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Reading diary, #16

It’s pretty much a done thing by now that 2015 is the year of watching movies rather than reading books. And there’s a resolution for next year – make 2016 the year of reading books. Instead of slapping another DVD in the player of an evening, pick up a book instead. I have so many books I want to read, and since you can’t just take a pill and so magically be in a state of having read them, it takes an investment of hours and often days to get from first page to last. I need to invest that time – 15 minutes each way on my daily commute, and 45 minutes to an hour last thing at night, isn’t really enough.

Meanwhile, I continue to make lists… of books to read, books to buy, books read, books bought… and while on the purchasing side, the fun is often in the hunt for a decent copy of a title, or the surprise find in a charity shop, the damn things do exist to be actually read. And here are a few wot I have done so of late:

01_frankensteinFrankenstein*, Mary Shelley (1818). All these years and unbelievably I’d never actually read Frankenstein. I thought I knew the story, of course – who doesn’t? But that was from the films, and all they’ve done is lifted the central premise of Shelley’s novel and built their own interpretations of it out of that. I read Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound many years ago, and from that I was aware part of Frankenstein took place at the North Pole. But there was plenty – the bulk of the book, in fact – I knew little or nothing about. Like the fact it’s structured as a series of nested first-person narratives, opening with letters from an arctic explorer who rescues a man from the ice. That man proves to be Victor Frankenstein who, once recovered, proceeds to tell his story – how he worked himself into a breakdown at university, building a creature from parts (none of which are named, nor their origin specified), and which promptly escapes. And then Frankenstein completely forgets about his eight-foot-tall monster for a year, and is only reminded of it when his youngest sister is murdered and a beloved family servant is accused of the murder. He then meets the monster, which tells its story… the murder was an accident, but it feels Frankenstein owes it and must make it a mate. So Frankenstein heads off to London, and then north to the Orkneys, but after making a start on a female monster, he suffers a change of heart… so the monster murders his best friend and Frankenstein is arrested for it… Frankenstein is a lot richer a story than film adaptations have led me to believe, but it’s also – and likely this is a product of the time – less rigourous than expected. The entire Frankenstein narrative, we are supposed to believe, is being told to Walton, and yet reads like, well, like a novel. The same is true of the monster’s narrative, especially the part when he spies on the cottagers (not what you are thinking: it is from spying on a family in a cottage he learns to speak French, and to read and write it). Not to mention actual correspondence from Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s childhood sweetheart, embedded in Frankenstein’s narrative. The prose reads somewhat overwrought to modern eyes, everything dialled up to eleven – Frankenstein doesn’t have friends, he has soulmates he loves deeply. The lack of narrative rigour also takes some getting used to. But the hardest part is untangling all the subsequent versions of the story knocking about in your head in order to fit in the original source text.

plutarchs_staffThe Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 21: Plutarch’s Staff, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2014). Only two more and the series is complete. Well, there’s two more left that were originally penned by series creator Edgar P Jacobs, but who knows how many more the Jacobs Studio will produce. But since I like the series, that wouldn’t, of course, be a problem. And I actually like the non-Jacobs titles more than the Jacobs ones. Chiefly because they’re more modern, although set in the past, and a good deal cleverer. This one is set during WWII, and details how Blake and Mortimer came to be friends and colleagues. They had met before – in The Oath of the Five Lords (see here) – but had then gone their separate ways. As Plutarch’s Staff opens, Blake is a RAF squadron leader flying Seafires for the Fleet Air Arm, and Mortimer is working at a secret research establishment in a Scottish glen hidden beneath an artificially-generated cloud. But Jacobs’s more-than-problematical villains, the Yellow Empire, are waiting in the wings, ready to pounce once WWII has ended. Although they’re not above helping things along. Sente and Juillard drag in quite a bit of history – including a visit to Bletchley Park – and manage to cleverly slot Jacobs’s weird alternate history into our history. Good stuff.

v_bombersV Bombers: Valiant, Vulcan and Victor, Barry Jones (2001). Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent was controlled by the Royal Air Force. We had the Bomb, and it would be delivered by an aeroplane. Then the Americans and Russians started building ballistic missiles, and Duncan Sandys’ infamouse White Paper was published, declaring that the UK no longer needed jet aircraft as it would all be missiles from then on. As a result, the Royal Navy wrested control of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with its Polaris missile submarines. And here we are, more than half a century later, no one has dropped a nuclear bomb in anger since 1945, and the UK is currently preparing to spend billions to upgrade its Trident missiles because… Er, I’m not sure why because. Are we supposed to believe no one will take us seriously as a nation if we don’t have nuclear weapons? Does the bomb prevent us from being invaded? Invaded by who? Anyway, fifty years ago, during the Cold War, there was a known enemy, and the word “deterrent” had a real and palpable meaning. The British aircraft industry was in a really strong position coming out of WWII, with a huge number of firms, all at the cutting edge of aeronautical technology. Back then, the government could put out a tender for a new bomber or fighter and several British firms could compete for it. And the end result would be a world-beater. Unlike now, when we just buy some hugely expensive US aircraft that doesn’t work properly. The V-Bombers – so-called because the first, a stop-gap aircraft built by Vickers, was named the Valiant in a competion among company staff – were three jet bombers explicitly designed to carry nuclear weapons. And iconic-looking planes they were too. Then it turned out anti-aircraft missiles could reach the altitude at which they flew, so they ended up being used as low-level bombers. But they weren’t designed for that and it shortened their operational lives. The Valiant was retired pretty quickly (although it did drop a couple of test nuclear bombs), but the Victor and Vulcan went on to serve as tanker aircraft. Vulcans were also used in the longest bombing run in history, flying from the UK to bomb Port Stanley during the Falklands War. Anyway, this is a pretty good history of all three, although it focuses mostly on their design, testing and introduction into service.

a_girl_in_the_headA Girl in the Head, JG Farrell (1967). I like British postwar fiction, but there’s one particular type of story I’m not a fan of: the comic male midlife crisis novel. So guess what JG Farrell’s third novel is. Boris Slattery claims to be a Polish count, but he’s improverished, ends up in the invented seaside town of Maidenhair Bay, where he marries Flower Dongeon, whose house he now shares with his brother-in-law, father-in-law and her grandparents. He works as a maitre d’ in local restaurant, is friends with a Spanish boy who is staying with the family, and has sex with the underage daughter of the local stationmaster. And then the Swedish Inez comes to stay, and he begins to obsess over her. The story is told as first person, but there are interludes about Boris’s arrival in the town which he tells referring to himself in the third person. There are also some pages of typographical trickery, for no good reason that I could see. Despite being a comic male midlife crisis novel, there are things to like in A Girl in the Head, and plenty to admire. The comedy is very low-key and handled deftly. Farrell’s prose is excellent, and surprisingly insightful for the type of novel. In which respects, I guess, that makes it one of the better books of its type. Although, admittedly, Farrell is always worth a read.

brooklynValerian and Laureline 10: Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1981). This is the second installment of the two-parter begun with Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopiae (see here). There have been a series of strange manifestations in 1980s Paris, and so Valerian has been sent back in time to investigate. Laureline, meanwhile, is off to Cassiopiae to figure out what triggered it all. The first part of this series managed an impressively noir-ish air, and juxtaposing that with Laureline’s space opera narrative worked really well. But one of the things it managed well was a sense of mystery, and this second part dispels that because it, well, it resolves the mystery. In the 1980s, this leads to a meeting in Brooklyn between the heads of the two corporations driving the plot; and in the future, Laureline tracks down the two scavengers who inadvertently kicked off everything when they stole four religious symbols. The Valerian and Laureline series has always been among the smartest of bandes dessinée, and while the art is wonderfully glib and matter-of-fact, it’s the facility with genre displayed in the stories which is the series’ real charm. These are very, very good, and if you’re not reading them – why not?

ancillary-mercy-coverAncillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (2015). And so one of the most-lauded science fiction trilogies of the last couple of years, if not of all time, draws to a close. Was it worth the accolades it accrued? Did it deserve all those awards? Of course, as is always the case, much of it comes down to timing. Harry Potter became a global phenomenon because it appeared at just the right time. And certainly the timing was right when Ancillary Justice was published. Space opera was stuck in a rut, if not actively regressing – and Ancillary Justice was something different. Something visibly different. That thing with the default female pronoun, for example. Which doesn’t quite make sense in its professed use, but is certainly striking enough to generate buzz. Using “she” does not mean the Radch language is ungendered, nor does it mean female is used as the default gender. It’s a writerly trick, and a pretty effective one, but it makes little sense in terms of world-building. As for the plot… I wondered where the trilogy’s story arc was going after Ancillary Sword seemed to get stuck down a side-plot. Only it seems the side-plot is the actual plot of the trilogy and Ancillary Justice was pretty much prologue. And yet, despite all that, Leckie pulls a resolution out of left-field, to leave things not only neat and tidy but also with a giant jumping off point for any future novels. Ancillary Mercy is also a very talky novel, and a lot of the prose is spent on analysing people’s emotional states, little of which actually advances plot or world-building. These are interesting novels, and reasonably good ones, but I’ll be disappointed if this final book is all over award shortlists next year. Still worth reading though.

dan_dare_1Dan Dare: The 2000 AD Years Volume 1, Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Gerry Finley-Day & Dave Gibbons (2015). I remember bits and pieces of these from back in the late 1970s, although it wasn’t until a year or two later that I actually subscribed to the comic. But from the bits I did read, I seemed to remember it being quite good. I was wrong there. Reading the stories from start to finish in one volume really does show how bad they were. The art was often good, despite the limitations of the pulp printing process, but the scripts are uniformly awful. Admittedly, a lot of the Hampson Dare stories were pretty bad – and 2000 AD’s version bears no comparison with the Eagle original – but at least Hampson never had Dare say things like, “He’s stronger than a super-nova sun!” Nor did he rip off sf novels, like the one story in this volume which is pretty much Lem’s Solaris. Every time I buy one of these 2000 AD reprint omnibuses, I end up poisoning a little more of my childhood. Nostalgia only works from a distance, it does not hold up to scrutiny. Which is ironic, given that over half of the West’s various entertainment industries seem to be geared towards delivering nostalgia. But hey, there are all those people with rose-coloured lenses grafted onto their eyeballs and they’ll happily shell out for the latest cultural trigger to remind them of their lost childhood (as their bodies slowly fall to pieces and bits of it stop working as well as memory once insisted they did). Which obvs includes, er, me. As I’ve grown up I’ve developed powers of discrimination, and it’s not a superpower, it’s a consequence of maturity and age. And I wish a few more people would exercise that power. And yet, and yet… we are slaves to our lost youth, and I know damn well I’ll be buying volume 2 of Dan Dare’s 2000 AD years when it’s published, even though I know full well it’ll be shit. Because that’s an acceptable price to pay when your mortality weighs heavier on you with each passing day and those golden years of childhood come to be seen as more than just time spent in bodies that simply worked but also in minds that saw everything with uncritical wonder – and this has got a bit maudlin, so I’d probably best stop wittering on.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 118

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First haul of the year

Though, strictly speaking, it’s not – some of the books below were brought to me by Santa. But this is certainly the first book haul post of the year. And it’s the usual mix of first edition hardbacks, charity shop finds, literary fiction, science fiction, and books on or about other things all together…

Some literary first editions. I read Ultramarine over Christmas and it is very good indeed. I will read more Lowry. Milkbottle-H was recommended by someone on LibraryThing and this was the only edition of the book I could find. Paul Scott is a favourite writer, and both The Towers Of Silence and Staying On are for the collection.
Some genre first editions. Apollo’s Outcasts I’ll be reviewing for Vector. I should know about this sort of stuff, right? Starship Spring is the final book in Eric Brown’s Starship quartet – I bet you can guess the titles of the other three. The Ice Owl is a novella by Carolyn Ives Gilman. I shall be reviewing it for Daughters of Prometheus. The Dragon Griaule is a beautiful-looking collection from Subterranean Press. I have all of its contents as separate novellas… except for the one original to this book. Which they clearly put in so that people like me would buy it.
Some genre paperbacks. Unbelievably, I have never read A Canticle For Leibowitz. Good job I found this copy in a charity shop, then. The Islanders was a Christmas present. Frankenstein joins the other SF Masterworks. And The Explorer was sent to me by James Smythe (I swapped it for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains).
Non-genre paperbacks. Two more of the attractively-packaged Ballard paperbacks, The Unlimited Dream Company and The Day of Creation. That’s all of them now. I’ve been picking up Iain Sinclair novels – this one is Landor’s Tower – when I see them in charity shops, but have yet to actually, er, read them. Winter’s Bone I wanted to read after being very impressed by the film adaptation. Santa gave it to me.
I’ve always rated Hitchcock as a director, so I made an effort to watch The Girl, the TV movie about his relationship with Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds and Marnie. It was excellent. Spellbound by Beauty is the book it was based upon. John Jarmain is one of my favourite poets, and Flowers in the Minefields is a collection of his poems and letters, with commentary. It is, I think, the only book about him ever published.20130126f
During a visit to Louisiana, a modern art museum in Denmark, over Christmas I saw some photographs by Gillian Wearing, and was sufficiently intrigued to pick up a book about her work. Before The Incal is a prequel bandes dessinée and it is excellent.


Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, 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’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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