It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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17,500 words or more

A few weeks ago in a review of Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Infinity Box’ – see here – sf critic Paul Kincaid mentioned it was one of his favourite novellas. He also provided a link to an earlier post on another blog giving his favourite science fiction novellas – see here. So, of course, I started thinking about a list of my own… and immediately hit a couple of snags…

I like the novella, I think it’s an interesting length. It gives you the freedom to experiment you don’t have in a novel, and the room to experiment you don’t have in a short story. The four books of the Apollo Quartet are novellas, and I plan to write further at that length. But. Novellas are not as common as short stories – because they’re harder to write and harder to sell – and, as I tried putting together a list of ten favourite novellas, I discovered that few of them are all that memorable. It’s likely down to pure numbers: I’ve read so many short stories that I can quite easily think of ten which have stayed with me over the years. But ten novellas? Have I read enough for a critical mass of favourites to form?

The first few choices were easy. But then I had to resort to various collections and anthologies to prompt my memory. I also discovered that some of my choices were actually novelettes…

I hate the novelette.

It is a completely useless category. According to the Hugo Awards, a short story is up to 7,499 words, a novelette between 7,500 and 17,499 words, and a novella between 17,500 and 39,999 words. Anything over that is a novel. Back in the day, magazines apparently offered different pay rates for short stories, novelettes and novellas, and some magazines – well, Asimov’s and Analog – still list stories by category in their table of contents. But the novelette as a category serves no useful function for readers. There are short stories and there are novellas. Why do we need something in between? So the Hugo and Nebula Awards can hand out more awards to the voters’ friends? Most genre awards only have a short fiction category, they don’t even make a distinction between short story and novella…

But, as I said earlier, I like novellas, and I think it’s important to recognise them in the annual awards merry-go-round. But, please, kill the novelette. Expunge it, exterminate it, marmelize it, remove it from every ballot and magazine TOC.

Anyway, my favourite novellas… After some research, I managed a list of ten, all of which were categorised as novellas by isfdb.org. But restricting myself to stories of 17,500 to 39,999 words meant I’d been forced to chose some novellas I would be hard-pressed to call favourites. So I thought, sod it. I don’t care if some of them are novelettes. I reject the bloody category anyway. Which is how I ended up with the following ten novella/ettes…

‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1959)
One of the things about a favourite piece of short fiction is that you can remember where you first read it. This was in an anthology called The Future Makers which I was given as a present one Christmas or birthday back in my early teens. The story itself is a piece of spy fiction with added aliens, and there’s something about its 1950s thriller template that makes it more memorable than it would be otherwise. It was also published separately as a novel under the same title.

‘Empire Star’, Samuel R Delany (1966)
Delany was one of my favourite writers during my teens and twenties, and I read everything by him I could lay my hands on. Dhalgren remains a favourite novel. But I remember being really impressed by the Moebius strip-like structure of this novella when I first read it. And it still impresses me on rereads. I first read it as one half of a Sphere double with ‘The Ballad of Beta-2′, and I’m pretty sure it was while on holiday in Paris with the family in the early 1980s.

‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first reading one of his Eight Worlds short stories, but I can’t actually remember when I first read him. Having said that, ‘The Barbie Murders’ is not an Eight Worlds story but an Anna-Louise Bach one – although like many of the former, it’s set on the Moon. There is something very creepy about the story’s central premise – a cult in which all the members have had themselves surgically remade to resemble Barbie; and Varley uses this idea to ask questions about identity. I also think this is one of those stories which exists in that Schrödinger’s-Cat-like area between utopia and dystopia.

‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
I read this is The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection, and it’s probably the premier work of time paradox fiction in the genre. It originally appeared in an author collection, Novelty: Four Stories, and has even been published as a standalone novella.

‘Identifying the Object’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
This story (it’s one of ones on this list that’s actually a novelette) first appeared in Interzone #42, December 1990, under the title ‘Forward Echoes’. It’s the story that turned me into a collector of Gwyneth Jones’ fiction, Later, she amended it and it was published under its new title as the title story in a chapbook by Swan Press of Austin, Texas. The story takes place in the same world as Jones’ Aleutian trilogy, Buonarotti stories and Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant.

‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
I first read this in the collection Four Ways to Forgiveness, and of the four novellas in that collection, it’s the one that stood out the most for me. There are a lot of stories set in the Ekumen which could have made it onto this list, but most of them aren’t really long enough to qualify as novellas.

‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
I read this in the issue of Asimov’s in which it appeared, March 1996. In my contribution to the Acnestis APA a couple of months later, I described it as “brilliant” and wrote that “if it doesn’t get nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula, then there’s no justice”. In fact, it was shortlisted for the Hugo as a novelette and the World Fantasy Award as a novella (which proves my point above), and shortlisted for the Tiptree.

‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
Science fiction is full of Big Dumb Objects, from Niven’s ringworld to Clarke’s Rama, but most are associated with quite dull pieces of fiction. Reed’s ‘Marrow’ is told with a very clinical, detached voice, which only heightens the impact of the BDOs which furnish this novella. There’s the Great Ship, a slower-than-light starship the size and shape of a gas giant, and there’s the title world itself, which exists at the core of the Great Ship. This novellas was later fixed up into a novel of the same title.

‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
When I first read this in Interzone #124, October 1997, I characterised it as one of Watson’s occasional completely-off-the-wall stories, the ones he churns out every now and again that are even more bonkers than his usual output. It’s about jigsaws, Vidkun Quisling, Nazi occultism, and getting naked in an Oslo park. I liked it a lot, and it was certainly memorable. And then it re-appeared as the first section of the novel Mockymen, and it seemed even more mad, and I liked it even more. It reads like fantasy, and to use it as the opener for a sf novel (about aliens invading Earth) demonstrates such an insane view of genre that it’s hard not to admire its brazenness.

‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
I read this as a standalone chapbook published by Phoenix Pick, which I’d purchased after being mightily impressed by Gilman’s fantasy Isles of the Forsaken. I reviewed ‘Arkfall’ for Daughters of Prometheus – see here – and yes, its setting could almost have been designed to appeal to me, but it was the social world-building Gilman does in the novel that, I think, most impressed me. It is certainly a novella that has haunted me since I read it.

So there you have it, ten pieces of long short fiction of novella-ish-type length. I suspect if I were to try the same exercise a couple of years from now I might come up with a slightly different list. But this will do for now. And I’m serious about getting rid of the novelette.


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The future we used to have, part 20

I’m supposed to be working hard on finishing Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, so of course I decided to take some time out to hunt down some nice retro-future pictures and post them here, as part of my ongoing project to document a future that just has to be better than the one we ended up with…

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Lockheed XH-51A

20_Arrow05

Avro Arrow

20_lockheed_r6v

Lockheed R6V Constitution

Myasishchev M-50 Bounder

Myasishchev M-50 Bounder

land

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Monument, Villa Lobos Park,São Paulo, Brazil

Pirelli Tire Building, New Haven, CT, USA

Pirelli Tire Building, New Haven, CT, USA

Government Service Center, Boston, MA, USA

Government Service Center, Boston, MA, USA

Sainte Marie de la Tourette priory, Lyons, France

Sainte Marie de la Tourette priory, Lyons, France

"Centipede" apartment building, Moscow, Russia

“Centipede” apartment building, Moscow, Russia

sea

Lookout Bar aboard SS Oriana

Lookout Bar aboard SS Oriana

Engine console aboard SS Oriana

Engine console aboard SS Oriana

Crows Nest bar aboard SS Canberra

Crows Nest bar aboard SS Canberra

Island Room aboard SS Canberra

Island Room aboard SS Canberra

SS Raffaello

SS Raffaello

Check out more interiors from classic ocean liners of the 1950s and 1960s here.

Aluminaut submersible

Aluminaut submersible

Archimède bathyscaphe

Archimède bathyscaphe


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The Last Man Standing, Davide Longo

The-last-man-standingThe Last Man Standing, Davide Longo
MacLehose Press, 2012, 352 pp, £12.99

It seems close to certain that civilisation as we know it will not last for much longer. If Climate Change does not bring about a catastrophe, then the failures of nation-states, economies, or the entire capitalist system itself is sure to do so. And yet, despite ten thousand years of civilisation, the only post-catastrophe stories we can tell depict brutal worlds in which violent selfishness is the only mode of survival. Have we learnt nothing since we left the Rift Valley? Everything we have created since then has been the result of co-operation, and yet we cannot imagine using co-operation during a period when it’s most needed.

Of course, this is chiefly because popular entertainment as it now stands, driven by US market forces, is morally bankrupt, and because any such future fictions are in part based on American conceptions of a world without American society. When society goes, the American Dream is over and, we are supposed to believe, the American Dream is such a noble achievement that only animalistic behaviour can exist in the vacuum it leaves behind.

This is all rot, of course. Many US authors may subscribe to such a distorted view of human nature and society, but it’s disappointing when other nationalities follow suit. Davide Longo is Italian and The Last Man Standing was originally published in Italy in 2010; and it is an Italy after some unexplained catastrophe that it depicts.

The protagonist of The Last Man Standing, Leonardo, was a famous writer but took himself into self-imposed exile after a sex scandal. A female student had seduced him and then revealed all. Though it was clearly a set-up, he said nothing. This is because he is pathologically passive. For the first one hundred pages, he does nothing but witness some of the effects of the collapse of Italy: the village where he lives turns in on itself; outsiders are treated with suspicion and then violence.

Perhaps this is not entirely without reason. The villagers wish to keep what meagre supplies they have for themselves. Leonardo is not so cautious. Returning from a walk, he sees two men and a woman raid his house for food and clothing. Once they have left – he does nothing, he is too passive to confront them – he discovers they have defecated on his furniture. Is this what the fall of civilisation means? Shit on the sofa?

Leonardo’s ex-wife turns up with their daughter and her stepson in tow, she tells him she needs him to look after them until she returns from Switzerland with papers. She never returns. So Leonardo, daughter Lucia, ten-year-old Alberto and mute companion Sebastiano set out for the border hundreds of kilometres away.

En route, they meet with suspicion, violence, rape, murder and torture from a variety of people. Even when they find what appears to be a safe – if expensive – haven, it’s clear the safety is a careful illusion. Eventually, they are captured by a caravan of young people, ruled by an antichrist-like figure. Richard is so thinly characterised, he seems to inhabit a different book. He appears to exist only to put Leonardo through a baptism of fire, strengthening him sufficiently to win a contest of wills with Richard by cutting off his own hand. If Longo is trying to make a point here, it is wilfully opaque.

There’s nothing new in The Last Man Standing – indeed, the publishers have made a point of noting it, relying on the quality of Longo’s prose to sell the book. In recent years, the post-catastrophe world has become a somewhat crowded place in literary fiction, and the time has long since passed when stories set in it might say anything insightful. That Longo’s prose is generally good cannot save The Last Man Standing from being banal.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #242, September-October 2012.


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Recentest readings

Time for another report from my ongoing mission to read every book I own. There is no five-year plan – actually, there is: A Five Year Plan, a thriller by Philip Kerr, which I read back in February 2005… What I mean is, there is no end in sight – in fact, it recedes further from me with each passing month. Must. Read. More. Books. (Yes, yes, I know: I could also try: Must. Buy. Fewer. Books. But don’t be silly, that’ll never happen.)

OHMSS18On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Ian Fleming (1963). This is the one where Bond gets married, and then his wife is killed soon afterwards. The woman he marries is the daughter of a Sicilian mafia boss, but she’s been to finishing school and her previous husband was a wastrel Italian count so she’s now a contessa; and, of course, she’s beautiful. And suicidal. The book opens with Bond rescuing her from a suicide attempt when she throws herself into the sea. The actual plot concerns a fiendish plan by Blofeld to destabilise the UK by destroying its agriculture. There’s a mountain-top health centre in Switzerland run by a mysterious scientist – who may or may not be Blofeld – and Bond infiltrates it in the flimsiest of disguises. He finds it populated by a number of young English women, all there ostensibly to be cured of phobias and allergies. But they’re actually being brainwashed into performing a series of tasks to poison British agriculture. When Bond meets the centre’s owner, Comte Balthazar de Bleuville, he just knows he’s Blofeld, even though he doesn’t resemble Blofeld at all. Plastic surgery, you see. Anyway, Bond foils Blofeld’s fiendish plot – the English women are caught before they can cause any damage, and British forces launch a raid on Blofeld’s health-centre but Blofeld escapes. Afterwards, Bond gets married, Blofeld attempts to kill him, and his wife dies in the attack. There’s a good sequence when Bond escapes from Blofeld’s hideaway by skiing down the mountain – bizarrely, it reads more like the cinematic Bond than Fleming’s original. The science practiced by Blofeld is completely bogus, and the only connection between the villain of this book and the villain of Thunderball is Bond’s conviction that they are one and the same man. Fleming’s treatment of Bond’s father-in-law, the Sicilian capo, is deeply racist; and it goes without saying that the women throughout the book are little more than plot tokens or adjuncts to Bond’s masculinity. This is actually one of the better Bond novels I’ve read so far, though I still don’t think they deserve their immense popularity. I’d always assumed their success was due to the films, but apparently there was a James Bond strip in the Daily Express, which ran from 1958 to 1983. While the hardback of Casino Royale apparently sold out three print-runs within thirteen months in the UK – but flopped in the US: they retitled it You Asked For It, and even renamed 007 as “Jimmy Bond” in the paperback reprint – I do wonder if it’s the newspaper strip which, by bringing the character to a much larger audience (under Beaverbrook the Daily Express had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world), really made Bond a twentieth-century cultural icon.

AMWBreathA Man Without Breath, Philip Kerr (2013). That’s me completely up-to-date on the Bernie Gunther novels, at least until a new one appears. In A Man Without Breath, Gunther has moved to the War Crimes Bureau, and is sent out to Smolensk because several buried bodies have been found in a nearby wood by German troops. The Germans suspect the bodies belong to Polish officers, killed by the Russians, who had allegedly shipped the Poles they had captured off to POW camps. The wood is Katyn Wood. When a pair of soldiers from a nearby signals detachment are found murdered in Smolensk, Gunther is asked to assist by the local field police. The more he investigates the double murder, and the circumstances surrounding it, the more he’s convinced there is some sort of conspiracy in place among the senior German officers in Smolensk. Meanwhile, other War Crimes Bureau investigators have found yet more murdered Poles buried in Katyn Wood… If Prague Fatale was a piss-take of a country house murder – including a locked room mystery! – A Man Without Breath is pure World War II behind-the-lines thriller. The plot hangs from two very real atrocities committed during the war – the Katyn Massacre, and another performed by the Germans (revealing it would constitute a spoiler, so I won’t). Kerr places Gunther firmly in the middle as all these events come to a head, and while he’s not responsible for resolving them, he is certainly the one who makes sense of them and puts the pieces together for the reader. One of the difficulties with writing historical fiction involving well-documented people and events is that everything must end up as it does in the history books. This is not Inglourious Basterds, Hitler and the Nazi bigwigs do not get gunned down before 1945. The larger events depicted in A Man Without Breath are actual history, and you can read about them on Wikipedia. The same is true of the movements of the more important figures. So when Hitler makes a flying visit to Smolensk in the novel, that’s what he actually did in the real world. Kerr does this really well. And having read science fiction for so many years, I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to fiction which includes elements I can go and look up afterwards. In fact, that’s something I try to write myself – even though what I write is science fiction…

threemarysThree Marys, Paul Park (2003). After writing four excellent science fiction novels, one of which remains my favourite sf novel of all time, Park decided to write a couple of books set in Biblical Palestine. The first was The Gospel of Corax, a sort of alternate life of Jesus, in which he wasn’t crucified but wanders eastward, dispensing magic and theosophist philosophy. Three Marys is a more historical novel and, as the title indicates, takes as its protagonists three women called Mary who each knew Jesus – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and Jesus’ mother, Mary. I’m a big fan of Park’s writing, but first century Palestine is not a place and time that especially interests me. I’ve read one book set there this year, Philip Boast’s Sion (see here), but that was quite a strange book. Park’s is far better historically-grounded, and reads much more convincingly than Boast’s did. The three title characters are also beautifully drawn. But… I don’t find Jesus interesting as either a historical or a religious figure, and I struggled to gain purchase on Three Marys despite its lovely prose. I suspect I may have to reread it one day, but for now I’d say it was a book I admired far more than I enjoyed.

kingdomKingdom of Strangers, Zoë Ferraris (2012). The third book in Ferraris’ Jeddah-set murder-mysteries. A body is found in the desert after strong winds have blown sand from a dune by a road. The body is that of a young woman, has had its hands removed and appears to be several years old. The police investigate and eighteen more bodies are found in the area. It looks like Jeddah has a serial killer on its, er, hands, and no one knew about it. This is not unexpected: given the frequent abuse and mistreatment of female expatriate maids and nannies – many of them run away and the police rarely bother to look for them. Meanwhile, the Filipina mistress of Imbrahim Zahrani, the policeman in charge of the serial killer investigation, has gone missing, and he’s worried that knowledge of his affair will leak out and torpedo his marriage and career. Forensic pathologist Katya Hijazi is also keen to get involved on the serial killer case, but most of the police officers don’t want women working on it. She has also agreed to marry her fiancé, which creates a bit of a problem as the police think she is already married (and she wouldn’t be allowed to work there if she were unmarried). The setting of Ferraris’ novels makes for interesting reading, and while the crime aspects of the plot often seem incidental to documenting the lifestyle of the Saudis, it all hangs together entertainingly. I never actually lived in Saudi myself, only on the Gulf coast, but Ferraris’ portrayal does match what I know of the country and its inhabitants. She has a group of sympathetic and well-drawn protagonists, handles her supporting cast well, and I think I’m going to continue to read the books as they’re published.

slow apocalypse_frontSlow Apocalypse, John Varley (2012). I fell in love with Varley’s short fiction when I first read some of it back in the 1980s, and his The Ophiuchi Hotline remains a favourite sf novel. I even sort of like Millennium, the film adaptation of his short story ‘Air Raid’, which he then novelised as, er, Millennium. Since 1998’s The Golden Globe (which I really must reread one of these days), I’ve bought his books in hardback on publication – he’s no longer published in the UK, so I’ve had to order them from the US. Sadly, none of his recent novels have quite matched up to those earlier works. And, unfortunately, Slow Apocalypse is more of the same. A Hollywood-based television writer, Dave Marshall, learns from a secretive ex-military contact that the US experimented with a bacteria to render enemy oil fields unusable, but that the scientist responsible turned rogue and released the bug into the wild. Marshall thinks the story is excellent material for a movie, one that will reinvigorate his stalled career. Then oil wells around the world start to explode… Soon, there’s very little petrol available, and other resources – such as food – which rely on petrol for transportation also become scarce. A huge earthquake then strikes Los Angeles, near-destroying the city, and society collapses. Marshall and family join together with their neighbours in the canyon in which they live to safeguard their houses. Because he heard the story early, Marshall has managed to stockpile plenty of supplies, but he’s afraid his neighbours may soon want to him to “share”. Also, their current redoubt is unsustainable for much longer – especially after a huge brush fire sweeps out of the hills and renders most of the city uninhabitable. The government is proving no help, and aid is virtually non-existent. So Marshall agrees to travel south with a group of close friends and colleagues, in search of somewhere sustainable to settle. It’s plain that Slow Apocalypse was written as a commercial disaster novel, and if it gives Varley’s career a boost than that’s all to the good. But. I found it really dull. Much of the book consists of Marshall – with wife or daughter – driving about LA and witnessing the damage done to it by the quake and subsequent breakdown of law and order. The whole thing reads prescriptively. There are a number of quite good action set-pieces, but they’re not enough to enliven the narrative. There’s also a Heinlein-esque mouthpiece character, but Varley has always been able to make such characters more palatable than Heinlein ever did. The plot is as predictable as a Hollywood movie, and might well follow Hollywood’s over-used three-act arc. Disappointing.

silkieThe Silkie, AE van Vogt (1969). Sometimes I wonder if something in my brain doesn’t work quite the way it should. I have very little time for Golden Age authors, but for some reason I keep on fooling myself that I have a soft spot for the works of one of them: AE van Vogt. I think his The House That Stood Still is very nearly a bona fide sf pulp classic, and some of his other novels can be entertaining in a not-quite-coherent way. But. He made his career out of the advice given in a how-to-write book, which basically said to break any narrative down into 800-word sections which must always end on a cliff-hanger. And it’s pretty clear in most of van Vogt’s fiction that when he finishes a section, he’s no real idea of what’s going to happen next. It’s often plain he’s no idea what’s going on within sections. His prose is competent at best; he mangles science, philosophy and history at will; and he has fixed-up and expanded so many of his stories, it’s impossible to say where some begin and others end. The Silkie is a fix-up and it reads like one. The book opens with a prologue, and it’s actually not that bad. It’s set in the present day in the Caribbean. A scientist and his daughter have been invited to the island of a secretive scientist who claims to have discovered immortality. Instead, the daughter meets a Silkie… a human capable of metamorphing into a seal-like creature which is equally at home underwater. And then the story completely changes, and we’re in outer space and Silkies apparently have a third form, which allows them to live, and move about, in space. There are also Variants, who are the products of Silkies and human women – all Silkies are male – but are not full Silkies. But they get written out of the story once van Vogt has finished with them. Which is pretty quickly. There’s a Variant boy who has astonishing mental powers and may be a threat to the Silkies, so the hero defeats him. Then it turns out there’s an alien attacking the Silkies, so the hero defeats it. And then it turns out there are bad Silkies who live in an asteroid inside the orbit of Mercury. So they weren’t invented by the scientist in the prologue after all. But they’re not really bad because they’re actually unknowingly under the control of a giant alien blob that’s older than the universe. But the hero defeats it. And discovers everything is all part of a plot by yet another alien race. So he defeats them… And it’s one damn thing after another, and each threat is written out of the story as soon as it’s vanquished, and its presence and/or defeat has no repercussions or ramifications on later parts of the story. The Silkie reads like the science-fictional ramblings of a drunk who has no grasp of plot, story-arc, continuity or rigour.

hull03Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (2010). I stumbled across a copy of this in a local charity shop, and bought it because it was on the Clarke Award shortlist last year. So it must be good, right? I generally have a lot of time for the Clarke Award juries’ choices, although every now and again they pick books which to my mind don’t seem to be award-worthy. This was one of them. A man wakes on a giant spaceship, with no memory of who he is or what he is supposed to do. All he can remember is that he is a Teacher, and will be needed when the generation ship reaches its destination and begins the settlement of a new world – information he chiefly recalls from a dream fed to him while he was in cryogenic hibernation. He ends up running around the ship with a bunch of strange people – not your normal-type humans – encountering monsters and such, and eventually discovering why he was woken and what has happened to the ship. All the time I was reading this book, I was thinking: why is this spaceship so bloody huge? There’s one scene where the group enter a vast room with a catwalk across its middle and an enormous window in its floor. Why is it so big? If it’s an observation room, it doesn’t need to be so huge. It makes no sense – enormous chambers need more steel to build, more air to provide a breathable atmosphere of the required pressure, and more energy to heat. It’s stupid. The whole spaceship seemed to have been designed by a production designer for a B-movie. As, in fact, did the story. Systems aboard a generation starship come to blows over one of the mission’s objectives… monster movie in space results. I couldn’t see why Teacher specifically had been woken, why the generation ship had been designed in such a stupid manner, and by the end of the book I no longer cared. Bear has written much better than this, and this monster movie book didn’t deserve to be on the Clarke shortlist.


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Firsts

I’m not sure what triggered it, but the day before yesterday I was reminded of the first science fiction novel I can recall reading. And that got me thinking about the first album I remember buying, and the first film I remember seeing in a cinema. So I decided to write a blog post about them.

First book
I remember reading books on Norse mythology and maritime mysteries, and by Joan Aiken, as a kid, but the first sf novel I remember owning was… Doctor Who and the Zarbi. We were living in Dubai, in a villa in Jumeirah, and my parents gave it to me for Christmas. So it must have been 1975. Because the previous Christmas we were in Qatar, and the following September I started at boarding school in the UK. During my first year at boarding school, I was introduced to “proper” science fiction by a kid in my class called Silver who lent me Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. Then a lad in the year below me named Hopkinson lent me an EE ‘Doc’ Smith novel – one of the Lensman series, I think – and I started buying sf novels myself. In fact, several years later I bought all seven of the Lensman books – the Panther paperbacks with the Chris Foss cover art. I still have them.

Doctor_Who_and_the_Zarbi

First film
I know I saw several Disney films in the main hall at Doha English Speaking School – my clearest memory is of The Jungle Book – but the first film I saw in a cinema was Where Eagles Dare, also in Doha. I remember the cinema was open air and that we sat on folding chairs, and I can remember watching the movie on the screen quite clearly. The film was released in 1968, but it was unlikely to have been available in the Gulf until several years later. We left Qatar in 1974, so it was either that year or the previous one. In which case, I’ll have been seven or eight years old. Of course, Where Eagles Dare is now a Sunday afternoon perennial on television, so I’ve no idea how many times I’ve seen it since. The first genre film I can recall seeing is Planet of the Apes. After leaving Qatar, we moved to Oman and  lived in a villa in a small camp outside the Sultan’s palace in Seeb. We would often visit the army barracks at Rusayl, where there was a film club. They’d project films onto the end of a barracks block, in a small area fenced off with barasti and provided with folding chairs.

where-eagles-dare

First album
One of the first bands I can remember owning an album by was Deep Purple. But that was a pirate cassette – you could buy them openly in the Middle East during the 1970s; and, in fact, right up to the mid-1990s. They usually cost less than £1. I remember them being Dh 4/- each during the 1980s when there were about six UAE Dirhams to the Pound Sterling. The first legitimate album I can remember buying was a LP, and I bought it in a record shop on Clumber Street in Nottingham. The shop has long since gone and I no longer remember its name. The album was Cat Stevens’ Foreigner, and I still have it. I don’t listen to it that much, though. The album was released in 1973, and I’m fairly sure I bought it before I started at boarding school in 1976. So I’m guessing it was either summer 1975 or summer 1976 when I purchased it. It might have been the year before.

foreigner

A message from our sponsors: today’s trip down memory lane has been brought to you by science fiction, the literature of the futures of yesteryear.


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Triple-stacked

Last weekend, I spent a couple of hours re-shelving my hardback books so that my purchases since the last re-shelving were in their proper place – alphabetical by author, and chronological within author, of course. As is always the case, as soon as I’d finished I found a couple of books I’d missed… By double-stacking the books on the shelves – I’m slightly worried a single shelf may not be able to take the weight of all my Alastair Reynolds hardbacks and my Kim Stanley Robinson ones – I actually had a two shelves left free. And then I realised I’d not done my most recent book haul post, so I was going to have to unstack some of the shelves to dig the new books out to photograph. Oh well.

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Some non-fiction, two of which are research material for Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The Thresher Disaster is the second book I have on the incident. Tethered Mercury I only learnt of when I visited the Mercury 13 website, so I immediately tracked down a copy on abebooks.co.uk and ordered it. The Art of Malcolm Lowry is a series of essays on the author and his works.

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New paperbacks: I’ve had The Call of Cthulhu for a while, and I decided it was time to complete the set – hence, The Dreams in the Witch House and The Thing on the Doorstep. A couple of months ago, I read The Warlord of the Air and was mostly impressed – at least enough to buy a new copy of it plus The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar in these nice new editions.

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Just two graphic novels this month – number 16 in the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, The Secret of the Swordfish, part 2. This is early Edgar P Jacobs and nowhere near as good as later ones. Goddamn This War! is Jacques Tardi telling frontline horror stories about World War I. Grim stuff.

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Some for the collection… A first edition of Prospero’s Cell popped up on eBay so I snapped it up. There’s only a handful of Durrell’s books now that I don’t have in first edition. Disguise For A Dead Gentleman is DG Compton in an earlier guise – under the impenetrable pseudonym of Guy Compton – as a crime fiction writer. This is a Mystery Books Guild edition, which is all I can find. The Book of Being completes the Yaleen trilogy – I have the first two books already as Gollancz first editions. Three Corvettes is not a first edition, but it’s an early reprint, in relatively good condition, and was cheap. Nor is The Collector a first edition, but a late 1970s reprint. But it is signed.

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Some new hardbacks. I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction since first reading his short stories in Interzone back in the 1980s, but he’s not been especially prolific: three novels and two collections, the first collection back in 1990 and What The Doctor Ordered published only this year. Needless to say, I got quite excited when I stumbled across this new collection from Centipede Press, and ordered it immediately. Marauder is Gary Gibson’s latest novel and I believe is set in the same universe as the Shoal Sequence. Shaman is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, and I really must get around to reading The Years of Rice and Salt and Galileo’s Dream one of these days. And finally, Iron Winter is the final book in Steve Baxter’s Northlands trilogy.

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Lastly, some charity shop finds. Lightborn was on both the Clarke and BSFA award shortlists in 2011. The Cruel Sea I bought as a reading copy, as the signed hardback I have is a bit tatty. Of course, as soon as I got home I discovered I already had a reading copy. Oh well. I have both Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light in hardback, but Orthe was cheap so I bought it as a reading copy as I’d like to reread the books one day. I read American Tabloid years ago and I have The Cold Six Thousand on the TBR, so Blood’s A Rover will complete the trilogy. Selected Poems by TS Eliot, er, does what it says on the tin. And last of all, I went back to the charity shop and picked up the other Mailer 1970s paperbacks, The Deer Park and American Dream. So we’ll see what they’re like…

Incidentally, since swapping from Amazon’s to Foyles’ affiliate scheme a couple of months ago, I’ve not made a single penny. Meanwhile, my Amazon links have made me £7.40 over the same period. So I’m having a little difficulty understanding why no one else can manage an affiliate scheme that’s as easy to use, and as effective, as Amazon’s…

Oh, and there’s no way I can physically triple-stack my book-shelves – not that I think they’d stand the weight anyway. But the rate I’m going, I’m going to have to do something. I’ve already got some books up for sale on the Whippleshield Books online shop here, but it’s not like people are rushing to buy them…


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Summer reading #1: The Moon is Harsh Mistress

I’m starting to wonder what I’ve done that you should all hate me so much you’d make me read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Because surely you knew it was going to be worse than I expected. I had reasonable expectations for it – after all, it’s in the SF Masterworks series (that’s the edition I own – that’s the old, numbered SF Masterworks; it’s number 72). I’d also read a bunch of Heinlein back in the dim and distant past and remembered enjoying them… Also, the first true sf novel I ever read, aged ten or eleven, was Heinlein’s Starman Jones, Anyway, I’d expected to not like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, much as I’d not liked Stranger in a Strange Land a few years ago when I reread it…

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But it’s worse than I imagined. It really is. Given the size of Heinlein’s oeuvre, am I supposed to seriously believe The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the best of his books SF Masterworks could get the rights to? Because it is shit, so shit that I am revising my opinion of all the people I know who insist it is a good book… Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but I can see no good reason why it is so well-regarded. In fact, I suspect its reputation is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the genre and fandom.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a first person narrative by Manuel Garcia O’Kelly who speaks in some sort of pidgin English throughout. It’s supposed to be a creole, the sort of English spoken by people who came from several different language groups but settled on English as a lingua franca. A lot of those people were apparently Russian speakers. You can tell this because sometimes Manuel, or Mannie, forgets to use the indefinite article and sometimes he forgets to use the definite article and sometimes he even forgets to use the first person pronoun. Oh, and his dialogue is liberally peppered with da, nyet and spasebo – because of course the last words you learn in any new language are “yes”, “no” and “thank you”. Mannie, or Man, is a “computerman” in Luna City, which is the sort of computer-related job someone who knows nothing about hardware, software, databases or systems administration might imagine an IT professional would do. It takes Mannie a while to realise, for instance, that a vocoder doesn’t need to actually generate sound in order to use the telephone. To be fair, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was first published in 1966 (so it’s as old as me but, to be honest, I think I’ve aged better – and I’m no oil painting), but even back then computing was a deal more sophisticated than represented by Heinlein’s invented late twenty-first century (the DEC PDP-10, for example, was introduced in 1966).

Mannie spends a lot of time working on Luna City’s High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV – HOLMES IV – which is what’s known in the IT industry as a “bollocks backronym”. The HOLMES IV is Luna City’s master computer – it runs everything. Because in the future, we will have a Giant Computer Brain in charge of everything, just like we had in the past– no, wait. Anyway, the HOLMES IV is so sophisticated it has developed sentience. But only Mannie knows this. The computer – nicknamed Mike for Mycroft Holmes by Mannie – has not made any effort to hide the fact it is an AI, but everyone else is so stupid they haven’t noticed. Except Mannie.

One day, Mannie decides to attend a political meeting. There he meets Wyoming Knott, a beautiful blonde political agitator. The “beautiful” bit is important, because every male that meets her has to look her up and down and whistle appreciatively. This is common practice when meeting an attractive female on the Moon. All women exist to be ogled by men, but it’s okay because they like it and they’re really in control. We know this from, well, from every book Heinlein has written, pretty much. There is in fact a nice long speech in Stranger in a Strange Land by one of the female characters explaining why it is a Good Thing for her to show off her naked body to dirty old men (p 280 in my NEL edition).

Luna City is an ex-penal colony and is administered by the Lunar Authority, headed by a Warden, and is just as draconian as it was back when everyone was a convict or transportee. Those at the meeting want to change that. The Warden gets wind of the meeting and sends along some goons. They try to arrest everyone present but instead the attendees kill them. Have a problem with someone on the Moon? Kill them. Disagree with someone on the Moon? Kill them. Don’t like someone’s politics on the Moon? Kill them. This is how Luna City with its “no laws” works. They kill each other. As a result, they’ve learned to be polite and courteous to each other. So that’s all right then. They might kill a person for the slightest of infractions, but at least they say “please” and “thank you” – well, they say spasebo.

A case in point: an Earth tourist who is supposed to be some sort of French/Scottish aristocrat, but is a “dinkum cobber” nonetheless – did I mention the really annoying Comedy Australian used in the novel? Anyway, said tourist is on the receiving end of some flirting by a fourteen-year-old girl in a bar, so he moves in for “a kiss and a cuddle”… only to be hauled away by a bunch of male teenagers. Rather than just kill him, their first inclination, they uncharacteristically decide to look for a judge, and come across Mannie, who stands in for the absent judge. Cue lecture on Luna City mores, and everyone gets fined. The tourist had no intention of having sex with the girl, that would be statutory rape. Except there’s no such thing on the Moon. If she wanted sex, then it’s fine. Except… kissing and cuddling a fourteen-year-old girl is still skeevy as fuck:

Had wandered into a taproom which lets stilyagi hang out, a sort of clubroom. This simple female had flirted with him. Boys had let matter be, as of course they had to as long as she invited it. But at some point she had laughed and let him have a fist in the ribs. He had taken it as casually as any Loonie would… but had answered in distinctly earthworm manner; slipped arm around waist and pulled her to him, apparently tried to kiss her.

LaJoie shivered. “At her age? It scares me to think of it. She’s below the age of consent. Statutory rape.”

“Oh, bloody! No such thing. Women her age are married or ought to be. Stu, is no rape in Luna. None. Men won’t permit it…” (p 164)

This is a fourteen-year-old girl, remember. Note that the situation is still her fault, that girls of her age are expected to be married, and that men get to decide what is and what isn’t rape.

The whole idea of a society succeeding because its members are free to kill each other without consequence – other than becoming a target for another murdering citizen – is just so stupidly dumb, I’m amazed Heinlein ever thought it workable. No, it wouldn’t lead to polite people, it would lead to dead people. And the survivors would be those more willing to kill than anyone else. This is not a village in some foreign land, either. It is on the Moon, where people cannot survive without technological assistance. So what happens if you kill the person who runs the air-plant? Everyone dies.

Heinlein is fond of pointing out that air is free on Earth but not on the Moon. Except, well, it is. You can crack it out of the regolith. And how else would the Moon be able to support a population of several million if it didn’t use such a method to generate air? The power for the process is also free – solar power. And, rather than measure living space in area, Heinlein uses the term “cubic”. Not volume, which is to three dimensions what area is to two dimensions. Cubic. Stupid.

Heinlein has been celebrated within science fiction as some sort of proto-feminist because of his “strong female characters”. While he certainly gives them voices in his narratives, and even occasionally some agency, they are still usually wives and mothers. Which is what all of the women in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are – even Wyoh, the beautiful blonde political agitator all the men whistle at, who effectively disappears a quarter of the way into the story, and is only wheeled out whenever Mannie needs a hero’s welcome. (She marries into Manny’s extended family and becomes a hairdresser – I kid you not.) Mannie needs several hero’s welcomes because he’s an important figure in Lunar city’s fight for revolution. Not because he is political, not because he is smart, not because he is a charismatic leader. No, because he is the only person who knows the Giant Computer Brain is actually sentient, and he is friends with it. Bernado de la Paz is the brains behind the revolution – and he’s another Heinlein mouthpiece, full of shit which he spouts with as much authority as Heinlein can muster in his narrative.

The revolutionaries form a secret terrorist organisation, and the Giant Computer Brain impersonates their invented human leader, Adam Selene. Things start to get a bit hairy, so the Warden calls in the troops. But, of course, these trained military professionals are no match for spree-killing Loonies with no moral compass, and are readily vanquished. When Earth tries to get even heavier, the revolutionaries threaten to bomb cities using rocks fired from the mass-driver they normally use to send grain. Mannie and the Prof travel to Earth in order to argue their case before the various nations of Earth, but the perfidious politicians of Earth stab them in the back. Of course, what Mannie and the Prof are doing isn’t politics – that would make them just as bad as the nasty earthworms. There is another attack on Lunar City by Earth forces, and again it fails. As does a second attack. The Loonies bomb Earth, the Earth accepts Luna’s independence. The Prof is elected leader but dies, so Mannie and Wyoh take over. But they don’t like what the revolutionary party has become, so they resign.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress irritated me from the first page, and as the story progressed, and Heinlein spouted his bullshit through his various characters and manipulated situations to make points with all the subtlety of Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I grew to really dislike the book. I’d throw it, but it’s number 72 in the SF Masterwork series and that would make my collection incomplete. But I shall certainly never read it again. And I will cheerfully mock anyone who claims it as a classic of the genre. It is didactic in the worst possible sense, its politics are risible, its moral landscape is hopelessly confused, and it reads like the wet dream of the dirty old uncle everyone ignores at the family barbecue.

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