Books… films… books… films… I really ought to write about something else every now and again. I mean, I do – I post nice retro-future photos every so often, and I’ve even been known to mention my own writing. But it does feel this year that this blog has turned into more of a record of things I’ve read and watched rather than part of any sort of conversation. Must try harder. I might even make that a resolution for 2015…
But, for the time-being, it’s, er, books. That is: being wot I have read in the weeks since I last put up a “reading diary” post (see here). I’ve been sticking to the alternating genders thing on long fiction, and see no good reason to stop. You may notice I read two books by women in succession here, but that’s because I’d snuck in a novella by Kim Stanley Robinson after Wasp, but didn’t feel it necessary to write about it. I don’t mention every book I’ve read, after all; although it’s mostly the non-fiction on planes and stuff that I leave out of these posts.
Mars Evacuees, Sophia McDougall (2014). I don’t as a general rule read YA or children’s books, being neither a teenager (AKA young adult) nor a child; but I’d seen this mentioned approvingly by friends, the setting seemed like it might appeal, and that really is an attractive cover. As it is, I was expecting something a little closer to hard sf, rather than the actual story of hand-wavey aliens invading Earth and returning the planet to an ice age to better suit their needs and a young teenage girl who gets a little closer to the war than planned. There are some nice touches throughout, and McDougall’s prose is very readable, but it’s a story put together from a pair of pretty common plots – first, kids go all Lord of the Flies in a Martian base when all the grown-ups disappear; but then protagonist, Alice Dare (named for Dan?), and brainy friend trek across the surface to another base in search of adults, encounter an alien child and so learn about them – and everyone lives happily(-ish) ever after. I’d cheerfully recommend it to kids – a sf novel for children featuring female characters with agency? Of course I would – whether they’re fans of sf or not. Which is, I suppose, what it’s all about.
Wasp, Eric Frank Russell (1957). A SF Masterwork, and I was pretty sure I’d read this many, many, many years ago, but I couldn’t remember anything about the story. I must have picked up the main points of the plot through general osmosis, because once I started reading the book I realised it was all new to me. The story is simple enough: Earth is at war with the purple-skinned humanoid aliens of the Sirian Empire, so Earth drops an agent provocateur, skin suitably dyed (really? yes, really), into a city on a Sirian world, and his job is to disrupt industry and government to such an extent the Sirian Empire finds it hard to wage war. This involves lots of the sort of tricks that may or may not have been successful during World War II against the Germans. Unfortunately, the Sirians are implausibly stupid, their secret police are more like the Thompson Twins than the Gestapo, and except for a few pieces of sf furniture, the story could just as easily have set in, well, 1957. If you think this reads like a how-to manual for destabilising governments, as some reviewers apparently do, then I suspect you need to get out more.
Daughters of Earth, edited by Justine Larbalestier (2006). This is one of the best sf anthologies I’ve read, not just because it features an excellent selection of stories, ranging from 1927 to 2002 and so providing a really good historical spread of feminist sf, but also because every story is followed by a critical essay, discussing either the story, writer, or the science fiction of the time of the story’s publication. There are some favourite pieces of short fiction in here: ‘ The Heat Death of the Universe’ by Pamela Zoline, ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side’ by James Tiptree Jr, and ‘Wives’ by Lisa Tuttle; and some favourite writers, such as Gwyneth Jones and Karen Joy Fowler – and the latter’s ‘What I Didn’t See’ is, I suspect, a bona fide classic of the genre. Also note-worthy is ‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones, the only Jones story ever collected, and though it may remind readers of Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’, it definitely should be better known. I’ve since tracked down more stories by Jones – she had five stories published in sf mags in 1955, but wrote fiction for the “slicks” up until 1966. Also in the anthology are Claire Winger Harris, Leslie F Stone, Kate Wilhelm, Pat Murphy and Octavia E Butler. A must-have for any self-respecting sf fan.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (2013). We all got a nice warm glow when this, a novel by an actual genre writer, was shortlisted for the Booker this year… although to be fair, Fowler has never really been “genre” in any sort of categorical sense – indeed, ‘What I Didn’t See’ (er, see above) apparently caused quite a ruckus on its original publication in the (now-defunct) Sci Fiction online magazine, as many felt it wasn’t genre at all; and there are still arguments whether her first novel, Sarah Canary, is actually sf (clue: it’s in the SF Masterwork series). We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, however, is entirely mainstream and sits comfortably between the witty lit fic of The Jane Austen Book Club and the weightier genre fiction of much of Fowler’s short fiction output. I know some people have had problems with this novel, although I thought it very good, and it made me want to read more by Fowler (even though I’ve read many of her stories and several of her novels already). The novel works very much because its voice works, and the achronological structure plays to the plot’s strengths – but then Fowler is pretty much one of our most-skilled writers… and it’s good that the lit fic world has now realised that.
Devices & Desires, Susan Ertz (1972). The second entry in my informal challenge to read some books by “forgotten” women writers of postwar twentieth century. This one wasn’t as successful as the first, A Month Soon Goes by Storm Jameson. I wrote about it here.
The Plague, Albert Camus (1947). The town of Oran was mentioned on some telly quiz the other day, they asked in what country it could be found – and I knew the answer because The Plague is set there. (It’s in Algeria.) The other notable thing about this book is that I was reading it on the tram on my return from the cinema after watching Interstellar when two drunk teenage girls sat down beside me, and one of them asked if she could read my book with me. She then proceeded to read out aloud from the page I was reading. I was only glad I hadn’t been reading something by Michel Houellebecq… The title of the novel pretty much describes its plot: bubonic plague strikes the city of Oran, the authorities close its borders, the medical establishment tries hard to prevent the spread of disease, people die. This is the third book by Camus I’ve read and it’s generally considered to be his best… but I can’t actually see the appeal. Apparently, the plague is a metaphor for the German occupation of France during WWII but, well, it’s also an epidemic, something which seems horrifying enough on its own – and, given the current ebola scare, something which serves perfectly well without any allegorical baggage which might have been more readily apparent to readers at the time of original publication. I know people who rate Camus – one day I’ll have to get them to explain why he appeals to them to me (and, um, I shall have probably have to explain why I admire Lawrence Durrell as a writer so much…).
Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear, Javier Marías (2002). I bought this several years ago for a world fiction reading challenge I’d set myself (see here), but only managed to get halfway through it before giving up. It had come highly recommended, so perhaps my expectations were too high… But even on this second read I found it all a bit of a chore. The prose is discursive to an extent that made my eyes glaze, and I like discursive prose. The narrator is a Spaniard working in the UK, who, thanks to contacts at Oxford University, secures a position as a “translator” with an enigmatic member of the British establishment whose role may or may not be officially sanctioned. He’s not really a translator, because the narrator is excellent at reading faces, and it is his interpolation of the mind-set of interviewees in which his employer is chiefly interested. There’s a good brainstorming sequence involving the Spanish Civil War, Orwell, Fleming, and the narrator’s own family history, but much as I wanted to like this novel I didn’t take to it enough to want to read the remaining two books of the trilogy. A shame.