The alternate genders thing got thrown a little out of whack, first by deciding to put Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to one side for a bit (because it is fucking enormous), and then by reading a couple of trashy male-authored books while on the way to, and back from, Glasgow over the Easter weekend. But I then made up for it by reading two successive books by women, er, twice. So far this year, I’m running exactly 50:50 male:female writers, so it seems to be working…
Tales of Pirx the Pilot, Stanisław Lem (1979) I decided I should read more Lem, especially as I’ve been finding the concerns of much male-authored US science fiction of last century somewhat tiresome; and there are these attractively-packaged Harcourt Brace Javonovitch paperbacks of some of his books available on Amazon… But they’ve already fucked up the “collection” as the only two I’ve bought so far – this one and Imaginary Magnitude – are sized slightly differently. Argh. Anyway, Pirx is a space pilot and sort of an Everyman, although he typically wins through using a combination of common sense and accidentally doing the right thing. In the five stories in Tales of Pirx the Pilot Pirx starts out as a cadet on a test-flight to the Moon, solves the mystery of the death of two scientists at an observatory on the far side of the Moon, solves another mystery which resulted in the disappearance of a patrol spaceship, witnesses an accident in space while travelling aboard a space liner, and manages to survive a flight in a spaceship that shouldn’t have been declared flight-worthy. They’re an odd mix of made-up science-fiction rubbish and realistic space travel. For example, in ‘The Conditioned Reflex’, Lem goes into a great amount of realistic detail about the lunar observatory, and the story reads like a piece of nearish-future hard sf. But ‘The Albatross’ features space liners and feels like a totally different setting. Pirx, on the other hand, is a pleasingly common-sensical hero, with a faint streak of cynicism, and he wins through as often by doing the wrong thing as he does by puzzling out what’s needed. There’s a second book of Pirx stories titled, with a great deal of imagination, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. I think I’ll pick myself up a copy…
The Red Tape War, Jack L Chalker, Mike Resnick & George Alec Effinger (1991) Ever read a book knowing it was going to be shit but you read it anyway and guess what it was total shit? The clues were all there – the cover-art, the names of the authors… And yet, against my better judgement – well, against any judgement whatsoever – I went and read the book anyway. The Red Tape War was conceived as a jolly jape by Chalker, Resnick and a third author. That third author, who they do not name, had the good sense to drop out, so Effinger was drafted in as a replacement. The idea was to write a book where they’d pass the narrative from one to the other, hopefully leaving it in such a state the writer picking up the story would have their work cut out keeping the whole thing stumbling along. Dear Tor, this is not a project that should have ever seen the light of day.
Sphere, Michael Crichton (1987) The movie adaptation of this has always struck me as one of those films that has all the ingredients necessary to make a good movie, yet manages to be actually quite bad. The underwater aspect fascinates me, and the central premise – a mysterious spacecraft is discovered on the ocean floor – is certainly appealing… So I read the book to see if it was any better than the film. I can now confirm it isn’t. In fact, it’s probably worse. It doesn’t help that Crichton gets some of his details wrong. The team sent to investigate the spacecraft descend to the US Navy habitat on the ocean floor, 1000 feet deep, in submersibles. At that depth, the pressure is around thirty atmospheres, so saturation diving is required. Compression would take around five hours, not the length of the ride in the submersible. And at thirty atmospheres, the heliox in a tank carried on the back would last only minutes, so the breathing mixture would be provided using umbilicals. Given that, it seems churlish to complain that the rest of the book makes little or no sense. The spacecraft proves to be from a century or so in the future, but crashed several centuries ago… after entering a rotating black hole or something. Nothing about the spacecraft is at all plausible – its design (heavy lead shielding! wtf), huge cargo bays containing, um, food, no crew… yes crew… no not really crew… But it’s the titular, er, sphere, found in the spacecraft which forms the focus of the novel, as it gives who ever enters it super powers. Or something. Which each of them uses to terrorise everyone – including themselves; and destroy the habitat which is keeping them alive at the bottom of the ocean. Stupid book. Avoid. I should have done.
We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977) I needed something to cleanse my palate after the last two books, so grabbed this off the book-shelves. I’ll be reviewing it for SF Mistressworks.
The Underwater Welder, Jeff Lemire (2012) I’d seen a few positive reviews of this, and the title suggested it would appeal to me, so I sprung for a copy. A mistake. It’s rubbish. The artwork is not at all attractive, and the story is a banal daddy issues plot. Son of wastrel drunkard dad, who was a diver in the oil industry, returns to his childhood town and follows in his father’s footsteps. On one dive, he sees something strange, something to do with an old pocket-watch that used to belong to his father, and when he surfaces, everywhere is deserted. But by this point I was so bored, I wasn’t really following the story, so I’m not entirely sure what happened. Something to do with his father, something to do with starting to treat his wife better because whatever daddy issues he had were resolved. Or something. Not worth the money. Avoid.
Dancing Girls, Margaret Atwood (1977) This is Atwood’s first collection and, to be honest, it’s actually a little dull. The contents were originally published in a variety of Canadian literary magazines. No dates are given, but I’m guessing the stories date from no more than a few years before the collection appeared. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Atwood’s fiction. I find her novels much more successful than her short fiction, but I’ve yet to read one of them with as much power as her Alias Grace – though The Handmaid’s Tale is really very good, it’s let down by a sketchy background – and while I’ve enjoyed her other novels I’ve read, I usually feel vaguely dissatisfied by them. Her short fiction strikes me the same way – it often seems like it’s missing something. But I’m not entirely sure what it is. There’s a vagueness there that… it’s not a failure of imagination, nor a lack of writing chops; it’s part of her voice… but I’m always expecting a thicker broth so it reads as thinner than it should be. I’ll continue to read her, she’s an important writer after all; and perhaps eventually I’ll work out what it is about her fiction that leaves me so dissastified… Perhaps she’ll write something else as powerful as Alias Grace…
Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV, Eric Brown (2014) I bought this at the launch at Satellite 4, this year’s Eastercon. It’s the first of the Telemass Quartet. But that title is a bit of a misnomer. While tt’s a novella set in the same universe as Brown’s earlier Starship Seasons Quartet, there’s nothing in its plot which is predicated on “telemass” itself (a near-instantaneous interstellar matter transmission system). That strange word in the book’s title – no, not Fomalhaut, the name of a star, which is actually Arabic, fom al-haut, فم الحوت, and means “mouth of the whale” – but “famadihana”, which Wikipedia describes as “a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. Known as the turning of the bones, people bring forth the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts and rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music.” And the indigenous aliens of Fomalhaut IV practice a similar ritual – not that protagonist ex-copper Matt Hendrick discovers this until midway through the novel. He is on the planet to find his ex-wife and their daughter, who has been drawn there by the local church which has incorporated some of the alien rites into its creed – and promises that it can “cure” the daughter. Hendrick takes up with a local young woman – the world’s colonists are all Malagasy – and with her help, and that of her anthropologist sister, track down his missing family, and witness the titular ritual performed by the aliens. It’s solid Brown stuff, and much like the aforementioned quartet. If there’s one change I’ve noticed over the years, it’s that sex – easy sex – seems to appear more often in Brown’s stories than it did before.
Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) She was bloody good, wasn’t she? It’s a shame this is all she wrote. I’ll be reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. (Shame about the crap cover art, though; also by Zoline.)
Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1987) Another SF Mistressworks book. Wasn’t too sure initially what to make of this, but the further I got into the novel the more I liked it. Saxton also had a distinctive voice, and I have to admit I find it fun to read.
HHhH, Laurent Binet (2013) I bought this early last year as a lot of people were talking about it at the time. I don’t think otherwise I would have bothered – I mean, the title doesn’t exactly inspire, even once you know it means “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich”, and is about Reinhard Heydrich, who was possibly the nastiest Nazi of them all (and who features in a (sort of) country-house murder in Philip Kerr’s eighth Bernie Gunther novel, Prague Fatale, which I’ve read (see here)). And yet, I’m really glad I bought HHhH – it’s an excellent novel, and more than that, it reads in part like a manifesto of my own writing. Because it’s not just about Heydrich – or rather, Operation Anthropoid, a secret mission by a pair of British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, to assassinate Heydrich, who was “Protector” of the Czech Republic at the time. HHhH is also about writing about Operation Anthropoid, about Binet’s attempt to do justice to the history and the people involved, and his own response to the story, to fiction, to history, to writing about the real world. While HHhH may read like history and autobiography, and Binet makes a point of his need for verifiable facts about Operation Anthropoid and the people involved in it, we’ve no way of knowing how much of the authorial voice, and the author’s story, is actually true. Did Binet, for example, really have relationships with the women he names? Or are they invented characters? It doesn’t, of course, really matter (and HHhH has been marketed as fiction, for what it’s worth), but that concept of nailing fictional story into place with verifiable facts is something I’ve been exploring in my own fiction. I’ve yet to explore the act of writing such fictions in, er, such fictions – although many, many years ago I did have a meta-fictional sf story published in a small press magazine (it’s an apprentice work; if you’re interested, see here). Anyway, HHhH is excellent… and has certainly given me much food for thought…
May 9, 2014 at 10:57 am
I was just talking about Lem (again) on twitter yesterday, Ian. Have you read RETURN FROM THE STARS?
May 9, 2014 at 11:19 am
No, I’ve not read that one.
May 10, 2014 at 7:26 am
Those HBJ Lem covers are really tasty, aren’t they! I have quite a few of them, but none of the Pirx stories. I have some older American versions by Avon also, with equally attractive covers that are slightly more colourful. Lem’s writing is an odd mix of assured science/mathematics and total fantasy. The Investigation is probably my favourite of his – it’s a detective story but with some very strange elements.
May 10, 2014 at 8:13 am
Yes, the covers are ace. Is ‘The Investigation’ the one that was made into a film? I have a DVD of a Pirx film.
May 12, 2014 at 7:53 am
I’ve not heard of a film version and Wikipedia doesn’t have one listed, but there might be one..
May 12, 2014 at 8:02 am
It’s a Polish/Russian co-production from 1978 – see here on imdb.co,.
May 14, 2014 at 10:18 am
I’ve read Lem a lot but never heard about “More Tales of Pirx the Pilot”.
In my 10 volume Lem’s collected works 10 stories about Pirx are all in the 4th volume + “Moon night” play.
Besides the very best Lem’s story with Pirx is a “Fiasco” novel.
Also I highly recommend “Solaris” (1972) by Andrei Tarkowski who was the most famous Soviet film-maker since Sergei M. Eisenstein.
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