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Reading diary, #12

Recent reads. I think I need to up my game, I don’t seem to be reading at my previous speeds. Admittedly, quite a bit of my reading has been somewhat heavier than is usual…

ghost_countryGhost Country, Sara Paretsky (1998). One of Paretsky’s two non-Warshawski novels, although this one is set in present-day Chicago like the VI books. There’s a world-famous opera singer, who is an alcoholic and slowly losing her grip on reality. Her career is already in the toilet. There’s a doctor who wants to practice psychiatry at a prestigious Chicago hospital, but the highly-respected consultant in charge of the department is more concerned with cutting costs so would sooner give patients drugs. There’s the granddaughter of the cost-cutting consultant, who can’t compete with her older sister, a high-flying lawyer, and runs away from home. And there’s a homeless woman who thinks the rusty water leaking from a broken pipe inside the outside wall of a top hotel’s garage is the blood of Mary, and she worships at a small shrine she has built there. Their stories all, of course, interact, and Paretsky uses them to deliver a stinging indictment of US private healthcare, hypocritical middle-class Christians, and the move to a more right-wing neocon Christian society. None of the men in the novel, with the exception of the psychiatrist, are sympathetic; but neither are they unconvincing. This is not a book to read if you’re looking for mind candy or comfort reading – it will make you angry. True, everyone gets what they deserve, and though the story is bleak the ending isn’t; but it’s still a very angry novel. Worth reading, nonetheless.

The-Sense-of-an-EndingThe Sense of an Ending*, Julian Barnes (2011). Three lads at school in the 1960s are joined by a fourth, a clever outsider called Adrian. The first half of The Sense of an Ending describes those halcyon days, as narrated by one of the three, Tony. After school, the four go their separate ways – Adrian to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol uni. At Bristol, Tony meets a young woman, Veronica, and the two enter into a relationship. She invites him home one weekend to meet her parents. But Veronica is, to put it mildly, hard-going, and Tony and her split. He later hears that Veronica has taken up with Adrian. Tony writes the pair of them a shitty letter. Some months later, Adrian commits suicide. The novel then jumps forward forty years to the present day. A solicitor contacts Tony – who is divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, and has a grown-up daughter – and tells him he has been left £500 by Veronica’s mother. Also bequeathed to him is Adrian’s diary. But the solicitor does not have this as it’s currently in the possession of Veronica, who is reluctant to give it up. So Tony embarks on a campaign of flattery, cajolery and stubborn persistence, via email, in order get the diary from Veronica. She is enigmatic, arrogant and clearly contemptuous of Tony – repeatedly telling him he “doesn’t get it”. Through Veronica, he meets a group of mentally-disabled people, and then over the course of several weeks insinuates himself into their world… and so discovers that one of them is Veronica’s brother and Adrian’s son. The end. Throughout the second half of The Sense of an Ending, Tony is sneered at by Veronica for not getting something he could never have known about. That he figures it out in the end still makes Veronica’s actions senseless and completely undermines the plot. The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker in 2011, but to be honest I can’t see why. It reads like a more polished Iain Banks novel, and while it’s good, the doggedness of its narrator and Veronica’s behaviour are not well-grounded, which makes it all feel a bit unsupported plot-wise.

Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh (1992). I read this to review on SF Mistressworks. It’s the final book of the Compact Space quintet, and its story is more of a pendant to the plot of the earlier four books that it is a continuation or closure. Still, I liked it – see here.

all_that_heaven_allowsAll That Heaven Allows, Edna Lee & Harry Lee (1952). The novel from which my favourite film was adapted – and it wasn’t easy to find a copy. Initially, the film seems to follow the novel quite faithfully: Cary’s friend cries off from a lunch engagement, so Cary invites Ron Kirby, the man maintaining her garden, to join her instead. Later, Cary accompanies Harvey to the country club for a dinner party, and there one of her late husband’s friends makes a drunken attempt to kiss her. Cary’s two grown-up kids, Ned and Kay, are pretty much the same in both book and film. Ned is a stuffed-shirt, a Princeton conservative who will no doubt grow up become an arsehole; Kay is more nuanced in the novel, her head still full of juvenile sociology and politics, but sympathetic to her mother’s situation. Ron, however, is more or less a cipher in the novel. He doesn’t have Rock Hudson’s easy charm, and it’s not altogether obvious what Cary sees in him. One thing the novel does show, however, is how cleverly the party scene in the film introduces Ron’s bohemian friends and lifestyle. There is no mention of Walden or Thoreau in the book. And the old mill building Ron restores to make a home for Cary and himself is in the book an old barn. All That Heaven Allows, although it made a great film, is not great literature. It’s by no means pulp fiction, nor some tawdry May-December romance novel; but I’m not really surprised it’s vanished into obscurity and that copies are extremely hard to find. Ignore the book, watch the film.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


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Reading diary, #11

There are a couple of books in this post which likely deserve full-on reviews, but I don’t do that any more (not unless they’re associated with a “reading project” or something, or for a venue such as Interzone or SF Mistressworks), so you’ll have to make do with this. I’ve also decided to institute a new feature and, as I do in my Moving pictures posts, asterisk those books which can be found on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list (I’m using the 2013 list, as that was the first one I found). To date, I’ve read 115 books on the list, including the one asterisked below, and to be honest there are a number I don’t think I’ll ever bother reading… But others look they might be worth a go – as indeed was Henry Green…

children_of_timeChildren of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015). I sort of read this by accident. I bought it at Edge-Lit 4, and on the train ride home I finished the book I’d taken to read during the journey there and back, so I started Children of Time. And since I’d started it, I decided to continue reading it. Which I think makes it one of the very few books I’ve actually bought and then started on the same day. The elevator pitch for this novel didn’t sound all that appealing, and the author is better known for a ten-book fantasy series, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a polished sf novel with several neat twists on the generation starship story (it seems to be the generation starship’s year, with this and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora). The world the ship plans to colonise, and the only possible candidate its crew have found, unfortunately turns out to have been terraformed and colonised millennia earlier. By spiders (the result of a human seeding programme that went wrong). The novel alternates between events on the ship and the development of the spider civilisation – and the latter narrative is absolutely fascinating. Tchaikovsky puts a few spins on his generation ship tropes, although it soon devolves into a well-visited territory. Which was a little disappointing – but on balance the spiders more than make up for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this on the BSFA Awards shortlist next year.

Skin, Ilka Tampke (2015). I reviewed this for Interzone. I picked the book as one of my choices based on the one-line description in the email sent out to reviewers. It turned out to completely different to what I had expected. It’s a Celtic historical fantasy that sort of hovers on the border of YA and adult fantasy. Bits of it worked really well, but the narrator was such a special snowflake it sort of spoiled things for me.

lovingLoving*, Henry Green (1945). According to the back cover of the Picador omnibus paperback I own which contains Loving, Green is “the most neglected writer of our century”. The book was first published in 1978, and that may well have been true then, but he has apparently seen something of a revival in recent years – there’s a 2005 edition of the same book, but with an introduction by Sebastian Faulks rather than John Updike; and Green has a number of other novels in print. Which is all, I suppose, beside the point; suffice it to say I knew only Green’s name and nothing about his oeuvre when I started Loving. Perhaps I’d expected something not unlike Olivia Manning’s novels, she was after all a contemporary, and I do like Manning’s fiction. Loving, however, proved to be entirely different; and excellent for reasons that make it nothing like Manning’s books. It’s set belowstairs in a large house in rural Ireland during World War II. Not only are the staff worried about the war, but also about their own situation in an neutral country should the Germans invade. And, of course, there’s the house to manage, and their employers to wait upon. The novel opens with the death of the butler, and chiefly follows Raunce’s efforts to get himself promoted into the vacant position. Green makes no concessions to his readers, the characters and their relationships have to be inferred from the narrative, much of which is dialogue. Science fiction may over-rely on dialogue to carry its stories, but it never does it with the skill and control of voice Green manages. I’ll definitely be reading more of his novels.

Godsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978). This is one of several paperbacks I bought from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon, with the intention of reviewing them on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. I liked it.

auroraAurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (2015). I’ve been a fan of Robinson’s work for many years, and, so I was told, this was one of his best, even better than 2312. So, of course, being completely contrary, I enjoyed it, thought it quite good, but… not as successful as 2312. The story follows the arrival of a generation starship at Tau Ceti after 170 years in flight, and is told by the vessel’s AI as a study in narratology and a sort of experiment in making the AI more human. The narrative focuses on Freya and first follows her as she goes on a wanderjahr through the twelve biomes which make up the ship. Then there’s the attempt to colonise a moon of one of Tau Ceti’s exoplanets. But that goes horribly wrong, and leads to a civil war on board between those who want to terraform another moon and those who think they should return to Earth. Freya is the de facto leader of the latter faction, and the final section of the book details the ship’s return to Earth and Freya’s experiences once there (those who flew back hibernated for the trip, using a technique in the feed beamed to them from Earth). As a thought experiment on how some elements of a generation starship might operate, Aurora makes for a fascinating read. There’s some handwavey stuff – not least the narrating AI – and many of the mechanical issues are glossed over. However, where the book fails for me is in its human side. Although a number of different cultures are present on the ship, everyone acts like twenty-first century Californians, displaying the sort of liberal individualistic sensibilities more likely to be found on the western seaboard of the US than in the seventh generation of a generation starship’s passengers. For example, there are complaints people are not free to have children as and when they want, but you’d think something like that would have long been accepted. And then there’s the violence between the “stayers” and the “backers”, which for a group of 1200 people who have known only the biomes, didn’t ring true. I was, however, amused that Freya and the others clearly returned to the Earth of 2015 – there were a few backhanded digs at social media and an indirect mention of hipsters. I’m still in two minds about Aurora. The setting is very clever, but the characters are thin and unconvincing; and like 2312, it’s all about making the Earth a fit place to live – because there’s nowhere else in the universe we can do so.

her-smoke-rose-up-foreverHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990). When I first started reading Tiptree back in the late 1970s – it was Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, originally published in 1973 but my edition was the 1978 paperback – I knew “he” was a woman, but from what I’d read somewhere I thought the pseudonym was in order to protect the author’s career with the CIA. It never occurred to me Ali Sheldon used it because she was a woman. Now I know better, of course. In the early 1980s I bounced out of Tiptree’s Brightness Falls From the Air, and never quite got back into reading her. Well, at least not with the same fervour as before. I’ve reread Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home over the years several times, not to mention the odd story in various anthologies, but it wasn’t until Her Smoke Rose Up Forever appeared in the SF Masterworks series – deservedly so, I might add – that I really decided to give her a reread in earnest. I would normally review this book for SF Mistressworks, but I’ve already got a review lined up by someone else; and besides, I’ve probably reviewed half of the contents in reviews of other anthologies anyway. For the record, not every story in here shines, but a number of them so do very brightly – ‘The Screwfly Solution’, personal favourite ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’, ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, even ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ (a story which has haunted me since I first read it decades ago). There are stronger collections in science fiction out there, but not many.

the_danger_gameThe Danger Game, DHF Webster (1978). The author joined the Royal Navy in the nineteen-fifties as a diver, then ran a salvage operation for a while, but that eventually folded due to a lack of contracts. He was employed as a manager for a booze merchant in his home town of Bradford, when an old Navy buddy contacted him and asked him if he’d be interested in working in the North Sea, as the industry was desperate for qualified divers. The Danger Game is about Webster’s years as a commercial diver, and given some of the things he describes the title seems apt. During the early sixties, things were very different, and a lot of deep dives were done on air – 200 feet deep, that’s about seven atmospheres, on air. Nitrogen narcosis, “rapture of the deep”, was not only common, it was expected, and divers frequently surfaced with little or no memory of the final tasks they’d performed. The same was true of the bends, pretty much everyone suffered from it several times, usually because of mistakes with the air supply requiring a quick trip to the surface, or because the wrong tables were used. But they had decompression chambers on deck, so a few hours sealed in one of them and they were right as rain. Although lots of divers perished, it seems a miracle the entire industry wasn’t shut down it was so dangerous. But, of course, because oil. Anyway, a short and reasonably informative read, although likely of worth only to those interested in the subject.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 115


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Reading diary, #10

I’ve given up on writing actual full-length book reviews on this blog – you know, a post about a single book, covering it in some detail. I do that for SF Mistressworks and Interzone (and occasionally Vector). Besides, I read so widely these days, it would seem weird to review only science fiction books here, not to mention only recent science fiction novels. These reading diary posts strike me as an acceptable compromise – a couple of hundred words on every book I’ve read, irrespective of genre or year of publication – serving both to remind me of what I’ve read as well as perhaps point followers of this blog at something they might find worthwhile reading.

And after my last reading diary was almost all genre fiction, this one sees something of a return to form, with only a pair of sf books, and a third which was published as literary fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008 (it lost out to Richard Morgan’s Black Man).

the_rainbowThe Rainbow, DH Lawrence (1915). Three books into working my way chronologically through Lawrence’s novels, and he’s yet to move outside of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (I’ve also read the later Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which also takes place in Notts). The Rainbow follows the Brangwen family through several generations, from the 1840s through to 1905. It starts with the family patriarch before eventually settling on Ursula, who comes of age at the turn of the century, is fiercely ambitious, and ends up teaching at a local school. It’s a more structured novel than The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers, although only inasmuch as the passage of years provides a framework for the story – it still has a tendency to randomly move from one member of the family to another, and it’s not always clear where the novel’s focus lies. But Lawrence’s descriptive prose, particularly in regard to the landscape, shines; and he brings his usual detailed, if occasionally heavy-handed, eye to the emotional landscapes of his cast. I set out to work my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre because a read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover persuaded me I’d been missing out by avoiding him, and because my father was a huge Lawrence fan. The more I’ve read, the more I too have become a fan of his writing – and collecting the books is fun too, of course.

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979). I picked this up from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon in Mariehamn – did I mention I went to a con in Finland, well, the Åland Islands to be precise, and it was excellent? – anyway, I bought this with the intention of reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. I’d come across Killough’s name in an anthology of sf by women, but I’d never read anything else by her. I started the book while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester in Helsinki Airport, and ended up finishing it before my flight was called (it was a five hour wait). And I really liked the novel. As you can no doubt tell from my review on SF Mistressworks here.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia, ed. (1973). This I also bought from Alvarfonden, and read during the flight from Helsinki, and train journey from Manchester. And I suspect it’s the worst sf anthology I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. I mean, just look at that strapline on the cover: “Can sex survive the space age?”. I’m guessing yes it will, it’ll survive a whole lot of things, like climate crash, nuclear armageddon, global economic meltdown… maybe even the heat death of the universe. There are nineteen stories, two are by women (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Miriam Allen deFord); the remainder are by a mix of well-known names (Silverberg, Sturgeon, Aldiss, Farmer), and a few that were unknown to me. The stories, on the other hand, are full of the worst of early seventies sensibilities – the Silverberg is about a young man who discovers he has mental powers and uses them to stalk women, there’s a section titled “Toujours Gay” which opens with the frankly awful ‘The World Well Lost’, another story has serial rape as the “twist”, and the Aldiss is racist and features sexual slavery. The rest are either worse, or completely unmemorable. Best avoided.

The-Cuckoos-CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (2013). According to the blurb on this book, it was a huge best-seller and then the author was revealed as JK Rowling, which is not how I remember it happening. The Cuckoo’s Calling received several positive reviews and sold modestly. Then someone at Rowling’s solicitors (I think) leaked Galbraith’s true identity, and sales shot up overnight by about 5000%. But hey, let’s rewrite history anyway and make out that it’s not Rowling’s name that sells books, that’s she still a really good writer even when no one knows it’s her. So, of course, it comes as little surprise to find The Cuckoo’s Calling is… okay. It has too many words for its story and could have done with losing 100 pages, the most interesting thing about its hero, Cormoran Strike, is his improbable name, and the whole thing feels like it was written by someone who’s a little bit out of touch. A supermodel falls to her death from her penthouse flat and the police initially rule it suicide. But the supermodel’s brother, a solicitor, thinks this is wrong and hires Strike to investigate. At the same time, a new temp has started as Strike’s secretary, and she proves to be highly competent and very much in love with the idea of being a private investigator – parts of the novel are written from her perspective. The plot moves smoothly, but it feels wordy, yet nowhere near literary enough to be literary fiction. There are a few digs at the ultra-wealthy, which feel like they’re the result of personal experience, but mostly Strike’s life seems to belong to an earlier decade. I now have a copy of the sequel, The Silkworm, but I’m not expecting it to be any better.

researchResearch, Philip Kerr (2014). John Houston is a mega-selling author, who runs an “atelier” of writers – he comes up with the stories, they bang out the actual prose… and the books are of course sold under Houston’s name. It makes him millions of dollars a year and his writers a comfortable living. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Houston is clearly based on James Patterson. But Houston has decided to pack it all in. He wants to write something himself, to prove he has the writing chops. So he closes down his atelier and pays off his writers… Shortly afterwards, his wife is found murdered in their Monaco apartment, and Houston has done a runner. The police contact Don Irvine, the first writer to join Houston’s atelier (the two were friends and colleagues at an advertising agency), but he can shed no light on the murder. And then, as you’d expect to happen in a novel such as this, Houston contacts Irvine, pleads innocence and asks for Irvine’s help. Which he is happy to give. The novel is broken into sections, alternating between first-person narrations from Irvine’s and Houston’s point of view. And pretty soon things aren’t what Houston, Irvine or even the Monaco police thought they were. As thrillers go, there’s not much in here that hasn’t been done before. However, Kerr does a top job of satirising mega-selling authors of the likes of Patterson, their books, and the publishing industry which supports them. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

the_carhullan_armyThe Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall (2007). I picked up this in Oxfam in Micklegate, just before the York pub meet back in May. I’d been after a copy for a while, so I was pretty chuffed when I found this one. I had high hopes too of the novel, as it had been repeatedly recommended to me, but initially I wondered if it had been over-praised. It’s structured as segments of found testimony by Sister, who leaves her husband to join a women’s militia based at a remote farm. In the near-future UK of the book, the economy has crashed, the US sends aid, and an oppressive political regime is tightening its grip on an already downtrodden and poor population. Once Sister reaches Carhullan, the militia’s farm, the story picks up, and when she is recruited to the women’s army which is planning a coup on a local town, then it really moves into gear. By the end of the novel, I was much more impressed than I had been after the first dozen or so pages. On balance, definitely worth its position on the Clarke Award shortlist (and arguably better than the eventual winner).


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Reading diary, #9

Yet more books read, and this time they seem to be mostly genre. Including a – kof kof – fantasy novel. And even a horror novel. If I keep this up I’ll have to give back my science fiction curmudgeon badge.

thousand_emperorsThe Thousand Emperors, Gary Gibson (2012). This is a sequel to 2011’s Final Days, in which humanity has spread out across a number of exoplanets after losing the Earth to an artefact brought back through the wormhole network they had been exploring. But all that – an alien network of wormhole tunnels created billions of years earlier by an unknown race (an idea last seen in Williams & Dix’s Geodesica: Ascent and Geodesica: Descent a decade ago, not to mention Alastair Reynolds’ The Six Directions of Space from 2009) is pretty much just background in Gibson’s novel. It’s more about one of the two human interstellar polities which has formed in the wake of Final Days‘ events. The Tian Di was founded in revolution, and the revolutionary council grew until it numbered one thousand – hence the title – but now power is pretty much concentrated in the hands of Father Chang, the council leader (after a coup a century or two previously), and the council members are just a hugely powerful elite, sort of a cross between the One Percent and Saudi princes. They even have their own secret planet, where they maintain luxurious estates untainted by proximity to the unwashed masses. When a council member is murdered on that secret world, Luc Gabion is asked to investigate, and though he’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to solve the crime, he does learn a lot more about politics inside the council – which at that point is concerned chiefly with the Tian Di’s possible response to diplomatic approaches from the other human polity, the Coalition, after more than a century of isolation – and it all ties into a move to make the Tian Di even more repressive a regime than it currently is. This is heartland sf, full of well-polished tropes deployed with assurance. If it all feels a bit disposable, it’s not because it’s not done well but perhaps because it’s done a bit too well: familiar ideas given an interesting spin, prejudices given a little tweak just so readers are reminded they have them, and a plot which gallops forward at a pace that discourages too much close scrutiny.

breedBreed, KT Davies (2014). I was fortunate enough to win two of Davies’s novels – this and The Red Knight – at the last York pub meet, at which Davies read from Breed. The novel is a fairly standard fantasy – while certainly not epic, its setting is plainly of that subgenre – but enlivened by an assured comedic touch, some nice pieces of invention, and a clever use of first person that doesn’t reveal the gender of the narrator. The book opens with a prologue – argh – it could just have easily been the first chapter – in which the narrator escapes imprisonment in an ancient demon’s castle but comes a cropper on learning they had been tricked. Back home in Appleton, where Breed’s mother runs one of the local criminal gangs, Breed is sentenced to five years of bonded servitude for a one-handed wizard after getting caught up in a riot following Breed’s attempt to assassinate the leader of a rival gang. The wizard wants to head for the capital, which is fine as that’s where Breed needs to go in order to fulfil their bargain with the demon of the prologue. Adventures ensue. The characters are all venal, the world is dirty and grim and has never really recovered from a catacylsmic war centuries before, and Breed is an amusingly foul-mouthed narrator. The plot may run on well-polished rails but it does so like clockwork, sort of like a toy train then… but Breed is never less than a fun read, and if grim-but-funny – grimlight? – fantasy is your thing you could do a lot worse than this.

run_like_crazy_tardi_manchette_fantagraphics_coverRun Like Crazy Run Like Hell, Jacques Tardi (2015). Tardi’s bande dessinée are more often mainstream thrillers than genre, and it makes for a pleasant change from your typical Anglophone graphic novel. A young woman from an institution is hired by a wealthy and philanthropic industrialist to be the nanny for his nephew. The industrialist inherited the wealth, and care of the boy, when his brother and sister-in-law died in a car crash. Shortly after taking up her duties, while the uncle is away on business, the boy and nanny are kidnapped by a dyspeptic hitman and his dim henchmen. But the two manage to escape, and head across France to the eccentric retreat of the industrialist, where they hope to find sanctuary. En route, the nanny proves more than a match for the henchmen, and then the hitman. This is a pretty gruesome story, and Tardi’s art doesn’t shrink from the gore. It’s not the cartoon violence you’d seen in some superhero comic, but more like that of an 18-certificate brutal thriller. Good, though. I shall continue to buy these for as long as Tardi and Fantagraphics churn them out.

theladyofsituationsThe Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999). I forget where I first came across mention of Dedman, but back in 2002 I read his 1999 novel Foreign Bodies, and thought it pretty good. But quality Australian genre fiction, especially that published by small presses, is not easy to get hold of in the UK, and I seem to recall buying The Lady of Situations when I bought Justina Robson’s collection Heliotrope from Ticonderoga Press (who are definitely worth checking out as they publish some excellent books). Anyway, provenance aside, this is a strong collection. Several of the stories concern a man who has been befriended by vampires, particularly one that looks like a young girl. I’m no fan of vampire stories, but these are handled well – especially the one about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell. ‘Transit’ is probably the most sfnal story, a young love tale set on a world of hermaphrodites during the visit of some Muslims en route to Earth on Hajj. ‘Amendment’ is fun, an alternate history set at a sf con where Charles Manson turns up to get a book signed by GoH Heinlein. ‘Founding Fathers’ is a nasty story, about a world settled by a small colony of white supremacists, and a visit by a mission from Earth causes a couple of murders and reveals the horrible secret at the heart of the colony. There are a couple of slight pieces here, but the rest more than make up for them. Recommended.

The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ (1983) was Russ’s first collection, published first by Arkham House and then by, of all publishers, Baen. A more variable collection than I’d been expecting, perhaps because it contained so many of her early stories. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here.

notimeonoursideNo Time on Our Side, Roger Chapman (1975). In 1973, some 240 km south of Ireland, while engaged in burying an undersea cable to prevent it being caught by trawlers’ nets, the submersible Pisces III sank in 500 metres of water. The crew of two had just completed their shift, but when surfacing in rough seas, the hatch on the rear pressure sphere (which contained machinery and supplies) broke open and filled the sphere with water. The submersible promptly sank tail-first and ended up stuck vertically in the ocean bottom (just like in the cover art). A full-scale rescue operation began. But first they had to find Pisces III. Chapman was one of the two crew, and No Time on Our Side is a blow-by-blow account of the three days he spent trapped in the submersible. Thanks to the dwindling air supply and increasing carbon dioxide, he was not wholly compos mentis for much of the period, so portions of the book skip over a lot of the hours spent on the bottom. Everything seems a bit slapdash to modern eyes – the submersible crew barely managed a couple of hours sleep each night due to things repeatedly failing and needing fixing before each dive – but once disaster strikes, the response is quick and widespread (and, it seems, happily inconsiderate of cost… which I suspect is not something that would happen in today’s neoliberal uber-capitalist global economy; progress, eh).

luminousLuminous, Greg Egan (1998). Egan is one of those authors whose fiction I’m repeatedly told I’d like, but everything by him I’ve read in the past has left me a little bit cold – which is one novel, and a handful of stories in Interzone over the years. Nevertheless, if I see one of his books going cheap in a charity shop, I buy it. And even now, when perhaps my taste in fiction is somewhat more discriminating and I look for different things in the fiction I read than I did twenty or thirty years ago… Egan’s fiction still leaves me mostly cold. There were a couple of good stories in this collection – I especially liked ‘Silver Fire’, about a epidemic in the US; and ‘Our Lady of Chernobyl’ had some narrative impetus to it, even if the central conceit was weak – but many still felt cold to me, peopled by little more than walking, talking ideas. And ‘The Planck Dive’ is just a really dull physics lectures with a bunch of character interactions to provide something for the reader to connect with. Interestingly, although most of the stories in Luminous were written in the mid-1990s, they’re chiefly set in this decade, the second of the twenty-first century. Egan got one or two things right, but he also got a lot wrong – and yet he still manages to catch the flavour of now better than many other sf authors of the time who wrote stories set in the early twenty-first century. I’ll still keep my eye open for Egan books in charity shops, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to call myself a fan.

the_threeThe Three, Sarah Lotz (2014). I took this with me to Finland – did I mention I went to Archipelacon in the Åland Islands in Finland, and it was excellent? – anyway, I took The Three with me to read during the convention. I had no intention of reading it during the journey – for that I had DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow – but I started it shortly after I arrived in Mariehamn, and had finished it by the Sunday so I left it on a table for someone else to, er, enjoy. The central premise is, well, pretty much the same as James Herbert’s The Survivor (an awful book, but actually quite a good film). Four planes crash within minutes of each other around the world – in Japan, the US, the English Channel, and South Africa – and a child is the only survivor in three of the crashes. No one survives the fourth. An enigmatic phone call by an American passenger on the plane in Japan, shortly before she succumbs to her injuries, prompts a US evangelist to declare the three children the, er, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Um, yes. He claims there’s a child who survived the fourth crash, and various hints suggest this may be true, but… Why? Why base the plot on the Four Horseman but only have three of them? It makes no sense. The kids are certainly not ordinary and who, or what, they are is never categorically stated. The novel is also presented as found documents, the research materials of a journalist writing a book on the whole affair. Lotz handles her voices impressively well, and for commercial fiction this is a well put-together piece of work. But the premise is weak and over-stays its welcome by a couple of hundred pages. Oh, and definitely don’t read this book when travelling by air…


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Reading diary, #8

Time once again to catch up on my recent reading. Which seems to have been all over the shop recently. I try to plan my reading but it never works. I mean, I sometimes decide not to read a book as planned just because it’s a hardback and would be a faff carrying in my bag to and from work. So I end up choosing a paperback I hadn’t planned to read instead. Other times, I fancy something a bit fluffier and less worthy than my original choice… Which does make me wonder why I bother to plan my reading in the first place.

ps-showcase-11-stardust-hc-by-nina-allan-1749-pStardust: The Ruby Castle Stories, Nina Allan (2013). This collection of short stories are linked by mention of the eponymous, well, not character, she’s an element in the background of each, a cult actress who appeared in films the protagonists of the stories remember watching. And, to be honest, not every mention feels like it’s original to the story, or an organic part of it. Indeed, ‘The Lammas Worm’ was originally published in Tartarus Press’s Strange Tales, Volume III, the only story in the collection to see prior publication, and I have to wonder if the mention of Ruby Castle in it wasn’t added so it would fit in Stardust. None of which is to say that hese are bad stories. Allan is a good writer, and if she doesn’t always play to her strengths, the end result is at least interesting in some fashion. The six stories and single poem in Stardust are mostly slipstream, and are set in contemporary Britain, Victorian Germany and Russia. But it’s not quite the Britain, Germany or Russia we know. In some respects, Allan’s slight twisting of the real world works well, but it’s a technique that seems to fail as often as it succeeds – the Russia of the title story, for example, is not at all convincing. Where Allan succeeds best is in dropping some small detail or plot-point which signals this is a reality at an angle to our own. Sometimes it’s in the first line: “In my country July the tenth 2029 is remembered by everyone as the date of the Anastasia space disaster”. In other stories, it’s a slow accumulation of tiny details. Add to this a tendency for her stories to shoot off in unexpected directions, and it’s clear Allan is creating an interesting body of work. Her prose is never less than polished and if, often as not, the story seems to leak around the edges… sometimes that adds to the general effect of the piece. I still have Allan’s The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth to read – I bought three of her collections at the last Fantasycon – and I’m looking forward to tackling them.

lastbastleThe Last Castle / Nightwings, Jack Vance / Robert Silverberg (1966 / 1968). This is #15 in the Tor double series from 1988 to 1991, although both novellas originally saw print in the late 1960s. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them many years before, either in a collection or Ace double (which is how the Vance was originally published). Silverberg also expanded ‘Nightwings’ to novel-length, and I may have read that too. I can’t remember – and, to be honest, I can’t recall much of ‘Nightwings’ only a couple of weeks after reading it. Vance’s ‘The Last Castle’ is at least more memorable. It’s set during the twilight years of Earth, after humans from another world decide to recolonise it, and they now live a life of ease in castles, waited upon by alien creatures called ”. Who promptly decide to kill all the humans. Only one man takes the threat seriously enough to attempt to fight back. It’s typical Vance in all respects, and as fair an introduction to his oeuvre as any. There are, sadly, only two female characters named in the entire novella, and they’re wives and sex partners. Even for 1966, that’s piss-poor. Silverberg’s novella actually features a female protagonist – she’s the “nightwings” of the title, a member of a race adapted from human stock for flying. She travels to Rome in some distant future in the company of the narrator, a Watcher, and a mysterious man who seems somewhat too well-educated to be the non-guild itinerant he claims. A Watcher, incidentally, is a member of a guild dedicated to scanning the galaxy with some sort of equipment built into a small cart – it’s all very vague and handwavey – in order to spot the first signs of a long-threatened invasion. Which, of course, happens during the story – well, there’d be even less of a plot if it hadn’t occurred. ‘Nightwings’ won the Hugo, and was nominated for the Nebula, in 1969, but I thought it pretty slight. It trades entirely on atmosphere, despite the fact little of the background makes sense, and the ending is visible from several kilometres away. Meh.

manycolouredThe Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981). I first read this shortly after it first appeared in the UK, back in the early 1980s. I remember liking it a great deal – and I know a number of people count the Saga of the Exiles among their favourites… But it’s never wise to reread books you remember fondly from your teens, they almost never survive unscathed. As this one didn’t. I may reread the other books in the series at some point, but it’ll only be to review them for SF Mistressworks – as I did with this one here.

adam-robotsAdam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013). Or is it the other way round? Never mind. As it says quite prominently on the cover, this is a collection of short stories, a number of which are original to the book (although the page which gives original publication details seems to be missing a couple). I’d thought I’d read quite a few of Roberts’s stories, but many of the ones in here were new to me. Except, I have read at least three of the anthologies in which a story in this collection originally appeared… One of these I liked, despite the thump-worthy pun in the last line. Another struck me as a neat idea stretched just a tad too far. And the third… seems as memorable after this second read as it was after the first. The stories in Adam Robots are never less than very readable, and Roberts can indeed turn a lovely phrase, and often does, but there’s also a sense that some of the pieces are lacking in… thickening. Perhaps it’s the sf story as Gedankenexperiment, an exploration of premise but not necessarily a thoroughly rigorous examination of it – which, on occasion, does make the story feel as though it exists only as a vessel to hold a premise rather than as an armature for a narrative. In the shorter pieces, of course, this is not an issue – the space is limited. Having said that, the saving grace of many of these stories is that Roberts carefully positions them as stories – it’s literary device deployment rather than immersion. The end result is a collection that is both enjoyable and impressive – and definitely good value for money as it contains twenty-four stories. I do have one peeve, however: the title ‘Review: Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life (Red Rocket Books 2003), 321pp, £20. ISBN: 724381129524′. That ISBN is 12-digit. There are only 10-digit and 13-digit ISBNs. And if missing a digit was done to prevent accidentally giving the ISBN of a real book… well, the last number is a checksum. Just make it fail the checksum and it can’t be a real book.

snailSnail, Richard Miller (1984). The word to describe this novel is, I believe, ‘Vonnegutian”. The writer was clearly trying to be Vonnegutian – so much so Kilgore Trout appears several times as a character, although for reasons never explained he’s named Kilgore Traut, and that spelling is claimed to be correct. The narrator of Snail is a senior Wehrmacht officer, who falls foul of Hitler because he marries a call girl, and so promptly sits out most of the war. Back in WWI in the German trenches, he met and fought alongside the Wandering Jew. Who later gave him an immortality elixir to give to Hitler. Which the narrator does, turning Hitler into an immortal nine-year-old. He also takes some himself, and becomes an immortal sixteen-year-old. The rest of the novel follows him through the twentieth century, although it’s mostly concerned with his encounters with Pallas Athena, the Wandering Jew, and an organisation called Macho-Burger Incorporated, which seems to be using fastfood to chemically induce gender essentialism. I don’t honestly know why I bought this book, or why I read it. Although published in the 1980s, it feels like it belongs to an earlier decade, and its wit is far from sharp – I mean, Pussy-Cola and Cocka-Cola? There’s all sorts of stuff in here, most of it pretty juvenile and played more for comic effort without actually interrogating it. Best avoided.

nemo1Nemo 1: Heart of Ice, 2: The Roses of Berlin, 3: River of Ghosts, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2013 – 2015). Although set in the world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these are a spin-off, and feature not the original Nemo, but his daughter, Janni Dakkar, who is now the captain of the Nautilus. In Heart of Ice, she makes an enemy of Ayesha, who is determined to get her revenge and so, bankrolled by Charles Foster Kane, sends a trio of penny dreadful inventor-heroes after Nemo… Who is following a trail left by her father to Antactica, where she finds a city straight out of Lovecraft. It all comes to a bad end for the villains. The second book takes place in a Berlin transformed by the science of Rotwang – including an army of Maria robots. But when Nemo’s daughter, and her boyfriend Robur, are killed when their airship is destroyed by Berlin’s forces, Nemo attacks Berlin’s “Moloch Machine”. And in the third book, Nemo chases after Ayesha to South America and Maple White Land, a mesa where dinosaurs roam, only to find an army of bikini-clad fembots guarding a cadre of young Hitler clones… And that’s pretty much the appeal of this trilogy: you’re playing spot the references all the time. While some are blindingly obscure – those penny dreadful characters, for example – others are all too obvious. I know Moore has played around in the Cthulhu mythos before, but seriously, who still thinks a Lovecraft mashup is clever?

schoolforloveSchool For Love, Olivia Manning (1951). Felix Lattimer is left orphaned in Baghdad when his mother dies of typhoid, and since it’s during WWII he can’t be sent back to Britain and the care of relatives. There is, however, a relative much closer – in Jerusalem. Mrs Bohun. So Felix is sent there. Mrs Bohun really is a piece of work – the blurb describes her as “one of the most reoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction”, and it’s true. The actual plot – Felix interacts with the other residents of Mrs Bohun’s house, is too immature to see what is really going on, and, well, things happen – is more or less incidental. The old working class man in the attice ends up in hospital, and his room is let to a young and pregnant widow. Mrs Bohun’s attitude changes to the first, and then the other, but it’s all in character. Manning is a good writer and worth reading, but this is a slight piece. Its setting is interesting, and that setting is handled reasonably sensitively, albeit with the patrician sensibilities of a British expat from the first half of the twentieth century. While Mrs Bohun appears quite horrific in some respects to modern sensibilities, I suspect time has sharpened that edge. Manning doesn’t deserve to be forgotten – she was an excellent writer during her day and her books are still worth reading today.


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Reading diary, #7

Another catch-up on what I’ve been reading of late, before this blog turns entirely into a film blog or promotional posts for All That Outer Space Allows or A Prospect of War (damn, I went and mentioned them, damn). Er, anyway, I do still read books and here are some of them.

realspacecowboysThe Real Space Cowboys, Ed Buckbee, with Wally Schirra (2005). I picked up a signed copy of this a few years ago, but never got around to reading it. It’s pretty much a hagiography of the Mercury Seven, based chiefly on conversations and interviews with them in years prior to publication (many of them had died before this book was published – Grissom in 1967, Slayton in 1993, Shepard in 1998 and Cooper in 2004). Nonetheless, it’s well-presented – which Apogee Books are generally good at, even if sometimes their editing leaves a little to be desired – and makes for an interesting read. Buckbee started out in NASA public affairs, before becoming director of the US Space & Rocket Center and then US Space Camp. He knew all the astronauts personally, and much of the book is presented as a conversation among the Mercury 7. Not a bad read.

StainedStained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer (1969). Bulmer was a prolific sf author with, according to Wikipedia, over 160 novels published under his own name and assorted pseudonyms. The reason for that huge output is because Bulmer was a complete hack. As is evidenced in Stained-Glass World. It’s a bit of a tired set-up, workers living in a lawless urban wasteland a century or more after society has collapsed, the rich living it up in their glass towers and enjoying a life of drugs and debauchery, and somewhere in the background is a police state but there’s little in the book to support it, or indeed the entire world as presented. The plot is thin at best, and somewhat confused – there’s a group of “Uppers” down among the workers, hunting for “Joy Juice”, which is apparently extracted from workers under the influence of another drug. None of this makes sense. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of description of urban decay and ruins, and some especially dumb future slang (a Bulmer speciality, I suspect). Avoid.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I saw the Visconti film adaptation of this back in October 2013, and liked it enough to think it worth reading the novel on which it was based. Which is, according to Wikipedia, “considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature”. The story takes place in the 1860s on Sicily, during the unification of Italy. It’s about the Salina family, particularly the head of the family, Prince Fabrizio, who represents the old order, and his nephew and putative heir, Prince Tancredi, who first joins Garibaldi’s Redshirts and then the army of the king of Sardinia (who goes onto become king of Italy). While the family is holidaying in their palace at Donnafugata, Tancredi meets Angelica, daughter of the local mayor (a successful and corrupt local landowner), and marries her. When Fabrizio is asked to join the new kingdom’s senate, he refuses and recommends the mayor, as he considers him more in tune with the coming times. There’s a Lawrentian atmosphere to much of The Leopard – especially when Prince Fabrizio goes hunting while at Donnafugata – but it’s also a much more political novel than anything Lawrence wrote. Now I want to watch the film again.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). According to an accompanying press release, David Hartwell of Tor approached Gilman and “asked her to write a science fiction novel based on [my] enthusiasm for her short fiction”. Which does make you wonder why Gilman’s excellent fantasy duology, Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles, were published by ChiZine. Still, self-serving promotional press release aside, Dark Orbit is a short-ish sf novel set in Gilman’s Twenty Planets – as are some of her novellas, such as ‘Arkfall’ and ‘The Ice Owl’ – and I read it to review for Interzone. On the whole, I liked it, and it did some interesting and clever things… but I didn’t think it quite as successful as the aforementioned fantasy novels.

Prisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthews (1998). This is the second book of Matthews’s Jursidiction series, and while it didn’t read as well this time around as I remembered, it’s still part of a superior sf series. I used to buy Matthews’s books as soon as they were published. It’s a shame her career seems to have gone down the toilet. I reviewed the book on SF Mistressworks here.

stalinsgoldStalin’s Gold, Barrie Penrose (1982). In 1942, HMS Edinburgh sank in the Barents Sea after being attacked by German warships. She was part of a convoy which had delivered munitions to Murmansk for the Russians, and was carrying back five tons of gold bullion in payment. For fifty years, the wreck – and the gold – sat in 800 feet of Arctic water, too deep for anyone to salvage. But, by the late 1970s, thanks to North Sea oil, the technology existed to recover the bullion. This is the book of the successful expedition to retrieve it. A Keighley-based salvor put together a consortium with sufficient cash and resources to get the contract from the Ministry of Defence to recover the gold. What distinguished his proposal from others was that he planned to use saturation divers, rather than explosives and submersibles. Given that the MoD had designated the wreck of the HMS Edinburgh a war grave, it gave him the advantage (as did a mole he had in the ministry). An Aberdeen-based diving company, Wharton-Williams, provided the divers and equipment, a German shipping company, OSA, provided the ship, and Decca Racal provided the navigation and sensing gear. The consortium would get to keep 45% of the gold, the British govenment would take 37% and the Soviet government 13% (the Russians also had a pair of observers onboard). Penrose spends a third of the book describing the convoy and ensuing battle during which HMS Edinburgh sank. The remainder of the book focuses more on the Yorkshireman, Jessop, and is light on the technical aspects of the salvage. The writing is also pretty poor. There is, in fact, a British television documentary on the whole thing, “Gold from the Deep”, and some of the quotes Penrose uses seem to have been lifted straight from it (the documentary is available on Youtube here – a poor quality transfer, though).

islanddrmoreauThe Island Of Dr Moreau, HG Wells (1896). Although Wells wrote over fifty novels, most people likely only know him for four – The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and this one, The Island Of Dr Moreau. The edition I read was, as pictured, the SF Masterwork hardback – and it took me less than half a page to spot the introduction was by Adam Roberts. Anyway, the story is relatively straightforward – the narrator’s ship collides with a derelict (until the twentieth century, derelicts were surprisingly common, with several hundred floating around the world’s oceans and seas). The narrator is the only survivor and is picked up by a ship delivering animals to an unnamed island. Also aboard this ship is a man called Montgomery, who lives on the island as assistant to a scientist with a shady past, Moreau. The ship dumps the narrator, Prendrick, on the island with Montgomery, and so Prendrick learns of Moreau’s experiments on animals, making them into “Beast Men”. It’s all a bit handwavey – there’s no explanation of how the Beast Men are made intelligent enough to speak or overcome their animal natures. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong – coincidentally while Prendrick is there, and coincidentally, he’s the only survivor. To be honest, I thought Wells laid it all on a bit thick. Prendrick’s outrage and horror crops up on almost every page, and the Beast Men don’t feel especially nuanced. Not Wells’ best, although the central premise is certainly memorable.

val9Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia, Jean-Claude Mezières & Pierre Christin (1980). This is book eight in the long-running Valerian and Laureline (Valèrian, Agent Spatio-Temporel) series. It is also a pretty smart piece of work… which is more than you can say for most science fiction comics. Valerian is in 1980s Paris investigating some strange manifestations, while Laureline is in the Cassiopeia constellation looking into the possible source of the phenomena. The two communicate telepathically, and share their findings… but this is the first of a two-parter so what they find doesn’t really help explain what’s happening. However, where Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia is particularly good is in the noir-ish feel to Valerian’s investigation in Paris. It’s especially effective when contrasted with Laureline’s adventures on alien worlds. It’s hard to believe this is thirty-five years old. I can’t think of a UK or US sf comic from the same period of comparable quality – not even 2000AD back then was as good as this.

septimusThe Septimus Wave, Jean Dufaux, Antoine Aubin & Étienne Schréder (2013). And this is the twentieth book in the also long-running Blake and Mortimer series. Although linked with Hergé’s Tintin – the first Blake and Mortimer story appeared in the Tintin Magazine, and the comic uses a similar ligne claire style – series creator Edgar P Jacobs chose not to prevent its continuation after his death. He died in 1987, and only actually wrote and drew half a dozen of the Blake and Mortimer books. The series was restarted in the 1990s and has been going strong ever since. The Septimus Wave is a sequel to an earlier Jacobs title, The Yellow “M”, in which evil scientist Septimus brainwashes series villain Colonel Olrik into committing a series of crimes. But Septimus is now dead, and Mortimer is experimenting with Septimus’s equipment – except he’s not the only one. And there’s something else riding piggyback on Septimus’s “Mega Wave” generated by Mortimer and the others. Apparently, some of the post-Jacobs entries in the series have upset fans by being a bit too clever or something, and while The Septimus Wave is by no means the best of the new Blake and Mortimers I do like the fact they’re a bit more sophisticated than Jacobs’ own stories.

hewhoHe Who Shapes / The Infinity Box, Roger Zelazny / Kate Wilhelm (1965/1971). The Zelazny won the Nebula for best novella, and I’d like to say I’m mystified as to why – but this is a science fiction award from the mid-1960s, so perhaps complaints about quality are beside the point. And, well, it’s by Zelazny, who is allegedly one of the genre’s great prose stylists… But there’s fuck-all evidence of it in ‘He Who Shapes’, just a piece of sixties sexism tricked out with some handwavey conceit. Everyone smokes like chimneys and what little non-central-conceit extrapolation is weirdly limited – computer-driven cars! huge skyscrapers! suicide epidemic! Anyway, Render is a Shaper (spot the cunning pun there? My aching sides), which means he can therapeutically direct patient’s dreams undercarefully-controlled conditions. But then a woman blind from birth who is already qualified as a psychiatrist asks Render to help her become a Shaper. He initially refuses, but then agrees to use his talents to help her acclimatise herself to “sight” – or rather, what she would “see” in the dreams she would be directing should she become a Shaper. Nonsense. And Render starts to fancy her, and so finds himself trapped in one of her dreams. Rubbish. ‘The Infinity Box’ is even weirder, and seems to spend much of its length in search of a plot. A widow moves into a neighbours’ house while they’re on holiday, and the narrator finds himself drawn to her, so much so he begins to experiencing what she is experiencing, and even manages to briefly control her. It also turns out the woman is a photographer and sees the world very differently to everyone else – she can see the entire lifetime of everything she looks at. While nicely written, and Wilhelm handles the narrator’s relationship with his wife well, the two elements of the plot don’t actually fit together, and the implausibility of both badly affects the story’s credibility. There are two possibly good stories here but Wilhelm managed to produce a single confused one out of them.

projectsealabProject SEALAB, Terry Shannon & Charles Payzant (1966). A lucky find on eBay. At the time this was written and published, SEALAB III had yet to take place, so the book ends on an optimistic note… Which is unfortunate as SEALAB III was a disaster – while struggling to fix a leak in the habitat, which was on the ocean bottom 600 feet deep, prior to occupying it, one of the divers died, possibly as a result of sabotage. It was enough to stop the programme. And this despite SEALABs I and II being very successful (and Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter was involved with the second one). Project SEALAB is a somewhat simplistic run-through of the two habitats (well, it is a “junior” book), but it’s copiously illustrated with photographs, which is pretty cool. Incidentally, there are a pair of US Navy films on the two projects, and they’re available online – SEALAB I here and SEALAB II here.


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Reading diary, #6

Reading catch-up time, before It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… turns into a film blog. Now that A Prospect of War and All That Outer Space Allows are both out, I’m hoping I’ll get more reading done. I’ve managed to reduce the TBR slightly over the past couple of months, although chiefly by not buying as many books as usual. There are still way too many books for comfort sitting on my bookshelves (or piled on the floor) that I want to read.

Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991). From the SF Masterwork series. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

spidermoonSpider Moon, John Shirley (2002). I seem to have rather a lot of John Shirley novels, many of which are signed first editions from small presses, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not like he’s an amazing writer, or I’m a huge horror fan. I suspect he’s got lumped together in my mind with Lewis Shiner and Lucius Shepard, who also have had many books published by small presses, and that one or two of Shirley’s books at some point I actually did quite admire – Heatseeker, perhaps, or A Splendid Chaos. But, Spider Moon… which is not actually horror, but crime, noir possibly. The narrator is an editor for a San Francisco-based publisher, which is bought out by a big New York publishing house… and which plans to make a few changes. Another member of the firm goes postal, the narrator finds himself with the gun is his hand, and is forced to make a run for it. His son died only a few days before from a drug overdose and, determined to get revenge on the dealer, the narrator hooks up with a pair of lowlifes and the threesome go on a bit of a mini-crime spree. A quick read, and by no means a bad one… and I still don’t know why I have so many books by John Shirley.

touchTouch, Claire North (2015). I bought this because I thought The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was pretty good, and the central premise of this new novel – a being who can jump from body to body by touch and while in possession control them – sounded intriguing. Having now read it, I don’t think it’s quite as successful as North’s first novel. It’s certainly a polished piece of writing, the narrator Kepler is well-drawn, and the central conceit is well-handled… but the plot sort of gets lost along the way and eventually peters out. I reviewed the book for Interzone.

atrocityexhibitionThe Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated), JG Ballard (1969/1990). Wanting to read more Ballard is hardly a contentious ambition, and I’ve read plenty of Ballard already. The 4th Estate editions also made a nice set with their distinctive cover designs, so it was worth picking up copies. Which is what I did. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Ballard, perhaps preferring the idea of his fiction more than I did his actual fiction – which is itself quite a Ballardian attitude. He was never a great prose stylist, and he was often a better commentator on twentieth-century life than he was a novelist – what his books said was often more interesting than the stories he chose to tell. The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) is a case in point. Half the time, Ballard zeroes in quite effectively on some weird public compulsion, turns it on its head, and the result is a biting comment on the cultural landscape. But just as often, it’s word salad, and he piles the words one upon the other and it reads like an academic work that completely misses the point of its topic. And then, over all this, like giant flashing lights and deafening klaxons, is all the “controversial stuff”, story titles like ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’. The problem with sacred cows is that no one will admit they make steaks that taste just like normal steaks. Of course, there’s also the bits and pieces of The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) that went on to become and/or inspire Crash, which is much the better work. But still, Ballard: always worth a read.

questThe Quest For Christa T., Christa Wolf (1968). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and since Wolf was a name I’d come across in my search for postwar British women writers (even though she’s German), I decide to buy it. Besides, you just don’t see enough of those green Virago paperbacks in charity shops. The title character and the narrator meet while at school during World War II. They go their separate ways, but meet up again at university in the early nineteen-fifties. The book then follow them through to the nineteen-sixties. It all takes place in East Germany. The story is phrased as a commentary on Christa T by the narrator, almost as if she’s telling it to someone. It’s a style that takes some getting used to, especially in these times of immersive prose; and although it’s considered “experimental” I have to wonder if it’s not how stories were originally told before the advent of the realist novel. I can’t say I’ll be hunting down any more of Wolf’s work – although I’ll keep an eye open for green Virago paperbacks, of course – but I’m glad I read The Quest For Christa T..

Philip-Kerr-PrayerPrayer, Philip Kerr (2013). This novel reads like an idea Kerr pitched to a US network, but was turned down. There’s some solid work in it, but it’s a thin piece stretched out to novel-length. Gil Martin is a FBI agent in Houston, involved in investigating domestic terrorism. When he admits to his wife that he no longer believes in God, she leaves him and takes their young son. Meanwhile Martin is investigating a series of strange deaths of prominent atheists – all four seem like freak accidents or bizarre medical catastrophes. But the fact they’re hated by the religious right makes their deaths suspicious. Martin eventually discovers that a charismatic preacher has discovered “directed prayer” actually works, because God exists, and he’s the Old Testament God who demands unquestioning obedience, not Jesus’s wishy-washy God of love. And this preacher’s secret prayer group has been sending the fallen angel Azrael to kill their opponents. It’s all a bit flimsy, and the plot isn’t exactly twisty-turny. Kerr generally writes clever thrillers, but some of them are propped up by well-handled research rather than clever plotting, and Prayer falls into that category.

shadowdanceShadow Dance, Angela Carter (1966). This was Carter’s debut novel, and there’s effusive praise for it on the cover of my edition from Anthony Burgess. And having now read the book, Burgess’s comments don’t surprise me in the least. It’s just like a Burgess novel in many respects. The narrator Morris runs a junk shop with flighty none-too-legit Honeybuzzard (which I kept on wanting to read as Honeybadger), who is a bit of a knob. Rumour has it that the recent scar disfiguring Ghislaine’s face is Honeybuzzard’s handiwork, although he claims otherwise. Besides, Honeybuzzard now has Emily, who seems to be made of much sterner stuff. And, er, that’s about it. The prose is somewhat overwrought, and far too quick to reach for cliché, especially when Carter emphasises a point by adding on descriptive clause after descriptive clause. From what I remember of her later novels, she soon rid herself of the habit. Fortunately. But lines like “The lines of his ribs showed through the flesh like an elegant bird-cage where his trapped heart flapped its wings regularly, one, two, on the beat” should have been excised. And there are far too many mentions of rape too. Not a great novel, though Carter went on to write some great stuff.

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