It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Reading diary 2018, #15

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I try to alternate my fiction reading between male and female authors, but I seem to be doing badly at that in 2018. Only two female authors in this batch of six books.

If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK). I bought this at the Eastercon last year – actually, I bought this and The Destructives, both signed, chiefly, I seem to recall, on the strength of Nina Allen’s review of this one. Despite that, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. What I got reminded me a little of Simon Ings and a little of Marcel Theroux, while being entirely its own thing. I don’t recall If Then being discussed much – other than by Allen, of course – but then it’s that sort of sf, like Ings, like Theroux, that the social media genre chatterers don’t seem to read or be interested in searching out. In the near-future, the UK economy has collapsed and bits of the country, including its people, have been sold off to various interests. This may well happen after Brexit. In the town of Lewes (it’s near Brighton, apparently), the inhabitants have been saved by the “Process”, which is some sort of algorithm which orders the activities of the town according to an undivulged rule-set, based on input from the people in the town, all of whom have been given implants. For all that this is supposed to be an optimally efficient way to run a society, everyone lives pretty much in poverty, and whatever their economic output is, they don’t see the benefits. (It’s implied the UK is in such a parlous state their output just about ensures their survival.) The main character is the town’s bailiff, James – he has a more intrusive implant, which he uses to operate the armour, a sort of steampunk mecha. This he uses when he has to evict people that the Process has decided are no longer required in Lewes. The first half of the book “IF”, details the set-up and shows James exploring his role and the whys and wherefores of the Process (although his wife, the local teacher, is more questioning), all triggered by the appearance of a simulacrum, a Process-created copy of a human being, an actual historical human, John Hector, who served as a stretcher bearer non-combatant during World War I. Eventually, James rebels and the role is given to another man. The novel then shifts, in a second section titled, er, “THEN”, to the First World War and Gallipolli. James find himself serving as a stretcher bearer in a squad commanded by Sergeant Hector. Except this isn’t the real Gallipolli campaign, or indeed the real WWI. It’s a vast re-enactment created on the south coast of England, designed to recreate the conditions which resulted in… and this is where things get really interesting, although some research is required to stitch it all together… the creation of an Odd John-like figure (cf Olaf Stapledon), called Omega John, who was John Hector. The real Omega John was created during the real WWI, and eventually invented the Process. But he has decided more like himself are needed, so he has re-enacted the Gallipolli campaign in order to “forge” a new Omega John from the simulacrum Hector. And this is all tied in with the ideas of Noel Huxley, who in the real world committed suicide in 1914 but in the novel served as a padre in Gallipolli, and nurtured Hector and helped his transformation into Omega John… If Then is a novel where it’s hard to tell where it’s going, and that disjoint in the middle as it switches from IF to THEN makes you wonder how de Abaitua is going to stitch it all together… but as the narrative circles back round on itself, and begins throwing out the ideas which underpin its story, it makes the journey there very much worthwhile. It’s a shame science fiction such as this seems to be mostly ignored, as it’s a damn sight more interesting, better written, and much more intellectually challenging than juvenile space operas with over-written prose which over-privileges “feels”. It’s If Then‘s sort of sf which should be appearing on shortlists.

Apollo, Matt Finch, Chris Baker & Mike Collins (2018, UK). Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, so expect shitloads of books and TV programmes and documentaries on the subject. There were more than enough for the fortieth anniversary back in 2009. And given how extensively documented Apollo 11, and the entire Apollo programme, was, and has been, documented, you wouldn’t think more books on it were needed… Except when Neil Armstrong died six years ago it was pretty obvious most millennials hadn’t a fucking clue he was. (I suspect this year’s biopic, First Man, will change that, however.) Among all the books we can expect for next year, I would not have thought a graphic novel depiction of the mission was, er, missing. But that’s what Apollo is. And, to be fair, they do a good job. Where necessary they stick to the technical dialogue, but there are a couple of flights of fancy thrown in as well, just to keep it from being dull. I didn’t detect any errors, so Finch, the author, and Baker, the artist, have clearly done their research. (And surely a colourist called Mike Collins can’t be a coincidence?) All things considered, this is not a bad addition to the huge body of work about Apollo 11.

Kon-tiki 1: Dislocations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK). Brooke and Brown have collaborated a number of times over the years, although mostly at lengths shorter than novella. I think the Kon-tiki Quartet might also be their first series together, rather than loosely-linked stories in the same universe. The quartet title refers to the first human expedition to another star, which will be crewed not by astronauts but by copies of them – ie, clones with their originals’ memories downloaded into them shortly before launch. Sean Williams & Shane Dix used a similar idea in their Orphans of Earth trilogy, although their avatars were initially software only. The chief character of Dislocations is a mainstay of British sf, although no longer as common as he once was: a self-pitying white male who is in love with someone unattainable, unhappy in his own marriage and unfulfilled in his career, despite being involved in something important, and who nonetheless manages to have a major impact on events. In this case, it’s the kidnap of the object of the protagonist’s desire, the project’s chief psychologist, by eco-terrorists. But the project’s security team don’t seem to be making much of an effort to find her, despite her kidnappers stating they will kill her if their demands are not met. Fortunately, the protagonist does their job for them. And it transpires the kidnapping was intended to hide sabotage within the project. No convincing explanation is given for the security team’s lack of action, however. It goes without saying the prose is polished and the characters well drawn. But it does all feel a bit, well, tired. The story takes place mostly at Lakenheath base, and despite a passing reference to events there last century, you’d have to be in your forties at least for it to mean anything. True, the Allianz, the eco-terrorists’ organisation, appears to have been inspired by Antifa, which makes them sort of relevant, and the earth itself is on the edge of a climate crash, which is certainly relevant… I enjoyed Dislocations, and I thought it a well-written novella, but it felt a little like a retread of older material, and in places actually reminded me of 1970s sf by the likes of Cowper and Coney – which can be considered both a compliment and a complaint. The second book of the quartet, Parasites, is already available, and I will of course be picking myself up a copy.

Uppsala Woods, Álvaro Colomer (2009, Spain). A friend’s blog persuaded me to give Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream (see here) a go, and I thought the novel excellent – and was intrigued by the fact it had inspired a “Nocilla generation” of writers in Spain. So I decided to see how this had manifested, and Colomer’s Uppsala Woods looked like the most interesting of the novels labelled as “Nocilla” I could find. Having now read it… I’m not entirely sure what Mallo brought to it, other than perhaps a circumspect prose style which uses excessive detail; and while I like that, I like detail, I write it myself, the story of Uppsala Woods proved to be something of a let-down. The narrator is an entomologist and his wife has been suffering from depression. He comes home from work one day and discovers she has tried to commit suicide by swallowing pills. This reminds him of an actual suicide he witnessed as a boy – a neighbour jumped off a seventh-floor balcony while he watched – and which traumatised him so badly he grew up into the weak-willed and indecisive human being he is now. There’s a lot of reflection on his self-perceived failings, and how it feeds into his response to his wife’s attempted suicide. It doesn’t help that the marriage had been failing, and he’s incapable of making the concessions needed to rescue it. In fact, he’s not a very nice person at all. And there’s a whiff of misogyny to the narrative which is unpleasant, not to mention a definitely old-fashioned view of suicide as a form of “lunacy”. I liked the prose style and thought it effective, but found the story disappointing and its sensibilities a little old-fashioned for me. I’d like to further explore the Nocilla generation, but I hope they’re better than Uppsala Woods. Incidentally, the English translation of the third book of Mallo’s trilogy, Nocilla Lab, is due in January next year, and I’m looking forward to it. Mallo has written other novels and I’d like to read them – but they’ve yet to be translated into English. Perhaps I should learn Spanish… I mean, there are those Cuban authors I’d like to read too…

Spin Control, Chris Moriarty (2006, USA). This is a loose sequel to Spin State, features many of the same characters, but its plot doesn’t follow exactly on from the earlier plot. There are references to earlier events, but Spin Control can be read without having read Spin State. That, however, is the least of its problems. And, to be fair, its major problem is hardly its fault, it’s something that recent events have made problematical. Because Spin Control is set mostly in Israel. And this is an Israel that’s back at war with the Palestinians. The treatment of the Palestinians is certainly sympathetic (if not overly lionised) – and the treatment of Americans, Moriarty’s nationality, certainly not – but there’s still that whiff of admiration for Israel that is endemic in US culture. Which is a shame, because there’s a pure science-fiction thread to the narrative that seems mostly wasted. On the one hand, you have a defector from the Syndicates (genetically-engineered sort of communist clones) who is taken to Jerusalem to sell his secrets to the highest bidder – Mossad, its Palestinian equivalent, or the Americans – and which drags in some of the surviving cast of Spin State. But it’s all a plot, of sorts, to uncover a Palestinian mole, called Absalom, within Mossad. On the other hand, told in flashback, there’s the story of that same defector as one of the survivors of a Syndicate survey mission to a terraformed world. But there’s something weird about what they find – not just the fact it has been terraformed, since most terraforming attempts by humanity have failed, but also because there are weird things happening in the DNA of the flora and fauna. And when the survey team all come down with a fever, they work out that it’s caused by a virus which is using biology as a “Turing soup”, a sort of computational engine seeking an optimal terraforming solution. However, there’s a side-effect to the fever… and when this is revealed… well, Absalom’s identity seems pretty trivial. The survey mission narrative is nicely done, even if first contact puzzle stories are a genre staple; and marrying it with a near-future spy thriller is a nice touch. The setting of the latter is handled well, and each side is treated sensitively, but time, and geopolitics, has imparted something of a whiff to the Israeli-set sections and it’s hard to read them in light of recent events, or indeed the reader’s existing sympathies in the situation. Moriarty has shown she’s not afraid of tackling difficult subjects, both sfnal and real-world, and she’s good at it. It’s a shame she’s not better known.

Possession, AS Byatt (1990, UK). I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book. I’ve a feeling my parents gave it me when they lived in the Middle East, and they moved back to the UK in the late 1990s… (Ah. I just checked and they gave it me in 2002… so after we’d all returned to the UK. See, keeping records is a good thing.) Anyway, it’s been hanging around in my book collection for over a decade. I watched the film adaptation several years ago – featuring two US actors, Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Brit and Aaron Eckhart playing a Brit character that had been rewritten as an American (but Trevor Eve plays the novel’s only American character) – and remember being unimpressed. There are films that are better than the novels they’re adapted from – such as, Marnie, The Commitments, and, er, All That Heaven Allows – but they’re rare. Possession isn’t one of them. The book is much superior, even if it dies “reproduce” much of its subject’s poetry, which is really quite bad. An academic, Roland Michell, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash comes across mention of a woman encountered by Ash, Christabel LaMotte, and decides to look her up. This brings him into contact with Maud Bailey, an academic specialising in the poetry of LaMotte. Together, they track down a series of letters between the two, which suggest not only that Ash and LaMotte had an affair, but that some of Ash’s later poetry was directly inspired by LaMotte, and uncovers consequences which impact Bailey and Michell themselves. The book is structured as a straight narrative in the present day, interspersed with correspondence and journal entries from various of the Victorian characters, and even poetry from Ash and LaMotte. Although published in 1990, the present-day narrative reads like it’s set in the early 1980s, which feels odd, and the only year mentioned, 1988, is implied to be some time in the future, The prose is by turns fussy and glib – and Byatt seems to enjoy describing domestic bathrooms in excessive detail – and while the historical bits appear extremely well-researched, something about the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte smells a little too coy and arch to really convince. It doesn’t help that Ash’s poetry, as reproduced, is pretty awful. LaMotte’s is not much better. True, I’m no expert on Victorian poetry – I much prefer poetry from the 1930s and 1940s – but the excerpts from Ash’s epic poetry are not impressive. Possession was widely lauded on publication and won the Booker Prize. Even now, it is held in high regard. It’s undoubtedly a clever novel, and makes an excellent fist of its conceit. The meta-fiction/palimpsest nature of the narrative is something that appeals to me, although such narratives run the risk of being boring in parts and Possession unfortunately fails to avoid that. I suspect it’s a consequence of the structure – over-dramatising such narrative inserts would probably impact their verisimilitude. As a literary fiction novel, I’ve read better; as an historical meta-fictional novel, I’ve read better. But it’s still very good. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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