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Readings & Watchings 6

It’s time for another round-up of what I’ve been casting my eyes over. Hold tight, here we go:

Books
Necromancer, Gordon R Dickson (1962), is part of Dickson’s ambitious Childe Cycle, which he failed to complete before his death. Spun out of the Dorsai trilogy, it was intended to consist of three historical novels, three present-day novels, and six science fiction novels – which included the Dorsai trilogy. Only the sf novels were written. Necromancer was the second to be published, but its story is chronologically first. I still have a soft spot for the Dorsai trilogy, but it doesn’t extend to this. It’s one of those sf novels of the early 1960s where the author is more in love with their philosophy – or what passes for one – than they are their story, world or characters. (James Blish’s The Quincunx of Time is another.) And it’s complete tosh. Paul Formain is a mining engineer who loses an arm in an accident. He joins the Chantry Guild, a cult dedicated to the destruction of humanity’s reliance on machines, because they promise to teach him how to use psychic powers to regrow his missing arm. But Formaine proves to have other talents. Or something. This is one of those novels where the writer puts stuff down on the page, and then later dismisses it without thinking through the ramifications. One to avoid.

The Remains of Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989), is the second book by Ishiguro I’ve read. The first was Never Let Me Go, and while I thought that novel was weak as science fiction, I did enjoy the writing. And it strikes me that The Remains of Day suffers from a similar problem. It’s beautifully written, and Ishiguro’s presentation of Stevens, the narrator, remains amazingly in voice throughout. But, let’s face it, Stevens is a bit of a plonker. I seem to remember Anthony Hopkins making the character much more sympathetic in the film adaptation. There’s also some confusion over the actual plot. It’s about Darlington and Nazi appeasement, but on the surface it seems to be about Stevens visiting Miss Kenton in order to ask to come back to work for him. Except that plot goes nowhere. They meet, the subject is never raised, they part. The Remains of Day is an excellent character-study, but I suspect Stevens is not “human” enough a character to sustain a study at such length. All the same, definitely worth reading.

Colours in the Steel, KJ Parker (1998), was April’s book for the Fantasy Challenge. See here.

Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor (1976). No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. The other one, the novelist. Okay, so I’d not known there was a writer with that name until I watched François Ozon’s adaptation of her novel Angel (I reviewed the film here). I enjoyed the film, so I kept an eye open in charity shops for one of her books. And found Blaming. I thought it good, but I’ll not be rushing out to buy her novels. (Although I’d still like to read Angel.) Blaming is a thin novel, only 190 pages. It was also Taylor’s last – she was dying of cancer when she wrote it, and didn’t live to see it published. Amy and Nick are on holiday in Turkey when Nick suddenly dies. An American woman, Martha, attaches herself to Amy and helps her out, accompanying her back to the UK (where Martha also lives). But once back in London, Amy doesn’t feel Martha is the right sort of person to be her friend, although she is reluctantly drawn into friendship with her… which all ends terribly badly. Despite its 1976 publication, this is quite a dated novel – its upper middle class attitudes hark back to an earlier decade. The prose in Blaming was very good, although often it felt more like a pencil sketch than a fully-realised portrait.

The Rapture, Liz Jensen (2009), I reviewed for SFF Chronicle. See here.

The Hunt for Zero Point, Nick Cook (2001), I read as research for a story I’m working on. But I will admit to some small fascination for the subject. According to Cook, the Nazis were experimenting with anti-gravity in the years leading up to WWII, and even managed to build some prototype flying saucers. These were snapped up by the US – all part of Operation Paperclip – and have been “ultra-black” defence projects ever since. Apparently, the B-2 stealth bomber uses some of this technology. I don’t believe a word of it. Cook claims the Philadelphia Experiment, which has been comprehensively debunked, was deliberate misinformation designed to hide the US military-industrial complex’s successful research into anti-gravity. Cook’s evidence is anecdotal, or third-, fourth- or even fifth-hand, or just wild supposition presented as fact. Some of the basic laws of physics are just plain ignored. If the B-2 really used secret anti-gravity technology, there’s no way it would still be secret. Its workings might be, but not the fact of its existence. It’s like those people who think the Moon landings were faked – it would have cost more to fake them and keep it secret for 40 years than it would have done to send astronauts to the Moon in the first place. Plus, as Charlie Duke says at the end of In The Shadow Of The Moon, if they faked going to the Moon, why would they fake going six times?

The Damned Utd, David Peace (2006). I happily admit it: I am not a football fan. In fact, I hate the game. But I’d watched and enjoyed the television adaptation of Peace’s Red Riding quartet, so I wanted to read one of his books. I saw The Damned Utd going cheap in a charity shop, and decided to try it. But, despite hating football, I enjoyed this fictionalisation of Brian Clough’s 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United. The story is told from Clough’s viewpoint, with italicised sections covering Clough’s career at Derby County. Peace uses a very muscular repetitive prose style, and it works well for this story. Apparently, one of the Leeds footballers sued the publishers over his characterisation in the novel, and won; and the book wasn’t well-received by Clough’s surviving family, or many others who are named in it. I subsequently picked up 1974 by Peace in a Waterstone’s “3 for 2″ promotion.

The Steel Crocodile, DG Compton (1970) is the third or fourth of Compton’s novels I’ve read, and if they have one thing in common it’s that they seem a bit thin on plot. They’re essentially well-drawn studies of the viewpoint characters. The Steel Crocodile is a case in point. It’s set in a 1970s-style über-nanny state run by sociologists, with a lack of privacy not unlike that we have today in the UK. Matthew Oliver is a psychologist, married to Abigail. He is offered a position at the Colindale, a not-so-secret establishment, although no one knows what goes on there. Oliver is then contacted by the Civil Liberties Committee through an old university friend, and asked to report on the Colindale to them. He agrees. He learns that the Colindale project is simply a Giant Computer Brain, which sifts through huge amounts of data in order to predict imminent scientific or technological discoveries. The committee running the Colindale then decide whether or not to prevent those discoveries in the interests of world harmony. But there’s also a secret project: the director of the Colindale is using the Giant Computer Brain to find a new messiah for the age. Oddly, each section of the book is written from the viewpoint of either Oliver or Abigail, but the sections overlap – giving two, often different, views on the same scene. Compton’s writing is excellent, and I could imagine this book being made into a film with some great 1970s visuals – all Brutalist architecture and huge antiseptic data-centres…

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, Brian W Aldiss (1960), was the 1985 Granada edition, and the actual proper edition Aldiss had always envisaged for this collection. It is, bluntly, Aldiss doing Stapledon. He tells the history of human civilisation over several million years through short stories interspersed with italicised info-dumps. It’s very much a product of its time, although the writing’s not bad. But it’s an early collection by someone who went on to write some very good stuff indeed, and so not much more than a historical curiosity.

City of Dreams and Nightmare, Ian Whates (2010), was another book I reviewed for SFF Chronicles. See here.

Diamonds are Forever, Ian Fleming (1956). Forget the film, this novel shares only its title, the characters, and the setting of Las Vegas. In the novel, Bond takes the place of a mob courier, carrying diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone to New York. He is accompanied by Tiffany Case, who works for the gangsters, the Spangled Mob (after the brothers who run it, Jack and Seraffima Spang). In New York, Bond is meant to be paid off by betting on a fixed race at Saratoga. His old pal Felix Leiter, now a Pinkerton detective and missing an arm and a leg (from Live and Let Die), is investigating the race-fixing, so they join forces. Felix bribes the bent jockey to throw the race, Bond doesn’t get paid, so is sent by the mobsters to Las Vegas to meet Serrafima Spang. Even for books written sixty years ago, the Bond novels are sexist and racist. Bond may have a little more depth as a character in the novels, but his typical response to any solution is violence. Often deadly. Fleming’s details never quite ring true – he labels all the clothes worn and food consumed during the story, but the workings of the US mob feels like it bears no resemblance to an actual criminal gang. I don’t know why I continue to read these.

Films
Hellbride, dir. Pat Higgins (2007). British low-budget horror. I reviewed it for VideoVista. See here.

GI Joe – The Rise of COBRA, dir. Stephen Sommers (2009). Oh dear. This was trash. Which was entirely expected, of course. There’s some sort of hyper-macho super-secret army with a headquarters under the sands of the Sahara, and they’re called GI Joes, even though they’re apparently international. And there’s another hyper-macho super-technological group of baddies… except they’re not to begin with, they’re just the personal empire of an arms manufacturer – said empire consisting of a huge underwater city beneath the North Pole’s icecap. Bits of the plot was sort of fun, with nanobots eating the Eiffel Tower, and there was a nice piece of back-story slotted in. But the actors looked like they were sleep-walking through the parts. I know this is based on a kids’ toy, but did it have to be so monumentally stupid?

King Lear, dir. Jonathan Miller (1982), was the second of the BBC’s Complete Shakespeare plays, which I plan to work my way through. This is grim stuff, made more so by the deliberate lack of scenery – it’s all plain wooden floor and drapes. Michael Hordern – apparently not the first choice, but Robert Shaw died before production began – is excellent in the title role. Some of the others were less successful, although Michael Kitchen played a nicely urbane and villainous Edmund. Despite being staged quite deliberately as a play – that lack of scenery – I think this one was better than As You Like It.

Duck Soup, dir. Leo McCarey (1933), was one from the classics rental list. I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of the Marx Brothers, and watching this I saw no reason to change my mind. The slapstick was funny – I’ve always been a firm believer in the Confucian saying, “the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall of a high roof” – but Groucho’s fabled wit seemed a bit heavy-handed and often unpleasant. There was a nice verbal exchange between Groucho and Zeppo, however. The songs were terrible. Oh well, I can cross it off the list.

The Fall, dir. Tarsem (2006), was sort of like a Terry Gilliam film, but without the true weirdness. I liked the way the framing story was told as a straightforward Western but the visuals were anything but. And the scenery – mostly in India – was gorgeous. But it seemed to try too hard in places for weirdness, without actually succeeding. I suspect Tarsem’s next film might be something special; or something entirely ordinary.

The Reader, dir. Stephen Daldry (2008), is one of those films which feels like there’s an elephant sat in the room for the entirety of its length. The film opens in Germany in the 1950s. Kate Winslet plays an illiterate woman who starts an affair with a teenager, part of which involves him reading stories to her. Later, he becomes a law student, and learns that Winslet was a concentration camp guard during the war and, with half a dozen other women, is being charged with the death of the 300 Jewish women and children who died after being locked in a church which burnt down after a bomb hit it. Winslet is accused of being the leader of the group of guards, and a report signed by her is presented as evidence. As a result, she is sentenced to life while the others get a handful of years each. But the law student – now played by Ralph Fiennes – knows the woman is illiterate, she can’t have written the report. Yet she’d sooner spend the rest of her life in jail than admit she can’t read and write? And Fiennes is too embarrassed to admit he had an affair with her when he was younger? I can perhaps swallow that the shadow of the war, and the Nazi actions during it, proved to great an obstacle for Fiennes to overcome and so connect himself to a concentration camp guard. But that Winslet’s character would sooner be characterised as a total monster rather than admit to illiteracy seems a stretch too far. Still, not a bad film. Perhaps the novel on which it was based, by Bernhard Schlink, makes it seem more plausible.

Frozen Land, dir. Aku Louhimies (2005), is without a shadow of a doubt the grimmest Finnish film I have ever watched. And Finnish films are not known for their cheeriness – not even comedies like Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Nonetheless, despite being so completely miserable Frozen Land is an excellent film. It’s a series of interwoven stories linked by a chain of bad events. A teacher is made redundant and turns to drink. He chucks his junkie son out, and the son goes to stay with friends and with them to a party. Where he uses a fancy computer to print off a counterfeit 500 Euro note. Which he passes off at a pawn shop… and the proprietor later gives to a man with a mullet in payment for a television. That man goes on a bender, is arrested, learns the note is counterfeit, and on his release breaks into a garage and steals a 4WD. He goes to a hotel and falls in with another man, they take a woman back to his room, but she will only have sex with mullet-head, so the other man batters them to death… And on it goes. No one survives unscathed, except the junkie son, who manages to pull his life together. There’s an inexorable logic of doom to the stories, and they fit together seamlessly, even looping back on other characters’ stories in places. Like last month’s The Bothersome Man (from Norway), this was another one I stuck on my rental list despite knowing nothing about it, and yet it proved to be very good indeed.

There’s Always Tomorrow, dir. Douglas Sirk (1956), is, sadly, the last of Sirk’s films I’ve found available on DVD in this country. More should be released. In this one, Fred MacMurray plays the owner of a small toy company, a solidly middle-class American with a busy wife and three kids (two in their teens). Barbara Stanwyck is an ex-employee, now a glamorous fashion designer, who pays a visit on him. He’s keen to liven up his humdrum life – on his wedding anniversary, for example, his wife would sooner go see the youngest daughter’s ballet than go to a show – but the teenage kids think their father’s having an affair. It’s beautifully judged – MacMurray is innocent, but it’s his family’s reaction which causes him to declare his love to Stanwyck… who turns him down. The final shot, with MacMurray back in the bosom of his family, saying goodbye as he heads to work, while his kids wave at him from behind the banisters of the staircase says it all. Sirk was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller. His films are sly, subversive, and shot with an extremely sharp eye. I’ll think I’ll watch them all over again…

Night Dragon, dir. Tim Biddiscombe (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista. The review will be on the site next week.


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The Ten Best Science Fiction Books… Ever

Everyone loves lists. Contentious lists are even better. So here’s one: the ten absolute best science fiction novels ever published – written by sf authors, published by sf publishers. These ten books show what the genre is capable of when it aims to be more than mindless escapism. They are fiercely intelligent, beautifully written, meaningful, inventive, rigorous, and sf from the first word to the last. They are, in chronological order:

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972). A collection of three novellas – but not a cheat, as the three are linked and form a novel together. This is the sort of science fiction that can be read and enjoyed, and then carefully puzzled through to determine what was really going on. Wolfe is a tricksy writer, and in The Fifth Head of Cerberus he’s at his tricksy-est.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974). Donald Wollheim once claimed that the benevolent dictatorship was the government of choice of sf fans. That’s clearly what comes of reading too many space operas with interstellar empires and the like. And yet sf also has a history of documenting the road to utopia. All that benevolent dictator stuff is nonsense, of course – it’s as much fantasy as the Competent Man as hero. Thankfully, not everyone subscribes to it. The Dispossessed is a political book – it’s even subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia” – and it’s political in a way that makes you think, that shows you what sf is really for.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975), is definitely science fiction – it’s in the relaunched SF Masterworks series, for a start – even though it’s proven extremely popular outside the genre. Sometimes it reads like a novel of its time, sometimes it seems almost timeless. But every time you read it, it’s different. It is also the most profoundly literary book in this list, and from an author who is steeped in genre.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). Yes, so Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas arguably kicked off the whole New British Space Opera thing in 1987, but to my mind the movement didn’t really gel until the appearance of Take Back Plenty three years later. I remember the buzz the book caused – and I remember on reading it discovering that it was as good as everyone said it was. I reread it a couple of years ago, and it’s still bloody good. So why is it not in the SF Masterworks series, eh?

The Martian trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992 – 1996), is a bit of a cheat as it’s three books. While many are full of admiration for the first book, Red Mars, but not so keen on the sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars, I maintain that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You need to read Green Mars and Blue Mars after you’ve finished Red Mars because the first book only poses a small handful of the questions the three books ask and attempt to answer.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), was once described by John Clute as “Third World sf”, but I prefer to think of it as “post-colonial sf”. But not “post-colonial” in the same way as Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. I was an expat until only a few years ago, so it’s no surprise I’m drawn to fiction which documents the British expat experience abroad – hence my admiration for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. While Park is an American, Coelestis is infused with that same atmosphere. Plus Park is one of the best prose stylists in this list. Why has this book been allowed to go out of print? Someone publish a new edition, please.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000). This is the biggest book on this list – it contains nearly a million words. It is, with Red Mars, one of the most rigorous too. Rigour is important in sf – you can’t just make shit up as you go along (but you can, of course, as Iain Banks is fond of putting it, “blow shit up”). The bulk of the story may be set in an alternate mediaeval Europe, but it is not fantasy. It is clever, it is visceral, it is also physically heavy.

Light, M John Harrison (2002). They say Harrison is a writer’s writer, and the prose in Light certainly suggests as much. Light is also one of those novels that’s often described as one which “redefines” science fiction. Which it does. Sort of. But not by coming up with something new, only by shedding new light on those genre tropes being over-exercised at the turn of the century. They say that sf is a genre in conversation with itself, which makes Harrison one of sf’s sharpest conversationalists.

Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004). I need only repeat David Soyka from his review of this book on sfsite.com: “You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.”

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009). I’ve never believed sf should be predictive, but if any sf writer could be called an “architect of futures” then it would be Bruce Sterling. And in The Caryatids he has produced his most inventive and meaningful conversation with the future yet. It is the best book he has written. So why hasn’t it been published in the UK? Why is there only a US edition of this excellent book?

These are not “seminal” sf novels, they are not “classics”, they are not even especially popular. But they are “best” in the true meaning of the word – i.e., “of the highest quality”. If you haven’t read them, you should do so immediately.

Now tell me which books I’ve missed off my list. No mainstream authors slumming it in the genre, please. And I don’t care what impact a book had in, or outside, the genre. It has to be, in your eyes, one of the best-written science fiction novels ever published. And that doesn’t mean the “most entertaining”, or any other excuse used to justify flat writing, cardboard characters, or simplistic plotting. I’m not talking about fit for purpose; I’m talking about excellence in writing, in prose, in literature, in genre.


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Another review of ‘Killing the Dead’

Gav at NextRead has reviewed my story ‘Killing the Dead’ from Postscripts 20/21 ‘Edison’s Frankenstein’ as part of his Shorty Story Month.

He says it’s “a quick clever tale that asks a serious question about what is important to humanity when travelling across the stars for journeys that will take unknown generations to complete”.

See the full review here.


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A Booktastic Haul

It’s been a while since I last did one of these, so here’s a nice photograph of the books which have arrived at my humble abode over the past week or so:

Quite a mixed bag. There’s the second of Mike Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire space opera trilogy, The Orphaned Worlds (and no, they don’t orbit Barnardo’s Star…); a new collection from one of my favourite short story writers, Helen Simpson, In-flight Entertainment; and a signed edition of Lucius Shepard’s latest Dragon Griaule novella, The Taborin Scale, from the excellent Subterranean Press (the novella is already sold out). There’s a bunch of graphic novels – two by Alan Moore: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (I had Volume 2, but had never read Volume 1), and Promethea Book 2. Plus the latest of the Black Widow collections from Marvel, Web of Intrigue; and a back-issue of Spaceship Away!, a magazine dedicated to Dan Dare. The huge book to the left is The Durrell-Miller Letters 1935-80, edited by Ian S MacNiven. That’s Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller. And yes, Miller appears to be naked on the cover. To the right is The Twist in the Plotting, a rare numbered chapbook of twenty-five poems by Bernard Spencer, published in 1960 by the University of Reading. Lastly, there’s a book for work: Applied Mathematics for Database Professionals, which I plan to read when I’m having trouble sleeping…

Something else arrived a few weeks ago, so I thought I’d include it in this post because, well, because it’s damn cool. It’s the signed limited edition of Postscripts 20/21 ‘Edison’s Frankenstein’. It comes in a nice slipcase:

… which looks like this inside:

And here’s my story, ‘Killing the Dead':

The first few paragraphs go like this:

Inspector Dante Arawn stepped out of his house, pulled the door carefully shut behind him, and looked up at the sky. The dark had spread. He had expected as much, but it still pained him to see it. Each day, the lit areas of the sky shrank. There was nothing to be done about it. Nothing, at least, for many decades yet. As the population aged and died, so the sky grew darker. It was a fact of… life.

Not everyone accepted that fact. Constable Amrit Supay waited impatiently beside a police cart in the lane for that very reason.

“What do we know?” asked Arawn. He clambered into the cart and settled into the passenger seat.

“South Green Necropolis, sir,” replied Supay. “Another dead body.”

“A bomb?”

“Yes, sir.”

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