The reading further afield thing hasn’t quite kicked into gear yet, with an almost entirely UK set of books in this post – and a lone bande dessinée from Belgium (which is, ironically, about a British writer: William Shakespeare…).
The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 24: The Testament of William S., Yves Sente & André Juillard (2016, Belgium). I’ve been picking these up as Cinebook publish the English translations, and if that’s not a testament to their quality, then I don’t know what is. Perversely, they’ve improved considerably since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. In most cases, the originator does it best – Hergé refused to let anyone continue the Tintin series after him; but the Asterix and Obelix series is generally considered to have declined now that both Goscinny and Uderzo are dead. But Jacobs’s stories for Blake and Mortimer were very much of their time – even offensively so: the villains for several stories is the “Yellow Empire”, ffs – and the science fiction elements were complete bollocks. Since the Edgar P Jacobs Studio has been producing the books, they’ve turned into clever alternate history conspiracy thrillers – such as this one. The William S. of the title is the Bard himself, and the story revolves around two societies who have been feuding for decades over who actually wrote the plays and sonnets. One believes it was indeed Shakespeare; the other believes it was the Earl of Oxford. But a clue hinting at vital evidence proving the claim of one of the societies is unexpectedly discovered in Venice, and, since there’s a huge bequeathed fortune tied up in the answer, the race is on to puzzle out the hidden location of the evidence, and either publish it or destroy it. Good stuff.
A Romantic Hero, Olivia Manning (1967, UK). I’m a big fan of Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, and always pick up her books when I spot copies in charity shops… which is where I bought this collection of her short stories (her second collection, apparently). I’d not read her short fiction before, only her novels, so I was interested to see how it compared. And, initially, not so good… the two opening stories, written in the 1930s feature two children of impoverished middle class parents (in a collapsing marriage) who live on the coast of Ireland. Fortunately, things pick up quite dramatically, and some of the following stories are excellent, with some lovely prose and sharply drawn characters. One features the semi-autobiographical characters from the Balkan Trilogy; another is set in Cairo during WW2, but I’m not sure if the characters appear in the Levant Trilogy. The stories in A Romantic Hero stretch from the 1930s to the 1960s (and a couple from the 1930s were re-written in the 1960s), but there’s no discernible change in Manning’s writing with each decade. Perhaps some of the earlier ones seem less individual, more like other fiction of the time; but still well-written. A good collection. Worth reading. Although, annoyingly, the book doesn’t have a table of contents.
A Thread of Truth, Nina Allan (2006, UK). I’m still in two minds about Allan’s work. I think that what she does is very interesting, I just don’t think it succeeds that often. On a prose level, she is an excellent writer, one of the best currently writing in UK genre fiction, and her ability to blur the lines between genres, narratives and even characters is both a clever and worthwhile schtick. A Thread of Truth is an early collection – her first, in fact – and is a nicely-produced hardback by Eibonvale Press (who do very nice books, it must be said). I found the stories… mixed. Allan’s prose is very good, but I’m not always convinced by her research. Some of the settings she describes are clearly based on personal experience – she knows these places and does an excellent job in conveying to the reader. But in the title story, the narrator enrolls on a Surveying and Land Management course at university because he wants to be a quantity surveyor. Er, that’s not what quantity surveying is. Every now and again in Allan’s fiction I stumble across things like that, and they spoil the story for me. Two of the stories in A Thread of Truth are actual science fiction, although neither to my mind pull it off especially well. ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ is set on an alien planet, where a team are studying a troop of local creatures which resembles dragons. And ‘The Vicar with Seven Rigs’ reads like mimetic fiction, until the penultimate page where it’s revealed it takes place in a future UK where travel between planets is routine, as if the narrator had sideslipped into an alternate reality. Neither worked for me.
Poseidon’s Wake, Alastair Reynolds (2015, UK). If there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s when publishers completely redesign the covers of a trilogy for the last book. As Gollancz did for the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Now the design for Poseidon’s Wake is a very attractive design, but it’s not the same as the two earlier books, Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Argh. And after all that… Poseidon’s Wake proved a disappointing end to what had promised to be a good sf trilogy. The story picks up several decades after the events of On the Steel Breeze. the holoship Zanzibar is now just a belt of rocks orbiting Crucible, the settled planet orbiting 61 Virginis (I think). And then the world receives a message from Gliese 163, a star system some seventy light-years distant, which reads only “Send Ndege”, Ndege being the woman who was responsible for turning the Zanzibar into rubble by playing around with the Mandala and accidentally triggering it. So Crucible sends a mission to Gliese 163, which includes not Ndege but her daughter, Goma, and several others. En route, Goma’s uncle, Mposi, the head of the mission, is murdered, and the evidence points to a Second Chancer (ie, religious extremist) in the team. The ship arrives at Gliese 163 and discovers… that the three taken by the Watchkeepers are still alive – well, two of them are, Eunice Akinya and the uplifted elephant, or Tantor, Dakota – and Eunice was the source of the message. Because she’s fallen out with Dakota. Who now rules a colony of thousands of Tantors in Zanzibar, which was not apparently destroyed but sent on a near-lightspeed journey to Gliese 163. Oh, and there’s a waterworld superearth whose oceans is dotted with thousands of two-hundred-kilometre-diameter metal hoops, whose apexes are almost out of the atmosphere – and the world is protected by a belt of hundreds of artificial moons in complex orbits. This was all built by the Mandala-builders, and is perhaps a clue to their history and technology… so obviously everyone is keen to go and have a look at it. Including the Watchkeepers. But the moons will only let organic intelligences through… I remember enjoying Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze (read in 2012 and 2014, respectively), but this was all a bit meh. The characters were mostly unlikeable, and it was hard to figure out if they were meant to be likeable. One character is set up as a possible murderer, but he’s paper-thin and not at all convincing. Even Dakota, the uplifted elephant – and since uplifted even further by the Watchkeepers – doesn’t really come across as an alien intelligence. The prose is sketchy, with very little description (except of planets and stars and suchlike), which I didn’t like. And the book’s big takeaway is that apparently the universe doesn’t offer meaning, life has no meaning – and I’m sorry and everything, but I pretty much figured that out when I was about eight years old. There’s an interesting discussion about intelligence without consciousness, made in reference to the Watchkeepers, who apparently are no longer conscious. Because a feed-forward intelligence is not conscious, and a feedback intelligence, given enough resources, can simulate a feed-forward intelligence… except if A is superior to B, why use more resources to simulate B than A requires? It is, in somewhat apposite words, completely illogical. I didn’t take to Poseidon’s Wake, but no doubt others will.
The Enclave, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). So I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds (see here), which was the first of four sf novellas from NewCon Press. And when I saw who had written the other three, I decided I wanted them too. The Enclave is actually the third, but I’ve not read the second yet. I read Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind last year (see here) and thought it very good. In fact, it reminded me of Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years or so. Despite that, I hadn’t really known what to expect on opening The Enclave. Happily, it is good, although I’ve yet to decide if it’s good enough to be nominated for an award (although given how few novellas I read in their year of publication… On the other hand, I wouldn’t nominate an unworthy novella just because it was the only one I’d read that year). The title refers to a ghetto in, or near, a UK city, in which live migrants and UK citizens who have refused to be chipped. (It’s not entirely clear what this chipping entails or means in the story, but given The Enclave is set in the same world as Charnock’s novel A Calculated Life, I imagine it’s explained there.) Caleb is a twelve-year-old boy who walked from Spain to the UK with his mother, hoping to find his father who had left earlier. But somewhere in England, he lost his mother, was picked up by Skylark and sold into indentured labour under Ma Lexie. So now he lives in a shack on a rooftop in an enclave. Ma Lexie sells “remade clothes” at a street market, and has three boys to do the sewing for her. But Caleb has an eye for fashion and so Ma Lexie boots out her old overseer and puts Caleb in charge. The story is told first-person, initially from Caleb’s point of view, then from Ma Lexie’s, and finally again from Caleb’s. The characters are convincing, the setting is an all-too-frighteningly-likely consequence of Brexit and the rise in institutional racism in the UK, which means the whole chipping thing does tend to dilute the politics. I’ve never really taken to first-person narrative – it’s always struck me as the weakest, and the one writers with poor imaginations most frequently employ. A first-person narrator who is a Mary Sue (of any gender) is a complete waste of time. Happily, neither Caleb nor Ma Lexie can be accused of that, and the use of first-person here allows Charnock to confine the narrative only to what the narrators know. Although well-written, I’ve a feeling The Enclave could have been stronger, made more of a meal of its setting, said something trenchant about UK politics of the last twelve months. Other than that, bits of The Enclave reminded me, of all things, of Kes, especially the end. And there’s a slight hint of Keith Roberts to it, which is, of course, a plus. I think I probably will end up nominating it next year.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129