And here we are, the last books I read during 2013. As usual, it’s quite a mix – some category science fiction, some literary fiction, and a handful of bandes dessinée. Make of them what you will.
Exultant, Stephen Baxter (2004). This is the second book of the Destiny’s Children trilogy, and I quite enjoyed the first, Coalescent (see here), so I was expecting to enjoy this one too. But… oh dear. The earlier book had two main narratives, one set in the present day and the other in Ancient Britain. Exultant is set wholly in the distant future, when humanity is at war with the Xeelee, and has been for over a thousand years. A pair of teen soldiers become involved in a series of attempts to strike a final blow against the Xeelee, and destroy the huge black hole at the heart of the galaxy, called Chandra, which the Xeelee use as a base. The novel opens with fighter pilot Pirius escaping destruction by a Xeelee nightfighter through some “timelike curve” manoeuvre which results him and his crew travelling back in time several years. This is apparently not unusual on the front line – and because Pirius disobeyed orders, he is sentenced to serve in a penal battalion. His earlier self is also punished, even though he hasn’t done anything. Er, yet. But visionary Commissary Nilis (isn’t a commissary somewhere to buy food?) rescues the “innocent” Pirius from punishment and takes him to Earth to help with his crazy schemes to strike decisively at the Xeelee. Meanwhile, time-travelled Pirius experiences life as a ground trooper in the war against the Xeelee. This is science fiction as boy’s own adventure, with a side-order of Big Idea cosmology. Baxter leaves his story for chapters at a time to explain how the universe began – and, in the process, created races like the Xeelee. The characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes – Nilis is a stereotypical dotty old professor, even down to the lack of personal hygiene; a female aide is a stereotypical beautiful but cold bitch; Pirius and his girlfriend, Torec, are everyman teenagers. The way the war is prosecuted doesn’t seem at all convincing, the explanations for it and the Xeelee are dull, and the link with the preceding book is so tenuous it’s a stretch to consider this book a sequel. Exultant is sort of like distilled Baxter, but one where the distillation process has taken out all the stuff that makes most of Baxter’s works interesting. I’ll be reading the third book, Transcendent, but I’m not really looking forward to it.
Betelgeuse 1: The Survivors, 2: The Caves and 3: The Other, Léo (2000 – 2005). This is the direct follow-on from Léo’s Aldebaran series, and was originally published in five volumes: La planète, Les survivants, L’expédition, Les cavernes and L’autre. There are two more sequences, Antares, of which four of the five volumes have been published in English, and Les survivants, which currently comprises two volumes and neither of which has yet to be translated into English. Kim, one of the two teenagers who was invited to join the group of immortals in Aldebaran (see here), has spent the last few years studying on Earth. Now she’s back on Aldebaran, and is recruited to join an expedition to regain contact with a lost colony on a world orbiting Betelgeuse. On arrival at the planet, they find the colonists’ ship, but when they dock to it a computer virus destroys their ship’s systems. They descend to the surface, where they meet up with the surviving colonists – who, like on Aldebaran, have created a society in which women are second-class citizens, justified by both religion and a desperate need for population growth. But there is another group of colonists, led by the ship’s captain, who are more interested in investigating the world than subjugating women – and who the men from the first group blame for the computer virus. Kim finds herself caught between the two – the first group expect Kim to join their village and become yet another brood mare, but she’s there to discover what happened and why. It’s all tied in with the creature, the mantris, from the first series – another of its type exists on Betelgeuse, and is part of the life-cycle of the local animals known as “iums” (and who may actually be sentient). Kim learns their secret, solves the problem of the computer virus, but there is still a greater mystery to be solved. I picked up the Aldebaran series on a whim, but I must admit I’m enjoying these books. The art is good, the setting is interesting, and if Léo has a tendency to fall back on macho sexist pigs for his male villains, at least they get their just deserts. Good stuff.
Unexploded, Alison MacLeod (2013). I saw this novel on the Booker Prize long list, and something about it seemed like it might appeal. So I bought a copy. And… well, it read a bit like a parody of your typical middle-class literary novel - a couple’s marriage slowly implodes, a child unwittingly betrays someone, which leads to a shocking end… The only difference is that the story is set in Brighton in 1940, much is made of some Brits’ admiration of Hitler (not to mention their blatant anti-semitism), and Virginia Woolf makes an appearance. The story is told chiefly from the point of view of the wife, Evelyn, who enters into an affair with a Jewish painter expelled from Nazi Germany as a “degenerate”, whom she first meets in the refugee camp – a de facto prisoner of war camp – superintended by her banker husband. Yet, for all that I enjoyed the book. MacLeod evokes her period well, the cast are beautifully-drawn, and there’s some lovely writing. If it’s all a bit obvious plot-wise, at least the narrative maintains your interest. I’m not entirely sure it belonged on Booker long list, however.
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013). This novel, of course, made it to the Booker short list, and it’s also one of those literary novels that makes free use of science fiction tropes. Unlike Exploded, its description didn’t especially appeal, but I stumbled across a secondhand copy on a table of books being sold for charity in, of all places, my local Wilkinson. So I bought and read it. And I thought it was very good. Perhaps comparisons with David Mitchell’s number9dream are inevitable – both are set (chiefly) in Japan, both have very chatty narrators – but I think A Tale for the Time Being is by far the better of the two books. And that’s not just because of its core conceit, or its framing narrative. It opens as the diary of a young Japanese girl, Nao, who has grown up in the US and, on the family’s return to Japan, no longer feels Japanese. She is bullied at high school, and her father can’t find a job and has tried to commit suicide. She documents her attempts to find herself - including spending a summer with her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, whom she idolises, but also a short period spent being paid for sex by men. The diary was discovered by a writer, Ruth living on a small island off the west coast of Canada. She thinks the diary is debris from the tsunami, and tries to contact Nao, only to discover she can find no trace of her or her family. Ozeki has thrown a lot into A Tale for the Time Being – not just Japanese culture and history, but also things like the Many Worlds Hypothesis, eco-terrorism, barnacles… There are footnotes and appendices. And it all works. Both Nao and Ruth are likeable and well-drawn characters, the mishmash of tropes actually gloms together to create an interesting story, and the prose is excellent throughout. Ozeki didn’t win the Booker – it went to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which is on the TBR) – but I would be happy to see it on the BSFA and Hugo shortlists this year.
On a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (2012) I should have picked up a copy of this at the Eastercon, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Anyway, I rectified that error at Fantasycon. This is well-crafted heartland science fiction set in a Vietnamese universe. The story opens with the arrival of Linh on Prosper Station, after the rebels have taken the world which she administered as magistrate. But now she’s a refugee and dependent upon the kindness of distant relatives she has previously had little or no dealings with. It also transpires that Linh had written a letter to the emperor, criticising his conduct of the war with the rebels, and a faction at the court who share her sentiments have decided to use her in a play for courtly influence. Complicating matters is the fact she’s not welcome on Prosper Station, and that the station is having trouble coping with the refugees it has taken aboard. The story was apparently inspired by The Dream of the Red Chamber (AKA The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin, one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”, and dating from 18th century. While I’m familiar with some classical Arabic literature, I’m not with Chinese – though I might well give it a go (like I really need more books to read…). Anyway, On a Red Station, Drifting was certainly worth the cover price, and I really must catch up with the other Xuya stories.
Orbital 5: Justice, Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé (2012) The continuing adventures of the Human-Sandjarr diplomatic team comprising Caleb and Mezoke, though the last volume left them in a bad place – Caleb in a regenerative c0ma and Mezoke on trial for high treason. This is very much a continuation of the story, and quite confusing if you’ve not read – or can’t remember the plot of – the previous volumes. There’s lots of political manoeuvring going on, and it seems the Earth-based politics of earlier volumes is part of a much wider galactic conspiracy. There’s also a team of masked assassins wandering round, making matters worse. This is pretty much space opera bande dessinée, and if it feels relatively unexceptional in terms of world-building or the tropes it deploys, it at least presents a unique vision – through Pellé’s art – of its universe. On occasion it looks like it owes a little too much to media sf, especially Star Wars and Babylon 5, but the story is surprisingly twisty-turny for the subgenre and format. There’s a sixth book, Résistance, due out in French this year, and I expect Cinebook will follow with an English edition about a year later.
The Siege Of Krishnapur, JG Farrell (1973) And speaking of the Booker Prize, The Siege Of Krishnapur won it in 1973. I must admit I hadn’t realised this novel was forty years old when I started reading it, but it’s moot anyway as the story is set during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. The Collector, his family, a handful of officers and men from a nearby garrison, plus the remaining English residents and visitors from the town barricade themselves in the Collector’s Residence and are besieged for four months by the rebel sepoys. As expected, the food runs out after a couple of months – leading to an auction of all the foodstuffs the survivors have been hoarding, a number of attacks by sepoys take their toll on the defending soldiers, and then there’s an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, there are two doctors in the Residence, one who believes cholera is caused by a miasma, and a dour Scot who is much more progressive. The two hate each other, and differ widely in their treatments to injury and illnesses. The Collector himself is a progressive sort, very much taken with the many devices he saw on display at the Great Exhibition a couple of years earlier. Despite that, he is also very Victorian… which leads to one of the book’s stranger elements: the women are treated as either precocious pets, or perfectly capable of standing alongside the men and contributing to the defence of the Residence. Often, it’s the same woman which provokes these contradictory sentiments – such as Lucy, who had been “compromised” by an officer some weeks before the Mutiny kicks off; but despite feeling almost theatrically sorry for herself since her prospects have been reduced to zero, she proves to be made of sterner, and quite manipulative, stuff, and is one of the few women to play a major part during the siege. I don’t recall why I picked up this book to read – yes, I admire Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet a great deal, but this is set a century earlier and the Victorian age doesn’t appeal to me all that much (which is one reason why I’m not a fan of steampunk). And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed The Siege Of Krishnapur and thought it very good. I think I’ll even read some more Farrell.
A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks (2013) Or rather, five possible lives. The first is a young man who joins one of the many secret agent services during WWII, is captured, ends up as a trustee at a death camp but escapes, and the rest of his life is changed by his experiences in Germany – even though he returns to his pre-War career as a teacher at a boarding school. A father sells his son to a workhouse, the son prospers, buys his way out, sets himself up in business, and eventually becomes a well-to-do (if somewhat shady) business in Victorian London. A young woman in Italy a decade or so hence is obsessed with discovering the biological source of human awareness (a fascination Faulks also clearly shares, given this and his novel Human Traces). An orphaned girl in nineteenth century provincial France lives an unexceptional life looking after a family’s children. A retired rockstar discovers a new talent and nurtures her career, becoming her lover and manager, but the pressure proves too much for her. Faulks’ ideas on human awareness are interesting, but there’s not enough connective tissue between the five stories to define that idea as this book’s central conceit or even give it structure. The writing is your standard Brit-lit-fic prose, and while the settings of some stories convince, others do less so – especially the rockstar one. All in all, a pretty weak effort.
Good-bye, Robinson Crusoe, John Varley (2013). I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first stumbling across one of his short stories back in the early 1980s. A couple of those stories still remain favourites to this day, though neither are in this retrospective collection. But it was the fanboy in me who shelled out for this signed and numbered limited edition copy from Subterranean Press (who do lovely books), even though I have all but one story in other collections – and some of them in two collections. What Varley did back in the 1970s and and 1980s, he did very well – his novels from that period are still in print for good reason – and surprisingly many of his stories have withstood the test of time quite well – ‘Equinoctial’, for example, could have been written a handful of years ago. Some of the others fare less well – ‘The Unprocessed Word’ is a silly joke that probably wasn’t very funny when it was first published in 1986, and just feels quaint now. ‘Blue Champagne’ feels like a heartland sf story of its time; ‘In the Bowl’ still stands up; as does ‘Lollipop and the Tar Baby’, although a sentient black hole is a little, er, hard to swallow. In hindsight, this is a book for fans of Varley’s fiction. The most recent story dates from 1986, so it’s hardly an introduction to his current fiction (he has a new novel, Dark Lightning, out this year). If you want to see what Varley’s fiction is like, The John Varley Reader from 2004 is a better look at his career than this book, even if it’s not as attractive an object.