In other words, we’ll not bother mentioning the crap ones, or the ones that are meh – though I did include one that was so bad, people should be warned off it. I’ve also excluded those I’ve read for review elsewhere – on SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus (for which I have a backlog of reviews to finish and post).
Jack Glass, Adam Roberts (2012)
Which I read too late in the year to consider for my best of the year post. Adam Roberts’ novels in précis always sound interesting and appealing, and yet I still need to find the right way to read them. This one I think I’ve come closest. It is, as Adam himself describes it, an attempt to “collide together some of the conventions of Golden Age science fiction and Golden Age detective fiction”. It opens with an impossible escape, told from the point of view of the escapee. Next is a murder-mystery. Finally, there is a locked-room mystery. All three involve the mysterious figure Jack Glass. This is a gruesome and quite Dickensian novel. The Solar System is filled with disenfranchised poor, living in fragile space habitats, while a hierarchy of the ultra-rich and privileged live a life of luxury. But the possibility of FTL – even though against the laws of physics – threatens this situation by providing an escape to the stars. And that’s the maguffin driving the three sections of the novel. The characters are a bit annoying, especially their speech patterns, and perhaps there’s a little too much authorial sleight of hand used in places to delay the solution, but it all hangs together very entertainingly and readably. Though I’ve only read about four or five of Adam’s novels, this one was the most enjoyable – perhaps because it felt the most authorial, despite managing to capture the tone and verve of Golden Age sf.
A Son of the Rock, Jack Deighton (1997)
A somewhat old-fashioned sf novel – it wouldn’t have looked out of place among British sf of the 1970s; and I hold British sf of the 1970s in high regard – and well-written, but with a mostly unlikable narrator. It’s set in a sort of future galactic human co-prosperity sphere, in which primitive worlds are exploited for raw resources. The population also undergoes an anti-ageing treatment, which is so endemic that signs of ageing, and old people themselves, are viewed with fear and hatred. The narrator works for a mining company, but before taking up his post he goes on a Grand Galactic Tour. On the world of Copper, he meets the titular character, an old man, who both repels and fascinates him. It also seems the old man sees a kindred spirit in the narrator. Later, after he joins the mining company, the narrator chooses not to take the anti-ageing drug – his grandmother reacted badly to it, and the condition is genetic so he could also suffer from it – and over time becomes a freak in society. There’s some very nice description in the book, and the premise is handled well, but it feels a little old-fashioned in places, and the supporting cast are nicer than the narrator is. Definitely worth reading, however.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell (2010)
I took this with me to Denmark to read over Christmas, as it had been sitting on my TBR since November 2010. And I’m glad I did. It is the late 1790s and the title character has arrived at the Dutch East-Indies Company’s trading post in Japan, Dejima in Nagasaki’s harbour, to assist a new manager root out corruption. But the novel is only sort of about de Zoet. It’s also about the Japanese midwife he falls in love with, and the bizarre shrine where she becomes a prisoner when her father dies, and how de Zoet beats the British attempt to muscle in on the Japanese market. It reads like straight historical fiction – although that shrine holds a horrible secret, which seems to have given its monks immortality. The period detail rings true and it’s clear Mitchell did plenty of research. They were a horrible venal, nasty, brutal and racist lot in those days, and Mitchell pulls no punches. It doesn’t make for sympathetic characters, so it’s impressive Mitchell manages to carry the story with such an ugly cast. I think this is the best of Mitchell’s novels – yes, even better than Cloud Atlas.
The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood (2011)
This one got a lot of positive word of mouth last year, so I thought it would be worth a go. In 1951, a Secular Movement opposed the increasing hold the churches had on British society. This prompted a government backlash. The secularists were rounded up and exiled to an island off the north-east coast of England. In 1977, there was another wave of church burnings, and yet more people were sent to the Island. And on the Island, a decade or so later, a group of youths, led by Nathaniel, see themselves as guardians of the inhabitants’ godlessness. That is until a young woman arrives, looking for her mother, who disappeared in 1977 and was implicated in the burning of a church. I wanted to like this book, but it was trying so hard to be A Clockwork Orange, and failing, that it annoyed me. The Island came across as some parody of “grim Up North”, the neologisms felt horribly forced, and I never really got a good handle on the age of the protagonists. It comes as no surprise to discover that Wood has a MA in Creative Writing.
Ultramarine, Malcolm Lowry (1933)
So I read ‘Through the Panama’ in Lowry’s only collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, and was blown away. Perhaps the rest of the collection wasn’t as impressive, but I wanted to read more. Happily, I’d grabbed the aforementioned collection, Ultramarine, Lowry’s first novel, and Under the Volcano from my father’s Penguin paperback collection. But I also went further and picked up some first editions of his other books. And, er, Ultramarine, his first novel. Again. The edition I have, in both paperback and hardback, is the 1962 revised edition of the 1993 original – revised, obviously, not by Lowry, who died in 1957, but very much based on his part-written revisions for the novel (which he had done in order to bring it in line with a planned seven-novel sequence titled The Voyage That Never Ends (actually used for a collection of Lowry’s “fictions, poems, fragments, letters”)). The narrator of Ultramarine – who is loosely based on Lowry himself, as indeed are most of his protagonists – joins the crew of a tramp freighter as a mess-boy, but is not liked by the rest of the crew. The book takes place in the Far East, while the ship is moored at Tsjang-Tsjang. This is a book you should read for the writing, which is excellent. There’s not much in the way of plot. The characters are superbly drawn, often just through dialogue. It’s easy to see why Lowry was such an important writer.
The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, Liz Jensen (2004)
Whenever I see a Liz Jensen book I’ve not read in a charity shop, I buy it. But I think I shall start buying them new because I’ve yet to be disappointed with any of her books I’ve read. And that’s not something I can say for many of the authors I read regularly. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is set in France in the present day, and the eponymous character is an accident-prone ten-year-old boy currently lying in a coma after falling down a cliff at a family picnic. His father is also missing and, according to the mother, responsible for pushing the boy off the cliff. Louis has just been moved to a new hospital for coma patients in Provence, and the doctor in charge – who alternates the narrative with Louis himself (apparently speaking from within his coma) – finds himself unprofessionally drawn to the boy’s mother. Essentially, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a murder-mystery, but one eyewitness is lying and the other is comatose – but is speaking to the reader via a worldview which obfuscates their meaning. It’s all very cleverly-done, and if the ending comes as no great real surprise, the journey to that point was not wasted. Definitely must read more of Jensen’s books.
Osama, Lavie Tidhar (2011)
Originally published by PS Publishing – the edition I have – then brought out in massmarket paperback by Solaris. Winner of the World Fantasy Award last year, and a surprising omission from several other shortlists (though it made the BSFA Award shortlist). It would be unfair to say I did not come to this book with high expectations. Happily, they were met. A private detective based in Ventiane is tasked with tracking down Mike Longshott, the mysterious author of a series of pulp novels which feature Osama bin Laden as a vigilante hero. This is not, of course, the world we know. Though there are echoes of it there, and as the PI draws closer to Longshott so those echoes begin to ring louder and louder. Interspersed between the chapters are short pieces of reportage on terrorist attacks from our world. It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on, and the prose sometimes stumble – trying to pastiche pulp prose at one point, then not at another. There’s also an odd substitution of “dawdle” for “doddle”, and Lavie reveals his secret love for the music of Eva Cassidy. But it’s certainly a worthy award winner and fully lives up to its audacious title.
Far North, Marcel Theroux (2009)
This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2010, but lost out to Miéville’s The City & The City. It is yet another US post-apocalypse novel. The writer is British, but the son of US author Paul Theroux; and the novel is actually set in Siberia. The central premise is that Siberia was opened to American settlers, but then some sort of catastrophe did for the rest of the world, and those remaining in the “Far North” gradually succumbed to the usual violence, rape and warlordism. Theroux can’t decide if his settlers adopted Russian culture, or simply transplanted their own – he makes reference to both situations. The narrator of the story is a young woman who acts as constable for a town in which she is the only survivor. She encounters a group of slavers, and later witnesses a plane crash. That crash persuades her that somewhere there is a settlement with technology – albeit primitive technology. She sets off to find it, and is captured by those slavers… I’m a little puzzled how this made the Clarke shortlist. True, it’s literary fiction that’s science fiction in all but name, which means the quality of writing is generally much better than genre fiction displays. It also means the genre tropes are presented as if they’ve never been used before. Except post-apocalypse has been done before – in literary fiction. The first third of Far North, in fact, was trying hard to be The Road. And failing. The fact it later abandoned that template – and introduced some magic glowing substance, for no good reason – couldn’t prevent it from being as banal as most post-apocalypse novels are.
Before The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Zoran Janjetov (2012)
It’s not that The Incal required a prequel, but Jodorowsky has done a clever job here of explaining stuff you were perfectly happy to swallow unexplained in that book, as well as set things up beautifully for the later story. Janjetov’s art nicely emulates Moebius’ style – in fact, according to the introduction it was Jodorowsky’s observation that Janjetov’s style was similar to early Moebius that prompted him to write Before The Incal in the first place. All the characters from The Incal are here, and the story cleverly sets them up for the roles they will later play. The whole thing is not quite as bonkers as The Incal (though it is still quite insane), but it’s beautifully drawn, and this is a handsomely-produced volume on a par with Self Made Hero’s lovely edition of The Incal.
Regiment of Women, Thomas Berger (1973)
A 1970s sexual satire. Oh dear. I haven’t read a book as bad as this for quite a while, and I’ve seen more biting satire on gender roles in a Two Ronnies sketch. A century or so from now, in what amounts to the ruins of the twentieth century, the women are in charge. But they dress and behave just like men – in fact, “effeminate” means behaviour currently associated with dumb macho males. Men, of course, wear pretty dresses, make-up, high heels and pantyhose, and behave like the sort of women a dumb 1970s sexist imagines women behave. Men also have breast implants. Yes, that’s right: the women are in charge, but the men conform to male gaze. Georgie is a secretary at a publishing house, but after getting unintentionally drunk at a friend’s, he is caught in public dressed as a woman – ie, in trousers, shirt and tie. He is arrested. Transvestism is illegal, but the police are convinced he is some sort of dangerous subversive. Georgie manages to break out of prison, and meets the Male Underground. They persuade him to infiltrate a Sperm Camp, where men are milked for their sperm for ex-utero procreation. (Women’s sex with men consists solely of anal penetration with a dildo, usually without the women undressing; and, most often, it’s rape.) In prison and in the Sperm Camp, Georgie encounters Harriet. She’s a woman but she just wants to dress and behave like a man – ie, wear pretty dresses, make-up, high heels and pantyhose… It’s a monumentally stupid set-up. Berger has to go through so many contortions to overcome the obvious flaws in his world, and none of his “explanations” are even remotely plausible. And that’s not to mention the deeply offensive views on gender roles on which the entire plot is based. Mystifyingly, this book has a 3.46 average on Goodreads, with quite a few 5-star reviews. Incidentally, I don’t recall any POC characters in it.