I took a break from my Hugo reading to get up to date with some SF Mistressworks reading and then, for some reason, when it came to choosing books by male authors I picked old sf ones (because I’m still alternating my reading between women and men writers). Still, at least now I’ve read those crappy old sf novels and they can go to the charity shop…
Renaissance, Raymond F Jones (1951). Many years ago I had an idea for a story inspired by the plot of the film This Island Earth, so I decided to read the novel as research. It was years before I tracked down a copy and a few years more I finally got around to reading it – see here. Meanwhile, I’d decided to read more Raymond F Jones – even though I had yet to read This Island Earth at the time. I’d already bought Jones’ Beacon novel The Deviates (because Beacon novel; see here) and a copy of The Alien (I loved the cover art; see here). So I picked up a copy of his first novel, Renaissance, and recently pulled it from the shelf to read. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – I hadn’t been impressed by This Island Earth and that is Jones’ best-known novel. Well, Renaissance is very much a novel of its time, and it makes very little sense. It opens with a giant computer, which seems to run a small colony of scientifically-minded people, but it’s all sort of B-movie weird with a giant curtain of nothingness bordering the colony on one side and a DESERT OF FIRE on the other, and everyone wears togas or something and no one appears to have sex as babies magically appear at some sort of temple… The hero gets into trouble with the authorities for daring to research a taboo subject, biology. He uncovers a conspiracy, so he infiltrates the temple… which requires him to disguise himself as a woman – but given that they wear little in the way of clothing, he uses some sort of plastic material to effect his disguise. No one sees through it, although you wouldn’t know from the text that he was pretending to be a woman for much of the story. Anyway, it turns out the colony is in an alternate universe and was an experiment by Earth, which is now ruled by some sort of secretive cabal, and there’s a historical repository of knowledge safeguarded an AI which wants to overthrow the cabal… And it’s all complete tosh, about as rigorous as blancmange and as plausible as a unicorn pasty. I’ve still got those two other Jones’ books to read – well, three if you include The Secret People, the book on which The Deviates is based – but I doubt I’ll be going any further into his oeuvre.
Captain Marvel 2: Down, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Dexter Soy & Filipe Andrade (2013). I was never really a big comics fan, and I went off superhero comics completely a number of years ago. And even when I did read comics, Captain Marvel was not a title I bothered following. But when I discovered that the first half of this miniseries by Kelly Sue DeConnick featured the Mercury 13, I decided to give it a go (see here). I wasn’t that impressed so wasn’t going to bother with the second volume… until I learnt it took place at the bottom of the sea. It was just too close to Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And now I’ve read it, er, it isn’t. At all. Captain Marvel – Carol Danvers – helps a friend recover something from the sea bottom off the coast of New Orleans. Down there it’s a ship and plane graveyard… and then some alien energy leaks into the wrecks and creates a giant monster out of them which Danvers and her friend must battle. The story then moves to New York and Danver’s private life, trouble with her neighbours, a possible medical condition preventing her from flying, and random attacks by an old nemesis… Like the first book, there’s a smart script there, so it’s a shame the art is routinely awful. You’d think, given that comics are a visual medium, they’d put more effort into it.
Charisma, Michael G Coney (1975). During the 1970s, there were a number of male British sf writers all working (mostly) down the same line in the genre. They’d come out of the New Wave – although some had been around prior to that – and, in direct contrast to the big-selling US sf authors, they kept their visions low-key and their focus more literary. Writers such as Richard Cowper, DG Compton, Michael G Coney, Keith Roberts, Robert Holdstock, perhaps even JG Ballard. Their novels were often set in a near-future UK, with light extrapolation, and only a small number of “ideas” – which were there solely to drive the plot. There was no “movement” as such, and several of the writers went on to write completely different genre fiction – Holdstock and his Mythago Wood, Ballard left the genre all together, Coney moved into pure heartland territory with his Hello Summer, Goodbye… Coney’s Charisma, however, very much fits the pattern. It could almost have been written by Compton, in fact. The narrator, John Maine, is the manager of a hotel in the small Cornwall fishing port of Falcombe. He’s also involved with a local boatyard which sells “houseyachts” (hovercraft houseboats, as far as I can make out). Near Falcombe is a Research Station which has been experimenting with a device that gives access to parallel worlds. And Maine discovers by accident that he can travel to these parallel worlds – because the John Maine in those worlds has died, so there aren’t two of them existing in the same world at the same time. And then the owner of the hotel, a lying and cheating businessman, a Tory in other words, is murdered… and Maine travels back and forth to various parallel worlds trying to change events, solve the murder and track down the woman he loves, Susanna. The plotting in Charisma is quite clever, with its multiple parallel takes on the same group of people and their actions. The world-building is light – it’s pretty much 1975, but with hovercars and 3D television. Unfortunately, Maine, the narrator, is… I hate to say “a product of his time”, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more male-gazey novel than this – in fact, Maine is an unreconstructed sexist pig. And it leaves a nasty taste in what would otherwise be an interesting and accomplished 1970s British sf novel.
What Lot’s Wife Saw, Ioanna Bourazopoulou (2013). The last of my Hugo reading. I do have at least one more novel on the book-shelves that qualifies – Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman – and I did have time to buy and read a couple more, but I decided to call it a day after What Lot’s Wife Saw. Possibly because I’d heard so much praise for it that I thought it likely to take the final slot on my ballot. Except, well, I didn’t really like it at all. It’s the near-future and the Dead Sea has somehow inundated much of Southern Europe, and coincidentally revealed a rift which contains “salt”, a powerful drug to which much of the world is now addicted. Phileas Book lives in Paris and compiles “Epistlewords” for The Times. These are three-dimensional crosswords whose clues depend on extracts from letters published alongside. Despite numerous descriptions of the Epistleword, and its “meandros” shape, nothing in the novel indicates the Epistleword is either plausible or solvable. The salt mentioned earlier is mined at the Colony, a small company town on the shore of the Dead Sea – which is now completely gelid. How the Dead Sea has a shore after flooding the surrounding area for thousands of square kilometres is not explained, but the shore is an inhospitable desert populated by “Suez Mamelukes”. Recently, the governor of the Colony died in mysterious circumstances, and within a fortnight riots tore the town apart. His six closest advisers have all written letters explaining what happened. The mysterious Seventy-Five, the company which mines the salt, asks Book to analyse the letters – because of his Epistleword special talent thing – to discover the truth of the events they relate… A lot of people praised What Lot’s Wife Saw so I think it’s fair to say my expectations were pretty high. But. It just didn’t work for me. The sections in the Colony felt like they were set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which made a nonsense of it being near-future – assuming you swallowed the whole Flood thing, which made no sense anyway. The letter structure was interesting, but the voices of the six were so similar it was often hard to tell them apart. And they were really unlikeable. The writing was mostly good but often drifted into over-writing. And the ending, the solution to the mystery Book is asked to unravel, is… well, it’s banal. I’d been expecting something with much more impact, and not just a quick Scooby Doo scene which explained clues that were so obscure no reader would have spotted them – I mean, EREMOI? Disappointing.
The Demons at Rainbow Bridge, Jack L Chalker (1989). This is the first book of a trilogy, the Quintara Marathon. Chalker used to bang out trilogies and series as if science fiction were on the brink of extinction. And it showed. In this one, the writing barely reaches competent, the setting is cobbled together from used furniture, and the text is riddled with continuity errors. In this series, the galaxy is split into three mutually antagonistic power blocs, the Exchange, the religious nutters of the Mizlaplanian Empire, and the evil dog-eat-dog empire of the Mycohlians. Humanity went out into the stars and found itself just another alien race among the many claimed by these three polities. The Exchange is ruled by the mysterious never-seen Guardians, and is pure Rand-like capitalism from top to bottom. The Mizlaplanians have hugely powerful mental powers and have convinced everyone they’re gods and those of their subject races with “normal” mental powers are angels and saints. The Mycohlians are parasites and they pretty much leave their anarchic empire to run itself, assuming that the cream – the most ruthless and violent cream, that is – will rise to the top and keep everything together. An Exchange scout ship finds a pair of the eponymous demons on a remote world, and sends out a mayday before being slaughtered. The novel then spends a third of its pages describing the formation of an Exchange team to investigate, then a third on a Mizlaplanian team to do the same, and the final third on the Mycohlian team. All three head for the remote world, where they find a butchered research team, the demons have escaped and… continued in the next book of the trilogy. Chalker was a crap writer and this is far from his best work.
Ark Baby, Liz Jensen (1997). Every time I start a Liz Jensen novel, I tell myself I should read more of her books. I’ll be reviewing this on SF Mistressworks, since it qualifies as science fiction.