I decided last month that 2012’s reading challenge would be world fiction, and particularly fiction from countries whose literature I had not read before. I asked for, and received, a number of suggested titles. Some I already had on my wants list; one or two I even have on the TBR pile. Using those suggestions, and one or two titles I had my eye on, I put together a list of books for the challenge. It went like this:
A good mix, I thought. Three each from Europe, Africa and South America, two from the Near East, and one from the Far East. (I’ve read a number of Arabic writers, so I’m discounting them from this challenge).
And then I looked at the list again and discovered something was wrong with it. There was only a single female writer among the twelve: Assia Djebar from Algeria.
So it was back to the drawing-board. After some research on Wikipedia and Amazon, I came up with an alternative list:
The list is now half female and half male, and still maintains a nice global spread. There are three titles each from Europe and Africa, and two each from the Near East, Far East and South America.
As in previous years, each month I will read one of the books from the list, and then I’ll write about it. Hopefully, I’ll manage to stick to the schedule, which is something I’ve failed to do several times in the past.
For someone who characterises themselves as a science fiction writer – and appears to be seen chiefly as a writer of hard sf – that’s a varied selection. ‘Barker’ is one of my alternate takes on the Space Race, ‘Dancing the Skies’ is dark fantasy. ‘A Light in the Darkness’ and ‘Disambiguation’ are alternate history; and ‘Wunderwaffe’ is, well, it’s Nazi occult science, which is probably a genre all its own. ‘The Contributors’ is a sort of New Wavey anti-capitalist story. Only ‘Words Beyond the Veil’ is your actual hard sf – and it’s also the world’s first death metal hard sf story that quotes from the lyrics of a real death metal album.
But, of course, the big project in 2011 has been Rocket Science. I’ve taken a break from it over the past few weeks, but I shall be cracking away at it in earnest in the New Year. I think I’ve got an excellent table of contents, and anyone expecting a one-note ultra-hard sf anthology is in for a big surprise. Rocket Science will be launched at Olympus 2012, Heathrow, London, in April.
I’m also planning to launch ‘Adrift on the Sea of Rains’, the first book of the Apollo Quartet sequence of novellas, at Olympus 2012. The text is currently being edited, but an advance reader has already described the level of detail as “insane”. I took that as a compliment…
Still, I have so few laurels that resting on them would make for an uncomfortable seat, so in 2012 I plan to write and submit much more. I already have four stories due to be published during the year, but if I’m to beat 2011’s record I need more. I have several currently in progress – again, a varied selection of genres and modes – and I need to get them finished and start sending them out.
So here’s to 2012. And let’s hope it’s a good year for all.
Christmas is over for another year, and life can now return to what passes for normal. Once again, I was in Denmark for the festivities, but this year it was wet and windy rather than the usual deep snow. There was a lot of eating involved, and a lot of walking. The day after Boxing Day, we went to see David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the cinema (English with Danish subtitles, fortunately). Though I’ve not read the book, I have seen the Swedish version of the film. To be honest, I’m not sure which of the two versions is the better.
The flight back from Denmark was… interesting. On the approach to Manchester Airport, the plane was thrown around by turbulence and we almost touched down… before the captain decided to abort and up we went for another go around. Fortunately, the second attempt was much smoother and we landed in one piece. I first flew in 1968 and I’ve flown at least once a year since, and that was the first time I’ve ever been in an aircraft that took more than one attempt to land. Having said that, I’ve never been a big fan of air travel – and less so these days than I used to be. All that “security theatre” is just unnecessary palaver – how many terrorists has it actually caught? We certainly know it failed to catch two bombers… And while airlines seem to want us to believe that air travel has become easier and more convenient, the reverse is actually true. Also, budget airlines appear to hold their customers in complete contempt. They ask you to queue at the boarding-gate for an hour but don’t provide anywhere to sit. Aircraft are not buses – and given all the hoops passengers are forced to jump through before boarding at present, they never will be. The entire industry needs over-hauling.
I’ll also read a number of books during the holiday – in fact, I was averaging one a day. The books were Engleby, Sebastian Faulks (2007), which was a definite improvement on the longeur-packed On Green Dolphin Street. A working-class scholar at Oxford University fancies a female student from afar, but one day she disappears and is never found. It’s not difficult to work out what happened to her, though it’s hard to tell if Faulks thought the reveal was an actual plot twist. The final third of the book is a character-study of the narrator, which not only means Engleby is not a murder-mystery novel but also means it’s unsatisfactory as either murder-mystery or literary fiction.
The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry (2009), I remember seeing an approving review of in the Guardian by Michael Moorcock when the book was published. As a result, I’ve kept an eye open for a copy in charity shops ever since. It is… an odd beast. The story seems better-suited to a comic or graphic novel and, as a result, doesn’t work all that well as prose. A clerk for the Agency, a huge detective agency which seems to be the most important company in a 1950s-style city, is promoted to detective when the detective whose reports he files disappears. He soon ends up out of his depth in some weird conspiracy between the Agency and a villain based in a carnival, and it’s all to do with the way the Agency actually operates. The missing detective is called Travis S Sivart, but nothing is actually made of the fact that the name is a palindrome. It makes you wonder why the author bothered.
Black Swan Green, David Mitchell (2006), is Mitchell’s fourth novel, and is told entirely in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy living in the eponymous Worcestershire village in 1982. He’s being bullied at school, his parents’ marriage is on the rocks, and an act of petty revenge leads to a tragedy. Everything in the book struck me as a little clichéd, but perhaps that’s because I remember the early eighties quite well. Mitchell handles his narrator’s voice with skill and it’s a very readable story, but it all felt a bit soap-opera-ish in places. It’s not as successful as Cloud Atlas, though it is better than his first two novels, Ghostwritten and number9dream.
Of course, in the weeks leading up to Christmas the postie was also busy. Since my last book haul post, the following books have landed on the mat:
A few sf paperbacks. I used to correspond with Mike Shupp, and I’ve always wanted to read his Destiny Makers quintet, but it’s taken me a while to find decent copies. Now that I have the first book in the series, With Fate Conspire, I can make a start, although I still need to find a copy of the third book, Soldier of Another Fortune. Eye of Terror is Barrington Bayley’s only Warhammer 40K novel, and by all accounts is especially mad – even for him. The Chessmen of Mars almost completes my set of 1970s NEL editions of the John Carter books – because, of course, I have to have a set that all looks the same, and the ones I already had were NEL paperbacks from the 1970s. City of Pearl is November’s belated read for the reading challenge. I doubt I’ll read it before the end of the year, but never mind.
Well, okay, it’s a bad pun for a title. But look here. It’s a very complimentary review by the Pornokitsch cabal of ‘A Light in the Darkness’, my story in Alt Hist 3. It’s fascinating seeing what others pull out of your stories – whether you consciously put it in there or not.
Having said that, I agree with everything the review says, and I salute the reviewer’s excellent taste…
I was going to leave this until January, but everyone else is doing them now. And, let’s face it, there’s only a handful of days left until the end of the year and they’ll be filled with various consumerist festivities. So…
As of 15 December, I had read 156 books in 2011, which I suspect will mean a total on 31 December of slightly less than last year’s 178 books. But then I probably wrote more this year than I did in 2010. Of my reading, 4% were anthologies, and 12% non-fiction… which means of the remainder that 28% were books by women writers and 56% by male writers. I still need to work on that. Genre-wise, 44% was science fiction, 16% was mainstream, 8% was fantasy, and 16% were graphic novels.
Of those 156 books, I have picked six which were, for me, the best I read during the twelve months. They are:
Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), should come as little surprise as I raved about when I read it back in April. Initially a Crowlesque fantasy, it takes a peculiar turn halfway through which makes it something weird and wonderful all of its own.
Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968), is another work by an author who continues to astonish me with each novel of his I read. This one has the most beautifully-handled non-linear narrative I’ve come across in fiction, not to mention one of the best-drawn female protagonists in science fiction. I honestly don’t know if this book is better than The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe or merely just as excellent. I wrote about it here.
CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), suffers under a somewhat forced title, but who cares. Because it contains loads of photographs of amazing Modernist buildings from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Not all of the buildings still exist, and many of them have weathered the years badly. But there they are, captured in all their glory in this book.
Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), was published to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and of all the books published at that time this one is perhaps the best-looking. Chaikin went through the many thousands of photographs take by, and of, the Apollo astronauts, and picked out ones that had rarely been seen before. And then he married those photographs with the words of the astronauts themselves – taken from interviews, transcriptions, etc.
Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), was a book I read under a misapprehension. Though it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction, many complained it was partly fictional – inasmuch as it told its story using a cast of real and invented people in a threaded narrative. However, I’d mistakenly understood that Red Plenty not only covered the years of the Soviet Union’s existence but also extrapolated it into an alternate present in which the Soviet system had succeeded. That would the be the “sf” part of the BSFA Award, you see. Not so. But never mind, I still loved it.
Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011), I pre-ordered because I’d thought Gilman’s 1998 novel, Halfway Human, very good, and because a write-up of the plot sounded as though it would appeal. And so it did. A fantasy, but not in the traditional epic/heroic mould. I wrote about it here.
There are a number of these this year, more so than usual. First, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War and Infidel, a very strong debut with some very interesting elements, and some that didn’t quite work for me (see here and here). Eric Brown’s Wellsian The Kings of Eternity is his strongest work for a number of years, and he deserves to be read more than he is. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is an excellent anthology that does exactly what it says on the tin and introduced me to several authors I’m determined to read more (see here and here). Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge (see here) and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (see here) were the best two novels from my challenge to read twelve books during the year by female science fiction writers. Stretto was an excellent end to L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, and Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer managed to make fascinating a topic in which I have zero interest, John F Kennedy’s presidency. Finally, a pair of rereads are worthy of mentions: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson.
By 15 December, I had watched 183 films. That’s including seasons of television series watched on DVD. Twenty-seven of them I reviewed for VideoVista.net and The Zone. Only one I saw at the cinema: Apollo 18. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction film or television, though I will happily watch them. This may well explain my choices for my top six of the year:
Moolaadé, Ousmane Sembène (2004), is Senegalese director Sembène’s ninth feature-length film, and the first one by him I’ve seen. It is set in a small village in Burkina Faso, and revolves around the refusal of three girls to undergo the traditional female genital mutilation. They are protected by the wife of one of the village’s important men, who herself refused to let her own daughter undergo the same disgusting procedure. This leads to a revolt by the village’s womenfolk, but it ends badly.
Mammoth, Lukas Moodysson (2009). I very much liked Moodysson’s earlier films Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål), Together (Tillsammans) and Lilya 4-Ever, but thought the experimental Container was pretty much unwatchable. Mammoth, however, is not only a welcome return to form, it is a superb indictment of the West’s exploitation of the East. Judging by some of the comments the film has generated, I may the only person to see it in that light. Ah well. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good in the male lead role – and that’s in a cast that is uniformly excellent.
Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), is a Norwegian spoof. The title may have been a bit of a giveaway there. It posits an alternate 1980s in which Norwegian traitor Arne Treholt was not a spy for the Soviets but the head of a secret royal force of ninjas. As a spoof of late 1970s / early 1980s action films, Norwegian Ninja is pitch-perfect, but it is its use of real-life footage, and the way it neatly twists real history, that turns it in to a work of genius. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.
Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), was not a film I expected to appeal to me: a noir-ish thriller set among the hillbillies of the Ozarks. I not only enjoyed it, I thought it very very good indeed. It takes place in a world peopled by some of the scariest people I’ve seen depicted on celluloid. And they’re not scary because they’re psychopaths or sociopaths, they’re scary because they need to be to survive in that culture.
Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), was recommended to me, and it was a good call. A black comedy following the fortunes of a pair of rogues during WWII in Belgrade and the years after under Tito. One rises high in the post-war government, while the other remains hidden in his cellar, convinced the war is still going.
The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman (2009), is the most recent film by a favourite director, so its appearance here should not be a surprise. It’s perhaps less comic than Divine Intervention, but neither does go all bizarre and surreal towards the end. A series of autobiographical vignettes, it builds a narrative of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the lives of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. Some parts of it are a delight.
No science fiction films, I’m afraid. Instead: Israeli thriller, Ajami, set in the titular district of Jaffa; The Wedding Song, which is set during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia in World War II and follows the friendship of two female friends, one Jewish and one Arabic; the BBC’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing from 1984, starring Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay, and the best of the Bard’s plays I watched during the year; The Secret in their Eyes, a clever thriller from Argentina, which beat Ajami to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2010; and finally, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, which is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever watched.
I didn’t think 2011 was shaping up to be a good year for music, but that all changed during the second half of the year. I think that might have happened in previous years too. I bought a reasonable number of new albums and old albums. The best of those are:
Harvest, The Man-Eating Tree (2011), is the band’s second album, and it’s a more commercial and slightly heavier-sounding offering. And Tuomas Tuominen still has one of the best and most distinctive voices in metal. I suspect The Man-Eating Tree are going to be the new Sentenced. Certainly when you think of Finnish metal, it’s The Man-Eating Tree you should be thinking of, and not Lordi.
The Death of a Rose, Fornost Arnor (2011), is this UK band’s second album and, like their first, was also self-released. Some have said it’s the album Opeth should have made this year. Certainly it borrows the Swedes’ trademark mix of crunching yet intricate death metal and accomplished acoustic parts. It’s very much an album to lose yourself in, and I’m already looking forward to the band’s next offering.
Weaver of Forgotten, Dark Lunacy (2010), was annoyingly expensive as it was also self-released. But in Italy. (And I see now it’s much cheaper. Gah.) It is… epic. There’s no other word for it. It’s melodic death metal, but of a sort to fill vast spaces. I thought Dark Lunacy’s previous album, The Diarist, was excellent, but Weaver of Forgotten is an order of magnitude better.
One for Sorrow, Insomnium (2011). Apparently, the only people who don’t like Insomnium are those who’ve never heard them. Each album finds them more polished and technically accomplished than the last, and it continues to astonish me they’re not better known. Insomnium are the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom metal.
The Human Connection, Chaos Divine (2011), is one of those albums that blows you away with the first track… but then can never quite scale those heights again. Opener ‘One Door’ is a blinding song, and if the rest can’t compare, that doesn’t mean they’re not good. This is a proggier effort than the band’s first album, and it’s the better for it. Chaos Divine is a band you can tell will improve with each new album.
I’m sorry, I have to do it: Heritage. I’m giving Opeth’s latest album an honourable mention because, though it took numerous listens before it grew on me, it does contains flashes of brilliance. It’s totally prog, of course, with nary a growl to be heard, and that has to be disappointing… but as a warped vision of old school prog, Heritage is worth its mention. However, Of Death by Byfrost, The Light In Which We All Burn by Laethora and Psychogenocide by Nervecell all get mentions because they’re good albums which are very much in keeping with their bands’ sounds. Byfrost I first heard at Bloodstock, and I enjoyed their set so much I wanted the album. Nervecell are from Dubai and, while I was aware of them before, I saw them this year supporting Morbid Angel and they were excellent. Laethora is just Laethora. Finally, Sowberry Hagan by Ultraphallus deserves a special honourable mention for being a fraction away from sheer noise, yet still remaining powerful and heavy and an excellent listen.
edited by Andy Remic & Wayne Simmons
Welcome to our anthology, a collection of weird and bizarre tales of twisted imagination by Neal Asher, Tony Ballantyne, Eric Brown, Richard Ford, Ian Graham, Lee Harris, Colin Harvey, Vincent Holland-Keen, James Lovegrove, Gary McMahon, Stan Nicholls, Andy Remic, Jordan Reyne, Ian Sales, Steven Savile, Wayne Simmons, Guy N. Smith, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jeffrey Thomas, Danie Ware, Ian Watson and Ian Whates. Artwork by Vincent Chong.
The anthology is dedicated to the late Colin Harvey, with great affection.
In the tradition of Poe, Kafka, Borges and HG Wells, this collection of weird stories are written with the primary drive of presenting twisted deviations of normality. Whether it’s the deviant factory workers of Neal Asher’s Plastipak™ Limited, the pus-oozing anti-cherub of Ian Graham’s Rotten Cupid, the acid-snot disgorging freak of Andy Remic’s SNOT, or Ian Watson’s alternate zombie-crucifixion, each story will drag your organs up through your oesophagus and give your brain a chilli-fired beating.
FOCUS ON –
• WEIRD TALES
• DISTURBING CONCEPTS
• DEVIATED BLACK HUMOUR
• NO GENRE LEFT UNGOUGED
IF YOU LIKE VIVISEPULTURE, TRY – Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe Perfume by Patrick Süskind Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Vivisepulture is an EBOOK original anthology edited by Andy Remic and Wayne Simmons. Vivisepulture can be purchased from www.anarchy-books.com in PDF, EBOOK and MOBI formats.
I have seen Vivisepulture and it is good. Get your copy now while it’s hot. And if appearing in an anthology alongside Guy N Smith wasn’t a boyhood ambition, it certainly should have been…
I have decided on my challenge for 2012. It will be world fiction. Each month, I will read a book written by an author who is a native of a country whose literature I’ve not read before. Unfortunately, these will have to be books published in English. While I might be able to puzzle my way through novels written in some languages, that would a) take me more than a month per book, and b) limit my choices to fiction from countries many of whom I’ve already read…
To date, I’ve read fiction from the following countries:
I’m now looking for suggestions for novels from authors from countries not listed above. Any genre. But not books that are too huge. Fortunately, I’ve already at least one Chilean author, so while I do own a copy of Robert Bolaño’s 2666, I can read it at my leisure and not for this challenge.
So, get suggesting away. It would be nice if the books were readily available in the UK – either new or second-hand. And I’d probably sooner they weren’t from Anglophone countries. I’d also like a diverse list, covering as much of the globe as possible.
Every now and again, a news story pops up about cameras in public – or even private – places. The latest is Aldwych Tube Station, which has been opened to the public as a museum. The owners of the museum have banned the use of DSLRs inside. They claim this is due to the cameras’ “combination of high quality sensor and high resolution”, which is patently stupid.
But then it doesn’t matter what is the reason for the ban.
It’s the same as concerts refusing entry to people with “professional” cameras or video-cameras. The owners of the event are trying to preserve their revenue stream. If someone with a camera is going to make money from the sale of photographs or video, then they want a slice of it. Or they want to make money from the sale of photographs they’ve taken themselves.
Unfortunately, that’s a horse that has long since bolted.
The technology now exists to take high-quality photographs using compact cameras, or even mobile phones. The distinction between “professional” and “own use” no longer exists, and hasn’t done for many years. Money-makers, of course, refuse to recognise this. Their inability to understand the technology, or how it is changing, and how it is changing the way people use it, is making them look increasingly dumb.
So how long before someone somewhere decides to roll back that technology?
Yes, there’s money to be made in the new shiny tech toys. But when those same toys impact on the revenue-generating ability of intellectual property – as they currently do – then someone somewhere is going to realise they were better off without them. I am not, I hasten to add, a photographer, not even as a hobby. I prefer words to pictures. But the same argument also applies to book piracy and music piracy. DRM is plainly ineffective. Each year new tools appear which make the ability of intellectual property to generate revenue more problematical.
The world this will create is already an established fact. I’m not especially interested in extrapolating how the world will change as that technology becomes more pervasive, more sophisticated and more ubiquitous. But imagine a world where the plutocrats and oligarchs introduced technological regression, a world where each new generation of a gadget had less functionality than the preceding one.
Even now, it’s easier to write stories set in earlier decades simply because some plots fail if set at the present time. Many crime stories, for example, don’t work when everyone has mobile phones, or when DNA profiling can identify a perpetrator from the tiniest amount of trace evidence. But a story about a world in which the functionality of technology, rather than technology itself, was tightly constrained… That might make for an interesting read. I mean, it’s not enough that plutocrats are gradually reducing our financial stability and purchasing power, but what if they also did the same to the uses to which we could put things? It’s not entirely implausible. While the technology can’t be un-invented, it does require expensive and sophisticated manufacturing facilities, and closing those down would do the job quite effectively.
Fortunately, it’s an arms race. Everyone is too afraid to give the advantage to a competitor. But if you believed in all those conspiracies theories – not so much the Gnomes of Zürich as the Bilderberg Group – then you could quite happily believe a technological rollback might be agreed upon.
Assuming, of course, the rate of technological progress has not been cleverly controlled for centuries…