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Reading diary 2019, #13

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This is the last post of reading from last year, which is why it features seven books instead of the usual half-dozen. And is a bit, er, long. Sorry. I’ve set my reading challenge in 2020 to 120 books, twenty lower than last year but still nearly ten more than I managed in 2019. Hopefully, I’ll also blog better in 2020 about books than I did in 2019.

It’s sometimes hard to know what to write when you think of yourself as a genre commentator – I’ve been described as a “critic” but it feels like a label that’s only deserved when you make use of actual critical tools, and I’ve never studied those tools nor been trained in them, and have only read a little on the subject… Yes, I know, in the twenty-first century we don’t like experts and everyone is also an expert in everything. But science fiction is a thing that interests me – not so much how it works, because it’s been bent and twisted and shaped in so many different ways it would be like studying the workings of a stick which can substitute for every single tool in a regular DIY person’s toolbox. Your average stick can do a lot of different things, you know.

Science fiction has a well-documented history, comprised in part of the actual texts which form the corpus of science fiction. So there’s plenty there to interrogate. I’m not so good on individual texts – even my book reviews turn into mini-rants on one tangent or another – but I find the tropes science fiction has invented endlessly fascinating, especially since they seem to have weathered a century essentially unchanged while the world has changed greatly around them. That, I think, is  what I’d sooner comment on, and I must one day get back into the habit of doing.

But, for now, here are the last books I read in 2019, a year of many changes personally, none of which were actually reflected in my reading.

The Greenlanders, Jane Smiley (1988, USA). I’ve no idea why I decided to read this. I must have seen an approving mention of it somewhere, because it’s not the sort of fiction that usually crosses my path or appeals to me. It is pretty much straight-up historical fiction about a community in Greenland during the early decades of the second millennium. And it’s written in a style appropriate to the material. Which means it is has a sort of saga-like approach to its story. While this gives the prose verisimilitude, it does mean that no sooner have you begun sympathising with a character then they are killed off. And then characters mentioned in passing several chapters earlier appear and occupy centre-stage in the narrative. It’s not like it’s even focused on a particular family, even over several generations, which would limit its cast and make it more manageable. It is actually a about a community, spread across several steads, into which people from other steads, often distant, are married or adopted. It gives the narrative a meandering character, which certainly suggests the annals of a mediaeval Greenlandic community, but makes for a difficult read for those expecting a story. I can’t vouch for the verisimilitude or historical accuracy, although it seemed very like what it would have been like to me based on what little I know. It’s an excellent novel but it is, to be honest, a bit of a slog, and it’s hard to feel any real empathy with any of the characters given they don’t stay around very long. Worth reading, but with caveats.

The World of Null-A, AE van Vogt (1948, UK). This was a reread, although I forget when I originally read it, probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I’d always wanted to finish the trilogy – of which this is the first book – and last year stumbled across copies of The World of Null-A and The Players of Null-A at Fantasticon in Copenhagen and bought them (they were very very cheap, very very very cheap). I have all three books – in the nice NEL editions from the 1970s – and have had them for many years, but they’re in storage at present. Having found cheap copies of the first two, I thought it worth giving them a go. That was a mistake. I mean, I know what van Vogt’s fiction is like. I have, after all, read enough of it. Admittedly, that was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was a teenager. But every book I’ve read by him since I turned, say, thirty, has been awful – except perhaps rereads of the handful of his books I continue to think are not absolutely awful, such as The Undercover Aliens. Gilbert Gosseyn is in the city to take part in the Games, in which thousands participate, all overseen by a giant computer brain. Players are given jobs depending on how far they reach in the Games. But it turns out Gosseyn’s life is a complete lie – someone has implanted memories in him that are simply not true. And given that on the night before the Games start all laws in the city are temporarily rescinded and people lock themselves away in groups for safety… but Gosseyn’s identity can’t be established so he’s forced out onto the streets, where he meets a young woman and the two look out for each other… But it turns out she’s the daughter of the president, and it’s all a plot as the president is trying to destroy the giant computer brain, because there’s some secret galactic empire that wants to invade the earth… And Gosseyn was more or less grown to order to foil the secret galactic empire’s plans because… he has two brains! Or is it minds? I forget. And all this is wrapped around some guff about non-Aristotelian, or “null-A”, logic, which seems to be basically non-binary logic, or fuzzy logic. But, of course, binary logic is for computers, not people, so it’s not entirely clear what van Vogt is going on about. But then, that’s true of a lot of Golden Age science fiction: it’s complete bollocks, written by people who had no idea what the fuck they were wittering on about, but it managed to impress the shit out of poorly-socialised thirteen year old boys. And from such was a genre born. The really scary part of all this is not that the writers actually believed the shit they were peddling, or even that some were quite cynical about it – hello Elron and that evil “religion” you invented! – but that many adult fans were just as impressionable as those thirteen year olds. Van Vogt famously based his writing on the advice given by a how to write book – and there’s another genre entirely dependent on gullibility – chief among which was that scenes should be 800 words long and end on a cliff-hanger. Van Vogt took this advice, well, literally. And reading his books is like watching a magician pull a series of increasingly unlikely series of creatures out of a hat when you actually turned up to see a drag queen lipsynch the hits of Rihanna. I connected with a few of van Vogt’s novels as a young teenager, which mistakenly led me to believe he was an author whose oeuvre I should explore. And during the 1970s and 1980s, I bought and read his books. They were readily available in WH Smith during that period. But reading his books now, nearly forty years later… I’m slightly embarrassed at having been taken in all those years ago. He was an appalling writer, and the level of his success is mystifying. That people continue to champion him tells you more about them than, well, you really want to know. He’s a lot like Asimov in that respect. Although, to my knowledge, he was not a serial sexual harasser; but who knows… there were a lot of really fucking horrible people, fans and pros, in the first few decades of US science fiction – google the Breendoggle – and even now the recent death of an author popular since the 1980s has seen an outpouring of appreciation that conveniently forgets he was last “famous” for some sexist articles in the SFWA Bulletin that saw the entire organisation re-structured and its newsletter revamped. But that’s an argument for another day, and not one for a review of a van Vogt novel. The World of Null-A is typical van Vogt and really quite bad. This is not surprising. One for fans of van Vogt, I suspect. And if you’re a fan of van Vogt, I can only ask… why?

Murder Served Cold, Eric Brown (2018, UK). Crime fiction, bizarrely, is likely more technology-dependent than science fiction. The mobile phone has, for example, pretty much killed half of the standard crime novel plots… And who needs private detectives when you have the internet? Which makes it more difficult to come up with interesting stories for current-day crime or mystery novels. So some writers have chosen to write historical mysteries, and so bypass the issue. Such as these by Eric Brown, the Langham and Duprée series, which are set during the 1950s. As a conceit, it works fine, and Brown handles the period extremely well. But… Well, it does seem all a bit cosily familiar. I mean, it’s not “chocolate-box England” by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly a time and place that has been extensively colonised –  particularly by those who were present during that time and place – although not always with fictions that gave any real indication of what the period was actually like. The advantage of a series such as  Brown’s is that it offers twenty-first century commentary on 1950’s sensibilities, and it’s to this series’s credit that it judges the mix to a nicety. This book, the sixth of the series, sees the protagonists investigating the theft of an expensive painting at a country house, which then leads to murder. The crimes are solved relatively easily, but what makes Murder Served Cold (the titles are a joke that has overrun its course) more interesting than others of its type is that it comments intelligently on social mores of the time. It’s the secondary characters who carry the meat of the story, and that strikes me as something a lot of crime writers with flagship characters seem to forget. Brown uses his story to discuss a variety of topics that were around in the 1950 but still reflect on twenty-first century society. It’s a clever trick, and it works well – although I suspect not all readers will recognise what’s going on. The protagonists’ politics, for example, is diametrically opposed to that of their client, and while relations remain amicable there is political commentary in there. It’s nice to see a 1950s-set novel with a 21st century spin. I mean, there were lots of excellent novels written and published in the 1950s, but there are a lot of 21st century novels set in the 1950s which do little to engage with the mores and politics of that time. I hope this series continues.

Mission Critical, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (2019, UK). Strahan is something of an anthology engine. For the past decade and more, he has been churning them out with impressive frequency. When people look back on the first two decades of the twenty-first century, their view of science fiction may well be defined by Strahan’s anthologies. Certainly a similar process has taken place in previous decades with other editors. In the main, Strahan’s editorial work has been excellent – and that includes the collections he has edited for authors. Strahan edited the New Space Opera series of anthologies, which did much to define a subgenre that had been bent out of shape several times since its origin. In Mission Critical, Strahan attempts to tackle hard sf and the anthology’s strapline is “from our world, across the Solar System, and out into deep space to tell the stories of people who had to do the impossible”… but the contents don’t actually match this. There are some big names in the book, and it’s hard not to suspect their stories were accepted because of their names even though they weren’t quite on topic. True, names sell anthologies, but themes are a waste of time if they’re ignored because a BNA wrote a story that didn’t fit. I don’t know this, obviously. It’s just that some of the stories feel like they’re stretching the brief beyond breaking point. As it is, Mission Critical proves sadly forgettable. I can’t actually remember any of the stories in the anthology, and that’s a month after I read it. I look at the table of contents, and if I  remember the story it’s because it’s linked to a universe the author has used in other fiction – Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story, for example, reads like an offcut from her novel Dark Orbit, and while I’m a huge fan of her fiction this didn’t feel like a new and exciting entry in the universe. The way Mission Critical has been promoted, I was expecting near-future hard sf – and there’s Allen Steele, who writes exactly that, there on the TOC, even though I think he’s pretty poor – but then you have a Xuya story from Aliette de Bodard, and she’s good but how in fuck does a Xuya story qualify as “near-future hard sf?” So, a mixed bag… that comprehensively fails its brief and likely succeeds best the further (de Bodard) from its brief (Steele) it is. Anthologies these days are a waste of space. They’ll only work if they’re cheap enough to be offered as tasters. Shelling out the same amount as you would for a novel for a dozen short stories of variable quality and even more variable appeal is a mug’s game.

Hereward, James Wilde (2011, UK). Hereward the Wake is an English hero, so it’s somewhat surprising he’s not been dragged out of obscurity in these days of Brexit. Oh wait, he was fighting against the King of England. But no! The king was a foreign invader, William the Bastard of Normandy! Perfect material, you’d have thought. Unless it might offend the Queen, she is after all nominally descended from William the Conqueror. Or maybe it’s the institution, the British Throne, that should never be attacked. I don’t know. Brexiteers are just plain stupid, so who knows what goes through those defunct cells in their skulls. Hereward opens with its eponymous hero on the run after being accused by his father of the murder of his wife. It’s all to do with the successor to Edward the Confessor, who had no heirs. Hereward overheard something which jeopardised plans to put Harold, Duke of Wessex, on the throne after Edward. Hereward escapes to the Continent and spends many years as mercenary working for Flemish noblemen. But William the Bastard’s invasion pulls him back home – William’s sobriquet might refer to his birth, but is apparently an accurate representation of his character – where Hereward becomes something of a guerrilla, harrying the Norman occupiers. It’s an interesting period of history – only a thousand years ago! – with some fascinating historical characters, and Wilde handles his… information well. But the book is written in that commercial prose style that relies heavily on cliché and stock phraseology, and it turns what could have been an interesting commentary on English identity into an historical potboiler. True, that’s slamming the book for not being what it had no intention of being, although for me it would have made it a better read. Wilde’s research is spot-on, and evokes the period well, but for me the prose was just too commercial. Disappointing.

Paris Echo, Sebastian Faulks (2018, UK). I read Birdsong twenty years ago – I forget why I decided to do so – and I’ve sort of followed Faulks’s career ever since, possibly because his books were available in the subscription library I joined on my move to Abu Dhabi in 1994 and his name was familiar from Birdsong. None of his novels have matched that one, and in fact many have been disappointing in one way or another. But, as British middle-brow literary fiction authors go, he’s at least better than Ian McEwan. Paris Echo is middling Faulks. It presents an interesting slice of history – Paris under the Nazis – and comments on collaboration and its impact on people and families of the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer much in the way of plot as a substrate for this discussion, and in fact seems more concerned with the intersection of the lives of two immigrants in Paris, a female American academic and a teenage Moroccan who has had himself smuggled into the country, than the actual story the characters are intended to be springboards for. But the Maghrebi teenager’s experiences  are all very anodyne, and the US academic is a bit of a blank slate, and the two narratives run along side each other but do not influence each other to any degree which sort of renders it all a bit moot. There’s some good historical stuff in here, but there’s sadly little in the way of plot and the two protagonists are somewhat thin. Faulks has written some good stuff during his career, but this is not one of them.

Children of Dune, Frank Herbert (1976, USA). The reread of the Dune series continues, and now that I’ve finished the Children of Dune I have the somewhat daunting prospect of God Emperor of Dune next on the list. To be fair, I remember enjoying that book on previous reads. But it is big. Children of Dune, however… follows on directly from Dune Messiah, but the two children born at the end of that book, Leto and Ghanima, are now nine years old. Herbert conceived all three books as one since he was interested in exploring how a messiah figure might bend a society out of shape and what might happen after the fall of said messiah. Despite claims to the contrary, I suspect the first book was conceived alone and the story arc of the trilogy imposed later. But certainly, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune follow a story arc that proceeds naturally from the end of Dune. Paul Atreides’s children are both the future of Paul’s empire – and the enemy of its current regent, Alia – and so a threat to all those who would wrest power from the Atreides. But Leto and Ghanima have their own plan for the future, the Golden Path, based in part on their vision of possible futures and what they think is best for humanity… It’s been interesting during this reread seeing what I find in the novel when compared to my memories of earlier reads. Leto’s transformation, which ends the book and sets up God Emperor of Dune, obviously. Plus Alia’s take-over – Abomination! – by the Baron Harkonnen. But in Dune Messiah, Paul Atreides, now the Preacher, had come across as something of a cipher, but here he is much better characterised. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are not so well-drawn. There’s lots of politicking going on, as one of the old emperor’s daughters arranges for the assassination of Leto and Ghanima so her son can take the throne. But the twins have foreseen it all and… well, one of things that does annoy about Children of Dune is that the two protagonists are nine years old but behave like adults (and not just in dialogue, since Leto experiences “an adult beefswelling in his loins” at one point, which is totally WTF but also, are there cows on Arrakis?). True, the twins are “Pre-born” so they have genetic memories going back generations – although it’s not really clear how they manage to stay sane, despite frequent attempts in the text to explain it. Herbert’s views on government are also extremely annoying – at one point, Leto states that good government “does not depend upon law or precedent, but upon the personal qualities of whoever governs” – it’s even repeated as part of a chapter heading  – which is complete bullshit; but exactly the sort of meretricious bullshit that science fiction fans and creators seem to believe, and have done since the genre’s beginnings. But then space opera is a right-wing mode of fiction, and even its left-leaning creators write the same tired old right-wing crap – which makes them little different to actual right-wing writers. Herbert was no Heinlein or Pournelle, of course, but he was American, so even if he was left-wing his politics would still be to the right of mine. Certainly, the whole Dune series is all about an authoritarian empire, with a rich and powerful nobility lording it over serfs, who have no freedom of movement (something Brits will shortly lose, and you have to wonder how many actually know what that means) – and if Herbert’s empire is not actually fascist, it does love its giant architecture, as both the Imperial Keep and Temple are apparently single buildings the size of small towns (they were built remarkably quickly, given their size). In fact, in Children of Dune, the furniture somewhat overwhelms the story. Clearly Herbert wanted his trappings of imperial rule to impress but it’s like the fleet of a million battleships – it’s too much, it just generates questions – practical questions (how did they build them? where did they get the crews?) – all of which detract from the intended effect. But that’s a common failing of space opera. Children of Dune closes off the original trilogy, but it struck me on this reread that, although it’s a better put-together book than Dune, with better prose, Children of Dune‘s story detracts from the first book’s universe and story… Not, it has to be said, in an especially damaging way, since most people don’t even bother to read the sequels. Their loss, of course; and those who actually liked Dune, it makes you wonder why they even bother reading novels that start series… I’m undecided about Children of Dune, and the final shape of the trilogy, but I’m looking forward to reading God Emperor of Dune.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135

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