It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Reading diary 2020, #3

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I seem to be mostly reading science fiction at the moment. Not sure why. I mean, it’s not like I think we’re in a new golden age for genre or anything – in fact, I find a lot of the high profile science fiction being published at the moment completely uninteresting. Having said that, three of the books below, all published last year, are by writers I’ve been reading for decades, and two of them are favourites writers as well.

World Engines: Destroyer, Stephen Baxter (2019, UK). Reid Malenfant, he of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, is awakened in 2469 from cold sleep after a near-fatal accident in 2019 because Emma Stoney, she of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, who disappeared on a mission to Phobos in 2005… has just sent a radio message to Earth asking for Malenfant’s help. The world of the twenty-fifth century is considerably different to the world we, the readers, know and Malenfant remembers. The great push into space was reversed after native species on Venus and Europa were almost wiped out. There are AIs on the Moon and the other planets, but none on Earth, only “algorithmic-machines” (despite repeated assertions in the text that algorithmic machines are not aware, just sophisticated computers, they’re characterised pretty much the same as the human cast). For a third of the novel, nothing happens. Malenfant mooches about what’s left of Birmingham after 500 years of progress and climate change. But then he decides to go and rescue Stoney – although, from clues in the radio message, she’s a Stoney from an alternate universe, one in which Neil Armstrong did not die of a heart attack shortly before landing on the Moon. Fortunately, it transpires Earth has a sophisticated space capability, it just never uses it. Malenfant, his mentor (a teenage girl) and an algorithmic android (Malenfant’s nurse since he was awakened) head to Mars, meet Stoney, discover a weird tunnel in Phobos which gives access to alternate realities and they end up in one in which the British Empire is triumphant in space and head off with them to the “ninth planet”… We’ve all been here before; Baxter has been here before. The whole thing reads like it was cobbled together from discarded ideas from the Manifold trilogy and Proxima duology. It’s highly readable, but there’s a lot of set-up for very little pay-off. And the continuity is terrible, with characters joining in conversations despite not being present. Baxter bangs books like this out like sausages – an atelier can’t be that far off – and this one was clearly an opportunity to use some of that Britain in Space stuff he researched and wrote many years ago… When you see Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover, you pretty much know what to expect. This is not one of his better efforts, but it’s very much on-brand.

A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA). Park has had an interesting and varied career. He debuted with a complex sf trilogy set on a world with extremely long seasons and with a somewhat meandering plot. His next novel was postcolonial science fiction, and remains one of my favourite genre novels. He then wrote a pair of Biblical fantasies, followed by a straight-up, but very literary, portal fantasy set in a Romanian empire. Although Park moves effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, he has always worked at the literary end of both genres. But there has, in recent years, come an increasing narrative playfulness apparent in his fiction. His last novel was, among other things, about the Forgotten Realms novel he wrote under a pseudonym, the history of his family, an art installation he wrote a text for, and, in part, his writing career. A City Made of Words is more of the same. It’s a collection of short stories, most previously published, and an “interview”, and it’s more of the meta-fiction Park has been writing of late. He is one of my favourite writers, and has been for many years, and while for some that – being a favourite writer – means a consistent delivery of exactly the same stuff the reader likes, for me Park is a favourite writer because he is forever changing what he produces. The meta-fiction is not just a progression from earlier works, it’s built on earlier works and it’s extremely cleverly done. I suspect my opinion will be shared by few people but I consider Paul Park one of the best US science fiction writers currently being published.

Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve a feeling I read The Female Man back in the early 1980s, although I can’t be sure. I do remember buying a copy of The Adventures of Alyx, the Women’s Press edition, in a bookshop/stationery shop on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until I started up SF Mistressworks, however, that I started reading Russ’s fiction seriously, and the more I read the more I became a fan. Jones, on the other hand, I’ve been reading since the late 1980s, since when she has been one of my favourite genre writers. So that’s a double-win: a writer I  admire writing about a writer I admire. Jones does an excellent job of running through Russ’s life and career and the fiction she produced. Jones ties each piece of fiction to events in Russ’s life and to her changes in her views on feminism and science fiction – all backed up by references to letters and essays. I had always known Russ was a clever writer, and a sharp critic, but until reading this book I had not realised quite how prolific she was. I knew her fiction, but not her essays and letters and fan articles… and… Russ was a second wave feminist who eventually accepted third wave feminism (I think I’m getting this right). Jones is also a feminist, vocally so. I get the impression from this book that their different brands of feminism do not quite map onto the other, but I also get the impression that Jones very much admires Russ and her fiction. This is a book that will give you a fresh appreciation of Russ’s work. I was a Joanna Russ fan before reading it, now I am even more of one.

The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (2015, USA). I’ve read several short stories by Kosmatka and was impressed by them, but none of the blurbs to his novels – three to date, of which this is the last – made them sound as if they would appeal to the same extent. But then I started reading The Flicker Men and discovered that its plot was based on the Kosmatka story I’d admired the most. Except. How to…? Okay. There was was this one story in which Feynman’s double slit experiment revealed there were some people who could not collapse the wave function and so were not sentient as such. The Flicker Men takes that premise and runs with it. First, it posits a televangelist using it to prove that foetuses have “souls”, but then it turns out there are people from an alternate reality on Earth who are trying to shut down the experiment… and the novel turns into a somewhat implausible technothriller with the hero constantly on the run. I was… disappointed. The short story is excellent, but this expansion of it reads like it was handed to Tom Clancy as a premise. Okay, Kosmatka is a better writer than Clancy – but this is definitely more like Clancy’s output than the high concept sf I was expecting. Disappointing.

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