It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible



My 2007 reading challenge was to read one of my favourite sf novels each month. Done that. (I’m currently in the middle of Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren, the last of the twelve, but I’ll have it finished by the end of December.) For 2008, I thought about doing the same for my favourite non-sf novels… except I couldn’t think of twelve favourite mainstream books. There’s The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell… The Master Mariner, Nicholas Monsarrat… How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge… The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe… and… Gah. That’s about it. There are others I’d like to reread – Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, for example – but I don’t know that I like them enough to call them a favourite.

So, I came up with a different cunning plan. In 2008, each month I will read a book by a classic and/or literary author I have not read. (This is where bookmooch has come in really useful.) So far, I have Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Patricia Highsmith, Joseph Conrad, DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. I also want to try, but have yet to pick up books by, Ayn Rand, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Ford Madox Ford, and Wyndham Lewis. And, er, someone else. I suspect that list might change as the year progresses.

Sometime during 2008, I also might try watching one of my favourite films each night over a fortnight. Science fiction one month, non-sf the next month. And these films would be:

Alien, dir. Ridley Scott [1979]
Delicatessen, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro [1991]
Brazil, dir. Terry Gilliam [1984]
Dune, dir. David Lynch [1985]
Fahrenheit 451, dir. Francois Truffaut [1966]
Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow, dir. Kerry Conran [2004]
Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky [1972]
Star Trek: the Motion Picture, dir. Robert Wise [1979]
Until the End of the World, dir. Wim Wenders [1991]
Starship Troopers, dir. Paul Verhoeven [1997]

Divine Intervention, dir. Elia Suleiman [2002]
To Catch A Thief, dir. Alfred Hitchcock [1954]
Sliding Doors, dir. Peter Hewitt [1997]
Man Bites Dog, dir. Belvoir, Bonzel & Poelvoorde [1992]
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, dir. Tom Stoppard [1990]
Das Boot, dir. Wolfgang Petersen [1985]
Lawrence of Arabia, dir. David Lean [1962]
No End, dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski [1984]
The Right Stuff, dir. Philip Kaufman [1983]
Leningrad Cowboys Go America, dir. Aki Kaurismäki [1989]

Oh, and I have to read at least one book from space books collection each month, and review it on my other blog.


The Year in Question: 2007

best adj. those albums, films or books I enjoyed, appreciated or admired the most during the year

It’s that time of year again, when I look back over the books I read, the films I watched, and the albums I bought and listened to. And then I pick the best five from each medium. For me, one of the interesting aspects of this exercise is that each year I find myself picking some authors, directors or bands new to me – proving that I’m not solely focused on stuff that I know I like.

For example, of this year’s five books, four authors were new to me – and two of them sparked off “enthusiasms” (which is what I call it when I find myself buying loads of books on a subject because I’ve found that initial book so fascinating). After reading The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, I went and bought a bunch of books on mediaeval Arabic literature. And Moondust rekindled my boyhood interest in the Space Race, leading to the purchase of several autobiographies by astronauts…
Music too includes two bands new to me in 2007. New to everyone, in fact. It’s their debuts that I’ve chosen on my best of the year. And in films, only one is by a director whose work I like a great deal. I watched the others because of their story… although one not only was picked as a best of the year but also became a favourite film.

Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
A review of this in a daily newspaper piqued my interest – a novel about a cosmonaut in which, the reviewer complained, the level of detail was so dense it made the book a difficult read. The subject matter appealed to me, and the reviewer’s comments reminded of a complaint often levelled at science fiction by mainstream critics. So I bought a copy of Ascent, read it, thought it very good, and decided it was indeed science fiction and that the reviewer in the newspaper was a bit of a twit. I blogged about it here.

Moondust, Andrew Smith (2005)
I freely admit I was a space nut when I was a kid. I had posters of astronauts and launch vehicles on my bedroom walls. Around the age of 11, I discovered science fiction, and my interest in real spacemen began to wane. However, reading Ascent reminded me of that childhood interest. I dug out the few non-fiction books on the subject I still owned, and then went hunting for more recent works. And found Moondust. This is not a book about the Apollo programme, or the Space Race; it is a book about the nine surviving men (of the original twelve) who walked on the Moon. It is about how that experience changed them, and how they coped – or failed to do so – on their return. It’s also about how we feel about those men and their achievements. In one telling scene in the book, Smith goes to see Dick Gordon (Apollo 12 CMP) at a Star Trek convention. Gordon is sat alone in a corner of the signing room, while long queues stretch before the tables of TV actors. Gordon, a man who really went to the Moon, is ignored. I know which person’s signature I would treasure more…

The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin (1999)
I bought this on a whim – saw it on the shelves of my local Waterstone’s while I was looking for a copy of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, and decided to buy it. I had no idea what to expect. Like most people (I suspect), my idea of classical Arabic literature meant… 1001 Nights. And that’s despite growing up in the Middle East. I soon learnt there is a wealth of literature from the mediaeval Arab world, mostly epic poems. Irwin’s commentary is entertaining and educational. As mentioned earlier, after reading this book, I hunted down some more books on the subject. I also read The Middle East by Bernard Lewis shortly afterwards, to get a better idea of the historical context.

Sea-Kings of Mars, Leigh Brackett (2005)
This collection is No. 47 in the Fantasy Masterworks series – which is odd, because Brackett writes science fiction. It’s a type of sf no longer popular – planetary romance. I think that will change soon, however – if only because of the John Carter of Mars film currently in pre-production at Pixar. Whatever the future of swashbuckling amongst ancient ruins on Mars or the jungles of Venus, Brackett was the best writer to work in planetary romance, and this collection contains all her best works. Brackett was a better writer than her choice of material suggests, and it shows in these tales.

The first four picks for this list were easy. The fifth one was… Well, I reread my favourite sf novels during the year, but they don’t count. I also read a lot of very good novels – L Timmel Duchamp’s Alanya to Alanya, Alastair Reynolds’ The Prefect, Eric Brown’s Starship Summer, M John Harrison’s Nova Swing, Emil Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers… but I can’t pick one above the others. So instead, I’ll finish up with two excellent anthologies:-

The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan (2007)
Does just what it says on the tin. Admittedly, New Space Opera is no longer new, and at least one story in this anthology fits no known definition of space opera (the Kage Baker one; and she can’t do Brit characters, either), but this is still a strong anthology with some good stuff.

Text: Ur, Forrest Aguirre (2007)
This is allegedly a themed anthology, although the only common link between the stories that I could see was that they were mostly experimental. And, as is the nature of experiments, some succeeded and some failed. Toiya Kristen Finlay’s ‘The Avatar of Background Noise’ was probably one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve read this year.

MartridenMartriden (2006)
Although death metal arguably began in the US, I’m not that big a fan of the US style – well, except for Morbid Angel and Nile. I much prefer the North European variety. Martriden, however, are a bit different. There’s some NWOBHM and some progressive metal mixed in with their melodic death metal. This debut EP is only 4 tracks, but I’m looking forward to the album (The Unsettling Dark, due for release in March 2008).

The Lucifer PrinciplePitch Black Dawn (2007)
A new Dutch band, The Lucifer Principle play NWOBHM-influenced death metal. There are some great tracks here: ‘Soul Saviour Throat Cut’ has some excellent shredding, and ‘Burn’ goes funky in the middle eight. It didn’t take long for this album to become a favourite.

Fall of the LeafeAerolithe (2007)
They split up. Bah. Fall of the Leafe release this great album, and six months later they disband. I can understand why they were an acquired taste, and perhaps not all that popular. But I liked their extreme metal-influenced sort of goth Finnish metal, and this last album was their best to date. Since it seems every band on the planet is reforming at the moment, perhaps they’ll decide to get back together. I hope so.

Dark TranquillityFiction (2007)
The last three albums from Gothenberg stalwarts Dark Tranquillity had been… a little disappointing. Fiction is a welcome return to form. Many of the songs are a little… unsettling, inasmuch as they don’t progress in quite the way you’d expect. In some respects that makes Fiction a more experimental and progressive album that it first appears. The band have said they deliberately retrenched when it came to writing Fiction. Which makes the final result even more remarkable.

MithrasBehind the Shadows Lie Madness (2007)
This band’s last album was in my top five last year, and this year’s release is even better than that one. There’s more spacey ambient strangeness, more insane drumming and guitarwork. The most annoying thing about this band is that it only has two members, and they’ve yet to settle on a line-up for live perfomance. I’d go see them if they toured. I think they should tour.

Some honorable mentions:
NahemaHThe Second Philosophy (2006)
When an album by a band I’ve never heard of features a sticker quoting resemblances to Opeth and Dark Tranquillity, there’s no way I’m not going to buy it. Except, NahemaH don’t actually resemble either of those two bands. So when I first listened to The Second Philosophy, I was disappointed. But I kept returning to the CD because I suspected it would be a grower. And so it was. A couple of months after purchasing it, it became a favourite.

Rotting ChristTheogonia (2007)
These Greeks play a fierce style of black metal that sounds somewhat similar to old-style Swedish death metal acts like Bloodbath. I’m not a big fan of black metal but this album I thought was excellent from the first listen – aggressive and otherworldly.

Rise to AddictionA New Shade of Black for the Soul (2007)
I saw these live at Bloodstock, and they gave one of the best performances of the weekend. The album is heavy groove metal, with some excellent guitarwork, infectious riffs and anthemic choruses.

Divine Intervention (dir. Elia Suleiman, 2002)
See here for all you need to know about this film.

Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
I read the PD James novel on which this film is based many years ago, and was not impressed. James’ ridiculous protestations that it wasn’t sf impressed me even less. But Cuaron has turned an ordinary book into an excellent film. The opening scene is indeed a shocker, but unlike Swordfish (which also features a shocking explosion in the opening minutes) Children of Men does not turn into some sort of implausible wish-fulfilment action-adventure. It’s a solid gritty near-future film that transcends its origins.

The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2006)
Here’s another book I read when it was published. But then I’ve been a fan of Priest’s writing since the publication of The Glamour. But when I first read The Prestige, it never occurred to me that it was filmable. Christopher Nolan, however, has managed it. Some of the subtlety of the novel might have been lost, but this is still an excellent film.

Black Book (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 2006)
I’ve always enjoyed Verhoeven’s films. And yes, Starship Troopers is a great film. Hollow Man, which followed it, wasn’t as good. When I heard Verhoeven had returned to the Netherlands to make a film, I guessed I wasn’t the only one hoping we’d see a return to the Verhoeven of The Fourth Man, Soldier of Orange and Katie Tippel. Black Book is perhaps not as good as those three titles, but it’s pure Verhoeven through and through. And Carice van Houten is superb in the lead role. There’s none of that Hollywood silliness, either.

Fahrenheit 451 (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1966)
And conversely, I’m hardly a fan of Truffaut – I found both Jules et Jim and Les Quatre Cents Coups somewhat dull. I’m not a big fan of Ray Bradbury’s fiction either, and have never really understood his great popularity. And yet, I thought this film was superb. I only bought it because it was going cheap in a sale, I’d never seen it, and it’s considered one of the great sf films of the 1960s. And when I watched it, this happened.

An honorable mention:
From the Earth to the Moon (1998)
It’s not a film, it’s a miniseries. About the Apollo programme. I’d never seen it before, but bought it because of my newly rekindled interest in the Space Race. Each episode covers an Apollo mission, but the writers have cleverly found a story set in and about it. This is no documentary, it’s proper drama. But it is also technically accurate.


Having Plenty – Rereading Favourites, November 2007

It’s been a fun exercise rereading a favourite sf novel each month this year, although there have been disappointments. But there have also been pleasant surprises – such as Colin Greenland‘s Take Back Plenty.

I remember the buzz when the novel was published back in 1990. It “reinvented” space opera. Arguably Iain M Banks had done that three years earlier with Consider Phlebas, but Take Back Plenty was different. Colin Greenland‘s novel was a reworking of – and homage to – pulp sf tropes. Mars was habitable and had canals. Venus was habitable and had jungles. There were aliens everywhere.

Certainly the book was successful. It won both 1990’s BSFA Award and 1991’s Arthur C Clarke Award.

In brief, Take Back Plenty is the story of Tabitha Jute, captain and sole crew of the barge Alice Liddell. While on Mars, she inadvertently causes a near-riot, and is subsequently fined by the authorities. She doesn’t have the money to pay the fine. Fortunately, she meets up with Marco Metz, leader of the cabaret act Contraband, and he contracts her to take him and his band to Titan. First, they stop off at Plenty, an alien artefact orbiting Earth. It had been built by the alien Frasque, but they’d been booted out of the Solar System by the Capellans – highly advanced aliens who’d bootstrapped humanity into space, and now kept everyone sealed within the orbit of Pluto.

Of course, Contraband isn’t really a cabaret act and Tabitha is forced to flee Plenty with the members of the band. They crash-land on Venus, are rescued by pirates, and then delivered to the Capellans. And to say anymore would give away the novel’s resolution.

I’d forgotten how good the writing is in Take Back Plenty. Here’s part of the description of Venus:

“The coral reefs of Erebus rise in great jagged spires from the sticky sea. Etched, eroded ridges spiral and veer, running for ten, twenty kilometres through smoke-black water. Where they meet they throw up frozen, warty explosions of barbed knots and clusters of mineral teeth. On these serrated edges the medusas, globs of muscular mucus as wide as tabletops, hang stranded and expiring, thrown up by tempests that rend the glutinous, tideless waves. The cliffs of the coral are thickly stained with their ichor.”

Plot-wise, perhaps, Take Back Plenty is slightly less successful. The setting – the pulp-populated Solar System – is a great deal of fun. But poor Tabitha seems to spend much of the story being chased from A to B. She has very little control over the plot. The ending too reeks of old sf serials. The cavalry arrive, there’s a sudden reveal and subsequent explanation, and it’s all over. While all the clues have been set, it does feel a little too pat.

However, there is one nice post-modern touch to the novel. Take Back Plenty is clearly a narrated fiction. There are even authorial interventions. But the identity of the narrator is kept secret until the end of the novel – and makes perfect sense within the confines of the plot. It’s not hard to figure out, but it does add an extra dimension to the narrative.

As do the conversations between Tabitha and Alice, the Alice Liddell‘s AI persona. In these, Tabitha tells stories of her past – which serve to entertain, to explain her background, and to help map her character. It’s an effective technique.

Unfortunately, in retrospect Take Back Plenty seems a bit of a one-off. Yes, there were a further two books – Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty – forming a trilogy. Colin Greenland also “reinvented” the planetary romance with Harm’s Way in 2000. But during the 1990s, it seemed no one else mined pulp sf for tropes. Instead, we had Banks-style widescreen space opera, or Alastair Reynolds‘ hard sf space opera. No one leapt on Colin Greenland‘s bandwagon…

… until recently. In the last couple of years, there have been a few books by US authors which are based on and around old pulp sf tropes. A sort of return to the old sf action-adventure paradigm of the early Twentieth Century. Interestingly, while some have put a modern spin on this inasmuch as they provide a contemporary scientific rationale for their tropes, none have put a post-modern spin on it in the same fashion that Colin Greenland did. To my mind, that makes Take Back Plenty more interesting as it’s privileging story not setting. It’s probably also worth pointing out that Consider Phlebas is still in print, but Take Back Plenty is not. And given the recent interest in re-imagining pulp sf tropes, perhaps it’s time for a new edition. Or perhaps it should be included in the SF Masterworks series?

I have my copy, and I’ll be reading it again. Take Back Plenty is definitely a book that will remain a favourite.