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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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The north face of Mount TBR

Owning books can be more fun than simply reading them. At least that’s what I tell myself when I eye the double-stacked book-shelves and piles of books on the floor of my house. Which is not to say that I plan to keep every one of the books mentioned in these book haul posts. Some of them will go to charity shops once I’ve read them, some of them will go elsewhere. But until I actually start reading more books each month than I buy, the piles are only going to get higher…

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New science fiction: Wool I’m reviewing for Interzone. It has come close to being hurled at the wall a couple of times. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a new book by a favourite author, who hasn’t had anything published for a good many years. I should probably have hung on for the UK edition of Rapture, but I do like my trilogies to all match and I already have the Night Shade editions of the first two books. Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary is a small press chapbook I bought on eBay. Helix Wars was sent me by Eric, and In Other Worlds I picked up for £3.99 in a discount bookshop in Wetherby.

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These six paperbacks I bought from Cold Tonnage. I may slag off van Vogt a lot, but some of his books transcend their chaotic bonkersness and I find them weirdly appealling. I don’t know if More Than Superhuman, Children of Tomorrow or The Silkie fit that bill. I guess I’ll find out. Colin Kapp is forgotten and under-rated Brit sf author who, like many of his 1960s and 1970s contemporaries, was chiefly published in the US. The Chaos Weapon and The Survival Game are among the last few of his I didn’t own. And Moonstar Odyssey I’ve been looking for a decent copy of for ages, though I can’t remember exactly why…

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Some secondhand sf. Pirates of the Universe I’ve been after for a while. The last time I bought a copy, I received a refund instead as the book had apparently suffered a “scissors accident” while the buyer was packing it to send. I know nothing about Endless Voyage, but the new Ace special series from the mid-1970s contains some odd books among its eleven titles. I’ve decided to collect them. 334 is a genre classic which I’ve never read, and The Days of Glory is the first book of Stableford’s Dies Irae trilogy. Both the last were charity shop finds.

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Vertigo was a birthday present, but all the rest were charity shop finds. I enjoyed the The Jane Austen Book Club, so I expect I’ll also enjoy The Sweetheart Season. Fowler’s genre work, of course, is excellent. Galatea 2.2 is literary-but-it’s-really-sf novel, which Powers has apparently done a couple of times. Nourishment is  Woodward’s latest; I enjoyed his first, August (see here). I’ve been meaning to try Ronald Frame’s fiction, but it’s taken me a while to find one of his books. And I’ve not checked The Prussian Officer and Other Stories yet, but I suspect I’ve already about half of its contents. But at least that’s half I’ve not read.

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These are research books for the next book of the Apollo Quartet. They might give a clue as to its story.

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Three books for three collections: The Mark Of The Warrior is a first edition, to go with my other Paul Scott first editions; Chariots for Apollo is for the space books collection; and 2,000 Fathoms Down in the Bathyscape joins my (currently very small) collection of books on bathyscaphes and deep sea exploration.


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 2

Day two and here are my essential sf novels, from 26 through to 50. See here for Jared’s on Pornokitsch and here for James Smythe’s.

To me, what constitutes science fiction has always been quite clear, and my numerous attempts at defining the genre have merely been a way of communicating that certainty. But what does “essential” mean? I found that much harder to define. Yes, I relied a lot on my favourite novels when compiling this list – I thought they were brilliant, therefore they must be essential. Except several of them I could not quite squeeze in. My favourite DG Compton novel, for example, is Synthajoy, but in yesterday’s list I instead included The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – because I think it covers a theme more essential to a true exploration of the science fiction genre. Likewise, I wanted to include Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, a novel that has been a touchstone work for my own writing for several years. But it only hints at being alternate history in its final pages, and it barely qualifies as space fiction. Oh well.

We readily agreed that graphic novels, or bandes dessinées, were allowed. I picked the most obvious choice – see number 26 below. I’d like to have chosen Dan Dare or the Trigan Empire, but I don’t think either really characterises a tradition in British sf comics – certainly not one that continues to this day. So, much as I love them, I found their inclusion hard to justify.

Certainly, there were movements during the last few decades in sf which I needed to represent in my list: cyberpunk, steampunk, New Space Opera… As long as I picked one work from each, and could justify its presence, then job done. The works I chose for those subgenres are not the most obvious ones, but I think they’re the most important – or  I certainly believe they deserve to be. Others may disagree.

Anyway, the list…

26 The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
In France, there is a strong sf tradition associated with comics, or bandes dessinée. Not all of these have been translated into English – sadly. The Incal is one of the most popular bandes dessinée, and rightly so. It is completely bonkers, beautifully drawn, and an excellent example of what the medium can do.

27 Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Cherryh has been churning out muscular hard sf since 1976, and she’s still going. Somehow she has managed to stitch all these novels in to a single future history. It’s an astonishing achievement. This book is perhaps her best-known, and is very much characteristic of her oeuvre.

28 Native Tongue, Suzette Elgin Haden (1984)
Women-only utopias do not happen overnight – though from some of the novels which feature them you might think so. Native Tongue charts one route, starting from a near-future in which women are reduced once again to the status of chattel. The development of a women-only language, Láadan, is instrumental in overturning this situation. This novel is both linguistic sf and feminist sf.

29 The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
The scary thing about this book is that it’s completely made-up but it feels like it could really happen – might be happening now, in fact. You see it in the news every day, and sometimes you have to wonder what is going through people’s heads – the Young Earthers and Creationists, the congresswoman who publicly declares women should not have the vote, New Mexico recently passing a law which requires rape victims to carry pregnancies to term… I’d consider making such people read this book, but I have a horrible feeling they’d consider it utopian fiction…

30 Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris (1985)
Hav is not a real place, though you might be fooled into thinking so as you read this novel. Very early proto-sf often couched its tall tales in the form of travel journals, but once Gernsback bootstrapped the genre into existence, as a form of sf it seemed to go into decline. A pity, if Last Letters from Hav is any indication of what it can do.

31 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988)
Say “cyberpunk” and everyone immediately thinks of Neuromancer. But I’m not convinced that’s an especially essential book – cyberpunk has become a lifestyle, and does it really matter which novel – arguably – booted it up into existence? What is essential, however, is the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. This one. It marked the end of cyberpunk as a sf literary movement. All the cyberpunk novels and stories that followed were just twitchings of the subgenre’s rotting corpse.

32 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
This is one of my two slightly sneaky inclusions. We did agree to allow novellas, and many novellas are indeed published as independent books. But this one never was – it first appeared in the collection Novelty. It is possibly the best time paradox story ever written, with the possible exception of Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

33 Take Back Plenty†, Colin Greenland (1990)
New Space Opera has been good for science fiction. But if this book had been its model rather than Banks’ Culture novels, it could all have turned out very differently. Take Back Plenty celebrates the pulp side of sf, and does so with intelligence, wit and verve. It is one of the genre’s best books.

34 The Difference Engine†, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling (1990)
Another slightly sneaky choice, as Sterling appears alone at the end of this list. The term “steampunk” was coined by KW Jeter, and his Morlock Night and Infernal Devices are emblematic of the subgenre. But they’re not actually that good. The Difference Engine is good. It is the one steampunk novel that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the subgenre (which is now, sadly, a lifestyle).

35 Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick (1991)
This sf novel is the only one I can think of which mixes science fiction and Southern Gothic. It’s a mashup that shouldn’t by rights succeed. But it does. It is a rich and strange book – and sf needs to be rich and strange more often.

36 Sarah Canary†, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
Not all first contact novels involve hardy explorers beaming down onto an alien planet and trying to communicate with mysterious aliens. Sometimes the mysterious aliens are here on Earth; and sometimes we will never know if they were alien or even if we have made contact. This book is proof that sf does not need to be about the future, spaceships, robots, time travel, or giant computer brains.

37 Red Mars*, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
This is the definitive novel on the near-future colonisation of another planet – in this case, our neighbour, Mars. Enough said. (Don’t forget to read the sequels too.)

38 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
Near-future sf is difficult to do well, if only because the author is expected to have some sort of magical crystal ball. But sf has never been predictive, and when it has got something right it’s been a happy accident. China Mountain Zhang is a near-future novel, but that’s incidental. It is beautifully written. That’s all that matters. McHugh is one of the genre’s very best writers.

39 Dark Sky Legion, William Barton (1992)
We may never find a way to circumvent the speed of light. Which means 90% of science fiction is just so much magical hogwash. But some writers have tried to envisage a distant future in which the speed of light restriction still holds true. This is the best of the bunch. It also does something interesting philosophically – and sf is traditionally not very good at that.

40 A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
Some space operas aren’t New, though they appeared while New Space Opera was doing its thing. The central premise of A Fire Upon the Deep, the Zones of Thought, is one of those ideas that shows why sf is such an important and vibrant mode of fiction. The somewhat ordinary plot attached is almost incidental.

41 Fatherland, Richard Harris (1992)
One form of alternate history is vastly more popular than any other: Hitler winning WWII. It’s impossible to write a story based on it that is neither derivative nor clichéd. This is probably the best of the lot – because it is set decades after the War, and is only peripherally concerned with the fact of the Nazi victory.

42 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
There are many themes which science fiction rarely tackles. Postcolonialism is one. It smacks too much of the real world – and too much of the real world that is not the First World – for most sf writers and readers. Coelestis treats the subject with intelligence, and then goes on to deconstruct the colonial identity of one of its protagonists. A masterwork.

43 Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
Among the many themes covered by sf over the decades has been sexuality and gender. The most famous such novel is LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, but given the one-book-per-author rule I couldn’t pick that. (And besides, its treatment of its hermaphroditic humans is somewhat problematical.) Scott complicates matters here by throwing in five genders and nine sexual preferences and, while the gender politics are still a little iffy, this is an essential exploration of the theme.

44 Voyage, Stephen Baxter (1996)
This is not only alternate history, it is also space fiction: it is an alternate history of a NASA mission to Mars. The research is impeccable, and it makes a highly plausible fist of its premise. Space fiction has been chiefly dominated by writers who are not very good, which is unfortunate. Happily, Baxter can write well, and he does so in this book.

45 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
Is it science fiction, or is it fantasy? The world of the title character does seem more fantastical than sfnal, but it’s wrapped in a near-future narrative which is resolutely sf. And the way the two narratives interact, and change each other, is definitely straight from science fiction’s toolbox.

46 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
This is perhaps the most literary science fiction novel ever written (not counting, of course, the two sequels). Or perhaps it’s the most science-fictional literary novel ever written. On balance, I suspect the former – it is too steeped in genre to be wholly accessible to readers of literary fiction. That still makes it essential for sf readers, however.

47 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
Surprisingly, working scientists are not especially popular as protagonists in science fiction. This novel is about one. And science. It is also brilliant.

48 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
First contact is a genre staple. This novel – the first of the Marq’ssan Cycle quintet – is not the first in which the visiting aliens choose to speak only to women, and which subsequently prompts a global crisis. It is, however, notable for a near-future world in which the ultra-rich rule openly and cruelly. Elizabeth Weatherall, PA to the chief villain of this book, goes on in later volumes to become one of the genre’s great villains in her own right. Go read all five books.

49 The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Post-apocalypse is such a well-established subgenre that recently most such novels have been by writers of literary fiction. And this is the best of those. It’s also much better than any genre post-apocalypse novel. Sadly, the trope has now been so over-used it’s become banal. Someone needs to do something different with it.

50 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
We look at the world today and see impending climate crash and the collapse of national economies… but no sf novel except this one has dealt with such a scenario. It’s for good reason that Sterling was one employed as”Visionary in Residence” at a Californian university. Essential reading for the near-future.

And that’s it. I think I’ve covered all the major bases. Not every book in my list of fifty is a blinding piece of literary genius – this is science fiction, after all… But I think my choices show a good spread of themes and subgenres, and every book is certainly worth reading. I couldn’t get everything in, however. Some choices were just too hard to justify. For example, one subgenre of sf I was keen to have on my list was early space travel. Unfortunately, I’ve not read Garitt P Serviss or Willy Ley, and there’s a reason why High Vacuum (1956), First on the Moon (1958) and The Pilgrim Project (1966) are forgotten. So, no early space travel. Instead, I have Voyage as my entry for realistic space fiction (as if I’d really pick Bova, or Steele, or their like).

Finally, it has been a little dismaying putting together this list to discover how many of my selections are out of print. Some have recently been made available after many years OOP, either in the SF Masterworks series, or as ebooks through the SF Gateway. Respect to both for that. But others on my list have languished in obscurity since their original publication. This, I feel, doesn’t invalidate their, er, essentialness. After all, books don’t stay in print because they are essential, they stay in print because they’re popular, because people keep on buying them.

We have no real agreed academic canon in genre fiction, no fixed list of sf novels which teachers and lecturers turn to when designing courses on the subject. Yes, there are several books that people point to when the word “classic” is mentioned, but most of those are artefacts of the genre’s history. They were not chosen because experts in the subject have over the decades deemed them the best science fiction has produced in its eighty-seven years. Perhaps it’s good that sf is democratic in that regard… but when it elevates Foundation, Starship Troopers, the Lensman series and the like to greatness, I have to wonder…


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The best of the half-year: 2012

It’s halfway through 2012, and it must be shaping up to be one of the wettest years on record in the UK. But that’s okay because my hobbies are chiefly indoor ones – reading books, watching films and listening to music. I occasionally do a bit of writing too. But, since we’re in June, with around six months to go until the end of the year, it’s time to look back and determine what was the best of what I read, watched and heard in 2012. And it goes something like this…

Words
I seem to have read a lot of books that were good without being great; and possibly a larger number of books that weren’t good at all. Picking the best five proved harder than expected, though one or two titles were obvious…

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011). Jones has been my favourite writer for many years, so this collection’s appearance on the top five is no surprise. I had, in fact, read most of the stories in The Universe of Things before (I even published one; sort of), but rereading them only cemented my admiration of them. Jones has not written many stories, but there are no clunkers among them. This collection is an excellent introduction to her fiction. I wrote a review of the book for Daughters of Prometheus.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008). I’ve long admired Evans’ fiction, but he seemed to stop writing after 1995′s Mortal Remains… until Omega four years ago. I won’t say it was worth the wait, because it’s never good when a writer whose books you enjoy and admire disappears for more than a decade. But certainly Omega is a good book, a clever alternate history dimension-slip thriller partly set in a world where World War II continued on throughout the twentieth century. I wrote about Omega on my blog here.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987). This year for my reading challenge I decided to read books by non-Anglophone writers I’d never read before. The Door was the second book I read for the challenge, and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the challenge has got a little bogged down of late – I failed to finish March’s book, read April’s book late, and have yet to even start May’s. Anyway, I wrote about The Door on my blog here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963). I read the first book of the Raj Quartet for one of my reading challenges, and thought the book was superb. As a result, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I track down to read. In first edition. The Bender predates the Raj Quartet and is not as weighty as those four books. It’s a very 1960s comedy, but also a beautifully witty one. I wrote about it on my blog here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994). I’m surprised this book isn’t better known. It’s an amazingly-put-together series of stories which form a much greater story. It opens with a series of Victorian travellers, trapped on a train by snow, who tell each other stories… and then proceeds to unravel and then stitch together the stories told by those travellers. There’s a superb take-down of a cult semiotician, a clever spoof of the Scottish detective programme Taggart, and a brilliant pastiche of Jeffrey Archer. Perhaps the links between the stories aren’t quite strong enough to carry the story-arc, but Betrayals is a very clever, very amusing, and excellent novel.

Honourable mentions go to Eastermodern by Herta Hurnaus, Oscar Niemeyer Houses by Alan Weintraub and Building Brasilia by Marcel Gautherot, which are books of photographs of modernist and brutalist buildings. Niemeyer’s work perfectly encapsulates the future we could have had, and all cities should resemble Brasilia. Also worthy of note are How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, which every writer and critic should read; Alias Grace, which is probably Margaret Atwood’s best novel; and Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place by Malcolm Lowry, a collection by an author new to me which contains some excellent novellas and some not so interesting short stories.

Pictures
I’ve already visited the cinema twice so far this year, which is something of a record for me. One of the films I saw in IMAX 3D makes it onto my top five; the other one was rubbish, so it doesn’t. The other films I’ve seen were all on DVD – some borrowed, some bought, and some rented.

Red Psalm (Még kér a nép), Miklós Janscó (1972). I bought this after seeing a review of the DVD in Sight & Sound. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t a group of hippie-looking Hungarians wandering around a farm spouting socialist rhetoric and singing folk songs, and then getting shot at by soldiers. I loved it. I wrote about Red Psalm on my blog here.

Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), Michelangelo Antonioni (1964). I’ve admired Antonioni’s films since first seeing L’Avventura several years ago. Red Desert was his first film in colour, and it shows – it’s an amazingly painterly film. Unlike in most films, the characters do not over-shadow their world but are very much a part of it. It creates a distance between viewer and cast, but there’s an immersive quality to the mise en scène which renders that of little importance. Films don’t need viewer analogues – that’s just confining the medium to the simplicity of oral storytelling: films use images just like books use words, and that’s where their focus should lie. I wrote about Red Desert on my blog here.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків), Sergei Parajanov (1965). I watched Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates last year. That film is perhaps the zenith of “poetical cinema”, but Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is definitely a way-station on the climb to it. It is, on the face of it, a simple story of one young man’s trials and tribulations. He is a member of Ukrainian Hutsul culture, and the film is rich with its costumes, music and traditions. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is by no means an easy film to watch, however, as it operates on so many levels – but it at least has a coherent plot, which is more than can be said for The Colour of Pomegranates.

On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie), Andrzej Żuławski (1978/1988). If you can imagine a film that out-Tarkovskys Solaris, then you might have some idea of what On the Silver Globe is like. It’s based on a trilogy of novels published in Poland in 1911 by Jerzy Żuławski, which have apparently never been translated into English. On the strength of this film, they should be. It’s probably evident that I’m not a huge fan of traditional Hollywood-style cinema; it often feels to me like a waste of the medium’s potential. And yet films such as Red Psalm and On the Silver Globe, with their declarative dialogue, often feel like they’re only partway to what film could truly be. I like the painterly mise en scène of poetical cinema, but often find the declarative dialogue as clumsy as science fiction’s crude use of exposition. And so it is in On the Silver Globe – characters run around and gurn at the camera, and then speechify on the meaning of life. However, it’s in the story and the imagery that the film really impresses – enough, in fact, to offset the fact the film was never completed - much like Andrzej Munk’s Passenger. The Polish Ministry of Culture closed down the production of On the Silver Globe when the film was only 80% complete. It was ten years before Żuławski returned to it, and then he could only complete it by using stock footage and voice-over for some parts. It works surprisingly well. I plan to write more about On the Silver Globe on this blog.

John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). John Carter received a mauling at the US box office, so much so it was officially declared a flop by its studio, Disney. Happily, the world outside the US had more discerning taste and went to see the film in sufficient numbers for it to eventually turn a profit. But the profitability of a film is measured solely on its performance at the US box office – which is both dumb and parochial – so it’s unlikely a sequel to John Carter will ever be made. Which is a shame. John Carter was a spectacle, with a clever script that managed to make something twenty-first century of its early twentieth-century source material. It had its flaws – some longeurs, and an inelegant info-dump to explain the plot – but other parts more than made up for it. I wrote more about it on my blog here.

Honourable mentions go to , Frederico Fellini (1962), which after seeing La Dolce Vita many years ago and disliking it, I had expected to hate – I didn’t; I loved it. Troll Hunter, André Øvredal (2010), was another deadpan Norwegian spoof and cleverly done, though not quite as good as Norwegian Ninja. The Third Part of the Night, Andrzej Żuławski (1971), was the first Żuławski I saw, and it’s off-the-wall Hitchcockian style appealed to me greatly (as did Andrzej Korzyñski’s superb soundtrack). Went the Day Well?, Cavalcanti (1942), was a surprisingly brutal piece of wartime propaganda in which a German fifth column try to conquer a small English village. It goes badly. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc Sec, Luc Besson (2010), gets a mention as an entertaining adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s bande dessinée, and though it’s completely silly it was great fun. Finally, some quality telly: Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991), which has not dated at all, and is still great entertainment despite being completely bonkers; and Caprica (2010), which promised so much more than it ever got the chance to deliver.

Sounds
I knew from early this year that 2012 was going to be good for music. Perhaps few of my favourite bands are releasing albums, or touring the UK, but I’ve stumbled across some bands new to me that have been on almost constant play on the iPod.

Dwellings, Cormorant (2011). The band self-released this last year and it’s a powerful mélange of half a dozen metal genres. I loved it from the first listen, and even went back and got copies of their earlier two albums.

The Devil’s Resolve, Barren Earth (2012). This is the superband’s second album, and it’s a heavier and yet proggier effort than their first. The riffs are not quite as memorable as they are on The Curse of the Red River, but the lead breaks are much more impressive, and the proggy break-outs even stranger. Opeth’s Heritage proved there was a market for 1970s-inspired weird Scandinavian prog, and Barren Earth have taken that and melded it with Scandinavian death/doom to create a winning combination.

The Weight of Oceans, In Mourning (2012). I saw a review of this and it sounded appealing, so I ordered a copy from a Finnish website. It’s death/doom in that way the Finns do so well, but with added slow modern progginess. It’s not proggy like Barren Earth is proggy, inasmuch its acoustic parts feel more of a piece with the heavy parts. I’ve been playing it constantly since it arrived.

Nostalgia, Gwynbleidd (2009). Another band I came across mention of and who I thought I might like. So I bought the album. And yes, I do like them. Very much. They’re a sort of mix between Opeth and Northern Oak, but also not much like either. There are long sustained death metal parts, interspersed with folky acoustic guitar, and it all hangs together exceedingly well.

Legacy, Hypnos 69 (2010). I’ve been a fan of Hypnos 69 since hearing their The Intrigue of Perception several years ago. I’s taken me a while to get hold of Legacy, chiefly because it was released by a small label in Germany and wasn’t available in the UK. Recently I discovered it was on bandcamp, so I bought it from there. It’s Hypnos 69 doing Hypnos 69-type stuff, and I love it.

Honourable mentions go to Finnish death metallers (Psychoparalysis), who have self-released three excellent EPs; Weather Systems by Anathema (2012), which I much prefer to the previous album; Wood 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light by Woods of Ypres, which is folky black metal that sounds a little like Type O Negative in places  and includes strings and oboe; and finally, All Spawns, a recent compilation of Czech death metal pioneers Apalling Spawn’s two released from the late 1990s (now, if I can only find a copy of the Sparagmos compilation, I’ll be really happy…).


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30 words on 30 books

I shamelessly stole this idea from Pornokitsch, who did the same yesterday. Since I’m not doing my readings & watching posts this year, I thought thirty words on the last thirty novels I’ve read might be a good way of mentioning my recent reading. But 30 words is actually harder to do than it looks…

Final Days, Gary Gibson (2011)
Discovery on planet orbiting distant star reached by wormhole suggests future is fixed and immutable. World starts to fall apart. Nice Apollo re-enactment but otherwise not that much stands out.

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946)
Tom Sawyer-ish Frankie daydreams of brother’s wedding. A GI mistakes her age, wants to get frisky. Lovely writing, though it’s hard not to suspect Frankie is wrong in the head.

Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot, Jacques Tardi (2010)
Graphic novel adaption of French thriller set in the UK. Assassin like father like son. With guns. And gore. Not much more to be said. Tardi is definitely worth reading.

Bodies, Jed Mercurio (2002)
Incompetent doctors get away with murder on the NHS. New houseman is horrified. He learns to work with the system. A favourite writer but it will scare you off hospitals.

City of Pearl, Karen Traviss (2004)
First human colony disappears, rescue mission discovers aliens protecting them. Mix of hard sf and space opera. Nice heroine, not so interesting aliens. Oozes competence without suggesting more. Review here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963)
Should have been a film with Dirk Bogarde. 1960s wastrel goes begging for cash and sparks family crisis. Great wit, great writing, and an astonishing postmodern interlude. Recommended. Review here.

Leviathan’s Deep, Jayge Carr (1979)
Freak alien resembles humans. They want to conquer her planet and fall in love with her. She scuppers their plans. Somewhat old-fashioned sf, though protagonist well-drawn. Review on SF Mistressworks.

The Bookman, Lavie Tidhar (2010)
Literary and pulp potage which stripmines steampunk tropes. Orphan adventures, starts cleverly in Victorian Lizard London but loses steam about halfway through before Bond-esque Vernian finish. The first of three.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008)
Man recovering from terrorist bomb explosion dreams himself into alternate self in a world where WWII never ended. Very cleverly done, alternate world very real, great writing. Recommended. Review here.

Angel At Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
Princess pilot, a hot-shot of course, proves to be catalyst which rejoins three sundered races on three separate planets. Interesting debut, though perhaps a little over-egged. Review on SF Mistressworks.

The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung (2009)
China prospers while rest of world in financial crisis. Interesting window on Chinese society, though unsatisfactory as a novel – the plot is explained in a final chapter info-dump. Review here.

The Fall, Albert Camus (1957)
Pompous ex-lawyer monologues at stranger in Amsterdam bar and over several days tells him of his somewhat boring fall from grace. Mercifully short, though there’s some insightful writing in it.

Selected Poems, Lawrence Durrell (1956)
It’s a book of poems. And they were selected. By Lawrence Durrell. He did this several times. Except when he wasn’t collecting his poems for his Collected Poems. More here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994)
A story told through several stories – including a superb pisstake of Taggart, and a righteous skewering of Jeffrey Archer. Superbly done, though perhaps needed the stories tying together more. Recommended.

Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey (2011)
Solar system shenanigans as alien virus wreaks havoc for corporate profit. Who needs New Space Opera? Regressive: no diversity, old school sexism, implausible villainy. Mostly right physics. Avoid. Review here.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Men repeal rights of women, so they secretly develop women’s language. Interesting linguistics, good female characters, though characterisation of men not so convincing and world-building weak. Review on SF Mistressworks.

This Island Earth, Raymond F Jones (1952)
Manly engineer saves the galaxy by demonstrating good old US engineering know-how. Womanly PhD does his ironing and cooking. Happily they don’t write them like this any more. More here.

The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler (1944)
Mixed-up femme fatales don’t fool Marlowe in hunt for rich man’s missing wife. Not the cunningest murder-mystery plot and Marlowe often gets away with murder. Strong on place and time.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987)
In Hungary, writer hires housekeeper, who proves to be old school peasant and a right character. Fascinating portrait of housekeeper, thoroughly enjoyed it. Soon to be major film. Review here.

The Unorthodox Engineers, Colin Kapp (1979)
Collection of sf shorts in which lateral thinking engineers solve seemingly intractable problems. Dated, problems not especially unsolvable, nor especially original. Entirely forgettable, in fact. Hard book to find, though.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864)
Story not as good as Nemo’s though text is more pleasingly detailed. Science horribly dated, of course, and often wrong. Characters bizarrely emphatic – except for phlegmatic Icelandic guide. Historical document.

Arkfall, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
Novella set on human-colonised Europa-like planet with interesting socialist society. Woman and male tourist find themselves on unintended journey after seaquake. Promises more than it delivers but still worth reading.

Kamikaze l’Amour, Richard Kadrey (1995)
Kadrey channels Ballard and Shepard in rock star epiphany in California overrun by Amazonian jungle. Not sure how original was 17 years ago but is not now. After Metrophage, disappointing.

Smart-Aleck Kill, Raymond Chandler (1958)
Collection of four shorts. Simple direct prose, strong on place and time, though plotting something of a direct line and characterisation sketchy. More for noir fans than normal readers, possibly.

Embassytown, China Miéville (2011)
Truthful aliens get hooked on impossible Ambassador’s speech. World falls apart. Narrator teaches aliens to lie and saves planet. Interesting ideas but old-fashioned science fiction. Likely award-winner. Sigh. Review here.

Dr No, Ian Fleming (1958)
Bond in Jamica. Again. Racial stereotype has evil plan to do evil. Bond foils, with help of trusty local. He nearly dies in the process, but he gets girl. Again.

The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
Seminal bande dessinée allegedly cobbled together from failed Dune film project. Light and dark Incal combine to save galaxy from evil Darkness. Completely bonkers. Lovely art. Everyone should own copy.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood (1997)
Character study of true life murderess from 1840s. Clevery done – never quite determines innocence or guilt, though very detailed on life and crime. Lovely writing. Possibly Atwood’s best novel. Recommended.

The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer (1985)
Hot flushes and giant aliens that live inside planets. Cartoon aliens that want to conquer galaxy. Hit and miss comedy, but too fantastical for sf. Review soon on SF Mistressworks.

The Ginger Star, Leigh Brackett (1974)
By-the-numbers swords and planets. Manly hero brought up by animals battles way across barbarian planet to save mentor. Been there, done that. Yawn. Review soon on SF Mistressworks.


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Readings & watchings 2011 #8

It’s been just under a month since the last one of these, and that one proved to be a somewhat humungous post. So I thought I’d try for a more bite-sized installment this month. Sort of. Anyway, you know the drill: the books wot I have read, the films wot I have watched. Comments thereon.

Books
SS-GB, Len Deighton (1978), is perhaps the classic “Hitler won” alternate history, although it’s by no means the first. A Scotland Yard detective, now working under the aegis of the SS in an occupied Britain, is dragged into several intersecting plots when he investigates the murder of an unknown man in a small flat in London. It’s all tied in with the British resistance’s plan to smuggle the imprisoned King George VI out of the country, the fierce – and often violent – rivalry between the SS and the Wehrmacht, and the Wehrmacht’s secret atom bomb being built by British scientists. Archer, the detective, is a bit of a cipher, and, in fact, much of the cast are blanks. That Deighton has done his research is obvious from the first page, and he paints a convincing portrait of a UK under the Nazis. The writing, sadly, is pretty poor. I’ve read Deighton’s Harry Palmer novels, and his Game, Set and Match and Faith, Hope and Charity trilogies, and I don’t remember his writing being this inept and clumsy. Still, I’m glad I read it, and it can go back to the charity shop now. Incidentally, I wonder if choosing a photo of Hitler in such a camp pose for the cover was a wise decision: his depredations are not something we should make light of, or forget.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2011), is the latest installment in Moore’s slow progress back up his own bumhole. Actually, this one is slightly better than the previous two. The League are now in England Swings territory, and an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, but with very real powers, is trying to bring about the creation of an Antichrist. This will take place during a free concert in Hyde Park. There’s some nice touches, and plenty of in-jokes, but I’m starting to wonder where this series is heading and whether it’s going to be worth it when it gets there.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec 1, Jacques Tardi (2010), I picked up after enjoying Tardi’s The Arctic Marauder. It has apparently been made into a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, master of Gallic surgary whimsy, and starring Audrey Tatou. And yet there’s little that’s whimsical about the two stories in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec 1. In the first, a pterodactyl is terrorising Paris, and Adèle uses it as cover to help solve an entirely different crime. Which is sort of linked. The final scene, in which a villain turns up and explains the plot, only to be gazumped by another villain who explains another more-encompassing plot, who is then gazumped by another, is completely bonkers. The second story is more traditional: a demon is terrorising Paris, and Adèle tracks it down to a group of cultists associated with a local theatre. If it hadn’t been for that pesky Adele… Fun. And I’ve already ordered another one of Tardi’s graphic novels.

Daily Voices (Author’s Choice Monthly #3), Lisa Goldstein (1989). Back in the late 1980s, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith published twenty-nine collections, each contain no more than half a dozen short stories, by twenty-nine different genre authors. Each book was published in three editions: a trade paperback, a signed and numbered jacketed hardback, and a signed and lettered leather hardback. The stories were mostly reprints. This volume, the third in the series, contains five stories, all originally published in Asimov’s. One, ‘Tourists’, inspired a novel of the same title. These are literary stories, deceptively fantastical, and unsettling. ‘Tourists’ is a case in point: part Hav, part The City & The City (though contemporary with one and predating the other). Nothing especially jumped out at me in this collection, though they are stories it is easy to admire.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang (2010), won this year’s Hugo for Best Novella. Which is hardly a surprise. The only time Chiang doesn’t win is when he withdraws his work. And certainly he’s produced an enviably high-quality body of work over the years. Unfortunately, while The Lifecycle of Software Objects is as well-written as you’d expect from Chiang, it’s also a little dull and doesn’t go anywhere very interesting. A startup produces a new range of heuristic software lifeforms, “digients”, but the amount of work required by customers to parent them proves the company’s undoing. But a handful of people, emotionally attached to their digients as if they were real children, continue to nurture this new form of life. It’s a neat idea, but it does feel in places a little like Chiang wasn’t entirely sure where to take his idea. It’s like someone had invented the cat and had no idea what it was good for. Except the concept of a “better mousetrap” doesn’t appear to have occurred to Chiang. Disappointing, though only because Chiang sets his own bar so high.

Gravity Dreams, Stephen Baxter (2011), is another brick in the great wall that is Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence. In fact, Gravity Dreams brings the sequence full circle as it’s tied into Baxter’s first novel Raft (and the PS novella includes the short story on which Raft was based). Gravity Dreams is a very… expositionary type of story. A man in the unimaginably distant future experiences strange lucid dreams, which prove to be contact with a device in the universe of Raft (where the universal gravitic constant is considerably higher). The people of that universe, and the tech which the dreamer embodies, could prove of use in the ongoing war against the Xeelee. As a whole, the Xeelee Sequence is quite an achievement, certainly greater than the sum of its parts. Which, unfortunately, has the logical consequence that individual parts may not be as exciting, or as interesting, as the whole suggests. I enjoy reading hand-wavey magical cosmological-type hard sf, but not as much as I like reading nuts & bolts engineering-type hard sf.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), appeared on the non-fiction short list for the BSFA Award this year, though it lost out to a series of blog posts on the Hugo novel shortlist by Paul Kincaid. I’ll admit I had somewhere picked up an entirely erroneous impression of Red Plenty. I knew that it was non-fiction told as if it were fiction – dramatisations, if you will, of the life of ordinary Russians during the years of the USSR. But I’d also got the impression from somewhere – perhaps by the use of the word “science fiction” to describe it some place – that it also extrapolated the great Soviet experiment into later decades, as if perestroika and glasnost had never happened. That isn’t the case. Red Plenty ends in 1968. Nor did it affect my enjoyment: I thought the book excellent. Red Plenty follows the lives of a handful of peoples – some real, some invented – through the first half-century of the USSR. There’s a very real sense of utopia in the book, and it is sad to see how it is slowly corrupted. The USSR was one of history’s two great attempts to create a utopian society and, like the other one, Islam, its ideals didn’t last much beyond the first generation. All too often people forget what the USSR was trying to achieve. That it failed doesn’t invalidate the experiment, or its objectives.

Debris, Jo Anderton (2011), I read for review for Interzone. “File under science fiction” it says on the back cover, but I’m not convinced…

Leap of Faith, Gordon Cooper (2000), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

Snakehead, Ann Halam (2007), is Gwyneth Jones’ last novel as Halam, although apparently a new one – a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island – will be published next year in the US. Snakehead is a retelling of the Perseus and Andromeda story from Ancient Greece. But slightly different. In the myth, Perseus first meets Andromeda when he returns from slaying Medusa, but in Snakehead Andromeda has run away from home and is taken in by Perseus and his mother Danaë. Much of the novel concerns Perseus’ life, and Andromeda’s introduction to it, on the island of Seriphos. The killing of the Gorgon occupies only a chapter or two towards the end of the book. There is a lovely matter-of-factness about the way the story is presented, the way its strangenesses are streamlined into the narrative. Also good is Perseus’ meeting with his father, Zeus, which reads like pure science fiction. Halam’s novels have always been extremely strong – I’d argue her Inland trilogy is better than Le Guin’s Earthsea books – but may have suffered from their variety. YA book series sell by the boatload, but Halam’s novels have been (mostly) singletons. As an adult reader, that variety is part of their appeal – when else am I going to read a novel treatment of the Perseus myth, for example? – but it may have hampered their success.

The Old Funny Stuff (Author’s Choice Monthly 1), George Alec Effinger (1989), is a collection of short stories from the early 1980s. The collection takes its title from a complaint by a fan of Effinger, who preferred the writer’s comic tales to the ersatz cyberpunk of When Gravity Fails. I vaguely recall enjoying the latter, but I didn’t enjoy any of the stories in The Old Funny Stuff. One story is set in the editorial offices of a genre magazine and reads like it was written in the 1930s. Another story has a mugged couple “assisted” by a variety of fictional detectives and vigilantes… yet all those characters are from the 1940s and earlier, though the story does mention an ATM. ‘Mars Needs Beatniks’ at least successfully pastiches Beat prose, but is unfortunately quite dull. An eminently forgettable collection, but mercifully short.

A Quiet Flame, Philip Kerr (2008), is the fifth Bernie Gunther, featuring the Berlin-based private investigator from Nazi Germany. The One from the Other, the first post-war novel, ended with Gunther on a boat to South America in the company of an ex-Panzer captain and Adolph Eichmann. Though not a Nazi himself, a case of stolen identity had resulted in Europe being a bit too hot for Gunther and so now he’s pretending to be someone else. The trio arrive in Argentina, and Gunther is taken to meet Juan Perón. At which point he confesses his true identity. But that’s fine, because the head of the secret police remembers, and admired, him back when Gunther was a detective for the Berlin police force, and there just happens to have been a recent murder in Buenos Aires which resembles a pair of unsolved murders Gunther had investigated just before Hitler seized power and Gunther left the police. The inference, of course, is that the murderer is a Nazi war criminal who is hiding out in Argentine with all the other Nazis. A Quiet Flame follows Gunther’s investigation into this murder, which soon spirals into an entirely different case, but is eventually resolved, and Gunther’s time in Berlin in the 1930s when the Weimar Republic was booted out of power by the Nazis. An afterword makes it clear that the plot of the novel, while invented, is based on either true events, or plausibly extrapolated ones. It’s one of those books that both makes you angry such things were ever permitted to happen and scared that there are people who would not think twice about doing such things. I thought it so good I moved the next book in the series, If the Dead Rise Not, up the TBR pile.

The Coming of the Terrans, Leigh Brackett (1967), is a pretty clumsy fix-up. Half a dozen of Brackett’s Mars stories have had dates stuck on them, and then placed in order as if they were part of a coherent future history. But ignore all that, because the stories in this collection are excellent stuff. Brackett’s sf doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere – it uses the tropes of early sf but is written with the sophistication of much later genre fiction. So we have Mars, populated with ancient civilisations and dying races, but stories that are considerably more than just swashes being buckled, uppity natives being quelled, or righteous pioneers carving out homesteads. The upstart Earthlings who come to exploit the Martian races rarely end up on top. This is not the gung-ho adventurism of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but its antithesis.

Charlotte Gray, Sebastian Faulks (1998). I’m pretty sure I tried reading this shortly after it was published. I’d have borrowed it from the Daly Community Library in Abu Dhabi. I think I gave up on it because I found the pacing so glacial. Later, I saw the film. Now that I’ve read it I’m sorry I didn’t persevere all those years ago. Yes, it’s a slow book. The title character volunteers for a department of the Special Operations Executive because she speaks French like a native. She is parachuted into Vichy France to courier some radio crystals to a member of a British network, but stays on because her lover, a RAF pilot, is missing in action somewhere in the country. For much of Charlotte Gray, she does little except pine for her lover and help out the local resistance. But the final third of the book more than makes up for that. Before returning to the UK, she tries to track down two Jewish children taken by the Germans, and discovers something of the truth behind their fates.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003), is not science fiction, of course it’s not. It’s speculative fiction. Yes, well. Atwood’s idiosyncratic categorisations aside, I think most people would classify Oryx and Crake as science fiction. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. There’s some sharp prose in it; there are also some embarrassingly bad neologisms. Some time in the future, rogue genius Crake unleashes a plague on the world, killing off everyone except his friend Jimmy and the Crakers, a handful of genetically-engineered humans he has bred. Now calling himself Snowman, Jimmy acts as a beneficial god/shaman to the Crakers, while trying to survive in a world in which he no longer fits. His life is interspersed with flashbacks detailing his friendship with Crake, how we went to work for him, and how the world became as it is. Most of the satire is so blunt as to be ineffective. And the “trendy” names Atwood uses for all the corporations, like RejoovEsense, annoy mightily. I preferred The Blind Assassin.

Films
51, Jason Connery (2011), I watched for The Zone, but I’ve yet to finish my review.

Time to Leave, François Ozon (2005). I like Ozon’s films, but only when he’s being playful not when he’s being serious. Except, perhaps, for Under The Sand, which I did like. But, Time to Leave (AKA Le temps qui reste): a gay fashion photographer learns he has three months left to live. He keeps this secret, telling only his grandmother (played by French screen legend Jeanne Moreau). The protagonist is, frankly (no pun intended), selfish and unlikeable, and his eventual change of heart feels overly sentimental and clichéd. Not one of Ozon’s best.

Leviathan, George P Cosmatos (1989), is another film set in a mining installation at the bottom of the ocean. This one, however, does not rip off Outland. It rips off Alien, instead. A reasonably good cast for the time – Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo, Daniel Stern – unwittingly release some old Soviet bio-experiment aboard their habitat, and it tries to turn everyone into some sort of Cronenberg-esque monster. But Weller and Pays manage to escape. Leviathan makes a decent fist of imagining its environment, but the plot is by-the-numbers from start to finish and the characters are not allowed to develop much beyond clichés.

Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper (1985). I remember going to see this at the cinema when it was released. I didn’t take it seriously then, and I couldn’t take it seriously this time. A space mission to Halley’s comet finds a giant spaceship in its coma. Aboard are a pair of naked humans: a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man, both in hibernation. The astronauts take both aboard their Shuttle and head back to Earth. On arrival, mission control can’t reach anyone aboard the spacecraft, so they send up a mission. The crew is dead, and the Shuttle has been gutted by fire. The only survivor is the naked young woman. so they take her back to Earth, to London. But she’s a space vampire – the film is based on Colin Wilson’s novel, The Space Vampires – and she brings about a plague of zombies to the UK. All those people who claimed 28 Days Later such an astonishing film because it showed zombies running rather than shuffling along should watch Lifeforce. Zombies run in it too. It’s about all the film does have in its favour, however.

The Taming of the Shrew, Jonathan Miller (1980). I’ve been enjoying these Shakespeare plays, but every now and again you have to wonder what was going through the Bard’s head when he wrote them. Like this one. Everyone wants to marry Bianca, but her father has decided that she will not entertain suitors until her older sister, Katherina, is wed. But Kate is a “shrew” – i.e., an independent woman, not afraid to voice her own opinion, and far from the demure mistress apparently valued in Padua. Along comes Petruchio (played by John Cleese), who decides to woo Kate, for reasons never satisfactorily explained – the challenge? her fortune? There are several instances of witty banter, though Kate is played disconcertingly as a shrill termagant which often seems at odds with her dialogue. So there I was thinking that the part was just misplayed and The Taming of the Shrew couldn’t be as sexist as it seemed. Only for the final wedding banquet scene to feature speeches by each of the male cast explaining what a good wife should be, and it’s the worst sort of sexist claptrap and I’m surprised Elizabeth I didn’t have their heads off for it. Not one of the Bard’s best.

Predators, Antal Nimród (2010), is yet another sf franchise getting the reboot. Which is a creative process I find hard to understand. The Predator and Alien franchises were munged together into a series of increasingly rubbish films, and that should have killed them stone dead. Instead, we got Predators, and Ridley Scott reported working on a prequel to Alien. To be honest, of the two, I always much preferred the latter, though none of the films were as good as the first. Predator, on the other hand, was just an uglier Rambo. And Predators is just I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here with guns. A group of scumbags are parachuted into a jungle. They’ve no idea where they are, how they got there, or even why they are there. It doesn’t take long before they discover they’re being hunted by aliens, the Predators, for sport. But never mind, they’re Men, the horneriest critters in the universe, and of course they can beat someone who is both phyisically and technologically superior because they’re Men. It’s Neanderthal tosh like this that gives Hollywood a bad name– No, wait, Hollywood already has a bad name. It would be nice to see the occasional sf film of real intelligence from Hollywood, but I’m not holding my breath. It would also be nice to see sf films which didn’t celebrate violence, psychopaths or sociopaths, and which didn’t paint all aliens (that’s everybody outside the US, you understand) as fit targets for invasion, repression, dismemberment, or genocide. Avoid.

The Green Hornet, Michel Gondry (2011), I’d heard mixed reports on, but I rented it anyway. I’m not a big fan of the Seth Rogen / Judd Apatow style of humour, though I do like superhero films. Sadly, the humour outweighed the appeal of the superhero aspect, and I hated this. I hated Rogen’s character, I hated the stupid jokes, and I hated the concept, which was even more implausible than your average superhero movie. Rubbish film. Avoid.

Damnation Alley, Jack Smight (1977), I reviewed for The Zone. See here.

Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), I wasn’t initially sure what to make if. It opens during World War II, with the Germans bombing, and then invading, Belgrade. A pair of local wideboys become heroes of the resistance, more by accident than by design. They’re out for themselves, but somehow or other that helps the resistance. And then one of them, Blacky, is injured, so the other, Marko hides him, and the rest of the resistance cell, in his cellar. But he never tells them when the war ends. As Marko rises in Tito’s government in post-war Yugoslavia, so those in the cellar continue to believe WWII is ongoing. They make weapons, which Marko sells. Eventually Blacky manages to escape, but he stumbles on the set of a film re-enacting the climactic raid in which he was injured. He kills the actor playing the part of the German officer, and runs way. Later, after Tito’s death, he is the leader of a militia in the former-Yugoslavia. Marko, meanwhile, disappeared when Tito fell, and is now an international arms dealer. Underground opens with the Germans bombing Belgrade Zoo, and initially seems like a somewhat clumsy comedy. But as movie progress, so does the comedy turner blacker… and blacker… and more surreal. And the end result is superb. Recommended.


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reading & watchings 6: the women-only month

As promised, during July I limited my reading to only books written by women. A dozen, in fact, which is about average for me; as are the subjects covered – science fiction, mainstream, crime, space, and autobiography.

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004), was June’s book for my reading challenge, though I didn’t read it until July. I wrote about it here.

Hav, Jan Morris (2006), I’d been meaning to read for ages – ever since it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, in fact. But, well, I never got around to buying a copy. And that despite reading and very much enjoying Morris’ Fisher’s Face back in 2000. I found a copy of Hav on bookmooch.com last year, and picked it up this month to read as the book is actually an omnibus of two books, and the first was originally published in 1985 and so could be reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. The more recent section, ‘Hav of the Myrmidons’, I found less successful. It takes place after the “Intervention”, in a state now booming under the control of a secretive council of Cathars. Quite what is driving the economy is never really revealed, though Morris suggests it may not be entirely legal. Morris visits old sights (almost all gone) and old friends (almost all changed). Progress has been good to Hav – it is now prosperous – but Morris mourns the old Hav, with its rich mélange of culture and history. Which does sort of make the piece read like a paean to nostalgia.

Bluebeard’s Egg , Margaret Atwood (1983), is a collection of short stories. Some I like more than others. The title story especially stood out. I also liked ‘Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother’ a great deal. One of my favourite mainstream short story writers is Helen Simpson, because her stories seem to capture real experiences. Her stories are about the quotidian, but they are written with intelligence and a lightness of touch which belies their content. Atwood in Bluebeard’s Egg , by contrast, seems more focused on the emotional landscapes in her stories and that, perversely, often makes them seem less real. True, the stories in this collection are chiefly focused on relationships and sexual politics, but even so, some of them felt more like plays than attempts to depict slices of life. There was a studiedness to the situations they describe, and I found that a little distancing. I have yet to make up my mind about Atwood’s fiction, though I’ve only read three of her books. The Handmaid’s Tale is superb, and I remember enjoying The Blind Assassin. I still have plenty more by her on the TBR (for a while, it seemed every local charity shop had one of her books), so we shall see how it goes…

Cloudcry, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1977), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s writing for many years, and have collected all of her books.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010), I bought because I’d heard good things about from several people. They were wrong. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Beirut Blues, Hanan al-Shaykh (1992), is al-Shaykh’s second novel. I thought her first, Women of Sand & Myrrh, very good indeed, but this one was, to be honest, a bit of a slog. It’s structured as a series of letters by a woman called Asmahan – to her childhood friend, to an ex-lover, to her mother, to Billie Holliday – in which she recounts incidents, and feelings, of life in war-torn Beirut. Some of the writing is lovely, some of the story is quite heart-breaking, and al-Shaykh is extremely good at getting across the realities of the life she describes. In that respect, Beirut Blues provides an excellent window on a place, its people and events that readers in the West probably know little about – and certainly very little about what it was actually like for those who suffered through those times. The format unfortunately does distance the reader somewhat and nothing has quite the impact it feels it ought to. Despite this, worth reading.

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney (1989), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. The Goda War was, I think, the first book I read by Blakeney. I vaguely remember looking her up afterwards on The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, which reccommended her The Children of Anthi / Requiem for Anthi duology. I hunted down copies of those two books, and they are indeed good. The Goda War, unfortunately, isn’t. She wrote a fourth novel, The Omcri Matrix, which I will no doubt reread and review for SF Mistressworks sometime.

Desert Governess, Phyllis Ellis (2000), is a slim autobiographical book about the one year spent in Saudi by the writer. Originally a dancer/actress, Ellis turned to TEFL as a career after the death of her husband. She spent a year in Hail, in the centre of the Arabian peninsula, as English teacher – not really a governess – to the son and two daughters of HRH Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the youngest son of ibn Saud. Ellis seems eager to learn and understand Arab/Muslim culture, but equally unwilling to accept some of its elements – resulting in incidents which caused offense and could have been avoided. She is homesick for much of the time and, unsurprisingly, finds the life too restricting. To some extent, Desert Governess provides an interesting insight into the lives of Saudi princesses – particularly the sections set in Jeddah. The writing is mostly acceptable, and there are some mistakes in the transliteration of the Arabic (though they might have been typos). The book is a quick easy read, spoiled somewhat by Ellis’ reluctance to either accept or respect the culture in which she found herself.

Resurrection Code, Lyda Morehouse (2011), is actually a prequel to Morehouse’s AngeLINK quartet, which I’ve not read. I think Amazon recommended it to me when I purchased Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (see here), and it looked sort of similar so I bought it. It’s an interesting mix of cyberpunk and, er, angels, set in a post-apocalyptic Cairo. Odd, but in a good way. I plan to write about it here soon-ish. Meanwhile, I plan to hunt down copies of the original AngeLINK books: Archangel Protocol, Fallen Host, Messiah Node and Apocalypse Array..

City of Veils, Zoë Ferraris (2011), is her second crime novel set in Saudi, featuring the same two characters from her first, The Night of the Mi’raj: Nayir Sharqi, Palestinian desert guide, and Katya Hijazi, forensic scientist. I thought that first book interesting, though somewhat flawed – and I wasn’t convinced by some of the details. City of Veils is a much better book – perhaps because it has a larger cast and a much more satisfying central mystery (most of which proves to be a sub-plot, but never mind). A young woman’s body is found washed up on a Jeddah beach. She is later identified as Leila Nawar, a young film-maker who seemed determined to court controversy by filming subjects certain to offend the Saudi authorities. Meanwhile, Miriam Walker, an American, has returned to Jeddah after a month’s leave back home, and hours after she arrives home with her husband, he vanishes. Miriam doesn’t live on a camp, and can’t speak Arabic. Ferraris weaves the two incidents together into a mystery, one which drags in both Katya and Nayir. The characters seem better-drawn in this novel, but the plot does get wrapped a little two quickly. Still, I enjoyed it and I’ll read the next one when it’s published.

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (2010), was July’s book for this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge (2002), I found in a charity shop, though it’s a US paperback. I read and enjoyed Eskridge’s collection, Dangerous Space, back in 2008, and Solitaire is a novel that had been much praised. I’m surprised I didn’t read it earlier. Because it is very good indeed. In a nearish-future in which Earth has finally acceded to a single global government, Ren ‘Jackal’ Segura is a Hope – i.e., a child born in the first second of the EarthGov era, and trained from birth to be a credit, ambassador and example to the new age. She works for Ko, the planet’s only nation-corporation, and so is under more pressure to succeed than other hopes. On a visit to Hong Kong, she inadvertently causes the deaths of a group of people – an elevator fails in the city’s tallest tower, killing all those in it – including a Chinese senator, and Jackal’s circle of friends or “web”. When a terrorist group claims responsibility for the sabotage, Jackal is arrested and charged. Her Hope status is revoked and, so that her parents are not fired by Ko, she does not contest the charges. She is put in experimental Virtual Reality solitary confinement – eight months real-time, eight years VR elapsed time. Somehow, while in VR solitary, she discovers how to edit her environment, and creates a simulation of her home on Ko’s sovereign island. So when she finishes her sentence and comes out of “prison”, she is less damaged psychologically than others who had served sentences in the same fashion. The title of the book refers to a bar Jackal discovers some weeks after her release, which caters to “solos” – i.e., those who have served VR solitary confinement sentences. And is the events, and the people, there which lead to the story’s resolution. Solitaire is beautifully-written – this is not the prose you expect to find in a genre heartland novel. There are a few hand-wavey moments here and there, but they’re minor and in no way spoil the story. Eskridge’s knowledge of motivational studies comes across as extremely authoratitive (I believe that’s her day-job). Highly recommended.

Unfortunately, even after a month of women-only writers my reading is only 32% female and 68% male. So I need to do more. From now on, I’m going to try and alternate with each book I read, though I’m not going to be obsessive about it.

Oh, and no watchings this time, I’m afraid. I’m saving them up for the next readings & watchings post.

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