It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Fables of the Deconstruction

I’ve recently been reading a new science fiction anthology for review for Interzone and this, coupled with David Hebblethwaite’s remarks on science fiction awards here and Nina Allan’s comments here, has brought into focus some elements of my increasing dissatisfaction with the genre and its resistance to progress. Especially hard science fiction.

David complains about the lack of experimentation in form in sf, but I think there’s also a lack of experimentation in settings and narratives in hard sf. It’s all very well using cutting-edge science, the latest descriptions of exoplanets or the moons of Jupiter… But it always remains outside, outside the reader’s viewpoint on the plot, outside the characters’ psychology, their motivations or perceptions or worldview. While it’s true human beings need a specific environment to survive, and will take their society and transplant it wherever they may find themselves, irrespective of that external environment… their new surroundings will affect them, will change them. Not only must they make accommodations with their location, but their society will likely change as a result. But it rarely seems to in science fiction stories. Writers simply transplant a society little different to the writer’s present to their new environment, and add some technological bells and whistles to justify its presence. Even worse, they often model their society on an older one, such as the Wild West, with all its lawlessness and amorality, and stick it on, say, Io. How progressive is that? It’s not, of course. For all the story’s gimmickry and ideas, it still posits the sort of individualistic and brutal human (male, usually) that hasn’t characterised human society for centuries and is certainly unlikely to do so in the future.

To me, hard science fiction’s inability to reflect its settings in the psychology of its protagonists is a failure of the imagination. A good non-genre example would be Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, comprising The Jewel In The Crown, The Day Of The Scorpion, The Towers Of Silence and A Division Of The Spoils. It covers the years leading up to, and during, the independence of India, but much of the story is set among British expatriates in the country. While the British in India built communities that were models of those back home in the UK, they could not help but evolve into something different through contact with the country’s population. And the people living in those countries changed too – so much so that they often suffered culture-shock on their return to Britain.

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If you look further afield in sf, particularly in the short fiction market, there’s plainly a twenty-first century strain of the genre, one which freely borrows imagery and tropes from fantasy and New Weird. It also displays a greater spread of settings, societies and protagonists. Personally, I think the focus on imagery is mostly surface and usually hides a lack of sfnal progress – that’s progress in terms of how science fiction works, of course; the elements which go together to create science fictions and so differentiate them from other works of literature. The other areas in which sf is progressing – diversity, non-binary gender, etc – I think are excellent and long past due.

All this makes hard sf’s insistence on sticking to old story patterns all the more puzzling. I once defended hard sf from an accusation of being inherently right-wing. I still think it’s not right-wing, though I recognise many of its proponents write from a right-wing perspective. But certainly the subgenre is reactionary and conservative (with a small “c”, note). It doesn’t have to be. The laws of physics may be immutable, but there’s nothing that says human societies always tend to the Competent Man (usually a white Westerner) lording it over others by virtue of his competence, wits and willingness to commit violence. In fact, that’s a pretty offensive characterisation of human society. It’s sadly also widely prevalent in hard sf (and in sf too, in a wider sense).

Nina Allan, in her post, writes that sf no longer seems to comment on political and social issues, nor displays “evocative and original use of language”. She also makes a very useful distinction – between authors who write from within science fiction and authors who “draw their influences from science fiction”. Both her and David’s comments are addressed to the former – as are mine.

I think Nina makes some interesting points, but her comment about language seems to me to forget that science fiction is chiefly a genre of commercial fiction, with much of its DNA provided by pulp fiction. The current economic climate (well, actually, the global economy the neoliberals and neocons have gifted us over the past thirty years) means publishers prize commercial science fiction more than they do literary science fiction. The small presses – and self-published authors, to some extent – have picked up the latter baton, but they are still small fry in a large profit-driven ocean. When writing commercial fiction in any genre, there’s a tendency to stick to tried and tested – and familiar and lucrative – patterns. So it doesn’t really surprise me that prose in sf novels is blanding out, or even that ideas and the presentation of those ideas is tending to more… comfortable forms. I can rue this, I can compare it unfavourably with the situation thirty or forty years ago… but there are too many things that need to change, many of which the publishing industry has no control over, before it can be resolved. Plus, there are other issues which need to be addressed first – notably the lack of diversity, and the preponderance of sexism and racism – and it’s good that the sf conversation keeps on talking about these topics and is making progress at combatting them.

But. Science fiction. The stuff that makes these stories what they are. Nina uses this year’s Clarke Award shortlist as a barometer of the state of the genre. Which is not necessarily a fair argument. It has never been part of the award’s remit, and the jury are, as she acknowledges, all too human – in fact, I suspected one of the judges of championing the Mann but when I asked they said they hadn’t… which only shows the danger of making such assumptions. And speaking of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, for all the book’s faults, it can’t be accused of not being experimental in form. True, its structure is hardly original – a story-within-a-story, with “author” interpolations, plus ancillary material presented as appendices – but neither is it the far more common straightforward linear narrative, or indeed the relatively common dual narrative, past versus present, of the eventual winner, Ancillary Justice.

The point I’m trying to make, which unfortunately I keep on ruining by drifting from the point, is that the science-fictionalness, to coin a phrase, of a text, particularly hard sf, has not appreciably progressed for decades. I don’t doubt that the bulk of sf authors in years past never really bothered to interrogate or deconstruct the tropes they used – although some did, Samuel R Delany certainly did – and likewise very little present-day science fiction makes a serious attempt at examining the science-fictional assumptions, the tropes and genre furniture, of which it makes use. Nor do they explore the psychology of their protagonists. These, I think, are not only a missed opportunities, but also make sf, for me, a less interesting genre than it could be in the twenty-first century.

So let’s add these things together – from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it… Surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring? Which is why the hard sf anthology I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post proved so disappointing a read – and also seemed to be so emblematic of much that I feel in sf isn’t working for me. The anthology’s contents certainly met its theme, and they definitely qualified as “hard science fiction”… but there were so many unaddressed assumptions implicit in the stories, and so little examination of what makes a story hard sf rather than simply sf, that I couldn’t understand why the editors had even bothered to put it together.

Science fiction is by definition fecund terrain for stories. Hard sf may add some restrictions, but that should in no way limit how it tells its stories. Why can’t sf writers dig a little deeper into the tropes they use so blithely? Why can’t they take science fiction apart, examine it from all angles, and then put it back together in interesting ways? I’d not only like to see that happen to a much greater extent than it does presently, I’d like to see it as the default mode for writing science fiction – especially hard science fiction.


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Another month, another book haul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The first haul of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2013, the best of the year

We’re a couple of weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year, so it’s time to look back with a critical eye over the past twelve-ish months and the words, pictures and sounds I consumed during that period. Because not everything is equal, some have to be best – and they are the following:

BOOKS
UnderTheVolcano1 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) A classic of British literature and rightly so. I fell in love with Lowry’s prose after reading ‘Into the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place, although I already had a copy of the novel at the time (I’d picked out the collection, Under the Volcano and Ultramarine from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks back in 2010). Anyway, Under the Volcano contains prose to be treasured, though I recommend reading Ultramarine and Lowry’s short fiction first as it is semi-autobiographical and you can pick out the bits he’s used and re-used. This book was also in my Best of the half-year.

wintersbone2 Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I’d bought this because I thought the film was so good and because Woodrell had been recommended to me. But instead of the well-crafted crime novel I was expecting to read, I found a beautifully-written – and surprisingly short – literary novel set in the Ozarks that was perhaps even better than the movie adaptation. I plan to read more by Woodrell. Winter’s Bone was also in my Best of the half-year.

empty3 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (2012) The third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll have to reread all three again some time soon. Although the fulcrum of the story is Anna Waterman and the strange physics which seems to coalesce about her, Empty Space: A Haunting also does something quite strange and wonderful with its deployment of fairly common sf tropes, and I think that’s the real strength of the book – if not of the whole trilogy. And this is another one that was in my Best of the half-year.

sons4 Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) When I looked back over what I’d read during 2013, I was surprised to find I held this book in higher regard than I had previously. And higher than most of the other books I’d read during the year too, of course. At the half-year mark, I’d only given it an honourable mention, but it seems to have lingered and grown in my mind since then. It is perhaps somewhat loosely-structured for modern tastes, but there can be little doubt Lawrence fully deserves his high stature in British literature.

promised_moon5 Promised the Moon, Stephanie Nolan (2003) I did a lot of research for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and this was the best of the books on the Mercury 13. But even in its own right, it was a fascinating read and, while sympathetic to its topic, it neither tried to exaggerate the Mercury 13’s importance nor make them out to be more astonishing than they already were. If you read one book about the Mercury 13, make it this one.

Honourable mentions: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013), an exciting debut that made me remember why I read science fiction; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972), beautifully-written tall tales presented as Marco Polo’s report to a khan; The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989), a masterclass in writing accessible sf, this book needs to be back in print; The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968), the second book of the Raj Quartet and another demonstration of his masterful control of voice; The Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996), funny and charming in equal measure; The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry & Jared Shurin (2013), some excellent stories but also a beautifully-produced volume; Sealab, Ben Hellwarth (2012), a fascinating history of the US’s programme to develop an underwater habitat; Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1987), a thinly-disguised novelisation of the US oil companies’ entry into Saudi, must get the rest of the trilogy; and Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010), Vikings and werewolves are definitely not my thing but this rang some really interesting changes on what I’d expected to be a routine fantasy, must get the next book in the series…

Oops. Bit of a genre failure there – only one sf novel makes it into my top five, and that was published last year not this; although four genre books do get honourable mentions – two from 2013, one from 2010 and one from 1989. I really must read more recent science fiction. Perhaps I can make that a reading challenge for 2014, to read each new sf novel as I purchase it. And I really must make an effort to read more short fiction in 2014 too.

FILMS
about-elly-dvd1 About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) A group of young professionals from Tehran go to spend the weekend at a villa on the Caspian Sea. One of the wives persuades her daughter’s teacher, Elly, to accompany them (because she wants to match-make between the teacher and her brother, visiting from his home in Germany). Halfway through the weekend, Elly vanishes… and what had started out as a drama about family relationships turns into something very different and unexpected. This film made my Best of the half-year.

consequences2 The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino (2004) The phrase “stylish thriller” could have been coined to describe this film, even if at times – as one critic remarked – it does resemble a car commercial. A man lives alone in a hotel in a small town in Switzerland. Once a week, a suitcase containing several million dollars is dropped off in his hotel room. He drives to a local bank, watches as the money is counted by hand and then deposited in his account. One day, the young woman who works in the hotel bar demands to know why he always ignores her… and everything changes.

lemepris3 Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I don’t really like Godard’s films, so the fact I liked this one so much took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little Fellini’s if it had been made by Michelangelo Antonioni. I like , I like Antonioni’s films. Perhaps the characters are all drawn a little too broadly – the swaggering American producer, the urbane European director (played by Fritz Lang), the struggling novelist turned screenwriter, and, er, Brigitte Bardot. Another film that made my Best of the half-year.

onlyyesterday_548494 Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) An animated film from Studio Ghibli which dispenses entirely with whimsy and/or genre trappings. A young woman goes to stay with relatives in the country and reflects on what she wants out of life. The flashback sequences showing her as a young girl are drawn with a more cartoon-like style which contrasts perfectly with the impressively painterly sequences set in the countryside. Without a doubt the best Ghibli I’ve seen to date… and I’ve seen over half of them so far. Once again, a film that made my Best of the half-year.

gravity5 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón (2013) I had to think twice whether or not to put this in my top five. It was the only film I saw at the cinema this year, and I suspect seeing it in IMAX 3D may have coloured my judgement. To be fair, it is visually spectacular. And I loved seeing all that hardware done realistically and accurately on the screen. But. The story is weak, the characters are dismayingly incompetent and super-competent by turns, some of the science has been fudged when it didn’t need to be, and it often feels a little like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve seen it on Blu-Ray…

Honourable mentions: She Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008), an elegantly-shot documentary on the Mercury 13; Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish but subtle and powerful; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), astonishing meta-cinema from the beginnings of the medium; Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011), Brit Marling is definitely becoming someone to watch; Love in the Afternoon, Éric Rohmer (1972), the best of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; The Confrontation, Miklós Jancsó (1969), more socialist declamatory and posturing as a group of students stage their own revolution; Tears For Sale, Uroš Sotjanović (2008), CGI-heavy Serbian folk-tale, feels a little like Jeunet… but funny and without the annoying whimsy; Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963), a Czech sf film from the 1960s, what’s not to love?; Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti (1993), an entertaining and clever paean to Rome and the Italian islands, and a rueful look at the Italian health service; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a poignant and beautifully-played character-study of the Emperor Hirohito in 1945.

This year for a change I’m also naming and shaming the worst films I watched in 2013. They were: The Atomic Submarine, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1959), a typical B-movie of the period with the eponymous underwater vessel finding an alien saucer deep beneath the waves; Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Michael Schroeder (1993), an unofficial sequel to the Van Damme vehicle and notable only for being Angelina Jolie’s first starring role; The Girl from Rio, Jésus Franco (1969), Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, leader of the women-only nation of Femina, plans to take over the world, it starts out as a cheap thriller but turns into cheaper titillatory sf; The 25th Reich, Stephen Amis (2012), WWII GIs in Australia find a UFO, go back in time millions of years to when it crashed, then a Nazi spy steals it and ushers in an interplanetary Nazi regime, bad acting and even worse CGI; Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, Jonas Pate (2012), they took everything that had been good about Battlestar Galactica and removed it, leaving only brainless military characters and CGI battle scenes.

ALBUMS
construct1 Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) Every time Dark Tranquillity release a new album, it makes my best of the year. I guess I must be a fan then. In truth, they are probably my favourite band and their last half-dozen albums have each been consistently better than the one before. So many bands seem to plateau at some point during their career but DT amazingly just get better and better. This album was on my Best of the half-year.

spiritual2 Spiritual Migration, Persefone (2013) Another band who improves with each subsequent album. And they’re good live too – although I’ve only seen them the once (they really should tour the UK again; soon). This is strong progressive death metal, with some excellent guitar playing and a very nice line in piano accompaniment. I didn’t buy this album until the second half of the year, which is why it didn’t appear in the half-year list.

DeathWalks3 Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album by a favourite band after far too long a wait, so this was pretty sure to make my top five. Noumena play melodic death/doom metal, an inimitably Finnish genre, but they also use clean vocals, and a female vocalist, quite a bit. One song even features a trumpet solo. I posted the promo video to one track, ‘Sleep’, on my blog here. And the album also made my Best of the Half-Year.

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph4 The Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) I first saw Winterfylleth live before they were signed back in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden at the Day of Unrest (see here), and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. This, their latest album, shows how far they’ve come and amply demonstrates why they’re so good. They call it English heritage black metal, which I think just means they sing about English historical sort of things (the band’s name is Anglo-Saxon for “October”). Another album from my Best of the half-year.

Of-breath-and-bone5 Of Breath And Bone, Be’lakor (2012) On first listen I thought, oh I like this, it deserves to be played loud. And it really does – it’s not just that Be’lakor, an Australian melodic death metal band, have excellent riffs, but also that there’s a lot more going on in their music than just those riffs. The more I listen to Of Breath And Bone, the more I like it – originally I only gave it an honourable mention in my Best of the half-year, but having played the album so much throughout 2013, I think it deserves a promotion.

Honourable mentions: Dustwalker, Fen (2013), shoegazery black metal that works extremely well; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), excellent sophomore EP from a Polish death metal band, with an astonishingly good opening track (see here); Unborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013), a demo from a Finnish death/doom band, and very very heavy, sort of a bit like a doomy version of Demilich, in fact, but without the vocal fry register singing; Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, Riverside (2013), more polished, er, Polish progginess, a little rockier than the previous album, although one track does include some very melodic “sexamaphone” [sic]; All Is One, Orphaned Land, proggier than previous albums but still with that very distinctive sound of their own, incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew; and Nespithe, Demilich (1993), a classic piece of Finnish death metal history, I picked up a copy of the re-mastered edition at Bloodstock – there’s a special Demilich compilation album, 20th Adversary of Emptiness, due to be released early next year, I’ve already pre-ordered it.

One of the things I really like about metal is that it’s an international genre, and here is the proof – the bands named above hail from Sweden, Andorra, Finland, the UK, Australia, Israel and Poland. There’s also quite a good mix of metal genres, from death to black metal, with a bit of prog thrown in for good measure.


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Double stacked

I promised a book haul post and here it is. Unusually, this month’s haul consists chiefly of research books, and first editions for various collections. Which actually probably makes it a little more expensive than is typical… Oh well.

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I bought these for research for Apollo Quartet books 3 and 4 – so yes, as promised, the role of women is much increased in the second half of the quartet. These four books – Women with Wings, Right Stuff, Wrong Sex, Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps and Women Astronauts – only apply to part of the planned stories for the two novellas, however. I guess you’ll have to buy Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and All That Outer Space Allows when they’re published to find out precisely how…

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More research. Sort of. Sealab I bought just because it looked interesting. And as the bookmark indicates, I’m about a third of the way into it and it is interesting. Fascinating, even. I may well post about it later. The Very Short Introductions – Utopianism, Communism and The Soviet Union – are quite useful research tools, though they’re obviously only starting points. The Russian Cosmists is for a novel I’m working on. I started the novel the year before last when I had a bash at NaNoWriMo. I managed 15,000 words before giving up, but I recently realised that if I restructured it and took the plot in a different direction, I could end up with something quite interesting.

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A bunch of genre works. The Dog Stars was shortlisted for the Clark Award this year. I found that copy in a charity shop. The Lowest Heaven is an ARC of the latest anthology from Anne Perry and Jared Shurin. This ARC is just the stories, but the finished product will apparently contain a number of astronomical photographs. It’s due out next month. Seoul Survivors I have to review for Interzone. And The Maker’s Mask is a self-published work I stumbled across on Amazon. From what I’ve read of it so far, it seems quite fun.

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Some signed genre collections. I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since the early 1980’s, so there was no way I was going to miss buying Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe, even if I have most of its contents in other collections. Trujillo I picked up cheap on eBay. It’s out of print and difficult to find – especially the slipcased edition. I also have the Night Shade Books edition, although this PS Publishing one includes the title novel and some additional short stories. Living Shadows was another cheap eBay purchase.

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These, er, weren’t cheap. The Alien Sky and A Male Child are first editions of Scott’s first and third novel, from 1953 and 1956. Despite the enduring popularity of The Raj Quartet, Scott’s other works are really difficult to find – especially the early ones. Happily, a Cambridge-based bookshop put some of his books up on eBay recently. So I bought them. Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place is a 1962 first edition of Lowry’s first posthumous collection. It contains ‘Through the Panama’, which is currently one of my favourite pieces of novella-length fiction. It was sold by the same shop as the Scott novels.

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Finally, My Appointment with the Muse is a posthumous collection of Scott’s essays and talks. A Man Without Breath is the ninth and latest in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. I only have to read the novel prior to this one, Prague Fatale, and this one and I’m up to date.


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Come what May

A new month, a Bank Holiday weekend, and various doings of recentness in the weird and wacky world of science fiction. First up, of course, is Chris Beckett winning the Arthur C Clarke Award with Dark Eden. A win we can happy with, I think; though it was not my actual favourite on the shortlist. But congratulations to Chris, a genuinely nice guy and an excellent writer. Still, likely there will be much discussion on the win and what it means for science fiction in the UK over the next few weeks. Or perhaps not.

On the topic of not winning, right-wing nutjob Theodore Beale failed to conquer the SFWA and polled only a tenth of the votes of new SFWA president Stephen Gould. I’m not a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and have no desire to ever be one but, you know, it’s good to mock fascists, even if their politics are completely risible anyway. Speaking of which, a large number of plainly very stupid people in the UK gave a bunch of seats in local elections to UKIP. This is the party whose candidates believe exercise prevents homosexuality, claim the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, think it’s funny to photoshop their head onto a photograph of Hitler and some Nazi bigwigs, and give “imitating a pot plant” as a defence for throwing a Nazi salute… One of their candidates has apparently gone to live in Thailand for six months, leaving his (Thai) wife and kids in the UK; and another was forced to resign as a police officer after being caught working as a male escort in full uniform. The clowns are taking over the circus.

Earlier this week, Nook dropped the price of its Simple Touch ereader from £79 to £29. Since I’d spent £130 on four hardback books a couple days before, I decided £29 was cheap enough to order one. Which is where it all went horribly wrong. I placed an order… and moments after getting an email acknowledgement I received a second email saying my credit card had been declined. Because I hadn’t created an account on the website, there was no way I could view or amend my order. I tried contacting Nook support, but they were completely snowed under with, it seemed, queries from other people with the same problem. So I created an account, and ordered another Simple Touch, this time using a debit card. It went through fine. The next day, I get an email saying they’ve fixed the credit card problem, so I can re-order if I want. I don’t want. I already have one heading my way – or so an email tells me. And then I get yet another email, saying it’s out of stock so my order has been cancelled. But the website still says the order’s in progress. So, Nook: big fail there. You win this week’s award for Most Useless Business on the Planet.

Meanwhile, Adam Roberts has been working his way backwards through Banks’ Culture novels. Not reading them back-to-front, obviously, just in reverse order of publication. It perhaps comes as no great surprise to learn that the later novels are not as good as those that preceded it. That is the Way of Commercial Fiction. Go read the reviews – they are insightful and amusing. And they sort of make me want to reread the Culture novels, too. If only the TBR weren’t so damn big…

Fantasy Café’s Women in SF&F month hit a bump in the road recently with a bonkers post about sexism in fantasy – or rather, the poster’s claim that it does not exist. Read the post here, then read an excellent rebuttal here. And on the same topic, here’s a piece from 1982 which demonstrates that thirty years later not a fat lot has changed. Susan Shwartz, incidentally, is the author of one of the few heartland fantasy novels I’m happy to recommend to people, The Grail of Hearts.

One author I constantly recommend people read is Gwyneth Jones. She’s offering her Escape Plans free on Kindle on Monday 6 May and Tuesday 7 May. Go buy it. Best use the link under the title, rather than search for it on Amazon, as their search engine seems to be completely fucked. Here’s my review of it on SF Mistressworks, written back in 2001.

Despite reading for SF Mistressworks, so far this year women writers only account for around 36% of my reading. Which is not to say that reading for SF Mistressworks is a hardship. While Margaret St Clair’s collection might not have been very good, Marta Randall’s novels are certainly much better than most of her contemporaries. And I’ve also had the opportunity to revisit some books I remember with great fondness, such as those by Shariann Lewitt or Susan R Matthews. Perhaps they’ve not always fared especially well on reread, but I’m glad I took the time to do it.

Speaking of books, over the last few days I’ve tweeted photos of some recent arrivals of a bookish nature. I’ll do a proper book haul post in a few days, but let’s just say I now have more research material for Apollo Quartet books three and four, and the Paul Scott and Malcolm Lowry first edition collections have expanded somewhat (which is the £130 of books mentioned earlier). So, of course, I’ve been spending my time reading about… underwater habitats and saturation diving. For another writing project. Current read is Sealab by Ben Hellwarth, which is proving fascinating. The whole idea of living and working on the sea bed appears to have been driven by one man, Captain George F Bond, USN; and who reminds me much of Colonel John Paul Stapp, USAF, of rocket sled fame, and who I wrote about in my story, ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man Who Rode the Rocket Sled’, which should be appearing on The Orphan some time soonish.


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Recent readings

I’ve been reading a lot for review recently – not just SF Mistressworks, but also Interzone, Vector, and Daughters of Prometheus. But I do occasionally read for pleasure as well – although the reads don’t always turn out to be pleasurable…

ON THE BEACH,  Nevil ShuteOn The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957), is apparently a classic and is often claimed for science fiction since it depicts a world immediately after a nuclear holocaust. The Albanians started it all off, the Egyptians then attacked NATO, and NATO thought it was the Soviets and so the nations of northern hemisphere wiped each other out in Mutually Assured Destruction. Now the last few humans, in southern Australia, pass the few months remaining to them. A lone US nuclear submarine has survived the destruction of the US and made itself available to the Royal Australian Navy. When a series of signals in Morse code – mostly unintelligible, but occasionally a clear word comes through – is detected coming from the west coast of the US, the USS Scorpion is sent to investigate. Much of the novel describes the Australians coming to terms with their impending doom – nuclear fallout is drifting south across the equator, and no one will survive when it reaches them. The USN captain pretends he still has a family back in New England, the RAN officer aboard the submarine and his wife plan for the future of their young baby, Moira, the young woman who is paired off with the USN captain, drinks and parties a lot and falls in love with the captain, and the scientist who’s tracking the drift of the fallout starts racing fast cars, culminating in a fierce race in which most of the drivers die in crashes. The prose is clunky at best, though Shute draws his characters quite well. It’s easy to see why the book is so well-regarded, though it wasn’t as smooth a read as I’d expected. Happily, it’s better than the film adaption – which starred Gregory Peck as the USN captain, Ava Gardner as Moira (as an Australian with an American accent), and Fred Astaire as the car-racing scientist. You’d think the book would adapt well, but Stanley Kramer managed to make the whole thing extremely dull.

meaulnesLe Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier (1913), was one of my father’s Penguin paperbacks, and I thought it looked interesting enough to be worth a read. It’s framed as the reminiscences of François, who attended a village school in the Sologne run by his father. A new boy appears at the school, Augustin, but he runs away one day and stumbles across a wedding party at a small chateau. He is mistaken for one of the guests, and has a magical time. However, the wedding fails to take place, and Augustin leaves and returns to the school – but he cannot remember the location of the chateau, and desperately wishes to meet the sister of the bridegroom once again as he had fallen in love with her. The “lost domain” drives Augustin – le grand meaulnes of the title – but even when the MC of a travelling circus proves to be the bridegroom from the wedding, he is still no closer to finding the girl of his dreams. Eventually, François stumbles across the location of the chateau, makes friends with the young woman, and informs Augustin of his discovery. But Augustin has been on another quest, and things have changed… There’s a nicely elegiac atmosphere to Le Grand Meaulnes, though that’s hardly surprising in a story which covers both lost childhood and lost love. The writing in the translation I read was very good throughout and while the story was very slow to start, it was worth reading. A classic.

Dark Eden by Chris BeckettDark Eden, Chris Beckett (2012), was shortlisted for the BSFA Award but did not win, and has now been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Set on a rogue planet travelling through, I think, intergalactic space, the novel plays out Cain and Abel among the 500 descendants of a single couple who were marooned there. The story is told by several narrators, in a strangely-random debased English – some words have devolved, but others haven’t. So the various words for local flora and fauna have remained unchanged, but the annual celebration of the landing has become “Any Virsry”. The inhabitants of the planet are also suffering from severe inbreeding, with many of them having deformed feet or severe hairlips. John Redlantern, however, is perfectly normal, although he is a good deal more thoughtful than everyone else. When he realises that the valley in which they live can no longer support further growth, he tries to persuade the elders to sanction a search for more living space. They reject his proposal because they believe they’re to wait for rescuers to appear… as they have been doing for nearly 200 years. Things come to a head, John is exiled and takes with him a small group of teenagers. But then his enemy back in the main colony foments hatred against John and his followers, there’s a clash, and John is forced to take his small colony across the frozen waste which surrounds the valley in search of a new valley in which to live. There’s an almost Biblical inevitability to the story of Dark Eden, and some members of the cast do play their roles with all the thudding predictability of characters from the Old Testament. But where Dark Eden does shine is in its presentation of its old story. The setting is a small work of genius, and beautifully described, and the integration of the characters in the setting is handled with real skill. It’s no surprise Dark Eden has appeared on the shortlists of the UK’s two most-prestigious science fiction awards.

jamiliaJamilia, Chingiz Aïtmatov (1958), I bought for my 2012 world fiction reading challenge, but I never managed to complete the challenge after getting bogged down in both Orham Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear. But Jamilia is a slim work, more of a novella than a novel, so I picked it up one day earlier this month and read it on my way to and from work. It’s blurbed as “the most beautiful love story in the world” and, well, if it isn’t, it comes very close. It’s set in Aïtmatov’s native Kyrgyzstan sometime during the Second world War. The men have all gone off to fight, leaving the women, old men and boys to run the village and bring in the harvest. When Daniyar returns from the fighting, but his family are no longer alive, he is tasked with assisting the narrator’s family – especially transporting the grain by cart to the nearby town, along with the narrator and the narrator’s sister-in-law, Jamilia (whose husband is away fighting). Over several trips, Jamilia and Daniyar fall in love, but their relationship is forbidden as Jamilia is still married. The writing is simple but effective, although the translator has bizarrely mixed up Islamic oaths and Christian ones, which seems a pretty fundamental mistake to me. A fascinating little novella. Worth reading.

emptyEmpty Space, M John Harrison (2012), is the third and final book of Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, the first of which, Light, marked his return to science fiction after many years away. I’m not sure there’s any value in giving a précis of the plot, since in parts it’s wilfully opaque – as it has been throughout the entire the trilogy. Suffice it to say that some of the plot-threads from the preceding two novels do see some sort of resolution in this book. Harrison’s future is dirty and enigmatic, but it is also full of small inventive touches. The prose is like the roiling quantum foam of the strange physics it describes. Though the section set in the very near-future, featuring Anna Waterman, the widow of the physicist Michael Kearney from Light, reads more like the sort of literary fiction in which fantasy is injected sideways into the real world – much like Harrison’s earlier The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life; the narratives set on the worlds bordering the Kefahuchi Tract use the language of science fiction with a facility few genre writers can match. An alien installation, dubbed the Aleph, threads its way through the story, stitching together the various narratives as it manifests the strange physics emanating from the Tract. Strangely, though aliens are frequently mentioned in the book – and the tramp freighter Nova Swing’s cargo consists of mysterious alien “mortsafes” – they are entirely off-stage, or implied to have existed only in the deep past. Not every character is human, but the template of every character certainly is. Having finished Empty Space, but I can see the resolution and how it comes together, but I’m not entirely sure what has been resolved. It’s like the strange physics which informs the story – the effect is visible, the cause is unknowable and the process often seems to follow rules of its own. I think I shall have to reread all three books to get a real handle on it.

warriorThe Mark of the Warrior, Paul Scott (1958), is likely to remind genre readers of at least two books, even though it is set in India in 1942 and is about officer-cadets being trained for combat in the region. Major Craig is a veteran of the war in Burma – while he made it out of the jungle, as did most of his company, he did lose his second in command, John Ramsay. And now Craig has been assigned to an Officer’s Training School near Pune, as has Ramsay’s younger brother, Bob. Craig sees in Bob Ramsay the same thing he saw in John Ramsay – “the mark of the warrior”, a natural soldiering ability coupled with what are probably sociopathic tendencies. Certainly, young Ramsay proves to be the best cadet at the school – so much so that when the design of a final exercise is made into a cadet competition, Ramsay wins it by presenting a scheme both he and Craig know will prove the only useful one to those destined to fight in the region. Instead of previously setting up combat set-pieces on the nearby plains, Ramsay’s scheme involves an attack on a fortified position in the jungle thirty miles to the north of the school. Those who have read Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai trilogy are going to find a lot in The Mark of the Warrior which seems familiar, and given that Scott’s novel beat Dickson’s The Genetic General into print by a year, you have to wonder… On the other hand, it’s not all that likely a US sf author would stumble across a novel by a British mid-list literary writer within a year of its publication. Nevertheless, the Dorsai seem to owe a lot to Ramsay. As does Orson Scott Homophobe’s Ender, though not having read that book, I’m not sure how close any resemblance might be. Genre comparisons aside, Scott’s novel is a minor work. It’s well-written, and the characters of Craig and Ramsay are drawn extremely well. I said of Scott’s The Bender when I read it that it would make a good British film, and the same is true of this one. It’s time for adaptation is long past, however; though perhaps the story could be updated to the present day without too much difficulty.

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