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November 2014

The noir prophet returns
27th November 2014 - 12 Midnight George Hamilton-Jones

 

We all have our favourite authors, many of them first discovered early in our reading lives, writers who opened our eyes to things we'd never conceived of before. For George Hamilton-Jones, from our Charing Cross Road flagship store, a new book from the godfather of cyberpunk and author of Neuromancer, William Gibson, is a particualr cause for celebration.The Peripheral marks a return to the futurism of his earlier books, with its twin stories of a crumbling near-future and another set in London 70 years later.

 

 

The PeripheralOne of the most exciting parts of being a bookseller at Foyles is the chance to be at the centre of things when a book by a favourite author is released. When the book is good, it animates us into talking up its virtues. When such a book proves a winner with our customers, it's very exciting. I'm a long time reader of William Gibson's novels and I enjoy them both on their own terms as elegant works of science fiction, particuarly for the cultural niche that he has carved out since the publication of his first novel 30 years ago.

 

Having declared an interest, I want to outline a few reasons why I've enjoyed William Gibson's works in the past and why I heartily recommend his new one, The Peripheral.

 

William Gibson is just a little like Haruki Murakami in that he is a genre writer who writes in what is clearly his own, composite genre. In doing so, he has captured the interest of readers of contemporary as well as genre fiction. His debut novel, Neuromancer (1984) is a hugely influential cyberpunk science fiction work but clearly written in a 'hard-boiled' style.

 

While this style and a thriller sensibility serve as a vehicle for much of his work, his writings are suffused with highly prescient science fiction conceits and attention-grabbing heroes and heroines. A brief survey includes: a drug addled hacker in the future, a woman with blades sheathed in her fingers, a bicycle courier in a post-Big One San Francisco, an aging ex-CIA operative turned global prankster and a branding consultant with an allergy to corporate brands and logos. There are always strong ideas in addition to the capers.

 

When I heard about a new book from Gibson arriving in time for Christmas, I was excited just like any long time reader of his would be. William Gibson has influenced many more recent authors in science fiction: Lauren Beukes with the visceral and brilliant Moxyland, for example. His ability to twin the 'hard' aspects of science fiction with a depth of characterisation more regularly expected of contemporary novels has given rise to an enthusiastic base of readers keen to see what's next and has demonstrated a way of sophisticated story telling without losing the particular attributes of science fiction.

 

A winner of the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K Dick Science Fiction awards, Gibson has a profound grasp of how technologies change not only our capabilities but also us and our societies. Neuromancer introduced the term 'cyberspace'. While its shape in his Sprawl trilogy - the other two books are Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive - in which he develops the concept is very different from how thing have come to be in the real world, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that he managed to coin what is still the most compelling metaphor for how we collectively experience networked computer technology.


The Penultimate TruthWith this background, it is perhaps surprising that The Peripheral is in many ways a more traditional work. I would go as far to say that it is written in a positively Philip K Dick vein at times. Its concern with divergent time streams is reminiscent of the displacement and feelings of wrongness experienced by The Man in the High Castle's Frank Fink at living in a world where the Nazis won. The games and intrigues of this novel's rich set remind me of the propaganda disseminated by the 'Yance' men of The Penultimate Truth in their bid to keep the Earth's surface for themselves. It's here that I should point out that this novel also has strong crime and spy elements - hinging on a society murder in the far future which threatens the political order of the book's far future.

 

While this is Gibson at his most 'high concept' probably since Neuromancer, The Peripheral retains his signature style and brings to the fore a concern for how our environment shapes us. If his previous novels have either attempted to prefigure the connected technology we use now, or to distil our present as if it is a strange future arrived, this one clearly has elements from both categories. But his focus has clearly shifted to environmental issues and questions of power and economics.

 

This is not to say the novel just takes in how the climate, pollution, economics and history shape us but that that there is a very humane side to this work. It left me with a series of questions, like: can morality be instilled through proactive interventions into the past, and how would it shake our most fundamental assumptions about ourselves to be put in contact with a real hint of how we might turn out in the future. It is this sense of the humane and character driven narrative which I think will make this novel of interest to readers of more mainstream contemporary fiction as well as science fiction.

 

GUEST BLOG: Behind the magic
21st November 2014 - 12 Midnight Rob Ryan

 

As well as adorning his own beautiful books, Rob Ryan's beautiful paper-cut and screen-printed designs have featured on Carol Ann Duffy's The Gift, John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things and the cover for Erasure's album Nightbird; he even designed Foyles' Christmas windows a few years ago.

His new book, The Kingdom Revealed, a follow-up to The Invisible Kingdom, is a stunning illustrated fairytale about a young boy who doesn't want to grow up to be king. here we go behind the scenes with Rob to find out how he and his team convert his visions into a finished book.

You can meet Rob and get your books signed at Foyles, Charing Cross Road on Saturday 29th November: click here for details. There'll also be achance to win an exclusive Rob Ryan studio hamper.

 

 

RR1

 

The starting point for any project is always my sketch books. I jot ideas down as they come to me, sometimes even in the middle of the night. I hate to lose good ideas. The work develops from these scribbles. These scribbles are then progressed into a picture in my studio where I try and capture the feeling I had when I initially thought of it. For The Kingdom Revealed, it's basically hundreds of these notes tied together in a narrative. I really just need a piece of paper, a pencil and a rubber.

 

This book is something I have wanted to do for a while, partially for myself and partially for people who like my work. I have been thinking about the young boy for a few years. There is something about feeling out of synch with your surroundings that resonated strongly with me. I wanted a book with a bit more to it, something that says more than you normally get in a picture book and the idea of telling the story across three parts really appealed to me. In part one, The Invisible Kingdom, we began the story of the boy who became King and part two, The Kingdom Revealed, we pick his story back up. He's a young man now and we follow him growing up and see how his life develops despite his life being mapped out before him. We are all shaped by the environment we are born into, and this story is about the hunger for another life. The desire to see things differently.

 

RR2

 

One of the difficult things about creating a book, as opposed to a composite illustration, is telling the story. I can say a simple thing in one picture but over sixty pages it is hard. There are a lot of things to tie together. I love the challenge of it, bringing all the elements together.


RR3

 

My work is all about outline and shape. I have always worked with paper, in a flat graphic style. In college I studied print making, specialising in screen printing which is all about layering. A solid medium without a lot of detail. There was a point in my work where I was doing a lot of writing and words were the dominant feature in my pictures, it became less about the imagery and I found myself using less colour. Eventually the words came back. Essentially my work is drawing, I like to draw with a pencil and I draw figures with a line. The purpose of working this way allows me to bring in shade and a limited perspective.

 

RR4

 

RR5

 

With words, it is easier to weave my words and images together using this flat laid out style. I try and say simple clear things, focussing on the emotional impact of the picture. We then look at the drawing on the computer to work on the positioning. When working with so many words, far more than a lot of my other work, it's vital we get the layout right without losing that lovely cut edge feel.

 

RR6

 

I love working with my team, we're very close knit. We make a point of always sitting down and having lunch together. We photocopy a crossword and all sit there racing each other to finish it. My team are very important to me. As the business has grown, I've had to get people to help me and these brilliant people mean that I can sit at my desk all day drawing and thinking of things. I can't think of anything else I would rather do!

 

GUEST BLOG: Why does the Ukraine crisis matter to the West?
19th November 2014 - 12 Midnight Andrew Wilson

 

Ukraine CrisisAndrew Wilson is senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and reader in Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, University College London.

In his new book, Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West, he provides a first-hand account of the Kiev Uprising, a trenchant analysis of why it happened and what the likely outcome of Russia's attempts to crush the rebeliion. It's a book that reveals a fundamental misunderstanding among Western nations about Putin's political agenda and worrying implications for the world as a whole.

Here, Andrew outlines the issues we should all be aware of and suggests some further reading for those who want to know more.

 

 

Why should we in the West be concerned about what's going on in Ukraine right now? One answer to the question is that the West has always said a conventional invasion of Ukraine would be an absolute red line. But this is exactly what Russia did in August, when it knew the West was distracted by the ISIS crisis. I don't know which is the more depressing fact here - Russia's cynicism, the West's media-driven attention-deficit-disorder, or its collapsing foreign policy reputation in the rest of the world.

 

A second answer is that the crisis is not, to mock Neville Chamberlain, 'a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing' - though Ukraine in 2014 is further away than Czechoslovakia was in 1938. I gave a speech in Italy this year, which has enough economic problems of its own at the moment. I had two well-prepared lines. One was that Italy only exists because of Crimea: the Piedmontese fought alongside Britain, France and the Ottomans in the Crimean War in 1853-6 and the credit they gained smoothed the path to Italian unification ten years later. Another group of Italians, the Genovese, ruled Crimea for longer than Russia did, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries.

 

Unfortunately, the Italians weren't impressed, so maybe quotidian concerns trump history. But the Ukraine crisis will impact everyday life, just as the ISIS drama will. Russia seems bent on destroying the biggest state in Europe or leaving it utterly dysfunctional. The crisis has already produced maybe four million refugees. Ukraine and Russia are locked together in a downward economic spiral. EU sanctions are hurting Russia, but they are hurting us too, at the moment when the Eurozone economy is flat-lining again. And Ukraine is the literal and metaphorical frontier of Europe. Russia is already past Kiev, inside the gates of the EU, distorting our politics, business and media space, buying influence as well as London property and making strange bedfellows with every anti-establishment force in Europe. But what happens in Ukraine determines just how bad this is going to get

 

Recommended reading

Frontline UkraineFrontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa, is an academic treatment, out in December 2014

Ukraine Diaries by the Kiev writer Andrey Kurkov, records his political and family life during the demonstrations

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev, is published in February 2015 and is a great insight into the surreal world of Russian propaganda (Pomerantsev worked on Russian TV)

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's debut novel, is set in Ukraine. Some claimed it took liberties with Jewish history and the pidgin English of local Ukrainians. But it is very funny.

Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West - by me, is a good book for those who want more background in Ukrainian history and politics.

 

 

GUEST BLOG: India's forgotten sacrifice
5th November 2014 - 12 Midnight Catherine Hall

 

In The Repercussions, the third novel from award-winning writer Catherine Hall, a present-day war photographer returning from Afghanistan discovers her great-grandmother's diaries, which document her wartime role nursing Indian soldiers at the Brighton Pavilion in 1915.

Here Catherine reveals the surprising history of the former royal residence, whose design echoed Indian architectural fashions from the previous century, and the reasons Indians chose to enlist.

 

The RepercussionsOne of the main inspirations for The Repercussions was an article I read in The Guardian about the Brighton Pavilion being used as a hospital for Indian soldiers in the First World War. I used to live in Brighton and had always liked the Pavilion - this ornate, Orientalist fantasy of an Indian palace, built for the Prince Regent as a seaside retreat at the end of the 18th century. I went to visit an exhibition at the Pavilion about the soldiers, and was immediately hooked.

 

I hadn't known that Indian soldiers had fought for Britain in World War I. Lots of them did - around 827,000 enlisted. At one point on the Western Front, it's estimated that one in ten of the soldiers was Indian. They came on boats that sailed from Bombay around the Horn of Africa and up to Marseilles, which was quite the journey in itself, especially since for Hindus, crossing the ocean, which they called the Kala Pani, or Black Water, was a taboo.

 

Indian armyIt was the first time that the Indian Army had fought outside Asia and its soldiers just weren't equipped for it. They arrived in Autumn 1914, many wearing light khaki uniforms and didn't receive warm clothing for months. They were used to fighting in the mountains but now they faced trench warfare with its machine gun fire, heavy artillery and poison gas. Imagine then, after being wounded, being put on a train to England and ending up in a seaside town in a royal pleasure palace with its incredibly ornate chandeliers and frescoes. It must have blown their minds.

 

I began to wonder what it must have been like for them, and for the people of Brighton, many of whom would never have seen a non-white person before. They seem to have been fascinated by the Pavilion patients. The local newspapers called them 'Dusky Warriors' being treated at the hands of 'Doctor Brighton' and published articles on things like how to sneak a glimpse of Sikhs combing out their long hair. There were three hospitals in Brighton for Indian soldiers - but it was the Pavilion that caught the imagination of the public. And that wasn't by accident.

 

The Pavilion was all about propaganda, an example of how well the British were treating their troops from overseas. This was important, partly in order to make sure that more soldiers volunteered but also to avoid the prospect of mutiny - the Indian mutiny of 1857, which had seriously threatened the British Raj - was still very much in the minds of the authorities.

 

And so from the very start, the Pavilion was intended to be shown off. A lot of effort went into making sure that the needs of different castes and religions were met. There were separate taps for Hindus and Muslims in every room. There were nine separate field kitchens and separate bathrooms. A large tent became a Sikh temple and there was a tent for a mosque next door.

 

Brighton PavilionAnd all of this was extensively documented. A set of postcards was produced by the Brighton Corporation and the military authorities. Some were published in a commemorative book for the patients to send home. There were also paintings commissioned and a short film was made. King George and Queen Mary made several, well publicised visits.

 

Where were these troops from? And why had they chosen to enlist? Many were from the North-Western Frontier, which bordered British India and Afghanistan with a buffer zone of tribal areas inbetween. After the Mutiny, the British Army had adopted a military recruitment policy called 'martial race', under which they classified each caste or ethnic group into either 'martial' or 'non-martial' - ie brave and suitable for fighting, or unfit for battle. The Pathans, from the mountains of the North-Western Frontier, were seen as excellent fighters. Pathan is the Hindu-Urdu name for what in Persian is Pashtun, the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan today.

 

Some men fought for the money. But honour was also important. Izzat - honour, reputation, credit, prestige - was a vital part of why they were fighting. They fought to gain or preserve izzat. It was thought glorious or honourable to die in battle or become a martyr.

 

Of course, honour is always important in war. Certainly in World War I, British soldiers believed in it - at the beginning, anyway. Those were days when people read Kipling and Conrad and Hardy and believed in traditional moral values. The language used to talk about it was of valour, duty and grit.

 

I think since then, in the West, at least, there has been a lessening of that attitude towards honour, but that language is still the language of extremist groups today, who talk of warriors and peril and a moral imperative, in order to get young men to fight.

 

Catherine Hall is also the author two previous novels, The Proof of Love, which won the 2011 Green Carnation Award, and bestseller Days of Grace.

 

Latest Blog
The noir prophet returns
27/11/2014

George Hamilton-Jones, from our Charing Cross Road shop, celebrates the return of William Gibson with The Peripheral, which should delight fans of his early futuristic works, such as Neuromancer.

GUEST BLOG: Behind the magic
21/11/2014

Rob Ryan reveals how he put together his stunning paper-cut and screen-printed illustrations to create his latest book, The Kingdom Revealed.

GUEST BLOG: Why does the Ukraine crisis matter to the West?
19/11/2014

Andrew Wilson, author of Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West, highlights the issues that matter about the Kiev Uprising and Russia's response.

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