Bit of a cheat this one, as most of the books are either short or graphic novels – well, one graphic novel, two short collections, and a novella. One has also been shortlisted for the BSFA Award.
Author’s Choice Monthly 7: Neon Twilight, Edward Bryant (1990 USA). I had one of my semi-regular outbreaks of completist-itis, and since I owned about half of the Author’s Choice Monthly issues, I decided I needed to have the rest. A full set. Even though many of the authors in the series I’m far from a fan of. Like Mike Resnick. Ed Bryant I knew nothing about. The name rang a vague bell, but if I’ve read anything by him in the past, I don’t recall doing so. Bryant’s introduction explains he’s better known as a horror writer, although he did write heartland sf once – and it’s three of the latter stories which are collected here. All three are set in the same space opera universe – the first story he set there, a later one when he decided to use the setting for a commissioned story, and a third written specifically for this short collection. They are… okay. The stories are set in some sort of interstellar polity – it’s all a bit vague – in which disputes are settled through ceremonial wars, in which mercenaries in fighters battle each other. And those who survive, and have the highest kills, become popular heroes. The second story was written for an anthology set in Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker universe, so the mercenaries have to fight off a giant machine intelligence bent on killing everyone. And they do it using the previously unknown telekinetic powers of one settled world’s indigenes. The whole fighter/mercenary thing takes some swallowing, because there’s nothing remotely plausible about using fighters in space combat, despite their prevalence in science fiction. The whole folk hero thing doesn’t really parse either – after all, who remembers the aces from the Vietnam War? From any war? These Author’s Choice Monthly have proven to be very much of variable quality. But they’re a set, so I’m going to buy them all and read them all, damn it. Even if they’re crap.
The Obelisk Gate, NK Jemisin (2016, USA). Do I need to explain that this is the second book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy – preceded by The Fifth Season and followed by The Stone Sky – which, like The Fifth Season, won the Hugo, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Stone Sky also won the Hugo this year… Making it the only trilogy to ever win the Hugo for all three instalments in consecutive years. Which says more about the Hugo Awards, to be honest, than it does the books. Social media these days is completely fucking useless for finding out what’s worth reading – and the Hugo Award never has been – as it’s all tribalism and self-promotion, but I’d heard enough rumbles about The Fifth Season to prompt me to buy it when it was £1.99, and I was pleasantly surprised enough (see here) to stick this second book on my wishlist. And so was given it as a Christmas present. It is a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow a phrase, that the second books of trilogies are generally the least satisfactory. After the tricks Jemisin had used in The Fifth Season, I had, to be honest, expected more of The Obelisk Gate. It is pretty much a straight follow-on. However, where the best part of the first book was its time-stacked narratives, that’s a not a technique that can be continued once revealed. The Obelisk Gate doesn’t even try. It’s a linear narrative covering events chronologically following on from The Fifth Season. It rings a few changes – which are to its credit – inasmuch as it introduces a separate narrative for Essun’s daughter, who was abducted by her father and proves to be an extremely powerful orogene; and it also breaks its narratives with first-person sections which directly address the reader whose narrator is not initially obvious. The worldbuilding is basically more of the same from the first book. The level of brutality remains high, although much of the invention was frontloaded in the first book. This is good solid genre fiction, a cut above the average, which can be read as both science fiction or fantasy. Are they the best two genre fiction novels published in 2015 and 2016? Of course they’re not. The Fifth Season probably deserved its Hugo – and certainly did given the shortlist – but The Obelisk Gate‘s Hugo was not so deserved (although, given the rest of the shortlist…). I’ll certainly read The Stone Sky, and I hope it picks up a bit after The Obelisk Gate – although I suspect that since the shape of trilogy is now becoming so much clearer, it won’t do. The strength of The Fifth Season was that its shape was there to be discovered. But we shall see.
Author’s Choice Monthly 29: Moonstone & Tiger-Eye, Suzy McKee Charnas (1992 USA). There are only two stories in this collection, both technically novelettes (I say “technically” because novelette is the most useless fiction category on the planet and we should really stop using it). The first, ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’ I first read in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, and I liked it enough to moan that Charnas had never revisited the setting. It was apparently her first piece of short fiction, since she’d only written, and was known for, novels prior to it. On reread, I’m less enamoured of ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’. It’s heartland hard sf/space opera, the sort of stuff Cherryh, among countless others, is famous for, written in the first person, with an engaging narrator. But. The use of Nigerian culture feels a bit heavy-handed. It’s good to see something other than middle America as a cultural template in a science fiction story, but when you make use of someone else’s culture it has to be done very carefully. Her female narrator also has agency. In 1980, when this story first appeared, that wasn’t very common. The setting is all a bit identikit – Nigerians notwithstanding – and it’s still a shame Charnas never revisited it. The second novelette is ‘Evil Thoughts’, from 1990. A woman and her younger significant other have moved into a new house. Mushrooms keep appearing on their lawn, and the crazy lady just up the streets, with two yappy dogs, tells her they are “evil thoughts”. And the woman destroys the mushrooms, so the evil thoughts have nowhere to go… The story doesn’t make much of its conceit, and seems more concerned with the anxieties of the woman caused by other people’s thoughts on her having a younger partner. Disappointing.
Crosswind Volume 1, Gail Simone & Cat Staggs (2018, USA). Juniper is a Seattle housewife who is abused by her husband. Cason is a hitman for a mob boss in Chicago (I think), who seems somewhat more thoughtful and intelligent than is common for the breed. For reasons explained later, the two magically swap bodies. Cason finds himself in Juniper’s body; Juniper is now a male hitman. It’s hardly an original conceit – there’s a novel from 1931 which has exactly the same premise! – and it’s been used plenty of times since, both in cinema and written fiction. Simone and Stagg have bought a modern sensibility to the story, inasmuch as they were careful to consult trans readers in order to depict their characters’ experiences in an appropriately sensitive way. And yet… they marry this with a brutal mobster plot. Certainly, represent trans people as accurately and sensitively as posssible, but why do we need to have a story which features domestic violence and mobster brutality? Those earlier body swap stories? They were comedies. In Crosswind, it’s good the way the two principals adapt to their new situation… But I could have done without the clichéd violence – and using violence, by “Juniper”, to resolve the chauvinism she’d been experiencing? I’m not sure that’s a good message: woman experiencing chauvinism, can only be resolved by a man taking over the woman’s body and behaving like a man? Disappointing.
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan). I’d not even heard of this, although I suspect it would have eventually come to my notice, when I saw it on the BSFA novel shortlist. Which was a surprise. No one I knew on social media had been talking about it. Who were the people who nominated it, enough of them for it to make the shortlist? Which, okay, might only have been half a dozen, given how poorly subscribed the BSFA is these days, and how few people bother to engage with the awards. Anyway, I picked up a copy, and pretty much read it on a train journey to and from Leeds. And… It’s good. It’s very good. In an unnamed Middle East city which is clearly modelled on Damascus, Saeed and Nadia meet. She wears an abeya from neck to toe although she is not religious; he does not believe in sex before marriage. A developing relationship in an Islamic society, in which moderates and fundamentalists coexist, is first upset by civil war, and then by the appearance of doors, existing doors, which now miraculously lead to doors in other, richer and Western, nations. And so refugees flood through them, and there’s no controlling them because they are never en route, or passing through somewhere else. Saeed and Nadia take advantage of this, and first move to Mykonos, and then to the UK, and finally to San Francisco. The premise is not thought through especially well, and the various Western nations’ responses to an unstoppable wave of refugees seems implausibly, well, accommodating – especially the UK, given the UK’s current policy of handling immigrants, as set out by Thereas May when she was Home Secretary, not to mention the whole Brexit fiasco… But Hamid focuses his story on the relationship between the two principals. On the one hand, Exit West makes an obvious point. And it’s a beautifully written novel – I really do like Hamid’s spare explicatory prose. But Exit West simply presents its premise, which doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, and never really interrogates it. Nor does it really interrogate the West’s response to immigrants, especially unannounced or unwanted ones. If you want to read a novel which does an excellent job of commenting on that, then read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. It is the much superior novel. But Erpenbeck wasn’t shortlisted for the BSFA Award – unsurprisingly, as her novel is not genre – amd Hamid was, and both tackle a subject important to our time. Much as I liked Exit West, I didn’t think it entirely successful. It’ll be getting the third slot on my BSFA Award ballot.
The Martian Job, Jaine Fenn (2017, UK). The title is a deliberate nod to the famous British 1960s movie, and the story even uses its own variant of Michael Caine’s famous line. But the plots don’t map precisely, nor the set pieces, and Fenn’s novella certainly ends in a completely different fashion. The famous car chase through the streets of Turin in Minis becomes a race through the tunnels of old Martian colonies in “tunnelbuggies”, and, yes, there’s a heist which kicks it all off… Lizzie Choi is a corporate administrator for one of the most powerful companies on Earth, the Moon and Mars, in a future doiminated by the Chinese. She has a criminal background, but walked away from it. Unfortunately, when her brother dies on Mars, she’s named as next of kin by her mother, currently in prison on the Moon, and so the company find out about her chequered past. Which results in her travelling to Mars to finish off the job her brother had begun: stealing the Eye of Heaven, the largest opal ever found and the property of her ex-employers. It’s all first person, and Choi is an engaging narrator and very much at the centre of the action. The Martian Job does a lot of things well, which mostly means deploys its tropes with assurance – not that any of the tropes are especially original. The references to The Italian Job are fun, but little more than easter eggs. The ending isn’t much if a surprise – it’s optimistic and well primed. This is solid feel-good sf, which might well be about a crime and feature criminals, but is not gratuitously brutal or right-wing. It’s a pleasure to read.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131