It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Apollo 11 x 50

Today is  the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. So the media is full of science fiction writers commenting on the event, many of whom weren’t even alive when it happened. To be fair, I was only three when Armstrong took his “one small step”, and the only Apollo mission I actually remember watching was ASTP. It’s not like science fiction writers are even experts on the Apollo missions, or indeed actual realistic space exploration. Not unless they’ve written a novel about it. Which some have.

I did too. It was a few years ago now. The Apollo Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015.  I’d planned to publish an omnibus edition in time for today, but then I went and moved countries… So, sorry, no omnibus edition. But the four individual volumes are still available on Amazon, in paperback, audiobook and Kindle editions.

1 Adrift on the Sea of Rains

2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself

3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

4 All That Outer Space Allows

All four are based on alternate visions of the Apollo programme – except for All That Outer Space Allows, which takes place during the actual Apollo programme (but is still alternate history).

For those wanting more realistic space-based science fiction, there is also Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories.

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The Hugos 2019, novelettes

Apologies for the inadvertent silence. I moved to a new apartment across the city a few weeks ago and the new place didn’t have internet access. So I had to order broadband service and buy a router, and then resolve a few technical issues (which we won’t go into). But the good news is: I’m back online. Obviously. And the new apartment is very nice.

But on with the post…

Let me get this out of the way first: there is no such thing as a novelette. There are novels, there are novellas and there are short stories. I don’t know when the novelette was “invented” but I understand it chiefly came into being in order to pay some writers on a different scale to others. These days, it’s just another category to hand out prizes to friends. The only places you’ll see the term novelette used is on the contents pages of US print genre magazines – and how relevant are they these days? – or on the shortlists of US genre awards – and how relevant are, er… It’s a completely meaningless category. Kill it now.

We still have it among the multitudinous Hugo Award categories. Many of which, incidentally, should also be binned. But that’s an argument for another day. Officially, a novelette is a piece of fiction between 7,500 and 17,500, although I do like Wikipedia’s definition that it’s a “novella, especially with trivial or sentimental themes”. Sounds about right.

I should also point out that while my taste in genre fiction differs from those who currently nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards, there is plenty of sf available that is to my taste. It just doesn’t get nominated for the Hugo Award. Fans of the Hugo like to think they speak for the entire genre, but they don’t. And the award itself likes to think it’s representative, if not emblematic, of the genre, but that’s just marketing bullshit. The Hugo Award is a small oxbow lake in the river of genre, and if it keeps its fans happy then all to the good. But it’s also an award it’s hard for me to escape as I attend conventions and follow the genre on social media. My decision to read, and blog about, the fiction nominees this year was prompted chiefly by a desire to see how far it had drifted from my taste (or vice versa). I admit I read critically. It’s almost impossible not to when you’ve spent decades reviewing books for various magazines, and even written fiction yourself. Not everyone who votes reads critically. Which does not invalidate their vote. Or my comments.

As with the previous post, here are the six nominees, in the order in which I read them:

The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander. Unlike the other nominees, this is the only novelette to have been published independently as a book. By Tor.com. Like a novella. All the others appeared in magazines, online or otherwise. Except this is not entirely true: the Connolly and Gregory below may not have been published in paperback, but they were published as independent pieces of fiction on the Tor.com website. So that’s five of six novellas and three of six novelettes published by Tor.com. Anyway, during WWI the US used women to paint glow-in-the-dark radium on watch-faces and the like, and many of them died from, or were disfigured by, cancer. Bolander has taken this historical fact and run with it. In her story, elephants were involved – and were smart enough to be communicated with using a special sign language – and an attempt by the US to train elephants to work with radium instead of young women results in the death of a nasty piece of work supervisor and the public execution, by electrocution, of the elephant responsible for his death. This is juxtaposed with a near-future narrative in which a young woman wants to genetically engineer elephants to glow in the dark as a warning of the nuclear waste buried beneath land which will be bequeathed to them. None of this last narrative makes the slightest bit of sense, but it’s presented as if its the anchoring narrative thread. Another thread is told from an elephant’s POV and, well, it doesn’t really work. Or feel necessary. There’s a really cool story somewhere in The Only Harmless Great Thing but the way it’s been presented doesn’t to my mind do it any favours. Too much of it is unnecessary – and while I’m all for writers being clever, in fact I both relish and admire it, the cleverness here lies in the narrative set in the past, which are handled well, and not in the near-future narrative or the elephant POV ones. Which is a roundabout way of saying that The Only Harmless Great Thing really didn’t work for me.

‘When We Were Starless’, Simone Heller (Clarkesworld Oct 2018). A friend complained about the lack of translated fiction in this year’s Hugo Award shortlists, which is certainly true. However, Aliette de Bodard is not an Anglophone, although she writes in English; and neither is Simone Heller, who is actually Germanophone, or whatever the appropriate phrase is. Anyway, Heller, although German, writes in English, or certainly has done for this novelette. It’s set on an unnamed planet, perhaps even a future earth, in which the dominant species are some form of chameleon-like lizard, if that makes sense, who make their living from salvaging tech and materials from a dead civilisation. The main character is a scout for a nomadic band, and she stumbles across what appears to be a planetarium with a controlling AI. Everything is filtered through the character’s worldview – so she doesn’t recognise what the building is, and she thinks the AI is some sort of spirit. Anyway, it’s all somewhat predictable: her views are not in step with the rest of the tribe, she strikes a deal with the AI, is subsequently censured by tribe, but when they’re attacked by an endless horde of ravening beasts, she strikes a deal with the AI, which helps save the day. It’s all nicely done, and very science-fictional, but the world-building doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Is it set on a post-apocalypse earth? Where did the lizards come from? Or the monsters which attacked them? ‘When We Were Starless’ feels a bit, well, flash. It’s all surface: a standard plot, a setting that makes little sense… but nice visuals and a nice turn of phrase. I can see how it might appeal to some people, but it didn’t do much for me.

‘The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections’, Tina Connolly (Tor.com 11 Jul 2018). There’s this baker in this random fantasy world who discovers how to bake memories – or rather, triggers for memories, because the memories are personal – into cakes, and the nasty regent forces him to work in the royal kitchens and employs his wife as taster so the baker doesn’t poison the regent. There’s a joke about herbs and thyme buried somewhere in the world-building here, but it’s not worth mentioning and while it may have inspired the novelette the end result is a great deal more, well, something. From the first paragraph, it’s clear the wife has some plot in hand to have her revenge on the regent. But first we have to go through a bunch of recipes, plus associated back-stories for each, as lead-up to the resolution. Which pretty much means your mileage is going to depend on how much you enjoy all the guff about the various cakes. Which I didn’t. I like landscape writing, not culinary writing, And while there’s a clear conceit here that works through its ramifications with admirable rigour, I’m one of those people who find writing about baking pretty dull. And the fantastical conceit here doesn’t make it any more interesting. If anything, its focus on taste and memory tends to overshadow the actual situation – evil regent, brother held to ransom to produce pastries, wife employed as taster, etc. Not my, er, cup of tea.

‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’, Daryl Gregory (Tor.com 19 Sep 2018). The idea of following a character over a lengthy period by describing selected periods in their life many years apart is hardly a new one. I used it myself in a story that was published in a literary magazine (although the story was science fiction). Gregory makes good use of it here in his description of an invasion of Earth by alien “invasive” plant species. And it works, because the alien plant is integrated into the life of the narrator. I don’t have a problem with episodic narratives, whether they have a clear through-line or not; and ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ certainly has a clear through-line. The story opens in 1975 and ends in 2028. The author was apparently ten in 1975 (he’s a year older than me), so it’s unlikely he remembers enough about the year to do a good job of evoking it. And so it proves. (Of course, 2028 is nine years in the future, so how is he supposed to “remember” it?) But this is not a story that bothers much with time or place, using labels to signal setting to the reader. It doesn’t actually matter that much, because the narrative is chiefly focused on LT’s relationship with his partner and their life together. ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ I thought slow to start, but once it got going it was pretty good reading. I liked its episodic narrative, I liked its central relationship, and I liked the way it linked the alien plant to the relationship. Often, genre stories literalise metaphors, or are based around thumpingly obvious metaphors of their premise. ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ falls into the latter category, but it doesn’t make a meal of its metaphor, and leaves it sufficiently open to interpretation. It’s nice to see some restraint.

‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’, Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Nov/Dec 2018). That’s not a title that’s going to make me rush out and buy a copy of the magazine – but that’s because I’m not a fan of ghost stories. Which just goes to show you, as this was the best story on the shortlist. By quite a margin. The narrator is a folkorist who’s studying ghost stories. But the novelette is also about her life and her relationships, particularly her relationship with her mother. As part of her work, the narrator meets a number of mediums (the only time “mediums” is permissible as the plural of “medium”), but of course she is sceptical about their abilities. Her work allows her to come to terms with her mother’s death, as well as celebrate the relationship they had before her death. The story drops in lots of authentic-sounding detail about the folkloric study of ghost stories – which convinced me, and may well have been completely made-up. But the story also handled its central premise extremely well, maintaining a sceptical tone throughout but hinting perhaps there was some truth to it. ‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’ really is a cut above the rest of the shortlist. It’s not like the prose on a sentence level is that much more impressive – it’s good, without being showy (whereas far too much genre short fiction these days is showy without being good); but it unfolds its plot, based entirely on its premise, in an almost textbook-like fashion. Some stories simply strike you as well-crafted, and those are the ones that should be appearing on genre award shortlists. This is definitely that. The last genre work I remember reading that was put together so well, despite being something that would not ordinarily appeal, was Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, which I read years ago and even wrote about for Locus magazine.

‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’, Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog 29 Nov 2018). Unlike the other nominees, this novelette wasn’t published in an explicitly fiction-publishing venue. As far as I can work out, the B&N blog is more of a house magazine, and ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’ is the second of its “SFF Originals”, with one by Ursula Vernon published in 2017. The title refers to an imugi’s attempts to become a dragon (this is Korean mythology), and after two failures, a thousand years apart, it’s inadvertently witnessed by a young American woman of Asian extraction. The sight is enough for her to turn her life around. The imugi, disguised as a human woman, visits the American woman, now an astronomy professor, but is surprised to discover that astronomy is the very subject, “the Way”, it has been studying in order to make it to heaven and become an actual dragon. So it stays. And enters into a relationship with the professor. And the two live very happily for many decades. It’s all a bit glib and the imugi’s characterisation is simplistic at best, but the story has bags of charm and makes good use of its premise. I don’t think it’s especially good, but I enjoyed it – to a degree it overcame its weaknesses, unlike a couple of the novelettes above. I’ve not read anything by Cho before, although I’ve heard mostly positive noises about her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown (and I do like me some Regency). I’m tempted to give the novel a go. As for ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’, it’s hugely likeable, if not especially impressive on a technical level.

The novelette category, despite my refusal to admit the form has a right to existence, has, for the Hugo Award this year, I think, produced better fiction than the novella category. Which is sort of ironic given the Wikipedia quote above. But some of the above, had they been nominated as novellas, would have made that category much stronger.

As in my novella post (see here), if I were going to vote on the Hugo Award novelette category, I’d put ‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’ at number one, followed by ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ and then ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’. The Only Harmless Great Thing, ‘The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections’ and ‘When We Were Starless’ would all go below No Award.


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Moving pictures 2019, #16

More movies. I’m still a bit behind on these. I had thought moving to Sweden would give me more time to work on my blog, and my writing, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Yet. But perhaps as I get settled… I spent a while learning the layout of my local supermarket, only for them to completely re-arrange it. I wasn’t the only one thrown by the change – for a few days, pretty much all customers were quizzing the staff as to the new location of various items. Having said that, shopping is definitely a skill you need to relearn when moving to a new country. Supermarkets are different, food is different. It’s not a hard skill to learn, it must be said, but it’s not something you expect to have to learn. Unlike the language.

Anyway.another bunch of films; some recent, some not….

Siren, Jesse Peyronel (2013, USA). This is a small independent film made by a British director, starring US actress Vinessa Shaw in the title role and that British bloke from Eastenders, who had the shit kicked out of him by Captain Marvel in a deleted scene in, er, Captain Marvel which caused all the man-boys on social media to spontaneously burst into man-tears, in the other lead role. Shaw plays a woman who produces a pheromone so powerful she has to live in seclusion because men fall instantly in love with her (she appears as their fantasy mate to them), which obviously causes huge problems. Given what men are like. To women. Then along comes Robert Kazinsky, who appears to be unaffected by her chemical charms… because he has no sense of smell (knocked out of him by an Iraqi shell during the illegal US invasion and occupation of that country). Actual real love might blossom… There’s a none-too-subtle twist about three-quarters of the way in, but this wasn’t a bad little film at all. It handled its premise well, the two leads were watchable, and while the script wasn’t actively good it was better than that of many a tentpole blockbuster.

Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race, Timo Vuorensola (2019, Finland). If you haven’t seen Iron Sky, you won’t get much from the sequel. If you have seen Iron Sky, you’ll know whether or not you can be bothered to watch the sequel. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Iron Sky. While I found its humour a little puerile, the production design was great and the premise an absolute winner. To be fair, having previously seen all the Star Wreck films, I had some idea what to expect comedy-wise, so it wasn’t a deal-breaker. Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race manages to turn Iron Sky up to eleven in pretty much all areas… although the humour still remains chiefly juvenile and some of the jokes overstay their welcome. A home-built Russian UFO arrives at the heavily-damaged Nazi base on the dark side of the Moon, and its pilot agrees, after some violent drama, to take some of the (“good”) Nazis to the South Pole to find the Holy Grail in Agartha, the land inside the hollow earth, to save the moonbase. Which is where some other Nazis fled after WWII. Including Hitler. And various other incarnations of evil. Like, er, Steve Jobs. It turns out reptilian aliens colonised the Earth hundreds of millennia before, uplifted humans, and now live in Agartha, occasionally taking human form, such as the leader of the Nazi moonbase. As in the first film, there are some excellent sfx and a few really good set-pieces. The script varies wildly but presents an interesting group of characters. I remember seeing the advance publicity for Iron Sky and being excited about it… only to be a little disappointed by the final product. There’s been a lot of advance material about Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race, but it was harder to know what to make of its use of its references – Bulwer-Lytton! vril! hollow earth! Agartha! Hitler! secret Nazi South Pole bases! I mean, even if Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race were just like Iron Sky, there’d be plenty in there to entertain for those familiar with the mythos. That Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race turns its plot into an action story sort of works in its favour, but the juvenile glee the film takes in its premise and mythos acts slightly against that. Worth seeing… but I suspect you’d have to be a fan to watch it more than once.

Vox Lux, Brady Corbet (2018, USA). For an industry which has been creating celebrities out of nobodies for over a century, Hollywood seems strangely unable to tell a story on that topic in any meaningful or plausible way. And when it comes to Vox Lux, which appears to be a personal project of the director, it’s hard to know what to make of it. Or indeed when he was trying to say. A teenage girl survives a school shooting (if the US won’t introduce gun control, as the UK and New Zealand did after gun massacres, at least they’ll inspire some books and films…), and with her older sister writes a song in response, which becomes an internet hit. This kickstarts the girl’s career. Jump forward twenty years or so and now she’s a successful pop star. And she’s done all the self-destructive pop star things. And is still doing some of them. She also has a teenage daughter, who watches this behaviour from the sidelines with no power to stop it. Yawn. Then a terrorist shooting is linked to the singer because the terrorists wore masks that featured on a promo video of her biggest hit. Bit fucking tenuous. But this is not a film out to make much sense. In fact, in places it seems Corbet is more about the visuals than the story-telling, despite the former being an aspect of the latter. Natalie Portman puts in a good turn in the lead role, but she’s a quality actress. If you like films that are more style than substance, that add nothing to the genre of rock-star-in-decline movies, then you might enjoy this. Otherwise: don’t bother.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Roger Corman (1963, USA). The title is pretty much the plot of this classic B-movies from Corman’s New World Pictures. There is a man. He invents a substance which allows eyes to see across a much wider spectrum. He experiments on himself. Guess what happens. As his ability to “see” increases, so his mental stability worsens. It doesn’t help that star Ray Milland was once an A-lister and must have slid pretty far to end up in a Corman movie. But even his past reputation can’t save this. It also doesn’t help that he’s wearing a pair of silly circle lenses that clearly are none too comfortable. It’s all very formulaic, with the title explaining the villain and giving a big nod to the story. Milland comes a cropper in the end, of course he does. That’s how these sort of horror films work. On the other hand, there are some nice psychedelic effects, and the scene where Milland is at a party and can see through everyone’s clothes is probably what the movie is chiefly famous for. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is, I guess, worth seeing at least once. But only after several beers.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). I’m not a fan of the MCU films, and I can pretty much take or leave 99% of animated movies. When I start seeing lots of praise from many different quarters for a film that is both of them… I’m going to be sceptical. But you never know, chances are I’d probably watch it at some point anyway, so why not sooner? And, well, it’s not really my bag, but once it had finished I was pretty much convinced it’s one of those animated movies that’s a complete game-changer. Like The Incredibles. It doesn’t just raise the bar, it shifts it to an entirely new level. The story was no great shakes, just fairly typical MCU bobbins, but the presentation was superb. Not just the animation, but the design, the use of the screen real estate, everything that made it an animated movie and not just a movie. The script was not terrible, perhaps even a cut above other MCU movies, but it’s not a film where the fact it’s a superhero film is its defining characteristic. So it’s a bit weird it’s won so many accolades, including an Oscar. I mean, an Oscar going to what actually might be an excellent film is something of a novelty. And yet, you can guess it’s not the story that led to those prize wins and nominations, it’s the way the film looks, the way it’s put together, and it’s a surprise to see that recognised so universally. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, as I said, immediately struck me as a game-changer, and its impact in the cinema world seems to demonstrate that. Whether anything will actually change is another matter. I suspect it will. I also suspect any sequel will prove disappointing. That seems to be the way it works. But definitely see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. You will not be disappointed.

Badrinath ki Dulhania, Sashank Khaitan (2017, India). Pretty much every Bollywood movie goes something like this: boy meets girl, something happens, boy loses girl, something else happens, boy gets girl back. Happy end. It’s a very successful formula and it’s produced some very entertaining Bollywood films. Like this one. In Badrinath ki Dulhania, you have the wastrel son of a rich man, who doesn’t want an arranged marriage because he’s seen how unhappy one has made his elder brother. Wastrel son falls in love with a spirited and educated young woman and eventually manages to persuade her to marry him. But she jilts him at the altar. He tracks her down to Singapore, where she’s training to become cabin crew for an airline. After much arguing, and an overnight stay in jail, he mends his ways and the two are finally reconciled. Happy end. Much singing and dancing along the way, of course. The movie makes some important points about dowries and women’s roles and expectations, despite being pretty light-hearted Bollywood rom com entertainment (quite a few twenty-first century Bollywood films are good on gender politics commentary in present-day India, better than Hollywood, in fact). I picked this film at random from the large number of Bollywood films on Amazon Prime (including most of Guru Dutt’s films! Watch them!), and enjoyed it a great deal. A good one.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 940


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The Hugos 2019, novellas

I attended the Worldcon in Helsinki in 2017 – and had a great time – which meant I was eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugos that year and the year following. I did neither. In either year. I’ll be attending the Worldcon this year in Dublin. Which means I’m once again eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards. Again, I’ll be doing neither. The Hugos have never really aligned with my tastes, and I refuse to vote for people on shortlists that comprise works. However, as an eligible voter, I have access to the Hugo Voter Pack. Which is pretty much everything on the various shortlists. This year, I decided to actually have a go at reading the shortlisted works. I doubt I’ll finish the novels before the con itself – and, to be honest, I’ve not even started them – but the novellas, novelettes and short stories… those I can do. The other categories I don’t care about.

First up are the novellas. Because it’s a length of fiction I like, both to read and to write. Of the six works on the shortlist, four were by authors whose names I’d heard of before and, in some cases, even read previously. One was vaguely familiar and one was completely unknown to me. In the order in which I read them…

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Robson previously, but her name sounded vaguely familiar– Ah, she won a Nebula for Best Novelette last year, and is another of the Clarkesworld/Tor.com stable, members of which have appeared on many shortlists in the last couple of years. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach was published by Tor.com. In fact, five of the six novellas on this year’s shortlist were published by Tor.com. Which is a problem. Anyway, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is set on a post-climate crash Earth, in which a much-reduced population live in small high-tech communities. There are people who work on fixing the damage caused by the climate crash, in an effort to create a world that can be repopulated to former levels. The protagonist of this story is one of them. She also has eight prosthetic legs, like an octopus. And she is part of a team, if not its leader, which submits a proposal for an environmental impact study which involves time travel back to Sumeria. It sounds messy as fuck, but Robson manages to make it all hang together. There are problems: it’s not entirely clear what the team from the future are trying to achieve, the personal politics are confused with the wider political situation, and the POV is peculiarly narrow given the world-building. It actually reads like part of a series where much of the world-building was handled in earlier works, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s a reasonably well-handled piece, and the prose itself neither stands out nor is an obstacle – and the latter is certainly something that could be said of other nominees. I’m not sure if it deserves to be on the shortlist… but on balance, I’d say its presence is not embarrassing.

Artificial Condition, Martha Wells. Another problem with the novella category – indeed, with the Hugo Awards over the last few years as a whole – is the preponderance of sequels. Martha Wells, previously better-known for mid-list fantasy series, published three of her Murderbot novellas in 2018. (The first was published in 2017.) That’s a series. Artificial Condition is the second instalment. None of them stand alone. There are indeed cases where the second instalment in a series is better than the first, but in this case the first instalment, All Systems Red… won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year. Come on, people, read a little more fucking widely. It would be understandable if the Murderbot series were astounding, the best sf published for many years… But they’re not. They’re entertaining, and even a little bit clever in places. But fun as they may be, they’re not award-worthy. And if you’re nominating fiction because it was “fun”, you appear to have misunderstood the meaning of the word “best”. The thing about “best” is that you have to recognise something as being of high quality, higher quality in fact than pretty much everything else you read, you don’t necessarily have to have enjoyed it or thought it was fun. The two are quite different. Any old wine will get you pissed, but the good ones won’t have you gagging every time you take a sip. At least not for the first half-dozen glasses. What we have here is a novella that gets you pissed without you actually noticing the flavour of the vintage – and I’d submit that’s not what awards are about, at least not awards that have the word “best” in their title. I enjoyed Artificial Condition. I might even read the rest of the series. But I really can’t see this as award-worthy and its nomination says more about the award than it does the genre.

The Black God’s Drums, P Djèli Clark. Clark won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story this year (the story is also nominated for the Hugo), but appears to have come pretty much from nowhere. True, The Black God’s Drums was published by Tor.com, but his short story was published in a magazine I’ve not come across before. Also true, there seems to be a great love for debuts in recent years’ popular vote genre awards (seriously? why?), but that doesn’t mean the nominated works are necessarily bad. The Black God’s Drums is a bit busy, but it’s an interesting melding of ideas – alternate history, steampunk, voodoo magic and gods – and if it suffers it’s because its ideas makes its plot all a bit too obvious. Streetwise urchin protagonist has connection to powerful goddess; said goddess makes unexpected appearance at story climax to save the day. It’s not quite that simplistic, but the telegraphing here is as blatant as it comes. Obvious foreshadowing is better than none, but a little subtlety goes a long way. The plot is pretty much a staple of, well, fiction in general: nutter steals superweapon to wreak vengeance on city, random people come together to foil the plot (because there’s no organised government response to these sorts of things, ever). Does The Black God’s Drums belong on the shortlist? About as much as the Robson, I think. Its presence is hardly embarrassing, but if this and the Robson are the best the genre can produce in a given year then there’s still a long way to go…

Binti: The Night Masquerade, Nnedi Okorafor. Like Clark, Okorafor also appears twice in this year’s Hugo nominations – for this novella and for the Black Panther comic she scripted. I have to admit I don’t understand the acclaim her fiction receives. She’s a fascinating person and is an excellent role model, but what little fiction by her I’ve read has struck me as simplistic and badly-written. It doesn’t help that Binti: The Night Masquerade is the third and, I think, final part in the Binti series. I read the first, and thought it interesting, if not particularly well put-together. But it was much better than this one, in which this happens and then that happens and then something else happens and then Binti is killed and then she comes back to life and then it all abruptly ends. It doesn’t help that the title refers to a nightmarish figure who appears to Binti, and yet the name of it – the Night Masquerade – clearly indicates it’s a fucking fake but everyone is too fucking stupid to realise. Anyway, Binti returns home but her family are dead, except they’re not really, and there are two races at war with each other but it’s almost impossible to keep straight because Okrafor is more interested in Binti’s feels than she is setting the scene. I’m no fan of exposition, and I disagree entirely with Kim Stanley Robinson’s statement “it’s just another form of narrative”, and “streamlining exposition into the narrative” is another piece of writing advice that gets my back up… Which is not to say there’s zero info-dumping in Binti: the Night Masquerade. There’s plenty. But it’s all about Binti and her culture, or that of her male companion. The rest of the world is so sketchy it might as well have been made-up on the spot by Binti herself. I really do not rate these novellas, and I’m mystified by the love shown to them.

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire. Yet another sequel. This is the third instalment in the Wayward Children series, about which I know nothing… but can pretty much guess what it’s about from this novella alone. Think Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Sort of. But less clever. McGuire’s prose is so bland it rivals Gaiman’s. Except, that is, for the occasional flight of fancy, none of which actually work. The story is all “poor fat girl who is actually a princess in another reality” tagging along with some friends who try to help a fellow “wayward child” at a school for children who have spent time in other worlds and can’t cope in the real one. The central conceit is, I admit, quite neat, and McGuire clearly has a great deal of fun with it. But it all reads like poor-me fiction and a single idea stretched well past breaking point. The first volume in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2017, and I’m told it’s better than this one. And the second instalment, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, was nominated last year. But Beneath the Sugar Sky‘s presence on the shortlist says more about the power of McGuire’s fanbase than it does the quality of her fiction.

The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard. I’ve been and on-and-off fan of de Bodard’s fiction since first reading one of her stories in an issue of Interzone just over ten years ago. I say “on-and-off” because her science fiction appeals to me much more than her fantasy. And while I remember a number of sf stories set in an Aztec-dominated world, she is best-known these days for her Xuya universe stories, a Vietnam-based far future. (The universe itself is shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award, which is not how I thought the Best Series Hugo Award worked, and I’m surprised there’s more than 250,000 words in the short stories and novellas, but no novels, set in the Xuya universe.) Anyway, the “tea master” is a ship mind (more McCaffrey than Banks, if I’ve interpreted the text correctly) and the detective is a woman with a chequered past who hires the ship mind for a simple task. During which they discover a body that clearly did not die of natural causes. The mystery of the victim’s death is intertwined with the mystery of the detective’s past, although one is not a consequence of, or reflects on, the other. But both have satisfying conclusions, and the novella makes good use of its setting. The Tea Master and the Detective is not, as a friend said to me, the best Xuya story de Bodard has written, but it’s a good one. and to my mind, it’s easily the best on this year’s Hugo shortlist.

So there you have it. I’m not going to vote on any of the above, but if I had to choose a winner it would be The Tea Master and the Detective. If I were in a good mood, I’d vote de Bodard, then Robson, then Clark, and everything else below no award. If I were in a bad mood – which is more likely, I suppose – then it’d be de Bodard and everything else below no award.

I had thought this might prove a fun exercise. In fact, I’m discovering why I no longer follow the Hugo Awards. Ah well. Next up, the novelettes…


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Moving pictures 2019, #15

Despite my best intentions, I’ve actually got worse at keeping this blog up to date. But then, it’s been a funny old month-and-a-bit: moving apartment, SFI twice a week, a couple of red days, and then a very long weekend in the middle for Åcon, followed by Swecon two weeks later. Which may explain the delay, but not the pretty odd selection below. It’s just the way it worked out.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Bruce Beresford (1972, Australia). Remember that time you were down the pub and some bloke told a joke that seemed funny at the time but you were pissed and so was everyone else but but not everyone thought it was funny and in sober hindsight you realise it wasn’t at all funny and was in fact borderline offensive if not outright offensive and if you had been with a more diverse group of friends they probably wouldn’t be friends anymore? Well, that’s this film. Which is why it’s a little embarrassing to write about The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, in which a racist and homophobic young Australian man visits the UK and has humorous adventures, ostensibly at the expense of the English, but he comes across as, well, racist and homophobic, so hardly a good advertisement for Australian manhood. Not that the English behave particularly well, as they’re depicted as either corrupt or even more racist than the Australians. The film was commercially successful but Beresford later said it blighted his career. Making shit films will do that. And just because a film is popular in its time, that doesn’t mean it’s not shit. And I don’t mean “shit” here as in “not well-made” but rather “offensive”. So I can understand Beresford’s complaints. A film to avoid.

Stan & Ollie, Jon S Baird (2018, UK). In the 1950s, shortly before the end of their careers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy toured the UK. This much is fact. It was partly to drum up interest – financially, mostly – in a film project of Laurel’s, a signature reworking of the Robin Hood legend. But the film producer played the comic duo for fools and the UK promoter of the tour did a less than stellar job. It is somewhat disappointing to learn that despite a career in Hollywood Laurel and Hardy were just as easy to fool as those who had stepped off the bus the night before. The film even shows them being smart about contracts… only to have them not actually learn anything from the incident. But that’s real life. And so is this film. It conflates a few things, changes a few minor details, but it’s essentially true to the pair’s final tour of the UK. And their reasons for doing it. But in any biopic, ninety percent of the appeal comes down to the depiction of the subjects, and in that respect Stan & Ollie scores very highly. Steve Coogan has Stan Laurel’s mannerisms down to a tee, although occasionally he does feel more like an actor playing a part; but John C Reilly is a pretty much a perfect Babe Hardy. I’ve seen a lot of Laurel & Hardy films over the years, I have even seen a few documentaries about the pair. And Reilly is extremely convincing. The pair of them make the film, but Reilly more than Coogan.

Sadak, Mahesh Bhatt (1991, India). According to Wikipedia, this film was inspired by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, although to be honest I didn’t spot the resemblance myself and I’m not sure how closely one maps on the other. The one thing I do remember about Sadak is that it was more like a Hollywood musical in places. Several of the musical numbers had everyone come together on what were clearly indoor sets purporting to be street scenes to sing and dance. And maybe a bit like the TV series Taxi, that one with Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufman. The film centres on Ravi, a good-natured but insomniac taxi driver, who one day stumbles across the beautiful  Pooja, shortly before she is kidnapped and indentured to an evil transgender brothel keeper. One of Ravi’s passengers had been a celebrity cop, so Ravi enlists his help in rescuing Pooja. But it doesn’t go as planned, as nothing does in films of this sort, even Bollywood ones, and the final scenes sees a shootout between the good guys and the bad guys. Ravi is left for dead, but uses the last of his strength to have vengeance on the bad guys and finally rescue Pooja. Happy end. Sadak felt more 1970s than 1990s, although the transfer was much better than would have been usual for a Bollywood film from the earlier decade. I couldn’t decide if the musical numbers were deliberate pastiches – the opening one, for example, reminded me of one of the songs from Grease in its staging. If you’re into Bollywood films, you’ll get an evening’s entertainment out of Sadak, even if it does take some swallowing in places.

Shazam!, David F Sandberg (2019, USA). DC have had real trouble creating a property with the appeal of MCU’s properties. Which is odd, when you think about it, because they’ve got some big super-powered guns in their arsenal. But they’ve rebooted Batman that many times… and Superman too… and only recently did they finally realise that Wonder Woman was commercially viable (despite a successfully syndicated TV series decades ago), and as for the rest… Aquaman is DC, right? I forget. It was complete bobbins, but very entertaining (see here). There was that Justice League movie. I think I’ve seen it (apparently, I have – see here). So it must have seemed to DC like the most natural thing in the world to pick a second-rate hero like Shazam and make a big budget film about him. The central premise of Shazam! is the super-powers are passed from person to person, and the film’s first act sees those powers being given to a fourteen-year-old boy. Who, when he says the magic word – bet you can’t guess what it is – and transforms into a superhero, he’s a grown man but he’s still got the mind of a kid. It makes for a good joke… when used sparingly. The plot is something to do with a previous candidate for the powers who, peeved he was rejected, turns all-out evil and abducts Shazam’s friends and stuff like that. The movie had its moments, but it’s considerably less memorable than Aquaman, even if my overriding memory of the latter is endless battle scenes and a treasure map that required the use of a statue of a Roman emperor who didn’t exist until centuries after the map was made. Oops. Anyway, a bottle of wine and something trashy to eat like pizza, and Shazam! could be considered suitable accompaniment.

Vinyl, Sara Sugerman (2012, UK). Titling films is important. Sometimes it’s why people watch them. So to title a film Vinyl – an over-used title – when it really has nothing to do with vinyl, ie, LPs, seems like a pretty dumb decision. But that’s what they did here. And it’s even based on a true story. Which also had nothing to do with vinyl. But Vinyl is a film about music and bands, so it’s not like there isn’t some link. In the early 2000s, the members of a punk band popular twenty years earlier all meet up at the funeral of a friend. They’ve all got their own lives, not all of which has been successful. After a piss-up, they jam. The following morning, one of them cleans up the song they spontaneously wrote while pissed, and they all decide it’s good enough to give their band a second lease of life. Except the A&R man of their old record label disagrees. He likes the song, but he’s not interested in a band of fortysomething washed-out punks. So the band hire a bunch of young people to play the part of the band responsible for the song. It works. They get a contract. And the single is successful. But then the fake band members decide they’re a real band and they want a proper career… Vinyl was apparently filmed almost entirely in Rhyl, and much of the cast – with the exception of a handful of lead roles – were local players. The end result is a small town British – well, Welsh – comedy, with perhaps a little too much profanity but some good comic set-pieces, and a story that sounds almost entirely implausible despite being (mostly) true.

The White Balloon*, Jafar Panahi (1995, Iran). There are several films from Iran on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although most are either by Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf. (The former actually provided the script for The White Balloon.) The presence of movies from Iran on the list is no surprise – its cinema has some excellent directors and has produced some excellent films. I’m not sure I’d put The White Balloon in that group – I think I preferred Panahi’s later The Circle – as I can think of a number of other Iranian films I thought better. The story involves a young girl who wants a goldfish and eventually nags her mother into giving her the money for it. But she loses the money, and it’s only with the help of a white balloon given her by a street boy selling balloons that she retrieves it. The White Balloon is very much a product of Iranian cinema, which is why it probably didn’t stand out for me all that much. It’s not structurally innovative, which both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf are known for. It’s as well-acted and as well-shot as any number of Iranian movies I could name – but it seems to lack their mordant wit and black humour. It’s a good film and worth seeing, but I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which could be said of many films on the list – and the presence of quite a few of them is downright mystifying.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940


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Moving pictures 2019, #14

Since moving to Sweden, I’ve pretty much had access only to Amazon Prime. I bought my Blu-ray player with me, and a bunch of discs, but I’ve yet to set it up. Funnily enough, they don’t sell 3-pin to 2-pin electrical plug adaptors here, only the reverse…

A Dry White Season, Euzhan Palcy (1989, USA). This is based on a novel by noted Afrikaner author André Brink, originally published in 1979, and apparently banned in South Africa. Which is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the book was around for over a decade before apartheid was ended, and the film for three or four years. And while apartheid was rightly reviled and condemned internationally, I’m surprised books and films which showed its true horror, such as A Dry White Season, weren’t more widely known. Which hardly normalises apartheid, but certainly makes international resistance to it by individuals entirely passive and ineffective. Of course, it doesn’t help when your government – for me at that time, that would be Thatcher’s – cosy up to these vile regimes, or even worse, like Pinochet’s, which more or less much makes them criminals by association. So no, Thatcher does not deserve a statue. Anyway, A Dry White Season. A black teenage boy is rounded up by the police during a schoolboy protest, even though he wasn’t involved in it. His father, the gardener at a posh Afrikaner school, tries to have his son’s criminal record wiped as he was innocent. But then is himself arrested as a “black activist” and tortured. He dies during interrogation. One of the school’s teachers, a famous ex-rugby player and “friend” of the gardener, tries to help out and gets embroiled in the whole thing. He decides to get justice for the dead man, which involves taking the state security police to court for his death. He loses the case. Soon afterwards, he is murdered by a state security police officer. This is grim stuff, and all the ore so for being set in a real world regime that behaved pretty much exactly as depicted. Apartheid was an abomination. A Dry White Season makes an excellent fist of its story, and Donald Sutherland, despite a somewhat wobbly accent, is good in the lead role. Worth seeing.

Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India). A successful engineer spots a young woman he fancies on his commute to work – in fact, she works in the same building. He tries asking her out, she plays hard to get, but eventually she agrees. The two are very happy together. But then she heads off to a distant city for a celebration of some kind and is never seen again. Rumour has it she ran off with another man. Some time later, a man is brutally murdered in his apartment. The investigating police find a video taken on a phone from the balcony of a neighouring flat during a party – and it clearly shows the engineer on the balcony of the murdered man’s apartment around the time of the murder. He is arrested, but it seems he has an alibi. Meanwhile, it also transpires the engineer has a doppelgänger, who works as a con man and gambler on the streets. He turns up at the police station where the engineer is being held, after being arrested for drunk-driving. So now the police have two identical men, one of whom murdered the victim, but both have alibis. It turns out the pair are twins, who separated when their parents divorced and the two now hate each other. But one of them must have committed the murder, even though both have alibis. The court reluctantly lets them go. This is a clever thriller, and while it’s pretty long by Western standards, it never flags. It kept me guessing for much of its length, although the resolution is hardly a surprise. But if you’re going to watch a polished thriller, why not watch an Indian one?

The Way Ahead, Carol Reed (1944, UK). Given when this film was made, and its topic, I suspect it was partly, if not wholly, intended to encourage more people to sign up to fight. And yet it shows the British armed forces are just as shit and incompetent as Evelyn Waugh’s novels make them out to be – as indeed does their record in both WWI and WWII. (The modern British Army, however, is a highly effective and professional fighting force, often hamstrung by poor equipment bought by politicians.) Anyway, a number of men from various walks of 1940s UK life are conscripted. En route to their barracks, they have an encounter with an army sergeant that does not go well. Lo and behold, he turns out to be their platoon sergeant when they finally reach barracks. And they’re all convinced he – William Hartnell – has it in for them. In fact, the opposite is true: he thinks they’ll make good soldiers. The film follows them through their training, including all their whinging and attempts to shirk, and ends up with them being sent to fight, only to be re-assigned elsewhere before the battle… but their ship is torpedoed and they have to fight to for their lives. This is a surprisingly honest depiction of British conscription during the war, and of some of the characters are closer to caricature that’s hardly unexpected given the broad strokes with which they’re drawn. As WWII films go, it makes a good antidote to the bombastic crap both the UK and Hollywood churned out in the decades immediately following the WWII.

Animal Farm, John Halas & Joy Batchelor (1954, UK). Orwell’s novella seems an obvious candidate to turn into an animated film, but it took nearly a decade before it reached the screen. Perhaps it was too political for Hollywood – this adaptation is British, after all. Except… Hollywood has made plenty of political films, even ones that directly criticised Hitler. The story of Animal Farm, unfortunately, lends itself too well to animation, and what is clearly a political parable becomes something that feels more like a cartoon without jokes. There’s some good animation here, but I suspect afficionados of the artform are going to be the only ones who really appreciate it. To my eye, nothing especially stood out, and Orwell’s message felt like it was tacked on than the actual point of the piece. Worth seeing almost certainly, but be prepared to be disappointed.

Silence, Martin Scorsese (2016, USA). In the seventeenth century, the Japanese shogunate cracks down on Christianity and imprisons, or executes, all the Christian priests and missionaries in the country. Two Jesuits are sent to Japan from Portugal a few years later to search for a priest who chose to renounce Christianity rather than be executed. After all, who wouldn’t? Seriously, if you’re that invested in an idea you’d give your life for it, chances are it’s not a good idea. And religion, particularly Christianity, is not a good idea. It’s caused far more harm and destruction than atheism. Funnily enough. Anyway, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, a pair of naive young Jesuits, are smuggled into Japan, where they discover Christianity flourishing underground despite being outlawed. Yay for risking execution and torture in service to a promise of an afterlife. Like you’ll ever fucking know whether it exists or not. Show me someone who’s  come back. With proof. Heaven is one of the biggest marketing scams in history of humanity. Up there with the divine right of kings, capitalism, trickle-down theory and white supremacy. Anyway… Scorsese is an experienced and accomplished film-maker, so it’s comes as no surprise that Silence is a well-made film. Although it does still feel like a series of longeurs stitched together by brief moments of drama. In part, that’s the nature of the story Scorsese is telling – it’s spread across years, for one thing. The cast all give good performances, but in places there’s just so much open emotion up there on the screen it feels like a wet Sunday in winter. I’ve never been a Scorsese fan – at least not of his films, but very much so of his World Cinema Project and his work to restore and promote non-Anglophone cinema. That’s always made me feel like I should like his movies more than I do. Silence is by no means a disappointing film, and it ticks all the boxes as an historical drama, but it’s not a film I can have strong feelings about.

The Curse of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher (1957, UK). This was apparently the film which established Hammer as a maker of horror films – and they made some classic, if somewhat cheap, horror films during their time. Melvyn Hayes – better known to Brits of my generation as the female impersonator from the sticom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, plays a young Victor Frankenstein who engages Robert Uruquhart, a disgraced scientist, as his tutor. Hayes grows up to be Peter Cushing. And he and Uruquhart manage to recreate life. But Cushing takes it further and creates a human – his monster, played by Christopher Lee. The film takes a number of liberties with the novel, mostly by almost entirely ditching Shelley’s plot. Th end result is pretty much archetypal Hammer Horror material, almost a template for their later movies. The Curse of Frankenstein grossed more than seventy times its production cost during its release, according to Wikipedia, and spawned a number of sequels. It was not especially well-received by critics. It’s not a very good film, and it would take some real mental gymnastics to try to claim it as one. But it’s certainly germinal, and while none of the film it led to ever be classified as works of cinematic art, they did what they did well and with a welcome sensibility. I don’t like modern horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But I’d happily work my way through Hammer Horror’s back-catalogue, and consider myself richer for having done so.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 939


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Reading diary 2019, #5

I’m sort of getting into this ebook thing. Four of the books below are ebooks; the other two are paperbacks I brought with me. And no, I don’t know why I brought Troubled Star. It’s a duplicate copy, and I have much cleaner copy in storage, so I probably just threw it in the suitcase rather than bin it.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). Members of the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, which I attended, were given an ebook copy of all fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series as it had been shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award. I’d previously read up to book ten or eleven, I forget which, and had the next volume in the series sitting unread on the bookshelves. I distinctly remember reading the first six or so books. I’d seen them in Books Gallery in the Liwa Centre in Abu Dhabi, and bought them because I wanted to know what it was that had made them such massive sellers. I read them in quick succession. And to this day, I’ve no idea why they sold so many copies. They were badly-written, bloated and derivative. But now that I have my Kindle, I thought it might be time to time finish off the series. Which meant starting from the beginning. So I reread The Eye of the World. I thought it might prove an interesting exercise, seeing what I thought to it now, twenty-five years or so after my previous read. And, well, my opinion of the book has not substantially changed. The writing still struck me as poor, the characterisation is simplistic at best, and a lot of the world-building consists of over-used tropes and borrowings. What I hadn’t noticed previously was how badly-structured the novel is, with the entire story pretty much wrapped up in the final chapter, after long chapters of travelogue that barely advanced the plot. On the other hand, knowing how the story pans out (well, most of it) and seeing the story hooks here (even if many of them weren’t actually planted) was just enough to keep me from throwing the book (well, Kindle) at the wall or gouging my eyes out. And in the series’ favour, it’s not grimdark, so it’s not gratuitously violent, rapist or sexist. Which is not to say it doesn’t feature all three – but not to grimdark’s offensive levels, nor, like grimdark, does it try to make a virtue of their inclusion. The reread wasn’t entirely painless, and I think it might take me longer to work my way through all fourteen books that I had initially expected… but I’m still going to try and do it.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). Although Faulkner was a name known to me, I’d read none of his books and knew nothing about him or his works. But my father had two novels by him, which I took, and I read one, The Sound and the Fury, last year and was hugely impressed. So I picked up a couple more on eBay. And I brought them with me to Sweden. The first of these was As I Lay Dying, arguably Faulkner’s best-known and most highly-regarded novel. There’s even a commercially successful metal band named after it. The story is told from several viewpoints, each in their own voice, and it concerns the death of Addie Bundren, and her husband’s attempt, with family and friends, to take her body to a neighbouring town to bury her among her kin. But all that is either incidental, or merely the trigger, for what happens in each narrative. It all takes place in Faulkner’s native American South – Mississippi, I think, for the most part – and the language reflects the setting. Despite As I Lay Dying‘s reputation, I didn’t find it as impressive a work of literature as The Sound and the Fury, possibly because the latter had the more adventurous structure, and I’m big on novels that experiment with narrative structure. But that’s really damning it with faint praise as this is full-on classic American Literature, and though not all works and writers described as that appeal to me, I do admire Faulkner’s prose a great deal. Definitely worth reading.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson (2016, UK). I’d heard so much about this, and it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year (despite being originally published in 2016, but never mind), and it was 99p on Kindle… so I bought it. And I read it. And… There’s a good story in Rosewater, but it throws too much in, like a writer not sure which of their ideas have real merit so they chuck them all in hoping that at least one makes the grade… And because there’s so much going on, the story doesn’t seem to have much of a clue where it’s heading for much of its length. Is it about the titular city and the alien entity around which it has grown, and the regular frenzies of miracle healing it creates? Or perhaps it’s about Kaaro, who works for the Nigerian intelligence service (or a side-branch of it) and has telepathic powers – as do many others – also created by the alien entity? Or maybe it’s about Bicycle Girl, a semi-mythical figure who seems to be associated with a village that disappeared and now exists in an alternate dimension or pocket universe, created by entirely human tech? There is currently something of a feeding frenzy in sf about African genre fiction, which is all a bit white man’s tears as the various African nations – Africa is not a country – have literary traditions going back centuries or longer and many of them have had their best writers and works translated into English for decades. They just don’t happen to be category genre. So sf from a Nigerian writer – as Thompson is – should, were the genre not so overwhelmingly white- and Americo-centric, not really be cause for celebration. But sf is as it is, and Thompson’s origin and the setting of Rosewater play a major part in reviews of the book. That’s just as racist as ignoring the book because of the author’s race. There’s no doubt Thompson could be a major voice in UK sf – he’s based in London – and Rosewater amply demonstrates that. This is a strong debut, but it’s a messy piece of work to make an award shortlist. A few years from now, Thompson will be churning out award-worthy books. But that’s more a criticism of awards than it is the author.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937, UK). I have the SF Masterwork edition of this book – that’s the one from the original numbered series – but that’s in storage now. I bought a 99p copy on my Kindle so I could read it. I’ve no idea if the two editions are the same – they can’t be that different, I’d have thought, since this isn’t a work that needed translating. But the copy I read certainly had more than its fair share of OCR errors and typos. There’s not much of a plot to review: the narrator is an Englishman of the 1930s who falls asleep on a hillside and becomes a disembodied galactic traveller, as you do. He visits various worlds, learns to cohabit the minds of certain of their inhabitants, and they too join him on his travels, until he is more of a gestalt intelligence than the man he once was. Stapledon describes the various types of civilisation his observer visits, and while they’re initially based on extrapolations of Earth biology – even the symbiotic races, which play such a great part in the book – but soon it transpires the stars are sentient, and then the galaxies too. This is sf on the grandest scale, and it’s unlikely it would wash these days because it only really works with a style that’s no longer commercially acceptable. It’s not that genre fiction of the past fifty years has been stunted in any way, or has held off from Stapledonian scales because he did it first – Stephen Baxter’s entire career is ample rebuttal to that – but more that the style which allowed Stapledon to what he did is no longer considered commercially viable. Is that a bad thing? Not really. We still have Stapledon. He’s in the SF Masterworks series, and his books are readily available in a variety of editions as ebooks. Obviously, these are, paradoxically, historical documents, but for those who know what they’re getting into, they’re definitely worth a go.

The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet McKenna (2016, UK). Another Kindle book that was 99p, but this time as a promotion. The author tweeted the book was reduced, and since I’d never read anything by her – she mostly writes fantasy, which, er, Wheel of Time reread above aside, I don’t normally read – and The Green Man’s Heir is urban fantasy, which I definitely don’t read… But the plot sounded interesting so I thought it worth a go. And I’m glad I did give it a punt. The narrator is Daniel Mackmain, a jobbing carpenter who happens to be the son of a dryad. Which means he is plugged into the mythological world based on landscape. So when a woman is brutally murdered near where Mackmain lives, and a dryad gives him enough to clues so he thinks he might be able to solve the case… The Green Man’s Heir is a mashup of mystery novel and fantasy novel but it works because it’s centred on its hero and not focused on its central crime. The story moves on from the murders and pulls in romance, but it all ends in a place that feels entirely a consequence of what has gone before. This is clearly a book by someone who knows what they’re doing. And if their earlier fantasy series have not made the big time, I hope this one does – there’s a sequel – because it’s good stuff. It may be a bit Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders, but it does it well and it certainly does it a great deal better than the last of those two.

Troubled Star, George O Smith (1957, USA). Back in the day, Galaxy magazine provided a free paperback with every issue. For some reason, after several issues they handed this over to Beacon Books, better known for publishing hospital romances, and they decided the books should be a little more, well, suggestive. So they rewrote a bunch of sf novels and published them. I’ve managed to collect them all, and most of their original editions, or author-preferred editions, chiefly so I can compare the two. Because, to be honest, they didn’t exactly choose good novels. Much as I love AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, the Beacon Book version of it, The Mating Cry, adds little, and in fact only makes the female lead less sympathetic. I don’t have a copy of the book on which Troubled Star is based – originally published under the same title in February 1953 – but I think I can guess what’s been changed. It’s not very subtle. Anyway, three scouts for a galactic transportation company are on Mercury in the Solar System (note to sf writers: only capitalise when it refers to the Sol system, and the planets of any other star are a planetary system not a solar system). Anyway, Earth is in the way of a new hyperspatial route or something, and no, I’ve no idea if Douglas Adams had read this although he may have done. There’s a sex scene – that’s the Beacon touch – but this is otherwise true to its origins: pulp sf. I can claim a legitimate interest, although that’s wearing thin, but I suspect no other reader can. Avoid.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134