It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Books you must read: Omega, Christopher Evans

I’ve been a fan of Evans’ novels since reviewing his Aztec Century for Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, back in 1993. His fiction is a literate, very British sort of sf, which doesn’t rely on flashy spectacle but on in-depth studies of their protagonists and their worlds. Omega, published in 2008 by PS Publishing and Evans’ first novel in more than a decade, is a case in point.

Owen Meredith is a maker of military history documentaries. One day while Christmas shopping with his wife and two daughters, a bomb explodes in Hamley’s. Meredith is outside and only injured in the blast, but his family are in the store and killed.

Major Owain Maredudd is an officer in an Allied army in a Britain that has been at war for over half a century. He had led a mission into enemy territory to test a new weapon, but something went wrong. Maredudd was the only survivor, and his memories of the mission are somewhat confused. As a result, he has been attached to his uncle’s staff. His uncle is the commander-in-chief of the allied forces in the UK and a member of the Joint Governing Council, the military junta that rules the Alliance. He is, in effect, the ruler of most of Europe.

When Meredith wakes in hospital after the bomb blast, he discovers first that at times he somehow inhabits Maredudd’s head, and so witnesses events in the major’s world. And secondly, Meredith’s memories of his life before the explosion don’t quite tally with the life he seems to now have. For a start, he is apparently in hospital because he was hit by a car while crossing the road. There was no bomb blast. And his wife left him several years before, taking the kids, and now lives in Australia.

As Meredith tries to figure out his life and pick up the pieces, so he comes to spend more time in Maredudd’s world. Maredudd himself is having his own problems as there seems to be something going on with his uncle to which he’s not privy but in which he is somehow involved. This is all to do with the secret weapon after which the book is titled. The Americans, once part of the Alliance, are apparently getting troublesome and the Omega weapon is intended to stop them.

Omega is not an easy book to do justice to. It’s an alternate history, inasmuch as part of the story is set in a world still embroiled in a world war. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a study of both Meredith and Maredudd, and their reactions to worlds they find it increasingly hard to fathom. While Meredith also has Maredudd’s world to explore, it’s implied that Maredudd is doing the same to Meredith. Certainly, there are periods when Meredith is strangely absent – though from others’ reactions it seems he continues to function as “normal”. The alternate UK is extremely well-drawn and very convincing, but it is the two protagonists who really carry the book. The writing is plain but elegant, the worlds of Meredith and Maredudd are portrayed with authority, and the novel is an engaging and surprisingly quick read.

I’m surprised Omega didn’t appear on any short-lists back in 2009. It’s certainly a better novel than the four that made it onto that year’s BSFA short-list – Aztec Century, incidentally, won the BSFA Award in 1994 – and it could have been a contender for the Clarke too. Recommended.


Larry’s Year

2012 is the centenary of Lawrence Durrell’s birth and there are apparently a number of things happening to celebrate it, including a conference in June. In bloody London, of course. But never mind. Lawrence Durrell is my favourite writer – see here and here – and on a purely sentence-by-sentence level I believe there has been no finer writer in the English language. Since pootling along to events in London is not that easy for me, I shall have to mark the centenary in my own way.

And the obvious way to do that is to read his books.

So, sometime during 2012, I am going to reread The Alexandria Quartet. And then The Avignon Quintet. And then The Revolt of Aphrodite. But first I need to get hold of the omnibus editions, as they were “improved” slightly from the original individual editions. I shall also read Durrell’s poetry. And whatever other bits and pieces of his writing that catch my eye.

And I shall blog about it all, of course.

Due to ongoing projects, none of this is likely to start until after Easter. In the meantime, here’s a link to my review of Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, from 1935. The novel is from 1935, that is; not my review. Enjoy.


New Year, new books

It would have been nice if I could have made a New Year’s resolution to buy no books in 2012. But that was clearly impossible as there were a number of 2012 releases I wanted. I’ll just have to try and limit my purchases instead. Sadly, I’ve not been entirely successful in that regard – only one month into the year and look what’s been added to the bookshelves all ready…

Three new releases: Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds, In the Mouth of the Whale, Paul McAuley, and Dark Eden, Chris Beckett.

Three for the collections: Homage to QWERTYUIOP, Anthony Burgess, which is signed; The Steel Albatross, an underwater thriller by Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, which is also signed; and Selected Poems, Lawrence Durrell, from 1956, which is not signed.

Another of Jacques Tardi’s bande desinée: Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot is an adaptation of a French thriller novel and pretty good. Mission to Mars is for the Spacebooks collection, and also for research for a short story.

A bunch of paperbacks from my father’s Penguin collection… Twilight in Italy is travel-writing, ‘À Propose of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and Other Essays is, er, non-fiction, and The Woman Who Rode Away is a short-story collection. I think I have quite a lot of Lawrence on the TBR now. JP Donleavy, on the other hand, I have never read before and know very little about – so I’ll give A Singular Man, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, and The Onion Eaters a go. He doesn’t appear to be in print in this country anymore.

And more paperbacks from my father’s Penguin collection: another McCullers, The Mortgaged Heart, a collection, though I wasn’t that much taken with her The Member of the Wedding; a pair of Camuses (Cami? Camopodes?) Exile and the Kingdom and The Fall; and a collection of essays by Orwell, Decline of the English Murder. To the left is Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, a Women’s Press sf paperback kindly donated to the SF Mistressworks collection by Una McCormack, for which much thanks.

And three non-fiction works from my father’s collection: The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks is biography, of a sort; Leavis’s The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit are both literary criticism.

Two books for this year’s reading challenge – world fiction (see here): The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung, from China, and which you can see from the bookmark that I’m currently reading; and The Door, Magda Szabó, from Hungary. High-Rise joins the other nice 4th Estate paperback editions Ballards on my bookshelves.

Some science fiction… A pair of SF Masterworks: RUR & War with the Newts, Karel Capek, and Sirius, Olaf Stapledon. Colin Greenland’s Spiritfeather, one of the volumes from the four-book Dreamtime YA series published in 2000. There was a bit of a fad for Brit sf authors contributing to YA series at that time – not just Dreamtime, but also The Web, which boasted books by Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, Peter F Hamilton, Eric Brown and Pat Cadigan. And, finally, Mission Child, Maureen McHugh, a charity shop find I plan to review for SF Mistressworks.

And here is The Monster Book for Girls, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror from theExaggeratedpress, which looks very nice indeed, but also…

… contains my story ‘Dancing the Skies’, which is the ATA/Spitfire story, which required much research on the Air Transport Auxiliary and WWII fighters and bombers.


Films you must see: Red Psalm, directed by Miklós Janscó

I bunged Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm (1972) onto an order of Christmas presents at the beginning of December, though I can’t for the life of me remember why. I’d seen Janscó’s The Red And The White before – in June 2010, and wrote then that it was “definitely worth seeing” – but what possessed me to buy a Jancsó DVD is something of a mystery. Perhaps it was a review in Sight & Sound. No matter. I bought it. And now I’ve watched it.

I think I was expecting a paean to socialism when I put the DVD in the player. The title, and Jancsó’s politics, certainly suggest as much. Even the film’s original Hungarian title, Még kér a nép (The People Still Demand), fosters this impression. Except Red Psalm, while certainly a socialist film, is no paean. It is based upon a number of peasant uprisings in Hungary between 1890 and 1910, and melds these into a single extended dramatic piece – though it has no plot, no characters, and no dialogue per se.

There are the workers, represented by a group of young people in peasant costumes. And there are the authorities, represented variously by the rural police, a bailiff, the army, the local count, and a priest. Most of the cast have 1970s haircuts, which does make it look all a bit hippie. The film takes place at a rural farming community and the countryside surrounding it, though no effort is made to give the story any real sense of place.

The workers walk around, either singing folk songs (often with socialist lyrics) or making small speechlets about socialism. The soldiers and policemen also walk around (or ride around on horseback), trying to either intimidate or charm the workers. No one stands still, everyone moves. This “balletic” movement is a feature of Jancsó’s style. One soldier defects to the workers but is shot. Later, he reappears, as if resurrected. A worker is shot through the hand, but her wound becomes a red rosette. Later, all the workers wear such rosettes.

The local count attempts to explain the benefits of capitalism to the workers – though it is an unconvincing argument – but seems to die of a heart attack when his words fall on deaf ears. His wife subsequently attacks the workers with a whip. A priest exhorts the workers to obey the authorities, claiming it is the godly thing to do, but is forced back into his church, which is then set on fire.

Throughout Red Psalm, there is a sense of a story in continual evolution. Characters exchange roles, dialogue is declamatory or explanatory, but does not progress anything as bourgeois as a plot. At the end, the workers and soldiers come together to celebrate but, at a signal, the soldiers then separate, form a cordon about the workers… and massacre them. Tellingly, the cordon is in the shape of a heart.

But even that death is not final, as the workers later re-appear. And one takes a soldier’s gun, and then kills all the soldiers.

Red Psalm is an argument, framed in song, movement, political oratory and the interactions between opposing groups. If its young and good-looking cast make it appear more of a hippie film than a socialist one, it’s an illusion that is quickly dispelled. It’s perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but I thought it excellent and have even bought The Miklós Jancsó Collection box set. And I think more of Jancsó’s films should be released on DVD.


Books you must read: The Bender, Paul Scott

There are comic novels and there are novels of wit. Some novels evince humour by describing ridiculous characters in ridiculous situations; others prefer to amuse through their use of language. Paul Scott’s The Bender (1963) is a novel of wit and its characters, while amusingly drawn, are not comic caricatures. There is also much in the novel that points to Scott’s Raj Quartet, a use of language, voice and narrative that presages The Jewel In The Crown and its sequels.

George Lisle-Spruce is a wastrel. A relative left him a legacy of £10,000, which he cannot touch. But it does provide him with an annual income of £400. Initially, this was more than enough to live on, but by the beginning of the 1960s, George is finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet on his monthly allowance. And now his brother, a successful accountant, wants repaying the £200 he lent George years before. George spent the War in Cairo, and was never in combat. Since then he’s never held down a proper job. He has some charm, but never really made the most of it. And this is despite the best efforts of his Aunt Clara – who is not really his aunt, but whose husband it was who left George his legacy.

The Bender is told from the points of view of George, Aunt Clara, a real aunt who is on her death-bed, brother Tim, and youngest brother Guy (an Angry Young Man, with a play that has been broadcast on television to critical acclaim). The repayment of Tim’s loan precipitates a crisis in George’s life – though it is exacerbated by Clara’s renewed meddling, Tim’s impending change of career, and Guy’s success.

The writing in The Bender is a delight. It’s witty, the voices are handled superbly – though, one, Guy’s hippie chick girlfriend, feels somewhat forced – and a section two-thirds of the way through astonishes with its seamless post-modern blending of narratives and voices. The novel is also a pitch-perfect evocation of time and place, and feels throughout like a 1960s British black and white film starring Dirk Bogarde. Aunt Clara is perhaps the most amusing character – a forceful and opinionated dowager, with old school views about class and ability, views she has a habit of setting forth on tape:

…the Grundig’s microphone in one hand and, in the other, one of the Floris chocolates for which her lunchtime liquid slimming diet always gave her an appetite…

The Raj Quartet are novels of consequence. While The Bender may be somewhat inconsequential, it reaffirms my admiration of Scott’s writing. Fortunately, I have many more of his books to read. Recommended.


Women in sf reading challenge #10: City of Pearl, Karen Traviss

To be honest, I had not really expected to enjoy City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. From what I’d heard about the novel, it seemed the sort of science fiction I don’t especially like. And Traviss is known as an especially mercenary writer. No matter how talented she may be, such an attitude is unlikely to create works I would find appealing. Nonetheless, I picked the book as one of my dozen for my 2011 reading challenge, and though I may have slipped a little towards the end of last year, I had every intention of reading and blogging about the twelve listed novels.

And so I came to City of Pearl with, I admit, a few preconceptions. Some of them were indeed met, but I was surprised to find myself enjoying the novel more than I had expected.

Shan Frankland is a hard-as-nails police officer in a near-future in which corporations dominate ineffectual governments. All crops are genetically-engineered and trademark, such that no foodstuff can be grown without paying a license fee to a company. When Frankland is offered command of a mission to Earth’s only interstellar colony on Cavanagh’s Star’s second planet, she accepts the mission. But she doesn’t know exactly why, because whatever was told to her to persuade her to accept was part of a Suppressed Briefing, which only releases information into her memory in response to certain triggers.

The mission arrives at Cavanagh’s Star 2 and finds a situation it had not expected: a small low-tech human colony with an extremely small environmental footprint living under the aegis of an alien race, the wess’har. The aliens are actually native to Cavanagh’s Star 2’s twin planet, and are on Cavanagh’s Star 2 to protect that planet’s native squid-like aquatic race, the bezeri. Who had been almost polluted to extinction by a third alien race, the isenj, who had colonised the world. The wess’har wiped out the isenj colony, but now allow the humans to stay on sufferance. Aras is the wess’har responsible for the planet and its ecosystem, and he has been given this role because he has been infected by a native parasite, the c’naatat, which has made him immortal and almost impossible to kill.

Though Frankland tries to keep a tight leash on the scientific team she has brought to Cavanagh’s Star 2, they cavil at her restrictions and continually seek to subvert them. This makes tensions high within Frankland’s mission, a situation not helped by her high-handed and take-no-prisoners attitude. When a second starship from Earth turns up, having departed fifty years after the first, it seems Earth has formed an alliance with the idenj, who determined to take back Cavanagh’s Star 2. During a skirmish with the isenj, Frankland is mortally wounded, but Aras, who has come to value her, infects her with c’naatat. Now she can never return to Earth.

I liked Frankland, and the best parts of City of Pearl were the parts which focused on her. Unfortunately, the aliens are all single-note: the wess’har are literal and unbending, the bezeri are enigmatic, and the isenj are numerous. The scientists are all characterised as venal and selfish, and only the military characters appear to possess any redeeming virtues. The human colonists on Cavanagh’s Star 2 are treated like simple back-to-the-land peasants, and the novel makes little or no judgment on them or their way of life. A lot of City of Pearl is in Aras’ point of view, and he’s neither convincingly alien nor especially interesting.

There’s a fixity of views throughout City of Pearl which I found a little off-putting. The wess’har are very literal and do not compromise. Frankland is very much convinced her own opinion is always correct. The entire cast – with the exception of those Traviss villanises – are straight from the US mode of science fiction, with its Rational Competent Men. Though many in City of Pearl are actually women. Or alien. There’s no subtlety or complexity in the novel. The scientists are wrong, the isenj are wrong. And that’s it. I can see how such binary views might appeal to some readers, especially genre readers, since populist genre fiction seems incapable of psychological depth.

There are apparently a further five Wess’har books, but I’ll not be bothering to read them. While City of Pearl managed an interesting meld of near-future sf and space opera, it was too much like military sf in tone to really appeal to me. Traviss’s prose is readable and well-paced, though to be honest I kept reading more because I liked the character of Frankland than anything else.

Oh, and the titular city is the wess’har capital on their world, and it makes perhaps a half dozen appearances in the novel. Frankland visits it toward the end in order to seek permission from the wess’har elders to stay with Aras. It’s a somewhat peripheral element of the story with which to title it.


The Marching Morons

To all the people who read Liz Bourke’s review on Strange Horizons of Michael J Sullivan’s Theft Of Swords, and didn’t like the review because:

a) historians should not review epic fantasy
b) “intellectuals” should not review epic fantasy
c) women should not review epic fantasy
d) a negative review will upset the author
e) a negative review will negatively impact the author’s sales
f) popularity and quality are the same thing, as any fule kno
g) bad prose is better than good prose, as is demonstrated by any best-seller list
h) taking quotes from the novel “out of context” would make any author’s prose look bad
i) you read the book and enjoyed it so it can’t be bad
j) the book is meant to be “fun” and “light reading” so it can’t be bad
k) a negative review is obviously not objective since you disagree with it

Congratulations. You are officially stupid. If you want to know why genre fiction is not taken seriously, go and look in the mirror.