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The road to 2011

Although it’s the road to hell which is, they say, paved with good intentions. And I have plenty for 2011. I had a number for 2010 as well, of course – see here. And I actually managed to complete some of them.

Okay, so I failed on the reading challenge, but I did read quite a few of the authors and series I named: WG Sebald (er, no), Michel Houellebecq (yes), Kazuo Ishiguro (yes), Paul Scott (no; although I did buy several of his books); the Marq’ssan Cycle by L Timmel Duchamp (yes; well, only book 5 still to go), the Bold As Love Cycle by Gwyneth Jones (yes; see here), Destiny’s Children by Stephen Baxter (no), and Canopus in Argos: Archives by Doris Lessing (still planning to read this). Sadly, I didn’t quite manage to keep my Space Books blog up to date…

Nor did I manage to finish a story a month. I actually completed five. And a bunch of poems. On the plus-side, six of my stories saw print in 2010. And one got praised in a national newspaper, the Guardian – see here.

I made it to Fantasycon (see here and here), but not NewCon or Novacon. I didn’t quite make the gig-a-month – only 11, unfortunately. I also failed to attend either Bloodstock or Damnation, but I already have my ticket for Bloodstock 2011.

And now, for this coming year…

I have a new reading challenge – see here – so I’m hoping I to complete that. I also have a pile of books which I need to review for SFF Chronicles. And there’s my own ongoing series here of British SF Masterworks. I read Christopher Hodder-Williams’ 98.4 over Christmas, so I’ll be posting a review of that here soon. But I do have several others from the list to read and write about.

I’d like to read more classics: Lawrence, Orwell, Dickens, that sort of stuff. I also plan to finish off Ishiguro – his books, that is, as I own all but one. Likewise David Mitchell. And read more books by the following: Margaret Atwood, Michel Faber, Adam Thorpe, Toby Litt, Paul Scott, and WG Sebald. I’d like to get started on CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series, and I’d like to read more new science fiction as I’m usually behind the times when it comes to the new shiny. And then there’s my Space Books blog… I really do need to get back onto a regular schedule of posting stuff there. It’s not like I’m short of books, or DVDs, to review for it.

Writing a short story a month may be beyond me, but I certainly want to be more prolific. I’ll see if I can finish six in 2011. Small steps… And a novella. Oh, and poems. Not just banging up drafts and ideas on sferse, but taking some of the ones from there, polishing them and submitting them.

I don’t think I need to do anything blog-wise in 2011. I posted here frequently enough, and I’m happy with most of the content. It might have been a bit sf-heavy, but that’s not unexpected. Don’t like the template, though; I’m going to change that at some point.

Finally, I’ll continue watching the BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays… which is about the nearest I can get to a resolution for films.


The devil is in the surface detail

Iain Banks’ latest Culture novel, Surface Detail, may be about a War in Heaven, but it is definitely not an eschatological novel.

In the universe of the Culture, there are races which have transcended to a higher plane of existence, the Sublimed – via, it is assumed, technology, or great intelligence / knowledge of the secret physics of reality. There is no mention of individuals achieving a similar transformation on their deaths. In other words, there is no Heaven. And conversely, no Hell. But what doesn’t exist, or can’t be proven to exist, people will invent. And in the universe of the Culture, they invented Afterlives. These are VR worlds populated by those who have, willingly or unwillingly, ended their corporeal existence. They are heavens created by technology. And conversely, there are hells. Because not everyone deserves a reward for a life well-lived.

The War in Heaven which makes up the plot of Surface Detail is a decades-long conflict between those who believe hells are immoral and should not exist, and those who believe they are necessary. The war is being fought entirely in simulation, so there is no damage or loss of life, and both sides have agreed to abide by the result. But the anti-Hell side is losing…

Lededje Y’breq is the property of Veppers, the richest and most powerful man in the Sichultian Enablement. She is an Intagliate, which means she has been genetically engineered to display tattoos from crown to toe, and on all her internal organs, eyeballs, teeth, bones, etc. These tattoos, which indicate her status, are punishment for a family debt. Her father died owing Veppers huge amounts of money, and in Suchultian law descendants can “pay off” these debts by entering into slavery. In the first chapter, Ledeje tries to escape, but is killed in the process by Veppers. To her great surprise, she finds herself reincarnated – “revented” – on a Culture GSV. This is not a technology the Sichultians possess. Lededje determines to return to her home world to kill Veppers. She travels there aboard a Culture Picket Ship, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints.

Yime Nsokyi is a member of the Culture’s Quietus, the service which deals with those inhabiting Afterlives. She is tasked with preventing Lededje. En route she detours to the Tsungarial Disk, an ancient alien artefact comprising millions of asteroid-sized factories orbiting in a ring about a gas giant. There has been a “smatter” outbreak on the Disk, a swarm of von neumann machines, and the GCU Bodhisattva aboard which she is travelling has been diverted to help meet the threat.

Vateuil is a soldier in the War in Heaven. He plays a number of parts in a number of different types of simulated wars, working his way up the chain of command. He is also a member of a conspiracy of senior officers who are intending to take the battle into the real world. A conspiracy involving Veppers and a couple of alien races plans to build millions of ships with the intention of destroying the hardware on which the hells run.

Prin is a Pavulean, an alien, who has infiltrated his race’s hell in order to blow the whistle on it. He was sent there with his fellow researcher and mate, Chay, but she failed to make it back. He presents his findings to the Pavulean government, but meets with resistance – not only are there those who don’t believe the hell exists, but there are also those who know of its existence and believe it is necessary. This last faction attempt to discredit or silence Prin.

These plot-threads all contribute to the novel’s resolution. Except… some of them don’t quite convince. Ledeje’s narrative is relatively straightforward and offers, perhaps, the most direct route from beginning to the story’s climax. Prin and Chay are there to show just how reprehensible the hells are. Vatueil is the reader’s eye on the war, and its final desperate gamble. Yime is part of the solution to preventing the attempt to bring the War in Heaven into the Real. And Veppers… Veppers knows the location of the hardware on which the hells run. But why does he wait thirty years before putting into place the plot to destroy that hardware?

But if the conspiracy which drives the plot of Surface Detail doesn’t quite convince, a more pressing problem is that the moral argument at the heart of the book is fixed. The hells in the novel are made places, and so most certainly exist. The argument then becomes over whether they should exist. But through Prin’s eyes we see just how reprehensible those hells really are. There is absolutely no ethical or moral argument which can be used to justify their existence. But Banks has a pro-Hell Pavulean senator attempt to do just that to Prin; but it’s empty blustering. Either Banks is spoofing the empty rhetoric of the right-wing when they attempt to rationalise military adventures like the invasion of Iraq. Or he is showing that there is no acceptable argument for morally repugnant acts – the pro-Hell side, in other words, comprises only lies and evasions. They have taken the moral high ground on an empty argument, and are about to win the war to cement their position. And so the anti-Hell side has to cheat, has to break a solemn agreement, because – as the Culture so often does in other novels – the right outcome justifies any means. Even, apparently, in an argument over moral and immoral activities.

If there’s one thing Banks does well in his sf novels, that’s “blow shit up”, and Surface Detail is as satisfying in that regard as the best of the Culture novels.There are also some excellent set-pieces: the Tsungarial Disk, the cavern city, and the elevator-diving spring to mind. But there also appears to be more exposition than in Surface Detail than I remember from other Culture novels.

On reflection, I think I liked Matter better. It had a more interesting structure, it had a cooler BDO, it had more interesting characters. Which is not to say that Lededje is not – she’s a typical Banksian heroine, just like the Lady Sharrow from Against a Dark Background. Veppers, unfortunately, is another pantomime villain – cf the Archimandrite Luseferous – and reads as little more than a caricature of an evil plutocrat. As for Demeisen, the avatar of Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints… About halfway through Surface Detail, he started to come across as Matt Smith’s Dr Who. And that just spoiled it for me.

Nor was I entirely convinced by the resolution. The treaties between the principles didn’t quite add up when scrutinised, the sudden reveal of the hells’ hardware’s location made a bit of a mockery of the decades-long conspiracy of the story, not to mention feeling like a bit of a cop-out.

And then there’s that final line… Yes, it’s a hoot. Yes, it’s going to please fans of the Culture novels. But it also feels a bit, well, unnecessary. It’s an Easter Egg, but nowhere near as substantial as the one in Matter‘s epilogue.

For a story so concerned with detail, so much so that the title uses that very word, Surface Detail seems to perversely only really succeed when focused on the big picture. Like a Mandelbrot, it makes a pretty picture; but get too close and those fractal edges start to blur and appear indistinct. It is a Banksian space opera, with all that description entails. It is a fun read. But its story also pretends to a weight it does not actually possess, and that I found disappointing.


That was the year that was

I said last year that 2009 was a year to remember for reasons both good and bad, but 2010 proved to be both a little better and in one respect the worst year ever. My father died of cancer in September after two months of illness. I miss him. My writing achievements mean little in the face of that. Especially since my father supported and enjoyed my writing – and yet never saw my story from Catastrophia praised in a national newspaper.

For the record, six of my stories saw print in 2010 – one each in Jupiter, Catastrophia, New Horizons, Alt Hist, and two in M-Brane SF. I also had my first poem published, also in Jupiter (it was actually a quartet of poems).

During 2010 (to date), I read 170 books, 42% of which were science fiction, 18% were literary fiction, and 6% I read to review on my Space Books blog. I reviewed seven books for Interzone, one for Vector, and six for SFF Chronicles. I managed to curtail my book purchases this year, but I then decided to browse local charity shops on a regular basis… As a result, I spent less on books in 2010, but seem to have bought almost as many as I have in previous years. Oh well.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), I picked as one of my top five books of the first half 2010, and wrote then that I expected it to make it onto my end of the year top five. And so it has. It is a cleverly-plotted historical detective novel, an astonishing piece of literary impersonation, and it is, as you’d expect from Crowley, beautifully written. Admittedly, I’m no expert on Byron – his poetry or his life – but Crowley certainly convinced me. After the disappointment that was The Translator, this is Crowley on top form.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1974). While I’ve read several of Compton’s novels over the years, 2010 was the year I came to really appreciate his fiction and added him to my list of “collectible” authors. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is often considered the best of his novels, and it’s certainly true that it’s very, very good. It’s perhaps a little dated these days but, for me, that was part of its charm – I love its 1970s aesthetic. It’s a book that’s wonderfully sardonic, with a pair of expertly-drawn characters, and prose that’s a joy to read. I wrote about it here. I even wrote about the film adaptation of it, by Bertrand Tavernier, here.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928). My father was a big fan of DH Lawrence and often tried to persuade me to read his books. But it was only this year that I picked one up… and was immediately captivated. I’ve since bought an omnibus of two novels and three novellas, a short story collection and a poetry collection (from charity shops, of course). I plan to read more. There’s little I need to say about Lady Chatterley’s Lover as most people know of the book – although, to be fair, what they think they know of it may not be what the book is actually about. The dialogue has not aged well, but some of the descriptive prose is lovely writing, and the character studies of Constance and Mellors are superbly done. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, incidentally, was another book from my top five for the first half of the year.

Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard and Robert S Dietz (1961). This year, 2010, was the fiftieth anniversary of the only manned descent to the deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. And Seven Miles Down is the only book written specifically about that descent. It makes it into my top five because it’s a fascinating subject, and because I think Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh’s achievement should be honoured. I wrote about it here.

Troy, Simon Brown (2006). This is the third book from my halfway through the year list to make it into this final top five. Which, on reflection, doesn’t say much for my choices in reading matter during the latter half of 2010. To be fair, I did read a lot of good books, but none struck me as good enough to make this list. Troy, a collection of genre and non-genre stories based on characters from the Trojan Wars, kept its place because the collection’s theme is cleverly-handled, and the stories are varied and beautifully written. I’d like to read more by Brown.

Honourable mentions: the Bold as Love Cycle, Gwyneth Jones (the first quintet of my summer reading project; see here; more to follow soon); the Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp (the second quintet of my summer reading project; write-up to follow soon-ish); The City & The City, China Miéville (multi-award winner with fascinating premise; my review here); The White Bird of Kinship trilogy, Richard Cowper (thoughtful 1970s sf); The Desert King, David Howarth (a biography of ibn Saud; sort of like Dune without the worms…); One Giant Leap, Piers Bizony (the best of the books celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11; my review here); Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (loved the first half, but not so keen on the second); Surface Detail, Iain M Banks (a new Culture novel; enough said).

Each month, I receive six rental DVDs from LoveFilm and two or three to review for VideoVista, so I’ve not bought as many as I have done in past years. I still managed to watch 210 films or seasons of television series, however, some of which were re-watches. Among the TV series I watched were Fringe, Mad Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Flash Gordon.

Cargo, dir. Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009). I know some people weren’t as impressed with this film as I was, but I thought it the best sf film of the year. It should have been on the Hugo Award shortlist. Okay, so it borrows heavily from other well-known sf films – or, perhaps, more charitably: it deploys tropes originally used in other well-known sf films. But it uses them cleverly, and they are all germane to the plot. The special effects and production design are also notably good. I reviewed Cargo for the Zone here, and loved it so much I went and bought a proper copy of the DVD.

Secret Ballot, dir. Babak Payami (2001), was, I think, the first Iranian film I’d ever watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed its deadpan black humour. It’s similar in many respects to Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, one of my favourite films, so perhaps I was predisposed to like it. It made my halfway through the year list, and confidently remained in place for the end of year top five. In it, a young woman travels around a remote island off the coast of Iran, trying to persuade people to vote in the upcoming election. She’s accompanied by a laconic soldier who has seen it all before. It’s a very funny film.

The Bothersome Man, dir. Jens Lien (2006), is another film that made the halfway through the year list. It’s also funny. A man commits suicide and finds himself in a city in which everything is bland and comfortable and washed-out. Everybody is nice to him, but no one seems to care about anything. While there may be something utopian in this, it’s also clearly hellish. Or, at the very least, purgatorial. So he tries to escape. His first attempt, a re-enactment of his suicide, is hilarious. Eventually, he thinks he may have found a route out. But, of course, films such as this can never end happily. It’s not Hollywood, after all.

For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I watched a number of documentaries about the Apollo programme during 2010, but For All Mankind was the best by quite a margin. And Eureka! have done it proud with their DVD release. Reinert personally chose, and had restored, the NASA footage he used, and he was careful to chose footage that had not been seen before. The end result is a documentary which gives a very real feel for the programme, for its accomplishments and for those involved in it – especially the astronauts. Some of the film taken by the Apollo astronauts while in space is, more by accident than design, quite beautiful. If you watch only one documentary about those mad years during which the US put twelve men on the Moon, make it For All Mankind.

There’s Always Tomorrow, dir. Douglas Sirk (1956). I suppose it’s no surprise to find a Sirk film on this list. He is, after all, one of my favourite directors. Unfortunately, few of his films are available on DVD – and of those, Eureka! have done an excellent job on their releases of There’s Always Tomorrow and A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But the former just pips the latter. Fred MacMurray plays a toy company owner who tries to inject some excitement into his solidly middle-class life when he is visited by ex-employee Barbara Stanwyck, now independent, successful and glamorous . MacMurray’s family has become a prison, and he is desperate for release. But it is not to be. The film’s final scene, after Stanwyck has turned him down, as he leaves for work and his kids wish him well through the banisters of the staircase… That final shot of MacMurray seen through those bars is a perfect illustration of why I rate Sirk’s films so highly.

Honourable mentions: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke remains one of the most interesting directors currently making films), King Lear (with Michael Hordern in the title role; the best of the six BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays I watched during 2010), Mad Men season one (has been praised by many; while good, I often found its heavy-handed 1960s sexism and racism hard to take); Frozen Land (grim, yet gripping and blackly humorous, film from Finland).

Several of my favourite bands released albums in 2010, and some of them even toured to UK too. I also discovered several new bands. I saw 21 bands perform live, and bought 27 CDs – 4 of them as limited edition CD/T-shirt deals.

Curse of the Red River, Barren Earth (2010), is the debut album by a Finnish metal supergroup side-project, featuring members of Amorphis, Moonsorrow and Kreator. The music is heavy doom/death metal with 1970s proggy bits – sort of like Opeth, but heavier (if that’s possible), and with strange, almost hippy-ish acoustic sections (there’s a flute in there somewhere, for example). It’s also quite brilliant. This one went on the top five the first time I listened to it. It’s about time they toured the UK. (Band website).

Vine, The Man-Eating Tree (2010), is another Finnish supergroup, as it contains the drummer from Sentenced, the guitarist from Poisonblack, the bass player from Reflexion, the keyboards player from Embraze, and the vocalist from Fall of the Leafe. The latter, in fact, Tuomas Tuominen, is the reason I’d been looking forward to this debut album – Fall of the Leafe was one of my favourite bands (they disbanded a couple of years ago), and Tuominen has a very distinctive voice. Vine includes a metal cover of The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’, which shouldn’t work, but actually does. Amazingly well, in fact. (Band website).

We Are The Void, Dark Tranquillity (2010), is the latest album by a band that has been a favourite of mine for many years. I’d describe it as a return to form, except they’ve never been off-form. Nonetheless, I was impressed when I heard the first track they released from the album (see here), with its deliciously creepy riff, and the rest of the album is just as good. Definitely one of their best albums of recent years. (Band website).

Escaping The Abyss, Fornost Arnor (2009). I saw an ad for this in Zero Tolerance magazine, and the description intrigued me enough to buy a copy. It’s Fornost Arnor’s debut album and was released on their own label. It’s an atmospheric mixture of black and progress metal, with occasional acoustic parts. It’s exactly the sort of complex, varied and technically-proficient metal that I really like. They’re currently recording their second album. I’m looking forward to hearing it. Incidentally, this is the second year running a self-released album has made it into my top five – last year, it was DesolatioN’s Lexicon V. (Band’s MySpace page).

The Never Ending Way of Orwarrior, Orphaned Land (2010), was a long-awaited album. Orphaned Land’s last release, the excellent Mabool, appeared in 2004, and they’ve been promising this follow-up ever since. It finally arrived this year, and it was worth the wait. I saw Orphaned Land live this year for the first time too, with Amorphis and Ghost Brigade, and they were easily the best act of the night. (Band website).

Honourable mentions: Engines of Armageddon’s self-released debut album; The Light in Which We All Burn, Laethora; Persistence, Crystalic (also self-released); Encounter the Monolith, Martriden.


A challenge found, possibly

I received lots of suggestions to my request for a reading challenge for 2011 – both here on my blog, on LibraryThing, and on Twitter. So, ta very much all those who commented. But I think I’ve decided what I’m going to do…

Torque Control’s Women in SF Week has inspired me to read twelve science fiction novels by women writers during 2011 as my reading challenge. I’ve tentatively identified the dozen novels I’m going to read. I didn’t want to pick only those published since 2001, although many are from the last decade. Nor would I limit myself to books published in the UK. But I did want my list to be comprise only authors I’ve not read before (bar one or two slight cheats).

The twelve books go like this:

I already own some of the books on this list – Winterlong, Winterstrike, The Steerswoman, and Dark Space – and so it gives me the perfect excuse to read them. It’s also a nicely varied list, covering several different types of sf. One or two authors I might have read other works by them before. I have a vague memory of reading an Octavia Butler novel when I was at school, and I think I’ve read one by Melissa Scott many years ago too. I’ve certainly read short fiction by one or two of those on the list, but that doesn’t matter.

If anyone has any must read suggestions for the list, I’m prepared to bump one or two of my choices.

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Support your local sf award

An open letter from Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C Clarke Award, has been posted on the Torque Control blog here. In the letter, Tom writes, “the Award is now faced with an immediate and pressing need to change, adapt and re-evaluate its role and function as it moves into 2012 and its next quarter century”, and has asked for people’s thoughts on the Award and how it should change.

The questions Tom asks are:

What value does the Award bring to the SF community and what role should it play in its future?
A great deal of value, especially to UK sf. I’m not sure it needs to expand its current role, however.

How important is a UK focused prize in an increasingly international and digital marketplace?
Increasingly important – there is a vibrant sf community in the UK, and it would be a shame to see the genre homogenised as the larger US market comes to dominate both print and digital sectors.

What more could the Award do as part of its broader advocacy remit to promote science fiction?
Persuade publishers to add “shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award”, or “winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award” onto the covers of relevant books – even if they are not marketted as science fiction. Persuade publishers to pay for in-store Clarke Award promotions for relevant novels after the shortlist has been announced (some publishers, I believe, already do this). Add more dynamic content to the Clarke Award website – i.e., a bigger online presence: a forum, critical articles, etc.

How much does the success and the credibility of the Award depend on it having a cash prize?
A cash prize means it is more likely to be taken seriously.

What new partnerships and opportunities could we create to generate seed funding for the future?
The UK Space Agency, perhaps? University science and literature departments? Genre small press publishers? Online and high street booksellers? National newspapers? Genre book bloggers? A cable television channel / production company? I’m not entirely sure what partnerships currently exist.

What do you think? What does the Arthur C. Clarke Award mean to you, how important a part of the SF landscape is it, and where would you like it to go from here?
I have a lot more respect for the Clarke Award than I do the Hugo. I may not have agreed with every book the Clarke juries over the years have shortlisted, or chose as winner, but they’ve consistently picked interesting novels – or novels which generate interesting discussions. The Clarke has done more to foster debate within the UK sf community than I suspect the Hugo has done in US fandom. I especially like the fact that the juries look outside the sf marketing category, and as a result have identified novels which have been enthusiastically adopted by sf readers. That policy, I think, should certainly continue.

Each year, I have made an effort – not always successfully, I must admit – to read the novels shortlisted by the Clarke Award. I do the same for the BSFA Award (for which I can vote), but the Clarke generally picks a more varied and interesting shortlist. I especially appreciate being able to look at the Clarke Award shortlist in any year and know that the books on it are among the best sf novels published in the UK that year.

That’s not something you can say of many other genre awards.


Looking for a challenge

For the past four years, I’ve had a reading challenge – i.e,. each month I read a book and then write about it on this blog. Each one was themed. Sort of. In 2007, I read ten (plus two extra) of my favourite science fiction novels. In 2008, I read twelve novels by literary authors I’d not read before. In 2009, I read twelve sf novels I remembered enjoying as a teenager and had not reread since. This year, I tried reading the first books of twelve fat fantasy series, but had to give up halfway through.

But I can’t think what to do as a reading challenge in 2011, so I’m looking for suggestions. Either a theme, into which twelve books fit. Or simply a list of a dozen books. Or perhaps twelve books from a single author’s oeuvre. I don’t mind. Except, no fantasy. I tried that this year and couldn’t do it. Also, no westerns. I’ll read Cormac McCarthy, but I’m not at all a fan of the genre. But, otherwise, pretty much anything else goes – science fiction, literary, classics, crime, horror, historical… No rereads, though. I’d like to read something I’ve not read before.

So, suggestions please.


Summing up: reading challenge fail

This year for my reading challenge, I chose to read the first books of twelve fat fantasy series I’d not read before. It sounded easy enough. Fantasy novels, after all, are not known as difficult reading. It should, in fact, have been a doddle. I’ve read and enjoyed fat fantasy novels in the past, so I foresaw no difficulty in reading twelve of them in one year. And it’d be interesting to see whether or not each book persuaded me to read the rest of the series. I had a bit of help putting together a list of a dozen –  people suggested titles, both here on my blog and on LibraryThing, and I picked twelve which appealed. Then I started reading…

I failed.

I lasted six months and then gave up. This is how it went:

January: Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings. The first book of the Belgariad. These books are now marketted as YA, and it’s easy to see why. The novel also felt like a cynical attempt to jump on the fantasy bandwagon by someone who hadn’t quite mastered the spirit of the thing. I’m told the series improves as it progresses. I shall never know. Full review here.

February: Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb. The first book of the Farseer Trilogy. An engaging narrator, readable prose… but what a dull world. And a prince called Verity. Too little happened in this book’s 480 pages, the story took far too long to kick into gear. Full review here.

March: The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie. The first book of the First Law Trilogy. Everyone raved about this book. It was, apparently, a superb new fantasy novel, different to everything that had gone before. Well, yes. The characters were despicable prats, the narrative circled about the plot without actually engaging with it, and the combat scenes were quite gory. I was not impressed. Full review here.

April: Colours in the Steel, KJ Parker. The first book of the Fencer trilogy. This one was a surprise: I actually enjoyed it and thought it quite good. It’s in serious need of editing – whole passages should have been cut as they add nothing to the narrative – but otherwise the writing flows along, the world is well-built, and the characters are engaging. I’ve since picked up the second book of the trilogy, The Belly of the Bow. Full review here.

May: The One Kingdom, Sean Russell. The first book of the Swan’s War trilogy. This had an interesting world, but the story was so incredibly slow that reading the book proved a chore. I’d like to know what happened, but I’m not prepared to read through 1000+ pages of lethargic prose in order to find out. Full review here.

June: King’s Dragon, Kate Elliott. The first book of the Crown of Stars series. I couldn’t finish this. I got about 100 pages into this 700-page brick and gave up. One narrative thread had a sixteen-year-old girl in slavery and raped nightly by her owner, the other was about a young man who mucks out the stables. I didn’t have the patience to work my way through these to find out what happened.

Unfortunately, King’s Dragon was not only unfinishable, it also put me off reading the remaining six books of the challenge. For the record, they were:

Yes, maybe I made some bad choices – although all the books were recommended to me by others. And, to be honest, there’s still a couple on the list above I’d like to try: the Wells, for example; and the Ruckley. One day, I might indeed read them. But the rest I’ve no interest in tackling. Still, I suppose in one respect the challenge was not a complete failure as it introduced me to a writer whose books I will continue to read: KJ Parker. It also introduced me to some writers whose books I will now assiduously avoid.

Now I just have to think of a reading challenge for 2011.


Long live rock n roll, side A

I first read Bold As Love back in June 2002, a year after its publication. While it was very different from Jones’ previous novel, Phoenix Café (the third book of the Aleutian trilogy), I enjoyed it and thought it very good. I wasn’t the only one – it was shortlisted for both the BSFA Award and the Arthur C Clarke Award, and won the latter. I started the sequel, Castles Made of Sand, shortly after finishing Bold As Love, but ground to a halt about halfway through it. Another three books in the series were published over the following years: Midnight Lamp (2003), Band of Gypsys (2005) and Rainbow Bridge (2006). I bought each one as they came out and put them on the bookshelves… but, after my experience with Castles Made of Sand, I never actually got around to reading them.

It had always been my intention to read the five books, preferably one after the other. But like many people who suffer from my condition – procrastination – I’m more likely to do something if it becomes part of my routine, or I make a project of it. This summer I did the latter. Jones’ Bold as Love quintet became a Summer Reading Project (along with L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle and Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos quintet; see here). The start of the project was delayed somewhat, for a number of reasons, but in late August I started rereading Bold As Love… and by 15 September had finished all five books.

It was well worth doing. And this is how it went…

Shape is important to a story. It is even more important to a story which stretches over several novels. Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is one novel split into four books (see here); Paul J McAuley’s Confluence trilogy is one novel split into three books; EC Tubb’s Dumarest series has no shape, merely a direction (ie, Dumarest is seeking the location of his home world, Earth). Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love series is neither one novel split into five, nor is it a quintet possessing direction only. It has a five-book shape, which is itself comprised of five one-book shapes. The novels can be read individually, but are richer if read in order as a quintet.

The overall story of the quintet is the near-future of the world. It begins in the UK, but over the course of the five books encompasses Europe, the US and China. It begins during the dissolution of the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For reasons not completely explained, the English government puts together a think tank, comprising members of the “Counter Cultural Movement” (CCM) – rock and pop stars, in other words. This goes horribly wrong when one such rock star, Pigsty Liver, machine-guns members of the government and seizes power. This is not, it has to be said, especially convincing. But Jones is busy setting up her “Rock n Roll Reich”, and the authorial hand-waving is forgivable. I mean, counter-cultural types are generally anti-authoritarian, government types are generally all about authoritarianism – there’s an obvious conflict of philosophies. But that’s neither here nor there, because the world as Jones wants it – and gets – is an England effectively ruled by the Triumvirate.

The Triumvirate is the three protagonists of the five books: Ax Preston, guitar hero; Sage Prender, AKA Aoxomoxoa, frontman and driving-force for a techno group; and Fiorinda, daughter of rock god Rufus O’Niall, and his incestuous victim in her early teens. That incestuous incident is important – both for what it does to Fiorinda, and for what it nearly did to Gwyneth Jones.

The opening chapter of Bold As Love was published in Interzone’s July 2001 issue, under the title ‘The Saltbox’. Apparently, someone bought that issue of Interzone in a shop, decided ‘The Saltbox’ was obscene (paedophilia and incest), and reported the magazine to the police. Who promptly descended on the editorial address and carted away several copies of the issue. Happily, nothing came of it. Gollancz published Bold As Love as planned, and Interzone is still going strong today.

But Ax, Sage and Fiorinda: the Bold as Love cycle is the story of these three, the world they create, the world in which they find themselves after they lose control of it, their accommodations with the future which results, and a final game-changing event which rewrites geopolitics for the future.

Bold As Love
Several things about Bold As Love struck me on this reread. I’d noticed the first time I’d read the book that it was structured more as a series of vignettes than it was a linear connected narrative. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I was surprised that I’d remembered the story as less episodic than it actually was, almost as if I’d confabulated something into the gaps in the chronology. I said in a review of Jones’ Flowerdust in Vector back in 1994 that the worlds she created felt so complete it felt as though they continued to live on after you’d finished the book. The same is true of Bold As Love.

Ax and Sage often came across as very similar, which was occasionally confusing in dialogue. The same cannot be said of Fiorinda, who is in many respects a typical Jones heroine – i.e., broken. The story-arc, and especially the plots of Bold As Love and Castles Made of Sand – seem driven as much by the need to “fix” her as it is by the unfolding of the future-history of the series’ world.

The musical dimension to the series I never found wholly convincing, perhaps because my own taste in music is defiantly niche (ie, extreme metal). While I could map Aoxomoxoa and the Heads onto Prodigy and their like, and there are plenty of female singer-songwriter analogues for Fiorinda, I could never quite figure out how Ax’s band, the Chosen Few, might sound, what position they might occupy in the rock universe. They felt out of time – too modern for the 1960s or 1970s, too old-fashioned for the 1980s and 1990s. The fact that three such acts might appear at the same festivals, sufficiently often for them to know each other, also seemed to me to depict the UK music scene as a curiously small world. The music is important, of course – Jones even provides a soundtrack to the novel (see here) – and plays its part during a national tour in which the country tears up the old to usher in the new.

As an introduction to the five chief elements of the Bold as Love series – the three members of the Triumvirate, the world of the novel, and the music – the novel Bold As Love works extremely well. And the prose, as is usual from Jones, is very, very good indeed.

Castles Made of Sand
This I expected to be a less satisfying read – I’d bounced out of it once before, after all. And the somewhat inelegant précis of Bold As Love which opens the novel didn’t bode too well. The first third of the story focuses on the Triumvirate’s relationship, depicted in a strange Delanyesque-Heinleinian fashion – character dynamics by Delany, dialogue by Heinlein. This may be why I bounced out of the book the first time I tried reading it. I’m not a big Heinlein fan. However, once Ax steps out of the relationship, things start to improve. In fact, the sub-plot concerning human sacrifice is very good indeed, and the way it slowly introduces magic to what has chiefly been a near-future sf story is cleverly done.

It is this last which eventually lifts Castles Made of Sand above what those early chapters had promised. The near-future of Bold As Love is slowly contaminated by magic – and yet, all the clues were there in the first book (not least the aforementioned saltbox). Castles Made of Sand is a darker book than its predecessor, and it’s the introduction of magic which is the cause.

This is especially obvious in the book’s finale, the magic duel with Rufus O’Niall. It recasts the story arc of the five books completely – the story-arc which starts to take shape in the second half of Castles Made of Sand is not the story-arc of which the first book offered misty glimpses.

To be honest, I found Castles Made of Sand a less satisfying read than Bold As Love. And yet, thinking about the books to write this post, I find that I remember more of Castles Made of Sand than I do Bold As Love. It’s a more impactful novel, I think, partly because it builds on the promise of the first book and partly because it warps and twists that promise into something very different. Which may be why I feel I want to reread the books more so after finishing this one than I did Bold As Love.

The remaining three books I’ll cover in another post, side B (of course). There may even be a third post of bonus tracks.

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The craft of space

I can’t decide if the success of USAF’s X-37B mission a couple of days ago is the most exciting thing to have happened recently regarding space, or simply further evidence that the US’s space programme is moribund. The Boeing X-37B is an unmanned orbiter which, like the soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttle, is thrown into orbit atop a launch vehicle (an Atlas V) but lands like an aircraft on a runway. The X-37B landed at Vandenberg AFB on 3 December after 220 days in orbit – photos here and video of the landing here.

The X-37B could be exciting because it’s a new orbiter. Admittedly, it’s the Space Shuttle’s Mini-me, and it’s robotic. But it’s new tech, and it’s likely to be kept up to date. So it might well be the first in a whole new, and evolving, generation of spacecraft. Which is important since, after all, launch vehicles haven’t substantially changed in more than fifty years. Rocket engines still work the same way; the same fuels are still used. But a cutting-edge orbiter? That’s a different matter.

Of course, there are a number of crewed spacecraft already in use, or at various stages of development. Soyuz, which is, ahem, as old as I am. Shenzhou. Also a handful of uncrewed spacecraft, such as Progress, ATC, H-II. SpaceX’s Dragon has had one test flight, but it was a stripped-down version and it’ll be a while yet before it’s capable of lofting people into orbit. Then there’s all those currently on the drawing-boards of numerous companies: Excalibur Almaz, Skylon, Lynx, CST-100, Dream Chaser… And, of course, NASA’s own Orion spacecraft.

I’m still not convinced that COTS, the reliance on the commercial sector to open up space, is going to work. It needs long-term, capital-intensive investment to really exploit space, and private companies won’t, and often can’t, do that. They may help populate LEO, but anything further, and more interesting, is out of their budget and timeframe. Perhaps it’s time the ESA’s member-states upped their contributions and set about doing something exciting involving people.

Some of you are no doubt wondering why this post isn’t on my other blog, A Space About Books About Space, as that would seem better suited to the topic. But I wanted to drag the news about the X-37B into the ongoing series of whinges I’ve posted here about realism in space-based science fiction. If it feels like I’m going on and on and on about this, it’s because a) I find the nuts and bolts of it all fascinating, and b) I think there’s plenty of opportunity in it for science fiction to do something interesting.

Which is not to say that I completely repudiate space opera and all that fanciful magic tech you find in most space-based science fiction. Yes, yes, I know: they’re literary devices. But the problem with literary devices is that they quickly become set-dressing. And then before you know it, they’re being used all over the place without any real thought for how they ought to be deployed. And, you know, sf has been doing that sort of thing for eighty years, so perhaps it’s time to try something a little different. Not that realistic space-based sf – or, as I call it, “spacecore” – has never been done before. You have everything from Jeff Sutton’s First On The Moon to Ben Bova’s Grand Tour series of novels. And plenty in between. For me, however, the two touchstones are Jed Mercurio’s Ascent and the BBC television series Space Odyssey.

More by accident than by design, I’ve been quite faithful in my own short fiction. My Euripidean Space stories (see here) may feature a mysterious alien sentinel loose in the Solar system, but otherwise treat space and space travel realistically. And my story in Postscripts 20/21, ‘Killing the Dead’ (see here), was set aboard a generation starship – so no fancy bending of the laws of physics there. I did say a couple of months ago that I was going to try writing a genre heartland sf story, with FTL and aliens and all the space opera trappings. But I couldn’t do it. One turned into a slower-than-light story, and the other ended up as a UK-based anti-capitalist tale.

Of course, not every sf story idea is suitable for either space opera or spacecore. But at the very least focusing on the mechanics and physics of space travel should prevent writers from writing skiffy – ie, sf stories that don’t really need to be sf. You know the sort I mean: the space destroyer and her noble captain, re-fighting WWII in outer space. I think they call it “military sf”… Recognising that space is not just the blank stuff between plot points can only help concretize the sfnal elements of a story, can only lead to a story which will only work in the setting invented for it.

These days, no sf writer has an excuse for not making an effort – all the information you need is at your fingertips. Everything you could possibly want to know, about everything from the interstellar medium to star maps to the Pioneer Anomaly, can be found somewhere on the Internet. And all those spacecraft I mentioned earlier? There’s plenty of info on those to be found online too. You can get a very real idea of exactly what is required for travelling or living in space.

There are too many monsters in science fiction these days. It sort of takes the science out of it. Shine a spotlight on the hardware, on the physics required for all to work, and we might get back to the sort of sf that inspired generations of scientists and engineers. It’ll be optimistic too. It’s the nature of the material.

And, it goes without saying, there’s more than enough wonder for everyone.