It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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2014 reading diary, #3

I took a break from my Hugo reading to get up to date with some SF Mistressworks reading and then, for some reason, when it came to choosing books by male authors I picked old sf ones (because I’m still alternating my reading between women and men writers). Still, at least now I’ve read those crappy old sf novels and they can go to the charity shop…

Extra(Ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984). I read this to review for SF Mistressworks – see here.

renaissanceRenaissance, Raymond F Jones (1951). Many years ago I had an idea for a story inspired by the plot of the film This Island Earth, so I decided to read the novel as research. It was years before I tracked down a copy and a few years more I finally got around to reading it – see here. Meanwhile, I’d decided to read more Raymond F Jones – even though I had yet to read This Island Earth at the time. I’d already bought Jones’ Beacon novel The Deviates (because Beacon novel; see here) and a copy of The Alien (I loved the cover art; see here). So I picked up a copy of his first novel, Renaissance, and recently pulled it from the shelf to read. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – I hadn’t been impressed by This Island Earth and that is Jones’ best-known novel. Well, Renaissance is very much a novel of its time, and it makes very little sense. It opens with a giant computer, which seems to run a small colony of scientifically-minded people, but it’s all sort of B-movie weird with a giant curtain of nothingness bordering the colony on one side and a DESERT OF FIRE on the other, and everyone wears togas or something and no one appears to have sex as babies magically appear at some sort of temple… The hero gets into trouble with the authorities for daring to research a taboo subject, biology. He uncovers a conspiracy, so he infiltrates the temple… which requires him to disguise himself as a woman – but given that they wear little in the way of clothing, he uses some sort of plastic material to effect his disguise. No one sees through it, although you wouldn’t know from the text that he was pretending to be a woman for much of the story. Anyway, it turns out the colony is in an alternate universe and was an experiment by Earth, which is now ruled by some sort of secretive cabal, and there’s a historical repository of knowledge safeguarded an AI which wants to overthrow the cabal… And it’s all complete tosh, about as rigorous as blancmange and as plausible as a unicorn pasty. I’ve still got those two other Jones’ books to read – well, three if you include The Secret People, the book on which The Deviates is based – but I doubt I’ll be going any further into his oeuvre.

marvel2Captain Marvel 2: Down, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Dexter Soy & Filipe Andrade (2013). I was never really a big comics fan, and I went off superhero comics completely a number of years ago. And even when I did read comics, Captain Marvel was not a title I bothered following. But when I discovered that the first half of this miniseries by Kelly Sue DeConnick featured the Mercury 13, I decided to give it a go (see here). I wasn’t that impressed so wasn’t going to bother with the second volume… until I learnt it took place at the bottom of the sea. It was just too close to Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And now I’ve read it, er, it isn’t. At all. Captain Marvel – Carol Danvers – helps a friend recover something from the sea bottom off the coast of New Orleans. Down there it’s a ship and plane graveyard… and then some alien energy leaks into the wrecks and creates a giant monster out of them which Danvers and her friend must battle. The story then moves to New York and Danver’s private life, trouble with her neighbours, a possible medical condition preventing her from flying, and random attacks by an old nemesis… Like the first book, there’s a smart script there, so it’s a shame the art is routinely awful. You’d think, given that comics are a visual medium, they’d put more effort into it.

Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1990). This is the sequel to The Children of Anthi; I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks – see here.

charismaCharisma, Michael G Coney (1975). During the 1970s, there were a number of male British sf writers all working (mostly) down the same line in the genre. They’d come out of the New Wave – although some had been around prior to that – and, in direct contrast to the big-selling US sf authors, they kept their visions low-key and their focus more literary. Writers such as Richard Cowper, DG Compton, Michael G Coney, Keith Roberts, Robert Holdstock, perhaps even JG Ballard. Their novels were often set in a near-future UK, with light extrapolation, and only a small number of “ideas” – which were there solely to drive the plot. There was no “movement” as such, and several of the writers went on to write completely different genre fiction – Holdstock and his Mythago Wood, Ballard left the genre all together, Coney moved into pure heartland territory with his Hello Summer, Goodbye… Coney’s Charisma, however, very much fits the pattern. It could almost have been written by Compton, in fact. The narrator, John Maine, is the manager of a hotel in the small Cornwall fishing port of Falcombe. He’s also involved with a local boatyard which sells “houseyachts” (hovercraft houseboats, as far as I can make out). Near Falcombe is a Research Station which has been experimenting with a device that gives access to parallel worlds. And Maine discovers by accident that he can travel to these parallel worlds – because the John Maine in those worlds has died, so there aren’t two of them existing in the same world at the same time. And then the owner of the hotel, a lying and cheating businessman, a Tory in other words, is murdered… and Maine travels back and forth to various parallel worlds trying to change events, solve the murder and track down the woman he loves, Susanna. The plotting in Charisma is quite clever, with its multiple parallel takes on the same group of people and their  actions. The world-building is light – it’s pretty much 1975, but with hovercars and 3D television. Unfortunately, Maine, the narrator, is… I hate to say “a product of his time”, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more male-gazey novel than this – in fact, Maine is an unreconstructed sexist pig. And it leaves a nasty taste in what would otherwise be an interesting and accomplished 1970s British sf novel.

lotswifeWhat Lot’s Wife Saw, Ioanna Bourazopoulou (2013). The last of my Hugo reading. I do have at least one more novel on the book-shelves that qualifies – Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman – and I did have time to buy and read a couple more, but I decided to call it a day after What Lot’s Wife Saw. Possibly because I’d heard so much praise for it that I thought it likely to take the final slot on my ballot. Except, well, I didn’t really like it at all. It’s the near-future and the Dead Sea has somehow inundated much of Southern Europe, and coincidentally revealed a rift which contains “salt”, a powerful drug to which much of the world is now addicted. Phileas Book lives in Paris and compiles “Epistlewords” for The Times. These are three-dimensional crosswords whose clues depend on extracts from letters published alongside. Despite numerous descriptions of the Epistleword, and its “meandros” shape, nothing in the novel indicates the Epistleword is either plausible or solvable. The salt mentioned earlier is mined at the Colony, a small company town on the shore of the Dead Sea – which is now completely gelid. How the Dead Sea has a shore after flooding the surrounding area for thousands of square kilometres  is not explained, but the shore is an inhospitable desert populated by “Suez Mamelukes”.  Recently, the governor of the Colony died in mysterious circumstances, and within a fortnight riots tore the town apart. His six closest advisers have all written letters explaining what happened. The mysterious Seventy-Five, the company which mines the salt, asks Book to analyse the letters – because of his Epistleword special talent thing – to discover the truth of the events they relate… A lot of people praised  What Lot’s Wife Saw so I think it’s fair to say my expectations were pretty high. But. It just didn’t work for me. The sections in the Colony felt like they were set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which made a nonsense of it being near-future – assuming you swallowed the whole Flood thing, which made no sense anyway. The letter structure was interesting, but the voices of the six were so similar it was often hard to tell them apart. And they were really unlikeable. The writing was mostly good but often drifted into over-writing. And the ending, the solution to the mystery Book is asked to unravel, is… well, it’s banal. I’d been expecting something with much more impact, and not just a quick Scooby Doo scene which explained clues that were so obscure no reader would have spotted them – I mean, EREMOI? Disappointing.

demonsThe Demons at Rainbow Bridge, Jack L Chalker (1989). This is the first book of a trilogy, the Quintara Marathon. Chalker used to bang out trilogies and series as if science fiction were on the brink of extinction. And it showed. In this one, the writing barely reaches competent, the setting is cobbled together from used furniture, and the text is riddled with continuity errors. In this series, the galaxy is split into three mutually antagonistic power blocs, the Exchange, the religious nutters of the Mizlaplanian Empire, and the evil dog-eat-dog empire of the Mycohlians. Humanity went out into the stars and found itself just another alien race among the many claimed by these three polities. The Exchange is ruled by the mysterious never-seen Guardians, and is pure Rand-like capitalism from top to bottom. The Mizlaplanians have hugely powerful mental powers and have convinced everyone they’re gods and those of their subject races with “normal” mental powers are angels and saints. The Mycohlians are parasites and they pretty much leave their anarchic empire to run itself, assuming that the cream – the most ruthless and violent cream, that is – will rise to the top and keep everything together. An Exchange scout ship finds a pair of the eponymous demons on a remote world, and sends out a mayday before being slaughtered. The novel then spends a third of its pages describing the formation of an Exchange team to investigate, then a third on a Mizlaplanian team to do the same, and the final third on the Mycohlian team. All three head for the remote world, where they find a butchered research team, the demons have escaped and… continued in the next book of the trilogy. Chalker was a crap writer and this is far from his best work.

Ark Baby, Liz Jensen (1997). Every time I start a Liz Jensen novel, I tell myself I should read more of her books. I’ll be reviewing this on SF Mistressworks, since it qualifies as science fiction.


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2014 reading diary, #2

I spent much of February catching up with 2013 novels for my Hugo ballot. While this included a number of books by authors I usually read and enjoy, I also chose a number of edge cases that had looked interesting. I also didn’t have a computer at home during two weeks of February, which is why I was uncharacteristically quiet during the latter half of the month… It also meant I got a lot of reading done – nine books in four days at one point – so I’ll keep my comments on each book short as there’s more than the usual number of them. Incidentally, I’m still sticking to alternating genders in my fiction reading.

proxima-ukProxima, Stephen Baxter (2013). Not sure what I was expecting this to be like – the publicity suggested I might like it… but I found it more like Exultant (see here) than Coalescent (see here). In other words, I thought it juvenile and thick with indigestible lumps of exposition; and while there was plenty of invention on display, no single idea was neat enough to make the book stand out. Criminals are transported to an inhabitable exoplanet in the titular star system, and what a surprise they prove completely unsuitable as pioneer colonist material. We’ve got rape and violence and warlordism in a century that has settlements throughout the Solar System and can even send spacecraft to another planetary system. But those criminal types do stumble across an enigmatic alien device which links the exoplanet with Mercury. This novel won’t be going on my Hugo ballot.

reddocRed Doc>, Anne Carson (2013). This was shortlisted for the Kitschies earlier this year, which is why I bought a copy and read it. It’s a poem, told in a mix of styles, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. While I find its genre aspects all a bit wishy-washy, there are moments of great beauty in it, and the dialogue in the told sections reads truer than anything you might find in a category genre novel. Since it’s not a novel, novella or short story, but a poem, I’m going to put it on my Hugo ballot as a related work. As far as I know, there’s nothing in the rules which says a related work has to be non-fiction.

On-the-Steel-BreezeOn the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds (2013). This is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth and the middle book of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Much of it concerns a covert war prosecuted by Arachne, an AI built to monitor a huge space-based telescopic array, because of course all machine intelligences are completely fixated on destroying non-machine life. There’s also a convoy of “holoships” – hollowed-out asteroids – en route to an exoplanet, on whose surface is an enormous enigmatic alien feature, the Mandala. The story focuses on three “clones” of Chiku Akinya, labelled Red, Yellow and Green – it’s a bit more complicated than cloning, something called “Quorum Binding”, which allows them to update each other’s memories, as is helpfully explained to one of the Chikus early in the novel by another character, even though, of course, she already knows how it works. One of the Chikus stayed on Earth; one set off in pursuit of Eunice Akinya’s space craft, Winter Queen (from Blue Remembered Earth); and one joined the  fleet of holoships heading for the exoplanet Crucible. There are some nice set-pieces – I liked, for example, the one set on the surface of Venus, even if it didn’t seem to add much to the plot. The societies in the holoships turn totalitarian because, of course, totalitarianism is the default setting of any society in a science fiction novel – much as I disagree that hard sf is inherently right wing, the preponderance of right-wing societies in it is tiresome. There are also some uplifted elephants, a genius scientist who has a set of pronouns all of “vir” own, more about the mer people from the first book, and even some giant enigmatic alien machines orbiting Crucible, the presence of which had been hidden from humanity by Arachne. It’s certainly a polished novel,and what Reynolds does he does well, but it doesn’t quite meet the promise suggested by the first book of the trilogy. Of course, there’s still a final book to come, so perhaps that will do the trick. This book is not going on my Hugo ballot.

lifeafterlifeLife After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013). I’d never heard of Atkinson until her Jackson Brody books were adapted for television – even though her debut novel won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 and she’s a pretty big-selling author in the UK. However, it was hard not to be aware of Life After Life, her latest book, as it’s already won the Costa Novel Award, is arguably genre, and has been talked about by a number of my online friends and acquaintances. A young woman born in 1910 dies at various times during her life, each time being reborn back in 1910 and somehow – sometimes only through some subconscious prompting – each time managing to avoid her fate from the previous time around. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – a pleasantly engaging protagonist, nicely witty prose, and a very smooth read without being as bland as commercial fiction. Recommended. I’ll be putting this one on my Hugo ballot.

themachineThe Machine, James Smythe (2013). Smythe is banging out books like they’re an endangered species, but if the two I’ve read are any indication he’s no hack. The machine of the title of this novel is used to remove troublesome memories, but it’s later discovered that prolonged use puts the patients into a persistent vegetative state. Like Vic, Beth’s husband, a soldier who returned from the war with severe PTSD, turned increasingly violent and so opted for treatment with the Machine, but is now in a nursing hostel, oblivious to everything. So Beth buys a black market Machine, “kidnaps” her husband, and uses her Machine to restore his memories and so restore him. The name “Ballard” has been thrown around a lot in reference to The Machine, and certainly the setting – a sink estate on a post-global-warming Isle of Wight – feels very Ballardian, although the story itself doesn’t feel much like a Ballardian commentary on society. The prose is good, written in present tense with no quotation marks – which, obviously, is a style I’m all for… but why does it feel like everyone is doing it these days, eh? The ending may not come as much of a surprise, although perhaps reading Smythe’s The Explorer I’d been primed to expect a twist. Good stuff – and I have one spot left on my Hugo novel ballot and this is the current front-runner for it.

22.-The-Shining-GirlsThe Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (2013). After Beukes’ Clarke Award-winning Zoo City, we have a high-concept commercial thriller, though the concept is enough to make it genre: a time-travelling serial killer. There’s a house in Chicago, and the killer can use it to access any time from the 1930s, when he discovers the house, to the 1990s. He jumps back and forth through the decades, stalking and killing young women, often ones he has previously visited while they were kids. They are the “shining girls”, so called by him because they have some quality which would have led them to live remarkable lives had he not murdered them. The Shining Girls is a fast, pacey read with a good sense of time and place, but the plot feels a bit too choppy to gel in places and the whole never feels quite complete somehow. This one will not be going on my Hugo ballot.

DofPThe Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann (2013). I’m a fan of Mann’s science fiction – I have all of his novels in hardback. So I was particularly happy to discover he had something new out, seventeen years after his last novel, 1996′s The Burning Forest. But, oh dear. The Disestablishment of Paradise refers to the final months of the Earth colony on the exoplanet called Paradise – this is what disestablishment is, the removal of a colony from a world – and the scientist, and her “assistant”, who remain behind and learn something more about the planet and its flora (it has no fauna). Particularly the Peripatetic Dendron, which is a sort of giant animated three-legged tree, and the Michelangelo-Reaper, which is a plant with psychic powers of some sort. There’s no denying that Paradise is a fascinating place, and that Mann draws a beguiling picture of it; but the human dynamics in The Disestablishment of Paradise are woefully old-fashioned (especially in regard to the female characters) and the dialogue is stilted at best. The story is framed as the novelisation of the reminiscences of the scientist, as told to a writer best-known for dark and edgy children’s books; and I’m not entirely sure what that conceit adds. There are occasional asides to the reader – and several appendices of supplementary material, which are referenced in the narrative – but it’s not enough to jolly along the somewhat plodding pace. One of the longest set-pieces is the “saving of the Dendron”, which seems to go on and on and on, with an excess of detail into Dendron physiology. After reading The Disestablishment of Paradise, I’m going to have to reread Mann’s earlier novels, as I don’t remember them being as dull or stodgy as this one. The Disestablishment of Paradise will not be appearing on my Hugo ballot.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985) I read this for review on SF Mistressworks.

martian-sandsMartian Sands, Lavie Tidhar (2013). Or Tidhar does Dick. Again. I am not much of a fan of Philip K Dick’s work – there are a couple I like, but the only reason I own so many of his damn books is because almost half of the SF Masterworks series consisted of works by him. Martian Sands reads like a pastiche of Dick – and for me, that’s its biggest problem. It’s as if the plots and settings of a dozen of PKD’s novels were glommed together, and then roughly stitched into a single narrative using a magic chest full of sf references and in-jokes.  I know some preferred this to The Violent Century, but I thought the other book much the better of the two. I won’t be putting Martian Sands on my Hugo ballot

countdownforcindyCountdown For Cindy, Eloise Engle (1962). I couldn’t resist this when I saw it on eBay, chiefly because it offered a 1960s take on women in space – which is something I’d covered in Apollo Quartet 3, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The “MOON NURSE!” on the back was just a bonus. Interestingly, according to a foreword the author interviewed both Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, both of whom appear in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (actually, Cobb is one of my novella’s two protagonists). I’m working on a full review of Countdown For Cindy, to be posted here soon-ish.

aftermackenzieAfter Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Jean Rhys (1930). It was M John Harrison who recommended Jean Rhys on Twitter – some time last year, I seem to recall – during a conversation about women writers. Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across this book in a charity shop, and decided to give it a go. Julia has left her husband after the death of their baby, and is now living hand-to-mouth in a Parisian fleapit hotel. Desperate for money, she returns to London, hoping to sponge off relatives and/or past lovers. There’s a distant tone to this short novel, a weird lack of affect, as if Julia didn’t quite fully inhabit her life or the story – and, as a consequence, it’s hard to really care if Julia is successful or not. There’s an admirable clarity to the prose, and some nice turns of phrases in the descriptions – like “Behind the curtains was a green and optimistic sun-blind, faintly irritating, like a stupid joke” – and it all adds up to a curiously timeless prose-style. The sensibilities and lifestyles being described might be from the Thirties, but the language feels like it could belong to any decade of the Twentieth Century. That’s pretty impressive. If I see any more books by Rhys in charity shops, I’ll probably take a punt on them, but this one feels a little too languid for my tastes so I’ll not be in any rush to track down her work.

relevant_jonathan1The Man from Charisma, Ted Mark (1970). I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, or one of its sequels, Rip It Off, Relevant!. Perhaps I read something somewhere that suggested it might be amusing. It wasn’t. Jonathan Relevant is discovered naked on an iceberg after test missiles launched by a US and a Soviet nuclear submarine accidentally collide and explode above it. Relevant appears different to different people – to Soviet scientist Dr Ludmilla Skivar, he’s a studly Gagarin; to US Paper Clipped scientist Professor Von Schweindrek, he’s a model of Aryan masculinity; to African-American student activist G-for-George Pullman Porter, he’s Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver… The Soviets lay claim to Relevant, but the CIA steals him from them, and hides him in a CIA-sponsored research institute at Hartnell University… whose admin building has just been occupied by radical students protesting a number of different things. Relevant gets dropped into the middle of this, and tries to resolve it – which shouldn’t be that difficult given how everyone sees him as what they want to see. But this is the late 1960s, so… “Every man sees him as his hero. Every woman sees him as her lustful dream.” Sigh. We’re strictly in right-on “comedy” territory from the Swinging Sixties, with all the bad and borderline offensive jokes that entails – not to mention some outright offensive characterisations of various groups of people. I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, and now I’ve read it I wished I hadn’t bought it. We’ll have to see if the sequel is any better – but I’m not holding my breath….


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2014 reading diary, #1

This year, I’m going to try and be a little more disciplined about writing up what I’ve read. So I’ve decided to title the series of posts a “reading diary” and I hope to put one up every month or so. As usual, however, the choice of books will be somewhat eclectic – a mix of genre and literary fiction and, er, other stuff – and I’ll also mention any non-fiction I’ve read for research. You’ll notice that the fiction alternates between male and female writers. That was one of my New Year’s Resolutions, and so far I’ve managed to stick to it.

lachlan-fenrir7Fenrir, MD Lachlan (2011). I really liked Lachlan’s debut, Wolfsangel, to which Fenrir is a sequel, so I had pretty high hopes for this. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite meet them. The plot – deliberately – echoes that of Wolfsangel, but this time takes place in the late ninth century, and in France. Three characters unknowingly act out the romantic triangle from the earlier book, which apparently echoes some Norse god romantic triangle and will bring about Odin’s return to Earth. Fenrir opens with the Siege of Paris (885 – 886), and ends 532 pages later in Aldeigjuborg, a Viking-ruled Russian kingdom near what is now St Petersburg. The first member of the triangle is Aelis, the sister of the ruler of Paris, who manages to escape the siege and then has to evade capture by the marauding Vikings. The other two members are male – Jehan, a crippled monk, and Raven, a Viking shaman. The ruler of Aldeigjuborg wants Aelis for his wife, and has sent a trader, Leshii, and a wolfman, Chakhlyk, to fetch her. She doesn’t want to go, of course. And Raven is after her for his own – and his sister’s – nefarious purposes. And when the wolf is awakened in Jehan, by Norse magic, then he becomes fit and able, and he gets involved too. I said when I read Wolfsangel that werewolves and Vikings were not really my thing, but that novel did something very interesting with them – and Fenrir continues in that vein, but unfortunately it’s a bit too long for its story. The first half dragged badly in parts. It also didn’t help that “dirham” was incorrectly spelled as “dihram” throughout, or that one character’s name went from Swava to Suava and back again. Having said that, some of the set-pieces are really good, and I’ve every intention of continuing with the series.

minaretMinaret, Leila Aboulela (2005). The narrator is the daughter of a well-to-do Sudanese businessman – or rather, he was well-to-do. He prospered under the country’s old regime, and he and his family were almost aristocracy. But when that government was overthrown, he was arrested and executed as a symbol of its corruption. So now the narrator, Najwa, is in London, and working as a nanny since all the family’s riches (justly earned or not) have been seized. The woman she works for is a young Arab who grew up in the Gulf states, is married to an Egyptian currently working in Oman, and is studying for a PhD at a London university. She’s not especially religious. Her younger brother, also a student, however, is religious. And Najwa, who has discovered religion since coming to London, is drawn to him. But it’s not a match the family condone. Minaret is more about Najwa, how she became the woman she is, than it is about her burgeoning relationship with her employer’s brother. The writing is very good throughout – Aboulela writes in English – and Najwa is a beautfully-drawn character. I thought this a much better book than Aboulela’s later The Translator.

squarescityThe Squares of the City, John Brunner (1965). An Australian traffic analyst is invited to a South American model city clearly patterned on Brasilia (although the invented country in which it is located is Spanish-speaking) because the visionary president of the nation believes traffic analysis will cure his lovely city of its unsightly slums. From the moment of his arrival, the narrator is in over his head, as it turns out there are two main political factions in the city and he’s being used as a tool by one of them. Though he repeatedly says he can provide short-term solutions to the slums, but in the long term proper housing and education is the only way to really fix the problem, the city authorities want a quick result. And then people start to get killed. I liked that Brunner had based his invented city of Vados on Brasilia, and it seemed to me he sort of captured a similar architectural flavour. The characters also seemed to suit the setting, although the narrator drifted a little too close to Overcompetent Man at times. However, The Squares of the City is apparently notable because the plot is based on a famous chess match, with each of the characters representing various pieces. To be honest, not knowing this in no way changes how you read the story, nor does knowing it actually help you parse the plot. It’s a gimmick that means nothing to the reader, and I’m surprised Brunner even bothered mentioning it. Yes, it turns out the two chief movers and shakers in Vados – the president and the leader of the opposition – have been playing a chess game with people, and that’s why there have been deaths, but it seems too abstracted to make any real difference. I think that makes the novel more of a curiosity than anything else.

Journey, Marta Randall (1978). See my review on SF Mistressworks here.

violent-century-lavie-tidharThe Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar (2013). This novel landed in October last year with quite a thud. In fact, only last weekend a friend mentioned he was thinking of reading the book because it had received so many positive notices. Which is, I suppose, as good a reason to read a book as any. The Violent Century covers, well, not even a century really – it opens in the 1920s, but the present of the story is labelled only “the present”, although clues suggest it is near the turn of the millennium, if not just after. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr Vomacht inadvertently released a probability wave which changed a small proportion of the world’s population, effectively giving them superpowers. In Britain, these superpowered people were recruited as spies and undercover agents, and spent much of WWII trying to track down Vomacht, or eliminate Germany “Übermenschen”. The book’s two protagonist are Fogg and Oblivion, a pair of British agents, and the novel covers their escapades during WWII and the Cold War, as told in flashback from the present-day. Fogg has been brought out of retirement because something has happened, and the flashbacks lead up to the explanation of that. The structure works well, although there’s a niggling sense at times that some information is left unsaid when it needn’t be because the requisite flashback has yet to take place. And speaking of niggling, The Violent Century reminded me of something else but I could never quite put my finger on it. It borrows heavily from comicbook mythologies, of course; and there’s a pulpish flavour to its alternate history… but there was something in the mix that was quite heavily reminiscent of… something. I also thought the ending was a bit weak. A strong novel, yes; but not, I think, one I’ll be putting on my Hugo ballot.

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979). A review of this will be posted up on SF Mistressworks in a couple of weeks.

Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014). I reviewed this for Vector.

breakdownBreakdown, Sara Paretsky (2012). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s VI Warshawski novels since first stumbling across them in the UAE in the early 1990s. In recent years, the politics have been much more in your face – not necessarily a bad thing, though it does sometimes over-balance the story. Breakdown is a case in point. It opens with Warshawski stumbling across a recently-murdered man in a cemetery while trying to track down a group of missing teenage girls who have gone there to practice a ritual tied into their love of an urban fantasy series of books (plainly based on Twilight). The plot spirals out from there to feature the right-wing media, particularly the sort of moronic far right television pundit who presently seems bafflingly popular in the US at the moment. There’s also an ultra-rich Jewish industrialist, possibly with a shady past, who is the chief target of the  TV pundit’s attacks, and even a pair of senators battling for the local seat – a liberal, backed by the industrialist; and a Tea Party-type loon, backed by the right-wing media. If Paretsky’s novels are overly target-rich from a liberal perspective, Warshawski is turning increasingly quixotic with each subsequent book. Parestsky chooses big themes, but gives Warshawski small victories; it’s a strategy guaranteed to leave you angry when you finish the book. And no matter how righteous that anger, Warshawski’s – and by extension, the reader’s – inability to change things makes you wonder what the point of it all is. But I like Warshawski as a character, I like that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve (and I mostly agree with them), and so I’ll continue to read these books.

Evening-empireEvening’s Empires, Paul McAuley (2013). I read this because it has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year, even though it’s the fourth book in a loose series – preceded by The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and In the Mouth of the Whale, and only the first of which I’ve read (and I didn’t really like it; see here). Evening’s Empires can be read as a standalone, but it also makes numerous references to the events in those earlier novels. All the same, I didn’t find that an obstacle, though it did leave me curious about the earlier two books. But. I’d not really taken to The Quiet War, and I suppose I’d not really expected to take to Evening’s Empires, although something about its blurb did suggest I might be mistaken. Perversely, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel thanks to something I’d not even considered… Evening’s Empires opens with Gajananvihari Pilot marooned on a tiny asteroid on the outer edges of the Belt. The asteroid had once been inhabited – most recently by an ascetic – so there is enough infrastructure present for Hari to survive. He’s been marooned because dacoits captured his father’s ship but he managed to escape. The hijackers were after the fruits of Dr Gagarian’s research into the Bright Moment, a single vision granted to every member of humanity at precisely the same moment when Sri Hong-Owen “vastened” and melded with the alien intelligence present in Fomalhaut’s gas giant (which is apparently what happened during In the Mouth of the Whale). When a pair of dacoits come to capture Hari – and Dr Gagarian’s head, with which he has absconded – he kills them and uses their scooter to escape… and promptly follows a series of clues around the Asteroid Belt, and out to Saturn, in order to have his revenge on the hijackers and discover why Dr Gagarian’s research was so important to them. McAuley describes a Solar System in decline – the places Hari visits are long past their glory days. There have been system-wide wars, empires have risen and fallen, and in many cases, those that are left are just living in, or have re-purposed, the ruins of earlier centuries. Which means that while Evening’s Empires is very much hard sf, it mostly reads like space opera. McAuley has also filled his story with in-jokes. Each of the sections, for example, is named for a sf classic of the past. And part of the plot’s climax takes place at the Memory Whole, an Earth-orbiting asteroid which hosts a virtual environment for avatars of early uploaded post-humans. One of these avatars is quite cutting to Hari about humanity’s predilection for living in the fantasies of earlier ages. Given that the Memory Hole is a real-life UK-based fanzine collection, I can’t decide if McAuley is taking the piss or writing a savage indictment of science fiction…

therainforestThe Rain Forest, Olivia Manning (1974). I loved Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy when I read them several years ago, so I always keep an eye open for books by her when I visit charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of The Rain Forest. It’s her last novel, and set on the invented Indian Ocean island of Al-Bustan (clearly based on Mauritius; there are several mentions of the dodo). Hugh and Kristy Foster have moved temporarily to Al-Bustan so Hugh can take up a position in the local British administration of the island. He’s actually a screenwriter – and Kristy is a successful novelist – but the industry has collapsed in the UK and left him out of work and out of cash. The couple are put up in the Daisy Pension, a boarding-house populated by a cast of minor grotesques. They make friends with the owner’s profligate son, who is shunned by the pension’s guests, and through him meet some of the island’s colourful inhabitants. Although published in the early 1970s, and clearly meant to be set around that time – there’s mention of fashion designers Pucci and Gamba; a helicopter is the chief means of reaching the island – everything felt like it was a couple of decades older. There’s a feel of 1940s Raj to it all – I mean, I was an expat in the Gulf states in the 1970s, and while I was only a child then, I don’t remember it being how Manning describes it on Al-Bustan. Having said that, Al-Bustan is a small island with a native population descended from waves of earlier immigrants from Africa and the Arabian peninsula, so the situation hardly maps onto that, say, of the Trucial States as was. The plot of The Rain Forest bumbles along, there’s a feeling that in the hands of a male writer the story would have been more comic, played for laughs, though to be honest I prefer Manning’s approach. It’s not entirely clear what role the titular woodland plays, and certainly some of the events described in the novel don’t quite gel with it – the Fosters’ treatment by the other residents of the pension, the small war they fight with the new owner after the original owner dies, Kristy’s pregnancy, even the trip Hugh takes to the rain forest in the final section. The cast are mostly unlikeable, except for the Fosters, and what little pathos is present seemed to fall flat more often than not. The Rain Forest is nowhere near as good as those two earlier trilogies – though I do have to wonder if it’s as autobiographical as they were (after all, Kristy is a successful novelist) – but all the same, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for Manning’s novels.


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Readings catch-up

And here we are, the last books I read during 2013. As usual, it’s quite a mix – some category science fiction, some literary fiction, and a handful of bandes dessinée. Make of them what you will.

exultantExultant, Stephen Baxter (2004). This is the second book of the Destiny’s Children trilogy, and I quite enjoyed the first, Coalescent (see here), so I was expecting to enjoy this one too. But… oh dear. The earlier book had two main narratives, one set in the present day and the other in Ancient Britain. Exultant is set wholly in the distant future, when humanity is at war with the Xeelee, and has been for over a thousand years. A pair of teen soldiers become involved in a series of attempts to strike a final blow against the Xeelee, and destroy the huge black hole at the heart of the galaxy, called Chandra, which the Xeelee use as a base. The novel opens with fighter pilot Pirius escaping destruction by a Xeelee nightfighter through some “timelike curve” manoeuvre which results him and his crew travelling back in time several years. This is apparently not unusual on the front line – and because Pirius disobeyed orders, he is sentenced to serve in a penal battalion. His earlier self is also punished, even though he hasn’t done anything. Er, yet. But visionary Commissary Nilis (isn’t a commissary somewhere to buy food?) rescues the “innocent” Pirius from punishment and takes him to Earth to help with his crazy schemes to strike decisively at the Xeelee. Meanwhile, time-travelled Pirius experiences life as a ground trooper in the war against the Xeelee. This is science  fiction as boy’s own adventure, with a side-order of Big Idea cosmology. Baxter leaves his story for chapters at a time to explain how the universe began – and, in the process, created races like the Xeelee. The characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes – Nilis is a stereotypical dotty old professor, even down to the lack of personal hygiene; a female aide is a stereotypical beautiful but cold bitch; Pirius and his girlfriend, Torec, are everyman teenagers. The way the war is prosecuted doesn’t seem at all convincing, the explanations for it and the Xeelee are dull, and the link with the preceding book is so tenuous it’s a stretch to consider this book a sequel. Exultant is sort of like distilled Baxter, but one where the distillation process has taken out all the stuff that makes most of Baxter’s works interesting. I’ll be reading the third book, Transcendent, but I’m not really looking forward to it.

Betel-thumb-300x413Betelgeuse 1: The Survivors, 2: The Caves and 3: The Other, Léo (2000 – 2005). This is the direct follow-on from Léo’s Aldebaran series, and was originally published in five volumes:  La planète, Les survivants, L’expédition, Les cavernes and L’autre. There are two more sequences, Antares, of which four of the five volumes have been published in English, and Les survivants, which currently comprises two volumes and neither of which has yet to be translated into English. Kim, one of the two teenagers who was invited to join the group of immortals in Aldebaran (see here), has spent the last few years studying on Earth. Now she’s back on Aldebaran, and is recruited to join an expedition to regain contact with a lost colony on a world orbiting Betelgeuse. On arrival at the planet, they find the colonists’ ship, but when they dock to it a computer virus destroys their ship’s systems. They descend to the surface, where they meet up with the surviving colonists – who, like on Aldebaran, have created a society in which women are second-class citizens, justified by both religion and a desperate need for population growth. But there is another group of colonists, led by the ship’s captain, who are more interested in investigating the world than subjugating women – and who the men from the first group blame for the computer virus. Kim finds herself caught between the two – the first group expect Kim to join their village and become yet another brood mare, but she’s there to discover what happened and why. It’s all tied in with the creature, the mantris, from the first series – another of its type exists on Betelgeuse, and is part of the life-cycle of the local animals known as “iums” (and who may actually be sentient). Kim learns their secret, solves the problem of the computer virus, but there is still a greater mystery to be solved. I picked up the Aldebaran series on a whim, but I must admit I’m enjoying these books. The art is good, the setting is interesting, and if Léo has a tendency to fall back on macho sexist pigs for his male villains, at least they get their just deserts. Good stuff.

unexplodedUnexploded, Alison MacLeod (2013). I saw this novel on the Booker Prize long list, and something about it seemed like it might appeal. So I bought a copy. And… well, it read a bit like a parody of your typical middle-class literary novel - a couple’s marriage slowly implodes, a child unwittingly betrays someone, which leads to a shocking end… The only difference is that the story is set in Brighton in 1940, much is made of some Brits’ admiration of Hitler (not to mention their blatant anti-semitism), and Virginia Woolf makes an appearance. The story is told chiefly from the point of view of the wife, Evelyn, who enters into an affair with a Jewish painter expelled from Nazi Germany as a “degenerate”, whom she first meets in the refugee camp – a de facto prisoner of war camp – superintended by her banker husband. Yet, for all that I enjoyed the book. MacLeod evokes her period well, the cast are beautifully-drawn, and there’s some lovely writing. If it’s all a bit obvious plot-wise, at least the narrative maintains your interest. I’m not entirely sure it belonged on Booker long list, however.

timebeingA Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013). This novel, of course, made it to the Booker short list, and it’s also one of those literary novels that makes free use of science fiction tropes. Unlike Exploded, its description didn’t especially appeal, but I stumbled across a secondhand copy on a table of books being sold for charity in, of all places, my local Wilkinson. So I bought and read it. And I thought it was very good. Perhaps comparisons with David Mitchell’s number9dream are inevitable – both are set (chiefly) in Japan, both have very chatty narrators – but I think A Tale for the Time Being is by far the better of the two books. And that’s not just because of its core conceit, or its framing narrative. It opens as the diary of a young Japanese girl, Nao, who has grown up in the US and, on the family’s return to Japan, no longer feels Japanese. She is bullied at high school, and her father can’t find a job and has tried to commit suicide. She documents her attempts to find herself  - including spending a summer with her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, whom she idolises, but also a short period spent being paid for sex by men. The diary was discovered by a writer, Ruth living on a small island off the west coast of Canada. She thinks the diary is debris from the tsunami, and tries to contact Nao, only to discover she can find no trace of her or her family. Ozeki has thrown a lot into A Tale for the Time Being – not just Japanese culture and history, but also things like the Many Worlds Hypothesis, eco-terrorism, barnacles… There are footnotes and appendices. And it all works. Both Nao and Ruth are likeable and well-drawn characters, the mishmash of tropes actually gloms together to create an interesting story, and the prose is excellent throughout. Ozeki didn’t win the Booker – it went to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which is on the TBR) – but I would be happy to see it on the BSFA and Hugo shortlists this year.

redstationOn a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (2012) I should have picked up a copy of this at the Eastercon, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Anyway, I rectified that error at Fantasycon. This is well-crafted heartland science fiction set in a Vietnamese universe. The story opens with the arrival of Linh on Prosper Station, after the rebels have taken the world which she administered as magistrate. But now she’s a refugee and dependent upon the kindness of distant relatives she has previously had little or no dealings with. It also transpires that Linh had written a letter to the emperor, criticising his conduct of the war with the rebels, and a faction at the court who share her sentiments have decided to use her in a play for courtly influence. Complicating matters is the fact she’s not welcome on Prosper Station, and that the station is having trouble coping with the refugees it has taken aboard. The story was apparently inspired by The Dream of the Red Chamber (AKA The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin, one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”, and dating from 18th century. While I’m familiar with some classical Arabic literature, I’m not with Chinese – though I might well give it a go (like I really need more books to read…). Anyway, On a Red Station, Drifting was certainly worth the cover price, and I really must catch up with the other Xuya stories.

orbital5Orbital 5: Justice, Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé (2012) The continuing adventures of the Human-Sandjarr diplomatic team comprising Caleb and Mezoke, though the last volume left them in a bad place – Caleb in a regenerative c0ma and Mezoke on trial for high treason. This is very much a continuation of the story, and quite confusing if you’ve not read – or can’t remember the plot of – the previous volumes. There’s lots of political manoeuvring going on, and it seems the Earth-based politics of earlier volumes is part of a much wider galactic conspiracy. There’s also a team of masked assassins wandering round, making matters worse. This is pretty much space opera bande dessinée, and if it feels relatively unexceptional in terms of world-building or the tropes it deploys, it at least presents a unique vision – through Pellé’s art – of its universe. On occasion it looks like it owes a little too much to media sf, especially Star Wars and Babylon 5, but the story is surprisingly twisty-turny for the subgenre and format. There’s  a sixth book, Résistance, due out in French this year, and I expect Cinebook will follow with an English edition about a year later.

krishnapurThe Siege Of Krishnapur, JG Farrell (1973) And speaking of the Booker Prize, The Siege Of Krishnapur won it in 1973. I must admit I hadn’t realised this novel was forty years old when I started reading it, but it’s moot anyway as the story is set during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. The Collector, his family, a handful of officers and men from a nearby garrison, plus the remaining English residents and visitors from the town barricade themselves in the Collector’s Residence and are besieged for four months by the rebel sepoys. As expected, the food runs out after a couple of months – leading to an auction of all the foodstuffs the survivors have been hoarding, a number of attacks by sepoys take their toll on the defending soldiers, and then there’s an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, there are two doctors in the Residence, one who believes cholera is caused by a miasma, and a dour Scot who is much more progressive. The two hate each other, and differ widely in their treatments to injury and illnesses. The Collector himself is a progressive sort, very much taken with the many devices he saw on display at the Great Exhibition a couple of years earlier. Despite that, he is also very Victorian… which leads to one of the book’s stranger elements: the women are treated as either precocious pets, or perfectly capable of standing alongside the men and contributing to the defence of the Residence. Often, it’s the same woman which provokes these contradictory sentiments – such as Lucy, who had been “compromised” by an officer some weeks before the Mutiny kicks off; but despite feeling almost theatrically sorry for herself since her prospects have been reduced to zero, she proves to be made of sterner, and quite manipulative, stuff, and is one of the few women to play a major part during the siege. I don’t recall why I picked up this book to read – yes, I admire Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet a great deal, but this is set a century earlier and the Victorian age doesn’t appeal to me all that much (which is one reason why I’m not a fan of steampunk). And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed The Siege Of Krishnapur and thought it very good. I think I’ll even read some more Farrell.

a-possible-life-jacket-faulksA Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks (2013) Or rather, five possible lives. The first is a young man who joins one of the many secret agent services during WWII, is captured, ends up as a trustee at a death camp but escapes, and the rest of his life is changed by his experiences in Germany – even though he returns to his pre-War career as a teacher at a boarding school. A father sells his son to a workhouse, the son prospers, buys his way out, sets himself up in business, and eventually becomes a well-to-do (if somewhat shady) business in Victorian London. A young woman in Italy a decade or so hence is obsessed with discovering the biological source of human awareness (a fascination Faulks also clearly shares, given this and his novel Human Traces). An orphaned girl in nineteenth century provincial France lives an unexceptional life looking after a family’s children. A retired rockstar discovers a new talent and nurtures her career, becoming her lover and manager, but the pressure proves too much for her. Faulks’ ideas on human awareness are interesting, but there’s not enough connective tissue between the five stories to define that idea as this book’s central conceit or even give it structure. The writing is your standard Brit-lit-fic prose, and while the settings of some stories convince, others do less so – especially the rockstar one. All in all, a pretty weak effort.

GoodbyeRobinsonCrusoeGood-bye, Robinson Crusoe, John Varley (2013). I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first stumbling across one of his short stories back in the early 1980s. A couple of those stories still remain favourites to this day, though neither are in this retrospective collection. But it was the fanboy in me who shelled out for this signed and numbered limited edition copy from Subterranean Press (who do lovely books), even though I have all but one story in other collections – and some of them in two collections. What Varley did back in the 1970s and and 1980s, he did very well – his novels from that period are still in print for good reason – and surprisingly many of his stories have withstood the test of time quite well – ‘Equinoctial’, for example, could have been written a handful of years ago. Some of the others fare less well – ‘The Unprocessed Word’ is a silly joke that probably wasn’t very funny when it was first published in 1986, and just feels quaint now. ‘Blue Champagne’ feels like a heartland sf story of its time; ‘In the Bowl’ still stands up; as does ‘Lollipop and the Tar Baby’, although a sentient black hole is a little, er, hard to swallow. In hindsight, this is a book for fans of Varley’s fiction. The most recent story dates from 1986, so it’s hardly an introduction to his current fiction (he has a new novel, Dark Lightning, out this year). If you want to see what Varley’s fiction is like, The John Varley Reader from 2004 is a better look at his career than this book, even if it’s not as attractive an object.


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The books wot I read, part the third

I’m slowly catching up on documenting my recent reads. Last year and the year before I was in the 100 Books A Year Challenge on LibraryThing, and would write a quick review of each book as I read it. Which meant compiling these recent readings posts was pretty painless. But I didn’t bother with the challenge this year, and without that I’m not disciplined enough to write about books the moment I’ve finished them – well, not unless it’s a book everyone is talking about, like a certain sf debut of 2013. Anyway, that’s my excuse for splitting this post into three. Also, it would be way too TL;DR if it had been a single post.

barbaryshoreBarbary Shore, Norman Mailer (1951) I found three 1970s paperback novels by Mailer in a local charity shop and was sufficiently appalled by the awful covers to give them a go. I know of Mailer, of course; and I’m pretty damn sure I read The Executioner’s Song many years ago… But if Barbary Shore had been my first exposure to his fiction I’d not have bothered any further. According to an introduction added to this later edition, Mailer considers this the best of his early novels – “if my work is alive one hundred years from now, Barbary Shore will be considered the richest of my first three novels”. The other two must be really bad then. Because Barbary Shore is a bit shit. Mailer’s style is so mannered and artificial, and characters repeatedly lecture each other, it’s often painful to read; and yet the story is supposedly set in the lower reaches of New York society. The narrator has returned from fighting abroad during WWII with little or no prospects and decides to become a writer. So he uses the last of his savings to rent himself a room in a boarding-house while he writes his Great American novel… And where he gets involved with the landlady, a blousy blonde rejoicing in the name of Guinevere, her really badly-drawn young daughter, the boarding-house’s two other tenants (one of whom proves to be a McCarthyist, the other is actually Guinevere’s husband and an ex-communist), and the sort of manic pixie Holly-Golightly-type that US literary fiction of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to think were a) real women and b) evidence of the author’s ability to write female characters. I guess I won’t be reading the other two Mailer novels. All three can go back to the charity shop.

trpipleechoThe Triple Echo, HE Bates (1970) A couple of years ago, I found a boxed set of Bates’s novels and novellas in a charity shop. It was really cheap, and I vaguely remembered he was highly-regarded, so I bought it. The first novella I read, Dulcima, didn’t go all that well (see here). It was apparently turned into a film in 1971. The Triple Echo was slightly better, and I vaguely recall seeing its film adaptation (starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed). During WWII, a woman on a smallholding, whose husband is a prisoner of the Japanese, strikes up a friendship with a soldier at a local barracks. He visits her on his leave days and helps her out around the farm. But then he decides to desert, and stays with her. In order to disguise his presence she tells everyone her sister is visiting, and he lets his hair grow long and dresses like the farmer. Then an officer and a pair of NCOs from the barracks turn up, looking for the deserter. They meet the “sister”, fail to see through the disguise and the sergeant invites “her” to a dance that Saturday… Bates’s prose fails to impress. It’s, er… nice. That’s about all that can be said for it. But then you come across a line like “the war seemed a million miles away”, and then there’s nothing nice about a reliance on cliché. I’ve still got the rest of the Bates boxed set to read, and I may try one or two more. But it’ll be back to the charity shop with it after that.

jagannathJagannath: Stories, Karin Tidbeck (2012) I picked up a copy of this at Fantastika in Stockholm in October, where Karin was one of the GoHs. I’d not read any of her stories prior to reading this collection, although I think I had a fairly good idea of what to expect – her name is one that crops up quite often among my circle of friends and acquaintances online. I’ll confess up-front that dark fantasy and New Weird are definitely not my thing – only this week I baled on Catherynne M Valente’s Palimpsest after 70 pages. However, the first story in Jagannath: Stories, ‘Beatrice’, immediately hooked me, and I pretty much sailed through all thirteen stories in the collection. Some worked for me much better than others. The subtle horror of ‘Rebecka’ was good, I liked ‘Brita’s Holiday Village’ and ‘Reindeer Mountain’, and the faux documentary of ‘Pyret’ was cleverly done. Jagannath: Stories is a pretty strong collection –  I had been told Karin is a name to watch and I’m more than happy to agree.

aldebaran1Aldebaran 1: The Catastrophe (1996), Aldebaran 2: The Group (1997) and Aldebaran 3: The Creature (1998), Léo. These three volumes from Cinebook contain five installments of Léo’s first series, which were originally published in French as La catastrophe, La blonde, La photo, Le group and La créature. They’re set on an inhabitable planet orbiting the eponymous star some 100 years after contact with Earth has been lost. The colonists have spread across the planet’s few small continents, but much of its flora and fauna remains a mystery. The story opens in a small fishing village, when the appearance of one local creature – one that’s massively larger than anything else – results in tragedy. Only two teenagers escape, and they find themselves involved with a group fighting against the colony’s theocratic government. It transpires the group – there’s only two of them left – were among the original colonists over a century ago and have survived so long due to a mysterious creature, which may or may not be intelligent. In the first book, the teenagers try to escape the priest, and his soldiers, who is chasing them because he believes they know something about the group… which, it seems they do, although they weren’t aware of it. They’re caught and spend time in prison. Several years later, they escape, meet up with the two members of the group, learn of the group’s history, and set off to meet the creature – in the hope it will also gift them (and a few other people) with immortality. The third book opens with a crash in a jungle, introduces a ship from Earth, and sets up the story for the next series, Betelgeuse. The art is not unlike that of Moebius, it’s certainly very clean, but the characters seem drawn with more detail – and it takes a few pages to get used to it. I actually thought it pretty good – slow to start, perhaps, but Léo has created an interesting world – and I plan to get both Betelgeuse and the third series, Antares.


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The books wot I read, part the second

I seem to be spending more time of late documenting the books I purchase rather than the books I actually read. And though I do – mostly – read more books each month than I purchase, and I often want to write about them… I don’t seem to be doing so as often as I once did. It’s also that time of year when I belatedly realise that my choice of reading material hasn’t prepared me at all well for awards season. While I’ve read over a dozen books published during 2013, less than half were genre novels. Admittedly, one was Ancillary Justice, the book everyone has been talking about (see here)… But I’ve also been reading fiction from the second decade of the twentieth-century right up to 2012 during the year. Plus a lot of research – on Mars for The Eye with Which The Universe Beholds Itself, and on the Mercury 13 for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And I really haven’t read as much 2013 short fiction as I promised myself I would do…

Anyway, not including the books I’ve read and reviewed for SF Mistressworks, and the books I intend to review for Daughters of Prometheus, here is the second lot of my most recentest reading…

killerintherainKiller in the Rain, Raymond Chandler (1964) A collection of previously-unpublished short stories, this made for a weird reading experience as Chandler adapted many of the stories for his novels. So the precursor to Philip Marlowe and his adventures appears several times – which means the stories sort of hover on the edge of familiarity, without actually being familiar. At least two stories contain elements of The Big Sleep, but are different enough to make you doubt your memory of that novel. Otherwise, this is solid Chandler fare – iconic, and perhaps a little too over-exposed to wear its seminal status all that well.

lanzaroteLanzarote, Michel Houellebecq (2000) This is more of a novella than a novel and is pretty much a distillation of what Houellebecq does. Bored bureaucrat goes on holiday to the titular island, reflects on the strange volcanic landscape while engaging in graphic and detailed sex with a pair of German tourists, while Houellebecq himself reflects on modern society. Some of the ideas in Lanzarote were clearly later expanded to become the novels Platform and The Possibility of an Island. Incidentally, I read Lanzarote on the train while travelling to the World Fantasy Con, and it probably isn’t the best sort of book to read while riding public transport…

sweetheartseasonThe Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996) This was the novel I immediately started after finishing Lanzarote, and it’s a much better rail-journey read. The title refers to an all-female baseball team formed during the late 1940s in order to promote a brand of cereal. The women all work at the mill where the cereal is made – it’s the only industry in the town – and the novel is about them, their lives, the history of the town, and the events leading up to the team’s single season, and its after-effects. Not, you would have thought,  my usual reading fare – but this is Karen Joy Fowler, a writer whose works I have long admired (since I started subscribing to Interzone back in the late 1980s, in fact). The Sweetheart Season is really funny, contains some lovely writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

hook2The Boosted Man, Tully Zetford (1974) The second in Zetford’s Hook quartet. This is pure 1970s sf hackery, and Zetford – a pen-name of Kenneth Bulmer – probably banged out all four books in a weekend. It shows. Once again, Hook is forced to land on a planet not his chosen destination. Everything initially looks grim and dirty and horrible, but then he realises the world is really a paradise. Everyone has wonderful jobs, wears the finest of clothing, eats the most delicious food, and has access to the best leisure facilities in the galaxy. Except, of course, they don’t. It’s all a mirage, induced somehow by a drug or some electronic thing – it wasn’t really clear. In reality, they’re no more than slaves, clad in rags, eating slops and being worked until they fall over and die. But HOOK SMASH. And dig those crazy eyebrows too, man. Two more books in this series and I can send them back to the charity shop. Not keepers.

stonemouthStonemouth, Iain Banks (2012) I’m going to miss a new Iain (M) Banks appearing every year, but at least he left a substantial body of work ripe for rereading behind him. And I really must reread the Culture novels. Perhaps that’d make a good reading project for a summer. Anyway, Stonemouth is Banks’s penultimate novel, and it’s very much in the same space as The Crow Road and The Steep Approach To Garbadale. The narrator, Stewart Gilmour, left the eponymous Scottish town under a cloud five years before, but now he’s back to attend the funeral of one of the town’s two gangland bosses. He’s met with grudging acceptance – no one is going to ignore the old man’s dying wish – but he is clearly not welcome and staying longer than necessary is out of the question. It’s a while before Banks reveals why Stewart was run out of town and, to be honest, I kept on expecting something a little more shocking to subsequently be revealed. But it never came. Instead, the story builds up to a shocking confrontation. Stonemouth is classic Banks – it’s all there: the voice, the wit, the place, the semi-adolescent manglings of philosophy… It doesn’t quite have the zap of earlier works, and in places it does feel like a book written by a man in his late fifties about a group of people in their twenties. But Stonemouth does possess buckets of charm, and that’s more than enough to carry the reader through to the – surprisingly – upbeat ending.

cptmarvelCaptain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Dextor Soy & Emma Rios (2012) I went off superhero graphic novels a few years ago, and I wouldn’t normally have bothered with this one – I mean, Captain Marvel? She’s hardly a frontline superhero (although, interestingly, Marvel was originally male but the mantle was passed onto a woman). But the story of In Pursuit of Flight features the Mercury 13, so naturally my curiosity was piqued… Carol Danvers, Ms Marvel but now using the name Captain Marvel, is left an old aeroplane by Helen Cobb, a pioneering woman pilot who inspired Danvers’ own flying career. While Helen Cobb’s career is clearly based on that of Jerrie Cobb, her character isn’t – she’s a tough-talking bar-owner in the flashback sequences. The plane is a North American T-6 and the plane in which Cobb allegedly broke a world altitude record. The real Cobb did indeed fly T-6s – she ferried them down to South America for Fleetway after the Peruvian air force had purchased them from the US – but she achieved her altitude record in an Aero Commander. Danvers decides to try and prove that Cobb’s record was possible, but loses control of the plane. As it descends in a spin, the plane travels through time and Danvers finds herself on a Pacific island during World War II, helping a group of crashed WASP pilots defeat a Japanese force which has Skrull technology. The WASP pilots turn out to be the Mercury 13. Unfortunately, In Pursuit of Flight is all a bit of a mess. DeConnick has played fast and loose with her inspirations, the time travel plot doesn’t quite add up, and the artwork is not very good. I also hate it when mini-series swap artists halfway through, as this one does. Annoyingly, I see the blurb for the sequel, Captain Marvel: Down, includes the line “what threat is lurking below the ocean’s surface?”. It’s almost as if DeConnick has read Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

strangersStrangers and Brothers, CP Snow (1940) This was the first book of the series written by Snow, and so the series is named for it – but the book is now better known by the alternative title of George Passant. And it is him the story is about. The narrator, Lewis Eliot, is one of a group of young adults in an unnamed East Midlands town during the late 1920s. The nearest city is Nottingham, but the town is certainly not Mansfield. Snow was from Leicester, so it’s more likely to be somewhere south of Nottingham – Loughborough, perhaps. Anyway, Passant is sort of a den mother to a group of twentysomethings. He works as an articled clerk at a local solicitors, but believes he should be made partner. When one of his friends, Jack, is let go by his employer, a printer, because the printer’s eighteen-year-old son has a crush on Jack, and the local technical college cancels Jack’s bursary, Passant argues that Jack should be allowed to complete his course. But Jack, it transpires, is a bit of a chancer, and when he persuades Passant to go into business with him… it all comes to a head a few years later when Passant, Jack and Olive are had up on charges of fraud, and Lewis is called back to town from his inn of court in London to defend them. Passant’s lifestyle – parties at a local farm, at which the men and women often partner off – is called into question. Though they win the case, Lewis doesn’t find out until afterwards that fraud had been committed – though, to be fair, the fraud of which they’re accused is no more than the typical sharp business practice you find happening now among fat cats and so-called captains of industry. Strangers and Brothers is a slow read, and while it paints an interesting picture of a past decade, it doesn’t appeal as much as Anthony Powell’s not-dissimilar A Dance to the Music of Time. But I think I shall continue to read them, anyway.


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Wool, Hugh Howey

wool-by-hugh-howeyWool, Hugh Howey
(2013, Century, £9.99, 576 pp)

In the world of twenty-first century publishing, the story of the book is often more interesting than the story in the book. And so it is with best-selling science fiction novel, Wool. Originally self-published as a novelette on Amazon’s Kindle, its popularity prompted Howey to write further stories in the same setting. These were then fixed up into a novel. Which promptly sold in huge numbers. Howey earned enough money to quit his job. Publishers came knocking at his door and he sold the film rights to Ridley Scott. Hugh Howey has become the latest poster boy for self-publishing success.

Given all this, it seems churlish to complain that Wool doesn’t deserve the praise lavished upon it. Its quality is immaterial; it is a success. That is the narrative of Wool.

The narrative in the book, however, is not so happy. There is an underground silo of 144 storeys in a world that is toxic and uninhabitable. The silo’s only contact with outside is via screens, the view on which degrades over time as dirt gathers on the external lenses. At intervals, people are sent outside as punishment–and the chief crime deserving this sentence appears to be… wanting to go outside. Clad in protective gear which gives these “cleaners” around half an hour of life, they leave the silo and clean the lenses. Then they walk off into the ruined city, but fall and die before leaving sight of the lenses. Why do they always clean the lenses? Why not simply walk off and see how far they get before their suit degrades? It is this first section which formed the original novella, and the puzzle at its heart makes no sense as motivation for cleaning the lenses. It also requires the “cleaners” to be wilfully stupid and ignore what they know…

The remainder of Wool’s 576 pages build on this opening section. Since the last “cleaner” was the sheriff, a new one is required. The deputy recommends Juliette, a mechanic from the lowest levels of the silo. The mayor seconds the choice. Bernard, the head of IT, disagrees, and also seems to think he actually runs the silo. Which, it transpires, he does. Nevertheless, Juliette is made sheriff, but her appointment has set the mayor at odds with IT and Bernard soon gets his way. Juliette is arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to “cleaning”. Her friends in Mechanical, however, secretly ensure she is a given a suit which will last more than thirty minutes. Juliette has also figured out the suit’s secret – this is the premise of the opening novella – and this allows her to find her way to… another silo.

The setting of Wool is science-fictional, the opening section is written in a science fiction mode; but once Juliette, who is not only a naturally-gifted mechanic and highly intelligent but also beautiful, is introduced, Wool turns into a small town soap opera. Unfortunately, this only emphasises the fact the novel’s setting does not stand up to scrutiny. The silo has a single metal spiral staircase to link its 144 levels, but such a design is impractical. The metal of the staircase would also collapse under its own weight. IT manages a server farm, but the servers do nothing. They don’t run the systems of the silo, because there are no such systems. The silos are sealed environments and possess hydroponic gardens, a mine and a well, but they could not be self-sufficient for the many generations the story implies. Wool also gives little indication of their size or population. They are deep – 144 levels must make the lowest level 450 to 500 metres below ground – but the area covered by each level is never mentioned.

Howey’s prose is readable, if very baggy, and his frequent flights of fancy fail more often than they succeed. His plotting, however, is driven by escalating jeopardy, but it is inconsistently applied, often implausible, and poorly paced. One character discovers something and is killed; another learns something different, and is arrested and sentenced to “cleaning”. Howey keeps his cast under constant pressure, and yet his writing is leisurely paced. His characterisation is typical of commercial fiction: Juliette is super-competent, and Bernard is a pantomime villain. He is, for example, the only fat person in the entire silo.

There’s an interesting story somewhere in Wool – now the first of a trilogy, to be followed next year by Shift, and then by Dust – but Howey’s writing is neither brisk, economic nor subtle enough to tell it, and his technique of applying constant jeopardy to his central cast annoys more often than it propels the reader forward.

Still, it is useless to complain. Wool is a self-publishing success story. The narrative of the book has already been written, and it says that Wool is good.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #246, May-June 2013.


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Ancillary Justice

Every couple of years, a science fiction novel appears which seems to generate a tremendous amount of positive buzz among my online genre friends and acquaintances. In 2011, it was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, the first of a trilogy, which went on to win the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award and appear on the short list for the Nebula Award. This year, it’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is also a debut novel and the first book in a trilogy. I’m also seeing a lot more word-of-mouth for Ancillary Justice than I remember seeing for God’s War, and I suspect it will do better in the various genre awards than Hurley’s debut.

ancillary

But then Ancillary Justice is located much closer to genre heartland than God’s War, and the interesting things it does – and it does a number of interesting things – are, I suspect, more generally acceptable than those in Hurley’s book. Both suffer structurally, but where God’s War had a choppy start, Ancillary Justice has a weak ending… and I have to wonder if that is felt to be a more forgivable sin. Having said that, Ancillary Justice is a richer brew in heartland sf terms than God’s War – richer, in fact, than a great many 2013 science fiction novels – but I don’t feel it fully explores everything it has to say. God’s War at least aggressively interrogated its tropes. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Ancillary Justice or feel it is a bad book. It is a very strong debut, and I have every intention of picking up the remaining two books in the trilogy when they are published.

First of all, let’s get the gender thing out of the way. Throughout Ancillary Justice, “she” is used as the default pronoun. This is allegedly because the narrator, Breq, comes from a culture which speaks an ungendered language. The problem here is that an ungendered language by definition possesses no gender, whereas “she” is very much a gendered term. The effect on the reader in English of using the word “she” as a default is not the effect it has on the characters within the story. Cause and effect are uncoupled. However, the effect on the reader does force a specific reading of the story. Leckie is making the reader interrogate their own perceptions of gender by using “she”, even if the argument for its use in the world of the story is weak. When Breq deals with speakers of other languages, ones that do use gendered pronouns, she frequently exhibits confusion over which pronoun to use. She uses visual clues to decide which is appropriate – there are, for instance, several references to clothing making this process difficult. But gender is not biological sex – and this is something that has been explored by science fiction over several decades. Numerous people have drawn comparisons between Ancillary Justice and Samuel R Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand which, I think, interrogates the concept of social gender more rigorously than Ancillary Justice. I like that Leckie has forced the reader to examine their own gender defaults, and I think that’s an interesting thing to do… but I’m not totally persuaded the world Leckie has created fully explores that aspect of the story.

Breq is the only surviving “ancillary” of an AI. Ancillaries are human bodies used as avatars – real-life “meat puppets”, if you will. As a result, AIs operate in effect as distributed intelligences. It’s a neat idea, but Leckie only skims the surface of it. Admittedly, for much of the book Breq is confined to a single body – once she was an avatar of the controlling AI of a warship, but now she is as effectively human as the person whose body she hijacked. Leckie plays the ancillaries as single intelligences with simply a much vaster range of sensory inputs. When Breq was One Esk, a troop of ancillaries on the troop carrier Justice of Toren, Leckie makes numerous references to the narrator’s ability to know what is happening in various different places, to call up information at will, and to monitor in great detail the human officers under whose command she serves. I’m not entirely convinced by Leckie’s presentation of an AI character, or its distributed nature – but then, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever found the presentation of AIs in science fiction especially convincing. Further, the plot of Ancillary Justice is actually hung from this incomplete version of a distributed intelligence – although how incomplete, or indeed different, is difficult to judge as unlike Breq we do not see that character from the inside.

While the gender thing and Breq’s once-distributed nature are the two most obviously arresting aspects of Ancillary Justice – and also appear to be the most remarked upon in reviews; as, er, I am doing in this review myself – there are a number of other elements to the story and world-building which I think are much more fascinating. I said earlier that Ancillary Justice was a rich brew, and it’s the combination of tropes Leckie has used, tropes which are not normally thrown together, or on which she has put a different and original spin, that I think make Ancillary Justice such an interesting sf novel.

Justice of Toren, the ship Breq-as-AI originally controlled, was operated by the Radch, a human civilisation led by Anaander Mianaai. Like the AIs, Mianaai has many bodies, thousands of them, and so rules the Radchaai by effectively being ubiquitous. The Radch is fervently imperialist, and has been operating a campaign of “annexation” on other human-populated worlds for over a thousand years. The Radchaai economy demands this – the Radch seem themselves as “civilised” and superior to all others (especially non-humans), and obviously they cannot maintain a society based on such a view without an ever-expanding underclass. There are many ways of reading the politics embedded in Ancillary Justice – an attack on neoliberalism, on neocons, on contemporary US politics… They all work. Nor do they overwhelm the story.

Which, such as it is, is presented in a format which hides its simplicity. Justice of Toren becomes inadvertently embroiled in an internal Radchaai struggle, kicked off by a pair of historical incidents involving alien races, most especially the Presger who are more powerful than the Radch. Ancillary Justice tells its story in two narratives strands. One is set in the present. Justice of Toren now survives only as Breq, a single ancillary survivor from thousands that had been used, or held in storage, on the ship. A second narrative takes place years earlier, when Breq was One Esk and is policing a city on a world that has been annexed. A Radchaai conspiracy intrudes, and One Esk and her officer, Lieutenant Awn, are caught up in it. Breq is the sole survivor of the fall-out from that incident and vows revenge on Mianaai. to that end, she travels to the world of Nilt to find a special undetectable gun which renders Radchaai armour useless. On Nilt, she stumbles across Seivarden, a Radchaai lieutenant recently revived after a thousand years frozen following the loss of her ship in battle. Seivarden is also now a drug addict. Breq remembers Seivarden, and decides to help her return to Radchaai space, although Seivarden is initially reluctant and ungrateful.

The two narratives build one upon the other, the historical one revealing the motivation for the present-day one, and the present-day one in turn making clear the actual events in the past. While it makes for a slow start, the structure actually allows Leckie to dole out exposition without interrupting the flow of the story. As the novel progresses, so its pace increases until the point where the two narratives meet – or rather, one is folded into the other – at the climax. Leckie’s world-building throughout Ancillary Justice is superb, and she manages to evoke multiple distinct cultures in detail. Perhaps at times the novel feels a bit like a Le Guin story crashing into a Susan R Matthews one, but that’s no bad thing – both are authors whose works I like and admire. Some have also remarked on an element of Iain M Banks to Ancillary Justice‘s world-building, though that may have been prompted by the presence of the AIs (ie, Minds) and the names of the characters. I don’t see a Banksian sensibility at work in Ancillary Justice, even though Ancillary Justice and Banks’s Culture novels are, beneath their space opera patina, both political sf.

Ancillary Justice is novel whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And yet some of its parts still manage that intellectual punch to the head – a “wonderpunch”, if you will – you expect in the best science fiction. There is a point in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977) where the main characters travel out to the Oort Cloud and discover why aliens have been transmitting the eponymous beam of free information at the Solar System. In a meeting with these “Traders”, Varley throws away entire science fiction novels in a handful of lines -

“A few thousand. To get a representative sample. After that, we can learn humanity from each other.” He paused. “We know this is a strange request. The fact is, it is the only thing your race has to offer us. It is the only reason we have bothered to send you the things we have discovered and collected over seven million years.” (p 222)

Such a massive change in scale, delivered offhand in a few lines of dialogue, can’t help but provoke sense of wonder. Leckie does something very similar in Ancillary Justice, and it is the implications of this which I think proves one of the novel’s more fascinating elements:

When most people spoke of Radch, they meant all of Radchaai territory, but in truth the Radch was a single location, a Dyson sphere, enclosed, self-contained. Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilized or nonhuman could enter its confines. Very, very few of Mianaai’s clients had ever set foot there, and only a few houses existed who even had ancestors who had once lived there. (p 235)

Bear in mind that a Dyson sphere with a radius equal to the Earth’s distance from the Sun would have a habitable inner surface equivalent to 550 million Earths. Imagine the size of a civilisation which filled that and still needed to expand in order to fuel its economy. I would also guess the Dyson sphere is an artefact colonised by the Radch, since nothing in Ancillary Justice suggests they are capable of building it.

Not everyone has reacted positively to Ancillary Justice, although it’s hard to see how in comparison to other science fiction novels published this year it can’t fail to stand out. If I was afraid that the success of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes meant that space opera was regressing, then I’m glad to say that Ancillary Justice shows that progress is still possible and desirable. Leckie’s novel gives me hope that science fiction is a genre it is still worth reading. Recommended.


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The Last Man Standing, Davide Longo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Recentest readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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