I decided that July would be a month of only reading non-fiction, and I stuck mostly to that – although first I had to finish Arcadia; and there were a couple of graphic novels during the month as well…
Arcadia, Iain Pears (2015). I’d heard mixed reports about this book, none of which especially encouraged me to read it. But it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and I had planned to read all of the shortlisted books. Over the years, I’ve read Pears’s other novels – although only one or two of his Jonathan Argylle series – and thought them very good. Mention of an Arcadia app also made the book sound intriguing. While I’m not one to look down my nose at lit fic authors attempting genre – some do it badly, but a lot of the more interesting genre fiction these days is being written by those with no genre history – my views on Arcadia on opening the novel were at best conflicted. And when I actually came to read it… I was surprised. It’s woefully old-fashioned, there’s no doubt about that; despite the app, despite the fact it opens in the 1960s. And lead character Rosie Wilson reads like a Lucy Pevensey for the 1970s. But Arcadia is also addictively readable, more so than any other book on the Clarke shortlist – I polished it off, all 736 pages, in a weekend. There are, basically, four plot-threads. The first is set in 1960s Oxford and features a member of the Inklings and the fantasy world he has developed, Anterworld. Then there is the narrative set in Anterworld, featuring some of the characters he’s invented. And another thread in which it’s visited, Narnia-like, by the aforementioned Rosie, a fifteen-year-old girl who part-time housekeeps for the Oxford professor. Then there’s a thread set in a near-future totalitarian UK, where a secretive project on Skye turns out to be time-travel and not, as believed, a portal to alternative worlds which can be colonised. Except the time-travel/Anterworld thing wants to have its cake and eat it too, which leads to some pretty torturous plot-logic, delivered via info-dumps and lectures, in order for it to all link up. There are a few halfway decent ideas in here – and if most of them feel somewhat familiar, that hardly makes this book unique among, well, among award-nominated genre novels… Much as I enjoyed Arcadia, it did feel a little like reading a book from the 1970s or 1980s. But I’d still rate it higher than at least half of the Clarke shortlist.
Faulks on Fiction, Sebastian Faulks (2011). This book was published as a companion piece to a BBC television series which I’ve not seen. In it, Faulks considers twenty-eight characters from literature, and comments on them. The characters are split into “types”: heroes, lovers, snobs and villains. And within each group, he considers a well-known character from a famous novel. Some of the choices are obvious: Sherlock Holmes as a hero, Constance Chatterley as a lover, Fagin as a villain. Some are a bit odd: James Bond as a snob (although given the use of brand-names in the books, it does sort of make sense), Winston Smith as a hero… And I wouldn’t have chosen Ronald Merrick as a villain to represent the Raj Quartet – Barbie Bachelor is a much more interesting character; nor do I necessarily agree with the conclusions Faulks draws about the four books and Merrick’s role in them. But then the Raj Quartet is one of the few works covered in Faulks on Fiction which Faulks read for the first time for the television series. Many of the others he had read as a schoolboy or a student, and he writes as much about how his view of the book has changed with this new read as he does in analysis of the character under discussion. Of the twenty-eight novels covered, I’ve read only nine (but I’ve seen film/tv adaptions of a further seven), which at least gives me a position to compare Faulks’s thoughts with my own. He raises points I’d not considered in many cases and there’s very little I’d disagree with on those characters with which I’m familiar. Admittedly, I seem to hold both DH Lawrence and Paul Scott in higher regard than Faulks does – though, to be fair, I don’t prize Lawrence for his characterisation, and that’s pretty much the focus of the essays in Faulks on Fiction. An interesting read.
Restricted Areas, Danila Tkachenko (2016). Tkachenko is a Russian photographer and this is his second collection. The photographs focus on the wreckage of the Soviet Union, photographed in winter and covered in snow. So there are ruined apartment blocks, an ekranoplan (a Bartini Beriev VVA-14, in fact), and even the Buzludhzha Monument, among other subjects. Photography is not a hobby in which I indulge, but I do like these collections of the failures of the twentieth century (particularly when the failure was not a result of anything intrinsic to the failed object). It is, I suppose, a form of armchair urban exploration – but it has the advantage of someone else catching that moment of sublimity and making it public. There is something about the technological and engineering hubris of the twentieth century, and the artefacts which are all that remain, that I find particularly appealing. Tkachenko’s photographs capture some of those in a particular light, and that in turn adds an interesting dimension to the subjects of the photos.
Valerian and Laureline Vol 12: The Wrath of Hypsis, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1985). This volume immediately follows on from The Ghosts of Inverloch, which was pretty much set-up… and it feels a little like there’s a middle volume missing somewhere. In the first of the two-parter, Earth and Galaxity Central (the HQ of the time-travelling intergalactic agency for which Valerian and Laureline work) was under threat from something either in the distant past or the deep future. The head of Galaxity gathered together a group of disparate characters – human and alien – at Inverloch Castle in Scotland in the 1980s… and in The Wrath of Hypsis they follow a ghost ship from Earth to the mysterious world of Hypsis… where it all goes a bit silly. The Holy Trinity – although not as they’re typically depicted in various works of dubious historical accuracy – are residents of Hypsis and responsible for Earth, and they’ve come to the conclusion the “experiment” is not working. It’s all a bit random and unsupported, and probably felt a bit more cutting-edge and dangerous back in 1985. Thirty years later, it reads like an incomplete premise. A shame… because this really is a superior space opera series. I suspect splitting a story over two episodes was considered pushing it for a bande dessinée that averaged 48 pages in length, but this particular story could have done with more room.
Antares Episode 6, Léo (2015). I started reading Léo’s sf bandes dessinées at the tail end of 2013, starting with the Aldebaran series, after stumbling across them on Amazon and thinking they might be worth a go. They were. After the three books of the Aldebaran series (published as five books in the original French) came Betelgeuse in three volumes (also originally five books), and now Antares, which has stretched to six “episodes”. (There’s a further linked series, The Survivors, currently unfinished, with three volumes.) Anyway, in Aldebaran, Kim Keller, a native of the human colony on a world orbiting that star, finds herself involved with a group who have been granted immortality by the enigmatic alien Mantris. In Betelgeuse, she is recruited for a mission to discover why the colony on a world orbiting that star has suddenly gone silent, and so finds herself involved with another Mantris and a humanoid alien race. Finally, in Antares, Kim is asked to join an expedition to settle a planet orbiting… not Antares, which is a red giant, but GJ-1211, a main sequence star which is invisible from Earth against the brightness of Antares. The expedition is run by religious zealots, and they don’t get on at all with Kim – especially when it seems she’s tied into whatever’s going on. They’re pretty good these bandes dessinées – smart science fiction and well-drawn. Worth reading.
The Third Reich: A New History, Michael Burleigh (2000). I’ve had this for a few years but it’s a bit on the thick side – 965 pages! – which has always put me off reading it. But when I decided that July was going to be a month of reading non-fiction, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally tackle it. As I write this, I’m about a third of the way into the book, but I didn’t think it worth waiting until I’d actually finished it before writing about it because… well, we all know what happened, and it’s the way in which Burleigh tackles and presents his material that is important. And… he likes his big words. For example, “fissiparous” appears at least once a chapter. This is a writer who is determined not to dumb down his style. Burleigh’s approach also seems to demand some form of collusion from the reader, inasmuch as there are a number of editorial comments suggesting the reader is of course clever enough to agree with Burleigh’s point. The events recounted in The Third Reich: A New History took place between 100 and 70 years ago, and it’s pure coincidence that I chose to read the book now, in a post-Brexit UK and Trump-possible US, a time which scarily re-enacts some of the history described by Burleigh. Since the EU referendum, hate crimes are up in the UK by 57%. (And it’s all very well saying a leave vote was a protest vote against the political classes; but when the leave campaign’s main plank was xenophobic and racist anti-immigrant rhetoric, it takes a peculiar kind of blindness to paint it as a political protest.) How long before the EDL start wearing uniforms? How long until immigrants are asked to wear badges indicating their origin? Only this week, a chain of gourmet hamburger restaurants colluded with immigration police to arrest and deport some of their staff – and given that some of those staff had been working for the chain for at least four years… I’ve not yet finished The Third Reich: A New History – it’s going to take me a couple of months, I think, to do that – but I at least know how it ends. As we approach the 2020s, I have no idea what’s in store for the UK, the EU, the US, indeed this planet… Which makes it all too easy to sympathise with the Europeans of the 1920s…
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126