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Pasquale's Angel 27

Do you enjoy the notion of alternative history, and the question of "What if?" Pasquale's Angel is a deftly written book by Paul J. McAuley, with a setting of renaissance Italy. Character development is strong, and the story is well told - both the reviewer, D.C. Lawie and I agree on this. Click below to learn more about the book.
Pasquale's Angel
author Paul J. McAuley
pages 374
publisher AvoNova
rating 7.5/10
reviewer D.C. Lawie
ISBN 0380778203
summary Pasquale's Angel could be slipped into the lists of "steam punk" butit easily surpasses many alternate histories with its free flowing plot andeasy humour.
Paul J. McAuley apparently made his first short story sale in the mid seventies to a magazine which immediately folded. He has been writing published science fiction for the last fifteen years, including many short stories and eight novels alongside regular reviews for magazines such as Interzone and Foundation. His success, including awards for three of his novels, has allowed him to switch from an academic career to full time writing. The scope and strength of his writing has been displayed through variation in subject matter and tone across his work.

In Pasquale's Angel, his fifth novel, McAuley's ability is such that he can carry off an alternate history of renaissance Italy with a light, sure touch. Like most "counterfactuals" he makes use of historical figures - Machiavelli is an investigative journalist, Lisa Giocondo is the lover of the painter Raphael. These are fully realised characters rather than the cheap name checks too common in alternate history. In fact, closer study of the historical period shows how well the author used the characters available and how accurately they have been drawn. Another distinction from many attempts at alternate history is the strength of the plotting, which has no reliance on comparison with our own history. Descriptive passages make no assumptions of the reader's knowledge either. It is made clear Michelangelo and Raphael are great artists and great rivals. In the course of the story, the reader learns about the mechanisms of renaissance art as well as achronic newspaper production.

The catalyst which leads to a changed reality is Leonardo da Vinci's decision to dedicate himself to engineering rather than art. The result is industrial revolution being folded into the already rich mixture of politics and machinations in the city state of Florence. This produces an environment where tossing a spent match leads naturally to a discussion on the fall of Lucifer and the possibility of Man's redemption, an environment which has room enough for action and for moments of contemplation.

The great Raphael is of Venice and arrives in Florence shortly before the Pope is due to resolve Rome's differences with the city. Pasquale is a country boy and a painter's apprentice, desirous of getting close to the famous painter when he is caught up in murder and intrigue. It is almost impossible to avoid describing the plot as Machiavellian, involving magicians, priests, riots and philosophy but the story also includes gunfights, stakeouts and chases in steam powered vehicles. At times there is a danger of losing track of who is doing what to whom and why but the ride is always enjoyable and the tangles mostly untie themselves.

Pasquale's Angel avoids the usual traps in alternate histories - pointlessly mixing periods and easy moralising by implicit or explicit comparison with our world. The premise leads plausibly to the technology available within the story. The characters, historically, were born into the dawn of a new age, so it seems reasonable that they should cope with change even on the scale presented. They are, generally, more interested in money and politics, in turning the new technology to their own advantage, than in the technology for itself. There may be a moral in this, but it is applicable to all human nature.

The storyline developed may seem thoroughly over the top but it is a large part of what makes the book work. McAuley makes excellent use of historical sources (from the age when the modern biography was invented) and mercilessly plunders technology from every page of da Vinci. This is a novel where entertainment is built up in layers of provocative ideas.

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Pasquale's Angel

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  • Just wondering...are there any geeks out there who don't read sci fi? I personally never do, most likely because of a lack of time.
    just idle wondering...

  • Like if Bill Gates had realised that 640k RAM wouldn't be enough for everyone.
  • Sounds like a rewrite of Gibon's book: X/o/qid=940596502/sr=8-1/002-4326795-73538 33

  • I just really started getting into sci-fi, outside of the usual stuff they served up in high-school like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhoods' End.

    My first stabs were with William Gibson, of course, since he is the "father" of cyberpunk. I enjoyed his short stories and read Neuromancer which didn't knock me out. I guess it had lost the visionary aspect and I was left with just the story and Gibson's literary styling.

    I also tackled some Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash). Thoroughly recommend him, as do most people in /., as Stephenson seems to the topic of several of news articles and reviews recently.

    I understand your lament about lack of time. I would imagine we all feel that way today. I make an effort to read at least 100 pgs of something that I want to read each day. After poring over manuals, specs and email every day, it's the least I can do to restore some kind of sanity to my two brain cells.

  • by Zach Frey ( 17216 ) <zach&zfrey,com> on Friday October 22, 1999 @04:42AM (#1594973) Homepage

    As with any genre, there are a few roses growing on the dungheap of Science Fiction (to paraphrase Nietzsche), but it's one enormous mound of shit with very few roses.

    Theodore Sturgeon, who has written some of those roses on the dunghill, was asked to comment on some critic's assertion that "90% of science fiction is crap."

    His response -- "Well, sure. But 90% of everything is crap."

    "90% of everything is crap" has now been enshrined as Sturgeon's Law (and well-correlated to Murphy's), but lots of folks don't know its origin in SF.

    (And yes, I'm a fan of the genre, and yes, there is a lot of crap published with spaceships on the cover, and yes, too much of it reads like "swords&sorcery with lasers" ...)

  • If I remember correctly, that infamous quote was incorrectly attributed to Bill Gates. It get's used all the time, but it's just one a tech-industry urban legend. Of course, I could be wrong.


    "You can't shake the Devil's hand and say you're only kidding."

  • Sounds like a rewrite of Gibon's book

    It's not, though similarities can be gleaned on a once over. In SF, generalized ideas (time travel, alternate realities) are not considered something you can claim as your own.

    What pisses me off is I (as in me; myself) created an outline for a novel that does read like I stole it from Difference Engine, but I wrote it out a good year before that book was published or I even heard of it! Ugh.

    You know what they say about good ideas (they're just waiting to be found).

  • I remember visiting the local library as a child, and being amused by the garish covers of science fiction paperbacks. Maybe it's just because I'm a cynic, whose parents are cynics and lives in a nation of cynics - but those books looked intensely sad.

    Years later I actually tried reading a few SF books. For a genre that should be based on wild flights of imagination, it read like swords and sorcery tales with lasers. Turgid was an understatement.

    As with any genre, there are a few roses growing on the dungheap of Science Fiction (to paraphrase Nietzsche), but it's one enormous mound of shit with very few roses.

    Chris Wareham
  • >>Let's imagine that Gates, Jobs and the early
    >>guys were still there but Gates didn't get
    >the IBM deal and dos was written from the
    >ground up. Who knows - we might not be using
    >Linux now because DOS was written properly
    >and multitasked from day 1!

    That's kinda complicated because you would have to change a lot.

    I think there are two main reasons why IBM did what they did.

    1. They were busy fighting an anti-trust case at the time, and it looked good to be able to say, well, look, someone else is writing the os!
    2. They wanted to be able to get a PC out right away (that's also why they didn't produce most of the parts they had, and actually, to this day, all ibm's pcs are made from another company (aptivas are actually made by acer)).

    Gates just happened to be in the right place at the right time... so, I think WHO they got the os from could easily be imagined to be someone else.. but ibm never would have wrote it themselves at the time...

  • Not really - if you read through my original piece you'll see I dont say 'if IBM wrote DOS from the ground up' just that it could have been written from the ground up - I'm sure there were more companies than just Microsoft who were looking at writing the OS for the machine.
  • I read the novelizations of the Star Wars movies, but in general I have much better things to do than to immerse myself in a world of wacky gadgets and societal pontification. I get plenty of that already; just look around. Want amazing technical breakthroughs? Read Slashdot []! Want police-state conspiracy theories? We got that [], too! Want to latch into a planet-wide data dump? Hell, look no further []!

    We're living in the future, people!

    Our Dumb Century []

    Now *that's* a book.

    What's that you say, you want fiction? James A. Michener [] is a good author, for one. The only sci-fi I'd read if I had spare time (what's that?) would be Neal Stephenson.

  • ... someone wrote a similar book about the 50's / 60's changing how invented what - who would be taking Bill Gates' position as evil overlord of the non OSS movement. Would OSS even have started or would it be the over-riding force that defined the computer software market.

    I'd like to think that a single change in the early pioneering days would have made a huge change to what we have now - hopefully not for the worst.
    Let's imagine that Gates, Jobs and the early guys were still there but Gates didn't get the IBM deal and dos was written from the ground up. Who knows - we might not be using Linux now because DOS was written properly and multitasked from day 1!
    I can't proclaim to have any solid ideas as regards what might have been but it's fun to think about it.

  • Am I the only person who is not overwhelmed at any of William Gibson's work? I found 'The Difference Engine' in particular to be aimless, shallow, and uninteresting. I spent the entire book waiting to reach 'the point' and it never got there. It is all style and no substance, like everything else of his I have read. Nor am I impressed with his attempts to use technological themes, which I think betray a real lack of understanding of current technology, human psychology, and social forces (as well as common sense and logic).
  • Speaking of alternate histories, what if Bill had decided to make DOS completely open-source and created the GPL?
    Would that mean that the "i" in Microsoft would have to be pronounced as a soft "i" instead of a hard one?

  • i don't. i've got a list a mile long of technology books that i want to read. everytime i pick up a sci-fi book, i ask myself why i should bother reading it when i could be reading something else that is going to improve my knowledge of my career industry (thus making more marketable and opening the doors to better jobs). i'll have time to read sci-fi after i retire :-)
  • The "what if" ploy usually does end up reading like a poorly hashed out plot with one dimensional characters. If, however, this is of the calibre of the Difference Engine by Gibson then I know that I will enjoy it. The whole point of sci-fi is to be entertaining and imaginative. A willing suspension of disbelief is necessary for a good sci-fi novel to work. This "what if" scenario proposed in the sounds interesting enough just from the review for me to go out and buy it.
  • My family devours sci-fi as if paper grew on trees, but for some reason I never caught the bug. I read almost exclusively non-fiction, but generally a lot of psychology, forensics, biography, etc.

    I still read sci-fi occassionally, but no more than any other fiction. I'd rather read 19th century french lit (for some reason it grabs me)...
  • > Am I the only person who is not overwhelmed at any of William Gibson's work?

    No, you're not the only one. Took me months to get through Neuromancer, and I *tried* to read Count Zero, but had no connection to the characters, so I gave up.

    I agree with you completely.
  • Much as I enjoy Michener, I think that his endings suck. They just trail off, much like Stephensons, now that I think about it.
  • And probably the first totally on-topic post so far... :)

    If Spain (the bad guys in the book) have been deprived by Florence of the American gold, how do they ever become a superpower capable of posing a threat? That's something I never really bought...
  • Well, I worked at a library for awhile, so you can't blame me from reading then. I would read a whole Animorph books (a children's book, if you must know) on my 15 minute break. I knew a trucker who always came in on Mondays and would check out all of the sci-fi and mystery books on tape for his week on the road. Computer enthusiasts (geeks) do read sci-fi, but they checked out more mysteries on average. I am now in college though. Lately, I have read about 5 sci-fi books, which was basically the Donaldson's Gap series. I do hope you read something else other than technical books and non-fiction. Sometimes you just have to read for the sake of reading and not care about it. I read anything that is written well, except for romance of course.
  • I agree about Ms Penman, but I want to recommend two different novels. The Queen's Man, and Cruel as the Grave. Set in England in 1193 when Richard the Lionheart is feared lost on His return from the Crusades. These two are well done historical mysteries.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Sharon Kay Penman.

    She writes historical fiction (i.e. almost all real people, places, events, with the personalities approximated from historical records and embellished for literary interest). Her forte is medieval England/Wales. I read her first book, "The Sunne in Splendour" and LOVED it! It's an alternative view of Richard III as a decent man and king that made a questionable decision. She goes into such fascinating detail in everything - war, love, daily routines, she REALLY does her research well! So far these are the books she's written(That I know of):

    The Sunne in Splendour (my favorite)

    and the Welsh Trilogy:

    Here Be Dragons
    Falls the Shadow
    The Reckoning

    For anyone who wants EXCELLENT medieval historical fiction, with high levels of detail and absolutely engaging and realistic characters, please try Penman. The only downside is that her books are quite lengthy (Sunne in Splendour ~ 900pp, Welsh trilogy ~600-700pp) but you will be enjoying them for a while!

    Kevin Christie
  • "..., there is a lot of crap published with spaceships on the cover..."

    Which is why I had a rule of thumb that generally ensured I would have a better chance of avoiding the crap: never read sci fi books that have spaceships on the cover.

    It doesn't always work, and sometimes you miss good stuff, but I have managed to avoid a lot of derivative space operas that way.
  • Or if Bill Gates had gotten into MIT instead of Harvard, and met a certain Richard M. Stallman (something I've thought about making the subject of a short story).

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?