It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


And A Thousand Words More…

When I wrote Worth a Thousand Words, I promised a second instalment. So here it is.

This time it’s science fiction graphic novels. Now, I could have just written about the various titles by Alexandro Jodorowsky – The Incal, Metabarons, Technopriests and Megalex. They’re originally published in French, of course; but some have been translated into English. But not all of them, not yet. Still, I do have a French – English dictionary…

Jodorowsky’s graphic novels are a bit, well, weird. Like his films. The Incal is a knockabout sf satire, in which a fool (called John DiFool) must protect a crystal of enormous power, the Light Incal, from various evil factions. All of the characters are based on Tarot cards. Some commentators have likened parts of The Incal to Dune, but I can’t see the resemblance. The story of the Metabarons, a family of superlative mercenaries, is framed as one robot telling a story to another robot, who already knows it. The Technopriests is presented as the reminisces of an old man, describing how he turned his back on a career making cheese and became instead a creator of videogames. It’s actually a space opera, just in case that’s not clear. And Megalex is just as strange – a clone fights to defeat the eponymous planetary city, using the forces of nature. Each series was illustrated by a different artist: Moebius, Juan Giménez, Zoran Janjetov and Fred Beltran respectively.

I could have written this piece just about Jodorowsky’s work, but I won’t…

The Fourth Power, Juan Giménez – a young space fighter pilot escapes certain death when attacked by an enemy patrol, and discovers that she is linked to a new weapon of enormous power called “the Fourth Power”. Spaceships… aliens… and that slightly-odd way of looking at science fiction the French do so well.

The Sacred and the Profane, Dean Motter and Ken Steacy – I remember first reading this serialised in Marvel’s Epic Illustrated magazine back in the 1980s. Unfortunately, I only bought issues when flying to or from the Middle East, which was about four times a year. So I only read parts of it. A couple of years ago, I decided to buy myself a collected edition, only to discover it was quite hard to find. But then one popped up on eBay. A signed numbered edition. Result. The Sacred and the Profane is about a Jesuit mission to another star which encounters alien life in an asteroid. It’s pretty intense stuff for a sf graphic novel from the 1980s.

Garth, Frank Bellamy – this was a strip in the Daily Mirror, and ran from 1943 to 1997. I remember it from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was written and drawn by Frank Bellamy. Garth was an adventurer, stronger and smarter than most men, who would occasionally travel through time. He was involved in some sort of fight between Good and Evil, and his various adventures were often couched as episodes in this eternal battle. Fleetway published two Daily Mirror Garth annuals in 1975 and 1976, and Titan Books later published a pair of books in 1984 and 1985.

Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières – Valérian is a long-running French series, with twenty volumes published to date in France. Only a handful have been translated into English. The most recent of these is the trilogy in The New Future Trilogy published by iBooks, but the few earlier volumes published by Hodder-Dargaud are worth hunting down. It’s no-frills space opera done with wit and invention, with Valérian and his sidekick Laureline getting involved in various adventures.


2008 Reading Challenge – August’s late entry

I didn’t read a classic book for 2008 reading challenge in August because I volunteered for a group read of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. I had a book picked out, but just didn’t get around to starting it. But now I’ve read it.

The book was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell’s writing (see here), but I’ve never read anything by his brother Gerald. This is not so surprising – Gerald Durrell is a naturalist, and that’s a topic which has never interested me. But. My Family and Other Animals is generally considered a classic, and is even included in the Essential Penguins series.

After one too many miserable summers in the UK, the Durrell family – Larry, Leslie, Margo, Gerry, Mother and dog, Roger – decamp for sunnier shores. On the advice of a writer friend of Larry’s, they settle on the island of Corfu. My Family and Other Animals chiefly details ten-year-old Gerry’s explorations of the island and its fauna, but many family incidents are also recounted. When Larry freely offers invites to his friends and acquantainces, and several decide to accept, the family moves to another villa, large enough to accommodate guests. When Great Aunt Hermione declares an intention to visit, the family moves to a smaller villa in order not to have to put her up. In between, we have descriptions of the island, the insects and animals Gerry collects, and the people he meets.

The first thing to note about this book is that it’s funny. Durrell has an eye for idiosyncracies, and a nice turn of phrase when describing them; although he does have a tendency to characterise people as grotesques rather than as realistic people. The same is true of his family – there’s something a bit clichéd about them all: Larry, the sarcastic older brother; Leslie, monomaniacal about guns and hunting; Margo, the sister who mangles proverbs and aphorisms; Mother is harried, somewhat absent-minded, and very forgiving. But it’s these characterisations which lead into the humourous episodes, so it seems a bit churlish to complain.

One of the reasons I picked My Family and Other Animals was because it features Lawrence Durrell (I’ve yet to read Ian McNiven’s giant biography). Admittedly, Larry doesn’t come across too well in the book. In fact, he seems a bit of a self-important prat. He has a bad habit of insisting that other’s achievements are hardly remarkable as they’re no more than the result of applying intelligence and sense. So when Leslie tells how he shot two doves with a “left-and-right”, and Larry claims anyone could have done the same, he is argued into proving it. With entirely expected comic results.

However, there are things which are not so good about My Family and Other Animals. It was first published in 1956, but actually describes the years 1935 to 1939. Some of the attitudes and sensibilites seem odd, if not offensive, to a modern reader, although they were common at the time. There is, for example, a blithe casualness to disturbing wild animals in their habitat which is no longer acceptable. Having said that, Durrell’s treatment of the people he meets is never less than affectionate.

Also, Durrell’s prose is a bit like a child’s birthday cake – he has a tendency to over-ornament. He’s at his best when he keeps it simple – and that’s usually when he’s describing a family incident. Some of the writing about flora and fauna is so over-laden with colourful adjectives, it slows the narrative to a stumble. Again, the book is over fifty years old, and tastes change.

Of the eight books I’ve read to date for this year’s reading challenge, My Family and Other Animals is certainly one of the better ones. Perhaps Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing was a better book, but I did enjoy My Family and Other Animals. I don’t expect to read more of Gerald Durrell’s books, however. I think I’ll stick to Lawrence Durrell.


Ten Books I Own That None Of My Friends Own…

… or, Yet Another Blog Meme. I saw this on Kev’s The Arcane Model. Basically, list ten books you own that none of your friends also own. I’m guessing here, of course, although with some confidence…

Priddy Barrows, John Jarmain (1944)
Jarmain was killed during World War II. This is his only novel. I reviewed it here. A collection of his poetry was also published posthumously, and I own that too. Both books were difficult to find.

Middle East Anthology of Prose and Verse, edited by John Waller and Erik de Mauny (1946)
The title says it all: this is an anthology of prose and poems by people stationed in Egypt during World War II – both the Oasis and the Personal Landscape groups – including GS Fraser, Sidney Keyes, Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, John Pudney, Olivia Manning, Herbert Howarth, Bernard Spencer, and many others.

Zero and Asylum in the Snow, Lawrence Durrell (1947)
I own a few small press chapbooks by Durrell, but I picked this one as representative of them. Zero and Asylum in the Snow was originally privately printed on Rhodes by Durrell himself, but this edition was produced a year later by Circle Editions in California.

The Life and Works of Jahiz, edited by Charles Pellat (1969)
After reading Robert Irwin’s The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, I decided to learn more about the subject. Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri, or Al Jahiz, was born in Basra around 781 AD, and wrote a number of books, such as Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals), Kitab al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin (Book of Eloquence and Demonstration), Kitab Moufakharat al-Jawari wa al-Ghilman (Book of Dithyramb of Concubines and Ephebes) and Risalat Mufakharat al-Sudan ‘ala al-Bidan (Superiority Of The Blacks To The Whites).

Collected Poems, Bernard Spencer (1981)
Another World War II poet, like Jarmain; and also, with Lawrence Durrell, a co-founder of the Personal Landscape group of poets and writers in Egypt during World War II. Spencer was not very prolific and died relatively young, but he was generally considered to have been capable of greatness.

Yellow Matter, William Barton (1993)
A short story published as a small press chapbook and, I think, Barton’s only small press offering. Barton has not had a novel published since 1999’s When We Were Real, but he continues to write short fiction. It’s about time someone put together a collection of his stories.

Wingless Flight: The Lifting Body Story, R Dale Reed (1997)
I have several space-related books which I doubt my friends own. This is one of the more obscure ones. It’s about, well, lifting bodies – those strange-looking aircraft, one of which crashes so spectacularly in the opening credits of The Six Million Dollar Man television series.

Dune: Fremen Justice, Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson (2001)
After the Dune House prequel trilogy was published, small press Wormhole Books published two short stories by Herbert Jr and Anderson as limited edition hardbacks. I bought both (this one and Dune: Hunting Harkonnens). They’re actually not very good. Neither are the Dune House books for that matter.

Swedish Death Metal, Daniel Ekeroth (2006)
Some of my friends do listen to death metal, but I don’t believe any of them own books on the subject. This one is only available through Ekeroth’s MySpace page.

Dreams of a Nation, Hamid Dabashi (2007)
One of my favourite films is Divine Intervention by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. After watching a few other recent films by Palestinian directors, I decided to read up on the subject, and found a cheap copy of this book.

Now someone just has to prove me wrong…


New Sun – Old SF?

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been rereading Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun as part of a group read on LibraryThing. I first (and last) read the tetrology back in the mid-1980s.

It’s been an interesting experience.

The Book of the New Sun comprises four novels – The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch – all published between 1981 and 1983; and a later sequel, The Urth of the New Sun, published in 1988. The Shadow of the Torturer won the World Fantasy Award in 1981, and The Claw of the Conciliator won the Nebula Award in 1981. All five books were nominated for the Nebula, and The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Urth of the New Sun were all shortlisted for the Hugo Award. There are also at least three critical analyses of The Book of the New Sun: Lexicon Urthus, Solar Labyrinth and Shadows of the New Sun. The first four books have also been published as two omnibus editions in the Fantasy Masterworks series.

In other words, this is a very highly regarded series of sf novels.

When I first read The Book of the New Sun, I think I was vaguely aware of its reputation. I didn’t, however, know that the story contained a large number of riddles and puzzles – such as the identity of protagonist Severian’s mother. I do now. In fact, I also own copies of Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus and Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth. The first is a dictionary and compendium of characters, places, and unfamiliar terms from The Book of the New Sun; the second is an analysis of the story’s various puzzles. Neither are necessary to enjoy the five books – they’re for those interested in learning more about them.

Even though it had been a couple of decades since I’d last read The Book of the New Sun, I’d not forgotten its plot. I had forgotten many of the details, however. Severian is a torturer, a member of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence guild, and lives in the Citadel in the city of Nessus. When a noble lady from the Autarch’s palace, the House Absolute, is sent to the guild for “excruciation”, Severian is tasked with looking after her. He falls in love with her and, expressly against his training and the wishes of his guild, provides her with a knife which she uses to kill herself. The guild masters decide not to expel him from the guild, but instead send him to the northern city of Thrax to become that city’s lictor (i.e., prison warden and executioner). En route, he has several adventures and meets many people. In Thrax, he once again fails his guild – the archon asks him to kill a woman whose serial adultery has become an embarrassment to her husband, a prosperous noble; but Severian instead aids her escape. So he flees further north, experiencing further adventures… before becoming the Autarch himself. The Book of the New Sun is phrased as his memoirs, written years afterwards from his eidetic memory while he is Autarch.

The above is only a very brief outline of the plot. I’ve glossed over much of it – the “adventures”, his meetings with the rebellious Volidarus, his time with the Autarch’s army fighting the invading Ascians – all of which are important to Severian’s growth, his eventual assumption of the autarchy, and the many riddles in the story.

Regular readers of this blog will remember my recent post on “classic” science fiction, Don’t Look Back in Awe. While The Book of the New Sun is only twenty-seven years old, it’s still considered a classic of the genre. Some even consider it one of the best science fiction novels ever written. I was surprised, on this reread, to actually find that, well, to find that I didn’t like it very much. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, since I’ve always been conflicted about Wolfe – I have a high regard for his novels, but at the same time I hate his short fiction. And yes, that includes this year’s Hugo Award nominated novella, ‘Memorare’.

I should add that I didn’t like The Book of the New Sun because it’s a classic. I still think it’s a very good book. But. One of its defining characteristics is its use of archaic, obsolete and arcane words for various objects and concepts, the conceit being that Wolfe is “translating” the manuscript and uses such words because Severian does. So there are no swords mentioned in The Book of the New Sun, there are hangers and falchions and spadroons (among others). The fauna includes merychip, hesperorn and arctother. Ships are caiques or feluccas or xebecs. While this does give a feeling of exoticism and great antiquity to the story, it also felt in many places intrusive. But perhaps that was because some of the vocabulary was not obscure to me. I know what a dhow is (well, I did live in the Middle East). I know what cuir boli is (I spent my teen years playing Dungeons & Dragons). The words felt obfuscatory rather than clever.

There’s also an uncomfortable thread of misogyny running throughout the four books. Severian is a torturer, which immediately calls his morality into question. But almost all of his victims are women. When he eventually arrives at Baldander’s laboratory, he writes,

“… I saw what remained of a young woman who might have been a sister of Pia’s lying beneath a shimmering bell jat. Her abdomen had been opened with a sharp blade and certain of her viscera removed and positioned around her body… Her eyes opened as I passed…”

Later, he adds,

“I was acutely conscious, as I spoke, of the eviscerated woman mumbling beneath her glass somewhere behind me, a thing that would not have bothered the torturer Severian in the least.”

This, we are meant to realise, means Severian has grown, become a more moral person. Yes, Severian is a product of his (invented) world, and must be true to it if the fiction is to have any rigour. But that shouldn’t prevent a reader questioning the writer’s artistic decisions when creating that world.

The Book of the New Sun is a very clever book. It can’t, however, be read as an example of a less convoluted high fantasy narrative, which its outward appearance might initially suggest. This is not A Song of Ice and Fire or The Malazan Book of the Fallen by another name. It’s a book which requires full engagement by the reader – it’s all, or nothing. It’s not a book to be read lightly.

All of which is not, to me, a bad thing. But I came away from this reread not liking The Book of the New Sun for several reasons. The intrusive vocabulary. The misogyny. The seemingly random leaps in internal chronology. The fact that some of the plot elements seemed to exist only in order to present a puzzle.

Do I think The Book of the New Sun is a classic? Yes. But I suspect decades from now that Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus is the one that will still be seen as a classic, but The Book of the New Sun won’t.


Asking for Trouble

Among the many, many, many comments on various sites and blogs to my classics-bashing post, Don’t Look Back in Awe, I was taken to task by one or two for recommending only male writers of modern science fiction.

The topic of women writers in sf is one which has had a bit of an airing of late. With comments on Aqueduct Press’s blog, Paul Kincaid’s Science Fiction Skeptic column, and this blog here. Not to mention the fuss a few months ago when Jonathan Strahan revealed the contents of Eclipse Two.

Of course, the person(s) who made the original comment about the authors I recommended was quite correct. I should have named some female sf writers. And for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that science fiction is not an exclusively male genre, of readers or of writers. But – and this is the most important reason – because there are writers I would happily recommend who happen to be female. When I post a list of “books you should read” on this blog, the titles I list are ones I myself have enjoyed and admired. I would never recommend a book to someone if I didn’t have a high regard for it myself, no matter who or what the author is.

So I had a browse through my book collection, looking for contemporary novels (or collections) by female sf writers I could stick in a list, and… Oh dear. I could manage a list of about six or seven books, but that included a couple of cheats (a novel due to be published at the end of this year, and a recent collection of stories originally published in the 1950s). It’s not that I own so few books by female sf writers, just that many of them aren’t exactly contemporary. Which is a bit embarrassing.

I will happily insist people read anything they can find by L Timmel Duchamp, Mary Gentle, Gwyneth Jones, Justina Robson, or Susan R Matthews – all of whom currently have books in print. I’d also point out that you can’t go wrong with Ursula K Le Guin or CJ Cherryh. And while they’re considerably older – but there are a couple of recent collections in print – I’d also point people in the direction of Leigh Brackett‘s planetary romances. There are a couple of writers whose books I suspect I’d like, among them Jo Walton, Élisabeth Vonarburg, Kay Kenyon, and Kathleen Ann Goonan. I’ve yet to read anything by them, although I do plan to. But I won’t recommend a book I’ve not read.

Ignore the “contemporary”, and the list looks a little healthier: Sydney J van Scyoc (her last novel, Deepwater Dreams, was published in 1991), Shariann Lewitt (Rebel Sutra in 2000), Carolyn Ives Gilman (1998’s Halfway Human), Jane Emerson (City of Diamond from 1996), Jay D Blakeney (I’ve recommended before)…

I’ve read many more, of course. But I wouldn’t pick any of their books as ones to recommend.

So, no Ten Contemporary Novels by Female Science Fiction Writers. Not today, anyway. All those mentioned above are worth reading. I’d also welcome suggestions for more authors to try – but please bear in mind those I’ve named, as I’d obviously be more open to writers similar to them.

Leave a comment

Where were you when…

Gah. Jim Steel has had his revenge, and tagged with me the latest blog meme. I could just ignore it but… what the hell.

So. Where was I when:

Princess Diana died (31 August 1997)
I was working for the Higher Colleges of Technology in the United Arab Emirates at the time. One of my colleagues – I think it was Varghese Varghese – rang me at my desk, and told me Princess Diana had died. I waited for the punchline. Nope, no punchline.

Fortunately, being in the UAE meant I missed out on the UK’s grieving frenzy. And from over there, it looked very strange indeed. I did watch a bit of the funeral over the Web – while wondering if this was what DARPA had had in mind when they laid the foundations for the Internet back in the 1960s…

Magaret Thatcher resigned (22 November 1990)
I took a sandwich degree at polytechnic, so I would have been on my industry placement in November 1990. At ICL. I was no fan of Maggie, but I have no memory of this day being anything special. I don’t know; maybe we cheered or something.

The Twin Towers were attacked (11 September 2001)
In the UAE, working for a national oil company. I was at home, and I had the radio on. The DJ announced that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Centre towers in New York. I turned on the telly in time to see the second tower being hit. It was… a very strange day. And it got stranger as the weeks passed.

Things I remember: BBC World News annoying me by showing footage of Palestinians (allegedly) dancing for joy; and having Ehud Barak (ex-prime minister of Israel) in the studio, but no Arab spokesperson. Arab friends and colleagues finding it unbelievable that Arabs had been able to organise the attack. The various conspiracy theories which began to circulate. The newspaper stories which contradicted the information given by the US government (and which have never been refuted). The horror stories I heard from Arab friends and colleagues about the treatment their friends and relatives had received in the US shortly afterwards…

England were beaten by Germany in the World Cup semifinal (4 July 1990)
No idea. Can’t stand football.

President Kennedy was assasinated (22 November 1963)
Not even born.

I’ll tag some people when I think of some.

Edit: Thought of one: stubblog. More later.