It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The long and short of it

Shameful confession time. I write short fiction, but I don’t read as much of it as I should. It’s not like I have an excuse. I subscribe to a number of print magazines, and I regularly visit the sites of several online magazines. But between my own writing, and reading novels and non-fiction, I never seem to find the time to read the short stuff they publish.

This doesn’t mean I never read short stories. Just that I think I should read more. I suspect that most of the stories I read these days are in single-author collections. I do read the occasional anthology – I reviewed The New Space Opera 2 for Interzone, for instance – although it’s usually their theme which prompts me to buy them.

Obviously, I have a very good reason for wanting to increase my intake of short fiction – to help improve my own. But I’d also like to be in a position to make informed choices when it comes to nominating stories for awards.

So, for 2010, I plan to make more of an effort. I will read every issue of Interzone as it arrives. I will read every issue of Postscripts as it arrives. And Jupiter too. I will read the stories published in the online magazines I visit – Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Subterranean Online, Futurismic, DayBreak, and any others I might have neglected to mention.

And when I find any that especially impress me, I think I shall mention them here.


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w00f! A story sold

My story ‘Barker’, a re-imagining of the flight of Laika, the first dog in space, as an American man, has been bought by New Horizons, one of the British Fantasy Society’s two journals.

New Horizons is biannual, and my story will appear in the December 2010 issue.

Don’t forget that Postscripts #20/21 ‘Edison’s Frankenstein’ is currently available from PS Publishing. It contains my story ‘Killing the Dead’.

And keep an eye open for Jupiter #28, due in April, which will contain the second of my Euripidean Space stories, ‘A Cold Dish’.


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The first readings & watchings of 2010

Not read all that many books, or watched many films,  since the last one of these I did. Never mind.

Books
The Night of the Mi’raj, Zoë Ferraris (2008), is a literary murder-mystery set in Saudi. According to the one-line bio, the author “lived in a conservative Muslim community in Jeddah”, but I’m not entirely convinced. Some details ring false. There’s a reference to the “rear hump” of a camel – two-humped Bactrian camels are only found in Asia; in Arabia, they have one-humped Dromedaries. Ferraris also mentions “pita bread”, which is Mediterranean – in the Gulf, it is Arab bread, or khubz. Domestic staff in the Gulf are also typically Filipino, not Indonesian – in fact, I don’t think I ever met any Indonesians in the Gulf. Ferraris also mis-uses alhumdil’Allah, she writes bazaar instead of suq; and I heard it called a dishdasha more often than a thobe, and gutra or shamgh rather than keffiyeh (which is Palestinian). The novel’s two main characters, a religious desert guide of Palestinian origin, and a modern Jeddah woman who works in the women’s laboratory at the city coroner’s, are handled well, although both seem suspiciously good at English.

Dinosaur Junction, Ann Halam (1992). It’s taken me years to hunt down a copy of this book and, well, I must admit it wasn’t exactly worth the wait. It’s one of Halam’s weaker efforts. After the superb Inland trilogy – The Daymaker, Transformations and The Skybreaker – this is a disappointment. Her next book, The Haunting Of Jessica Raven, is much better – and had a different publisher; and Jones once told me that Dinosaur Junction had got “lost” in the change of publishers. The central premise, a young boy called Ben hunts fossils and gets embroiled in a plot by his sister to grow a dinosaur from DNA, just doesn’t seem to hang together plausibly. Having said that, Ben’s sister, Rowan, is an interesting character – an ambitious schemer, who admires Napoleon and Machiavelli. You don’t meet young female characters like her in many books. I did wonder if the setting, a town called New Bruton, was named for the architectural style of Brutalism.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005). Crowley is a writer I greatly admire, but his books are not ones you can knock off in a weekend. And that’s probably more true of this one than most. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land is a novel of three interwoven parts. The framing narrative is presented as a number of email exchanges. Smith (a nickname) is the UK researching for a web site on women in science the life of Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and, for her work with Babbage on his Difference Engine, often considered the first ever programmer. But the site’s patron in the UK has come into possession of some papers of Ada’s. And in among them – encrypted by Ada – is the entire text of an unknown prose novel written by Lord Byron himself. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land presents this novel. The third part is Ada’s notes on the novel. Many years ago, I read Robert Nye’s The Memoirs of Lord Byron, but I remember nothing about it. Which is unfortunate, as Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land is a novel which is clearly improved by knowledge of Byron and his works. Certainly Crowley’s channelling of the Romantic poet convinced me – although some of the email exchanges didn’t quite. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land is, of course, beautifully written. If this novel doesn’t make my best of the year list for 2010, it’ll certainly get an honourable mention…

Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings (1982), was the first book of this year’s reading challenge. see my review here.

The Rim World series – The Rim of Space, When the Dream Dies, Bring Back Yesterday and Beyond the Galactic Rim – A Bertram Chandler (1961 – 1963). When Sphere chose to publish Chandler’s Rim World series in the UK twenty years after they’d been published in the US by DAW, they did so for only four of the six books. They also retitled the second book – from Rendezvous On A Lost World to When the Dream Dies (which is actually a better title). Having now read all four books, I have to wonder why they bothered. I have vague memories of reading and enjoying Chandler when I was in my early teens – they had several in my local library. But these four really are quite poor. Chandler was a merchant marine officer, and while that gives him a certain authority when it comes to describing the operations of starships in his invented universe, the actual level of invention shown in his far-future interstellar merchant service is pretty low. All the starships are the pointy rockets of yore. They don’t have internal gravity; and their FTL is the Mannschenn Drive, which uses “gyroscopic precession”. There are no computers. The men are men, and the women exist to either serve them or act as love interest – they’re “Catering Officers” aboard the ships, or they fall for the protagonist (most of whom are pretty unlikeable, yet the women are uniformly beautiful). The stories themselves are no better. The Rim of Space is essentially a travelogue, in which the protagonist joins Rimrunners and visits several worlds of the Rim – and upon which he has adventures. When the Dream Dies is nonsense – a “gaussjammer” is “blown off course” and crash-lands on a world run a by a single AI called Central Control. It wants to look after the humans, but they want to return home. Which they do, with the help of four gorgeous robot women, created for their amusement but operated by Auxiliary Control – the “feminine aspect” of the masculine Central Control. Pfft. Bring Back Yesterday starts well enough – man misses his ship by over-sleeping, has little or no prospects, but is then hired by a detective agency. Which wants him to break into the laboratory of a reclusive billionaire scientist who was invented time travel. But it turns out the spacer is part of the causal time loop. Chandler is overly fond of “as you know”, and perpetrates some of the most inelegant info-dumping I’ve ever come across, but this one also has dirty great signposts to the end placed throughout the story. Finally, Beyond the Galactic Rim is a collection of four stories, each of which features the faults of the three preceding novels, but in less words.

Machine Sex and Other Stories, Candas Jane Dorsey (1988). The Women’s Press used to publish some good science fiction back in the 1980s and 1990s. As I don’t recall seeing any of their books for a while, I assumed they’d packed in. Apparently not – their website is here. Perhaps they no longer have the distribution they once had. But. Dorsey is a Canadian sf writer. She won the James Tiptree Award in 1997, for her novel Black Wine. Machine Sex and Other Stories – my edition is published by The Women’s Press – is my first exposure to her fiction, and… There are a couple of stories I liked – ‘The Prairie Warriors’ and its sequel of sorts, ‘War and Rumours of War’. ‘Sleeping in a Box’ is also quite good. But there are a couple of experimental pieces I didn’t like at all; and several others were written in that sort of elliptical prose which refuses to focus on the actual story – and that doesn’t really appeal to me.

Films
Push, dir. Paul McGuigan (2009). There’s a lot in Push which resembles Jumper. Well, the central premise for a start – anti-authoritarian teens with ESP. In Push, they’re trying to prevent the mysterious organisation which controls their kind, Division, a part of the US government, from gaining access to a drug which will take their powers to the next level. Except the anti-division teens don’t know what it is they’re after, or why. The film is set in Hong Kong, and is kinetically edited – but otherwise it’s very much like other films of its type.

Triple Agent, dir. Eric Rohmer (2004), was one of those films you stick on your rental list because it looks vaguely interesting, but when it hits the top of your list some indeterminate time later, and is sent to you, you wonder what it was that caused you to pick it. And then you stick it in the DVD-player and watch it… And you’re really glad you put it on your rental list. Triple Agent is slow, not very dramatic, and covers a period of French history I know little or nothing about (France between the wars). Serge Renko plays his character, White Russian emigré Voronin, very close, so you’re never entirely sure what’s going on. And you feel sorry for his Greek wife, played by Katerina Didaskoulou, who clearly hasn’t a clue either. But Triple Agent slowly draws you into its story, and when it finishes you’re never quite sure it’s over. Sadly, Eric Rohmer died earlier this year – Triple Agent may be the first film by him I’ve seen, but on the strength of it I stuck a few more on the rental list.

Un Coeur En Hiver, dir. Claude Sautet (1992), is one of those films the French do so well. Two men run a violin-repair business, but when business owner Maxime starts seeing violin soloist Camille, expert violin-maker and introvert Stéphane finds himself jealous. Camille is also attracted to him. Sautet handles the relationship between the three perfectly – and the three actors – André Dusollier, Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Béart – handled their roles also perfectly. An excellent film.

Fringe – Season 1 (2008). I’d seen a couple of episodes of this, and it looked interesting enough for me to bung it on my Amazon wish list. And happily I received the DVD boxed set for Christmas. Having now watched the first season, I have every intention of getting the second season. Obviously, parallels with The X Files, another TV programme I liked a great deal, are obvious – if not even deliberate. But like Mulder and Scully were very much products of their time, so are Dunham, Francis, Broyles and the two Bishops. Fringe succeeds when it focuses on “fringe science” and its “canon” episodes, but is less successful when it throws in some CSI/US television fantasy science technology – you know, all that software which can do magical things with trace evidence. The whole “war with alternate earth” series arc is warming up nicely, although the producers are making a bit of meal out of the connection with multinational technology company Massive Dynamic. The cast are good – John Noble as Walter Bishop especially – and I really like the way they introduce each location with those floating letters.

The Postman, dir. Kevin Costner (1997). Readers of this blog will be aware that I have watched a great many crap sf films – B-movies, straight-to-video and straight-to-DVD. A lot of those crap films were set in a post-apocalyptic USA. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about the US after the apocalypse. Sadly, most of them should have kept their mouths shut. And that’s as true of The Postman as it is of any other film of its type – and probably more true for the novel by David Brin from which the film was adapted. Ten minutes into The Postman and I was irritated – by Costner’s bad acting, by the cartoon evil villains, by the silly Thunderdome quarry in which the baddies live, by how unrealistic the world of the film looks… A lot of those crap post-apocalypse films I’ve watched were better than this.

Slumdog Millionaire, dir. Danny Boyle (2008). There’s not much you can say about this that’s not already been said. It’s both a feel-good film and deeply upsetting. Perhaps the story’s manipulativeness gets a bit wearying after a while, but it was a deserved winner of the Oscar for Best Picture – certainly a better film than many that have won that award.

The Last Man on Earth, dir. Sidney Salkow (1964), is the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. It’s also the one that’s the most faithful to the book. Vincent Price plays the scientist who is the sole person not infected with the virus which has turned everyone else into vampires. The Last Man on Earth didn’t have the budget of the Charlton Heston or Will Smith versions, so the vampires look a bit crap and the emptiness of the city doesn’t convince quite as much. But it has a great deal more charm than the other films.

Jar City, dir. Baltasar Kormákur (2006), is an Icelandic thriller, and a pretty good one. Having said that, it can’t have done much for the country’s tourist industry. Iceland looks especially grim in this film. The plot is the sort of story which would fill up an hour, or two hours, of a UK thriller drama – perhaps even something like Waking the Dead. A man is found murdered, and it proves to be linked to a rape he committed, and was not charged with, twenty years earlier. A police inspector and his team need to solve both crimes in order to learn the identity and motive of the murderer. Definitely worth renting.

Cries And Whispers, dir. Ingrid Bergman (1972). Many of Bergman’s movies feel like plays captured on film. Bizarrely, this one felt more like a short story. Perhaps it’s the opening narration, perhaps it was the discreteness of the scenes which made up the story. Set at the turn of the twentieth century in Sweden, three sisters and their maid live in a large country mansion. One of the sisters is dying, and her condition is splitting the sisters apart. Like many of Bergman’s films, parts of this are quite harrowing. Other parts are beautifully filmed. and the whole is beautifully acted. A bit grim, but one of his good ones.


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Fantasy Challenge 1: Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings

My first choice of genre might well be science fiction, but I’ve also read a lot of fantasy. But not The Belgariad by David Eddings, for some reason. Perhaps it felt like too much of a cash-in on the popularity of the genre – back in the 1980s – so I gave it a miss. I don’t know. But I’ve now read the first book of the series. And…

I don’t think I missed anything.

Pawn of Prophecy is the first of five books known collectively as The Belgariad. It was first published in 1982, and is still in print now. But as a YA fantasy.

Garion is a fourteen-year-old orphan, who lives on a farmstead in central Sendaria. His guardian, Aunt Pol, is the cook. One day, a nameless storyteller – subsequently named Mister Wolf by Garion – makes one of his infrequent visits to the farmstead. Apparently, something very important has been stolen from somewhere, and Mister Wolf needs to discuss this with Aunt Pol. Which he does. The two decide to hunt down the thief and retrieve the stolen item. Afraid to leave Garion on his own at the farmstead – he is clearly more than just a simple orphan – they take him with them. Also accompanying them is the farm’s blacksmith, Durnik, who fancies Aunt Pol. They are then joined by Barak, a huge Viking-like warrior, and Silk, a weaselly merchant/spy.

The intrepid band head to Darine, a city on the north coast of Sendaria, but miss their quarry. So they head south to a trading city, then across to a major port, before being accosted by a platoon of royal guards and escorted north again – but this time to the Sendarian capital. Where they meet the king, and Mister Wolf, Aunt Pol, Barak and Silk are revealed as rather more important personages than they purported to be. And they’re needed yet further north at Val Alorn, the capital of Cherek, for a meeting of kings.

At Val Alorn, Garion kills a boar in a hunt, unmasks a spy, learns more about Mister Wolf and Aunt Pol, and learns a little more about who he is.

There is, plainly, nothing new here. There wasn’t back in 1982. The Belgariad is the very definition of a secondary world fantasy. Pawn of Prophecy even opens with a creation myth as a prologue – and which so clearly sets the plot of the series that the real natures of the central cast can only have come as a surprise to a complete nincompoop. In fact, there is very much a sense about Pawn of Prophecy of it being a manufactured book, as if it were written to a checklist. Perhaps this is because it’s so clichéd.

Each of the nations on the continent – there is, of course, the obligatory map at the front of the book – has a single characteristic. Sendaria is populated by practical peasants (and where better to hide your Peasant Hero?), Cherek is Viking-like berserkers, Drasnia is spies and shifty merchants, Algaria is Mongol-like nomads, Tolnedra is an empire… It’s world-building by numbers – there’s no real sense of place or culture to each city or nation, only of plugged-together borrowings.

The same is true of the characters. Garion is both the Peasant Hero and the Hidden King. Mister Wolf is the Good Magician. Barak is the Mighty Warrior. Durnik is the Loyal But Slightly Dim Peasant. All are straight from Central Casting. And Eddings makes little effort to further distinguish them from their archetypes. For example, Barak likes beer. A lot. Oh yes – his relations with his wife are somewhat strained. I suppose that “quirk” makes him a little bit different. Except, Silk – who is a typical thief/scout – is in love with his “aunt”, the king’s second wife (the king is his uncle, but she is no blood relation). So the cast are actually as much characterised by their relationships as they are their archetypes.

There’s a bizarre clumsiness to the naming of people and places in the book too. Sendaria is fine… but Ulgoland? Tolnedra? Angarak? Mimbrate knight? Some of the place-names read like accidents on a Scrabble board. They make the place feel even more invented. There doesn’t appear to have been any effort made to make names sound like they fit a particular culture.

The prose reads as though it were dictated. It has that sort of verbal rhythm, and a reliance on set phrases to characterise members of the cast. I lost count of the number of times I saw the sentence “Barak laughed”. Descriptive prose is thin at best. When, for example, Aunt Pol takes on the role of Duchess of Erat when the party reaches Muros, she is described as “wearing a blue dress” and “magnificent”. There are a number of action sequences, and in these the sparse prose works quite well. But the story itself seems to be mostly carried in the dialogue. The characters trek for leagues to some city, then have a discussion. They trek somewhere else and have another discussion. Then there’s an action set-piece. Afterward, they have a discussion.

So, not an impressive work. And I suspect I would have found it just as dissatisfying if I’d read it back in 1982 (when I was in my late teens). I can certainly understand why the Belgariad has been re-categorised as YA. A bratty fourteen-year-old, especially an ignorant one, is a protagonist only teenagers could like. I’d have preferred if he’d been killed early on – although, of course, that was unlikely, given that the series is about him…

I am reliably informed that Pawn of Prophecy is the weakest of the five novels. Certainly on the strength of it I have no desire to read the remaining books. I’ve read the series précis on Wikipedia (here), and neither does that encourage me to read further.

So, the first book in this year’s reading challenge, Pawn of Prophecy, fails to persuade me to try the next book. Let’s hope the next fantasy series I chose is more successful.


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They don’t work for me – books and authors who don’t appeal

It’s not all positivity and shiny happiness around here, you know. Some times, I have not very nice things to say about science fiction and/or fantasy. This post happens to be one of them. You can blame Liam Proven – it was his idea. “Everyone does top five or best ten lists,” he said. “Why not do a worst five list?”

So he did. And you can find it here.

And so I did too. Listed below are writers and/or books whose appeal I just cannot fathom. They have their fans – a great many in some cases. But I am Not One Of Them.

We’ll take my increasing dissatisfaction with classic sf as read (no pun intended). Regular readers of this blog will have noticed my struggle to like, or be impressed by, such classic science fiction works as The Stainless Steel Rat series, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, anything by Asimov… I’m not consigning all genre fiction written before 1980 to the dustbin – there was some good stuff written in the years 1926 to 1979. It’s just that for me most of what sf fans claim is the Good Stuff, well, isn’t. Or rather, not entirely…

I do like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, but not his The Demolished Man. Both are in the SF Masterworks series. Many of Philip K Dick’s novels strike me as far too haphazardly written for me to really like, but I very much enjoyed his A Scanner Darkly. Gene Wolfe has written some superb novels, but I hate most of his short fiction. As for EE ‘Doc’ Smith, well, the very datedness of his works I find too much of a hurdle.

The problem for me is that most sf classics lack timeliness. Some transcend their time of writing, like Dune – it reads as well today as it did when it was published in 1965. Unfortunately, I find that too much sf is very much of its place and time and, not being in that place and time – or that place and time is too foreign to me (time more than place, of course) – then I find those books less enjoyable than others apparently do.

This is not an argument that applies to mainstream fiction. They’re set in the time and place they were written, and so that becomes the world of the story. When I open a sf novel, it’s like I’m opening a Can of World. And if that sf novel is properly rigorous, then that can is hermetically sealed – the real world cannot leak in. (It, or elements of it, can be deliberately placed inside the can; but that’s an entirely different matter.) For mainstream fiction, the time of writing is the can; for sf, the invented world of the story must be the can.

But on with the list of popular authors whose works simply don’t work for me. I’ve blogged in the past about the authors I like and admire. Here are the ones that don’t float my boat…

Neil Gaiman – I just don’t Get Gaiman. I’ve read some of his short fiction, and I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Peter F Hamilton – I’ve read his Night’s Dawn trilogy – and I did have the biceps to prove it – and I was impressed by its size. And that he managed to control his cast of thousands and hundreds of plot-threads. But there was little else about the three books I liked, and as a result I’ve never read any of his subsequent novels.

Kevin J Anderson – who is the Dan Brown of science fiction but, unfortunately, a thousand times more prolific. I have read the Dune books he co-wrote with Brian Herbert, but the sound of Frank Herbert spinning in his grave made it difficult to concentrate on their lumpen prose. I tried the first book of KJA’s Saga of the Seven Suns, and was not at all impressed.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley – I thought George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was very good indeed, but this one I just couldn’t like.

Ray Bradbury – nope, never understood his popularity. The Martian Chronicles are… twee. I hated Fahrenheit 451 (although I love the film). His short fiction just leaves me completely blank.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde – I’ve no idea why this has proven so popular. The writing wasn’t very good, the plot didn’t add up, and Fforde couldn’t decide which of his two Neat Ideas to focus on.

There are a great many other books and writers I don’t like. This is just a small selection. There are also many books I do like, although I’ve no idea why – the novels of AE van Vogt, for example. They may well be the subject of another blog post.


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Summing Up: The 2009 Reading Challenge

I have a lot of books. Two questions people always ask me when they see my book collection: 1) have you read them all? and b) why do you keep them if you’ve read them?

The answer to the first question is: not yet. About 80%, perhaps.

And the second question: I might want to reread them one day.

Except, of course, rereading becomes increasingly less likely as the number of unread books I own grows. Yet every time I see my book-shelves, I always recognise that there are many I would indeed like to read again one day. Especially those I last read back in my teens.

Which is why I decided that my reading challenge for 2009 would be to reread those sf novels I remembered enjoying twenty years ago. I also wanted to know how I’d respond to them now. The twelve titles I chose were, I admit, somewhat arbitrary. There are a few I wish I’d included – such as The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – but I’d reread them in the last decade, so they didn’t meet the criteria. For a reason I now no longer recall, I also chose to ignore a few acknowledged sf classics on my book-shelves which did meet the criteria.

The books I picked were… Ringworld, Rendezvous With Rama, Star King, The Tar-Aiym Krang,The Stainless Steel Rat, Second Stage Lensman, Jack of Eagles, The Left Hand of Darkness, Lord Valentine’s Castle, Radix, To Your Scattered Bodies Go and Stranger in a Strange Land.

The 2009 reading challenge is now over, and… some I’m glad I reread, even though I didn’t think they were very good.

JanuaryRingworld, Larry Niven, was a dissatisfying read. It needed a meatier plot. There’s much to be said for the ringworld itself, of course, but the novel felt surprisingly thin when compared to my memory of it. See here.

FebruaryRendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clarke, on the contrary made a virtue of the thinness of its plot. It explained nothing. Some bits of it read somewhat dated now, and Clarke’s prose was rarely more than workmanlike, but… read as an historical document – as what sf was, not what it is or should be – this novel did not sort of remind me why I’d become a fan in the first place. See here.

MarchStar King, Jack Vance, felt like a wasted opportunity more than anything else. It’s middling Vance, but it’s, well, it’s Vance. There’s not much point in reading it as Star King. I might as well have picked any Vance novel. See here.

AprilThe Tar-Aiym Krang, Alan Dean Foster, was just ordinary, and I wondered why I’d like it so much as a teenager. On reflection, it’s probably because so much sf of later years is like it. It has that sort of generic role-playing game space opera feel to it, and whatever was new in it has subsequently been buried beneath a mass of similar material. See here.

MayThe Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison, was a real surprise. It was rubbish. I hadn’t expected that at all. After finishing it, I purged my book-shelves of all my Stainless Steel Rat books. See here.

JuneSecond Stage Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, I expected to be rubbish. And so it was. There was a certain fascination in the universe of the book, but the cringe-inducing dialogue and offensive sexism made it hard to enjoy. It sort of defines “historical document” when it comes to sf. No one should ever read it without a a full appreciation of when it was written. See here.

JulyJack of Eagles, James Blish, was not as good as I’d remembered it, but neither was it embarrassingly bad. Blish was one of the better craftsmen working in sf during the 1950s and 1960s, and it shows in this. See here.

AugustThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin, was another surprise. It was a great deal better than I’d remembered it. If this had been a competition, this book would have won by a considerable distance. See here.

SeptemberLord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg, was enjoyable, but more lightweight than I’d remembered. It was one of those novels where the setting had stayed with me, but the story had evaporated. I have to wonder if that’s how many classics of sf are chosen… See here.

OctoberRadix, AA Attanasio, was almost entirely how I’d remembered it. Interesting first half, wishy-washy New Age-y second half. On reflection, I should have chosen another book for this month. See here.

NovemberTo Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer, was another one of those sf classics whose central premise I remembered well – i.e., all the people who had ever lived are reincarnated on the banks of a great river. The actual plot of the book I didn’t recall so well. And, it seemed, for good reason. I wasn’t convinced by it very much. See here.

DecemberStranger in a Strange Land, Robert A Heinlein, I knew was going to be problematical. As a teenager, I’d devoured many of Heinlein’s novel, but they’d never felt entirely… healthy to me. Perhaps that was the attraction. This sf classic was, I knew full well, going to be the most contentious read of the challenge. I was going to hate it, I just knew I was. Instead, I found myself initially enjoying it, but growing increasingly annoyed with it as the story progressed. It’s almost Rand lite, although nowhere near as risible as her books. Only thirteen year old boys could consider Stranger in a Strange Land a classic of the genre. See here.

So that’s it, the 2009 reading challenge, and the third one I’ve done since starting this blog. Like the others, it’s been of mixed success. Some of the books I’m glad I reread, others I wish I hadn’t bothered. Looking back over the twelve books, there are a few titles I’m sorry I didn’t choose instead of those I did pick – such as The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May, Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss, Neuromancer by William Gibson, or Gateway by Frederik Pohl… And I could no doubt find others. Perhaps they’re for another challenge in another year…

This year, I’ll be tackling fantasy series – see here – and I’m sort of looking forward to it, much as you look forward to a visit to the gym…


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Reading Challenge #12 – Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

I first read Stranger in a Strange Land back in my early teens, twenty or more years ago. I think I may have read it more than once during that time. I vaguely recall being aware of the book’s reputation, but not entirely understanding why it had such a reputation – I enjoyed it, but I thought other Heinlein novels were better. My opinion of Heinlein’s oeuvre has changed considerably in the decades since then, and according to my records the last book by him I read was in 1996. And that was a reread of I Will Fear No Evil. Well, yes, I did read Starship Troopers last year, but I didn’t read it for enjoyment, so it doesn’t count – see here.

Throughout my science fiction reading career, Heinlein has never been a favourite sf author, although I’ve read around two dozen of his books, many of them more than once. I also owned around a dozen of them – although I purged my book-shelves of all but a handful early last year.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that, despite its reputation, I had relatively low expectations for this reread of Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein’s 1940s somewhat patronising dialogue-heavy prose style no longer appeals to me; his politics certainly don’t appeal. So what to make of the sf novel that, along with Dune (a personal favourite) and The Lord of the Rings (I really should reread it one of these days), was beloved by college students around the world in late 1960s and 1970s?

First, the plot. A mission to Mars comes a cropper, and a second mission sent twenty-five years later finds a single survivor living among the Martians: Valentine Michael Smith, the son of two members of the first mission’s crew. They return him to Earth. Smith is Martian in all but physiology, and he introduces his Martian way of thinking to the people around him. He also proves to have “magical” powers. For a while, he stays with Jubal Harshaw, a cantankerous multi-millionaire, who has opinions on everything. Smith leaves him to see more of the world – well, the USA of the time – and then creates a charismatic church. But society at large – well, the society of the USA of the time – does not want to hear his “message”, and he is torn apart by a mob. His church and message survive in his followers.

So. The good stuff. Stranger in a Strange Land is surprisingly readable. Heinlein’s prose is like beige – it’s not colourful, it doesn’t stand out as either good or bad. Some people think all novels should be written in beige prose. I happen to think that’s a waste of English. Why does the language have such a large lexicon if all you’re going to use are the blandest words in it?

That readability may well be because so much of the book is dialogue. A reader doesn’t need to exercise their imagination as much for dialogue as they do for descriptive prose. Sadly, for a book originally published in 1961, the dialogue in Stranger in a Strange Land sounds like it’s straight from some 1940s screwball rom com. In fact, the whole book reads as though it were written twenty years earlier. Nor is it really science fiction. Michael Valentine Smith may be a survivor from a mission to Mars, but there are sections of the book set among angels in heaven. And Smith’s powers are pretty much magical.

And then there’s the politics… Which is sort of Rand lite. But with sexual liberation and some distinctly dodgy 1950s gender politics. Heinlein, many will tell you, was a proto-feminist – and yet one female character, Jill, in Stranger in a Strange Land says, “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault” (p281). This is after two pages of her ruminating on why she enjoys showing off her body to dirty old men and why it is A Good Thing. As is, apparently, pornographic depictions of women.

Stranger in a Strange Land is also apparently a satire – it says on the back-cover of my 1980 NEL edition: “a searing indictment of Western Civilization”. All I found it in were a few off-the-cuff observations of the sort found in a some channel TV sitcom, and a made-up church that owed more to 1920s carnivals than it did to organised religion. In fact, Smith actually joins a carnival for a while after leaving Harshaw’s mansion – but this is a an old-style carnival, rather than simply a travelling funfair.

Incidentally, I couldn’t find a copy online of my NEL edition’s cover art, hence the current Hodder edition shown above. Still, look at that hyperbole “the Hugo-winning bestseller they wanted to ban”.  It doesn’t say who wanted to ban it – lovers of good literature, perhaps. If it was some religious group – well, don’t forget one such group also wanted to ban Watership Down, a book with a cast of rabbits.

Heinlein’s characterisation never stretched much beyond Competent Man and Perky Female, but in this novel he also manages Dim-Witted Innocent – science fiction’s very own Forrest Gump, if you will. Except Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from Mars, is a Magical Forrest Gump. There are a couple of feeble attempts at passing off his powers as ESP, but I’m not aware of any previously-documented psionic power which makes clothes disappear – telecdysiasism, perhaps? The many mentions of the Martian “Old Ones”, who are “discorporated” members of that race but who still interact with the living, also read more like fantasy than science fiction.

I’d always pegged Heinlein’s later works – the 1970s and onwards – as his Dirty Old Man books, so I was surprised to see he’d actually started on that phase a decade earlier. In 1961, when Stranger in a Strange Land was first published, he was 54, so not really that old, but it’s plain that Jubal Harshaw is Heinlein. Admittedly, Heinlein was known for putting mouthpieces into his fiction, but Harshaw has to be the least subtle of any of them. He’s also, quite frankly, full of crap. He gives a lecture on modern art that is little more than ill-informed opinion. Indeed, some of the “facts” he spouts are anything but. Not to mention that, for all his much-vaunted egalitarianism, he’s nothing more than an old school capitalist patriarch.

Which makes Smith, the Magical Forrest Gump, something even worse. Perhaps in 1961, he might have been seen as something akin to a carnival freak, a “good monster”. But now, he’s more of a Charles Manson / David Koresh type figure – and Smith’s church, with its creed of nudity and group orgies, only makes the resemblance worryingly closer. I personally find little to admire, and much to condemn, in such cults, so a novel celebrating them is unlikely to find much favour with me. To be fair, Heinlein is innocent in that regard, as Stranger in a Strange Land predates both Manson and Koresh, not to mention Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate.

I knew before I opened the cover that reading Stranger in a Strange Land was not going to be fun. That’s one reason why this post is late. But I’d forgotten how downright irritating Jubal Harshaw is, how annoying his Heinlein’s female characters are – and how interchangeable: Harshaw has three “secretaries”, a blonde, a brunette and a black-haired one, but they might as well be the same woman with a few bottles of hair-dye; likewise the other women in the book. I’d also forgotten how stupid the whole concept of “grok” is. Try rereading the book, and substituting “understand” or “comprehend” for “grok”. The book is entirely unchanged.

In the history of science fiction, Robert Heinlein was undoubtedly an important writer, and Stranger in a Strange Land is one of sf’s few break-out books, enjoying success outside the genre. Like Rand’s novels, I suspect Stranger in a Strange Land is also a book read more for its politics and philosophy – it certainly can’t be for its prose, characterisation, or depiction of a near-future USA. And, again like Rand’s novels, there’s not much in there that appeals to me. Nor is it especially timeless. Stranger in a Strange Land reads like a novel of the 1940s, and feels wildly inappropriate in the twenty-first century.

I very much doubt I’ll ever read Stranger in a Strange Land again, but I think I’ll hang onto my copy for the time-being…

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