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Reading diary, #1

As I did last year, I plan to document my reading throughout 2015. Some books I may pull out and dedicate a full post to, others I will only mention in passing as I’ll have reviewed them elsewhere (chiefly on SF Mistressworks or in Interzone). Again, as in 2014, I’m going to try and alternate genders in my long fiction reading, although from the looks of it I seem to have failed a bit during these first few weeks…

Shades-of-Milk-and-Honey-by-Mary-Robinette-KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (2010). I am, I freely admit, a fan of Heyer’s novels, and while I wouldn’t call myself an Austen fan, I’ve certainly read her books. So when I first saw Kowal’s Regency fantasy, I knew that sooner or later I’d be picking up a copy. In fact, I received this book as a Christmas present. And read it during the journey back to the UK. It’s pretty much as you’d expect – old-maid-ish daughter of comfortably well-off provincial family gets all excited when eligible men turn up at the local nob’s house. The difference here is that people can practice a sort of light-based magic, “glamour”, which allows them to create illusions – and this has become a new… well, not art-form, but certainly a form of “accomplishment”. Jane is the plain older sister of beautiful Melody, whose charms are sure to land her a good match, except Jane is gifted at glamour – so cue a pair of “interesting” gentlemen who are drawn to Jane, Melody’s bitterness because she’s smart enough to realise a pretty face is not enough, the return of a childhood friend who proves to be a bounder, a young girl who Jane takes under her wing… It’s a polished piece, perhaps a little too polished – there was something that didn’t quite ring true about it all, not that it prevented me from enjoying it. Kowal handles the relationships well, and the glamour is nicely done – but the story seemed wrapped up almost as an afterthought with a throwaway happy-ever-after ending. At the moment, I’m not sure if I’ll be bothering with the rest of the series.

octopussyOctopussy & The Living Daylights, Ian Fleming (1966). The last of Fleming’s 007 books, and that means I’ve now read the lot. I can now cross them off the list. Yay. Although, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I decided I had to read them all – because it turned out they were all pretty terrible. Octopussy & The Living Daylights is, as the title might suggest, a collection – and both story titles have been used for Bond movies, although the films bear zero resemblance to the source material (as usual). In ‘Octopussy’, an ex-SOE man who was a bit naughty with some gold in Italy just after the war finished is visited at his home in Jamaica by Bond. Certain hints are dropped, but the man accidentally gets stung by a stonefish while feeding it to an octopus he has sort of adopted. In ‘The Living Daylights’, Bond has been charged with killing a sniper who they’ve learnt will make an attempt on a defector who’s making a run for it from East to West Berlin. Bond has always been brutal, but this one is more brutal than most. ‘The Property of a Lady’ sees Bond trying to flush out a Soviet spy during an auction for a Fabergé globe. The last story is a squib in which Bond flies to New York, daydreams about the day ahead… only to cock up the reason he’s been sent there. Meh.

Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984). The second book of the Compact Space quintet. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (2014). I’d been sufficiently impressed by Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha to overcome any reluctance I might have at reading a secondary-world fantasy. I’d also seen a lot of positivity for this book on social media. So it would not be unfair to say my expectations were reasonably high… And yet, as I read it, I just couldn’t get that excited. Partly, it was the casual brutality – in particular, a world in which a people have been enslaved for thousands of years and their masters are now slaughtering them like cattle. Fight-scenes, even battles, are one thing, but the systematic butchery in The Mirror Empire read more like an attempt to up the ante in grimdark’s brutality arms race, and I’ve yet to be convinced such a race is even a good thing. The much-touted five-genders – a neat idea – is only mentioned half a dozen times in passing, and matriarchal societies in epic fantasy are not actually all that new… But. The world-building was mostly done well, even if it does take a while to get the hang of things; and the characters were (relatively) sympathetic, although some were more successful than others. But the plot really does take a long time to get into gear, and you’re two-thirds through the book before any kind of shape becomes apparent. As epic fantasies go, The Mirror Empire is not as innovative as has been claimed, although it’s plainly a notable, if overly dark, example of the genre. More than anything, it put me in mind of Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, although they’re the better books. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with volume 2 of the Worldbreaker Saga. I will, however, give Hurley’s new sf series a go when that appears.

a-man-lies2207A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014). The Nazis were ousted by the Communists in the early 1930s, and now Hitler is scratching a living in London, under the name Wolf, as a private eye. There’s something about the conceit that doesn’t really work – whether it’s Hitler downtrodden in London, or just a Chandleresque PI in 1930s London – but Tidhar nonetheless makes it work. Though Wolf is by definition a nasty piece of work, it’s hard not to sympathise with him as he’s beaten and attacked by all and sundry, even those you’d expect to be on his side. While presented as pulp, Wolf’s narrative is really an excellent black comedy – it uses the language of the former, deliberately spoofing Chandler and Hammet in several places, but it is its shape which identifies it as black comedy. Even those characters whose sensibilities align with Wolf’s turn on him, and eventually the biggest irony of all lands him on a ship emigrating to Palestine under a Jewish name. The title of the novel, however, refers to the other narrative in the book, about a prisoner at Auschwitz, who used to write shund, or Yiddish pulp fiction. Wolf is his invention. Comparisons with Osama are inevitable as both books posit a real-world villain occupying the role of a pulp fiction hero in an invented universe. On finishing A Man Lies Dreaming, I’d have said the earlier novel was the better, but as I came to write this quick review I decided I preferred this one. A Man Lies Dreaming is an effortless read, and Wolf is an excellent fictional creation. It’s easy to overlook how cleverly done it is. Which is a shame.

Skirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985). This was one of only two books The Women’s Press published under their YA sf imprint, Livewire. It was originally published in the US as a sf novel for adults. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

Edge of Dark, Brenda Cooper (2015). Although sneakily presented as the first book of a diptych, this is actually part of an ongoing series set in the same universe. I reviewed it for Interzone.


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Reading diary, #12

The last bunch of books read in 2014… Almost. There’s one more I’m currently reading, but I’ll lead off my first reading diary post of 2015 with it. I’ll do a numbers post once the year is actually over.

rusticationRustication, Charles Palliser (2014) I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s works for years, but he doesn’t produce much. In fact, I thought he’d packed it in. But during this summer I’d spotted a new charity shop in town, near Fanoush, where I occasionally go for a falafel wrap at lunch-time. So one day after getting my wrap – they’re actually made with proper khubz, not stupid tortillas – I popped into the charity shop. And spotted Rustication. Result. The novel is set in 1863 over the Christmas holiday and takes the form of a journal, with anonymous letters inserted. Richard Shenstone has been rusticated from Cambridge after the suspicious death of a friend. His father died earlier in disgrace, and his near-destitute mother and sister are now living in a run-down house on the edge of a salt marsh near the town of Thurchester. Shortly after Richard’s arrival, someone starts sending obscene poison pen letters to the worthy women of the area and their daughters, and sneaking about at night and killing farm animals in horrible ways. Clues suggest Richard is responsible, although since it’s his journal which forms the narrative it’s clears it’s not him. Having said that, he does have an opium habit, which leads him to do a number of stupid things which make him look guilty. It all comes to a head when the local earl’s nephew and heir is murdered returning from an Assembly at which Richard had threatened him for compromising his sister’s honour. Rustication is pure Gothic, but tricked up as a literary thriller. It’s a slighter work than The Quincunx or Betrayals, but I’m still a fan.

the-man-with-the-golden-gunThe Man with the Golden Gun, Ian Fleming (1965) There’s a story that Fleming had told people he planned to become a writer once World War II ended, but one of his upper crust friends told him, “Oh Ian, don’t. You don’t have the brains for it.” And he didn’t, you know. Have the brains for it. The 007 novels, and I’ve now read them all except for Octopussy & The Living Daylights (which is on the TBR), range from bad to terrible. And The Man with the Golden Gun is toward the terrible end of the scale. Of course, the film bears no resemblance to it. (The only film which follows the plot of the novel is Thunderball, and that’s because it’s actually a novelisation of the script… and  a rights battle between Fleming and four others subsequently tied up the title for decades.) In The Man with the Golden Gun the novel, Scaramanga plies his trade in the Caribbean and has links to the Castro regime. Bond has been sent after him because he returned from You Only Live Twice brainwashed by the KGB to kill M. But now he’s had electro-shock therapy and he’s back to his normal self. M is still wary, however: hence the mission to terminate Scaramanga. Either Bond will prove his mettle, or Scaramanga will get rid of an embarrassing loose end. Bond stumbles across a clue revealing that Scaramanga is in a town in Jamaica, heads there, meets the man in a brothel, and is hired as security for an upcoming meeting Scaramanga is hosting at his half-finished luxury hotel nearby, where “investors” (ie, mobsters) will be persuaded to hand over more cash to finish the hotel. Scaramanga talks like a hoodlum from a cheap television series, Bond is his usual two-dimensional self, and Fleming can’t resist getting in his usual offensive digs at homosexuality, women and non-whites. Parts of the novel simply don’t ring true at all, as if Fleming has done little or no research; the only bits that are convincing are his descriptions of the countryside (Fleming, of course, lived in Jamaica). As with the bulk of the Bond books, you’re better off sticking with the film.

languedotdocLangue[dot]doc 1305, Gillian Polack (2014) A team of scientists have been sent back in time to the titular place and time, and they have a single historian with them – who was parachuted in at the last minute after the original two historian members of the team pulled out. Artemisia Wormwood, however, is not an expert on 14th-century Languedoc, but on mediaeval saints. Fortunately, she knows considerably more about the time and place than the scientists, who are there to refine their theory of time travel and investigate the natural environment. The team set up in a system of caves under a hill beside the village of St-Guilhelm-le-Désert and, while they keep apart from the villagers (only Wormwood speaks old French, and she does that haltingly), they make no secret of their presence. In fact, the scientists behave like a bunch of spoilt kids. They don’t seem to care about the impact they may be having on the lives of those in the village. Wormwood acts as an unofficial liaison between the two groups, via disgraced knight Guilhelm. This one is definitely a slow-burner. Not much happens during the course of the novel, it’s more a diary of incidents experienced by the time team. However, it definitely packs a sting in the tail. The prose is polished, Polack evokes her period extremely well, and the whole thing is very readable if somewhat languidly paced. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Race, Nina Allan (2014) Allan’s first novel-length piece of fiction is actually four linked novellas, and also very lightly meta-fictional. I wrote about it here.

From the Legend of Biel, Mary Staton (1975). This was the first book of the second series of Ace Specials. I read it for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

The Moon King, Neil Williamson (2014). I’m working on a longer review of this, so I’ll just mention it in passing here. I will say, however, that I enjoyed it much more than I had expected to. (I’ve known Neil for ages, so I expected it to be well-written, but had thought it wouldn’t be quite to my taste – I was wrong.) Anyway, a post on this novel should appear here soon-ish.

firstfifteenThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (2014). Found this in a charity shop, had heard it mentioned here and there, understood it to be not unlike Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (which I thought good), so decided to give it a go. And yes, I did enjoy it. The prose is nice and breezy, the central premise – people who relive their lives over and over again – was handled quite cleverly, and the eponymous protagonist was sympathetic and plausible. Plot-wise, the book is less successful – although hinted at on the first page, the plot didn’t actually kick into gear until over halfway in, and even then it spent more time on the silly maguffin at the core of the book than it did the far more interesting process by which the villain removed all his enemies. I’d seen mention of North’s Touch, due out early in 2015, and thought it might be worth a go. On the strength of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, I’ll almost certainly be picking up a copy.

Casebook2The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Peter Ackroyd (2008). Victor Frankenstein, a young man from Switzerland, joins Oxford University, where he meets Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two become friends, although their interests only just coincide – Frankenstein wants to understand how life is created, and focuses his investigations on reanimating dead bodies using “the electrical fluid”, whereas Shelley’s investigations are more metaphysical. Even after Shelley is expelled, the two remain close – Frankenstein even moves to London to be near him. In order to further experiment, Frankenstein contacts some “resurrection men” and has them deliver cadavers to his laboratory in Limehouse. Most of his experiments are failures, but when he is handed the body of Jack Keat, a few short hours after he committed suicide (he was dying of consumption), Frankenstein successfully brings him back to life… And you just know the story going to end up at the Villa Diodati. Ackroyd takes a few liberties with Shelley’s life, and Byron comes across as a dickhead, but the whole adds up to an entertaining take on the Frankenstein story and the Romantic poets. The period detail is impressively handled, Frankenstein is a sympathetic narrator, and there are a number of neat touches to the scientific thought of the day which I found amusing. A good book.

femalespeciesThe Female of the Species, Carol Joyce Oates (2006). My second Oates. This one is a collection of short stories, many of which originally appeared in genre magazines. I think I can safely say now that Oates doesn’t quite work for me. According to the blurb, in these stories “women are confronted by the evil around them and surprised by the evil they find within them”. I thought the most successful story was ‘Madison at Guignol’, in which a trophy wife polished to a lacquer-like gloss learns of a secret door at one of her favourite high-end boutiques and insists on admittance through it: Fifth Avenue meets Gothic horror. Another one I liked was ‘Hunger’, a much longer piece about a bored wife who, after a holiday affair with a younger man, is horrified when he turns up at her home. Even though she loves him – though it seems to be more of a passion – she’s not willing to jeopardise her marriage. Not all of the stories worked for me – the one about the nurse felt too much like reportage, in some of the others the prose seemed too focused on effect rather than the story. The reason for Oates’ stature is plain to see in this collection, but there are other writers I’d sooner read.

themartianandyweirThe Martian, Andy Weir (2014). This is an odd one. The book has been hugely successful, so much so Ridley Scott is apparently making a film of it. Yet most of the praise for the book I’ve seen has been outside fandom. Is this because the book was originally self-published, and did so well on Kindle it was then picked up by a major imprint? Or is it that hard science fiction has fallen out of favour with genre fandom? Actually, I think it’s neither, but rather the fact that a) The Martian is a resolutely commercial book, and in style and approach has more in common with technothrillers than it does science fiction novels, b) it is completely hollow, there’s no meaty idea for a sf reader to get their teeth into, and c) it’s actually not very good, just pages and pages of a very irritating narrator explaining how he managed to survive on Mars after accidentally being left behind. It’s basically “Home Alone on the Red Planet”, with the planet itself playing the part of the inept burglars. (Sticking Val Kilmer, or his lookalike, on the cover, probably didn’t harm its chances either.) The original self-published novel has been padded out with scenes set at NASA, as they learn the narrator, Mark Watney, is still alive and then set about putting together a rescue plan. But the characterisation is paper-thin and everyone sounds pretty much the same. Watney’s various predicaments are interesting, and some of his solutions are mildly clever – but Weir throws so much bad luck at him, it soon beggars belief. We also get little real idea of what it would be like to be on the surface of Mars. A handful of mentions of the 0.4G, no mention at all of the surface radiation, but lots about the cold. Lots. It was also my understanding that at such low atmospheric pressures, gale-force winds would actually cause very little damage. The Martian could have taken place pretty much anywhere, even the Antarctic, and very little would need to change (well, the technology would have to be dialled down a little). I’m completely mystified by all the praise this book has been receiving. We might as well claim Clive Cussler’s latest sweatshop effort is one of the best sf novels of the year…


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The Race, Nina Allan

I first came across Allan’s fiction in Interzone, and while her stories always struck me as well-written, there was a vagueness to some of the details in them which never quite rung true for me. ‘Flying in the Face of God’, which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2010, is a case in point. The relationship between the two central characters is handled beautifully, but the story is also about a space programme for which one of them has been selected. And something about that space programme felt unconvincing. A recent reread of the story in the collection Microcosms did not change my mind.

Of course, many people will say I’m missing the point of the story – or rather, by focusing on that one aspect, I’m missing what the story is about. And that’s almost certainly true. But a story is more than the sum of its parts, and a failure in one of those parts can throw the whole out of balance. It’s entirely subjective, of course – I can admire a story like ‘Flying in the Face of God’, without thinking it as good as everyone else seems to. And one thing I do admire about the story is Allan’s facility at creating worlds slightly off-kilter from ours, ones just strange enough to unsettle without seeming completely unfamiliar. Which brings us to The Race, her first piece of novel-length fiction.

the_race_cover_spacewitch-150x212

The Race comprises four novellas, titled ‘Jenna’, ‘Christy’, ‘Alex’ and ‘Maree’ after their narrators. Jenna lives in Sapphire, a town on the edge of Romney Marsh, in a future that is plainly not our own. Her brother, Del, manages a dog track, where smartdogs are raced by “runners”, people with an empathic connection to the smartdogs mediated by implants. ‘Jenna’ is essentially a family history and an exploration of Jenna’s small world (we learn very little of the world outside Sapphire). Jenna becomes a maker of handmade gauntlets for the runners, and Del gets married and has a baby girl. A few years later, the girl is kidnapped, and it transpires Del was involved with drug dealers and owes them money for a missing shipment.

Christy, on the other hand, lives in our world. Her father and brother run a house clearance firm. ‘Christy’ focuses on Christy’s relationship with her brother, Derek, and his girlfriends. First Monica, and then Lin. Derek is a thug and a nasty piece of work. After he sexually assaults Christy, she leaves for London and university. She becomes a writer, and ‘Jenna’ is revealed as one of her stories. It is during one visit home that she meets Lin, who Derek tells her he will marry. But then Lin disappears, and Christy fears her brother may have murdered her.

Alex is the ex-boyfriend of Lin, and a journalist based in London. He is contacted by Christy – several years have passed since the central events of ‘Christy’ – who asks him to come and visit her in her home in Hastings. She asks him about Lin, and he describes an incident when Derek assaulted him because Lin had come to talk over her fears about Derek. Alex also reveals that Lin is alive and well, as he saw her in the street several years later but she blanked him.

The final novella is set in an alternate UK. Maree is an orphan and an empath, and she leaves her home in Scotland to cross the Atlantic to work on a secret project in Thalia (which seems to be a country in South America). This world also has smartdogs and shares some elements with that of ‘Jenna’ – in fact, it may be the same one but the narrow focus of ‘Jenna’ concealed the parts in ‘Maree’ that are invented. And the invention in the novella is… odd. Some places – London, Inverness – have the same names as real places; others do not – Lilyat (Lisbon?), Bonita (Buenos Aires?), Kontessa… And then there are the whales. Much of ‘Maree’ takes place aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic. This is considered a hazardous journey as convoys of whales sink ships when they come across them. And chief among the whales is the “baer-whale”, which is bigger than most ships. Maree discovers during the journey, from a fellow passenger who admits he is a private detective who had been hired to find her, that she is Del’s missing daughter from ‘Jenna’, and that she wasn’t kidnapped because of the drugs but because she is a natural empath. In other words, she doesn’t need an implant. This also means she is gifted at acquiring languages. The secret project she is joining is trying to translate alien messages from outer space.

The things that are good about The Race are the things that Allan is good at. The mosaic structure plays to her strengths in that it allows for a tight focus over a relatively short wordcout. However, it also reveals a weakness: the links between the novellas are not quite strong enough to hold the novel together. Take the murder which appears in ‘Christy’ and ‘Alex’. Christy is afraid her brother killed Lin, but the truth is revealed in passing by Alex. Which makes the resolution of it, and the relief Christy must feel, completely secondhand, robbing it of any emotional impact. It’s not central to either novella, of course, but it feels like one of those details which never quite rings true. Which is not to say that every detail rings false. One of Allan’s strengths as a writer is the off-focus lens she shines on the worlds of her stories, and she does this by changing some details, such as the names of places, so that everything feels slightly off-kilter, and by keeping the relationships between the characters firmly at the centre of the narrative and the plot beats somewhere to the side. This is something that is more obvious in The Race than other works because each of the novellas exists at the edges of the preceding one.

The writing throughout is, unsurprisingly, very good, and the characters are drawn extremely well – although if Jenna, Christy and Maree seem a little similar that’s an artefact of the structure, I suspect. As is the novel’s lack of, well, plot. The two science-fictional novellas wrap the real world ones, when you’d expect the reverse to be the case; but Christy’s life – since ‘Alex’ too is about that – doesn’t really provide a key to ‘Jenna’ and ‘Maree’. The mystery which exercises Christy for years does sort of map onto the disappearance of Jenna’s brother’s daughter. And Maree does end up with a completely new life, much as Alex reveals Lin to have. Even then, revealing what happened to Del’s daughter doesn’t really resolve anything, as ‘Maree’ only catapults her into a new, and unsolved, mystery. I’m also not really sure what role the dog racing plays, or why it provides the title, since it only appears in ‘Jenna’, which is Christy’s creation anyway.

The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt. If it doesn’t quite match another 2014 genre mosaic novel, Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines, that’s probably because Park goes full-on metafictional, and Allan sort of nibbles at the edges and never quite commits. Or perhaps it’s just that Allan’s form of metafiction is less overt – it lives within her stories rather than providing the stories’ building-blocks. Having said all that, I won’t be surprised if The Race appears on one or two shortlists next year.


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Reading diary, #11

Books… films… books… films… I really ought to write about something else every now and again. I mean, I do – I post nice retro-future photos every so often, and I’ve even been known to mention my own writing. But it does feel this year that this blog has turned into more of a record of things I’ve read and watched rather than part of any sort of conversation. Must try harder. I might even make that a resolution for 2015…

But, for the time-being, it’s, er, books. That is: being wot I have read in the weeks since I last put up a “reading diary” post (see here). I’ve been sticking to the alternating genders thing on long fiction, and see no good reason to stop. You may notice I read two books by women in succession here, but that’s because I’d snuck in a novella by Kim Stanley Robinson after Wasp, but didn’t feel it necessary to write about it. I don’t mention every book I’ve read, after all; although it’s mostly the non-fiction on planes and stuff that I leave out of these posts.

mars_evacueesMars Evacuees, Sophia McDougall (2014). I don’t as a general rule read YA or children’s books, being neither a teenager (AKA young adult) nor a child; but I’d seen this mentioned approvingly by friends, the setting seemed like it might appeal, and that really is an attractive cover. As it is, I was expecting something a little closer to hard sf, rather than the actual story of hand-wavey aliens invading Earth and returning the planet to an ice age to better suit their needs and a young teenage girl who gets a little closer to the war than planned. There are some nice touches throughout, and McDougall’s prose is very readable, but it’s a story put together from a pair of pretty common plots – first, kids go all Lord of the Flies in a Martian base when all the grown-ups disappear; but then protagonist, Alice Dare (named for Dan?), and brainy friend trek across the surface to another base in search of adults, encounter an alien child and so learn about them – and everyone lives happily(-ish) ever after. I’d cheerfully recommend it to kids – a sf novel for children featuring female characters with agency? Of course I would – whether they’re fans of sf or not. Which is, I suppose, what it’s all about.

WaspWasp, Eric Frank Russell (1957). A SF Masterwork, and I was pretty sure I’d read this many, many, many years ago, but I couldn’t remember anything about the story. I must have picked up the main points of the plot through general osmosis, because once I started reading the book I realised it was all new to me. The story is simple enough: Earth is at war with the purple-skinned humanoid aliens of the Sirian Empire, so Earth drops an agent provocateur, skin suitably dyed (really? yes, really), into a city on a Sirian world, and his job is to disrupt industry and government to such an extent the Sirian Empire finds it hard to wage war. This involves lots of the sort of tricks that may or may not have been successful during World War II against the Germans. Unfortunately, the Sirians are implausibly stupid, their secret police are more like the Thompson Twins than the Gestapo, and except for a few pieces of sf furniture, the story could just as easily have set in, well, 1957. If you think this reads like a how-to manual for destabilising governments, as some reviewers apparently do, then I suspect you need to get out more.

daughtersofearthDaughters of Earth, edited by Justine Larbalestier (2006). This is one of the best sf anthologies I’ve read, not just because it features an excellent selection of stories, ranging from 1927 to 2002 and so providing a really good historical spread of feminist sf, but also because every story is followed by a critical essay, discussing either the story, writer, or the science fiction of the time of the story’s publication. There are some favourite pieces of short fiction in here: ‘ The Heat Death of the Universe’ by Pamela Zoline, ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side’ by James Tiptree Jr, and ‘Wives’ by Lisa Tuttle; and some favourite writers, such as Gwyneth Jones and Karen Joy Fowler – and the latter’s ‘What I Didn’t See’ is, I suspect, a bona fide classic of the genre. Also note-worthy is ‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones, the only Jones story ever collected, and though it may remind readers of Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’, it definitely should be better known. I’ve since tracked down more stories by Jones – she had five stories published in sf mags in 1955, but wrote fiction for the “slicks” up until 1966. Also in the anthology are Claire Winger Harris, Leslie F Stone, Kate Wilhelm, Pat Murphy and Octavia E Butler. A must-have for any self-respecting sf fan.

The Venus Factor, edited by Vic Ghidalia & Roger Elwood (1972). I reviewed this on SF Mistressworks here.

weareallWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (2013). We all got a nice warm glow when this, a novel by an actual genre writer, was shortlisted for the Booker this year… although to be fair, Fowler has never really been “genre” in any sort of categorical sense – indeed, ‘What I Didn’t See’ (er, see above) apparently caused quite a ruckus on its original publication in the (now-defunct) Sci Fiction online magazine, as many felt it wasn’t genre at all; and there are still arguments whether her first novel, Sarah Canary, is actually sf (clue: it’s in the SF Masterwork series). We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, however, is entirely mainstream and sits comfortably between the witty lit fic of The Jane Austen Book Club and the weightier genre fiction of much of Fowler’s short fiction output. I know some people have had problems with this novel, although I thought it very good, and it made me want to read more by Fowler (even though I’ve read many of her stories and several of her novels already). The novel works very much because its voice works, and the achronological structure plays to the plot’s strengths – but then Fowler is pretty much one of our most-skilled writers… and it’s good that the lit fic world has now realised that.

Devices & Desires, Susan Ertz (1972). The second entry in my informal challenge to read some books by “forgotten” women writers of postwar twentieth century. This one wasn’t as successful as the first, A Month Soon Goes by Storm Jameson. I wrote about it here.

theplagueThe Plague, Albert Camus (1947). The town of Oran was mentioned on some telly quiz the other day, they asked in what country it could be found – and I knew the answer because The Plague is set there. (It’s in Algeria.) The other notable thing about this book is that I was reading it on the tram on my return from the cinema after watching Interstellar when two drunk teenage girls sat down beside me, and one of them asked if she could read my book with me. She then proceeded to read out aloud from the page I was reading. I was only glad I hadn’t been reading something by Michel Houellebecq… The title of the novel pretty much describes its plot: bubonic plague strikes the city of Oran, the authorities close its borders, the medical establishment tries hard to prevent the spread of disease, people die. This is the third book by Camus I’ve read and it’s generally considered to be his best… but I can’t actually see the appeal. Apparently, the plague is a metaphor for the German occupation of France during WWII but, well, it’s also an epidemic, something which seems horrifying enough on its own – and, given the current ebola scare, something which serves perfectly well without any allegorical baggage which might have been more readily apparent to readers at the time of original publication. I know people who rate Camus –  one day I’ll have to get them to explain why he appeals to them to me (and, um, I shall have probably have to explain why I admire Lawrence Durrell as a writer so much…).

Dangerous Games, Marta Randall (1980). I reviewed this on SF Mistressworks here.

feverandspearYour Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear, Javier Marías (2002). I bought this several years ago for a world fiction reading challenge I’d set myself (see here), but only managed to get halfway through it before giving up. It had come highly recommended, so perhaps my expectations were too high… But even on this second read I found it all a bit of a chore. The prose is discursive to an extent that made my eyes glaze, and I like discursive prose. The narrator is a Spaniard working in the UK, who, thanks to contacts at Oxford University, secures a position as a “translator” with an enigmatic member of the British establishment whose role may or may not be officially sanctioned. He’s not really a translator, because the narrator is excellent at reading faces, and it is his interpolation of the mind-set of interviewees in which his employer is chiefly interested. There’s a good brainstorming sequence involving the Spanish Civil War, Orwell, Fleming, and the narrator’s own family history, but much as I wanted to like this novel I didn’t take to it enough to want to read the remaining two books of the trilogy. A shame.


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Devices & Desires, Susan Ertz

You won’t find any of Susan Ertz’s books in print these days – in fact, a quick search on Amazon returns only secondhand copies, the most recent of which was published in 1985. She was actively writing between 1923 and 1976, which is an impressively long career, and one of her books was adapted for the cinema, In The Cool of the Day, in 1960, starring Peter Finch and Jane Fonda. She also wrote a science fiction novel in 1935, Woman Alive, but I’m not aware of it being claimed by the genre. I’ve yet to find a full bibliography online – the one on Ertz’s entry on Wikipedia lists twenty-two books but doesn’t include the one I read, Devices & Desires, which was published in 1972.

To be honest, on the strength of Devices & Desires, I doubt I’ll be exploring Ertz’s oeuvre any further. While I had a positive experience with my first Storm Jameson (see here), I can’t say the same for my first Susan Ertz. It’s not that Devices & Desires is a bad book, or a badly-written book. But it’s set in the early 1970s – there’s even a mention of the Apollo 11 lunar landing – and feels like it’s set in the 1930s. It makes for a disconnect that completely spoils the reading experience.

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The Gorlans – Professor, his mother, young nanny Stephanie, and three young boys – are travelling from the US to the UK for a well-earned holiday. They are travelling by ship – did people still do that in 1970? And they will be staying in a rented country house near Oxford. Also aboard the same liner is John Van Bolen, the young son of an American millionaire whose estranged British wife owns the house the Gorlands have rented. John is accompanied by Robinson, Van Bolen’s African-American chauffeur. The two groups become aware of each other during the voyage, and once ensconced in their holiday home the Gorlands continue to seem more of the Van Bolens. John’s mother, Rachel, is in a relationship with French expat architect Marcel, but the two cannot marry because Rachel’s husband won’t give her a divorce. Also, young John doesn’t like Marcel and refuses to be the son of divorced parents. Stephanie has fallen in love with Professor Gorland, but he doesn’t return the sentiment – in fact, he’s attracted to Rachel. And Robinson has fallen in love with Oriana, the West Indian maid of the local vicar and his wife.

Then, as usually seems the case in such stories, tragedy strikes. John and the oldest Gorlan boy plot a swimming race across the lake. Since they’ve been told not to do this, they drug Robinson, who is minding them. But the youngest Gorlan boy escapes his grandmother’s care, wanders down to the lake and falls in. And nearly drowns. But Robinson, knowing that John will be blamed for the near-death as it was John who drugged Robinson, commits suicide in order to take the blame himself.

Devices & Desires really is horribly old-fashioned. Robinson reads like a stereotypical African-American from the first half of the twentieth century. The American characters come across as somewhat less-wealthy Rockefellers, and the English characters are all terribly upper class. They talk about “fetching the car”, everyone has servants, and one character even has a small flat filled with expensive paintings in a chic area of London. You could move the entire story forward in time fifty years and the only thing that would need changing is the reference to men landing on the Moon.

Devices & Desires‘s prose is by no means bad. On the contrary, it’s a good deal better than you’ll find in most twenty-first century commercial fiction. And it’s clearly the product of an established writer with a decades-long career. But it also seems to be the product of a writer who is decades out of touch. And that, for me, completely ruined my enjoyment of the book.


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Reading diary, #10

With all the dipping into books I’ve been doing for research for All That Outer Space Allows, I’ve not been reading as much as usual – although I have managed to fit in several reads for review for SF Mistressworks. And, er, several books which I’ve actually written about at greater length… which is something I’ve not done on here for a while either.

Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Malcolm Lowry (1968). My love of Lowry’s prose remains undimmed. I wrote about this book here.

Women as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

my_name_is_red1My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998). I originally picked up this book for a world fiction reading challenge a couple of years ago, but got bogged down about halfway in and gave up. I eventually decided to give it another go, and this time I managed to finish it. In Istanbul in the late sixteenth century, the Sultan asks a retired and highly-regarded miniaturist to manage the creation of a book to celebrate his reign. But this book will not be illustrated in the Persian style, as is considered proper and religiously correct, but in the European style (depictions of people and animals is haram in Islam; hence Islamic art’s focus on calligraphy and architecture). But one of the miniaturists secretly approached to provide illustrations, or part of the illustrations, disagrees with the project and murders one of the other miniaturists. The novel is structured as first-person narratives by all those involved, including the murdered victims, the daughter of the man managing the project, and a young man who has returned to Istanbul after years in the provinces to ask for the daughter’s hand… It’s not the fastest-paced of murder-mysteries, and Pamuk seems fond of presenting the same piece of information from several different viewpoints so they more or less contradict, or at least, confuse each other. But I did think My Name is Red was very good… although I wasn’t so taken I plan to seek out Pamuk’s other novels.

mindjammerMindjammer, Sarah Newton (2012). This novel set in the world of a sf role-playing game of the same name and is, I believe, chiefly intended to support the RPG rather than vice versa. Which no doubt explains some of its set-up, like ,for example, the fact that it follows the adventures of a group of four military specialists from varied backgrounds (ie, both above and below the law). They’ve been sent to a rediscovered human polity as a Security and Cultural Integrity Force team by the New Commonality of Humankind in order to ensure everything about the newly-discovered world, Solenius, is exactly as it seems. Except, of course, it’s not. The plot of the novel basically comprises the four SCI agents stumbling from one violent encounter to another, interspersed with fact-filled info-dumps, while a number of villains twirl moustaches and gloat evilly. Mindjammer is space opera turned up to eleven, which is both its appeal and its worst problem. Space opera needs those clunky wodges of exposition, it needs a relentless plot filled with violence, discovery and violent upsets, it needs to rely on clichés because there isn’t much room for anything else… And when you have a space opera based on what is clearly a rich and lovingly-designed role-playing game universe… One for fans of the subgenre as much as it is for fans of the RPG; but yes, one for fans, I think.

Sanctum_zoomedSanctum, Xavier Dorison & Christophe Bec (2014). I picked up a copy of the first part of this a few years ago, but it’s only recently an omnibus edition of all three parts has appeared in English (I was tempted to buy it in French, but never got around to it). Sadly, after all that wait, I can’t really say it was worth it. Some things it does very well, but it also fails quite badly in other respects. The opening section, in which a US submarine stumbles across a wrecked Soviet sub in an underwater chasm off the coast of Syria is done well… Except it all takes place at 4,000 feet, and you can’t have people diving that deep – the pressure would crush them. And should you somehow manage to saturation dive at nearly 120 atmospheres, you’d be decompressing for weeks afterwards. The US submarine is also infeasibly large inside, and reminded me of the Russian mining submarine in the BBC’s execrable The Deep (which I wrote about here). Near the Soviet wreck, the divers find the entrance to an ancient temple. Which is where the story turns all Lovecraftian, as the temple proves to be a magical prison for a Sumerian demon, which the Americans inadvertently release. The art is uniformly good throughout – it was intended to be cinematic, and it works well in that respect – and the story does hang together, even if the pacing is a little slow. But the author should have done a little more research and not sacrificed plausibility for drama.

All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (2014). I am a big fan of Park’s fiction. I wrote about this book here.

Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, Shawn McCarthy, ed. (1984). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

A Month Soon Goes, Storm Jameson (1962). The first read in my informal project to try a number of British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. And I enjoyed it very much. A polished piece of work. I wrote about it here.

suicideexhbThe Suicide Exhibition: The Never War, Justin Richards (2013). This was a freebie from Fantasycon, and I only picked it up after spotting the Nazi Black Sun and flying saucers on the cover. And this was despite recently reviewing Graeme Shimmin’s A Kill in the Morning, another occult Nazi alternate history, for Interzone and not being very impressed. A secret section of the British intelligence services called Station Z crops up in various places, intriguing a man and a woman who are plainly intended to be the series main protagonists. They are duly recruited and learn that Station Z is fighting against Reichsführer Himmler’s new secret occult weapon, ancient technology some of his Ahnenerbe officers have discovered in ancient barrows scattered across Europe. Unfortunately, also in said barrows are alien creatures which are, well, are completely ripped off from the hand-creatures in Alien, and some sort of alien parasite which keeps the ancient kings interred in the barrows still alive, sort of – and who promptly go on a violent rampage once released. Oh, and there are some flying saucers too, which may be linked to the ancient aliens. It’s all complete tosh, and appallingly researched. Incidentally, the title refers to an exhibition laid on in the British Museum for the duration of the war and which the Museum didn’t mind losing should the Germans bomb the crap out of the building. It’s also mentioned later as a metaphor for Station Z or something, but its presence in the story is so trivial it seems completely undeserving of providing the title. Avoid.

Across The Acheron, Monique Wittig (1985). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

towersThe Towers Of Silence, Paul Scott (1971). This is the third instalment of Scott’s Raj Quartet. I must admit to a little confusion when I started the book. I was pretty sure I’d not read it, but the story seemed very familiar. At least, it sort of did. And when the narrative referred to something I remembered clearly from an earlier book in the quartet, but here it all happened off-stage, I realised that Scott was covering ground previously described but this time from different characters’ viewpoints. So, for example, when Sarah Layton goes off to Calcutta and has her adventures there, The Towers Of Silence remains behind in Pankot and, in the person of Barbie Batchelor, we get to witness Mabel Layton’s death at first hand. Barbie, incidentally, is a superb creation, an ex-Mission teacher who has retired to Pankot and shares Rose Cottage with Mabel as her companion. She’s played in the television series by Peggy Ashcroft, who is the best thing in the programme, and captures Barbie perfectly; although the rest of the series is a little disappointing as it misses so much interiority out that most of the characters comes across as unrepentant racists. The books, however, are built on cleverly-nuanced character studies, so they’re vastly superior to the TV series.

sweeneyA Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles,, James B Sweeney (1970). I picked this up cheap on eBay, and it proved to be ex-library so I got a partial refund. I should have sent it back – while it covers the early history of submarines reasonably well, as soon as it reaches WW1 it’s almost as if the world shrinks to only the US and its concerns. The chapter on WW2 is especially bad – it reads as though only the USA and Japan operated submarines, with only brief mentions of German U-Boots (which are not U-Botes, as the book writes at one point) and British mini-submarines. It’s also deeply racist – the Japanese are referred to as “the little people from the land of the Rising Sun” and dropping an atomic bomb apparently caused Hiroshima to be “blasted into immortality”. The writing throughout is terrible, and while I’ve spotted no blatant inaccuracies there is plenty that is given such an American emphasis it mendaciously implies every single advance in the field was made by that country.


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All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park

I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since first reading Coelestis (1993), a copy of which I bought in 1994 in a book shop I used to frequent when I lived in Abu Dhabi. It has been a favourite genre novel ever since. Over the years since, I’ve tracked down copies of his other books – first editions, natch – and read them. So when I learnt he had a new novel due, six years after the fourth and final book of the Princess of Roumania quartet, The Hidden World (2008), well, I was pretty excited. I discovered the book actually comprised three linked novellas, one of which had originally appeared in F&SF in January 2010 under the title ‘Ghost Doing the Orange Dance’, but had then been revised and published by PS Publishing in January 2013 under the same title. I’d read the PS version early in 2014, and even nominated it for a Hugo. There was also a short story, which shared the title of the new novel, that had originally been commissioned to accompany a sound installation by Stephen Vitiello at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in September 2011.

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Clearly, All Those Vanished Engines the novel was going to be something of a fix-up. And if Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance was any indication, it was also going to meta-fictional. Fix-ups fell out of favour several decades ago, but they were very popular during science fiction’s first few decades. AE van Vogt’s entire novel output, for example, is arguably comprised of fix-up novels. But as both the market for short genre fiction and genre novels has changed, so fix-ups have become increasingly rare. But All Those Vanished Engines is actually not much like a fix-up novel. Nor is it like another well-known science fiction novel comprised of three linked novellas, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). Or indeed much like another sf novel of three novellas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge (1984). Chiefly because All Those Vanished Engines is not much like a novel as such.

All Those Vanished Engines opens with the line,” Maybe the first part of the story would be called The Bracelet, or else Bracelets would turn out to be the better name”. In point of fact, we already know it is called ‘Bracelets’ – the title is given on the preceding page. The bracelet which supplies the title for Paulina’s story is comprised of “intertwining strands”. Which is a not only a fair description of ‘Bracelets’ the novella, but also the novel as a whole. And the use of the name Paulina is also telling. Not only is it a female version of the author’s name, Paul, but Park used it himself as a pen-name on a Forgotten Realms tie-in novel for Wizards of the Coast, The Rose of Sarifal, as by Paulina Claiborne and published in May 2012. The writing of The Rose of Sarifal also features in All Those Vanished Engines‘ second novella.

Paulina lives in an alternate 1881, and she is writing a story set in 1967 – “Paulina had a habit of slipping away into an invented world over which she might pretend to have control” –  in a form of fractured English, featuring a boy called Matthew. As Paulina’s story progresses, her world and Matthew’s world begin to intertwine, so much so that Paulina’s own life’takes on the form of the sort of story she is imagining for Matthew. An assassin gatecrashes the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Mardi Gras ball and kills many of those present. Paulina is rescued by her cousin, Colonel Adolphus Claiborne, CSA, who reveals she is the daughter of the Yankee empress, and the assassin, Lizzie, is her clone, and that he plans to use Paulina in an assassination plot against the empress. But Paulina escapes, meets up with Matthew, and the two end up hiding from an invasion of Wellesian Martians… By two-thirds of the way through ‘Bracelets’, the two narratives – Paulina’s real adventures, and her invented ones – have become so entangled, we’re no longer sure if the protagonist is Paulina or Matthew. The world of the story seems to have changed to accommodate Paulina’s inventions; she has lost control of her invented world.

The second novella is titled ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’, and it opens with the line: “This is how the second part begins…” There then follows the text of the short story from the MASS MoCA sound installation. After that is an explanation of the origin of the short story, in which Park himself describes how he met Vitiello and offered him “a list of rhetorical devices, from which he chose onomatopoeia and, to a lesser extent, strategic repetition”. (This is clearly a joke – the story is to accompany a sound installation, after all.) At the opening of the exhibit, Park meets a woman who tells him that the subject of his story is still alive, and living in a nursing home. She also reveals that she was a student of Park’s late mother, and likely met Park when he was a teenager. Park goes on to write The Rose of Sarifal for Wizards of the Coast, and to first take, and then teach, creative writing at a local college. In his class is a woman called Traci, who is writing a novel which Park realises is a thinly-disguised version of Traci’s relationship with Park’s mother, which echoes Constance’s relationship mentioned earlier. In Traci’s book, Park himself is called Matthew. Park discusses her novel with her, making suggestions regarding technique that he himself is using in the narrative of All Those Vanished Engines.

The sound installation is real, The Rose of Sarifal is an actual published Forgotten Realms novel, Park does indeed teach writing, albeit science fiction (at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, according to Wikipedia). Some of the biographical details of Park’s life – a mother who was a published literary professor, a partner whose mother was born in Bucharest, an autistic sister – may also be true, although which is which cannot be determined without further extra-textual knowledge (in a 2000 interview on infinity plus, for example, Park mentions that his mother taught literature). But then the three poles of ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ are entirely extra-textural – the sound installation, The Rose of Sarifal, and Park’s own life. Just as Paulina and Matthew’s lives are intertwined in ‘Bracelets’, so are Paul’s and Matthew’s in this novella – and again, in both narratives, one world is presented as fictional (Paulina’s “invented world”, Traci’s novel), while the other is the first-order fictional narrative of the novel we are reading, which contains sufficient actuality to nail it into place in the real world.

The final novella is ‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’, and the title is a reference to a painting which Park, the narrator, believes represents his grandfather’s encounter with extraterrestrials. The story itself is about Park’s family, his parents and grandparents, and their ancestors (the PS Publishing edition helpfully includes a family tree). It opens with a potted history, and the telling admission that “every memoirist and every historian should begin by reminding their readers that the mere act of writing something down … involves a clear betrayal of the truth”, which echoes the opening to Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969): “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” (Park’s novel, Coelestis, it is worth noting, covers broadly similar ground, both conceptually and in terms of the physical journey by the two main characters, to The Left Hand Of Darkness).

As Park discusses his family’s history, so he reveals more of his own circumstances – and they do not entirely match those given in ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’. In this novella, for example, Park takes a class in writing meta-fiction, his partner is different, his sister is called Katy not Elly, and the novel from Park’s real-world oeuvre he makes mention of is A Princess of Roumania (2005). As the story progresses, it is slowly revealed that this is not the world we know, but a near-future dystopia, which ends with an invasion by the dead in a chilling link back to the first novella of the novel. Park spends much of his time untangling the lives of his ancestors, chiefly to understand the meaning behind the titular painting. But he also spends a lot of time in Second Life, a real-world online virtual world – which, in this novella, forms the overtly fictional world, much as Matthew’s and Traci’s do in the earlier two novellas.

There are so many references to Park’s actual oeuvre in All Those Vanished Engines – not just obvious ones, clearly linked in the text to earlier novels; but also characters named for characters in other of his novels. Then there is Park’s own life, and the mirror images of it which are presented in two of the three novellas. As Dire Straits famously sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus / One of them must be wrong”. Except both Parks in All Those Vanished Engines are plainly not the real Park. They are as much a fiction as the invented worlds, as much a fiction as the presentation of the act of creating those invented worlds.

To describe All Those Vanished Engines as “meta-fiction” feels like labelling any random novel as “a work of fiction”. It misses the extent and – to steal a phrase from Frank Zappa – the “interconnectedness of all things” within the three novellas. However, what makes this novel even more astonishing is that it seems likely it was not originally conceived as a whole. Park has taken elements of his own recent history and knitted them into a work of fiction on the nature of fiction and the act of creating it. The end result is as much about writing genre fiction as it is about the history of the Parks and Claibornes back to 1664. The writing, as you would expect from Park, is lucid, often elegant, and a pleasure to read. All Those Vanished Engines is one of the best genre novels I have read this year, if not for several years. But its very nature means it is unlikely to noticed by the various genre awards (although perhaps the Nebula will shortlist it).

I am myself extremely fond of re-engineering narrative structures in fiction; and of, well, I suppose “pile-driving” is perhaps the best description, the foundations of a story into the real world. I like that everything in a work of genre fiction can be Googled, that the elements used within a story have this extra dimension provided by the real world, a richness that cannot be contained within the pages of a short story, novella or novel. All Those Vanished Engines does both of these, but it also takes it a step further – some of those piles stretch down into Park’s own novels, giving a bedrock of actual published fiction on which the stories in All Those Vanished Engines securely rest. This is a novel which can be reread, and in which a fresh read will always find something new – because as your knowledge of Park in the real world grows, perhaps by reading some of his other novels, so too will that knowledge enrich your reading of All Those Vanished Engines.

And that’s quite a remarkable achievement.

 

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