It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Last of the Favourites Challenge – Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany

People either love or hate Dhalgren. This is not all together surprising – it’s an experimental novel, it’s pornographic in parts, and it’s only peripherally science fiction. On its publication in 1975, some sf commentators hated and condemned it. Harlan Ellison said, “When Dhalgren came out, I thought it was awful, still do… I was supposed to review it for the L.A. Times, got 200 pages into it and threw it against a wall.” (Ellison hating it is a good reason to like the book, if you ask me.) And yet Dhalgren proved to be Delany’s biggest-selling novel, finding a huge audience outside the genre.

The plot, what little of it there is, is simple: a young man who cannot remember his name enters the city of Bellona. Some catastrophe has taken place there, and only there, reducing the city to a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland. In this wasteland live a few hundred anarchic survivors. There is a commune of do-gooders in the park, gangs of scorpions roaming the streets, and Roger Calkins, publisher of the Bellona Times freesheet, lording over it all from his walled mansion. The young man – who is quickly named Kidd, the Kid, or Kid – meets various of Bellona’s residents. He helps the Richards move apartments. They are trying to continue their lives as if everything were normal, but it’s proving very difficult. Kid enters into a relationship with harmonica-playing Lanya. Eventually, he ends up as the leader of a nest of scorpions. And he becomes a poet, and has a book of poetry published by Calkins.

The prose operates at a very detailed level, with almost every itch, breath, or passing thought documented. Occasionally, it’s clumsy. Sometimes, it’s serviceable. Mostly, it’s good, but never quite brilliant. The characters are, by their very nature, chiefly ciphers. Bellona itself is probably the best drawn character in the novel. Some of the cast are merely mouthpieces. The prize-winning poet, Ernest Newboy, for example. The name itself is a giveaway. At several points in Dhalgren, Newboy discusses poetry with Kid – both the writing of it and people’s responses to it. I haven’t read enough of Delany’s non-fiction to spot if Newboy is reiterating Delany’s own theories. I doubt it, because Newboy’s theories are pompous twaddle. For instance, he tells an anecdote about how his appreciation of two writers was changed by personally meeting them. The work of one he found bland and dull, but after interviewing the writer, revised his opinion – he could now hear the author’s voice when he read, and what was anodyne he now saw was ironic and incisive. And vice versa for another writer, whose work he had always admired, but found near unreadable after getting to know the author. It’s complete and utter rubbish, of course. You might as well expect a soap opera star to behave in real life the same as the character they play on television…

Dhalgren is only peripherally science fiction. No explanation is given for the catastrophe which has befallen Bellona. The various hints Delany gives are not rational – a second moon in the night sky, a day when a vast sun fills the sky, the way the city seems to randomly change, the unreliable nature of time within the city… I’ve seen it suggested that much of this can be explained through Kid being schizophrenic. But there are other sfnal elements in the novel. The scorpions are so called because they wear holographic “light shields”. These were initially holograms of scorpions, although by the time Kid arrives in Bellona they’re all manner of colourful and mythical creatures. This use of science fiction ideas, without the underlying process, is what angered some sf commentators – Delany was breaking the “rules”.

But it’s not just the “rules” of science fiction that are broken in Dhalgren. Many of the “rules” of fiction are also carefully broken. The voice is third person, but occasionally lapses into first person. The final section “The Anathemata: A Plague Journal”, is presented with interlinear comments, and in parts reads like an edited manuscript. Kid’s character too is very different to that presented in the rest of the novel. The novel’s opening line, “… to wound the autumnal city” is actually the latter half of the novel’s last line. The narrative’s chronology is confused and confusing – Kid loses entire days at a time, and yet the novel’s timeline never quite adds up.

One of the interesting aspects of Dhalgren is not that you find something new every time you read the book, but that you consider the book itself anew. Each reread changes how you think about the novel as a whole. This time, I found many of the characters less appealing than I’d remembered. Newboy was a pompous arse, astronaut Captain Kamp (based on Buzz Aldrin? in places, he seemed to be) was patronising, George Harrison was almost a caricature, and most of the scorpions were unlikeable yobs. And yet, on this read, I learnt something new about Dhalgren: it is filled with references to Greek and Roman myths. Such as the opening scene, in which Kid has sex with a woman and then visits a grotto and finds a strange chain of prisms and lens – a reference to Daphne. In many parts of the novel, Kid’s story references that of Apollo. Dhalgren is more myth than literature, and in some respects its construction reflects that.

I still find the novel fascinating. There’s something primal in the story which appeals to me. As post-apocalyptic novel, it’s completely different to George R Stewart’s Earth Abides. Dhalgren is never dull. It hasn’t even dated, because it’s one of those sf novels – like van Vogt’s Undercover Aliens – which carries the time it was written around with it, irrespective of, and in addition to, the time in which the story is set.

So, that’s it – I read one of my favourite science fiction novels in each month of 2007. I’m glad I did. It went something like this…

January: Undercover Aliens, AE van Vogt (1950)
This one remains a favourite. Every time I read it, it never disappoints – perhaps because it has no pretensions, so my expectations are always met. It’s a lot of fun.

February: The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Whereas this one did disappoint a little. This time, I found the characterisation thinner than I’d remembered it, and the multiple copies of Lilo a little unnecessary. There are still a lot of great ideas in the book, though – even if the best one is thrown away in the last couple of pages. All the same, it’ll stay a favourite.

March: Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick (1991)
The first one to get demoted. I remember being blown away when I first read Stations of the Tide back in the early 1990s. Sadly, I wasn’t this time. Refusing to name the protagonist now seemed like a gimmick, parts of the story were lifted straight from a Southern Gothic, and the sections set in the Puzzle Palace were confused and confusing. A very good book, yes; but not a favourite any more.

April: Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
I was in two minds about this one. The central conceit – Kriakta Rift, where strange winds blow through time, depositing unknowable artefacts from past and future – is a stunning invention. The central triumvirate of characters are handled with skill and compassion. But. But. But. It’s that last section, where the time winds are “explained”. It sort of spoiled it for me. On balance, however, I think it remains a favourite – because the first three-quarters overshadow the final quarter.

May: Soldier, Ask Not, Gordon R Dickson (1967)
Another book gets relegated. I bunged this one on the list to make it up to twelve, and chose it chiefly from fond memories of the trilogy and a recollection that this was the best of the three. And so it is. Unfortunately, those fond memories were a little rosier than I’d guessed. Dickson seemed more concerned with his historical theories than he was with his story, and the end result reads like a pulp sf action-adventure tale wrapped around some oddball lecture.

June: Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
This novel was once described to me as “a beautiful book badly written, or a bad book beautifully written”. The remark impressed me at the time – I was a callow youth then. Kairos is actually neither. Like many literary sf novels, there are sparkles of beauty and brilliance in its prose. But more than that, it is tightly plotted and the characterisation is superb. The story unfolds with the same remorselessness with which the eponymous drug unravels the world of the story. A favourite it is and a favourite it shall remain.

July: Against A Dark Background, Iain M Banks (1993)
Like Undercover Aliens, this one appeals because it’s fun. And every time I read it, it’s still fun. Not content with charging headlong through space opera tropes, Banks also subverts the standard fantasy quest template. Each time Sharrow wins a new plot coupon, she goes and loses it or has it taken from her. And yet Against A Dark Background is not in the least bit a frustrating read. Still a favourite.

August: Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988)
I’ve maintained for many years that the publication of Metrophage locked and bolted the door on cyberpunk. There was nothing more that needed to be said. Neal Stephenson’s piss-take of cyberpunk, Snow Crash, was only a bit of fancy icing on the cake – all sugary colour and no substance. And yet, rereading Metrophage, it occurred to me that what Kadrey had actually done – as I wrote in my original post on the book – was fold cyberpunk back into science fiction. Still a great novel, still a favourite.

September: Coelestis, Paul Park (1995)
There’s no doubt in my mind about this one. Each time I read it, it impresses me more. It stays a favourite.

October: Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
I had to add two titles to my original list to make it a year’s worth of reading. And while I’ve read Dune many times, and enjoyed it each time, I’ve never really held the book in high enough regard to consider it a favourite. For one thing, it’s the start of a series, but not the strongest book in that series. But I decided to add it to my favourites challenge and… my opinion on it remains unchanged. I read it, I enjoyed it, I’ll likely read it again. I like Frank Herbert’s writing a great deal… but he’s written better books than Dune, and has written books with better writing in them than in Dune… Unfortunately, the Duniverse overshadows all his other creations. For the time-being, Dune will remain on the list. But at the bottom, ready to be relegated should another sf novel really take my fancy.

November: Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
I’d forgotten how good this novel really was. I’d remembered the too-pat ending, though. But that’s minor. An engaging heroine, a clever homage to pulp sf, and some lovely prose. This books deserves to back in print. It remains a favourite.

December: Dhalgren, Samuel Delany (1975)
See above. Yes, Dhalgren remains a favourite.

So there you have it. Of the twelve books, two didn’t make the grade, and one is ripe for relegation. I still have that list of also-rans, which I may work my way through. Having said that, the few from it I did read last year weren’t good enough for promotion. But then the list was chiefly put together from nostalgia, which is never a good indicator…


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Having Plenty – Rereading Favourites, November 2007

It’s been a fun exercise rereading a favourite sf novel each month this year, although there have been disappointments. But there have also been pleasant surprises – such as Colin Greenland‘s Take Back Plenty.

I remember the buzz when the novel was published back in 1990. It “reinvented” space opera. Arguably Iain M Banks had done that three years earlier with Consider Phlebas, but Take Back Plenty was different. Colin Greenland‘s novel was a reworking of – and homage to – pulp sf tropes. Mars was habitable and had canals. Venus was habitable and had jungles. There were aliens everywhere.

Certainly the book was successful. It won both 1990’s BSFA Award and 1991’s Arthur C Clarke Award.

In brief, Take Back Plenty is the story of Tabitha Jute, captain and sole crew of the barge Alice Liddell. While on Mars, she inadvertently causes a near-riot, and is subsequently fined by the authorities. She doesn’t have the money to pay the fine. Fortunately, she meets up with Marco Metz, leader of the cabaret act Contraband, and he contracts her to take him and his band to Titan. First, they stop off at Plenty, an alien artefact orbiting Earth. It had been built by the alien Frasque, but they’d been booted out of the Solar System by the Capellans – highly advanced aliens who’d bootstrapped humanity into space, and now kept everyone sealed within the orbit of Pluto.

Of course, Contraband isn’t really a cabaret act and Tabitha is forced to flee Plenty with the members of the band. They crash-land on Venus, are rescued by pirates, and then delivered to the Capellans. And to say anymore would give away the novel’s resolution.

I’d forgotten how good the writing is in Take Back Plenty. Here’s part of the description of Venus:

“The coral reefs of Erebus rise in great jagged spires from the sticky sea. Etched, eroded ridges spiral and veer, running for ten, twenty kilometres through smoke-black water. Where they meet they throw up frozen, warty explosions of barbed knots and clusters of mineral teeth. On these serrated edges the medusas, globs of muscular mucus as wide as tabletops, hang stranded and expiring, thrown up by tempests that rend the glutinous, tideless waves. The cliffs of the coral are thickly stained with their ichor.”

Plot-wise, perhaps, Take Back Plenty is slightly less successful. The setting – the pulp-populated Solar System – is a great deal of fun. But poor Tabitha seems to spend much of the story being chased from A to B. She has very little control over the plot. The ending too reeks of old sf serials. The cavalry arrive, there’s a sudden reveal and subsequent explanation, and it’s all over. While all the clues have been set, it does feel a little too pat.

However, there is one nice post-modern touch to the novel. Take Back Plenty is clearly a narrated fiction. There are even authorial interventions. But the identity of the narrator is kept secret until the end of the novel – and makes perfect sense within the confines of the plot. It’s not hard to figure out, but it does add an extra dimension to the narrative.

As do the conversations between Tabitha and Alice, the Alice Liddell‘s AI persona. In these, Tabitha tells stories of her past – which serve to entertain, to explain her background, and to help map her character. It’s an effective technique.

Unfortunately, in retrospect Take Back Plenty seems a bit of a one-off. Yes, there were a further two books – Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty – forming a trilogy. Colin Greenland also “reinvented” the planetary romance with Harm’s Way in 2000. But during the 1990s, it seemed no one else mined pulp sf for tropes. Instead, we had Banks-style widescreen space opera, or Alastair Reynolds‘ hard sf space opera. No one leapt on Colin Greenland‘s bandwagon…

… until recently. In the last couple of years, there have been a few books by US authors which are based on and around old pulp sf tropes. A sort of return to the old sf action-adventure paradigm of the early Twentieth Century. Interestingly, while some have put a modern spin on this inasmuch as they provide a contemporary scientific rationale for their tropes, none have put a post-modern spin on it in the same fashion that Colin Greenland did. To my mind, that makes Take Back Plenty more interesting as it’s privileging story not setting. It’s probably also worth pointing out that Consider Phlebas is still in print, but Take Back Plenty is not. And given the recent interest in re-imagining pulp sf tropes, perhaps it’s time for a new edition. Or perhaps it should be included in the SF Masterworks series?

I have my copy, and I’ll be reading it again. Take Back Plenty is definitely a book that will remain a favourite.


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As Good As I Remember It? – Frank Herbert’s Dune

Some people have The Lord of the Rings, some people have Dune. They reread one of the two books on a regular basis. While I don’t read Dune every year, it’s the sf novel I’ve probably read the most times (and I haven’t reread The Lord of the Rings since I was about nineteen). This year I read Dune once again as it’s one of the titles on my list of favourite sf novels.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is generally considered a classic science fiction novel. It’s certainly a best-selling sf novel – and there aren’t that many of them. In fact, it’s still in print now, more than 40 years after its debut. Common wisdom has it that the Dune series falls in quality as it progresses, although there are those who consider the sequel to Dune, Dune Messiah, the best of the lot. Since Frank Herbert himself conceived of the original trilogy – Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune – as a whole, it’s unfair to consider them sequels. The trilogy is a thematic whole – as FH himself wrote: “I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us … This grows from my theory that superheroes are disastrous for mankind, that even if we find a real hero (whatever that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that comes into being around such a leader.”

As for the later Dune books – yes, God Emperor of Dune is less a novel than it is a manifesto, but once you accept that the book becomes a more interesting read. Both Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune are, I think, technically better-written than the original three. Admittedly, Miles Teg’s development of superhuman speed always struck me as pushing plausibility just a little too far out of the suspension of disbelief envelope. And back-fitting an underground Judaic society into the universe felt a bit like pandering and unnecessary.

The less said about the Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson prequels and sequels, the better.

For those few who’ve not read the book, Dune is the story of Paul Atreides. It is set some twenty thousand years in the future, in a feudal interstellar empire in which computers , “thinking machines”, have been banned for millennia. Interstellar travel is controlled by the Spacing Guild, who use the spice melange to see into the near-future and so safely pilot their starships via foldspace. Melange is only found on a single world, Arrakis, AKA Dune. Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, is charged by the Emperor with taking over Arrakis from his mortal enemy, Baron Harkonnen. But this is just a ploy by Harkonnen, who intends to destroy House Atreides. He attacks, but Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, escape into the vast deserts of Arrakis and join the native Fremen. These are a hard people, and superlative fighters. Paul proves to be prescient and the messiah their religion foretold, and he leads them in battle against the Harkonnens and the Emperor. And wins.

Dune, for all its popularity and success, is not a very well-written novel. Here’s a sample passage:

His mother had undergone this test. There must be terrible purpose in it… the pain and fear had been terrible. He understood terrible purposes. They drove against all odds. They were their own necessity. Paul felt he had been infected with terrible purpose. He did not know yet what the terrible purpose was.

FH’s prose rarely rises above serviceable. It often drops below it. His poetry – presented as the lyrics of Gurney Halleck’s ballads – is bad. It’s no better in his collection of poetry, Songs of Muad’Dib. But then he did write a lot of haiku, and I hate haiku. Further, the continuous “head-hopping” is often confusing. That’s not to say FH was a bad writer, just that Dune doesn’t showcase his best. His writing in The Green Brain is, I feel, much, much sharper; and he draws his setting and characters much more effectively and skilfully in The Santaroga Barrier.

What FH was, however, was perhaps the deepest-thinking sf writer of his generation. Even if his prose often got in the way of the story, his fiction always left the impression it was never based on, or built around, trivia. He didn’t write escapist adventure-stories. Even a fix-up such as The Godmakers, in which the joins are painfully obvious, had something intelligent to say about government and religion.

FH spent a lot of time on the background of Dune, and it shows a depth and richness matched by few novels in the genre. Its feudal, somewhat old-fashioned, nature has also meant it has stood the test of time well. Dune reads pretty much the same now as it did when I first read it thirty years ago. The protagonist, Paul, is a young man whose words and actions continually seem to chime with prophecy, suggesting he is heir to greatness. And so it proves. There’s plenty there for young male adolescents to identify with, especially those who read science fiction. I no longer identify with Paul to the extent I did as a callow youth. And Baron Harkonnen now seems more of a pantomime villain than a real antagonist. All he lacks is a moustache to twirl. However, the setting remains as fascinating as ever – it’s easy to feel that the background is the real achievement of Dune. Both it and The Lord of the Rings were notable first and foremost for their deep and detailed settings, and both of them perhaps led to the current privileging of immersion over everything else in genre novels and novel series.

Each time I reread Dune, I find its narrative message harder to swallow – i.e., the human race is slowly stagnating, and a jihad is needed to mix up the genes and inject some vitality back into it. Paul tries to prevent this – or rather, he tries to find a less violent solution. But he fails. For me, jihad is the wrong word. It means “struggle” – and what exactly is the jihad in Dune struggling against? Second, Herbert equates a stagnating civilisation with genetic stagnation, which is not necessarily true. And, finally, going out and killing lots of humans is a pretty peculiar way of injecting some vitality back into the gene pool.

Speaking of killing, Dune is full of it. I hadn’t realised until this reading quite how many people are slaughtered throughout the story. And often for the most trivial of reasons. In one scene, two guards are a little quick to obey Feyd-Rautha in the presence of Baron Harkonnen. Since those guards are clearly more loyal to Feyd-Rautha than the baron, Harkonnen has them killed. Feyd-Rautha’s harem is also murdered as punishment for something he did wrong. It’s not just the villains of the piece. Perhaps it’s not unexpected that the Harkonnens would place little value on life, but the Fremen view it equally as cheap. Duke Leto is the only character who values the lives of his men. On joining the Fremen, Paul adopts their view. It all makes for a somewhat callous read. And, of course, it’s stated that the jihad will slaughter billions more after Dune‘s story has finished…

Unfortunately, David Lynch’s 1985 film of Dune has also slightly spoiled the book for me. For much of the novel, Stilgar remains as described in the novel. But when Paul and Jessica join the Fremen and Paul chooses his Fremen name… I kept on hearing Stilgar’s dialogue in Everett McGill’s voice. After seeing the movie, it’s almost impossible to hear, “We call that one muad’dib,” any other way.

Even though I’ve read Dune at least half a dozen times in the last 30 years, I don’t doubt I’ll read it again. For years I’ve been promising myself I’ll read all six of the FH-penned Dune books in succession. Maybe I’ll set myself that as a challenge one year, and blog the results. If I can bring myself to do so, I might even continue onto the two “Dune 7″ novels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson… Which would sort of be the opposite of going from dreadful sf B-movies to Ingmar Bergman… but with just as explosive results (see below).

Yes, Dune remains a favourite – although for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s not FH’s best-written novel. It’s not even the best-written of the Dune series. It is also a somewhat heartless novel – its core ideas have never really convinced me. But its setting remains a work of genius, and – let’s be honest – every male sf reader secretly wants to be Paul Atreides…


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August and September Favourites

I’ve still been reading a favourite book each month. But I was a bit too busy in August to write up something on that month’s book, Metrophage by Richard Kadrey. So I decided to roll it into the write-up of September’s book, Paul Park’s Coelestis. And here they both are…

Richard Kadrey’s Metrophage has been described as “one of the quintessential 1980s cyberpunk novels”, and yet it seems to have slipped below the radar of most sf readers. It has neither the profile of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, nor Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and yet I believe it is better than both. Neuromancer was the seminal cyberpunk novel, and that can’t be taken away from it. But I’d argue that Metrophage did something just as important.

Jonny Qabbala is a drug pusher in Los Angeles. He is also an ex-member of the Committee for Public Safety. When Jonny’s connection, Raquin, is murdered, Jonny heads off to confront the killer, Easy Money… and promptly finds himself caught in the middle of a battle for Los Angeles – between the Committee for Public Safety, drug lord Conover, and the anarchist Croakers. In this future, the US went bankrupt and was bought up by the Japanese. Who are now at war with the New Palestine Federation (shades of The Centauri Device).

Jonny spends time with each of the three factions – not always by choice – but is entirely powerless to prevent events from unfolding. There are puzzles embedded in the plot – the mysterious leprosy-like disease raging through the city, the Alpha Rats on the Moon… Metrophage resolves these by putting Jonny in position to have the truth explained to him. It helps that he has contacts in each of the three factions – and even more so that he is seen as important to the plans of at least two of the factions. Kadrey takes the reader on a wild ride through his Los Angeles – alternately wasteland and near-future neon-soaked wonderland. Clues dropped here and there help explain the resolution. There are a couple of points I couldn’t quite figure out – the game Conover plays with Jonny using a copy (or original) of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, for example. But plenty of other elements of the novel have been subsequently become well-known tropes in the language of science fiction.

Despite that, Metrophage reads as fresh today as it did twenty years ago. Few books – even cyberpunk ones – can claim to have avoided dating over two decades. But then, Metrophage is more than just a cyberpunk novel. If Neuromancer folded noir into science fiction, then Metrophage folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. I’ve always maintained that cyberpunk effectively ended with the publication of Metrophage, and after my recent reread I see no reason to change my mind. Metrophage is cyberpunk – although it features no cyberspace or hackers. Metrophage is science fiction.

I didn’t expect Metrophage to lose its place on my list of favourites, and my reread not only proved that but reminded me why it was a favourite. It’s a great book.

And after Kadrey, another book I didn’t expect to be dislodged from the list. However, its appeal is, perhaps, more personal. Paul Park first appeared with the Starbridge Chronicles – Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain and The Cult of Loving Kindness – an ambitious science fiction trilogy set on a world with seasons which last centuries, much like Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy. From the first page of that trilogy, it was clear that Park was a distinctive voice. And his follow-up, Coelestis, more than proved it. In some respects, Coelestis remains unique in the genre. And that’s not an easy accomplishment.

Simon Mayaram is attached to the British Consulate on the only colony world on which an alien race was discovered, homo coelestis. These aliens were actually two races – Demons, and the Aboriginals, who the Demons had telepathically enslaved. The humans hunted the Demons to extinction, and freed the Aboriginals. Who now ape humanity – the rich members of the race undergo comprehensive surgery, and require a strict regimen of drugs, in order to appear and behave human. Katharine Styreme is one such Aboriginal. To all intents and appearances, she is a beautiful young human woman.

Simon is invited to a party given by a prominent member of the human community. Katharine – whom he has admired from afar – is also there, with her father Junius, a wealthy merchant. During the party, Aboriginal rebels attack, kill almost everyone and kidnap Simon and Katharine. Without her drugs, Katharine begins to revert to her alien nature – a process that is exacerbated by the presence among the rebels of the last surviving Demon. When human vigilantes attack the rebels, Simon and Katharine are forced to flee… and Katharine’s meagre grip on humanity begins to erode even further.

Coelestis is one of those science fiction novels which follows a logic all its own. It is, in a sense, post-rational. Although the story is set an indeterminate time in the future, the community to which Simon belongs bears an uncanny, and deliberate, resemblance to early Twentieth Century colonial British and American. Even the Aboriginals themselves – particularly the Styremes, who are made to appear human, and show no alien side – are hardly convincing in any scientific sense. Earth is described as a dying planet, and the colony planet has been cut off from its nearest neighbour. If there is an interstellar federation or empire, then it bears no resemblance to any other in the genre.

John Clute described Coelestis as a “Third World SF novel”. It’s sheer hubris on my part, but I think this is wrong. Coelestis is a post-colonial sf novel. It is clearly inspired by Park’s own years in India. And to call India a member of the Third World is to ignore its long and deep cultural heritage – and the Aboriginals (or rather, the Demons) are implied to have an equally long cultural heritage in Coelestis. The novel is not about living in a Third World analogue, it is about the gentle wind-down from colonialism and its often bloody consequences. Park makes as much clear in events described in the book. Mayaram is of Indian extraction (although born in the UK), and during his abduction by the Aboriginals, he rapes Katharine. It’s perhaps a somewhat  blunt metaphor for John Company and the Raj, but it makes the point. Even the Aboriginals’ attempt to ape human ways is a reflection of the Indian adoption of some elements of British culture – and especially the English language. The Aboriginals’ ersatz humanity is little more than surface – Katharine may resemble a young human woman, but whatever gender she possesses is what’s attached to her mimicry (the Aboriginals are actually one-sexed). She is not a viewpoint on the alien – Coelestis is a description of her fall from humanity, not of her imitation of it.

Having grown up in the Middle East, I find a particular appeal in novels such as Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Park’s Coelestis. To some extent, they remind me of my childhood. Both also have the added advantage of being novels which can be read many times – and there is always something new to find, or to think about, in them. I certainly plan to reread Coelestis again some time. Its place on my list of favourites is secure.


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I’m As Surprised As Anyone That I’ve Been Keeping Up With This…

I’ve been a bit random as to which title I choose to read next from my list of favourites. I wonder if this has affected my response to the various novels? I mean, going straight from the grim and political near-future of Gwyneth Jones’s Kairos to the slight but fun space opera of Iain M Banks’s Against A Dark Background… Of course, I read other books between those two – I read seven books, in fact… including Jed Mercurio’s Ascent (expect a post on this soon), Paul Park’s The White Tyger (the third book in the series begun with A Princess of Roumania; superior fantasy), and Text:UR (a small press anthology; a mixed bag, but on the whole recommended).

So, Against A Dark Background… This was the first of Banks’s non-Culture space operas. It’s actually set within the Golter planetary system, located millions of light-years from its nearest neighbouring star. It could be a Culture novel – there’s no reason why its story might not take place in some unexplored reach of the Culture’s universe – but unlike Inversions, there are no clues in the narrative suggesting as much.

The Lady Sharrow is a noble fallen on hard times. When she was little, her mother was assassinated, and her grandfather’s vast commercial empire was broken up by the World Court. She served in the military during the Five Per Cent War, but is now a retired hunter of Antiquities (relics of Golter’s seven thousand years of technological civilisation). As the novel opens, a religious cult, the Huhsz, has received permission from the World Court to hunt and assassinate Sharrow… in revenge for an incident generations ago. An ancestor of Sharrow’s had stolen several artefacts from the Huhsz – including a Lazy Gun. Only one Lazy Gun, of eight manufactured, remains. The last-but-one was found several years earlier by Sharrow, and handed over to a university. Who promptly tried to study its interior… only to trigger an explosion which killed half a million people. The Huhsz want the last Lazy Gun and will kill her if she does not give it to them. Except, she doesn’t know where it is.

Sharrow puts together the survivors of her Five Per Cent War squadron, and follows a series of clues about Golter’s planetary system, before finally finding the last Lazy Gun. It’s plotting by coupons, of course. Sharrow is on a Quest – although unlike in high fantasies, the consequences of failure are purely personal. Sharrow will die if she fails, it’s not the fate of the world at stake. Each step of the quest is a set-piece – from the theft of the Crownstar Addendum in Log-Jam to the assassination attempt on the last of the Useless Kings in Pharpech to the final assault on the Lazy Gun’s hiding-place. It’s all typically Banksian – but you guessed that much from the term “Useless Kings”. If there’s one thing that distinguishes Banks’s novels from those of a similar ilk it’s his mordant wit.

And that wit is firing on all cylinders in Against A Dark Background. Especially since every plan put together by Sharrow and her team during their quest goes horribly wrong. In fact, by any definition of “hero”, Sharrow is a failure – she is out-manoeuvred at every turn, and only manages to reach the next stage of her quest more by accident than by design. Or by being rescued by saviours from out of the blue. Against A Dark Background could have been titled The Perils of Sharrow.

Sharrow, however, is anything but passive. She’s a strong character. In fact, there’s a bit of the Perfect Girlfriend to both her and team-mate Zefla – both women are gorgeous, intelligent, independent, strong-willed, and more than willing to dress for display. By contrast, the male characters are mostly under-written. But perhaps this is a hang-over from the book’s origin. It was apparently first written in 1975 (when Banks was 21), but heavily rewritten before publication in 1993. The character of Feril, an android, I suspect was added in the rewrite; or at least altered a great deal. Feril joins Sharrow’s team some two-thirds of the way through the novel. It is C3-PO in all but name and irritating mannerisms. Star Wars had yet to be released in 1975, of course.

Against A Dark Background is by no means Banks’s best sf novel. It’s a space opera quest, with plotting by coupons. However, it is slightly subversive in as much as Sharrow loses each coupon to other forces as soon as she has found it. And yet still the quest progresses towards its foreseen end. To have a character fail all the time would not make for an entertaining read, and so Banks livens up the story with wit and an approach to genre furniture and tropes that knows, or allows, no shame. He had fun writing Against A Dark Background, and he wants the reader to know it. Against A Dark Background is a fun book.

Against A Dark Background was one of the books on my list of favourites I’d read several times. And each time I’ve enjoyed it – perhaps because it’s hard to take seriously. That’s the book’s strength. Repeated rereads don’t spoil it, because there’s as much enjoyment in encountering remembered characters and events as there is in meeting new ones. Like AE van Vogt’s Undercover Aliens and John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline, familiarity is comfortable. It doesn’t breed contempt. Against A Dark Background is a favourite novel first and foremost because I enjoy it every time I revisit it. It will stay a favourite; it stays on the list.


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Rereading Favourites – June Update, Part 2

Kairos I did not expect to disappoint. If anything, I imagined I would get more from the book on this reread – it’s been over a decade since I read it last and I hope I’m a more discerning reader now than I was then. Which also means, I suppose, that I had higher expectations of this favourite novel than I’d had of the others I’ve reread so far…

And right from the first page, the prose was as good as I’d remembered it. By the end of the first chapter, something else about the novel had occurred to me – what had been near-future science fiction was now alternate history. Kairos was first published in 1988, and it posits a future extrapolated from Thatcher’s Britain. The ever-widening equity gap, the increasingly ham-fisted attempts to enforce law and order, the slow realisation that the decisions made by government were not for the benefit of the people it represented… It wasn’t hard to imagine a dystopic future back then. If anything, it seemed almost inevitable.

I was going to write that we’re better off now than we had expected to be – both politically and economically. But a couple of days after finishing Kairos, I happened to watch Red Road, a film set in a far-from-salubrious area of Glasgow (it’s a very good film, incidentally). If Red Road is a true reflection of life in the present day for some, then for them the future of Kairos has come true…

Jane “Otto” Murray is a lesbian ex-political activist, and the owner of a small secondhand book shop. One of her closest friends, James, a gay soap opera actor of Nigerian extraction, asks her to look after a small film container given to him by his sister. Both James’ sister and brother are involved with BREAKTHRU, a pharmaceutical company turned cult religion – there is, incidentally, no commentary here on cults or religions. BREAKTHRU have managed to obtain a sample of a drug, which they call Kairos. This drug allows users to directly affect the real world. There is mention of quantum theory, used to “scientifically explain” how the drug operates, but it is its effects not its mechanism which is important.

After dabbling with BREAKTHRU, Otto’s lover, Sandy Brize, leaves her. Shortly afterwards, Otto’s son, Candide, runs away. Someone has kidnapped his dog and demanded the film canister as ransom. But Candide runs to Sandy, taking the film canister with him, and enlists her help in rescuing the dog. Together, they head north, meet up with a posse of animal liberationists, and raid the BREAKTHRU laboratory where Candide believes the dog is being experimented upon. Throughout this period, the drug in the film canister has been affecting Sandy, who has in turn been affecting the real world…

There’s no denying that Kairos is a very good book, and rereading it I can understand why it became a favourite. I’ve admired Jones’ writing a great deal since first encountering it, and Kairos is neither the somewhat clumsy science fiction of her earlier Escape Plans nor the near-fantasy of her debut, Divine Endurance. It is a novel that feels important – less so now , of course, than it did when I first read it (which would be a couple of years after it was published). Even so, it’s nice to read a sf novel that actually had relevance, even though that relevance no longer holds true. Perhaps that’s one of the definitions of a favourite novel – it recaptures what you felt when you first read the book. And a definition of a well-written book must be one in which you sympathise with the protagonists no matter how little you have in common with them – and I certainly have very little in common with Otto.

I’m glad I reread Kairos. I will almost certainly reread it again. It’s by no means a cheerful or fun book, although it is liberating and hopeful in its resolution. I’m going to keep it on my favourites books list.

Incidentally, my copy of Kairos is inscribed by Gwyneth Jones, To Ian, In memory of the strange sausages. She never did tell me what that means…


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Rereading Favourites – June Update, Part 1

After Soldier, Ask Not, I decided to expand the challenge to include an “also-ran” each month… just in case the favourite failed to make the grade. For June, the favourite was Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos, and the also-ran was Time and Again by Clifford Simak.

Time and Again was first published in 1951 under the title First He Died. It’s also one of the earliest sf novels I ever read. I can distinctly remember reading it when I lived in Dubai – likely borrowed from Dubai Country Club‘s subscription library. That would be sometime between 1976 and 1979. Thirty years ago! And yet I could recall some of the details of the plot – there was a time war; and a man who landed a wrecked spaceship despite it having no drives, nor even being airtight. One image from the novel which had stayed with me was of a car that had crashed into a tree, and which contained a book from the future.

I suppose disappointment was inevitable – I certainly hope I’m a more discerning reader now than I was when I was eleven years old. The novel opens with a typically Simakian scene: a man is sitting on his porch, the crickets are chirping, the brook is burbling, night is falling… Another man walks up, tells the seated man he is from the future, and that Asher Sutton is returning to Earth tomorrow and must be killed. It’s a great set-up for a story. And it gets better. Twenty years ago, Sutton was sent to 61 Cygni in an attempt to break through the mysterious barrier guarding the system’s seventh planet. He is the first and only person to have done so. And now he is back – travelling in a spaceship that has no spacedrive and isn’t even airtight. Sutton will write a book about something he learned on 61 Cygni. This book will be used as a rallying cry for a movement to emancipate androids (vat-grown humans, slaves in all but name). Others, however, will interpret Sutton’s revelations to refer to humans only. And so there will be a war.

Time and Again is set some 6,000 years from now, in a future when humanity has a galactic empire – which appears to be ruled by a bureacracy. Time travel has only just been discovered when Sutton returns to Earth, but factions from the future representing both sides have travelled back in time in an effort to influence events.

The great ideas promised by the novel’s opening, however, never really appear. Simak is more concerned with the character of Sutton, and the nature of his revelation, than he is with the ramifications of the situation Sutton creates. The world-building is poor – the Earth of the 81st Century comes across as no different to 1950s America, but with silly clothes and a code duello. The time travel, and any paradoxes it might create, never really kicks into gear. Early in the story, Sutton finds a letter written by an ancestor in 1987, and which has remained unopened since then. Ignoring the fact that paper would never last 6,000 years, the letter itself is written in a style of English which seems more 1900s than 1980s. It all adds up to a novel which is a great deal less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it’s for good reason it’s not as well-known as some of Simak’s other works, like Way Station or City.

So, cross off one also-ran. It drops off that list, never mind being promoted to the favourites list. And on we go with the rereads…

Incidentally, you’ll notice that my editions of Time and Again and the Dorsai trilogy – see here - all feature cover art by Tony Roberts (who was recently famous for being “sampled” by Glenn Brown in his Turner Prize nominee, The Love of Shepherds 2000). I wonder if it’s the art that made me believe the books were favourites – because I really do like those covers. Perhaps it’s because I began to identify myself as a sf fan around that time, but I find the cover art of the late 1970s more appealing than that of sf books today. Tony Roberts, Angus McKie, Tim White, Bruce Pennington and, of course, Chris Foss… Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority books: Spacecraft 2000 – 2100 AD and Starliners… Spaceships. Cool spaceships. Book covers then always seemed to exude an air of mystery – something sadly lacking from today’s cover art. It seems almost irrelevant that those wonderful covers rarely had any link to the contents of the book. But they made you pick it up.

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