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Reading diary 2019, #5

I’m sort of getting into this ebook thing. Four of the books below are ebooks; the other two are paperbacks I brought with me. And no, I don’t know why I brought Troubled Star. It’s a duplicate copy, and I have much cleaner copy in storage, so I probably just threw it in the suitcase rather than bin it.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). Members of the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, which I attended, were given an ebook copy of all fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series as it had been shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award. I’d previously read up to book ten or eleven, I forget which, and had the next volume in the series sitting unread on the bookshelves. I distinctly remember reading the first six or so books. I’d seen them in Books Gallery in the Liwa Centre in Abu Dhabi, and bought them because I wanted to know what it was that had made them such massive sellers. I read them in quick succession. And to this day, I’ve no idea why they sold so many copies. They were badly-written, bloated and derivative. But now that I have my Kindle, I thought it might be time to time finish off the series. Which meant starting from the beginning. So I reread The Eye of the World. I thought it might prove an interesting exercise, seeing what I thought to it now, twenty-five years or so after my previous read. And, well, my opinion of the book has not substantially changed. The writing still struck me as poor, the characterisation is simplistic at best, and a lot of the world-building consists of over-used tropes and borrowings. What I hadn’t noticed previously was how badly-structured the novel is, with the entire story pretty much wrapped up in the final chapter, after long chapters of travelogue that barely advanced the plot. On the other hand, knowing how the story pans out (well, most of it) and seeing the story hooks here (even if many of them weren’t actually planted) was just enough to keep me from throwing the book (well, Kindle) at the wall or gouging my eyes out. And in the series’ favour, it’s not grimdark, so it’s not gratuitously violent, rapist or sexist. Which is not to say it doesn’t feature all three – but not to grimdark’s offensive levels, nor, like grimdark, does it try to make a virtue of their inclusion. The reread wasn’t entirely painless, and I think it might take me longer to work my way through all fourteen books that I had initially expected… but I’m still going to try and do it.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). Although Faulkner was a name known to me, I’d read none of his books and knew nothing about him or his works. But my father had two novels by him, which I took, and I read one, The Sound and the Fury, last year and was hugely impressed. So I picked up a couple more on eBay. And I brought them with me to Sweden. The first of these was As I Lay Dying, arguably Faulkner’s best-known and most highly-regarded novel. There’s even a commercially successful metal band named after it. The story is told from several viewpoints, each in their own voice, and it concerns the death of Addie Bundren, and her husband’s attempt, with family and friends, to take her body to a neighbouring town to bury her among her kin. But all that is either incidental, or merely the trigger, for what happens in each narrative. It all takes place in Faulkner’s native American South – Mississippi, I think, for the most part – and the language reflects the setting. Despite As I Lay Dying‘s reputation, I didn’t find it as impressive a work of literature as The Sound and the Fury, possibly because the latter had the more adventurous structure, and I’m big on novels that experiment with narrative structure. But that’s really damning it with faint praise as this is full-on classic American Literature, and though not all works and writers described as that appeal to me, I do admire Faulkner’s prose a great deal. Definitely worth reading.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson (2016, UK). I’d heard so much about this, and it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year (despite being originally published in 2016, but never mind), and it was 99p on Kindle… so I bought it. And I read it. And… There’s a good story in Rosewater, but it throws too much in, like a writer not sure which of their ideas have real merit so they chuck them all in hoping that at least one makes the grade… And because there’s so much going on, the story doesn’t seem to have much of a clue where it’s heading for much of its length. Is it about the titular city and the alien entity around which it has grown, and the regular frenzies of miracle healing it creates? Or perhaps it’s about Kaaro, who works for the Nigerian intelligence service (or a side-branch of it) and has telepathic powers – as do many others – also created by the alien entity? Or maybe it’s about Bicycle Girl, a semi-mythical figure who seems to be associated with a village that disappeared and now exists in an alternate dimension or pocket universe, created by entirely human tech? There is currently something of a feeding frenzy in sf about African genre fiction, which is all a bit white man’s tears as the various African nations – Africa is not a country – have literary traditions going back centuries or longer and many of them have had their best writers and works translated into English for decades. They just don’t happen to be category genre. So sf from a Nigerian writer – as Thompson is – should, were the genre not so overwhelmingly white- and Americo-centric, not really be cause for celebration. But sf is as it is, and Thompson’s origin and the setting of Rosewater play a major part in reviews of the book. That’s just as racist as ignoring the book because of the author’s race. There’s no doubt Thompson could be a major voice in UK sf – he’s based in London – and Rosewater amply demonstrates that. This is a strong debut, but it’s a messy piece of work to make an award shortlist. A few years from now, Thompson will be churning out award-worthy books. But that’s more a criticism of awards than it is the author.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937, UK). I have the SF Masterwork edition of this book – that’s the one from the original numbered series – but that’s in storage now. I bought a 99p copy on my Kindle so I could read it. I’ve no idea if the two editions are the same – they can’t be that different, I’d have thought, since this isn’t a work that needed translating. But the copy I read certainly had more than its fair share of OCR errors and typos. There’s not much of a plot to review: the narrator is an Englishman of the 1930s who falls asleep on a hillside and becomes a disembodied galactic traveller, as you do. He visits various worlds, learns to cohabit the minds of certain of their inhabitants, and they too join him on his travels, until he is more of a gestalt intelligence than the man he once was. Stapledon describes the various types of civilisation his observer visits, and while they’re initially based on extrapolations of Earth biology – even the symbiotic races, which play such a great part in the book – but soon it transpires the stars are sentient, and then the galaxies too. This is sf on the grandest scale, and it’s unlikely it would wash these days because it only really works with a style that’s no longer commercially acceptable. It’s not that genre fiction of the past fifty years has been stunted in any way, or has held off from Stapledonian scales because he did it first – Stephen Baxter’s entire career is ample rebuttal to that – but more that the style which allowed Stapledon to what he did is no longer considered commercially viable. Is that a bad thing? Not really. We still have Stapledon. He’s in the SF Masterworks series, and his books are readily available in a variety of editions as ebooks. Obviously, these are, paradoxically, historical documents, but for those who know what they’re getting into, they’re definitely worth a go.

The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet McKenna (2016, UK). Another Kindle book that was 99p, but this time as a promotion. The author tweeted the book was reduced, and since I’d never read anything by her – she mostly writes fantasy, which, er, Wheel of Time reread above aside, I don’t normally read – and The Green Man’s Heir is urban fantasy, which I definitely don’t read… But the plot sounded interesting so I thought it worth a go. And I’m glad I did give it a punt. The narrator is Daniel Mackmain, a jobbing carpenter who happens to be the son of a dryad. Which means he is plugged into the mythological world based on landscape. So when a woman is brutally murdered near where Mackmain lives, and a dryad gives him enough to clues so he thinks he might be able to solve the case… The Green Man’s Heir is a mashup of mystery novel and fantasy novel but it works because it’s centred on its hero and not focused on its central crime. The story moves on from the murders and pulls in romance, but it all ends in a place that feels entirely a consequence of what has gone before. This is clearly a book by someone who knows what they’re doing. And if their earlier fantasy series have not made the big time, I hope this one does – there’s a sequel – because it’s good stuff. It may be a bit Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders, but it does it well and it certainly does it a great deal better than the last of those two.

Troubled Star, George O Smith (1957, USA). Back in the day, Galaxy magazine provided a free paperback with every issue. For some reason, after several issues they handed this over to Beacon Books, better known for publishing hospital romances, and they decided the books should be a little more, well, suggestive. So they rewrote a bunch of sf novels and published them. I’ve managed to collect them all, and most of their original editions, or author-preferred editions, chiefly so I can compare the two. Because, to be honest, they didn’t exactly choose good novels. Much as I love AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, the Beacon Book version of it, The Mating Cry, adds little, and in fact only makes the female lead less sympathetic. I don’t have a copy of the book on which Troubled Star is based – originally published under the same title in February 1953 – but I think I can guess what’s been changed. It’s not very subtle. Anyway, three scouts for a galactic transportation company are on Mercury in the Solar System (note to sf writers: only capitalise when it refers to the Sol system, and the planets of any other star are a planetary system not a solar system). Anyway, Earth is in the way of a new hyperspatial route or something, and no, I’ve no idea if Douglas Adams had read this although he may have done. There’s a sex scene – that’s the Beacon touch – but this is otherwise true to its origins: pulp sf. I can claim a legitimate interest, although that’s wearing thin, but I suspect no other reader can. Avoid.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134

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Moving pictures 2019, #13

Once again, I’ve managed to get a bit behind with these posts. In fact, I’ve not been blogging much since moving to Sweden. Starting a new job. New town. New country. All that. I also moved apartments a couple of weeks ago, and now have a five kilometre walk every day. And I’ve started Swedish lessons, two days a week after work. But I really need to get on top of my blogging. I was hoping the move would help me kick off the writing again but, naturally, there’s an adjustment period… although I do have to keep reminding myself that I’ve only been here for two months. It feels like a lot longer. In a good way, of course.

Jashnn – The Music Within, Raksha Mistry & Hasnain S Hyderabadwala (2009, India). The title refers to a wannabe rock god, who dreams of stardom but doesn’t seem to have much of a clue how to go about it, even though he has a band and write songs. He doesn’t, for one thing, even know what a demo is. He lives with his sister, who is the mistress of a rich businessman. One day in a cafe, he chats up a beautiful young woman, and they start seeing each other. But it turns out she’s the sister of the businessman, and he doesn’t want Jashnn dating his sister – so much so, he threatens to cut Jashnn’s sister off without a cent. Jashnn’s girlfriend is so incensed, she moves in with Jashnn, who is now living in the place where the band rehearse. And she becomes their manager, introduces them to the concept of a demo, and takes them round the various record labels. But the businessman owns the record company, so he gets them thrown out. And it all comes down to a talent contest – as it always does in films of this sort. Jashnn has dropped out of his band, so they enter without him. But his girlfriend convinces him to perform as a last-minute contestant. Which he does. But the businessman has the judges in his pocket. Except… he gives a long impassioned speech explaining that Jashnn’s song really moved him and now he’s completely changed his mind and won’t be the evil bastard he had been previously and Jashnn can keep on seeing his sister, he won’t throw Jashnn’s sister out of her house, and everyone can live happily ever after. A polished piece of Bollywood, but romantic tosh from start to finish.

The Lego Batman Movie, Chris McKay (2017, USA). It was free to watch on Amazon Prime. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it. The original The Lego Movie (see here) was sort of fun, except for the horribly intrusive daddy issue swerve in the story toward the end. The Lego Batman Movie is, well, more of the same, but instead focuses on the titular superhero. The film is a relentless sequence of jokes, most of which manage to be funny. The Joker turns the tables on Batman by surrendering – along with all his fellow super-villains – so giving Batman no reason to exist. But it’s all a cunning plot, because Batman steals Superman’s Phantom Zone Projector to send the Joker to the Phantom Zone, which is what the Joker was hoping, because he promptly escapes and brings with him all manner of villains from assorted intellectual properties. There’s a running joke about Bruce Wayne accidentally adopting Dick Grayson, which a is bit uncomfortable in places, but then Batman decides to turn him into Robin (resulting in one of the films better comedy sequences). Still, it’s a Lego movie and you get what it says on the tin. I’m not entirely sure who these films are aimed at – the jokes are a bit too knowing for kids, but Lego is a child’s toy. I guess Lego have done well with these films, then, to position them for such a wide audience.

Dastak, Mahesh Bhatt (1996, India). This was Sushmita Sen’s first film. She was crowned Miss Universe in 1994, and in Dastak she plays herself, a winner of the Miss Universe contest, who is being stalked by a killer. The policeman assigned to look after her turns out to be an old schoolmate, and romance soon blossoms between the two. Which the stalker does not like. And, er, that’s pretty much it.  Although released in 1996, the film feels like it’s a decade or two older. The violence is all a bit pantomime, and I can’t honestly remember any of the musical numbers. But Sen is good in her first film role – not that it seemed to require much acting – and the stalker plot follows the usual story beats, with the stalker escalating each time he feels Sen’s behaviour doesn’t meet with his approval. Meanwhile, the police have no clue to the stalker’s identity. But at least moustachioed cop gets to kindle a romance with his charge. For all its by-the-numbers plotting, and despite the fact it was clearly a star vehicle for Sen, I quite enjoyed Dastak. Perhaps it was because it was a Bollywood film but it felt more dramatic than is usually the case for a Bollywood film of that time. I mean, I’ve seen some excellent Indian thrillers, like Thadam and Kahaani (see here), but they were twenty-first century films. Anyway, not a bad film.

The Getting of Wisdom, Bruce Beresford (1977, Australia). A friend told me that prior to the 1980s pretty much every internationally-recognised film made in Australia was shot by one of two directors. I’m guessing Breresford was one of the two. The Getting of Wisdom was his fifth film and is adapted from a 1910 novel by Henry Handel Richardson (despite the name, a female Australian author), which has apparently been in print continuously since then – so, quite highly regarded, then. Laura Tweedel Rambotham is a provincial naif from a small village who is sent to a boarding-school in Melbourne. The other girls are all snobs, so she finds it hard to fit it. But she’s a gifted pianist and makes friends through her talent. She also invents a romance with the school’s visiting priest, engineering encounters with him in such a way the other girls believe the relationship is real. Until it’s abruptly revealed to be a lie. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of The Getting of Wisdom. It seemed a bit cobbled together in parts. It probably didn’t help that the source novel is more a series of escapades than an actual straight-through plot, and the film reflected that. I’m glad I saw it, but I can’t say I’d recommend it.

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Krish & Kangana Ranaut (2019, India). Apparently Amazon bought the distribution rights to this film immediately after its theatrical release in India. Which is why it’s on Amazon Prime. Although not why it’s free to Prime members. I’ve seen a few recent Indian films available on Amazon Prime, and I think the same deal applied to them. Just to confuse matters, Amazon are releasing them in different language versions – Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and sometimes Malayalam. Anyway, Jhansi is famous for its queen, who fought against East India Company at a time when it pretty much had all the various kingdoms, sultanates and principalities sewn up, and was busy robbing them blind in the name of English commerce and good Queen Vic. Manikarnika was having none of that, and refused to submit. So the British threw an army at her. Strangely, all the British characters in this film had South African accents, although apparently it was just Americans doing bad British accents. Other than that, the film is a long sequence of battle scenes, which are rendered extremely well, with much CGI, or courtly intrigue, most of which involves the British being perfidious or Manikarnika being heroic. It’s good stuff, but no one could accuse it of being subtle. And it’s a definitely a piece of history British people would benefit from learning about, especially all those arseholes who think the British Empire was some sort of noble endeavour that brought all the good things to most of the planet. Was it bollocks. It was a shameful period of British history, and movies like Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi give an excellent indication why. Worth seeing.

Area Q, Gerson Sanginitto (2015, Brazil). Stop me if you’ve heard this before. There’s a place where several people have gone missing, and then returned claiming to have been abducted by aliens. For reasons never made entirely clear, an award-winning journalist is sent to that place to look into the matter. The journalist is currently trying to find his young son, who disappeared some months previously. The journalist interviews some of the abductees, and they seem to have been genuinely changed by the experience. Then he is abducted himself, and learns that his son was also abducted. This is all being told to another journalist after the events, because the original journalist’s career bombed after he came back claiming to be an abductee. Area Q differs slightly in its presentation of this over-used and somewhat dated premise because it’s Brazilian. The journalist is an American from LA, but the abductions (except for the son) all take place near a mountain in Brazil. It adds a strange gloss to what is a bog-standard plot strung together from unbelievable clichés. It doesn’t help that the acting is not very good, and the script pretty terrible. Definitely one to avoid.

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 939


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Fools like us

So a well-respected literary author goes and writes a novel that everyone knows is science fiction, and that everyone knows he probably knows his science fiction, but he decides to claim that not only is his novel not science fiction it actually covers ground not covered by science fiction and perhaps this is a ripe area for exploration by literary authors…

Do I really need to say who, what book and the specifics of his argument?

Naturally, he was roundly condemned by science fiction writers, critics and readers – some more than others – but, just as naturally, their condemnation was as damaging and misguided as said literary author’s misguided, but likely entirely self-serving, remarks had been.

As genre fans, we’ve been there before, perhaps too often to count:

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is not science fiction:
I don’t have a problem with this. I don’t even think of them as “tourists”, as some do. They’re approaching genre tropes from an entirely different direction, they don’t have the history, they don’t have the context; and, sometimes, that’s exactly what the trope needs to shine new light on it, to view it from a fresh perspective.

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is entirely their own invention:
This one is pretty much indefensible. Who these days would write a story without bothering to research it? “Hey, I’ve just written a novel about artificial people and no one else has ever done that before” is just so lacking in self-awareness, it makes its utterer a perfectly legitimate target of every critic and pundit in existence.

True, literary authors sometimes make a complete fucking hash of their science fiction tropes – see Spaceman of Bohemia on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. On the other hand, some novels published as sf make a complete fucking hash of their sf tropes – see Sea of Rust on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist.

It could be argued any such complaints about either of the above points are invalid unless the critic has read the book in question. Which is bollocks. It’s not the work itself being criticised, it’s the trope’s origin or history, as given by the literary author, that’s under discussion. And you don’t need to read through 100,000 words of jewel-like, or whatever, prose to know that.

I actually like it when literary authors make use of genre tropes in their fiction. They have a tendency to deconstruct the trope because they’re not invested in its history and prior usage. Sometimes, that manifests as “re-inventing the wheel”, but even so they frequently bring a new approach to something that has probably been deployed uncritically in genre circles for decades. And most genre tropes need a critical re-appraisal. All those fucking robots… I mean, it’s the twenty-first century and we’re still writing uncritically about a metaphor for slavery?

Which neatly brings us back to the not-so-cunningly disguised novel which kicked off this blog post. I freely admit I’ve not read Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us, and have no plans to do so. I gave up on his fiction after 2005’s Saturday, although I did mistakenly read Solar (2010) some years later. I probably should have given up on his fiction back in 1997 or 1998. I don’t need to read Machines Like Us. There’s been an extensive publicity machine promoting the book. Because McEwan is a writer who gets that treatment, whether or not his books deserve it. A cynic might even suggest the whole “I’ve done AI better than the entire corpus of science fiction” thing is just part of the marketing strategy.

I have also read other genre works by literary authors who claimed not to write genre, or were reluctant to accept the label when called out on it, and I admire their books: Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc and Nunquam, John Fowles’s A Maggot, Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks… But then it’s not like I need to reel off titles as there are no end of highly-regarded novels which make use of genre tropes but are never identified with the genre.

As I said, I don’t have a problem with that.

It’s nice when they give the nod to genre – as Michael Chabon has done, as Margaret Atwood eventually did, as Doris Lessing has done, as Michel Faber has done… There are some blindingly good genre works available from those four names alone, none of which were published as genre. Genre is not a private club, it just has some members who are a little more… invested in it than others, and they can be somewhat over-protective.

But then the publicity machine for Machines Like Us comes along, and it’s like we’re back in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s like genre is still a ghetto of its own making, but this time it’s someone outside who’s shoring up the walls. It feels like a step backwards because it is a step backwards. Genre writers are forever handicapped by being seen as genre writers.

But literary fiction is just a genre, I hear you cry. Except, well, it’s not. No one really sees it as that. True, it often doesn’t sell as well as actual genre fiction – science fiction and fantasy. It has the prestige genre fiction lacks (and any claims that genre fiction doesn’t need that prestige are just reverse snobbery), and occasionally there’s a break-out literary fiction novel which knocks an author up a level, like McEwan’s Atonement, not that advocates of literary fiction would use anything as crass as units sold as a metric of quality…

There is genre fiction, there is category genre fiction, there is fiction written within the tradition that is genre. There is also fiction that might look like any one of those three, but has only a passing knowledge of them. That neither invalidates it nor makes it inferior. It is what is in the fiction which defines it. But it is also the ur-text which defines it. And ur-text has as much loyalty to genre as any individual trope does.

Having been so in the past does not make it so now or in the future. Which is a horribly vague way of saying that some tropes have actually been handled better by non-genre writers. Alternate history is an excellent example. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a superior example. But even populist novels, such as Len Deighton’s SS-GB, often seem more exemplary of the sub-genre than alternate history novels published as category science fiction.

We should be applauding how genre tropes are used, not where they are used. Had McEwan written something truly groundbreaking with Machines Like Us, then yes, fold it into the genre conversation. It seems he hasn’t, so that’s pretty much academic. But when the genre can co-opt, for example, The Underground Railroad, and even include it on genre award shortlists, what’s the problem with the genre conversation incorporating non-category genre works?

Fault them for their quality, as you would a genre work. Not for their choice to use genre tropes.