It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


2008 Reading Challenge: The One That Made It All Worthwhile

I’m still a bit behind with this year’s reading challenge, but I’m slowly catching up. For September’s book, which I didn’t actually start until this month, I picked The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. Like most Brits my age, I have vague memories of the ITV adaptation from 1984. Other than that, I knew little about the book, or its author. And it’s unlikely that would have changed… if I hadn’t found all four books of The Raj Quartet going for £1.38 for the lot in a local charity shop, and thought they might be worth a go.

I should have come to Scott sooner. My favourite non-genre writers are Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles and Anthony Burgess, all British post-modern literary writers who came to prominence in the first two decades of the latter half of last century. As did Scott. There are other similarities – all four spent time abroad and later set fiction there: Burgess in Malaysia (The Long Day Wanes); Fowles in Greece (The Magus); Durrell… well, take your pick: he was a professional expat and set novels pretty much everywhere he lived; and Scott, of course, in India. Further, all four are known chiefly by the general public for only one of their works – The Raj Quartet for Scott, A Clockwork Orange for Burgess, The French Lieutenant’s Woman for Fowles, and The Alexandria Quartet for Durrell.

But on to the book itself.

Not having read anything by Scott before, I’d expected a relatively traditional narrative, something like EM Forster’s A Passage to India, perhaps. But the first page proved me wrong. Rather than pull the reader into the story of The Jewel in the Crown, Scott explains it: “This is a story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened.” The next forty pages then relate the life of Miss Crane, who moved to India as a governess in 1907 but stayed on when her employers were posted back to Britain. She became a teacher in the mission schools and, by the time the rape occurs in 1942, she is Superintendent of Schools in Mayapore, where The Jewel in the Crown is set. But she doesn’t actually have anything to do with the rape.

But then neither does Lady Lili Chatterjee. Or Sister Ludmilla. Or Mr Srinivasan. Or Brigadier Reid. Or Duleep Kumar. Yet these are all viewpoint characters in The Jewel in the Crown, and it is through them, and their stories, that Scott builds up a picture of the events sparked off by the rape of Daphne Manners by a group of Indian men. These viewpoints are written in a variety of narrative styles. Some are third person, some are first person. Some are presented as the spoken recollections of a character – and Scott’s handling of each character’s voice is impressive – to an unnamed listener. There are some lovely bits of prose, such as :

With all the chicks lowered the house is dark and cool even at midday. The ceilings are very high. In such rooms human thought is in the same danger as an escaped canary would be, wheeling up and up, round and round, fluttering in areas of shadow and crevices you can imagine untouched by a human hand since the house was rebuilt by MacGregor.

The Jewel in the Crown is by no means an easy read. Scott maintains voice so rigorously that the narrative rarely sticks to the story, and often detours into areas – such as the backgrounds and characters of his cast – which do not actually advance the plot. Duleep Kumar, for example, is Hari Kumar’s father, and Hari is one of the men accused of Daphne’s rape. Duleep’s story explains Hari – the Indian who is more English than the English – but it’s peripheral to the story.

Of course, India is as much a character in the book as Hari, Daphne and the others. It is represented by the invented city of Mayapore. Scott has not stinted on the details, nor on the thoughts and feelings of each of the various characters to the town and the country. The most damning is Hari, an Indian brought up in England and educated at the best schools, who does not feel Indian, but is treated as such. He thinks of himself as invisible: too Indian for the English, too English for the Indians. He’s the pivot about which the plot of The Jewel in the Crown revolves.

The Raj Quartet has been criticised for perpetuating prejudices and racial stereotypes. In a 1984 essay ‘Out of the Whale’, Rushdie pointed out that if Daphne Manners’ rape was a metaphor for the British exploitation of India, it should have been the rape of an Indian girl by white men. Which completely misses the point. The Jewel in the Crown is not about the exploitation of India. Scott is not writing about the Indian experience, about being Indian under the Brits. He is writing about two societies crashing together, each driven by an imposed agenda. The rape is merely the trigger for the reactions of the characters in the book, and those reactions are specific to those involved.

Nor is it surprising that The Jewel in the Crown perpetuates racial stereotypes. The story is told through its characters, and it is their sensibilities which are on display. Miss Crane, Brigadier Reid, Sister Ludmila, and Daphne Manners are all white. Brigadier Reid, for example, is offensively patronising because he epitomises the attitude of his generation of India hands. A reader who doesn’t understand that is missing the point. If Scott wanted to depict a balanced viewpoint, he would not have used Reid.

Now, obviously, my perspective on The Jewel in the Crown is going to differ from Rushdie’s. But I’m not reading it as a Brit, I’m reading it as a British expat – or rather, an ex-expat – who grew up in the Middle East as a “privileged white”. Of course, the parallels are not exact; the Gulf was not the Raj. Also, by the late 1960s / early 1970s, attitudes and sensibilities had changed a great deal. But I went to English speaking schools (I’m a founding pupil of two English speaking schools in the Gulf), I mixed with other European kids, and I rarely if ever socialised with Arabs or people from the Indian subcontinent. When I returned to the Gulf to work in the early 1990s, things were different. At one point, I was the only Brit in my employer’s Systems Development department (and I was also the only male). And yet in many respects, things had not changed: when I asked an Indian colleague why she was filling in a membership form for a bar, she told me it was so she wouldn’t be turned away at the door. I replied that I’d never been refused entry. “You’re white,” she said.

There is a particular British expat experience which The Jewel in the Crown (and Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet) both make use of. Neither mirrors precisely my own experiences growing up in the Gulf, but there’s a… shape in the text, in the life and interaction of the characters which comes close to emulating it. It’s not as arrogant as:

In his heart he also shares with that old ruling-class of English he affects to despise a desire to be looked-up to abroad, and shares with them also the sense of deprivation because he has not been able to inherit the Empire he always saw as a purely ruling-class institution.

… But there is certainly a shadow of Empire colouring the experience, as well as an understanding of Britain which is filtered through the perceptions of those who were once ruled by it. It’s Britishness informed by the culture of its surroundings, a microcosm of Britishness – almost a siege-mentality in some respects – but one which has subsumed some aspects of its environs. It no longer maps directly onto the culture of Britain. It’s an experience I suspect is slowly vanishing as the world grows “smaller”. Since the alternative appears to be McDonald’s, Cocoa-Cola and Hollywood, then I’m not convinced its disappearance is a good thing.

Of the books I’ve read so far this year for my reading challenge, The Jewel in the Crown has easily been the best. I certainly plan to read the remaining books in The Raj QuartetThe Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils. And I shall be adding Paul Scott’s other novels to my wants list. Oh, and I want to watch the television adaptation again.


Me & My Magic Man

I’ve not had a musical interlude for a while. So let’s have one.

It’s not all death metal round here, you know. Every now and again I like to wig out to a bit of 1970s prog rock. Check this one out. Uriah Heep, performing their classic ‘The Wizard’ on some television show.

Bad lipsynching! Flowery jeans! Dancers in hotpants! Mick Box giving it some axe attack! An audience that looks like it doesn’t know what it’s doing there! Ah, those were the days…

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Yet Another Meme…

… but it’s book related, so that’s all right. I saw this on Omphalos’ blog.

Hardback or trade paperback or mass market paperback?
Depends. Hardback for my favourite authors, paperback for others. Not too keen on trade paperbacks, but if that’s the first edition of a book by a favourite author then that’s what I’ll buy.

Bookmark or dog-ear?
Bookmark. If dog-earring books isn’t a sin, it damn well should be.

Alphabetize by author or alphabetize by title or random?
Alphabetical by author, and titles by year of first publication within each author. I’ve never been entirely sure what to do with anthologies edited by authors – should they be placed chronologically, even though they probably contain no fiction by the author, or should they be shelved separately?

Keep, throw away or sell?
I never throw books away. Books I don’t want I either sell on eBay, give away on BookMooch, give to friends or donate to charity shops.

Keep dust jacket or toss it?
Who throws dust jackets away? That’s just plain stupid.

Last book you bought?
The last book to arrive since this lot is The Twist in the Plotting: Twenty-Five Poems by Bernard Spencer, a chapbook published by the University of Reading Arts Department in 1960. The last book I actually bought, but it has yet to arrive, is a signed edition of Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard.

Last book someone bought for you?
Would probably be one I received for my birthday. On the one hand, it’s easy to buy presents for me: just get a book. On the other hand, I tend to buy the books I want myself, so there’s a danger I might already have it. Wishlists, FTW.

What are some of the books on your to-buy list?
My wants list is huge. Let’s see… there are a few new books I want, like Chris Beckett’s The Turing Test or Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War; some books which will be published in the next six to nine months, such as Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit or Bruce Sterling’s The Carytids or Gary Gibson’s Nova War; various titles I need to complete an author’s oeuvre; and the odd book that looks interesting, both fiction – for example, Élisabeth Vonarburg’s Dreams of the Sea – and non-fiction – Personal Landscapes by John Bolton (about the Cairo poets of WWII).

Collection (short stories, same author) or anthology (short stories, different authors)?
Both. But not all anthologies. It depends on the theme. The New Space Opera and The Space Opera Renaissance are both good. But I’m not into steampunk so steampunk anthologies are not going to appeal to me. Year’s best anthologies are a good way of keeping up with what’s been published in short fiction, but it’s difficult to find the right one to buy. It’s unlikely you’ll agree that all the contents are the “best”, but each of the different ones usually have some overlap so there’s not much point in getting all of them…

Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, or the velvety embrace of Death?
Death, definitely.

Morning reading, afternoon reading, or nighttime reading?
Usually night-time, although on the weekends I’ll also read in the afternoon.

The books you need to go with other books on your shelves?
I still have one or two series missing installments, but I’m slowly completing them. But not at any cost. I wait until I see a copy going cheap.

Do you read anywhere and anytime you can or do you have a set reading time and/or place?
I read on the tram to and from work. Like a lot of people, I also read on the loo. Sometimes I read while I’m watching telly – but not foreign films: it’s impossible to read and watch subtitled films. And I read just before I go to sleep.

Do you have seasonal reading habits?

Do you read one book at a time or do you have two or more books going at once?
Uusually one at a time, but on occasion I’ve read two or more concurrently. Depends. Usually it only works if the second book is one you can dip into at intervals.

What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books?
Not looking after them – breaking spines, putting creases in the cover, scribbling in them, etc. Well, except for author’s signatures, of course. Some of the paperbacks I’ve sold on eBay are twenty-five years old but looked brand new. Admittedly, they were in storage for fifteen of those twenty-five years…

Name one book you surprised yourself by liking.
The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. I’m currently reading it as part of my 2008 Reading Challenge. There’ll be a blog post going up about it in a few days. Given that I’ve not really enjoyed most of the classic novels I’ve picked to read this year for my challenge, I was delighted to discover that Scott’s writing is the sort I enjoy most, with the added bonus that The Jewel in the Crown is about expat Brits (a topic which always resonates with me). I fully intend to read more Scott – after I’ve finished the Raj Quartet.

How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about a book?
Other way round: I blog about a book for a reason. Because of all the reviews of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, I posted a review of Andrew M Stephenson’s Nightwatch. A discussion on various blogs about optimism in sf prompted me to post a review of the most miserable – but still excellent – sf novel I could find, DG Compton’s Chronicules. Niall Harrison reviewed Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos on Torque Control, so I reviewed her earlier Escape Plans. I worked my way through some, but not all, of the novels shortlisted for the 2008 BSFA Award. The publication of a new Culture novel is an event, so I had to review Matter. And, of course, there’s my annual reading challenge…

EDIT: and I should thank John at SF Signal for coming up with the meme in the first place. Although his original questions have altered somewhat as they’ve propagated through the blogosphere…


Books Overload!

I normally buy one or two books a week, usually from eBay or ABEBooks. This morning at the post office, I was handed eleven. It was a good job I’d taken a big carrier-bag. Since there were so many, I’d thought I’d do a “books received” type blog post. Only one of the books was actually published this year, by the way.

It’s quite an odd selection, even for me.

At the back, there’s one of the big Dan Dare reprint collections – The Man From Nowhere. Titan Books have been reprinting the Dare strips over the last couple of years, but I prefer the bigger Hawk Books collections. Which are hard to find, and often expensive.

Also at the back is Naval Fighters 29, a book on two models of Martin flying boat – the largest flying boats to fly in active service, in fact. I like books on planes. But only certain planes.

The large dark green book is Down the Styx by Lawrence Durrell, a signed and numbered small press novella. The interior looks absolutely gorgeous. One for the collection.

Speaking of collections, Expatria Incorporated completes my Keith Brooke collection (with the exception of the soon-to-be-published The Accord, of course), and The Sirian Experiments now means I have all five of the Canopus in Argos books. Signed first editions. I bought the other four cheap on eBay a while ago, but since Lessing was awarded the Nobel the price has shot up. If I’d waited much longer, completing the set could have proven really expensive. The other two sf books are a Stephen Baxter collection, The Hunters of Pangaea, and Stretto, the fifth and final installment in L Timmel Duchamp’s excellent Marq’ssan Cycle.

Finally, there’s a few poetry collections – Terence Tiller’s Poems, his first collection from 1941; another Salamander collection of WWII poetry, From Oasis into Italy (I also have Return to Oasis); and a pair of anthologies compiled by Geoffrey Grigson from 1939 and 1949. New Verse: An Anthology features photographs of the contributing poets at the back – it looks a bit like a casting call for an episode of Jeeves & Wooster. And Poetry of the Present still has a reviewing slip in it – “Publication Date 28th April 1949, Price 10/6 net”.


Ahead of His Time?

Since one Stephenson has been reviewed and interviewed just about everywhere recently, I thought I’d be deliberately perverse and post an old review of a novel by an entirely different Stephenson.

In the late 1970s, Orbit published two novels by Andrew M Stephenson. The first of these was Nightwatch in 1977. While it initially seems very much a British science fiction novel of its time, it did promise a career to watch.

Dan Frome is a British engineer sent to Dvornik Moon-base in 2006 to oversee the installation in Jupiter probes of the artificial intelligences he’s invented, the Golems. But this, it transpires, is just a cover story. An alien spaceship has been detected en route to Earth. Frome’s Golems will actually be going into weapons platforms sent out to intercept the alien craft. And everyone on the Moon is stuck there for the duration. The inhabitants of Dvornik are not happy about this involuntary exile, especially since Earth itself is on the brink of war. By the time the weapons platforms are ready and in place, their homes could well have gone up in smoke.

Various secret factions within the Moon-base try to recruit Frome. Or kill him: he narrowly escapes one attempt on his life. Making matters more complicated is Frome’s belief that his Golems are not capable of the job for which they are being used. There is a fundamental flaw in their thought processes. Frome manages to persuade his superiors that someone has to accompany the weapons platforms, and be there with them to oversee the Golems. He is the only man for the job.

At which point, the narrative of Nightwatch abruptly shifts from its earlier first-person to third-person. Frome is sent out with the weapons platforms to Jupiter orbit. The alien craft draws near. One by one, the Golems malfunction. Frome brings them back on-line, and succeeds in returning enough functionality to them so they can attack the alien. But the weapons platforms seem to have no effect.

Up to this point, Nightwatch could best be described as 1970s hard science fiction. Perhaps more literate than others of its ilk – as testified by its first-person narrative, and the switch to third-person – there was little in Nightwatch‘s story which differentiated it from similar novels of its time. But the aftermath of the attack on the alien craft marks an abrupt change in science fiction mode. The alien, Frome learns, is a trader, and it carries a portal linking it to a vast galactic transport network. Frome passes through this portal… and discovers a galaxy rich in life, with a civilisation so old that its beginnings are long forgotten. No one, in fact, remembers who built the original transport network. There are echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey in this, but there is also something about the concept which reminds me more of late 1980s and early 1990s science fiction by the likes of David Brin, or William Barton and Michael Capobianco.

Frome returns to Earth in the alien craft. The narrative returns to first-person. Earth has destroyed itself, but Dvornik Moon-base still survives. However, the planet can be rebuilt with the alien traders’ help.

I’ve no idea what reception Nightwatch received in its year of publication, but I would guess that it didn’t compete well with much of what was being published at that time. Compared to The Mote in God’s Eye, or Ringworld, it is too considered a novel, too British in tone, too dour, to have proven popular. Where US authors were writing shiny happy futures, infused with can-do optimism and an almost combat-engineering approach to problems and difficulties, Nightwatch is a story set in a decaying future, the end of Empire, where solutions are cobbled together from bits and pieces that used to be parts of something else that once upon a time worked…

Until that odd shift to space opera and pan-galactic civilisation.

While this shift fits within Stephenson’s story, it’s certainly not signalled by anything which has gone before. The mix of dour hard SF and optimistic space opera works well – and there’s a nice dichotomy at work, in the appearance of these galactic saviours as Earth bombs itself into oblivion – but only a persistent reader would get far enough to discover this.

Perversely, I think Nightwatch probably reads better now than it did thirty years ago. With a little updating, Nightwatch would not appear out of place on the science fiction shelves of today’s book shops. Which may be why Stephenson wrote only a pair of novels before falling silent. He was ahead of his time.

A shame.


Days of Future Past

A couple of weeks ago Niall Harrison wrote about Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos on Torque Control. Since I’ve long admired Jones’ fiction, I thought I’d do something similar and post a review of her 1986 novel Escape Plans. This review is actually a few years old, but never mind.

I consider Gwyneth Jones one of the best British science fiction writers currently being published. So it shouldn’t really surprise me to discover how good her novels are whenever I reread them. Escape Plans I first read in the late 1980s, probably soon after reading and falling in love with Kairos. When I came to this reread, I had not forgotten the story – a member of an orbital-based elite is trapped amongst the Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish drones of the “underworld” (Earth) – and I’d remembered the invented acronymic language which peppered the text. What I had forgotten was how well-written the novel was, how well-designed its background, and how… well, perhaps “clumsily-plotted” is too strong a term: but the story does seem to bounce from incident to incident, revelation to revelation, without actually come to anything more than a purely personal resolution.

ALIC (apparently a computer acronym, but it’s not in my OUP Dictionary of Computing) is a VENTURan, a member of a space-based society. VENTUR had originally been set up to colonise other star systems, but it never left the Solar System. And then the VENTURans ended up saving the Earth’s population from itself. ALIC (pronounced “Aeleysi”) is enjoying a holiday on Earth at SHACTI, Surface Habitat Area Command Threshold Installation, a planetary facility for the VENTURans. It is located on the Indian subcontinent. At a party, ALIC meets Millie Mohun, a bonded labourer jockey, who appears to be wearing a forged identification tag. The Earth’s population are, bar a minority of ruling “enableds”, all bonded labourers or “numbers”. Millie spins ALIC some story about being blackmailed into wearing the false tag; ALIC decides to help her. To this end, she infiltrates the numbers in SHACTI’s Sub Housing (the numbers’ underground hive-like city). Unfortunately, she soon finds herself trapped as a number, her VENTURan identity lost to her. And then a portion of the Sub number population rebels against their masters and the systems that maintain their habitats…

The plot of Escape Plans seems initially inspired by the story of Orpheus, who ventured into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from Pluto. It is, after all, the vague feelings of desire for Millie which motivate ALIC to set out on her ill-considered journey. However, not content with this, or with Escape Plans‘ departure from the myth when ALIC (now Alice) finds herself trapped as a number, Jones adds a further twist to the plot. Millie Mohun, many of the numbers believe, is immortal. As the story progresses, yet another myth takes this one’s place: Millie Mohun is an alien, come to Earth to deliver the multitudes from servitude. The VENTURans had already discovered that Earth is trapped in a bubble-universe, and the only world in it with life. Millie, the numbers claim, is from outside, and part of her message is to lead humanity to the galactic confraternity which exists beyond the bubble-universe.

It is perhaps an unnecessary complication of a story which is not all together easy to parse in the first place. The setting, the use of an acronymic language, the mentions of the myriad systems, the deliberate confusion between the systems’ real and virtual locations, and the metaphors used by the Earth’s populace in explanation of this… all serve to richen and partly obscure the story. Happily, the prose is so well written, it pulls you along with the plot.

That Jones is familiar with India (I believe she’s visited the country several times) shines through Escape Plans. For one thing, the novel’s matriarchal society strikes me as a deliberate irony. In rural Indian society, females are considered a drain on family resources: girl children must be married off and dowries paid. Boy children, on the other hand, will grow up to become contributing members of the family. In Escape Plans, it is the men who are entirely useless. The Earth culture is based upon the use of humans as processors in the pervasive computer systems which run life support, law and order, communications, etc. But only women can perform this role. Men cannot do it. This is a motif Jones has used many times: the society of her Divine Endurance and Flowerdust is matriarchal; and she also turns the tables on gender roles in her Aleutian trilogy.

Having read Jones’s later works, it seems to me that her depiction of technology in Escape Plans also echoes her use of it in later novels. The acronymic language used in Escape Plans disguises this somewhat, but the systems of the book are based upon a computing model which is probably more familiar now than it would have been in the mid-1980s. Escape Plans‘ systems are distributed and pervasive. Their real location, as opposed to their virtual location, is an important plot-point. They interconnect in a fashion not unlike the Internet – which predates Escape Plans by a couple of decades, but did not really become ubiquitous until the early 1990s.

I opened this piece on Escape Plans by stating my high regard for Jones’s writing. It’s an opinion I’ve continued to hold with each book of hers I’ve read – or re-read. Escape Plans was certainly worth a second look.

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Why Am I Still Doing This…? Part 3

It’s been a while since I last did a round-up of the films from my Nightmare Worlds 50-movie DVD set. This is because I’ve seen all the watchable ones, and the ones which are left are really bad. So I’ve been a bit slow in watching them. Anyway, here they are:

The Manster – an American reporter in Japan makes friends with a Japanese scientist, is wined and dined by him, introduced by him to the best of Japanese culture, falls for the scientist’s glamorous assistant despite being married… but it’s all a plot by the scientist so he can experiment on the reporter. Which turns him into a two-headed monster. It was all something to do with the scientist’s wife who had turned into a monster years before. More interesting as an early 1960s depiction of life in Japan than a monster movie.

They – AKA Invasion From Inner Earth. A bunch of Canadians have been holidaying up in the mountains, and when they return to civilisation they discover everyone has died of some strange plague. The only thing I remember from this film was that one of the characters was really annoying, and I was glad when he died. It was only a shame it took so long.

How Awful About Allan – Anthony Perkins is the eponymous Allan. A fire at home blinds him, kills his overbearing father, and scars his sister. Some time later, his sight partially returns – he can see blurred shapes, but little else. He moves back home with his sister. But there’s a stranger in the house, a lodger who creeps about and whom Allan never gets to actually meet. The sister claims there’s nothing unusual going on. Of course, it’s all a cunning revenge plot. A made-for-tv Monday afternoon psychological thriller from the early 1970s. Watch it while doing the ironing.

The Phantom Creeps – I suspect the title is verb-noun, rather than adjective-noun. The Phantom – or is that one of the Creeps? – is Bela Lugosi, a mad scientist with a secret laboratory hidden in his basement. He invents lots of useful gadgets, including a belt that makes him invisible, and sets about taking over the world. Well, California. Muahaha. This is another serial edited down to a feature. It shows.

Panic – I’m pretty sure I watched this one, but I have no memory of it. It must have been that good. Something to do with a model, and an old woman who’s a serial killer. Who said watching these films was into turning into a chore, eh?

Purple Death from Outer Space – another Flash Gordon serial chopped up to make a feature film. The dastardly Emperor Ming has spread some sort of dust across Earth, so Flash, Dale and Zarkov head off the Mongo to whip up support for an attack on Ming to stop his dastardly plan. I can’t honestly remember how this one differs from other Flash Gordon serials I’ve seen. They all seem to be played like pantomimes, the rocketships would look more convincing if the effects people just lobbed them through the air, and there’s a silliness to them which will strike you as either charming or risible. Oh yes, one of Ming’s dastardly henchmen in this one is called Lieutenant Thong.

The Return of Dr Mabuse – Gert Fröbe (i.e, Auric Goldfinger) is a police inspector. An Interpol agent is murdered, and Fröbe investigates. All the clues suggest the murderer is a man who was in prison at the time. And is still in prison. It never occurs to Fröbe that someone might have let the murderer out. When further clues suggest criminal mastermind Dr Mabuse is behind it all, it doesn’t occur to Fröbe that the prison warden might be Mabuse in disguise. This film was dubbed into English, and its setting moved to Chicago. Which strangely appears to have everywhere signposted in German…

Radio Ranch – gosh, kids, it’s the Singing Cowboy himself, Gene Autry. This film is like a 1930s thinly-disguised product-placement fest, except the brand they’re selling is Autry himself. At the eponymous ranch, the kids of his fanclub, the Thunder Riders, tangle with, well, the real Thunder Riders. Who live in a scientifically advanced city deep under California. And every now and again, they ride en masse through a valley near the ranch. For some unexplained reason. It’s The Coming Race meets Hollywood star vehicle meets some kids’ club film.

Ring of Terror – this was more like one of those terribly earnest US government information films from the 1940s than a horror film. Remember kids, sex can give you diseases that make your brain rot. Or something like that. A terribly earnest medical student suffered a childhood trauma involving a corpse. As you do. So when his frat brothers dream up an initiation ritual involving a ring for his girlfriend, and a corpse in the mortuary that isn’t really a corpse… well, it all goes horribly wrong. Yawn.

Robot Pilot – an inventor invents a remote-control kit for normal-sized aeroplanes – so, not “robot”, then. He demonstrates it to the company CEO, but it fails. So he hies off to the desert with the test pilot to work on it some more. Enemy agents get wind of the invention and try to steal it. Oh, and the CEO’s spoilt daughter decides to drive from somewhere to somewhere along a route which takes her and her aunt close by the desert ranch where the inventor and test pilot are living. Their car breaks down, and they’re rescued by the two men. Who decide to teach the spoilt daughter a lesson – with the CEO’s collusion – by treating her as a slave for a bit. But she and the test pilot fall in love, and I can’t really see why this film is science fiction or even included in a DVD set called Nightmare Worlds.

Terror at Red Wolf Inn – there’s this inn, called the Red Wolf Inn. And it’s terrible. Oops. Terrifying, I mean. A young female student wins a holiday at the titular hostelry, and is surprised when, one by one, the other young female guests disappear. But there’s always plenty of food. Meat, that is. And it’s no good running away, because the local sheriff is in on it.

UFO: Target Earth – this opens with “members of the public” discussing UFOs, as if it were a documentary. They’re actors, of course. The scene then shifts to a laboratory… Apparently, this filmed was touted as a highly-realistic study of ufology. In actual fact, it’s an extremely dull, cheap, and badly acted film about a UFO which has landed at the bottom of a lake. I remember very little else about the film, and I don’t consider that a bad thing.

Star Odyssey – Italian space opera nonsense. I thought StarCrash was bad, and Cosmos: War of the Planets worse. But this one definitely beats both of them. There’s a villain who looks like someone has scribbled all over his face, a pair of really irritating robots (male and female – you can tell which is which because the female one has eyelashes), an actor who thinks he’s a hero (or was it vice versa?) and camps it up something terrible, and… and… It’s one of those films you put on if a guest has overstayed their welcome. If they don’t leave after watching the first ten minutes of it, you only have to wait until they start frothing at the mouth and fall over, and then you can drag them outside and leave them.

Prisoners of the Lost Universe – I suspect Richard Hatch leaves this one off his c.v. He, and two others, are accidentally transported to a parallel world inhabited by fur-clad barbarians ruled by John Saxon. Hatch must defeat Saxon before he can return to Earth. So he does. That’s about it. Best avoided.

Sadly, the boxed set is not yet finished. There are still a few more to watch. However, I can say this much already: the next time I see a boxed DVD set of 50 sf films going for around ten quid, I’ll think twice before buying it…

Oh yes – earlier reviews of the boxed set here (part one) and here (part two).


Shiny Happy Science Fiction

Back in July I listed 20 British SF Novels You Should Read. One of the titles on that list was Chronicules by DG Compton. Here is a review of it, offered in part as an antidote to all those blog posts about science fiction being doomy and gloomy. If miserable sf gives us books such as this, and happy optimistic sf gives us the likes of, well, Asimov… then I know which one gets my vote. Read it and wince.

DG Compton’s Chronicules has one of the all-time great opening sentences:

About twenty years before this story begins – give or take a few years, the Simmons s.b. effect being untried and seriously (not that it mattered) inaccurate – the desolate silence on Penheniot Village, at the top of Penheniot Pill which is a creek off the small harbour of St. Kinnow in the county of Cornwall, was shattered by the practised farting of young Roses Varco.

But then the book was originally published under the title Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil, so this is not entirely unexpected. Neither title – the original unwieldy one, nor the later more science-fictional one – actually provides much clue to the story. If anything, both are somewhat misleading. (Weirdly, the later title was slightly altered for publication in the US to Chronocules.)

According to the blurb, Chronicules is a grand adventure through time. It isn’t. Nor is it a cutting-edge discussion of temporal research. The time travel bookends the actual story, which is more concerned with life in an artificial research village in a Britain slowly falling apart. Further, there’s a nastiness to Chronicules of which only the British seem capable. Americans don’t do it, don’t cut and belittle their own creations. Irony may be a high-minded alternative, but it doesn’t have sarcasm’s scalpel-like edge: wielded inexpertly, irony is at best blunt-force trauma.

A lack of sarcasm in a novel is not necessarily a bad thing: a writer being unnecessarily cruel to his or her own characters often seems like torturing defenceless children. And in Chronicules, Compton has loaded the odds in his favour: his chief protagonist is mentally retarded. Which only emphasises the novel’s intrinsic cruelty. Further honing the blade is the setting’s custom of public nudity: Compton dwells cuttingly on the physical unsuitability of various characters showing their sagging flesh and dangly bits. There are some quite disturbing images, certainly enough to turn you off nudism.

The characters are well-drawn, and wholly unlikeable. Varco, the central character, is entirely ineffective, and those characters which do have some impact on the plot have more hang-ups than positive qualities. Compton’s future UK is miserable and reads almost prophetically like the Britain of the Tories during the eighties. While some science fiction novels may attract through their settings – Banks’s Culture, or Varley’s Eight Worlds, for instance – Compton’s near-future UK only repels. In fact, the only thing to really like about Chronicules is its writing. The prose is a joy to read.

Finally, the last page of Chronicules, after the end of the story, in the Arrow paperback edition I read is headed “Other Arrow Books of interest:”. It is otherwise blank…


The Best SF Novels Since 1990

My feelings on “classic” science fiction should be obvious by now, so perhaps this post won’t come as much of a surprise. Anyway…

I recently saw a Locus Magazine poll from 1998 of the best “all-time” sf novels before 1990. I can’t say I’m surprised at the results. The books listed are pretty much the “accepted” canon of science fiction. The Foundation trilogy. Half a dozen by Robert Heinlein (including the execrable Starship Troopers). Ender’s Game. The Mote in God’s Eye. Startide Rising. Ringworld… And yet, few of them, I believe, stack up all that well against the best the science fiction of today has to offer. I’m not saying there are no good books on Locus’ list – with or without caveats. Dune remains a compellingly immersive read, The Stars My Destination is still the best version of The Count of Monte Cristo on crack, there are few sf novels to match The Dispossessed as a readable and intelligent thought-experiment, and Dhalgren is as avant garde and powerful now as it was on publication… To name but a few.


I still believe that when non-sf readers think of sf, they should be thinking of recent books and not something that’s over fifty years old. The perception of sf has to change, it has to be brought into line with the current state of the genre. So, to that end…

I thought it only fair to present my own list of best sf novels. From after 1990. That’s eighteen years ago, so I’ve made my list a bit shorter. Fifteen books. That’s the Fifteen Best Science Fiction Novels Since 1990. IMHO.

1. Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
2. The Difference Engine, Bruce Sterling & William Gibson (1990)
3. The Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
4. A Fire upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
5. Somewhere East of Life, Brian Aldiss (1994)
6. Coelestis, Paul Park (1995)
7. The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (1995)
8. The Sparrow<, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
9. Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
10. Light, M John Harrison (2002)
11. Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds (2003)
12. Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
13. River of Gods, Ian MacDonald (2004)
14. The Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
15. Black Man, Richard Morgan (2007)

Obviously the list is biased. It only includes books I’ve read. And it’s to my taste. It’s also Brit-centric, but then I’m a Brit. And no doubt, seconds after I’ve posted it, I’ll think of a novel I should have included… I also wanted a good spread of sub-genres – the above list shows the best the entire genre has to offer.

Here are some interesting statistics about the list:

Male: 11 (73%) / Female: 4 (27%)
UK: 9 (60%) / US: 6 (40%)
In print: 11 (73%) / Out of print: 4 (27%)

(Note: Sterling & Gibson have been counted as a single “author”, and the two series on the list were also only counted once.)

“Out of print” simply means not available on Amazon – not counting the Aqueduct Press titles, Life and the Marq’ssan Cycle, which are readily available from their web site. It’s not just the oldest of the books which are no longer in print, and while critics might think that fact says something about some of my choices, I don’t think I’m the only who believes it’s time for a new edition of Take Back Plenty.

But as a starting point… well, I think it’s a good list. I suspect others might disagree.