It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Bargain of the Month

I was in a charity shop a couple of days ago, and I saw a copy of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, the first book of the Raj Quartet, for sale. I thought I’d have a go at reading it – I have vague memories of the television series, and I suspected I’d enjoy the book.

Then I spotted the other three novels – The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils – and decided to get the entire Quartet.

Then I saw the price. Paperbacks 69p. And it was also “buy one get one free.”

The entire Raj Quartet for £1.38.



An Unexpected Challenge

The last Friday of the month, and the sf group decided to have a literary evening for the monthly meeting. We had to take along something we’d read in the last six months which impressed us. This proved harder than I’d thought it would be. The most impressive books I read during 2007 were rereads (my 2007 reading challenge). And while some others might have fit the bill, they didn’t do so in a way that I could get across by reading out a short excerpt. Besides, most sf writers aren’t great stylists, so there’s not much that’s going to wow people at a sentence-level.

After much thought, I picked a short story by Keith Roberts: ‘The Lake of Tuonela’. It was first published in 1973 in New Writings in SF 23, edited by Kenneth Bulmer, although I’d read it in Roberts’ collection, The Grain Kings. I chose the story because I think it has some lovely prose in it. It’s not Roberts’ best-known story – that would be ‘Weihnachtsabend’ – but I feel it is a better one.

Mathis is a member of the Terran colony on Xerxes. Although the Terrans (Brits in all but name) have only been on the world for a generation, the technology they have brought has completely changed the natives’ way of life. For example, the ancient and extensive canal network they previously used for transport has fallen into disuse. And the culture of the Boatmen, or Kalti, who lived and worked on the canals is in danger of disappearing.

Mathis gets permission to traverse the continent by canal boat – to both experience the Kalti culture firsthand, and to demonstrate that the canals are still viable. The trip is not a success, although Mathis finds himself at peace for the first time at its conclusion.

Obviously, I can’t quote the entire story, much as I would like to. However, here are a couple of very short extracts. This first one describes the entrance to the canal tunnel system beneath the Antiel range:

The opening itself was horseshoe-shaped, its throat densely black. From fifty yards he smelled its breath, ancient, and chill. Mathis rubbed his face, then swung to the cabin top to start the generator.

This was the Tunnel of Hy Antiel.

This next one is within the tunnel, through which they travel for two days:

For some time now a deeper roar had been growing in intensity. He saw its source finally; a curtain of clear water, sparkling as it fell from the roof. At its base the surface boiled and rippled, throwing up wavering banks of brownish foam.

This was the fourth airshaft he had seen.

Roberts’ description of the canal boat’s journey through the long tunnel of Hy Antiel to the titular lake is very effective. He manages to evoke both the claustrophobia of the tunnel and the boredom of travelling through unrelenting darkness. When the boat enters the lake, Roberts successfully evokes both its great age and the marvel of its construction.

Like Paul Park’s Coelestis (see here), I would call ‘The Lake of Tuonela’ post-colonial science fiction. There is that same sense of Empire’s fading light, as sensitivity to other cultures begins to chip away at the ruthless expediencies of keeping an empire running. And, in common with many British sf stories and novels of the 1960s and 1970s, there is a considered and literate feel to the prose. Mathis, for instance, does not gurn or grimace. His emotional state is not told to the reader; it is instead conveyed through his thoughts, actions, and dialogue.

I don’t know that I’ve done ‘The Lake of Tuonela’ much justice in this post. Judging by the sf group’s reactions, I don’t know that I did it much justice at the meeting. But perhaps that’s just me. It’s an excellent story, and worth seeking out.

This is unrelated to Keith Roberts’ story but… the day after the meeting, I received an email telling me a message was waiting for moderation on the writing group mailing list. The subject was “glasshouse”, which was the title of the book (Charles Stross’ Glasshouse) I was reading and had had with me at the sf group meeting. Except the message was… spam.

They’re getting fiendishly clever those spambots, you know…

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Award Frenzy

Gosh. I’ve been a member of the British Science Fiction Association for nearly twenty years. And… they’ve just announced their shortlist for the 2007 BSFA Awards. Plenty of others have already repeated the lists below, and/or commented on it. But I thought I’d do it anyway.

Best Novel:

Pretty much all of the above I’d planned to read anyway. The Execution Channel and The Prefect I’ve already read. My sister gave me Black Man for Christmas, and I bought her Alice in Sunderland. The rest… I suppose I’ll have to buy copies before Eastercon. I was going to buy them anyway.

Could this be the first time I’ll have actually read all of the BSFA shortlisted novels before the award is handed out? I’m not sure what that says about the sf novels published in 2007. Normally, I’ve heard of every title on the shortlist, but there are one or two I’ve no desire to read.

Best Short Fiction:

And, bizarrely, I have all of the stories on this shortlist except Ian Whates’, which was published online anyway. I suspect Chiang will win, although I thought ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was weak for him. But that may have been because I read it after finishing Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare.

And uniquely this year, there is also:

BSFA Fiftieth Anniversary Award: Best Novel of 1958:

I believe I’ve actually read all of these, although many years ago. Three of them, I notice, are in the SF Masterworks series – A Case of Conscience, Non-Stop and A Clash of Cymbals (as part of the Cities in Flight omnibus).

Having seen what else was published that year (see here), I think the best was shortlisted. I mean, half a dozen pseudonymous novels by Robert Silverberg, and the same number under his own name… Eric Frank Russell’s The Space Willies (!)… The Languages of Pao is not one of Jack Vance’s best. Mind you, Equator is one of my favourite Brian Aldiss novels – it’s a fun sf thriller with little or no pretensions. It’d probably make a great film. Wilson Tucker’s The Lincoln Hunters was, I thought, well-regarded, although I’ve never read it. Given some of the names on the BSFA list of eligible novels, I suspect there are either a few hidden gems there (Edward Eager? Hugh Walters? Mervyn Jones?), or a lot of deservedly obscure novels. Now, there’s a reading challenge for another year…

Update: Interzone have now made Alastair Reynolds’ ‘The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter’ available on-line, so I’ve added the link.

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Had To Think Twice Before Posting This…

As I grew older, I always expected my taste in music to mellow. In fact, it’s done the opposite. At age eleven, I was listening to ELO and the Eagles; now, I listen to death metal – bands such as Opeth, Dark Tranquillity, Morbid Angel, Mithras, etc. I also go to metal gigs (I’m off to see Dark Tranquillity for the fourth time in a couple of weeks), and last year I went to my first metal festival (and I’m going again this year).


There is one genre of extreme metal whose appeal completely escapes me: gore metal or gore-grind. I just don’t get it. The bands have silly obscene names, the album titles are also obscene (and the album artwork is worse), and the lyrics would probably be highly offensive if you could actually make out what the singer is saying.

I need only give the names of a few gore-grind bands in illustration…

WARNING: don’t click on the links if you’re faint of heart or easily offended.

(PS: normal service will be resumed shortly on this blog.)


The Inaugural Post of the 2008 Reading Challenge

Bah. It seemed like a good idea. There are plenty of highly-regarded writers I’ve yet to read, so why not pick a dozen of them to try during 2008? Not contemporary authors, but a mix of classic and early Twentieth Century.

This is not as much of a break from my usual reading habits as previous entries on this blog might suggest. I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell (as should be obvious from this) and Anthony Burgess (and this). I also like a great deal the works of Nicholas Monsarrat, Helen Simpson and David Lodge. When I lived in the United Arab Emirates, I was a member of the Daly Community Library – in fact, I joined it during my first week there. Since the Library had only a small selection of sf novels, I was forced to widen my reading. Abu Dhabi was not well-served by book shops, either. All Prints seemed to buy in new stock only once a year. Isam Bookshop sold just remaindered books – as a result, while there were quite a few sf titles, they weren’t very good ones. And Al Mutanabbi Bookshop sold chiefly text books. Paperbacks were expensive too, typically costing amost double their Pound Sterling RRP.

Since returning to the UK, science fiction has continued to be my first choice of reading material. But I also read a lot of mainstream fiction. Unfortunately, as I now read mostly books that I purchase, I tend to stick to authors I have already read, and only really try new authors within sf. Hence this year’s challenge…

Anyway, I’ve so far picked up books by Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield, DH Lawrence, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf… And the first book I chose to read for my 2008 challenge was… The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

I suppose it was a bit of a cheat, given that I’ve seen the film. My previous experiences of reading novels from which films were adapted hadn’t been entirely successful. Marnie by Winston Graham and The Commitments by Roddy Doyle spring to mind: I liked the films a great deal but didn’t enjoy the novels.

And so it was with The Talented Mr Ripley.

In fact, other than the unconventionality of having a sociopath as the protagonist, there’s little that strikes me as especially noteworthy about The Talented Mr Ripley. Highsmith seemed to want to suggest there’s an inevitability to Ripley’s murders, as if the story is a tragedy. But there was nothing I saw that’s unavoidable about them. Even Ripley’s self-justifications fail to convince on that note – he spends very little time on the reasons for the killings, and a great deal more on how he plans to profit from them.

That’s perhaps the chief weakness of The Talented Mr Ripley. The story is Ripley. It stands or falls as Ripley as a character stands or falls. Of course, he’s an unsympathetic protagonist – a sociopath and an opportunistic killer. But is it his character, or Highsmith’s skill in depicting it, which keeps you reading? I suspect it’s merely a desire to see how it all comes out in the end. You expect Ripley to be caught and to pay for his crimes… but you also have a feeling he’ll get away with it. It’s that seesawing expectation which pulls you along to the story’s climax. And as plot-engines go, it’s not a very powerful one.

In some respects, The Talented Mr Ripley is not unlike an episode of Star Trek – no matter what happens, you have to end with the principals safe and sound for next week’s installment. Ignoring the fact that Highsmith did write more Ripley books, you still get that same feeling throughout The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s as if she decided early on that he’s too good a character to throw over a waterfall.

Ah well. Perhaps I started The Talented Mr Ripley with too high an expectation. The film promised more than the book delivered. I should know better, of course. We’ll have to see what happens with February’s choice…

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The Naming of Parts

Call it what it is.

Science fiction: that genre of literature spawned from the community of writers and readers based about the magazine Amazing Stories, first published in 1926. Often abbreviated to sf, but never to sci-fi.

Sci-fi is considered a pejorative by science fiction fans. Perhaps because it’s used to put down sf works by some outside the genre. It might well be time we claimed the term back for ourselves.

It’s not speculative fiction. All fiction, irrespective of genre, is essentially speculative. Calling something speculative fiction (or spec fic) is just a feeble attempt at disguising its true nature. Why be embarrassed about enjoying science fiction? You can call them pommes frites, but they’re still bloody chips.


The Survival of Artistic Modes…

In an interview at Focus on Science Fiction and Fantasy, author Jack Campbell (AKA John G Hemry) says: “I think SF has a good future as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. By that I mean it has to remain focused on telling the story, rather than trying to be Literary.”

Which is where I do my impression of Ben Kingsley from Sexy Beast (here: warning – not for the easily offended or faint of heart.)

Rather than refuse to take itself seriously, science fiction needs to grow up. The word “literary” (capitalised or not) is not an insult, and should not be used as such. It is an aspiration. As long as sf continues to trivialise itself and its ambitions, then it will be seen as the province of children and sad nerds in anoraks. And that’s an image those of us who are serious about the genre having been trying to throw off for decades.

Just because mainstream critics and readers sneer at science fiction, that’s no reason for reverse snobbery. That’s no reason to take the complaints levelled at sf by mainstream critics and proudly claim them as the genre’s defining characteristics. We shouldn’t celebrate crap characterisation. We shouldn’t claim that lumpen “transparent” prose is superior to any other form. We shouldn’t privilege “idea” because it’s unique to the genre – and so that’s a competition we’ll always “win”. Neither should we privilege world-building, just because that’s an area in which we’ve had so much more practice…

I’m not saying we should dispense with story, or no longer consider it important. But neither should other aspects of fiction be ignored. Science fiction is not exempt from the rules of good fiction. If anything, it’s harder to do well because there is so much more which must be done well to succeed.

Also, it’s not about the genre surviving. Genres evolve, and that’s how they survive. It has nothing to do with taxonomy, or what letters publishers put on the spine of a novel. It’s about individual works surviving. A century from now, will people still be reading supermarket bestsellers? Or will they be reading the “serious” works? The history of literature so far suggests the latter. I don’t see any penny-dreadfuls still in print… but Dune is, 42 years after its first publication.

Science fiction is capable of so much more than trivial action-adventure tales dressed up with spaceships, aliens and robots. Why limit ourselves? I mean, isn’t that the whole point of sf? That there are no limits?