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The writer writing writer writings

I fell in love with Malcolm Lowry’s fiction after reading the novella ‘Through the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961). While I’d been aware of his Under the Volcano (1947), a novel generally acknowledged to be a classic of twentieth century English-language literature, number 11 in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels in fact (ignore the readers’ list: only blatant ballot-stuffing or rank stupidity could put four books by Ayn Rand and three by L Ron Hubbard in the top ten), I had never actually read anything by him. But my father had three of his books – the aforementioned pair and Lowry’s debut, Ultramarine (1933); the two novels are in fact the only books Lowry saw published during his lifetime – and I took them for myself as I fancied giving them a try…

And now I have everything he wrote – a lot of which was published posthumously – some of it even in first edition (but not Under the Volcano, since first editions of it cost around £800).

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But. ‘Through the Panama’, which first appeared in Paris Review in Spring 1960- it’s unlikely Malcolm Lowry, who died in 1957, submitted it himself; it was more probably his wife, Margerie Bonner Lowry – features Malcolm Lowry’s fictional alter-ego Sigbjørn Wilderness, and is a complex mix of fiction, autobiography and meta-fiction. It’s an astonishing piece of work but, as I soon discovered when I read Ultramarine, Under the Volcano and the posthumous Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968), it’s actually more like a concentrated form of Malcolm Lowry’s approach to writing. Ultramarine was based on his experiences aboard a tramp freighter, aboard which he spent five months at age eighteen before starting at Cambridge University. Some of his experiences which appeared in Ultramarine also make an appearance – off-stage – in Under the Volcano, although reading the prior book is by no means a requirement for reading Under the Volcano.

But it’s in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid where really interesting things start to happen… You’ll have to bear with me for a bit as this is somewhat complicated… Malcolm Lowry started work on Under the Volcano while staying in Mexico in 1936, and finished it two years later. He left Mexico for Los Angeles, where he met his second wife, Margerie; and then spent the next eight years editing and rewriting the novel. It’s set in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, and covers the events of single day in the life of the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic, whose divorced wife has just returned to him. In 1945, Malcolm and Margerie Lowry returned to Mexico (a return for him, anyway), and settled in the town of Cuernavaca. During this time, Under the Volcano was under consideration with a British publisher, and Malcolm was worried it might be seen as too similar to Charles Jackson’s 1944 novel, The Lost Weekend, the film adaptation of which, starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, and directed Billy Wilder, was proving a hit in the cinemas as Malcolm and Margerie travelled south from their home in Canada. The trip to Mexico proved successful both personally and professional – although Malcolm’s drinking did reach similar levels to those of his earlier visit to Mexico and those attributed to the Consul in Under the Volcano… However, while in Cuernavaca, Malcolm heard back from Jonathan Cape, who asked for substantial changes to be made to Under the Volcano before they would publish it… but Malcolm successfully defended his novel with a long and detailed analysis of it. Malcolm also took copious notes throughout the Mexico trip and, once back in Canada, he realised these were effectively a novel. So he set about turning them into one, and he worked on it on-and-off, until his death in 1957. The book was eventually edited by Margerie and published in 1968 as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid.

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In Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Sigbjørn Wilderness and his wife Primrose have returned to Mexico eight years after Sigbjørn left. He is awaiting news from a British publisher about his novel, The Valley of the Shadow of Death (which was actually the original title for Under the Volcano), and is worried that it might be rejected due to similarities to the novel and film Drunkard’s Rigadoon. The couple travel from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, which Sigbjørn now discovers has chosen to publicise that its name in Nahuatl is Cuauhnahuac, a fact he’d eight years previously taken great pains to uncover and had thought would “disguise” the setting of his novel. While in Cuernavaca, Sigbjørn explains the town’s relationship to the setting of The Valley of the Shadow of Death to his wife – she is familiar with the story as she typed up the manuscript – and begins drinking heavily, much like Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano.

So what we have is Malcolm Lowry writing a novel in which he appears as Sigbjørn Wilderness, who is the author of a book Malcolm Lowry himself wrote, which is set in the Mexican town which is the setting of both Under the Volcano and Sigbjørn’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death, and this novel Malcolm Lowry has written is based upon Malcolm Lowry’s own return visit to the town where he wrote, and in which he set, his most famous work, Under the Volcano. Sigbjørn and Primrose also visit some of the nearby towns and villages, such as Oaxaca, Tlaxcala and Yautepec, and each place is seen in light of Sigbjørn’s previous time in Mexico and his fictionalisation of it in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. The same is also true of the people they meet, and their relationship to the characters in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Some two-thirds of the way into Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Sigbjørn hears back form his publishers – they want him to make substantial changes. Primrose persuades him to stick to his guns and defend his novel, which he does.

“Your book is regarded here as having potential importance and integrity.” His heart leaped, he almost shouted out to Primrose, who was as excited as he and waiting for the verdict in the bedroom, but – at this point, another letter fell out. It was the reader’s report, and he seized upon it. “The author has overrreached himself. This book will naturally call to mind the recently successful novel and film Drunkard’s Rigadoon…” (p179)

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Malcolm and Margerie Lowrie at their Calle Humboldt villa

Structurally, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid is not so adventurous – it’s a linear narrative, beginning as Sigbjørn and Primrose fly south across the United States, and ending with Sigbjørn finally laying to rest the ghost of The Valley of the Shadow of Death, or perhaps of its inspirations and writing, which has haunted him throughout this visit to Mexico. But it’s the melding of real-life and fiction which I find so fascinating about the book. Under the Volcano was at least, on the surface, a straightforward act of literary creativity. While its settings and cast may have been inspired by Malcolm Lowry’s own time in Mexico during its writing from 1936 to 1938, it was still first and foremost a novel. (Which is not to say that it’s not partly autobiographical, as Malcolm Lowry had certainly done that before in Ultramarine.) But in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid Malcolm Lowry has fictionalised the autobiographical elements of his fiction, folding what was real in the invented back into an invented perspective of the real. And that I find a very interesting thing to do. It allows for a whole host of meta-fictional games to be played within the text – and Malcolm Lowry plays most of them: not just Sigbjørn commenting on The Valley of the Shadow of Death, which is effectively Malcolm Lowry himself commenting on Under the Volcano, but also Malcolm Lowry as author commenting on Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid and on Sigbjørn Wilderness. Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid can be enjoyed as a work of fiction without having read Under the Volcano, but it’s plain that reading Malcolm Lowry’s magnum opus first deeply enriches the Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid reading experience.

Malcolm Lowry’s reputation waned after the publication of Under the Volcano, chiefly because he had nothing else published in the years following (and Under the Volcano had taken him nine years and two months to write). He became known as an “underground” writer, one admired only by the cognoscenti. After his death, Margerie Lowry kept his literary legacy alive, and saw to it that works he had never quite actually finished were edited and published… such as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was one of the greatest English-language writers of the twentieth century.


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Reading diary, #9

My reading seems to have slowed a little over the summer, possibly because I’m trying to schedule my reading choices. Instead of just picking whatever appeals at that moment, I’ve put together a list which includes books I’ve owned for years and never got around to reading. And some of them, well, I’m not entirely sure why I bought them – probably because they appeared on a Clarke Award shortlist or something…

entanglementEntanglement, Douglas Thompson (2012) In the near-future, a form of matter transmission to exoplanets using quantum-entangled matter is discovered. A number of space probes are sent out, and a century or so later, once they’ve arrived, Earth starts beaming out astronauts to each world. The process, however, is neither as safe nor as certain as has been claimed. Its inventor is haunted by the subject of an early experiment – literally. Meanwhile, the various astronauts discover that the exoplanets are inhabited… Despite this description, Entanglement is far from hard sf – which is not to say it glibly makes up its various science-fictional elements out of nothing: the exoplanets named are all real exoplanets, and the teleportation process is given a creditable scientific gloss… But the various missions – each sort of presented as a short story in a linked collection – are more explorations of philosophical questions than they are surveys of exoplanetary landscapes or xenological biospheres. It’s an interesting approach, but sadly I found the book a little disappointing. I liked Thompson’s earlier Sylvow very much – and said as much in my Interzone review – but something about Entanglement just didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, Thompson is doing some good work and I intend to continue reading him.

w_wastedW is for Wasted, Sue Grafton (2013), is the latest in Kinsey Milhone’s alphabetical adventures. Only three more and they’re done. Or perhaps then Grafton will move onto AA for, er, Arsonists Anonymous. Or something. While the books in the series have chiefly been good solid private detective novels, there are three quite interesting things about them. First, the debut, A is for Alibi, was originally published in 1982, and Grafton has been careful to keep the internal chronology of the novels consistent. As a result, W is for Wasted is set in 1988. Kinsey Milhone has become an historical character. Secondly, the novels are all set in the invented Californian town of Santa Teresa, and with twenty-three books now set there it’s probably better-documented than many real towns in the state. Finally, the novels are framed as Milhone’s report of the case to her client, and usually end with “Respectfully submitted, Kinsey Milhone”. But in many of the cases – particularly the later books – she doesn’t have a client, but is drawn into an investigation often by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grafton also frequently breaks out of her framing narrative – and again this is something I’ve noticed becoming more prevalent as the series progresses – and she includes chapters in third person from the point of view of another character. Although the main narrative remains first-person from Kinsey’s POV, Grafton’s plotting obviously can’t remain limited to Milhone and still make sense to the reader. That strikes me as a weakness. I do enjoy the books, and I’ve no intention of giving up on them… but I wish Grafton would put more rigour into her novels.

DESCENT-ken-macleodDescent, Ken MacLeod (2014) The cover art and strapline on this novel is somewhat misleading. It certainly misled me – I was expecting a novel on the psychology of alien abductions, especially since the novel opens with an incident which could be described as a close encounter (although the two teenagers involved are too sceptical to fully subscribe to it). However, as the story progresses it turns into a commentary on the machinations of government and corporations in a near-future Scotland suffering from an economic meltdown. And as a work of sustained near-future extrapolation, Descent is very good indeed. There’s also an idea the book plays with during its first half which MacLeod seems to throw away so he can focus his story on Scotland’s economic recovery, some random muscle-flexing by “securocrats” (secret apparatchiks), and the eventual redemption, emotional and career-wise, of bloke-ish narrator, Ryan. Which is a shame. I quite liked the idea of a genetic basis to the capacity to believe (or perhaps it’s just gullibility) – after all, as an atheist, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes other people believe in god (no, it’s not that I don’t believe in god, it’s that as far as I’m concerned there is no such thing as god). Still, at least MacLeod’s idea is better than the one Sebastian Faulks advanced in his novel Human Traces (see here). Anyway, much as I enjoyed Descent, I didn’t feel it had the science-fictional crunchiness Intrusion possessed, although in many respects it read like a more accomplished work.

antares1Antares Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4 and Episode 5, Léo (2007 – 2013) – well, that was annoying. I saw on Léo’s Wikipedia page that there were five books in the Antares series, so I waited until five had been published in English by Cinebook and then bought them… only to discover that the final episode ends on a cliff-hanger. Argh. The story continues on from Betelgeuse and features the same group of characters. Kim is having trouble settling on Earth – she doesn’t like that there’s so many people, and she doesn’t like her celebrity status. But when a multinational corporation sets up a colonisation mission to Antares and asks her to join it, she initially refuses. Eventually, she agrees, but en route she discovers that the mission was put together by a religious cult, and it’s one of those that treats women like chattel (the women must shave their heads and wear inflated coveralls to hide their figures so they don’t tempt the men, ffs). Once they land on Antares, things start to go wrong. The flora and fauna is lethal, the cultists have seized power, and the mysterious aliens from the earlier books are somehow involved. I do like this series of bandes dessinées but Léo portrays all his religious characters as complete misogynists and it feels a little one-note – especially when set against all the strong female characters in the series.

Irsud, Jo Clayton (1978), I read for review for SF Mistressworks. I was not impressed – see here. I have another four of these books on the TBR, and another two to track down if I want to complete the series.

the-dog-stars-by-peter-hellerThe Dog Stars, Peter Heller (2012), I picked up in a charity shop because it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year. And I’ll admit I’m somewhat puzzled it was shortlisted. A flu pandemic in the US kills off 99% of the population, and the remainder inevitably turn to survivalism, rape, murder and so on. As they do in post-apocalyptic fiction. The narrator, however, has it quite good – he lives at a small airfield, and has a small Cessna plane which he often flies, scouting out the area he shares with his gun-nut neighbour (they’re the only two people who live there). The narrator also suffered in the past from meningitis, and as a result the prose is written in a sort of lightly-fractured English, with many fragmentary declarative sentences. This serves no purpose in the story, it’s just an excuse for the prose style. And the gun-nut is basically a rip-off of Sobchak, John Goodman’s character, in The Big Lebowski. The first half of The Dog Stars comprises a series of incidents showing how nasty everyone is – and how few women remain. Then the narrator hears a radio message from some distance away, and decides to fly there to learn who broadcast it. En route, he stumbles across a blind box canyon, in which lives a man and his daughter. The narrator falls for the daughter. It takes something special to make a post-apocalypse novel notable and there’s nothing special in The Dog Stars.

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIFortune’s Pawn, Rachel Bach (2013). I’d seen a number of positive mentions of this space opera, so when I saw a copy going cheap at Edge-Lit, I bought it. But, well… the narrator is sort of fun, an ambitious mercenary who is very, very good at what she does – but her arrogance started to wear thin after a while. The power armour is handled well, and I quite liked the gentle references to the suits of armour of knights of old. The protagonist’s home world featured some nice touches, even if it didn’t really stand up to scrutiny – a technological feudalistic society with a king worshipped as a god? The rest of the worldbuilding is even worse. There’s the nasty lizard aliens, the comedy bird aliens and the enigmatic glow-in-the-dark squid aliens. Oh, and the love interest is some sort of technological part-alien superhero. Narrator Deviana is so ambitious, she leaves the mercenary brigade and takes a job as on board security for a free trader who seems to attract trouble. Yes, it’s all a bit like a role-playing game. Annoyingly, Bach only reveals what is blindingly obvious in this book, and I’m assuming the more interesting questions will be answered in the remaining two books of the trilogy. Which is annoying, as I won’t be reading them.

cthulhuThe Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, HP Lovecraft (1999). I’m pretty sure I’ve read Lovecraft in the past – in fact, I have a quite vivid memory of the cover art of a Lovecraft collection which, I think, I borrowed from Coventry City Library back in the early 1990s. It’s hard to be sure, given there’s so many different ways to pick up knowledge of his oeuvre and the Cthulhu mythos – I used to play the Call of Cthulhu RPG when I was at school, for example. Having said that, none of the stories in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories seemed especially familiar. I’d always thought Lovecraft’s prose of poor quality, and despite a recent discussion on that subject, I suspect I may be revising my opinion. The early stuff is pretty bad – Q: when is a door not a door? A: when it’s a “panelled portal”; and Lovecraft had a bad habit of saying something is indescribable… and then going on to describe it. But by the late 1920s, his writing had improved hugely, and in stories like ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928) and ‘The Shadow of Innsmouth’ (1931), he’d toned down his love of adjectives to great effect; and while he might still recycle his favourite words a few times too often, the less-is-more approach was certainly better at evoking eldritch horror. I have to admit, I enjoyed this collection a lot more than I’d expected. Happily, I bought all three of the Penguin Modern Classic Lovecraft books, so I have The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories and The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, all in nice matching paperback editions.

WizardHuntersThe Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells (2003). I bought this a few years ago for a planned reading challenge in which each month for a year I’d read the first book of a popular fantasy series and then write about it. I lasted six months before giving up. The Wizard Hunters, the first book of The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, I’d heard positive noises about, so I picked it as one of my twelve books. And it’s sat on my TBR ever since. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read as part of reading challenge – it probably stacks up better against the other books I’d chosen back then, when I was a little more receptive to epic fantasy. Now, reading The Wizard Hunters I found myself mostly bored, and annoyed at how bad a lot of the writing was. Often I’d have to go back and reread something because Wells’ prose wasn’t clear enough – there was a line, which I now can’t find, of course, in which the main protagonist Tremaine shakes her head and then puts it to one side. Tremaine was, I admit, fun; as was her companion, Florian (a woman in the book, even though the name is masculine; but never mind); and I did like the mix of magic and early twentieth-century technology…  But it took too long for the story get moving, the writing bounced from serviceable to bad, and there was far too much back-story the reader was expected to know. I won’t be, er, hunting down the sequels.

Nine months in and I’m still alternating genders in my fiction reading. I fully expect it to be 50:50 come 31 December. Admittedly, I still have a way to go before I have gender-parity on my book-shelves, but I’m always on the look-out for sf novels by women writers for SF Mistressworks and books by female literary fiction writers – especially post-war British literary fiction, such as that by Olivia Manning or Elizabeth Taylor, so if anyone has any suggestions for similar authors I’d be very grateful.


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Future fashions…

The September issue of Litro Magazine, #137, is out now, so if you’re in London pick yourself up a copy. Each issue of Litro is themed, and this month’s theme is Future fashions. Hence my story in the issue, ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’, which is about Apollo astronauts and space age fashion designers such as André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin and Emilio Pucci. There’s also fiction and poetry by Ivor W Hartmann, Tosin Coker, Ryan Van Winkle, Walé Oyéjidé and Efe Tokunbo, plus an article on future fashion in cinema by Claire Smith.

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Moving pictures, #8

2014 seems to be turning into the year of films. According to my records, I’d watched more films by the end of June 2014 than I had during all twelve months of 2013. Which is unfortunate, as I’m supposed to be a writer and a book reviewer, not a film critic. Oh well. Normal service will resume… soon, I hope.

johnny_guitarJohnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray (1954, USA) Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a gunslinger who has swapped his revolvers for a guitar. He drifts into town and poles up at a saloon owned by Joan Crawford, who proves to be an ex-lover. But it’s Crawford’s character who’s the focus of this film, not the eponymous musician. She’s banking on a planned railroad making her very rich. The town worthies aren’t happy with this – they think they should profit. So they drum up some citizen outrage on a pretext (the blatantly-wrong accusation that a regular of the saloon had held up the stagecoach), and good old Wild West “justice” subsequently ensues. This is one of those films where the plot is driven by a bunch of people behaving like complete shits for no good reason, particularly the character played by Mercedes McCambridge. An interesting twist on the Western genre, and Crawford plays a good part – but it’s still very Hollywood.

breakingBreaking The Waves, Lars von Trier (1996, Denmark) I think this is only the second film by von Trier I’ve seen – and the first was Melancholia (2011), which looked beautiful but the climax was complete tosh. Like Melancholia, Breaking The Waves centres on a young woman, here played by Emily Watson. She marries a Norwegian oil rig worker, played by Swede Stellan Skarsgård, despite the reservations of her close-knit strictly Calvinist Highlands community. Soon after, Skarsgård is paralysed in an accident on the rig. Confined to a hospital bed, he persuades Watson to have sex with other men and then recount the details to him. Eventually, the village finds out about this… Watson is good, managing to convey a child-like simplicity and devotion to God which pretty much makes the story. The film is split into chapters, each of which opens with a well-known song from the 1970s, the decade in which the film is set… but there was something a little off about them, as if they were played by cover artists trying hard to sound like the original artists. It was slightly weird. Nonetheless, I think I’ll add some more von Trier to the rental list.

hirokinHirokin : The Last Samurai, Alejo Mo-Sun (2012, USA) There was a trailer for this on a rental DVD I watched and it looked sort of interesting. So I checked it out, discovered it was a couple of quid on Amazon and bunged it on the end of an order. I was robbed. It really is truly dreadful. I should have guessed – it’s a sf film and it has Julian Sands in it. Though Sands has appeared in a number of good films, none of them were genre. In fact, his presence in a genre film is a good indication it will be shite. As this one was. The writer/director had obviously seen Dune and decided it needed more Star Wars in it. Sort of. On a desert world conquered by humans and ruled by evil dictator Sands, Wes Bentley plays a rogue human who takes up with one of the indigenous aliens – who look just like humans, except when they hold their hands up and you can see black veins on their palms. Anyway, Sands’ stormtroopers are searching for the aliens’ rebel leader and take Bentley’s partner prisoner. He has to fight to the death for her, but fails (she dies, not him). He sort of joins the rebels, learns how to fight samurai-style in the most ineptly-choreographed fight scenes I’ve ever seen, and then goes off to overthrow Sands. Or something, Watching this film, I could only wonder who’d been daft enough to invest it – people with far too much money… and either an appalling taste in films or a complete inability to recognise shite, obviously.

martycdcoversccfrontMarty, Delbert Mann (1955, USA) Ernest Borgnine plays a butcher who lives with his mother, but he’s getting on a bit and everyone tells him it’s time to get married. And I mean everyone. But he’s not had much luck with the ladies. One night at a local dance hall while on the pull, he bumps into shy schoolteacher Betsy Blair, whose date has dumped her after running into a much prettier friend. The two spend time together, and discover a mutual attraction. But afterwards, his mother tells Borgnine that Blair is not good enough and his friends tell him that Blair isn’t pretty enough. So even though he promised to call her the next day, he doesn’t. But then he changes his mind, and decides he liked her very much so it’s up to him and not his mother or friends. He calls her. (And they all lived happily ever after.) Marty won the Oscar for Best Film in 1955, and it’s a nice enough film, a well-observed drama with a good cast. Interestingly, Blair had been blacklisted for Communist sympathies, but her husband Gene Kelly lobbied for her to get the role, and he had enough clout in Hollywood to swing it.

hulotLes Vacances de M. Hulot, Jacques Tati (1953, France) My first Tati. The title character goes on, er, holiday. To the seaside. It’s sort of like Mr Bean, but the humour is more gentle and Hulot himself is a normal – if clumsy – human being. The plot is a series of set-pieces set in the town Hulot is visiting, most involving the other residents of the hotel in which he is staying. There’s an extended sequence with a horse and another with a shed full of fireworks… In fact, the more I think about the film, the more it strikes me how much of a rip-off of it that Mr Bean was. Although perhaps Mr Bean’s makers would claim it was an homage. Anyway, Tati’s is a good film and definitely worth seeing.

bombersBombers B-52, Gordon Douglas (1957, USA) I bet you can’t guess what this film is about. Go on, try. Yup, it’s about Boeing B-52 Stratofortress jet bombers. They first flew in 1955, and are still bombing the shit out of brown people even today. However, they’re complicated aircraft, and USAF clearly felt they might need more technical ground staff to keep them flying – hence Bombers B-52, starring Karl Malden, Efrem Zimbalist Jr and Natalie Wood. Zimbalist is an officer and a pilot, Malden is a tech sergeant and he hates Zimbalist. So when Zimbalist starts dating Malden’s daughter, Wood, Malden is understandably peeved. He decides to resign from USAF. But they’re getting these hot new B-52 bombers in and Zimbalist, who can’t understand why Malden hates him (neither, to be honest, do we), wants Malden to stay on. They go on a test flight, some fancy new equipment bursts into flames – bit of a design flaw there – and fills the B-52 with smoke. Everyone bales out, except Zimbalist, who’s piloting the aircraft. He brings it in to a safe landing. Meanwhile, rescue helicopters have found all of the crew except Malden. So Zimbalist steals a chopper and goes looking for him. And finds him. The two have to survive overnight in the wilds of California and become best buddies, and so Zimbalist is free to marry Wood. The end. There’s some good aerial photography in the film, though.

madamedeMadame De…, Max Ophüls (1953, France) This is around the third or fourth film by Ophüls I’ve seen and, I think, the best of them. The title character, whose surname is never given, is the wife of a French general and has a busy social calendar. To fund her activities, she sells a pair of diamond earrings given to her by her husband. She pretends to have lost them, but the jeweller to whom she sold them tells the general and he buys them back… and gives them to his mistress. But the mistress then sells them to pay off some debts, and they’re bought by an Italian count, played by director Vittorio De Sica, who then meets Madame de…, enters into a relationship with her, and gives her the earrings as a token of his love… The film is set, I think, around the turn of last century, and it’s the focus on appearances which drives the plot – and leads to its resolution. Apparently, Ophüls originally planned to shoot the entire film through reflective surfaces, such as mirrors, which would have been cool but the producers nixed the idea – which is not to say the end result is a disappointment. I’ve yet to fully appreciate Ophül’s films (unlike those of other directors mentioned in this blog post), but Madame De… is the first of his films I’ve watched which persuades me it’s worth seeing more of his movies.

PIONEER_DVDPioneer, Erik Skjordbærg (2013, Norway) I’d been keen to see this film since first learning of it last year. But it had a stupidly limited release in the UK – my nearest showing was 8 pm on a single Friday night in Leeds, an hour away by train. The film is set in the early 1980s in Norway, just as the country is starting to develop its oil and gas resources. The Norwegians have accepted US help in putting together the saturation systems needed for divers to work at depth. But something goes wrong on a test dive, a Norwegian diver dies, and his brother, also a diver and present when the accident occurred, tries to figure out what’s going on… I was really looking forward to this movie since saturation diving is not a topic often covered in films. And the underwater photography in Pioneer is actually quite stunning… But the rest of the film felt like a routine thriller – Bentley glowers menacingly, Aksel Hennie bounces from mysterious scientist to mendacious politician to grieving sister-in-law… While the film certainly has that stark realism the Scandinavians do so well – and Hollywood does so badly – the plot does seem disappointingly ordinary. On the other hand, as far as I could tell its subject was handled accurately.

palmbeachThe Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges (1942, USA) This has to be one of the silliest films I’ve ever seen. It definitely puts the “screwball” in “screwball comedy”. The film opens with a quick montage of shots which shows a man and a woman overpowering their twin brother and sister, who are about to get married, and taking their places at the wedding. Some time later, life isn’t so rosy, so hubby Joel McCrea decides to head south to look for work and be less of a burden on wife Claudette Colbert. She goes looking for him and manages to wangle a free ride on a train with a bunch of drunken hunting lodge-members… before being rescued by eccentric millionaire Rudy Vallée, who is very taken with her. McCrea then turns up, so Colbert pretends he is her brother… prompting Vallée to propose to Colbert – and Vallée’s ex-wife Mary Astor to propose to McCrea… Happily, there are those twins from the opening montage. While there’s plenty of fast-paced wit and snappy one-liners in The Palm Beach Story, the story is so ridiculous it spoils it all.

gertrud-dvdGertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964, Denmark) This was a rewatch – I’d originally seen the film on rental DVD, but was later bought a copy of it and Ordet for my birthday. The film is based on a play from 1906 and Dreyer gives it a very theatrical staging. It’s his last movie, and on the strength of it I’m keen to see more. Nina Pens Rode, in the title role, is the wife of a prominent lawyer who is about to be given a position in government. But she wants a divorce – she even has a lover, composer and pianist Baard Owe. But the pianist has made another women pregnant and so cannot go with Gertrud. There’s a luminous quality to this film, one that’s emphasised by its staginess. Rode is especially good in the title role, dominating every scene she’s in with a quiet strength… as is clearly evident in the coda in which Gertrud looks back on the events of the film from thirty years later and sees no cause to regret her actions all those years earlier. A film that’s just bubbling under my top ten movies.

cap_americaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony & Joe Russo (2014, USA) I’ve no idea why I continue to watch MCU movies, perhaps it’s just foolishness – I see the hype and promotion and stupidly believe it. Or something. To be fair, I did quite enjoy Captain America: The First Avenger, with its weird Nazi science and silly spoof of the title character. But this sequel is set in the present day, and despite the massive hype and the many positive murmurings I’ve heard, is just complete bobbins. It turns out that SHIELD has been controlled by Hydra, the Red Skull’s organisation from the first film, ever since Operation Paper Clip shortly after WWII. And no one ever noticed. In fact, the only reason Cap discovers this is because SHIELD tries to kill him. Even Nick Fury doesn’t know – and he created SHIELD! The Red Skull, of course, died at the end of the first film, but his chief scientist, played by Toby Jones, survived, and he’s now the brains behind Hydra. Well, not “brains”, as he’s uploaded himself into a load of 1960s mainframe computers. Which are located in a seemingly-abandoned underground computer centre at an old SHIELD base, an underground computer-centre that appears to have no security. Not very clever that. The rest of the film is some nonsense about an unkillable assassin, there’s more explosions and fight scenes than you can shake a very large stick at, and as the movie progresses you can actually feel your brain cells dying off one by one.

allthatheavenAll That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) My high opinion of this film is no secret. I love it so much, in fact, I bought the Criterion blu-ray edition, despite already owning it on DVD. So I was bit fucked off to discover that the blu-ray is region-locked. And unlocking my blu-ray player is going to involve some faffing around with firmware or something. Argh. So I watched the DVD edition packaged with the blu-ray instead. And… it really is a beautiful film. The more I watch it, the more I love it. It’s not just that it looks so good, but also that it’s a pitch-perfect satire of middle-class American society. The grown-up kids, who behave like actual kids, are spot-on – although the daughter’s beau, played by David Janssen, seems somewhat out of his depth – and the part where they buy their mother Jane Wyman a television set, as if that’s all she needs now she’s a widow, is pure genius. I’ve watched All That Heaven Allows two or three times in recent months – partly for research for Apollo Quartet 4, of course – and my appreciation remains undimmed. Even the hokey bits – the deer! – don’t turn me off. I love the film so much, I even tracked down a copy of the novel it’s based on – and it wasn’t easy to find.


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To York and beyond – Fantasycon 2014

So that was the new all-improved Fantasycon, and you know what? It was a bloody good con. The hotel was nice, if expensive, but it had an excellent real ale pub next-door and was five minutes walk from the city centre (and hence many fooderies). The company was convivial, and from what I heard the programme was successful. Okay, so the bar smelt of chlorine (which prompted me to start quoting Wilfred Owen at one point) and it was stinking hot in there on the Sunday; but at least the beer wasn’t massively expensive for a hotel (£4.40 a pint). My room was a single, and I’m just not used to sleeping in a single bed any more and nearly fell out of it a couple of times; but the room’s bathroom was enormous, almost as large as the room itself.

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And speaking of bathrooms, the gents toilets on the ground floor were like something out of Hogwarts and quite amazing – tessellated floor, marble fitments and an enormous skylight above the centre of the room.

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I spent most of Fantasycon chatting to people – old friends and new friends – in the bar and in the dealers’ room. It would be impossible to name them all, but I should definitely give a shout-out to Gillian Polack, the 2014 GUFF race winner, who had come all the way from Australia (albeit chiefly for Loncon 3, of course). I can’t recall much of what the weekend’s many conversations were about, but I remember getting a loud groan out of about a dozen people with the Saeed story one night.

The con ended with the British Fantasy Awards – congrats to all the winners – and I left for home not too long afterwards. That was a nightmare – unlike the very pleasant journey to York. A four-coach train from Edinburgh to Reading, so naturally it was packed solid and I spent the journey home standing. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long trip. The next government in power seriously needs to renationalise the rolling stock companies, and I don’t care if it means some of their rich friends end up out of pocket. In fact, I’d welcome it if they do.

Finally, no con report would be complete without a list of the books I came home with. For the second con running, I managed to purchase books only by female authors. The books by male authors pictured below were all freebies – except for the Calvino, which I bought in Oxfam on Micklegate.

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These were among the freebies available when you registered – although pretty much the entire Moorcock series was there, I already had most of them in the Fantasy Masterwork editions… but not The Eternal Champion and Von Bek (which weren’t in the Masterwork series anyway). David Tallerman is a friend and I picked up his book, Crown Thief, so he could sign a copy for me. Extinction Game didn’t appear on the freebie table until the Saturday, and I’d been intending to buy it so that saved me a bob or two. A dealer at the con was selling off a large stock of unwanted review copies all weekend for £1 each (and 50p on the Sunday), but after the dealers’ room closed for the banquet and awards ceremony, they dumped their remaining books in the hotel foyer for people to take for free – which is where I spotted The Suicide Exhibition, when my eye was caught by the Nazi eagle, flying saucer and black sun logo on the cover…

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School For Love and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller I bought in the Oxfam on Micklegate, when Mhairi Simpson, Kev McVeigh and myself went for a wander on the Saturday afternoon. The Start of the End of it All, on the other hand, Kev picked up for me from a dealer at Loncon 3, and brought to Fantasycon.

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I decided to pick up some more of Nina Allan’s work and, fortunately, although not unexpectedly, both PS Publishing (Stardust) and Eibonvale Press (The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth) had tables in the dealers’ room. Changing Planes I bought from the aforementioned dealer with all the review copies.

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All bought in the dealers’ room – Langue[dt]doc 1305 from Gillian herself, Mars Evacuees from the table run by Fantasycon, and vN and Walking the Tree from the review-copies dealer.

Next year’s Fantasycon is apparently back in Nottingham, but in the East Midlands Conference Centre rather than the horrible Britannia Hotel. I’m certainly considering going…


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Science fiction has lost the plot

I recently finished The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which was not published as science fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award last year. In it, a flu pandemic has killed 99% of the population of the US, and the survivors have, of course, turned to warlordism and survivalism. It’s not a very good book – its presence on that shortlist is, frankly, mystifying. One character appears to be ripped off from John Goodman’s part, Walter Sobchak, in The Big Lebowski; and the narrator apparently suffered minor brain damage previously from a bout of meningitis and so narrates the novel in mildly-broken English… which serves no purpose in the story at all.

Anyway, warlordism and survivalism… There’s a long tradition of such post-apocalypse tales in science fiction and I’m sure we can all think of at least half-a-dozen examples. I’ve objected before to the assumption that the survivors of any apocalypse would immediately start killing each other, when clearly cooperation is the only sustainable strategy for survival.

And then there’s the dystopia, a much-beloved setting for YA. In almost all cases, a privileged elite enjoy lives of luxury while the bulk of the population either scrabble for a living below the poverty line, or are rigorously oppressed with no freedom to object; or both. I can understand the dystopia’s appeal for the YA market. In order to “break” the setting, which is the point of the story, the protagonist needs to be a super-special snowflake – which not only feeds into teenage narcissism but also relies upon, and reinforces, the risible “Great Man of History” theory, which is itself the sort of nonsense kids believe.

It could be argued that such dystopias only reflect the real world, that their popularity is a symptom of the times we live in. Perhaps that’s true. Certainly the UK is currently governed by a cabal of greedy fascists who are hell-bent on selling off as much of the country as possible to their plutocrat friends. There is not much difference between Downing Street and Panem’s Capitol.

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It strikes me that these two branches of science fiction are actually conditioning us to accept our current situation. Dystopia readers are waiting for a Katniss – and then everything will be all right. Post-apocalypse readers know they’re currently better-off, even if they’re being oppressed, than they would be with gangs of marauding slavers, rapists and murderers roaming the countryside. Science fiction was once a literature which encouraged change, which explored ways and means to effect changes. Now it’s comfort reading, it makes us feel good about our reduced circumstances because at least we’re not suffering as much as the fictional characters we read about.

And if it’s not apocalypses and dystopias, it’s interplanetary or interstellar wars. Making us feel good about our governments’ military adventurism. And fictional universes that embody so many libertarian sensibilities it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that right-wing politics are not the default mode for the genre. Even left-wing authors create worlds built on right-wing principles, as if dramatic stories were impossible any other way. Which is simply not true.

Once upon a time, science fiction was driven by an outward urge. True, we know a great deal more about our planet and our universe than we did then. But there is still a lot we don’t know – the depths of the oceans, for example, remain mostly unexplored. We’ve found over 1800 exoplanets, but the furthest we’ve trod is our own moon, 400,000 km away – and that was over forty years ago anyway. What happened to that urge? Where are the science fiction novels inspired by it? I can perhaps think of only a handful published in the past twelve to eighteen months which might qualify.

The bulk of sf currently being published seems more designed to accommodate us to our meagre lot. It’s not holding up a mirror to our times, it is complicit with those forces which shape the modern world. It is telling tales to maintain the status quo by showing just how improbable, how impossible, meaningful change is.

A friend is currently trying to put together a list of sf novels about climate change – and it’s perhaps telling that most such science fictions take place after the climate has crashed. It’s almost as if we’re unable to prevent it – it’s going to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Except, of course, there is. There are lots of things we could do. But certain powerful interests in the modern world don’t want the changes preventing climate crash would entail. So we have become resigned to consuming stories in which climate crash is a faît accompli.

Back in 1926 when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of his magazine and so created the genre, he saw “scientifiction” as a possible force for good. And it’s certainly true that fiction can have profound effects on the real world – and not just in terms of inspiring nerds to invent new gadgets. These days, however, science fiction has all importance of middle-class fad foodstuffs. We consume it like we consume Greek yoghurt – and it’s not even that, it’s more like a bee flew over a pot which was then filled with curdled milk from a dog they found wandering the back streets of Athens…

So what went wrong? When did we become so resigned to the present, so resigned to our powerlessness, that we began to ignore not only change but the possibility of change in our science fictions? And what can we do about it?


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Book haul

Things must be bad – I’ve not done one of these posts for a couple of months, and yet there only seems to be about a month’s worth of book purchases to document. Of course, this has resulted in a small victory in reducing the TBR, although it’s still somewhat mountainous… I’d actually planned to keep my purchasing at low levels for a couple of months but, of course, as is the way of things, several authors whose books I read all had new works out – August and September seems to be a popular time to release books. Unless you’re Whippleshield Books, that is…

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Some new first editions and an old one. Research is Philip Kerr’s latest, and about a James Patterson-like writer who’s framed for the murder of his wife. Let’s hope it’s not a James Patterson-like book… Dark Lightning is the fourth in Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series, following on from Red Thunder, Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder. I initially thought these were YA, but I don’t think they actually are. All Those Vanished Engines is a new novel by a favourite writer, and the first from him since the Princess of Roumania quartet back in 2005 – 2008. I am excited about this book. Finally, Rubicon by Agnar Mykle is one by mother found for me. I looked it up and it sounded interesting so she got it for me. Mykle seems to be Norway’s answer to DH Lawrence – his Sangen om den røde rubin (1956, The Song of the Red Ruby) was confiscated as immoral and obscene. Rubicon is the third book in a loose trilogy begun with The Song of the Red Ruby. If Rubicon is any good, I might track down Mykle’s other works.

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Some recent paperback purchases: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I bought because Karen Joy Fowler. I’ve been following Kinsey Millhone’s career for a couple of decades and W is for Wasted is the most recent installment. Grafton has kept the series’ internal chronology consistent, which means this one is actually set in 1988. Which sort of makes it historical crime fiction. Milton In America was a charity shop find. And Eric sent me a copy of his latest, a steampunk set in India, Jani and the Greater Game.

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Now this is very annoying. I’d been impressed by Léo’s Aldebaran and Betelgeuse series, so I was keen to read Antares. From Wikipedia, I learnt there were five episodes in Antares, so I waited until the final volume was published in English by Cinebook… and then bought all five books. But it ends on a cliff-hanger! Argh. It’s not finished. So now I’m going to have to wait to find out what happens.

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The DH Lawrence collection continues to grow. My father had the first two volumes of the Cambridge biography of DH Lawrence – The Early Years 1885-1912 and Triumph to Exile 1912-1922 – and I hung onto them. But I hadn’t realised it was a trilogy, and when I started looking for a copy of the final volume, Dying Game 1922-1930, I discovered that hardback editions were hard to find. But I found one. I also have a couple more 1970s Penguin paperbacks to add to the collection: St Mawr / The Virgin and the Gypsy (a pair of novellas) and England, My England (a collection). I probably have their contents in other books, but I’m trying to build up a set of these particular paperback editions.

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Some critical works on women science fiction writers. The Feminine Eye, edited by Tom Staicar, includes essays on Tiptree, Brackett, Moore, Norton, Cherryh and others. Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts is a collection of Joanna Russ’s essays on feminism. And The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a study of, from the back cover blurb, “the role of women and feminism in the development of American science fiction” and I really need to read it for Apollo Quartet 4…

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More books for the aviation collection. USAF Interceptors is a collection of black and white photos of, er, interceptor jet aircraft from the Cold War. Not as useful as I’d hoped. Convair Advanced Designs II is the follow-on volume to, um, Convair Advanced Designs, this time focusing on fighters and attack aircraft. And for the space books collection, Russian Spacesuits, which I used for research for my Gagarin on Mars story – and will likely use again at some point.

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Finally, more books for the underwater collection. The Greatest Depths by Gardner Soule is a quick and not especially, er, deep study of underwater exploration and exploitation. It covers the main points, including the Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep and the Ben Franklin’s journey along the Gulf Stream. A Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles does exactly what it says on the cover. It was cheap on eBay (although I demanded, and received, a partial refund because it turned out to be a bit tatty). And The Deep Sea is a glossy coffee-table book containing some nice photos of things at the bottom of the sea.

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