One more of these and that’ll see my entire 2015 reading documented. After I’ve posted that, I’ll do a summary “year in reading” post, you know, with pie charts and shit. I’ve already done my best of the year post (see here), even though the year had yet to finish then but everyone does it early so never mind. And I can always carry over any candidates I missed to next year’s best of, anyway…
The Seedling Stars, James Blish (1957). Back in the early 1980s, I was a big fan of Blish’s fiction – possibly because Arrow had repackaged them with Chris Foss covers – and bought and read a dozen or so. I still have them. But one I’d missed was The Seedling Stars, so I tracked down a copy on eBay a few years ago – with, of course, the Foss cover art – and stuck it on the TBR. I had a feeling I might have read it before – certainly, ‘Surface Tension’, the penultimate story in the collection wasn’t new to me, although I’m not sure where I’d previously read it. But the other two novellas and one short story didn’t ring any bells. All four are about “pantropy”, which is genetically engineering humanity for environments rather than terraforming worlds. In ‘Seeding Program’, Earth has sent an agent to infiltrate a colony on Ganymede created by the leader of the pantropy movement and whose inhabitants have all been engineered before birth to survive on the Jovian moon’s frozen surface. It’s not in the slightest bit convincing, and the plot could just have easily been translated to any random Earth location. In ‘The Thing in the Attic’, the theocratic society of the gibbon-like humans of Tellura is causing them to stagnate, but when one freethinker is exiled he and his companions trek over the mountains and discover a starship of humans who have come to see how the colony is doing. Solid nineteen-fifties science fiction, perhaps a little preachy in places, and not especially memorable. ‘Surface Tension’, however, is memorable. In this novella, tiny humans have been seeded in a series of ponds on the one small piece of land on a water world. Again, a freethinker (male, of course) persuades his fellows to build a special vehicle to explore the world “above the sky”. The sentient amoebas are a little hard to swallow (so to speak), but it’s a fun setting and Blish makes good use of it. The final story, ‘Watershed’, is very short and takes place on a starship heading for Earth. The crew are baseline humans and the passenger is an engineered human from another world. The crew are also hugely racist toward their passenger. Who points out that baseline humans are now the minority among the colonised worlds. I suspect I would have enjoyed this collection a whole lot more if I’d read it back in the early nineteen-eighties when I read all those other Blish books…
Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds (2015). I decided to hang on for the signed, numbered WSFA Press edition of this novella, rather than buy the original Tachyon Publications edition. And it’s a smart little hardback they’ve produced – except… they’ve got the ISBN wrong, and re-used one from one of their previous novellas. Argh. You would not believe how many things that screws up. The title of the novella refers to devices implanted in people which store their memories, allowing their actions during a vast war between worlds to be recorded. They’re called “slow bullets” because they’re implanted in the leg and then slowly work their way up to lodge in the chest. But the actual plot of Slow Bullets concerns Scur, who is captured and tortured by a war criminal from the other side, left for dead, but then wakes up aboard a transport carrying war criminals and other prisoners. Except something has gone wrong and it looks like everyone aboard had been left in hibernation for thousands of years… This is typical Reynolds – a universe which he perhaps might not have visited before but nonetheless feels like one of his, and a plot predicated on horrible violence which still manages to slingshot off an optimistic and redemptive ending. It is, in fact, pretty much about as Reynolds as you can get and, as a result, your mileage may vary. I enjoyed it, some bits more than others.
The Grass King’s Concubine, Kari Sperring (2012). I bought this after it was pointed out that I don’t read enough by fantasy by women writers by the author herself (it was a general admonishment on Twitter, not one personally directed at me, but I felt it was a fair comment). And I’m glad I did. I am not a huge fan of epic fantasies – I’ve read a fair number of them, and no longer find their tropes or stories interesting. Happily, The Grass King’s Concubine is nothing like an epic fantasy. Fantasy, yes; and a very cleverly done one. But not epic. And that’s meant as a compliment. Aude is the daughter of a rich land-owner, not old money but rich enough to be accepted into high society, but she is curious as to the source of her family’s wealth and determined not to marry and become just another trophy wife. After a couple of visits to the Brass City, the Dickensian industrial part of the city where she lives, she ends up running away with provincial officer Jehan. Aude’s search ends up with her being forcibly taken to the WorldBelow, ruled by the Grass King; and Jehan is taken there by a pair of ferrets who can take human form and act as guardians to the gate. Aude is a refreshingly forthright and active female protagonist, and there’s a welcome line of social commentary running throughout The Grass King’s Concubine. The fantasy elements are also interesting, original and well thought-out – Aude’s explorations of the Grass King’s palace are particularly well-drawn. If I had to recommend a modern fantasy novel I’d be more than happy to recommend this one. Go and get yourself a copy.
The Teleportation Accident, Ned Beauman (2012). Having read this, I now understand why Lavie Tidhar is such a fan of the book. It addresses some of his favourite subjects. Myself… I enjoyed it, thought it amusing in parts and cleverly done overall, but I wasn’t taken with the engine which drives the plot. The title refers to a piece of stage machinery, first invented in the late eighteenth-century, which allows for the rapid, and apparently instantaneous, changing of scenery. In Weimar Berlin, Egon Loesser is trying to build a new version of that machine, but one that moves the cast around rather than the scenery. But during a test it goes wrong and dislocates both arms of the actor wearing it. Loesser is one of those horrible comic protagonists you find yourself inadvertently rooting for – he’s self-centred, fixated on his sex life (or lack thereof), and nasty to pretty much everyone he meets. It is Loesser’s lack of a girlfriend, and desire for the nubile Adele Hitler, which drives the plot, as Loesser chases her to Paris and then onto Los Angeles, at each place bumping into friends and acquaintances (some Jewish, some not) from Berlin. It all ends up with Loesser getting involved in a WWII project at a LA university to build an actual teleportation machine, which may or may not work and which may or may not have something to do with the strange murders which have been occurring on the campus. A fun read, even outright funny in places, although not particularly pleasant and often only saved by its cleverness.
Critical Mass, Sara Paretsky (2013). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since reading Guardian Angel back in the early 1990s. I’d borrowed it from my mother, and liked it so much I made an effort to read more of the VI Warshawski series… and have done ever since. Earlier this year, my mother took me to see Sara Paretsky speak (with Val McDiarmid) at the Harrogate Crime Festival. The plot of Critical Mass is a little more convoluted than most Warshawski novels, but the villains of the piece are, as usual, the rich. Vic’s friend Lotte receives a panicked phone call from the junkie daughter of a friend from Lotte’s childhood back in Vienna just before the Anschluss. Vic investigates, but the bird has flown, and all that remains is a shot-up meth lab and a dead body (male) in a nearby field. It turns out the woman’s younger brother, who is a physics whiz and works as a software engineer at a big computing firm, has also gone missing. The CEO of the company, whose father invented ferromagnetic memory, is worried he has taken one of their secret projects to a rival firm, but the clues suggest to Vic he disappeared for other reasons. There are also flashbacks to Lotte’s childhood, focusing on a young Jewish woman who is a gifted physicist but finds it hard to be taken seriously and eventually ends up as slave labour on one of the Nazis’ atom bomb projects. The story bounces around between two seemingly unrelated crimes before the two eventually, and cleverly, interlock. The only sour note is a pair of DHS agents who behave like mindless thugs rather than professional federal agents and a CEO who thinks it’s worth murdering people to safeguard the reputation of his company. But otherwise, this is a good Warshawki and worth reading – and it also sheds light on a little-known aspect of early twentieth-science and World War Two.
Anecdotes of Destiny, Karen Blixen (1958). After watching Out of Africa, I fancied reading something by Blixen, so when I spotted this collection in a charity shop, I bought it. And since I was spending Christmas in Denmark, I thought it appropriate to take it with me and read it there. Anecdotes of Destiny has apparently been republished under the title of the most famous story in it, as Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, which I’m glad I spotted now as it’d likely confuse me later if I stumbled across the latter book. As it is, the original title does the collection a disservice as its contents are far from “anecdotes”. True, the opening story story pastiches a tale from 1001 Nights, and my heart sank a little when I read it. But ‘Babette’s Feast’ is wholly different and a great deal better. Best in the collection, however, is ‘Tempests’, about a young woman in Norway who joins a travelling theatre and then saves a ship from foundering during a storm, and it quickly became a favourite novella – and would make an excellent film too. A very good collection, overall, and I plan to read more by Blixen.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121