Saturday, 18 March 2017

THE UTOPIA EXPERIMENT by Dylan Evans

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE
On Goodreads HERE


How I discovered this book: A friend lent me the paperback because she thought it might be relevant to the book I'm currently writing, as research.

Dylan Evans is a highly qualified and specialised scientist who becomes obsessed with how the technological progress of the modern world will affect human life on the planet.  He considers how life on earth might continue after the collapse of civilisation caused by the alleged climate crises and the future scarcity of fuelDeciding on an experiment to see if people born of the mechanical age could survive after the apocalypse, he sets up a website to advertise for others to take part.  The plan is to live in a Scottish island community within a fictional scenario, which takes place a few years after civilisation has crashed.

Before going to live in 'Utopia', Evans sells his house and gives up his job.  The book starts in the hospital, after the experiment is over, when he is being treated for a psychological collapse.   The account of the life of Utopia is interspersed with his experiences in the hospital, and the various philosophies of others from which he created the idea of the new community.  

For all his intelligence, Evans seems to have little common sense, and ignores the advice of many.  The two people with whom he chooses to start off the project are an eccentric 'doomer' (someone who is convinced that civilisation is about to crash, and looks forward to it), and an ageing hippie freeloader/nutcase.  Those who join the project seem to have thought it through as little as he has, which is perhaps why it attracted similar idealists, though some gained more from the experience than he did.


The whole scenario is riddled with inconsistencies ~ if the collapse of civilisation is only a few years old, wouldn't a group such as this a choose to live in all those empty houses, where there would be beds, sofas, and many items that would make their life a lot easier?  He worries about what they will wear when their clothes wear out, and sets up a trap to catch a deer so they can skin it ~ but will there not be houses, shops and warehouses still filled with clothes?  On the other hand, if fabric is so scarce that they need to trap animals for their skins just to clothe themselves, where will the canvas for their yurts come from?  They didn't manage self-sufficiency (because, again, the groundwork had not been done properly), but bought food from Tesco.  I could go on...

Evans's research consists of visiting hippie communes who have chosen to live without the conveniences of the modern world, rather than being forced toThe failure of the project appears to be lack of planning, all the way through; he does not consider how dangerous the fictional world might be, until someone brings up the subject; he has not thought about how he might defend his settlement.  Most disappointing of all, he never commits fully to Utopia, spending several nights a week in his girlfriend's cottage in a nearby village, and nipping off to spend a few days here, a few days there, with friends, whenever the going gets a bit too rough ~ this, to me, negates the authenticity of whole thing.


I felt that, in this book, he was trying to give the project significance by drawing parallels with the Stanford prison experiment (ps, watch the film based on it, it's fascinating), and others, but Utopia did not seem to have any real purpose, other than bringing together a group of idealists who wanted to escape from the 21st century for a while (which is fair enough!).  As for his nervous breakdown, I felt that even that was glamorised (perhaps even to himself); reading between the lines, I thought that the real reasons for his growing sense of isolation were his girlfriend exiting stage left, never to return, the fact that he'd given up his job and sold his house to finance this ill-thought out project that was going nowhere, and that he felt a bit of a twit for making such a cock-up of it all.   Which would be enough to make anyone feel depressed and not like talking to anyone.


The book was interesting, though frustrating, and I would have liked to know more about the project itself, on a day to day basis, and less about Evans's mental state.  I don't think it was the 'experiment' that sent him spiralling into a black hole, I think it was the awareness of his own foolhardiness.  A shame, indeed.  I applaud the amount of honesty that was present in the book, though.

If you're interested, I found an article about it in the Daily Mail, from ten years ago, which does rather reiterate my thoughts ~ it's HERE 




 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

CODENAME LAZARUS by A P Martin @APMartin51 #RBRT

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE
On Goodreads HERE


How I discovered this book: It was a submission to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

This is a spy story set in England and Germany during Hitler's rise to power and the first year of the Second World War.  John King, a history lecturer, is invited to become an undercover agent, and, despite the realisation of how dangerous and lonely his life will become, he agrees.

What I liked about this book
  • The author clearly knows his subject inside out and, I would imagine, has a great interest in it, as opposed to just having done the research required to produce this novel; you can tell the difference.  I feel that A P Martin has an innate understanding of the era itself, and the people who lived within it.
  • The section before the war, when agent King witnesses the 'gathering storm' of Nazi Germany, is excellent, and SS man Joachim Brandt's witnessing of Dunkirk, from the point of view of a German spy, is outstanding.  I loved these two parts.
  • I thought the plot was well thought out, generally, and it kept me interested throughout.
  • The understated communication between King and his controller, Pym, was most believeable.  The characterisation of Pym and Brandt was particularly good, as was that of misguided informant Abigail Stevenson; Brandt's duplicitous relationship with her was executed very well, as was Brandt's developing character, as he grows from patriot to confirmed Nazi.  There's a key scene were he slaughters some POWs, which triggers him off; it's so well done.
  • The build up to the war, with the growing danger in Germany, the differing attitudes to Hitler, and the many theories about his intentions, was fascinating, and gave such insight into how that time must have been for different people across both countries.

What I was not so sure about 
  • I found some elements early in the book less than convincing; at the beginning, King is with his friends in Germany in 1933, and everyone speaks in perfectly formed sentences, giving just the right amount of information to the reader; the conversation didn't seem real.
  • I wasn't convinced by the romance with Greta; I found their Christmas together in 1938 not a last idyllic, romantic few days before the war, but a mildly interesting account of activities.  Greta never came across to me as a living, flesh and blood woman. However, it was no worse than the depiction of women by some well-known writers of this genre, Jeffrey Archer to name but one.
  • I would urge Mr Martin to seek out a proofreader who knows how to punctuate ~ there are scores of missing or incorrectly placed commas, and the curious placing of quotations marks around proper nouns (eg, 'Lords Cricket Ground').  I didn't find any spelling mistakes or typos, though.
  • The endingThe book just stopped.  The main conflict of the plot is resolved, and satisfactorily, but it seemed almost as though the author had forgotten that minor story threads needed resolution, too.  I turned the page expecting another chapter, or at least an epilogue, but that was that.
This book has much to commend it, hence the four stars; the parts I liked, I liked very much indeed, but I feel it needs a bit of 'sorting out' by a really good editor, perhaps a trimming down and removing of mundane detail, to make it the first class novel it deserves to be.  I think lovers of 'old school' sort of spy stories will love it.