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2014 reading diary, #6

Despite the number of books I read, I don’t think I’m putting much of a dent in the TBR. I must stop buying books for a month or two. Of course, that means publishers must instantly stop publishing books I want, and booksellers must remove all the books I might desire from their shelves… Then I should be able to do it.

ride-with-the-devilRide with the Devil, Daniel Woodrell (1987) Originally published as Woe to Live on but retitled when a film adaptation was made, this is Woodrell doing McCarthy. The narrator is a German immigrant (referred to, of course, as ‘Dutch’ or ‘Dutchy’) and a member of Confederate band of irregulars. They’re bandits in all but name, displaying little or no military discipline, wearing patchwork uniforms (and often masquerading as Union soldiers in stolen uniforms). They are brutal, not particularly smart, callous, and appear to be motivated chiefly by revenge against the depredations of the Jayhawkers. One of their number is black, but he’s not a slave – he and the narrator, Roeder, become good friends, in fact – which does sort of confuse the whole issue of the war. After an attack by Union cavalry, the troop scatter and Roeder, the black guy, and two others hide out on the land of a sympathetic Southern gentleman landowner. One of the other two, Roeder’s best friend, enters into a relationship with the landowner’s widowed daughter-in-law. Soon after, the troop reconvenes and stages a raid on the home town of the Jayhawkers. By this point, Roeder has lost his taste for violence, and has belatedly recognised that his fellows are far from noble freedom fighters but violent psychopaths. I really liked Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, but this felt too much like McCarthy-lite. I’ll keep an eye open for more books by Woodrell, but if I’d read this one first I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

diverDiver, Tony Groom (2007) I think I was a little hungover – or rather, I was feeling insufficiently motivated to do much of anything – when I picked this book off the shelf for a bit of light reading. It proved a good choice, at least initially. The first few chapters, describing Groom’s training and early years with the Royal Navy, are very funny. He signed up determined to become a diver, made it through all the courses, got into a bit of trouble on his first posting to a minesweeper, was then sent to Tuvalu to help clear WWII mines from the waters around the atoll… before flying out to the Falklands as part of the UK task-force. The chapters on the Falklands War are quite harrowing. The Fleet Clearance Diving Team was in the thick of it, defusing bombs that had fallen on British ships but not exploded (pretty much all of the bombs were British-made, incidentally). After leaving the Royal Navy, Groom became a commercial diver in the oil industry, saturation diving in the North Sea. He makes it clear quite how dangerous an occupation it is – not just because of explosive decompression, but also because the divers are dependent on so many other people. They’re trapped inside their decompression chambers, and should the ship or barge suffer some sort of calamity there’s no escape for them. And on the sea floor, they’re totally dependent on their umbilical – though they carry ten minutes of emergency “bail-out” heliox, the umbilical also pumps hot water into their suit and should that fail they’d soon develop hypothermia. Groom has a readable chatty style, and cheerfully admits at times he may have got some of the details wrong – especially when discussing the Falklands War, as he bases his narrative on his diaries. Interesting stuff.

godstalkerGod Stalk, PC Hodgell (1982) I picked up a copy of the Baen reprint omnibus edition, The God Stalker Chronicles, containing both God Stalk and its sequel Dark of the Moon, at the World Fantasy Con last October. I’d sooner have bought them as individual paperbacks, rather than one humungous hardback, but it was all I could find. God Stalk is in almost all respects an ordinary epic fantasy, set in an epic fantasy world with a complex history and pantheon, and featuring a special snowflake protagonist. It’s a very likeable book, as indeed are a number of books of this type; and there are some nice touches in Hodgell’s world-building. I’d been expecting it to be a tad literary, but it’s not – it’s written in precisely the sort of prose common among books of its ilk, although it is somewhat smoother to read than most. However, where I think it fails – and this may account for its apparent obscurity – is that the learning-curve is among the steepest I’ve come across in fantasy. It doesn’t help that protagonist Jame is apparently unaware of her own history – it’s never stated that she’s amnesiac, but she was banished from her home keep by her family, spent several decades wandering, and has no memory of that time. There’s an extensive back-story to God Stalk, but Hodgell is parsimonious with the details – until they’re needed… which often results in a wodge of exposition thick with the names of gods and lords and races. The plot takes a good third of the book to get going, so it’s a bit of a slog for the first few chapters. Eventually, things start to come together – some of the foreshadowing is a little too obvious, however – and you need to refer less and less to the dramatis personae at the front of the novel. I’ve still got the second half of this omnibus to read, and I’ll decide after that whether I can be bothered to continue with the series (the seventh book is published next month). Incidentally, Jame is mistaken for a boy on several occasions – with that cleavage she has on the cover? Baen. Sigh.

high-oppHigh-Opp, Frank Herbert (2012) Despite his success with The Dragon in the Sea, Frank Herbert had trouble selling another novel, and it wasn’t until Dune, published by Chilton, a publisher best-known for car repair manuals, that he had another book in print. During that period, he wrote a number of novels, all of which were eventually trunked. High-Opp is one of them. And, to be honest, it’s easy to see why no publisher back then would go for it. It’s also the book which contains the “fap gun” – Herbert should probably have considering renaming his future firearm. The world of High-Opp is run by opinion polls, although they’re presented pretty much as global referendums. Of course, the entire system is fixed, with a political class (all related to each other) holding all the top spots. A fast-rising star is brought low as part of a plot to overthrow those in charge, since he’s been identified as an ideal candidate to lead a rebellion by the head of BuPsych, who wants to effect a change of leadership. But he’s no tool to be used, and decides to actually smash the system. He wins the day and they make him emperor. This book is a curiosity and little more. I’m not surprised it’s taken more than half a century to see print.

persepolisPersepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003) This was made into an animated film in 2007, which I’ve not seen. That must be an odd experience, pretty much as if the graphic novel itself had suddenly come to life. Satrapi was royalty, her great-great-grandfather was the shah of Iran overthrown by Reza Pahlavi in 1921, but she grew up during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and its her childhood during those turbulent years, and her family’s coming to terms with the new regime, which forms the first third of Persepolis. The Satrapis were Westernised, secular, well-off and political – and lost a lot of friends and relatives, first to Pahlavi’s secret police, then to the Ayatollah’s regime, and to the war with Iraq. Marjane Satrapi rebels, which puts her at risk from the authorities, so her parents send her to a French-speaking school in Vienna. There she experiences both friendship and racism, and at one point ends up living on the streets. She returns to Iran several years later, and once again has to learn to live in a fundamentalist Islamic state. There’s a telling scene when her friends ask her if she ever had sex while in Vienna, of course she replies, after all she’s nineteen and it’s not unusual in the West… but her friends, for all their secular views, are horrified. Persepolis is, of course, autobiographical, and while the art may be deceptively simple the story is not. Recommended.


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Another month, another book haul

… Although I think it’s been longer than a month since my last book haul post. Which may explain why so many books appear in this one. Except my book haul posts always seem to feature a large number of books… I really must cut back on the number I buy. I managed to read nine books in one weekend during February, which took less of a chunk out of the TBR than I’d have liked since I’d bought so many damn books that month. Ah well. The following are the usual mix of subjects and genres and stuff.

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My Hugo reading – a bunch of 2013 titles I bought to round out my ballot for best novel. I’ve already read Life After Life, The Machine, The Shining Girls and Red Doc> (see here). Only What Lot’s Wife Saw to go (and also Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman, which I bought last year when it was published).

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Some books for SF Mistressworks. Cassandra Rising is a SFBC women-only sf anthology, and the only copy of it I could find happens to be signed by half the contributors. Oh well. Jane Saint and the Backlash is the sequel collection to Saxton’s The Travails of Jane Saint, which was also published by The Women’s Press. On Strike Against God isn’t, as far as I’m aware, genre, but I’ll decide whether it’s suitable for SF Mistressworks once I’ve read it. All three books were bought on eBay.

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An assortment of paperback fiction. I want to read more Lem, hence Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Which reminds me, I must get a copy of the film adaptation – I found a website the other day that sells Russian DVDs (many of which have English subtitles). The Trench is the sequel to Cities of Salt, a novelisation of the US exploitation of the Saudi oil reserves, which I enjoyed (see here). The Sense of an Ending was a charity shop find; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Wizards and the Warriors is the first book of the Chronicles of the Age of Darkness, which I’ve heard isn’t too bad – now I have the first three books I’ll see what they’re like.

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An assortment of hardback fiction. And a graphic novel. The stories of Captain Marvel 1: In Pursuit of Flight (see here) and this second volume, Captain Marvel 2: Down, have pretty much the same inspirations as Apollo Quartet 3, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. It’s as if Kelly Sue DeConnick took the two narratives of my novella and wrote her own versions of them – except, of course, the timing makes that impossible. Both feature a character called Helen Cobb, clearly based on Jerrie Cobb. The first Captain Marvel graphic novel is about the Mercury 13, and the second partly takes place at the bottom of the sea in a ship and plane graveyard. A very weird coincidence. Sadly, the story is mostly typical superhero fisticuffs, and the art is pretty poor. Cixin Liu’s fiction has been recommended to me many times, so I decided to pick up a copy of The Wandering Earth, a collection of his novellas translated into English for the first time. Browsing on eBay one day, I discovered that Macmillan had published a series of Soviet sf books back in the 1970s. New Soviet Science Fiction is an anthology, but the series also featured several novels. I smell a collection coming on. Finally, Descent is Ken MacLeod’s latest novel.

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Some collectibles. Mozart & the Wolf Gang is a signed first edition. The other two books are among the most expensive I’ve ever bought – I won’t say how much each cost, it’s a little embarrassing. Panic Spring is Lawrence Durrell’s second novel, which was published under the name Charles Norden as his first did so badly. This is the US first edition, sadly, not the UK. Eye is a collection by Frank Herbert and copiously illustrated by Jim Burns. There were 175 slipcased, signed and numbered editions published, and now I have one of them.

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Research material for Apollo Quartet 4, All That Outer Space Allows. The final novella of the quartet will be about Apollo astronauts, of course it will… sort of. But it’ll chiefly be about an astronaut’s wife, and women science fiction writers – hence a pair of biographies of the latter: Judith Merril’s, Better to Have Loved; and James Tiptree Jr’s, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Partners in Wonder is about early women sf writers – I might write about it for SF Mistressworks after I’ve read it…

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Some reference books, genre and otherwise. The Issue at Hand, More Issues at Hand and Anatomy of Wonder were all bargain purchases from Cold Tonnage. Uranian Worlds I decided to buy when I was trying to look something up online with very little success. I bought it from an Amazon marketplace seller; the book proved to be an ex-library copy, but the seller cheerfully refunded me half the selling-price. Paul Scott: A Life is a biography of, er, Paul Scott.


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The first haul of the year

… Although, strictly speaking, this isn’t the first book haul of the year as it includes a few books I received for Christmas. But it’s certainly the first book haul post of 2014. I also seem to have gone a little mad in the past three weeks, and bought more books than usual – and some of which, I must admit, I’ve no idea why I purchased… Still, so it goes.

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Some graphic novels to start: I liked Léo’s Aldebaran series so much (see here), I bought the follow on series, Betelgeuse: The Survivors, The Caves and The Other (and I’ve already written about them here).  I’ll be picking up the next series, Antares, soon, although it’s not yet complete in the original French. Apparently, the English versions have also been censored, with underwear added onto nude characters. Orbital: Justice is the fifth in the space opera bande dessinée series, and while it looks great and has an impressively twisty plot, it does owe a little too much to big media sf.

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Imaginary Magnitude, Fenrir and High-Opp were all Christmas presents. I’ve already read Fenrir – while I really liked Wolfsangel, I found this one a little too long for its story, and it didn’t really pick up until two-thirds of the way through. High-Opp is a previously-unpublished Frank Herbert novel; should be interesting. Europe in Autumn I have to review for Vector; and New Adventures in Sci-Fi is an early collection by one of my favourite sf writers, Sean Williams (it was also incredibly hard to find a copy).

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These are the “wtf was I thinking?” books. Mostly. The Rose of Sarifal is a Forgotten Realms novel, which I normally wouldn’t touch with a bargepole a good kilometre or so in length, but Paulina Claiborne is, I am reliably informed, a pseudonym of Paul Park. Chauvinisto I spotted on eBay and it sounded so awful I couldn’t resist it. I’ve been picking up the Hugh Cook fantasies when I see them, as I’ve heard they’re quite interesting. The Wordsmiths and the Warguild is the third in the ten-book series, and also the third book I now own. The Red Tape War is definitely a wtf purchase; it was very cheap. The two Ted Mark novels, The Man from Charisma and Rip It Off, Relevant!, are 1960s 007 pastiches with added rumpy-pumpy. Or so I believe. Goodbye Charlie is the novelisation of a quite silly film from 1964 starring Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis.

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Four hardbacks for the collection. I already have a first edition of Monsieur of course, but this one is signed. The first edition of The Jewel In The Crown was a bargain (first editions are normally not cheap at ll), as was the first edition of The Clockwork Testament, the third of Burgess’s Enderby novels. (I suspect the first, Inside Mr Enderby, will continue to elude me as it was originally published under the name Joseph Kell and first editions are hugely expensive.) Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance is a new novella in signed limited hardback by one of my favourite genre authors and published by PS Publishing.

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I had a Women’s Press SF copy of Native Tongue but it was really tatty, so I gave it to a charity shop. But now I have a copy in really good condition. Zoline’s collection, Busy About the Tree of Life, I will be reviewing for SF Mistressworks (that has to be one of the worst Women’s Press covers, though). Having heard so much about Joyce Carol Oates, I decided to give something by her a go, and Man Crazy was the first book by her I stumbled across. I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s fiction for many, many years – Breakdown is not her latest, there was one published last year, but it is the one before that. I’ve also been reading Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series for a long time. I’m up to V is for Vengeance, but W is for Wasted was published last year. Only three more letters to go. What will Grafton do after that?

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Three things that interest me: Brutalist architecture, and there’s lots of lovely photos of it in Concrete (I actually bought a copy for my brother-in-law for his birthday, and over Christmas I had a look in the book and liked it so much… I bought myself one); the Cold War, and Fear and Fashion in the Cold War, covers, er, fashion inspired by the promises of bases on the Moon and the threat of nuclear armageddon (see my The future we used to have posts for more); and finally, the works of Paul Scott, in this case his most famous work, the Raj Quartet, as the title Paul Scott’s Raj, er, indicates.

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Lumières I bought on eBay for not very much because its introduction was written by Lawrence Durrell. The art in it is also very good. Lenae Day I stumbled across while researching Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. She restages photographs from 1960s magazines with herself as the model, and accompanies them with autobiographical text. One of her shows was ‘Space Cadette’ and in it she restaged a photograph from Time Magazine of Mercury 13 candidate Rhea Hurrle preparing to enter an isolation tank (Day’s version here). So far, Day’s work has only been published as Day Magazine and Modern Candor, but she recently ran a kickstarter for her next project, based on invented 1930s movie studio Prescott Pictures – see here.

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Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft I bought specifically for research for my Gagarin on Mars story, but it’ll also go in the Space Books collection. N.F.Fedorov is research for a novel I’m working on, but it’s not going to be about what you think it might be about. Or something.


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10 books that stayed with me

Whenever a book-related meme pops up, I love to jump on board. And apparently there’s one currently doing the rounds: “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ works, just ones that have touched you”. I saw this on Liz Bourke’s blog here, and decided to have a go.

I’ve done something similar before, I think, but not for quite so many titles… Which made this one a bit harder than expected. But here they are, in the order in which the books occurred to me:

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007), a novel I hugely admire and which has inspired me in my own writing.
2 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957 – 1960), because on reading it I fell in love with Durrell’s prose and began collecting everything he had ever written.
3 The Undercover Aliens (AKA The House That Stood Still), AE van Vogt (1950), bonkers California noir meets pulp sf, and the only van Vogt novel I’d ever recommend to anyone.
4 Dune, Frank Herbert (1965), still the premier example of world-building in science fiction.
5 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1974), the sf novel I’ve probably reread more times than any other.
6 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), one of my top five favourite novels of all time.
7 Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951 – 1952), the scene where Hank and Pierre first see through the clouds hiding the surface of the Red Moon haunted me for years as a kid.
8 Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953), the first of hers I read, and her novels are still my chief comfort reading.
9 The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980), I fell in love with Varley’s Eight Worlds, and the title novelette still remains a favourite.
10 Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992), I’ve always preferred crime fiction written by women, and Paretsky is why – this was the first of hers I ever read.

Not such a great showing gender-wise – only two women out of ten. While there are certainly a great number of women writers I admire and whose novels and short stories I love, I spent my formative years reading mostly science fiction, and sadly it was chiefly science fiction by male writers. There were exceptions – in amongst all those books by Heinlein, van Vogt, Simak, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Harrison, Herbert, Tubb, Vance, etc, I read and became a fan of Cherryh, Le Guin, Van Scyoc, Julian May… Later, I discovered Gwyneth Jones, Mary Gentle, Joanna Russ, Leigh Brackett… and now, of course, I think most of the twentieth-century science fiction I read is by women writers.


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Aiming Deep

I don’t normally write about television series here – in fact, I think I’ve only done so less than half a dozen times in the past. And usually then it’s about programmes I really like and think are very good – which would be, in no particular order, Battlestar Galactica, Waking the Dead, Scott & Bailey, In Plain Sight, Fringe, Twin Peaks, The X Files, Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes, and Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. (I make no apology for the last of those.) However, on this occasion, I’m going to write about something I didn’t think was very good at all.

Last weekend, I watched all five episodes of The Deep, a Tiger Aspect Productions serial originally broadcast on BBC 1 during summer 2010. Much like the movie Sphere – with which it shares some similarities – there are some neat ideas in The Deep, and a setting that could be really cool…

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The neat ideas first: 1) exploring vent-fields beneath the Arctic icecap, and finding a thermophilic biodigester which produces biogas with unprecedented metabolic efficiency; and 2) discovering that the Russians have been secretly drilling for oil under the seabed in a UN Exclusion Zone beneath the icecap (shades of Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea?). Idea 1 provides the motive for the expedition to visit the vent-field on the Lomonosov Ridge and a satisfyingly earth-changing end-game. Idea 2 gives us the villains and the obstacles they present which the protagonists must overcome in order to win through to the end.

The setting is 2,000 feet deep in the Arctic Ocean. So the cast are confined to the interior of submersibles and/or submarines. At that depth, the pressure is around 70 atmospheres. Submarines make for really dramatic environments – they’re claustrophobic and subject to unforeseeable external hazards; and in this case, they’re high-tech too. The Deep features three such vessels: Hermes, a research submersible, which disappears with all hands at the start; Orpheus, a second research submersible which is sent six months later to continue Hermes’ research and also discover her fate; and Volos, the giant submarine the Russians are using as a base of operations for their illegal drilling. Each vessel also carries a mini-submersible, single-person but they can carry two at a squeeze.

So far so good. Orpehus arrives at the Lomonosov Ridge, discovers the wreck of Hermes, but is then disabled – and one of the crew killed – by… something. They are captured by Volos, but the Russian submarine remains silent. Aboard Volos, the Orpheus crew discovers all but two of its crew dead, cause unknown. The two survivors try to commandeer Orpheus, but she’s going nowhere because her systems are down. These are fixed by salvaging “the motherboard” from Hermes. But, oh no, the nuclear reactor aboard Volos is over-heating and will soon explode. Except there are other survivors aboard Volos, including a member of Hermes’ crew. It’s a race against time to rescue them before the Russian sub blows up.

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Which happily it doesn’t, as one of the crew does a Spock and saves the day (at the cost of his own life). Oh, and the thing that killed the Volos’ crew and disabled both Hermes and Orpheus proves to be… a giant underwater radar. Which the Russians were using to probe beneath the seabed and find oil deposits.

Only now there’s another problem. That thermophilic biodigester is really important, but all the samples aboard Volos are dead. Fresh ones are required… from the oil well at the bottom of the nearby Laurentian Abyss. Well, they call it the Laurentian Abyss, and claim it’s 8,500 feet deep; but the real Laurentian Abyss is closer to 20,000 feet deep. So they have to go and get another sample. But the captain of the Volos won’t let them go, and in fact plans to use the giant underwater radar to destroy Orpheus. But they defeat him. And go and fetch another sample of the thermophilic biodigester by lowering a one-person sub into the well itself. And then the Volos blows up. And the good guys – well, the ones that are left – escape.

There you have it: five sixty-minute episodes of nail-biting underwater drama… Except. There’s just so much that is plain wrong in those five hours that the entire serial can’t help but sink into the abyss…

Those mini-submersibles I mentioned… They’re carried inside each of the vessels, and leave it via a moon pool. At a depth of 2000 feet, at a pressure of 70 atmospheres. So the interior of Hermes, Orpheus and Volos would also have to be pressurised to 70 atm… or be instantly flooded. We’re informed the crew are breathing “neonox”, a neon-oxygen mix, at high pressure, so, you know, it’s a little bit plausible. The current depth record is held by Theo Mavrostomos who, as part of Comex’s HYDRA 10 experiment in 1992, spent 3 hours at 2,300 feet (71 atmospheres) in a hyperbaric chamber on land. But the entire experiment took 43 days: 15 days compression, 3 days at 68 atmospheres, and 24 days decompression. There are no two weeks of compression in The Deep.

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It’s borderline plausible – one man has spent 3 hours at 71 atm and survived, but that was 20 years ago. However… there’s no reason why any of the subs should have a moon pool. The mini-submersibles could just dock to a hatch. So then the interior could be pressurised to 1 atm. Just like real-life submersibles. In Sphere, the film adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel, the underwater habitat is 1,000 feet beneath the surface, but it has a moon pool. However, it’s needed because the cast go saturation diving. They go out into the water. No one does in The Deep.

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And, of course, nuclear reactors don’t explode when they overheat. Nor do they require the control rods to be inserted by hand – as they must be aboard Volos (hence, the Spock scene). The US Navy has been operating nuclear-powered submarines since 1954, and the Russians since 1959. Several have been lost with all hands. None have exploded. (Incidentally, it’s never mentioned what powers Orpheus. Really really powerful and long-lasting and giant and heavy batteries, I imagine.)

Then there’s that giant underwater radar. And numerous mentions to “calling on all frequencies” by various members of the subs’ crews. Radar doesn’t work underwater. That’s why they use sonar. And radio doesn’t work very well below the surface either. Various navies have used extremely low frequency radio for communication with submarines (ie, with wavelengths of several thousand kilometres), but it’s expensive and technically difficult. Which is why acoustic transmission is the most common form of communication with vessels underwater.

And when the high-powered radar waves hit the Orpheus and shorted out its systems? That’s because it “reversed the polarity” on the motherboard. That’s what one of the characters actually says. And it seems Orpheus has one motherboard through which everything must be routed – not just for its failure to totally disable the sub, but also to allow it to be fixed in one fell swoop later. Never mind building in redundancy…

But, you cry, these are piffling! What do I care about HYDRA 10 or nuclear reactors going boom? The Deep was jolly exciting drama and those are mere trivial details. After all, the moon pool looked pretty neat, so what does it matter if no real submersible could descend to 2,000 feet with one? Or even to 8,500 feet.

As for the other niggles, they’re even more trivial. So what if one of the Russians lights up a cigarette at 70 atms pressure? So what if another character declares Volos, at 300 metres long, larger than any surface vessel – when both supertankers and US Navy aircraft carriers are all over 300 metres in length (and the largest supertanker ever built, Seawise Giant, was 458 metres long)? So what if a marine biologist is asked to do an autopsy and seems to know what he is doing, despite saying he’s only ever dissected a rabbit for his Biology GCSE? So what if the thermophilic biodigester produces nitric acid as a byproduct of its metabolic process, and the acid has been corroding all the subs’ hulls  – but the concentration would be so weak in, like, the Arctic Ocean that it couldn’t even corrode tissue paper? So what if the underwater well, from where they fetch the fresh sample, is a hole several metres in diameters and when have you ever seen an oil well that large or even a drill bit? That’s less than trivial! It is meaningless.

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There were problems with the story itself, true; and with the script. Characters telling each other stuff they should already know – “We’re breathing Neonox, a mixture of neon and oxygen”, “That’s a vent-field”, etc. Not to mention a dramatic scene resulting wholly from the fact two switches had been swapped over but their labels had not been changed.

My point is that the details I’ve mentioned above could all be easily checked. And putting them right would not have affected the story (although a hatch doesn’t look as cool as a moon pool, I’ll grant). But when you leave stuff like that in, it will annoy some people and you will lose them. Why not get it right and keep them? No one’s saying it should be, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s nearly as long as a supertanker or a US Navy aircraft carrier, but not as long as Seawise Giant, which was 458 metres long.” Because that would be silly. Instead of, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s longer than anything you’ll see on the surface,” why not, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s really big for a submarine”?

The giant underwater radar is more problematical as it’s a plot device. Something has to generate the EMP which leaves Orpheus dead in the water, something has to kill the crew of Volos. There’s a lovely line in the Wikipedia article on offshore geotechnical engineering, which goes, “For the sub-bottom stratigraphy, the tools used include boomers, sparkers, pingers and chirp.” The article explains that geophysical surveys make use of a combination of sonar and seismic refraction, so perhaps one or more of those might have been used instead of the implausible giant underwater radar.

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When I started this post a few days ago, it was with the intention of just pointing out some of the howlers in The Deep. But yesterday’s discussion on Twitter suggested to me there’s a wider point to make. When you’re writing, there’s stuff you make up and stuff you look up. And if you don’t know which is which, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Never assume your readers won’t spot it when you’ve got details wrong. It’s perhaps forgiveable when the knowledge required is arcane or difficult to find. But the simple stuff? Characters using the Jubilee Line on the London Underground in 1940, 37 years before it was built? Characters referring to the Paras as “redcaps”, when that’s the nickname of the Royal Military Police? Why would a writer not bother to look these things up? If they’re that lazy with the details, what does that say about the story, or the novel, as a whole?

You can’t, as they say, please all of the people all of the time – but you can at least make an effort to please as many as you possibly can. If I’m writing and I want something to happen in my story but I’m not clear on the details, then I look them up. I don’t just wing it and hope no one notices. This does not mean every story needs to be fact-checked. It’s not always necessary. I wrote a story about an ATA pilot who flew Spitfires, so I researched both. I wrote another story set in an unnamed town during an unnamed decade (which sort of resembles the 1940s) – no research was necessary. If a story is set on an invented world in an invented galactic empire, then there’s not much you can look up anyway. But if it’s set in London, or Belfast, or beneath the Arctic icecap – then it’s time to get googling.

The internet is an amazing tool, so why not make use of it? Pretty much all of the information mentioned in this article, I found online. And if I could find it, so could anyone…


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On genres, modes, distances and invention

I won’t say where, or on what, I was at the time but this weekend I was thinking about definitions of hard science fiction for a podcast, and my thoughts spiralled out from there to definitions of science fiction itself. And it occurred to me that sf narratives break down into three rough forms: encountering the Other, embracing the Other and rejecting the Other. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to hold true. Think of a random sf novel, like… Dune. That’s embracing the Other – both Paul Atreides becoming a Fremen and learning to  use his new-found powers.

Since its earliest days, science fiction stories have been characterised by distance just as much as they’ve been characterised by science and/or technology. Alongside the Gernsbackian tales of new inventions which would improve the lives of all were stories of alien places and the strange peoples found there. Distance is a signifier for the “exotic” (in both meanings of the word). Before science fiction, they told tales of the South Seas.

The further away a place is, the more Other it is – it’s a simplistic formula, but this is pulp fiction, after all. The difficulty of the journey is less important than the distance travelled. There are very few Shangri-Las hidden in inaccessible mountain valleys, or their galactic equivalents, but lots of worlds on the rim of the empire or the edges of the galaxy. Travel itself is not uncomfortable, but does take time. Real spacecraft are small and cramped, with no amenities. Sf’s starships are interstellar ocean liners with cabins and restaurants and promenades. This is because the journey does not matter, it is only a metaphor. If there are hardships, they are associated with either finding the destination, or at the destination itself. Off the top of my head, the only sf story I can think of in which the journey itself is an obstacle is Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘The Shobies’ Story’ (in Gwyneth Jones’ Buonarotti stories, and her novel Spirit, there’s a similar effect with interstellar travel, but it does not make the journey an obstacle). No doubt there are other stories, though I maintain such stories are rare within the genre.

But then, there’s not much that’s Other about the act of travelling from A to B. Even in the Le Guin story mentioned above, the means of making the journey affects the travellers’ perceptions of their destination, making the act of encountering, or even embracing, the Other so much harder and more prone to misunderstanding.

Space opera, of course, is traditionally predicated on rejecting the Other, as is military sf. The drama in both subgenres typically derives from conflict, either from within the world or from without. And the further the enemy is from known space, the more Other they generally are. Even when they’re humans, they’re typically barbarians from the edge of the empire – though that may simply be science fiction ripping off the history of the Roman empire… which it has done far too many times.

The same argument might well apply to fantasy, even though it is a different genre. I suspect there are more narratives of rejecting the Other in epic commercial fantasy than of the other two forms. Given its generally consolatory nature, this is no surprise. Other modes of fantasy may well be more evenly distributed – I’m not as well read in fantasy as I am science fiction. It might well be that the same argument does not apply to fantasy, given that it is an entirely different genre to sf.

Science fiction is not, and has never been, a branch of the fantastic. You can’t categorise fiction by the degrees of invention it exhibits. All fiction by definition contains invention, whether it’s literary fiction with made-up characters , fantasy with made-up worlds, or science fiction with made-up science and/or technology. Nor can you categorise by trope… because first you would have to define each and every trope. And lay out the conditions under which each trope is fantasy and not science fiction, or vice versa. If a fantasy novel has a dragon in it, then it does not follow that all novels containing dragons are fantasy. And so on. Science fiction is a fundamentally different genre to fantasy, and it’s an historical accident that the two are typically marketed alongside each other.

 


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Groupthink at SF Signal

Yesterday, SF signal posted one of its regular Mind Melds – see here – this time on the subject of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, totalitarianism and total war. And I contributed to it. I sort of riffed about dystopias, which wasn’t entirely on topic but never mind.

I mentioned several relevant sf novels, including Anthony Burgess’s 1985, Alastair Reynolds’s The Prefect, Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But I wish I’d remember to mention Adam Roberts’ multi-award-winning Jack Glass, which pretty much demonstrates one of the points I was trying to make. The second and third parts of the novel feature the daughters of one of the super-rich families which effectively run the Solar System, a situation not that far removed from our current situation. Everyone else, of course, gets to live in abject misery and poverty in order to fund the super-rich’s lifestyles. I’ve said before that our current lords and masters appear to be taking Dickens as a model rather than Orwell, and Jack Glass is a good illustration of that.

And in the comments to the Mind Meld, I also sort of got accused of being a Nazi. Apparently pointing out that Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t really map onto the current political climate is a form of Godwinism. Er, no. It’s not a way to stifle argument, it’s simply pointing that if you believe Orwell’s book is relevant to the twenty-first century then your argument is wrong. Which, of course, has nothing to do with Nazis.


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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The shelf that groaned

It’s been over a month since my last book haul post, but if I leave it any longer, it’ll take me an entire weekend to photograph my purchases. So herewith approximately five to six weeks worth of slippery “bid”, “buy it now” and “place order” buttons, and the results thereof.

Some time this month, we say goodbye to Waterstone’s 3-for-2 offer, so I felt obliged to go out and have one last go on it. C I’m told is very, very good; I haven’t quite found the right way to read Adam Roberts yet, but I’m reliably informed New Model Army is very good; and The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a literary-but-it’s-really-sf novel and was on this year’s Booker long list.

A trio for the SF Mistressworks collection: The Planet Dweller, We Who Are About To…, and How To Suppress Women’s Writing.

Some charity shop finds. I went off McEwan after Saturday, but I might as well give Solar a go. Engleby is the only Faulks I’ve not got, but I really need to get cracking on reading them. Out of Sheer Rage is about DH Lawrence – sort of – and I’ve heard it’s good. The HE Bates boxed set was a surprise find. It contains: Fair Stood the Wind for France, Dulcima, Seven by Five, The Four Beauties, The Wild Cherry Tree and The Triple Echo.

Some science fiction, which I do of course still read every now and again. Three SF Masterworks: Greybeard and The Body Snatchers I’ve never read; Hellstrom’s Hive I’m looking forward to rereading. Debris I have to review for Interzone. A Fighting Man of Mars… well, I’m looking forward to the film due out later this year – I may even go to see it at the cinema. The books I’m less keen on, but never mind.

First editions: Final Days and Leviathan Wakes are both science fiction (much thanks to Gary for the former, and Sharon for the latter). Isles of the Forsaken is fantasy – and yes, that’s the signed, numbered edition. Dark Tangos is, well, it’s by Lewis Shiner. And it’s also the signed edition.

First editions for the collection. Yes, that really is Demons by John Shirley and, er, Demons by John Shirley. The one with the red cover is a novella from Cemetery Dance, and the other is a novel, of which the novella forms the first half. Both are signed. As is Brain Thief, which I reviewed for Interzone last year (but was only sent an ARC). The Player of Games is hard to find for a reasonable price in first edition, but I managed it.

A Smile in the Mind’s Eye is signed and goes on the shelves dedicated to Lawrence Durrell and his works. The Wanting Seed and Tremor of Intent are difficult to find in first edition.

Graphic novels: the latest in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the fab and groovy Century 1969. I have fond memories of Marvel’s John Carter of Mars comic from the 1970s, and a few years ago tracked down all 28 issues and three “king size” annuals. But a trade paperback is so much more convenient – except the artwork in it is black and white, and not colour as in the original comics. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adéle Blank-Sec 1 I bought after enjoying Tardi’s The Arctic Marauder.

Finally, Ravages, the last, I think, of the Orbital graphic novels, and a book about, er spacesuits titled Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. I don’t know what the cover of the latter is made from but it has a similar texture to rubber matting and is quite strange.

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