It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Guessing the Clarke

It’s that time of year again, when the books submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award have been revealed – see here – and we get the opportunity to second-guess the judges. Sixty books were submitted, not all of which appear to be science fiction. Many are literary, rather than heartland sf. Some are even fantasy. In fact, looking at the heartland sf titles, I don’t think they don’t make an especially good showing – Leviathan Wakes is regressive, Neal Asher has never been favoured by the Clarke, Steve Baxter may be the most short-listed author but Bronze Summer is the middle of a trilogy, Bringer of Light is the fourth in a series, The Recollection is a little too generic, and I’ve heard mixed reports about Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three. Some of the others are simply not award-worthy.

So this year, I’ll not be surprised if we see more of a literary list. On my first pass, I ended up with ten books, but the short-list is six and six only. I thought Eric Brown’s The Kings of Eternity was good, but it failed to make the BSFA Award short-list. Embassytown should be a dead cert, but from what I’ve heard it’s not as successful a novel as The City & The City. Reamde I’ve been told is a bloated techno-thriller, and no one has a good word to say about Blackout / All Clear on this side of the Atlantic. Which leaves three genre novels people have been talking about: The Islanders, By Light Alone and Osama. All three of which are also on the BSFA Award short-list.

I am also not expecting an all-male short-list. Given the discussion on women sf writers over the past year, I don’t think the judges would be so foolish. And since women literary writers who write sf seem to be more successful with the Clarke than women category sf writers… Both The Testament of Jessie Lamb and The Godless Boys have been highly praised. Random Walk is my left-field guess, because there’s always a left-field candidate on the Clarke short-list.

So I think the short-list will look like this:

Random Walk by Alexandra Claire (Gomer)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS)
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood (Picador)

And I think The Islanders will take the gong.

Of course, I could be completely wrong, and the short-list will be entirely space opera…


World fiction reading challenge #2: The Door, Magda Szabó

Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done. The Fat Years (see here) may have been an unsatisfactory novel but it was a fascinating read. The Door by Magda Szabó is from Hungary, and is similar to last month’s read in that its story is intertwined with the history of its native country. It is also a fascinating read and an excellent novel.

The unnamed narrator of The Door is a thinly-veiled portrait of Szabó herself, but The Door is about the old woman, Emerence, who the “lady writer” takes on as a housecleaner. The novel follows this relationship during the years of the Kádár regime, or “Goulash Communism”, from 1956 to 1989. There is a state funeral mentioned at the end of the novel, but the deceased is never named. I did wonder if was Kádár himself, but some of the details mentioned in the novel don’t quite add up, and the chronology is not exact. I know almost nothing about Hungarian history – although I have now read the Wikipedia articles on the topic – but I suspect the identity of the person would be plain to a Hungarian reader.

But all this is by the by. The Door is about Emerence. She is a fascinating character. One newspaper review of the book described her as the sort of person which communism saw as its ideal citizen. She is uneducated but possesses a sharp natural intelligence. She’s unafraid of speaking her mind, and indeed fearless in her relations with the authorities. She is fixed on living her life according to her own rules. She is generous and open-hearted to a fault, but unforgiving of fools or those who disappoint her. The door of the title is the front door of the flat in which she lives and through which only a handful of people have ever passed. Emerence guards her household and privacy with fierceness.

During the twenty years over which the novel is set, the lady writer’s career takes off, though her life-style does not change. She is awarded prizes, appears on television, and is even invited to a writer’s conference in Greece as the Hungarian representative. Throughout all this, her husband – who remains unnamed – also writes but no mention is made of his career. In fact, it is his ill-health which drives part of the plot of the novel.

Emerence and the lady writer argue a lot, and often fly into rages. These sudden attacks of anger were quite strange initially, as the characters felt far too volatile to be entirely credible. Perhaps it is Hungarian character – I’m not familiar with it. But then we British are known for our reserve, so it’s likely just my perspective. Whatever the explanation, as the story progressed the less remarkable it became. As Emerence and the narrator grow closer, so Emerence reveals snippets from her life. Some of this goes toward her explaining her character. It is the lady writer’s betrayal of Emerence which brings the story to a close – and I had to wonder if the relationship is perhaps a symbol of something wider, something a Hungarian reader would recognise.

Emerence is one of those great characters you often find in literature. She is as mysterious as she is carefully drawn, and it is the slow revealing of the pieces which go to make up her personality that are the real strength of The Door. The remaining cast, many of which are not named, are also well-drawn, but The Door is about Emerence and is Emerence. I really liked this book.

Magda Szabó is one of Hungary’s most popular and lauded writers, but Imre Kertész is the only Hungarian to have been awarded the Nobel Prize, in 2002. The British translation by Len Rix of The Door won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2006, and the book was also short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. A film of the book, directed by István Szabó (no relation), will be released this year, with Helen Mirren in the role of Emerence. Here’s the sales reel:



Being poetical

Lawrence Durrell’s poetry doesn’t always work for me. I like the fact there’s plenty to unpack in them, though many of the references are often unfamiliar to me. Their chief attraction for me is the beauty of the language Durrell used. He had a knack of painting an image with just the right words. Here are a few examples from Selected Poems (1956):

Ten speechless knuckles lie along a knee
Among their veins, gone crooked over voyages,

‘A Rhodian Captain’

On charts they fall like lace,
Islands consuming in a sea
Born dense with its own blue:


Where minarets have twisted up like sugar
And a river, curdled with blond ice, drives on


There is a metaphysical and mythological aspect to much of Durrell’s poetry – while he saw what was there with a painterly eye, he also described what could not be seen. And as a result his poetical portraits of places, and people, feel complete in a way many other poets have not managed. Durrell called this his “Heraldic Universe”: “that territory of experience in which the symbol exists … for every object in the known world there exists an ideogram”. He also said, “‘Art’ then is only the smoked glass through which we can look at the dangerous sun.” I like the sound of that.


When men were men and so was science fiction

After reading the 2011 science fiction novel which prompted my Whores in Space post (see here), I read a 1950s sf novel: This Island Earth by Raymond F Jones. I’ve seen the film several times, and it’s fairly typical of its period – manly hero, women there only to scream, ugly mutant, flying saucer. I read the novel because I’d been toying with the idea of adapting part of it for a short story, and because I wanted to see if it was different to the movie.

It is.

The first half of the film more or less follows that of the book. Cal Meacham is a manly electronics engineer in California. When an order for parts for a project goes awry and he receives instead some devices which are decades ahead of what he is expecting, his curiosity is piqued. He orders a catalogue, and from it he then orders the parts necessary to build an “interociter”. Without actually knowing what an interociter does. The bits are delivered, he figures out how to put them together… and it’s a communications device. Which is promptly used by someone to offer him a job as he has “passed the test”.

In the film, this is a man called Essex Exeter, but in the book he’s called Jorgasnovara. Exeter is head of a secret thinktank with access to technology more advanced than that known to 1950s USA. Jorgasnovara is head of an industrial plant which builds interociters using technology more advanced than that known to 1950s USA. Both, it transpires, are actually alien and are using the Earth as a supply depot in a war. In the book, the war is intergalactic and between a good bloc, the Llanna, and an evil bloc, the Guarra (whose members also smell bad). There is no Metaluna in the book, and no mutant monster.

This Island Earth was originally published in 1952. It’s a fix-up of three stories published in 1949 and 1950: ‘The Alien Machine’, ‘The Shroud of Secrecy’ and ‘The Greater Conflict’. Meacham fought in WWII, and is determined that the devices invented and built by scientists or engineers should never again be used as they were in that conflict: “like careless and indifferent workmen they have tossed the product of their craft to gibbering apes and baboons”. He is not only an engineer but also fervently anti-war. (But not anti- the occasional need for fisticuffs, however.) His engineering know-how and can-do-it-iveness therefore means he is better than everyone else. Only he knows the rightful use to which the devices he builds should be put. (It is this very arrogance which Jorgasnovara uses to recruit engineers to his organisation.)

And then there are the women…

The lone female in the novel is Dr Ruth Adams. She has a doctorate in psychiatry, but is employed as the assistant to the head of personnel. Meacham is immediately attracted to her. When he picks her up for a dinner date, he considers it “impossible to think of a MD and PhD in that dress”. Surprisingly, Ruth keeps her job after she marries Cal, though she does all the cooking – despite a mention earlier that Cal is capable of cooking for himself. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect a strong female character with agency in a 1950s sf novel written by a man, one which elevates engineers to the status of special universe-saving snowflakes. But Ruth’s portrayal still offends – she may be educated, but she’s very much Dale Arden and not Hildy Johnson.

It’s not the only aspect of the book which should upset modern sensibilities. The working class fare badly too. When the plant manager fires an incompetent employee, the union pulls everyone out on strike – despite what appear to be reasonable grounds for termination. And then someone sabotages the assembly line. Meacham immediately accuses the shop steward. Because, of course, manly men of science fiction despise anything that smacks of socialism, and so it naturally follows that a union man would obviously destroy the very factory where he works because management won’t meet his “unreasonable” demands.

Meacham’s manliness and engineering expertise means he never surrenders – always there is a solution, or a means of escape. Ruth, of course, is always the first to scream and give up when the couple find themselves in jeopardy. This also applies to the “Greater Conflict”, which by the final quarter of the book is threatening to destroy Earth. Despite the war having raged for millennia, and involving uncountable alien races far more advanced than humanity (they have giant computers!), it takes a can-do engineer like Meacham to spot why the Llanna have been steadily losing. They rely on their giant computers to determine strategy and tactics. As a result, they’ve become predictable, and the Guarra can guess their every move. They need to act randomly! Like randomly saving the Earth from the approaching Guarra battle fleet!

This Island Earth is not even tosh. It’s desperately old-fashioned, and probably felt so back in the 1950s. The pilotless aircraft which carries Meacham from his company lab to Jorgasnovara’s factory near Phoenix, Arizona, is propeller-driven, though you’d have expected such an advanced organisation to have jet aircraft (which had been flying for nearly a decade by 1952). The science throughout is nonsense: the journey to the Moon, for example, takes all day in one chapter, and mere minutes in another. In the same spaceship. Earth is apparently only a few hundred light years from the edge of the Milky Way (it’s closer to 25,000 light years). But then Jones doesn’t seem entirely sure what a galaxy is, or how great the distances between them (clue: The Andromeda Galaxy is about 2.6 million light years from Earth). Oh, and the interociter turns out to be a telepathic communications device – its use as a videophone is just there to disguise its true function. Except it is later revealed to be a weapon which fires devastating telepathic blasts… which also kill the interociter user…

No wonder the Llanna were losing the war. If only they had recruited a manly engineer from Earth a couple of thousand years earlier.

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Burning for you

The Future Fire, the online magazine of “social-political and progressive speculative fiction”, is back after an 18-month hiatus. And their new issue includes a flash fiction story by Yours Truly. It’s titled ‘ A History of the 20th Century, with Illustrations: Atonement’ and it’s about… Well, go and see for yourself. You’ll find it here. And while you’re at it, you might as well read the other excellent stories in the issue.


World fiction reading challenge #1: The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung

I know very little about China and almost nothing about its literature or literary tradition. So a book from the country seemed a natural choice for my reading challenge this year. And since Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years had recently been gaining notices, appeared to be sf masquerading as mainstream fiction, and was about, and set in, China, then it seemed the perfect book to choose.

Having read The Fat Years, I now know more about China and her recent history. I suspect I still know almost nothing about Chinese literary tradition, however, because The Fat Years is in many respects constructed like a Western novel. Except it also isn’t. More on that later.

The novel opens in 2013. Old Chen, a novelist and journalist, is a Taiwanese resident of Beijing. He is, like many middle-class Chinese, happy and contented. Suspiciously so, in fact. Further, the entire country – including the rural population – appears to be happier and more successful than they can previously remember. While the rest of the world suffers from a financial crisis, China is the happiest nation on Earth.

But not everyone is so contented. One or two people feel this happiness is artificial. It also seems to have come about after the events of February 2011, when the global economy crashed. Except there is no official record of that month. The economy crashed, and China’s “Age of Ascendancy” began – at the same time, according to the records. Old Chen finds himself dragged into a hunt for the missing month, which eventually leads him to the reason for China’s unnatural happiness. This he learns after he and some friends have kidnapped a Party leader Old Chen knows. The Party leader explains it all.

As a novel, The Fat Years is far from satisfactory. Chen meanders about, meeting friends and acquaintances, but not actually driving the plot forward. And the dénouement is one big info-dump delivered by the Party leader. According to a translator’s note, it is this last section which is of most interest to Chinese readers – chiefly because of its criticisms of Chinese society and government. Myself, I found the frequent asides and info-dumps on China’s twentieth-century history the most fascinating aspect of the book. I was even inspired to read up on some aspects on Wikipedia.

I’m glad I read The Fat Years and it is an interesting novel. But it’s also not an especially good one. It is its subject which fascinates, rather than its story or the presentation of its subject.

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Now we know where we’re going

News this week that the Eibonvale Press anthology Where Are We Going?, edited by Allen Ashley, will be launched in London on 2 March 2012. Details here. And look at the lovely cover:

This is the anthology which contains my bathypunk story – see here – so I’m especially pleased to see it. Looks like it has a top line-up too: there’s some very good names in that TOC.