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Reading diary 2020, #1

I think I’ll continue with this format, documenting the books I’ve read half a dozen at a time. But this year, I’m going to write up each book shortly after finishing it. At least, that’s the plan…

The Man in the Darksuit, Dennis R Caro (1980, USA). I picked this up from Fantastikbokhandeln, a secondhand genre bookshop that opened recently here in Uppsala. I’m not sure what prompted me to purchase it. The cover boasts an approving quote from Philip K Dick, but I’ve never really a fan of Dick’s writing. So it can’t have been that. The title sounded intriguing, but the backcover blurb reads more like the book is a piss-take… undercover reporter saves heiress from kidnapper and so uncovers galactic conspiracy, in the sort of language that implies it’s all very funny and witty and tongue-in-cheek. And it’s not, it’s really not. It reads a bit like Ian Wallace and a bit like Ron Goulart, and neither of those are really writers to admire. The titular character is the villain of the piece and his suit bends light around him so he’s effectively invisible. But the novel is more concerned with failed reporter Bos Coggins, who seems to have had a surprisingly successful career for a “failed” reporter, and Muffie Bernstein, the heiress he “rescues” in the opening chapters and who takes a shine to him and pretty much drives the plot thereafter. I have to wonder what was going through the editor’s mind when they chose to buy and publish this book. I mentioned Ian Wallace earlier, who had a career through the 1960s and 1970s, but whose novels at least made an effort at discussing science-fictional ideas and in fact used the genre as a springboard for a discussion on all manner of subjects. The Man in the Darksuit is a an attempt at farce, and while it shows a familiarity with sf tropes, it chooses to pastiche more general tropes, which renders its presentation as sf pretty moot. It is also clearly so popular, not a single secondhand copy is for sale through Amazon. A book to avoid.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005, USA). Scalzi is something of a lightning rod for science fiction and, while I find very little to disagree with in his public persona and what he chooses to champion, he’s no poster-boy for the best of what the genre can produce, and has, in fact, built a career on resolutely commercial science fiction of a type that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, albeit with 21st century sensibilities. Of course, science fiction is global, but Scalzi’s version of it is entirely parochial. And that’s woefully evident here. Old Man’s War is about a middle-class old man in Middle America who chooses to throw it all away – a comfortable retirement, that is, and eventual death; not that everyone, even in the US, gets the first – in order to fight for the Earth Federation in some sort of undefined war. And “undefined war” is the key to this novel. The protagonist, John Perry, knows nothing about the universe beyond Earth, or indeed what he’s signing up for by joining the Colonial Defense Force. His ignorance about the universe – imposed on Earth, incidentally, by the authorities – is the average American’s ignorance about planet Earth writ large. It turns out humanity is one of many races settling the galaxy – the science and background of which are hand-waved away quickly – but that has led to competition for habitable planets and Earth is in a war to maintain its own colonies. All of which are apparently only populated by emigrants from “developing” countries such as… Norway. Er, what? I mean, even imagining a programme in which India and Bangladesh only are allowed to send settlers offworld because, by implication, they’re failing as Earth-bound nation-states, but the US is not allowed to because… Present history, and orange buffoon in the White House, aside… even in 2005 this was a bad take. Old Man’s War is US exceptionalism writ large. And it doesn’t get any better. Characters lecture one another – the lecture on orbital elevators is dull and irrelevant – and then a love interest is – literally – manufactured, and this is used to drive the second half of the plot, despite somewhat dubious ethics. However… Old Man’s War has an engaging voice, and its story must have felt so comfortable to US sf readers of 2005 they probably wondered why they hadn’t read it a dozen times before in previous decades… Sadly, the book’s charm does not cross the Atlantic. It’s a bit like a Big Mac, a triumph of marketing over content, something that non-Americans see as an exemplar of US culture – or US sf culture, in this case – but Americans see as emblematic of culture as a whole, but of course there’s more to culture than just the US… Scalzi strikes me as a nice guy, I probably agree with 75% of his sensibilities, but that doesn’t make Old Man’s War a good book or worth recommending. It is, in fact, pretty awful. I won’t be bothering with the sequels.

Crimson Darkness, William Barton (2014, USA). I’ve been a fan of Barton’s fiction for many years – he’s American, by the way – ever since reading the collaborations he wrote with Michael Capobianco back in the 1990s. At one point, we were even corresponding. His last traditionally-published novel was 1999’s When We Were Real, and he has self-published ever since. On the one hand, this is almost a crime as he’s one of the best sf novelists the US has produced; on the other, Crimson Darkness is pretty much unpublishable in its current form… I’m describing it badly. Crimson Darkness is an excellent sf novel. It’s also a much harder read than most sf readers will accept. It’s a bravura piece of world-building, it takes no prisoners, and so creates a narrative that bounces from obtuse to obscure. No traditional publisher would touch it in its current form, but by self-publishing Barton allows us to decide for ourselves. This is complicated by a number of issues: one, it’s a big novel, 200,000 words; two, it’s the first in a series of, to date, three novels, with possibly more to come; and three, it’s supposed to be backed up by an online reference, particularly for the conlangs used in the novel, but that online reference is still “under construction”. I can’t fault Barton for his ambition, or indeed for failing to meet those ambitions. Been there done that, myself. Crimson Darkness is part Bildungsroman and part Secret-of-the-World story. A prince of a defunct kingdom bounces around various nations, gets embroiled in revolutions, witnesses great social and industrial change, but is also puzzled by the nature of his world. There’s a lot of discussion of the conlangs Barton has invented for the series, a lot of descriptive prose, which Barton does well (despite a tendency to use “it’s” when he means “its”), and an astonishing amount of detail in the worldbuilding. This is what Neal Stephenson should be like. As I said earlier, a bravura piece of worldbuilding. But also an engaging narrative. I’ve been aware of Barton’s self-published novels for a number of years, but they were only available on Kindle and until last year I didn’t have one. I now have access to a whole bunch of stuff he’s published since When We Were Real (since re-published by Barton himself in a preferred form), including preferred versions of earlier traditionally-published novels. His works are not easy reads, not the simplistic deathless prose and well-worn tropes of the more successful self-published sf authors. Obviously. I wouldn’t be reading them if they were. But for those who like intelligent sf, this is the real stuff.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik (2018, USA). I received a copy of this as part of the Hugo Voters Pack as it was shortlisted for the award in 2019. (I didn’t read it in time to vote, but I don’t vote anyway – why should I vote for the least worst of half a dozen books I don’t think are any good?). I’ve not read anything by Novik before – she was the GoH at IceCon 2 in 2018 in Reykjavik, which I attended, but her best-known series, the Napoleonic wars and dragons one, is not the sort of thing that appeals to me. Spinning Silver, and the earlier Uprooted, which was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016, were, I understood, retellings of fairytales, and while that does appeal to me a great deal more, it’s a genre that’s very much in the shadow of Angela Carter, a writer I greatly admire. Having said that, it’s a genre open to many different approaches, and one that’s good at reflecting the concerns of the time, and place, it was written. And so it proves with Spinning Silver, which actually bears little resemblance to the Rumpelstiltskin story on which it is supposedly based. The story is told – chiefly – from the viewpoints of three young women – and, to be fair, on the occasions when it uses other viewpoints, it weakens the story, if they’re necessary it’s because plot. Anyway, one is the daughter of a moneylender, who takes over her ineffectual father’s business, and proves very effective at it, and is only identified as Jewish a quarter of the way into the novel. Another is the plain daughter of a local earl who is unlikely to marry well. And the third is the abused daughter of a farmer who becomes the servant of the moneylender’s daughter… And the moneylender’s daughter – although she’s pretty much the moneylender by this point – attracts the interest of the Staryk , who are sort of winter elves, and Novik builds her story, which isn’t much of a retelling out of these three young women, and it works really well. If there’s a flaw to the novel, it’s that it feels like its story should be an allegory – but the Jewish experience, although it takes a while to be revealed, is explicit in the narrative – and so you have to wonder what point Novik is trying to make if it’s not about the treatment of Jews in Slavic Europe (which the book’s world is a thinly-veiled version of), or indeed Europe entire. Which is not to say the book has to be about that, or that there’s an expectation it is… it’s just that retellings of fairytales generally carry a different payload to the original fairytale, and in Spinning Silver that’s not actually apparent. Nonetheless, worth reading.

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019, USA). I will not be surprised if this appears on a few shortlists later this year. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good book, merely that’s it’s being pushed a lot… and being talked about a lot. However. Plot first. The Teixcalaani Empire asks Lsel Station, a small space-based polity on the edges of the empire, for a new ambassador. It seems the old one has died – murdered, the new ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, discovers shortly after arrival on the Teixcalaani capital world (which is one giant city). It turns out there’s a bit politicking going on, both on the capital world and on Lsel Station, none of which Dzmare is aware of, even though she should be carrying an “imago” of her predecessor, ie his memories and a copy of his personality, in her own head. First, a popular general is trying to seize the throne. Second, Lsel Station is trying to prevent impending annexation. Third, the Teixcalaani emperor is trying to safeguard his succession, using Lsel imago technology. And, on top of all that, it turns out there are powerful aliens lurking out past Lsel Station and Lsel wants the empire to keep it safe from them. With all that going on, it comes as something of a surprise to find that A Memory Called Empire spends more time on interiority than it does on plot or action. Or on worldbuilding – and there is a lot of worldbuilding. And it is, in the main, done quite well – except all the Teixcalaani words in the prose are italicised. Who still does that? Italicising non-English words in an English text is so twentieth-century. The end result reads a lot like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, albeit without the advantage of being first or using Leckie’s default gender trick – but fans of that trilogy will no doubt love this novel. The publisher seems to think fans of Le Carré and Banks will love it too, but comparisons to their oeuvres is one hell of a stretch (Dzmare could be a character name from a Culture novel, but that’s about it). In A Memory Called Empire‘s favour, it has a remarkably low bodycount for a space opera, in the high three figures. Space opera as a subgenre relies heavily on well-used tropes and worldbuilding-blocks (to coin a phrase), but there is also one type of space opera that makes a feature of its worldbuilding. A Memory Called Empire falls into the latter category. That makes it interesting, and a better read, than the majority of space operas, but it’s also plain most of the book’s energy has been invested in the worldbuilding… and the romance which forms the emotional core of the novel. As a result the science-fictional elements feel paper-thin – the infrastructure of the capital city, for example, is supposedly controlled by an AI, but the book presents this as little more a big computer, and the controlling “algorithm” for the AI even forms a minor unconvincing subplot. The central murder-mystery isn’t actually much of a mystery – the murderer confesses freely to Dzmare, knowing he won’t be prosecuted – and the offstage threat is so far offstage it only seems to impinge on the plot when the writer remembers it. This is a novel that is essentially all about the worldbuilding. The writer clearly revelled in it, and hopes the reader will too. And, in general, they’ve done an excellent job. A Memory Called Empire is not a great novel, or arguably a good novel, but it is the first novel – long overdue – in a form of space opera which needs to be more prevalent. It is an example of a model of space opera which could have appeared in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and would have made space opera a better subgenre, but which was pretty much squashed at the time. Instead of The Risen Empire or Spirit: the Princess of Bois Dormant, we’ve ended up with the Expanse and assorted clones. Sigh. A Memory Called Empire won’t make any of my award shortlists, but I’d sooner it was a typical example of 21st century space opera rather than something worth remarking on…

Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). I had wanted to buy a copy of this at the Worldcon in Dublin last August, but the handful of copies available in the dealers’ room had gone by the time I went to buy one. Fortunately, I recently found a copy in The English Bookshop here in Uppsala (albeit for somewhat more money). I’ve read most of Tidhar’s fiction – perhaps not all of the short stories, but there are so many of them, but certainly the longer works, especially the novels. So the self-referential elements of Unholy Land came as no real surprise, although the extent of them does feel greater than usual. So much so, in fact, that one important plot point, I think, is based on the first Tidhar story I ever read, some fifteen years ago, and whose title escapes me, but it was about a person browsing Hebrew pulp novels and stumbling across a novel which should not exist, or something. Which is, sort of, a fair description of Unholy Land itself. The starting premise is that Europe’s Jews accepted the British government’s offer of a homeland in east Africa (an actual historical suggestion, but the Zionist Congress rejected it in favour of historical Israel, although the first Aliyah to Palestine took place forty years prior to the Balfour Declaration). The novel is set in the 1980s, and the Jewish homeland, Palestina, is under constant attack by the African tribes who once lived in the territory it now occupies. The irony is thick here. A Jewish writer of pulp detective novels, resident in Berlin, returns to his home in Palestina on a visit. Except he has not been living in the Berlin of the same history as Palestina, and there is in fact a multiverse of alternate realities which can be accessed by certain people – in the writer’s case, unconsciously – and something is happening which jeopardises Palestina’s alternate reality… Not only does Unholy Land offer some seriously good worldbuilding and alternate history, but it also goes all meta and begins to deconstruct its own story from within its narrative. That’s so cool I’ve even done it myself. Tidhar has said he considers Unholy Land one of the best piece of work he has produced – so far – and though I take everything he says with a pinch of salt, having known him for several years, he may well be right in this case. It’s surprising how few awards picked up on Unholy Land. Well, no, it’s not really surprising – popular vote genre awards these days are entirely tribal and no longer fit for purpose, and Unholy Land is a genuinely good book.


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Looking backwards from the year 2020

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I moved from the United Arab Emirates to the United Kingdom; in the second decade, I moved from the UK to Sweden.

As the second decade of the century opened, I was living in Sheffield, and once again employed by the company I had originally moved to Sheffield to work for. I had started writing short fiction again, after a hiatus of a decade or so. I widened my reading, continued to buy too many books, regularly saw bands perform live in Sheffield venues, and watched films from two DVD rentals services, my own DVD purchases, and terrestrial and cable television.

In 2010, my favourite books of the year were mostly literary, or new books by favourite genre authors, such as Gwyneth Jones and Bruce Sterling. I also discovered my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows. Five of my short stories saw print, and I continued reviewing books for Interzone – and also interviewing authors: my interview with Bruce Sterling in Interzone #221 I still considered the best interview I’ve done.

I began writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book of the Apollo Quartet, in 2011 and also edited my first anthology, Rocket Science. I had made an effort the previous year to read more books by women writers – successfully – but in 2011 I took it one step further and created the SF Mistressworks blog, which reviewed science fiction books by women writers published before 2000.

Rocket Science was launched at the Eastercon in 2012. I decided to launch Adrift on the Sea of Rains at the same time… which meant I had to publish it myself in order to have it available in time. So I started up my own small press, Whippleshield Books. I published Adrift on the Sea of Rains in signed limited hardback, paperback and ebook editions. Reading-wise, I raved about Katie Ward’s Girl Reading. Sadly, she has yet to publish anything else. In films, I continued to explore the cinemas of other countries.

My interest in space had been rekindled in the first decade of the century, and eventually led to Rocket Science and the Apollo Quartet, but in 2013 I discovered a new interest – I call them “enthusiasms” – which was… deep sea exploration, undersea habitats and saturation diving. This fed into both my reading and my writing. The second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, published in early 2013, was very much an exploration of Apollo-era space technology, as the first novella had been. But the third book, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, published in late 2013, included a narrative strand featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste, directly from my latest enthusiasm. Neither novella proved as successful as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which in 2013 won the BSFA Award and was nominated for the Sidewise Award. 2013 was also the year I “discovered” Malcolm Lowry, who became a favourite writer. It was also the first year I began attending Nordic conventions.

I don’t remember 2014 being a particularly memorable year. I had signed up to attend Loncon 3, the Worldcon taking place in the UK, but ended up so pissed off with sf fandom I sold my membership and didn’t attend. I’m not even sure I can remember what prompted my change of heart. I made a serious attempt to read some well-regarded genre fiction so I could vote for the Hugo, but nothing I liked made it to the shortlists. This was not entirely surprising – my tastes have never aligned with those of the Hugo voters and I adamantly refuse to be tribal about the writers whose books I like. I worked on the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, this one intended to be novel-length, All That Outer Space Allows. I also had a story published in a literary magazine, and one of my stories was the cover story for a Postscripts anthology.

I can’t remember how I got involved with Tickety Boo Press, a small press based in Northumberland. I was asked to edit a self-published sf novel its owner had bought. For a fee. I did so – but the writer rejected most of my structural suggestions. Somehow I managed to accidentally sell a space opera trilogy to Tickety Boo Press. I’d written the first book, A Prospect of War, in the late 1990s, spent much of the early 2000s rewriting and polishing it… and it came very close to being picked up by a major sf imprint. (I note that A Prospect of War’s flavour of space opera is currently very popular.) I sold A Prospect of War and its sequel, A Conflict of Orders, to Tickety Boo Press, who published them in May and October of 2015. I would deliver the third book, A Want of Reason, in 2016. The books were published in signed limited hardback, paperback and ebook. At least they were supposed to be. The ebook sold really well and was well-received. I signed about forty hardback copies of A Prospect of War. No paperback ever appeared. Nor did any of the editions have ISBNs. Although a hardback edition of A Conflict of Orders was available for sale on Tickety Boo’s website – and I know several people who ordered one – it never actually existed. So I stopped working on A Want of Reason. One day I may get around to finishing it. I’d like to. In 2015, I published the final book of my Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, which was subsequently honour listed by the Tiptree Award (now the Otherwise Award). I also attended my second Nordic con, Archipelacon, in the Åland Islands.

Oh, and Adrift on the Sea of Rains was published in Spanish, A la deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias, in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Ignotus Award the following year.

In 2015, I also published my second anthology, Aphrodite Terra. I’d originally planned to launch it at Loncon 3, but, of course, I didn’t attend the convention. And I was, I admit, disappointed by the apathy shown by the genre community to the book when I put out a call for submissions. However, I wanted to submit All That Outer Space Allows to the Arthur C Clarke Award but it wasn’t eligible as it was self-published. The award agreed that if Whippleshield Books published someone else’s fiction, as well as my own, then it wasn’t a self-publishing press. So I pushed out Aphrodite Terra, and All That Outer Space Allows was accepted for the Clarke. It wasn’t shortlisted, of course. Annoyingly – and insultingly – when the Clarke Award opened itself to self-published books a year or two later, the only example of a “self-published” book it used as justification was Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which had been published by a major sf imprint anyway.

A year or two earlier, I’d submitted a story to a Tickety Boo anthology of hard sf – on invitation, I seem to recall. But the book kept on getting delayed. I gave them a reprint story when they complained of a lack of submissions. A new editor took over the anthology – and promptly sent my reprint back. I decided in 2016 to publish a selection of my hard sf space-based stories in a collection, Dreams of the Space Age. I asked Tickety Boo if I could include the story I’d submitted to them. They said fine, the anthology was sure to be out before my collection. The anthology has never appeared. My collection did. And on its acknowledgements page it lists the story ‘Red Desert’ as having been previously published in a non-existent anthology. Ah well.

As well as Dreams of the Space Age, which includes a previously unpublished story (the Yuri Gagarin Robinson Crusoe on Mars mashup), 2016 was bracketed by two pieces of published fiction. The first was a story in Interzone, to date my only story published in the magazine, although I’d been reviewing books for it since 2008. The story was titled ‘Geologic’ and was inspired by my deep sea exploration enthusiasm. At the end of the year, I added a pendant to the Apollo Quartet, Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, which makes it a quartet of five parts. It was partly in service to a joke: the Worldcon had announced the best series Hugo Award, and any series which had an instalment published in the previous year was eligible. So I wrote something to make the Apollo Quartet eligible. Except the total word count had to be over 250,000 and the Apollo Quartet didn’t come anywhere close to that, so it was a meaningless gesture. But Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum did allow me to throw several more references into the quartet.

I also attended IceCon in 2016, the first ever sf con held in Iceland, in Reykjavik. I felt somewhat obligated to do so given I’d instigated it – at a Swecon I’d jokingly told an Icelandic fan he should organise a con in Iceland. Several other people have since claimed credit for the suggestion – all credit to the organisers, of course – but it was definitely me. (I also attended IceCon 2 in 2018, and plan to attend IceCon 3 in 2020.)

In early 2016, a team-mate at work left and the major project he had been working on was dumped on my desk. That pretty much defined my 2017 and 2018. It was an important project, and a lot of people were involved. When I got home each evening, I didn’t have the energy to do more than watch films or read books. Likewise on the weekends too. My blogging sort of dropped off, devolving to a series of Reading diary and Moving pictures posts. I did regularly visit Scandinavia for conventions, however – mostly Sweden and Denmark – and made many friends in Nordic fandom.

It didn’t take long for me to realise I’d got myself stuck in a rut. I mean, I had a good job and I worked only four days a week… But I seemed to be spending most of my time just buying stuff on eBay and Amazon, and by “stuff” I mean books, films and games, not all of which I really wanted. It got sort of ridiculous. I’m a big fan of the Traveller RPG and have been for many years. Collecting items published for the game is more or less understandable. Collecting back issues of role-playing games magazines that contained articles for Traveller is perhaps a bit excessive. Collecting 1970s and 1980s science fiction boardgames by GDW, SPI and Avalon Hill is definitely excessive. Especially since I never bothered playing them. I have, for example, among a couple of dozen other games, John Carter: Warlord of Mars, a sf boardgame by SPI from 1979. I remember seeing the game when I was a teenager. I’ve never played it.

Anyway, the big work project completed in September 2018, and I decided it was time for a change. I’d been joking since the Brexit Referendum in 2016 that my Brexit Plan A was “move to Sweden”, and I had in the years since my first visit to the country in 2013 had a look at job opportunities there in my field. Most were contract work, and I didn’t fancy making the move for 6 months of work, and then flailing about looking for my next job. But shortly after the big project at work finished, I found an advert for a job online in Sweden, applied for it… and they offered it to me. In Uppsala. In Sweden. Of course, I said yes. Brexit Plan A unlocked. (I’d visited Uppsala in 2017 for Swecon and really liked the city… but had never expected to end up there.)

I was one of a team of three at my job in Sheffield. All three of us handed in our notices within a week. One team member moved to the multinational which owned the company we worked for (I later heard he moved back), another moved to Germany, and I moved to Sweden. Our manager was not very happy…

In March 2019, I left the UK with a cabin bag and a 26 kg suitcase and flew to Sweden. I left behind 85 boxes in storage, most containing books. The move itself was… an adventure. Never resign your job and move to another country just before Christmas. You effectively lose a month of your three-month notice period. I still managed to sell enough stuff – books, mostly – to finance my move to Sweden: to dealers, to a local secondhand bookshop, on eBay… DVDs I didn’t want, or could easily replace, I gave away to friends through Facebook. I sold enough to pay for: Pickfords collecting everything that was going into storage, a month of storage, house clearance, taxi to the airport, overnight stay at airport hotel, flight to Sweden, train to Uppsala… The only thing it didn’t cover was my first month in an apartment hotel in Uppsala, which is where I stayed while I was looking for somewhere to live. (Sweden has no landlord culture, which is good, but makes it difficult to find somewhere to rent.) 5 March 2019 was my last day at work. 6 March, I travelled to Leeds to meet my mother and say goodbye. 7 March, the house clearance guys did their stuff. 8 March, I flew to Sweden. 11 March, I started my new job.

In hindsight, I’m surprised it all went so smoothly. Planning your move to another country Just-in-Time is probably not smart. It certainly impressed the guy I’d hired to clear my house. After he’d accepted the job, and also after he’d cleared my house, I received a series of rambling drunken SMS messages from him, in which he admitted to admiring me for planning my move so well but then segued into some holiday he’d had in Manila and all the prostitutes he’d had sex with. Or something. It was very weird.

Anyway, in March 2019, I moved to Sweden and started a new job. And a new life. So to speak.

Welcome to the 2020s.