It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Rereading Favourites – June Update, Part 1

After Soldier, Ask Not, I decided to expand the challenge to include an “also-ran” each month… just in case the favourite failed to make the grade. For June, the favourite was Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos, and the also-ran was Time and Again by Clifford Simak.

Time and Again was first published in 1951 under the title First He Died. It’s also one of the earliest sf novels I ever read. I can distinctly remember reading it when I lived in Dubai – likely borrowed from Dubai Country Club‘s subscription library. That would be sometime between 1976 and 1979. Thirty years ago! And yet I could recall some of the details of the plot – there was a time war; and a man who landed a wrecked spaceship despite it having no drives, nor even being airtight. One image from the novel which had stayed with me was of a car that had crashed into a tree, and which contained a book from the future.

I suppose disappointment was inevitable – I certainly hope I’m a more discerning reader now than I was when I was eleven years old. The novel opens with a typically Simakian scene: a man is sitting on his porch, the crickets are chirping, the brook is burbling, night is falling… Another man walks up, tells the seated man he is from the future, and that Asher Sutton is returning to Earth tomorrow and must be killed. It’s a great set-up for a story. And it gets better. Twenty years ago, Sutton was sent to 61 Cygni in an attempt to break through the mysterious barrier guarding the system’s seventh planet. He is the first and only person to have done so. And now he is back – travelling in a spaceship that has no spacedrive and isn’t even airtight. Sutton will write a book about something he learned on 61 Cygni. This book will be used as a rallying cry for a movement to emancipate androids (vat-grown humans, slaves in all but name). Others, however, will interpret Sutton’s revelations to refer to humans only. And so there will be a war.

Time and Again is set some 6,000 years from now, in a future when humanity has a galactic empire – which appears to be ruled by a bureacracy. Time travel has only just been discovered when Sutton returns to Earth, but factions from the future representing both sides have travelled back in time in an effort to influence events.

The great ideas promised by the novel’s opening, however, never really appear. Simak is more concerned with the character of Sutton, and the nature of his revelation, than he is with the ramifications of the situation Sutton creates. The world-building is poor – the Earth of the 81st Century comes across as no different to 1950s America, but with silly clothes and a code duello. The time travel, and any paradoxes it might create, never really kicks into gear. Early in the story, Sutton finds a letter written by an ancestor in 1987, and which has remained unopened since then. Ignoring the fact that paper would never last 6,000 years, the letter itself is written in a style of English which seems more 1900s than 1980s. It all adds up to a novel which is a great deal less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it’s for good reason it’s not as well-known as some of Simak’s other works, like Way Station or City.

So, cross off one also-ran. It drops off that list, never mind being promoted to the favourites list. And on we go with the rereads…

Incidentally, you’ll notice that my editions of Time and Again and the Dorsai trilogy – see here – all feature cover art by Tony Roberts (who was recently famous for being “sampled” by Glenn Brown in his Turner Prize nominee, The Love of Shepherds 2000). I wonder if it’s the art that made me believe the books were favourites – because I really do like those covers. Perhaps it’s because I began to identify myself as a sf fan around that time, but I find the cover art of the late 1970s more appealing than that of sf books today. Tony Roberts, Angus McKie, Tim White, Bruce Pennington and, of course, Chris Foss… Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority books: Spacecraft 2000 – 2100 AD and Starliners… Spaceships. Cool spaceships. Book covers then always seemed to exude an air of mystery – something sadly lacking from today’s cover art. It seems almost irrelevant that those wonderful covers rarely had any link to the contents of the book. But they made you pick it up.

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In Recenseo Veritas

According to the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, language influences thought. Which makes you wonder what the writer of the following was thinking –

“Although the band’s music is very (and I emphasize on very) unique…”*

Are there different grades of uniqueness? Can something be only “slightly unique” – meaning, there’s more than one of them? What sort of world would be inhabited by a person who considers “unique” to include quantities of greater than one? Some weird kind of optimistic one, I suppose.

(* from a review of Lover, The Lord Has Left Us by The Sound of Animals Fighting)

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Some poems you fall in love with on first reading. Here’s the opening verse of one that did it for me recently:

Her sea limps up here twice a day
And sigh by leaden sigh deposes
Crude granite heft and sponges
Sucked smooth as foreheads and noses;
No footprints dove the labouring sand,
For terrene clays bake smooth
But coarse as a gipsy’s hand.

(‘Near Paphos’ by Lawrence Durrell)

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The Fine Art of Reviewing

Synchronicity strikes again. After my earlier rant about reviewing, I stumbled across the following “review” of the 2000 mini-album The Fluid by French death metal band Symbyosis:

“Many North Americans really hate the French. Is it their snooty attitude? Maybe it’s their cowardice during World War II? Either way, France’s Symbyosis are a great band and shouldn’t be lumped into the category of ‘a French band from Paris’.”

Bruce McKinlay from

Some people should not be allowed opinions…

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The following comment appeared during a discussion on a literary mailing list:

“And please remember that anyone who is a professional reviewer, i.e. who earns a significant part of his/her income from reviewing, as I myself have done, does not in fact read the whole book – how could they, if they reviewed 2-3 books per week and held down a ‘day job’?”

I find this comment… horrifying. I used to review books for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. I would never have dreamt of writing a review without reading the entire book. Admittedly, I wasn’t reviewing two or three books a week – more like two or three every couple of months. But to not read the book, to cobble together a review from a quick skim… That’s unfair to the book and its author, and it’s unfair to those who buy the book based on the review.

But then you have the likes of Harriet Klausner. As I write this, she has reviewed 14,022 books on Amazon (no doubt it will be more by the time you read this). Given that Jeff Bezos launched his on-line book shop in 1995, then Klausner has read an average of 1,167 books a year, or 3.2 books a day each and every day. Of course, that assumes she began reviewing the day Amazon went on-line. Which is unlikely. She could be posting reviews written prior to 1995 – according to her profile on Amazon, she was a librarian and “wrote a monthly review column of recommended reads”. I have neither the time nor the inclination to trawl through her 14,000 reviews to discover which books were published prior to 1995, however.

Is Klausner providing a useful service? Personally, I think her Amazon reviews are next to useless. She gives every book 4 or 5 stars – and some patently don’t deserve that. Her review of Hunters of Dune, a book – sadly – I have read myself, inaccurately summarises the plot, and then finishes on the nonsense line: “Still this is a fine entry that adds to the mythos while paying tribute to its founding father as the scientific techno concerns involving genetic engineering that Frank Herbert voiced years ago seems so valid now.” I’ve no idea what this means, or how it relates to Frank Herbert’s oeuvre. Certainly, he discussed genetic engineering in several of his novels – most notably in The Eyes of Heisenberg – but to some extent all of his novels were cautionary tales.

There are, of course, many good reviewers out there – both amateur and professional. Genre magazines such as Interzone and Locus (to pick two titles at random) have run book reviews since their first issues. It’s a standard component of any science fiction or fantasy magazine. In recent years, litblogging has also become an important resource. Like reviews in magazines, you soon learn which ones point you towards books and authors you would enjoy. It’s a shame some of the more traditional elements of publishing have yet to realise the usefulness of blogs. Actually, it’s not a shame – it’s just another indication of their blinkered snobbery.

Still, if they don’t read the books they review, why should they read blogs?