I seem to be keeping up with my New Year Resolution to read more books. Monday to Thursday, when I get home from work, I spend an hour reading before making dinner or putting on a DVD. And I managed to polish off five books over the first weekend of the year – true, three were bandes dessinées and one was novella, but still…
The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK). I’d expected to dislike this – so why I took with me to read over Christmas, I’ve no idea. I read Faber’s Under the Skin many years ago, and hated it (but I thought Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation was excellent). So I had expected something similar, even if the blurb sounded more like the BBC TV series Outcasts than anything else (although I may have been getting confused because there’s apparently a TV series in development based on The Book of Strange New Things; and, to be fair, I thought Outcasts a great deal better on rewatch). Anyway, expectations relatively low. So I was surprised to find that not only did I enjoy The Book of Strange New Things, but I also thought it pretty good. Peter Leigh has been selected by corporation USIC to serve as pastor at their exoplanet settlement. His wife, unfortunately, has to remain behind in the UK. On arrival at the exoplanet, called Oasis, he finds a small colony of apathetic engineers, all of whom live mostly on foodstuffs provided by a nearby town of the planet’s low-tech and enigmatic natives. It’s the natives, in fact, who have demanded a vicar’s presence, as some of them have taken up Christianity and the company doesn’t want to jeopardise the supply of foodstuffs. Leigh decides to build a church, with the help of his “Jesus Lovers”, the Oasisan Christians. Meanwhile, Leigh writes emails to his wife back in the UK. As he tend his flock on Oasis, and gradually understands what drives them, so she describes a UK falling apart bit by bit, testing both her faith and her love for her husband. Leigh is a bit pathetic as a protagonist, and the people with which he works are no better; but the aliens are really done quite well, and aspect of their nature which has driven some of them to human religion is tragic and provides a neat twist. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award in 2015, but lost out to Station Eleven (see here). I thought the Faber an odd choice at the time, but it deserved its place.
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I bought this after seeing many positive comments about it and, happily, it met my expectations. Cora Seaborne’s husband has just died and she, an amateur palaeontologist, decides to investigate stories she’s heard of the Essex Serpent. While in Chelmsford, she bumps into friends who tell her of their friend, William Ransome, a pastor, and his family in a coastal Essex village near where the Serpent has been spotted. So Cora and her autistic son go to visit them, and they all get on famously. Meanwhile, Luke Garrett, an ambitious surgeon, has his eye on Cora – he treated her late husband, and now that she’s widowed he is keen to deepen his friendship. And his friend, George Spencer, a rich dilettante playing half-heartedly at doctor, has fallen in love with Cora’s maid, Martha, a socialist activist. It sounds like it should be a mess, a story pulling in so many different directions – Cora and her desire to solve the mystery of the Essex Serpent, not to mention her own ambivalence toward her gender and role in society; Garrett’s ambitions; Martha’s activism in the London slums; Ransome’s rational approach to his Christianity; Spencer’s failed romance with Martha… There’s a Gothic feel to the story, a likeness that’s heightened by its use in places of letter exchanges, but the prose is anything but Gothic. It’s, well, breezy – hugely readable, often funny, and with some very nice descriptive passages. The cast are drawn well, as are their relationships. And there’s plenty going on – politics, religion, science, not to mention a commentary on Victorian society. I thought The Essex Serpent very good indeed, an early possible contender for my best of the year. Recommended.
The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Writings, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1989, USA). I knew Gilman’s name chiefly from Herland, an early novel about a feminist utopia, which I own in the Women’s Press SF edition but have yet to read. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is perhaps her best known piece of short fiction. The narrator and her husband move into an old house, and the narrator becomes obsessed by the wallpaper in an attic room. She is convinced there is someone hidden inside the wallpaper who is desperate to escape and… well, it’s very atmospheric. The other stories, such as ‘If I Were a Man’ or ‘Turned’, are of their time, except for their overt feminist sensibilities. I’ve read early genre fiction by women writers, like Francis Stevens, Agatha Christie, Leslie F Stone, and, of course, CL Moore… but none them seemed to my mind to have as strong a female point of view as the stories in Gilman’s collection. The book also included an except from Herland, and a couple of excerpts from some of Gilman’s non-ficiton writing. I found the book in a charity shop a while ago, and bought it because I knew the name. But now I’m really glad I own a copy of it.
New Adventures in Sci-Fi, Sean Williams (1999, Australia). I’ve been a fan of Williams’s fiction since reading the space opera Evergence trilogy he wrote with Shane Dix back in 2003. And I’ve bought and read the sf novels written by the pair, and by Williams alone, ever since. And quite a few of Williams’s collections too. This was quite a hard one to find, I seem to remember. It’s relatively early stuff, but polished nonetheless, and even includes a favourite of mine, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ from 1995; although this time around it didn’t read quite as smoothly as I’d remembered. It’s still a bloody good sf story, though. The stories are mostly heartland sf, with a few dark fantasy. Of the sf, ‘The Soap Bubble’, in which a survey starship’s regular reports home are presented as episodes of a melodrama, at least until they meet an alien race, was quite cleverly done, and had a neat twist. ‘Reluctant Misty & the House on Burden Street’, a variation on the haunted house, was probably the best of the dark fantasy stories. The premises of some of the others felt a little secondhand and threadbare, although the stories were well told. I’m not sure what Williams is doing now – he started writing YA for a few years, and then went to Antarctica on some sort of writers’ programme. I really liked his space opera and hard sf novels, and it’s a shame he doesn’t seem to be writing them anymore.
Valerian and Laureline 20: The Order of the Stones and 21: The Time Opener, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2007/2010, France). These two volumes end the Valerian and Laureline story, begun back in 1967, although I’m sceptical the story-arc was fully plotted out at that time. Anyway, midway through the series, Galaxity, Valerian and Laureline’s employer disappeared after someone meddled with history, and the Earth was destroyed. After acting as free agents for several volumes, Valerian and Laureline ended up aboard an expedition to explore the Great Void. Where the Wolochs, mysterious stone beings, have appeared and are using the Triumvirate, three heads of criminal gangs, to attack humanity. In The Order of the Stones, the Wolochs go on the offensive, and the galactic civilisation is hard pressed to fend off their attacks. But there is one hope: the Time Opener. Which contains the Earth. But it can only be opened if enough people pure of heart are gathered together. And it’s the bringing together of these which forms the story of The Time Opener. Of course, they succeed. Interestingly, there were some bits and pieces from these two installments I sort of recognised from Luc Besson’s movie adaptation, demonstrating, I suppose, that his film was based on the entire series. Not that it was a good film. Overall, Valerian and Laureline have had a good run, and if the plot got somewhat convoluted somewhere around the middle – the final volume includes a timeline which does little to make sense of it all – and the ending was a bit weak, there were some excellent episodes along the way. It was a product of its time, but it didn’t hesitate to slip in contemporary digs at the real world in each of the volumes, which worked quite well because the two characters had travelled back in time and so the stories were partyl set on contemporary Earth. But there was plenty of space opera stuff too – so much so, the series is often mistaken taken to be an inspiration for Star Wars (there are similarities but they’re apparently coincidental). Perhaps the art never approached the gorgeousness of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, but the scripts were considerably better, albeit often somewhat compressed since each volume was no more than 48 pages. I first stumbled across these during the 1990s after Dargaud, their French publisher, made a half-hearted attempt to introduce them to the Anglophone market and published four random volumes in English. I started reading them in French, but happily Cinebook have been banging them out in English since 2010. They’re also now available in omnibus editions. Worth getting.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131