And there’s me thinking I’d given up commenting on the books I’d read here on my blog…
Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964). A review of this will be going up on SF Mistressworks this week (need MOAR REVIEWS, btw. Volunteer. Please.) Garish cover art, a strapline that reads, “A fiendish race of demonic children is spawned in the genetic chaos of a runaway nuclear explosion”, a thirteen-year-old girl as a protagonist, and a prose style that feels two decades earlier that its publication date… It’s actually not bad.
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett (1930). This is allegedly the best crime noir novel ever written, which doesn’t say much for the genre. I knew the story from the Bogart film, and was surprised at how faithful an adaptation it proved to be. There’s a feeling throughout the story that Hammett was blithely making shit up… and then there’s this section on the history of the eponymous bird which names various mediaeval texts and it all seems very convincing. I liked Gutman, and Hammett did a good job with his dialogue. Spade was a cypher, and I was soon sick to death of reading about his “wooden features”. Couldn’t get a handle on the femme fatale or Joe Cairo. The functional prose was, at best, functional. The film is better.
Lunar Caustic, Malcolm Lowry (1968). Which is perhaps chiefly interesting because of its publishing history. An early version of this novella was accepted for publication in Story magazine in the 1930s, but Lowry called it back. And continued to work on it. I can sort of understand the impulse. When Lowry died in 1957, he left behind several manuscript versions, and his wife and Earle Birney, a neighbour and university professor of English, spliced together this 1968 edition out of them. It’s set in a psychiatric hospital in New York and is, like much of Lowry’s fiction, partly autobiographical. There are moments of genius in it, though it does feel somewhat slight compared to some of his other novella-length fiction, especially ‘Through the Panama’. Also, its publication history has disguised the fact that it’s set in 1936, when Lowry checked himself into Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital (though he started work on it in 1934, on his arrival in New York). As a result, it feels weirdly old-fashioned for its time – given its publication year it’s tempting, for example, to read it as a contemporary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which suggests that psychiatric hospitals changed very little in the intervening three decades. Lunar Caustic was intended to be a part of a seven-novel sequence, The Voyage That Never Ends, which would I suspect have been a major work of English literature. As it is, we can only treasure what little we have.
Sion, Philip Boast (1999). Boast’s weird alternate secret biblical histories are something of a guilty pleasure, but I think this one pushed the weirdness factor a bit too far. It’s set in Biblical Judea, and told from the point of view of Mary Magdalene. Except she’s not really Mary Magdalene. Whoever she is, she has lived before, and remembers historical events dating back to Moses and Abraham, and even much, much earlier. In Sion, Joseph and Mary belong to a sect, but Jesus also has brothers and sisters. And it was Jesus’ brother James who is considered the messiah of prophecy. But Jesus truly is the Son of God, although his message of love is anathema to the sect and to their conception of a messiah. Jesus marries Mary Magdalene, and after the crucifixion, Mary and child escape to France. The story is then narrated by their son, Jude, who travels and eventually discovers the Ark of the covenant and its secret. He dies and then becomes a disembodied intelligence who leaps from body to body, occasionally meeting up with his mother, who is apparently doing the same. The final section explains that Mary was a passenger aboard an asteroid starship crossing through this universe, but which crashed and stranded a group of them on prehistoric Earth. Or something. It’s not entirely clear. It’s a shame the book is so unbalanced, with far too much of the narrative spent on too detailed a description of Mary’s time in Judea. It’s only when Jude appears that it picks up pace, but even then it throws away the entire point of the plot in a hurried final section. Disappointing.
Vapour Trails, Mike Lithgow, ed. (1958). Funniest book I’ve read all year. It’s a series of essays about test piloting by British pilots of the day. You get the impression that a number of the anecdotes they recount have seen plentiful use in after-dinner speeches. The more astonishing incidents are those set during the really early days of aviation, where anyone with sufficient money could buy a plane and learn to fly it themselves. One test pilot, for example, tells of an incident in the 1920s at an airfield where he worked. A wealthy German had bought himself a Blériot plane and was learning how to fly it. Blériots, apparently, could manage an altitude of 200 feet on warms days, but only 20 feet on cold days. The German set off across the airfield in his plane, and eventually took off. Just as he was about to clear the hangars, he turned off his engine… and the plane promptly crashed. When asked why he’d turned off the engine, he explained he’d picked up a tail wind and thought that was enough to keep him flying… Recommended, even if you’re not an aviation buff.
The Ascendant Stars, Michael Cobley (2011). Is the third and final book of Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire space opera trilogy, and notable among such types of books in that it actually resolves the plot and leaves pretty much everything neat and tidy. In the previous two books – Seeds Of Earth and The Orphaned Worlds – Cobley went slightly berserk and set so many balls spinning, it was hard to keep track of them all. There was the invasion of Darien by an imperialistic alien race, there were the cyborg Legion of Avatars imprisoned in hyperspace and about to break free, the lost human colony who have been operating as mercenaries for the bad guys but have now schismed, the planned terrorist attack which turns out to be much more than it seems, and I forget what else. And it appears it’s all a feint or something because the Godhead, a vast machine intelligence resident in hyperspace, wants to transcend and needs to blow up fifty suns to do so. Cobley handles his large cast with deftness, there are some nicely-written set pieces, and his universe contains plenty of variety and diversity. However, and perhaps it’s just me, but it all feels a bit tired. The Humanity’s Fire trilogy is an accomplished space opera trilogy, but I’ve lost faith in the subgenre, in its “anything goes” ethos, its “chuck everything in” world-building… I think we’re seeing the end of new space opera, British or otherwise. It’ll either settle into a rut, much as high fantasy has done for the past twenty years, or it will slowly fade away. It already feels a bit like the twentieth century, ie a progressive experiment that people are inexplicably turning their back on – cf Leviathan Wakes. Regression is not the next step. We need something new to come along, and I think, and hope, we may be seeing New Hard Science Fiction poised to take its place…