. He straightened and rolled back the sleeves of his chasuble as if he were about to wash his hands. He took the silver thurible of burning coals and incense from its bearer and swung it by its chain over the altar—seven times on this side, and then, walking round, a separate censing on each of the other three. The sweet-smelling smoke evoked feelings beyond memory. Out of the corner of his eye he saw dark-suited figures moving his throne into position. He gave back the thurible, bowed again and allowed himself to be conducted round to the front of the altar. An altar boy held up the missal, opened to the correct page; another extended a microphone on a pole.

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. He clasped his hands, closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, and intoned in a wavering plainsong, amplified around the basilica:

“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti . . .”
And from the colossal congregation arose the murmured sung response:
He raised his hands in benediction and chanted again, extending the three syllables into half a dozen:
“Pa-a-x vob-i-is.”
And they responded:
“Et cum spiritu tuo.”
He had begun.


Fiction writers outside the pale

Sunday, 24 May, 2015 0 Comments

Quote: “As a writer one doesn’t belong anywhere. Fiction writers, I think, are even more outside the pale, necessarily on the edge of society. Because society and people are our meat, one really doesn’t belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial. And to do that, one needs distance.” William Trevor, who was born on this day in 1928 in Mitchelstown, County Cork, the Republic of Ireland.

William Trevor was born in this house in Mitchelstown, County Cork, the Republic of Ireland on 24 May 1928.

Language: The “pale” William Trevor refers to comes from the Latin palus, a stake driven into the ground and, by extension, a fence made of such stakes. The word “pole” comes from the same source, as do impale, paling and palisade. The Pale in Ireland was the area around and about Dublin which England controlled directly in the 15th century, and the English Pale in France was the territory of Calais, the last Crown possession in that country. The Russian Pale consisted of specified districts within which Jews were required to live between 1791 and 1917.

The romance of social storytelling

Wednesday, 7 May, 2014 0 Comments

“When the Sheikh comes to town Determined to confront the father who abandoned her, Liyah accepts the position of chambermaid at his exclusive Chatsfield…” So begins the poorly-written and badly-edited blurb for Sheikh’s Scandal, one of eight “passionate, glamorous novels” in a fiction series set in The Chatsfield, “London’s most stylish — and scandalous — hotel!”

With its Chatsfield project, Mills & Boon, purveyor of escapist fiction for women since the 1930s, is moving from its traditional storytelling style using books to a social storytelling mode involving more than 800 pieces of digital content in different formats. As the series develops, the storylines will be advanced via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and readers will be able to follow the characters’ real-time social media postings, watch their video blogs, and check their emails.

Clearly, Rupert Murdoch has been watching Game of Thrones and now that his News Corp has acquired Harlequin, the parent of Mills & Boon, a new era of story and character development, in which reader interaction is critical for success, is at hand. For that is the essence of social storytelling — interaction.

A tremor of intent in Crimea

Monday, 24 March, 2014 1 Comment

The writer Anthony Burgess noticed his hand shaking one hungover morning in 1965. “That”, his wife said to him, “is a tremor of intent”. Thereupon, Burgess conceived an eschatological spy novel titled Tremor of Intent, which would offer an alternative to the humourless fiction of John le Carré and the jingoistic fantasy of Ian Fleming. By terming it an eschatological thriller, Burgess was expressing his view of the Cold War as the “ultimate conflict” for which Good and Evil were, he felt, inadequate terms.

Tremor of Intent Synopsis: The ageing, amoral MI6 Agent Denis Hillier, posing as a typewriter technician, journeys to Crimea aboard the cruise ship Polyolbion on a mission to infiltrate a convention of Soviet scientists and return to Britain his school friend Roper, who has defected to the Evil Empire. En route, he encounters the sexually curious sixteen-year-old Clara Walters, the obsequious steward Wriste and the sexually experienced Miss Devi, secretary to the sinister epicure Theodorescu. All of this allows the genius creator of A Clockwork Orange to describe hilariously graphic scenes involving food, drink, sex, politics, philosophy, history, religion, treason and murder. When Hillier is forced to spend three days in the seedy Babi Humayun (Sublime Portal) hotel overlooking the Bosphorus, Burgess hits his musical stride. Snippet:

“Istanbul disturbed him with its seven hills, as though Rome had tried to build herself on another planet. The names of architects and sultans rang in his mind in dull Byzantine gold — Anthemius, Isidorus, Achmet, Bajazet, Solyman the Magnificent. The emperors shrilled from a far past like desolate birds — Theodosius, Justinian, Constantine himself. His head raged with mosques. The city, in cruel damp heat, smelt of wool and hides and skins. Old filth and rusty iron, proud exports, clattered and thumped aboard under Galata’s lighthouse. Ships, gulls, sea-light. Bazaars, beggars, skinny children, charcoal fires, skewered innards smoking, the heavy tobacco reek, fat men in flannel double-breasteds, fed on fat.”

In this age of Putin and Snowden, it is our misfortune that there’s no Anthony Burgess around to novelize the comic aspects of their Cold War II symbiosis.

Short short story

Thursday, 23 May, 2013 0 Comments

“Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.” That’s a short story titled Idea for a Short Documentary Film by the short-story writer Lydia Davis. It appeared in the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which was published in 2009. The American author, who has just won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction, is also an accomplished translator and her English version of Proust’s Swann’s Way was very well received. Indeed, she once said it was Proust’s famously long sentences that inspired her succinct writing style.

Negative Emotions is typical of the Davis approach to (short) story telling.

The Man Booker International Prize is presented every two years to a living author for a body of work published either originally in English or available in translation in English. Previous winners include US novelist Philip Roth in 2011, the late Nigerian poet and novelist Chinua Achebe in 2007 and the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare in 2005.

“A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best”

Tuesday, 24 July, 2012
“A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best”

“The fiction I’m most interested in has lines of reference to the real world. None of my stories really happened, of course. But there’s always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be the starting place. Here’s an example: ‘That’s the last Christmas you’ll ever ruin for us!’ I […]

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