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Reading diary 2019, #13

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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Moving pictures 2019, #34

This is it, the last Moving pictures post for 2019. Only #34, compared to #69 in 2018 and #70 for 2017. Let’s see what 2020 brings.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino (2019, USA). This is apparently Tarantino’s last film as he’s said he won’t make anymore. Many have also called it the best movie he has ever made – or at least a triumphant return to form. I’ve never been much of a fan of Tarantino or his work. He chooses excellent cinematographers, but his stories are cobbled together from strings of clichés, often with bizarre swerves in the final act. His dialogue can be good, however. Anyway, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about an ex-TV cowboy looking to restart his moribund career, which involves various parodic encounters with Hollywood archetypes. He is driven around town by his old stunt double, who now acts his chauffeur and dogsbody. Both characters are well-drawn, the only well-drawn ones in the entire film, in fact. The important element in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is that the TV cowboy lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Tate, of course, was famously murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. And this is where Tarantino introduces his swerve: the TV cowboy foils the murder. What I don’t understand, however, is the point of the film. It’s alternate history, but alternate history introduces a change in order to explore the consequences and ramifications of that change. Tarantino doesn’t do that. His change, his “jonbar point” (a horrible coinage), is meaningless. It comes at the end of the movie – a long movie – and its trivial impact is quickly dispatched with some voice-over narration. I mean, if you’re going to do alternate history, at least do it. Here it’s just a cheap gimmick, and that detracts from what has gone before.

La Chiesa, Michele Soavi (1989, Italy). The film opens with a troop of Teutonic knights slaughtering a village and burying the bodies, not all of which were dead, in a mass grave. Supposedly because they were devil-worshippers. They then build a massive cathedral on the site. As you do. Cut to the 1980s and the cathedral is now apparently in the centre of a bustling European city. It’s the new librarian’s first day at work – and who knew cathedrals have libraries? somewhat ironic for institutions that have spent much of their existence suppressing knowledge – and down in the catacombs he meets an artist restoring the cathedral’s frescoes. Which sets in motion a chain of events that results in various mediaeval technology mechanisms sealing the cathedral and trapping all those inside it, after the librarian finds a seal in the floor in the catacombs, manages to open it, and releases all that mediaeval evil (ugh, not a phrase that trips lightly off the tongue). Which promptly causes everyone locked inside to go mad and see demons, and engage in sex or violence or both. For a piece of schlocky Italian horror from the 1980s, this was considerably better than expected. According to Wikipedia, the film had quite a convoluted genesis, and the director was keen to make something “more sophisticated” than the usual run of giallo horror. I’m not sure that he succeeded in doing that but La Chiesa is a pretty good horror movie of its time and reminded me in places of the Hammer House of Horror TV series. Worth seeing.

The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (2017, Norway). The Ash Lad is like Cinderella, but male. And stupid. Mostly. Basically, everything he touches he fucks up. But he’s also incredibly lucky, and amiable with it, so everything turns out right for him in the end. He picks things up, mostly rubbish, and hangs onto it because he doesn’t understand why people would have thrown it away. And it proves to be just what he needs to get past various obstacles thrown in his path. In the invented fantasy country of the film – I don’t think it’s supposed to be an historical representation of a real Nordic country, as it all looks a bit identikit West European high fantasy… Anyway, the kingdom is cursed: if the princess is not betrothed by her eighteenth birthday, bad things will happen. An arrogant prince from Denmark turns up to ask for her hand – the Swedes and Norwegians have an… interesting opinion of the Danish – so she runs away. Meanwhile, Ash Lad has accidentally burnt down the home he shares with his father and two brothers, and so has gone off to make his fortune in order to make good on the destruction he has wreaked. His brothers follow to keep him from harm. But he ends up rescuing them from various fantasy encounters. And also rescuing the princess. Of course. The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King looked good, although perhaps a little too CGI-dependent, and it was all very amiable and the story ran along well-established rails. The characterisation of the Danish prince was amusing. It was perhaps a bit generic, although that wasn’t helped by the version I watched being dubbed into American English rather than keeping the original Norwegian soundtrack and providing subtitles. But if you like films that straddle the line between Western European high fantasy and fairy-tale… this is way better than anything by Uwe Boll.

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Sergio Martino (1971, Italy). Edwege Fenech, a French-Algerian actress, made a number of giallo films, and was probably as popular a leading lady in that genre as Barbara Bouchet, if not more so. True, gialli were not known for the calibre of their acting, but certainly Fenech (and Bouchet) had more screen presence than many other giallo leading ladies of the time. Fenech plays the title role in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – the “h” apparently added after a threatened lawsuit by a real Mrs Ward (hm, maybe I should try the same every January…) – the wife of a US diplomat in Vienna sent a series of blackmail letters by a serial killer. Wardh is afraid her ex-lover is the killer, and turns to her new lover to help her. You can guess where this is going… Well, perhaps not, as there are twists within twists. Like many giallo films, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh treads a fine line between sexploitation and female agency – although Fenech’s character triumphs here, and all the male characters are revealed as either venal or stupid. There are several dream sequences, however, each a sort of cross between soft porn and horror, which seem designed more to titillate than present Wardh as a kick-ass heroine. And a party sequence which seems like it comes straight from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Giallo is an acquired taste, although the more you’re exposed to it, the more you begin to appreciate and enjoy it. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is a stylish thriller, albeit very much of its time, and if the level of acting is not all that impressive – although Fenech is generally worth watching – and the dialogue often cringe-worthy, it’s well-framed and well-shot. A good example of its type.

Ad Astra, James Gray (2019, USA). I’ve heard so much bad press about this film, I’m tempted to like it just to be contrary. Which is sort of how I went into it. And there are things to like… but also things to dislike. But the hate the film has received seems odd given its content. It presents a convincing portrait of its world, which is not so unusual in these days of CGI – but it’s a hard sf world and it sticks to it pretty much throughout. Okay, so the lawlessness of the Moon is the usual libertarian sf bollocks but that’s hardly a blocker as people have been writing stupid shit like that since the 1940s. The opening scenes set on the space antenna are visually spectacular, although I’m not entirely sure such a structure could actually exist, you know, a tower stretching into the upper atmosphere, or perhaps hanging from orbit. But then protagonist Brad Pitt is pushed from pillar to post by Space Command when it turns out his father, who disappeared decades before during a Grand Tour, may be responsible for the “power-surge” (er, what?) which caused lots of damage in the inner Solar system. Space Command sends Pitt to the Moon, then Mars, and along the way he learns more about his father’s mission. There’s a flatness to Pitt’s character – literalised in his ability to maintain a low heartbeat even under stress – that’s echoed in the presentation of his world, a sort of distant but realistic portrayal of an inhabited Solar system a century or so hence (although I think the film is set only a few decades from now). I accept that a well-realised hard sf world will likely blind me to deficiencies in plot, but when sf cinema (Hollywood’s version of it, at least) seems to be dominated by movies that display little or no rigour in world-building and nonsensical plots (see below), I see no problem with my opinion. Ad Astra may be your usual “daddy issues” movie – although expecting Hollywood to produce anything else these days seems to be more of a fantasy than much of its output. I hate “daddy issues” films but Ad Astra worked quite well for me – perhaps because of my aforementioned blind spot – and while it’s by no means a great film, it does make me wonder at all the hate that’s been directed at it. I think it’s a better movie than that suggests.

Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams (2019, USA). That’s it, the end of Star Wars. Until the next trilogy. Because I don’t see Disney giving up on such an enormous cash cow, not until they’ve absolutely milked it to death, or fucked it up so bad its fandom has turned completely toxic and the latter seems to be already happening to some degree. I’m not a Star Wars fan, or even a SWEU fan, although I have fond memories of the original trilogy and have enjoyed some of the tie-in movies. But this “final” trilogy is a poor thing indeed, especially its last installment. The whole thing reeks of bits and pieces cobbled together, inspired by visuals which actually fail willing suspension of disbelief. That last is, of course, pretty much Abrams’s career in a nutshell: he makes movies that look good but the eyeball kicks do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. And in the case of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker neither does the plot. There’s this secret planet of a race that’s supposed to have died out – the Sith – which has a fleet of millions of star battleships, with no indication of how and where they were constructed or indeed where their crews came from. And the planet can only be reached if a person is in possession of one of two navigation maguffins – Sith wayfinders – because of course a conspiracy to control the galaxy, which has already succeeded at least once before, would only have two navigation maguffins to reach its secret home world. Which is also a profound misunderstanding of how physics or cosmology work, FFS – and proves to be pretty much meaningless anyway because everyone ends up there for the final big battle. Gah. Why bother? It’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker because the material is not actually up to it. The hand-wavy relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren that seems to ignore time and space is the only thing that works in the movie, because – and no, “love” is not some magical force that transcends space and time, and anyone who believes that should not be put in charge of a ride-on mower, never mind a billion-dollar franchise – because the presentation of their Force-linked relationship in the trilogy actually works quite consistently and fits within the universe. There are some nice set-pieces in Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and the light sabre battle between Ren and Rey on the wreck of Death Star 2 is impressively spectacular, if over-long. But movies are more than a series of eyeball kicks – perhaps someone should tell Abrams – and Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker fails on every other movie metric. It retcons some of the incidents in The Force Awakens. Badly. Carrie Fisher’s CGI “performance” is actually distracting – she deserved to be there as much as anyone, if not more so than most of the cast, but the footage they used makes her comes across as flat and unconnected to the story. Hollywood proved its point: it can place deceased actors in movies… but it also proved the results are unsatisfactory. At present. (Star Wars is a safe laboratory to test it out because fan service. This is not a good thing.) A blow-by-blow account of the deficiencies of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker would be as long as the film itself. Unfortunately, one thing this new trilogy has revealed is that fandom is happy to find the things it wants in the films whether they exist or not. And that includes sophistication. These are commercial space opera movies, made it would seem with an eye chiefly on the visuals, “what looks good”. Whether or not anything in it a) fits in the universe, or b) makes fucking sense, is of no consequence. Writers working in the SWEU were given a bible; it seems the directors of this new trilogy should have been given one too.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Best of the year 2019

I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.

Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.

books
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.

1 Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.

2 Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.

3 The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.

4 As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.

5 The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.

Honourable mentions: Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.

films
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.

1 Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.

2 The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.

3 Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.

4 Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.

5 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.

Honourable mentions: War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.

music
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.

However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.

1 Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.

2 Scars II (The Basics), Panopticon (2019, USA). One of my favourite tracks on 2018’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness double album was an acoustic track called ‘The Itch’ whose lyrics were a savage attack on Trump and Republicans. Scars II (The Basics) is an entire album of acoustic songs, including ‘The Itch’, although it’s the only one with that lyrical content.

3 Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.

4 In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.

5 Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.

Honourable mentions: Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.


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Reading diary 2019, #12

Now that winter is here, I’ve been taking the bus into work. It’s great. There’s an app – everything is apps here – and you buy a ticket on it and show the ticket to the driver. They’ll be introducing a “blippar” to read the QR code on the app’s tickets soon, but it’s not been rolled out yet. The entire city is a single zone, by the way; and buses are frequent. The journey to and from work is about the same length as my commute back in Sheffield, but I’ve not yet got into the habit of reading on the bus. And since at work we eat out for lunch pretty much every day – most restaurants here run a “dagens lunch” menu, typically half a dozen dishes, or a specific dish each day of the week, changing weekly, for between 90 kr and 150 kr – so I don’t get much reading time then. Except when I take sandwiches into work. Which is about once a week.

Anyway, books… I set my Goodreads reading challenge at 140 books this year, the same figure as last year. In 2018, I managed slightly more than that; this year, I doubt I’ll hit 110 books read. Ah well.

Oh, and somehow I managed to read only female authors during November. All of the books below are by women writers as well.

The Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief, Lisa Tuttle (2016, UK). I’ve been a fan of Tuttle’s fiction for many years – her collection, A Spaceship Built of Stone, is especially good – but, to be honest, this book, the first in the Jesperson and Lane series, about a pair of late Victorian/Early Edwardian paranormal investigators, did initially smell like an attempt at something explicitly commercial. No bad thing, of course; every writer wants to be successful, and it’s even harder these days than, say, twenty years ago. The Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief is very readable; and the characters are engaging, and even amusing in a sort of Holmesian-pastiche sort of way… It’s also clear Tuttle had a great deal of fun writing it, which means it is also fun reading it. Lane is a debunker of spiritualists who falls out with the woman she assists and returns to London, only to stumble across an advert for a detective’s assistant by Sherlock-Holmes-wannabe Jesperson. Except he isn’t really a Sherlock-Holmes-wannabe, he’s more a character inspired by Holmes, who is real in the story’s world, which presents something of a dissonance. Jesperson’s and Lane’s first case involves the disappearance of several prominent spiritualists, and though the pair soon identify the perpetrator, they’re not sure of his methods or aims. The Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief was good on period detail, and the main characters were definitely engaging, but elements of it did feel occasionally secondhand. I bought this book when it was on offer; I’d do the same for the sequel.

Provenance, Ann Leckie (2017, USA). I enjoyed Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, although I thought they declined in quality and interest as the series progressed. The many comparisons of this pendant novel to Le Guin were strident enough to put me off reading it. I mean, I like Le Guin’s fiction, she’s one of the genre’s great writers, but I knew Leckie was not actually all that much like Le Guin and so the comparisons were likely disingenuous at best. But I was in Akademibokhandeln in Gränbystaden and it was a 3-for-2 offer and I only had two books so I grabbed Provenance to make up the three. In the event, Provenance proved to be nothing like I’d expected, and a lot better than I’d thought it would be. It’s set in the same universe as the Imperial Radch trilogy, although not on a world controlled by the Radch. A young woman from a culture in which politically powerful figures chose their successors from their children – either biological or adopted – attempts to win her mother’s favour, and discredit her brother, the favourite, by breaking a criminal out of “prison” – implied to be a no-holds-barred prison world – in order to make use of him. It’s all to do with “vestiges”, which are basically a cross between antiques and mementos, ie objects present at events of historical significance, possessing exactly what the title outlines. Of course, there’s more going on here than is apparent to the somewhat naive protagonist. And for all the book’s claims to non-violence, it ends with a military assault on a space station, a hostage situation, and a violent response. But hey, at least it’s not totally fascist. This is not Le Guin, make no mistake about that. But it’s a nicely-drawn space opera, set in an interesting universe, which sadly still fails to avoid many of space opera’s failings. I enjoyed it, perhaps even more so than the two sequels to Ancillary Justice. I’m not sure where we go from here. Leckie has already moved onto fantasy – The Raven Tower – and the endless marketing of debuts means no writer has the chance to develop a universe as they once had. There will never be another Vorkosigan saga, there will never be another Wheel of Time. One of those does sound like progress, but I suspect we should rue the loss of both.

Chercher La Femme, L Timmel Duchamp (2018, USA). I buy Duchamp’s books as soon as they are published as I’ve been a fan for many years. She’s quite honest in pointing out that many of these novels took a number of years to see print – which, in less charitable eyes, would see them classified as “trunk novels”. Which is, when you consider it, an unfair label. For one thing, it assumes the writer has not reworked them, given what they’ve learnt since they were first published. It’s also too easy a label to throw the label at a book by a writer that doesn’t fit the reader’s preconceptions. Anyway, Duchamp describes the history of her novel in an afterword, and it began life many years ago but sat in a drawer for many years. This probably explains the slightly old-fashioned feel to Duchamp’s world-building, which makes for a slightly off-centre reading experience. True, that off-centre perspective is one of the appeals of Duchamp’s writing. It’s… hard to explain. Chercher la Femme – not the best title ever – is a first contact novel. But it’s more about the preconceptions and society of the contactors than it is the contactees. In fact, the latter are complete mysteries, almost ciphers in fact. They occupy a place in the narrative, but they’re more signifiers than an actual worked-out alien race. And it’s what they signify that forms the main premise of the novel. The Pax is a pan-national semi-utopian socialist polity, which has been contacted by a bird-like alien race, who have gifted them three FTL spaceships. One of these spaceships is sent to the eponymous world – and I can’t decide if naming the planet Chercher la Femme is  extremely clumsy or quite clever – only for the mission to fail and its crew join the population of the planet and refuse to be contacted. The novel is told from the POV of the “leader” of the follow-up mission. The inhabitants of Chercher la Femme are near-magical, and more or less reflect the crew members’ preconceptions back on themselves. Which makes for a difficult first contact. I’m not convinced it all hangs together. The characterisation is excellent, and some of the world-building is really good… but the aliens don’t feel like they have an actual real existence, which is probably the point, but which makes the whole thing either too reminiscent of Lem’s Solaris or too circular for whatever point Duchamp is try to make to stick. Chercher la Femme is probably the most disappointing novel I’ve read by Duchamp, but I’ll continue to buy and read her books because when she’s good she’s really good.

The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson (2007, UK). There’s a reverse snobbery thing you sometimes find in science fiction in which sf commentators sneer at non-sf authors, so-called “literary fiction” authors, who write sf and sort of get it wrong. I’m not one of them (well, not unless they sneer at science fiction first). Literary authors writing science fiction, whether they acknowledge it or not, has resulted in some excellent science fiction and fiction. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in books some writers would probably sooner didn’t appear on their bibliographies. I mean, Jeanette Winterson is a highly-regarded author in the UK and has written some excellent novels, but The Stone Gods reads like it was written by someone who thinks all literary sf should resemble David Mitchell’s highly successful Cloud Atlas. While the prose is actually really good, everything in the story feels secondhand and, well, used, and you have to wonder what point Winterson thought she was trying to prove. I mean, the novel opens with the sort of misogyny that might not have looked out of place in a 1940s sf novel but would certainly have raised eyebrows in a 2000 one. And then the narrative drops back to the 1700s and Easter Island, and takes as real the myth the islanders caused the islands’ ecological collapse. The idea of using science fiction as one of several narratives to illuminate a point is, in principle, almost impossible to abuse, although perhaps not entirely. Mitchell at least has a history in sf – he was a member of the BSFA for many years – but even so his novels still feel somewhat jejeune on a science-fictional level. Which is somewhat ironic, given that science fiction is itself a largely juvenile genre. But Winterson, an otherwise excellent writer, does not compare well with Mitchell with this book, and I don’t simply mean reading The Stone Gods as sf. In other respects, too. It’s clumsy. It fumbles its deployment of its sf tropes. It seems to imagine sf exists in opposition to an historical narrative. Which is not true. And never has been. Everything a literary author could do wrong when when writing sf-as-literary-fiction it sort of does wrong. And yes, I know “wrong” is not the right word, but you know what I mean. It fumbles everything. It’s almost the dictionary definition of a book by a lit author that sf snobs sneer at. Which unfortunately means it is neither good sf nor good literary fiction. Avoidable.

Fallout, Sara Paretsky (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s fiction for longer than I care to remember. She’s one of those authors whose books I buy as soon as they’re published. Sort of. She’s never been for me a collectable author, so I’ve never bought her books in hardback, but I’ll happily pick up a paperback copy, or even borrow one, or, more recently, buy the ebook, should it be on promotion. Fallout is something of a departure from the typical formula – for a start, much of it takes places outside Chicago. VI Warshawski is hired to investigate the disappearance of a  young black film-maker, which leads her out into deepest darkest Kansas – incidentally, Paretsky’s own home ground – and various shenanigans from decades before, involving lesbians, a nuclear missile silo, corruption among university faculty, and a government-sponsored research programme that went slightly wrong. It’s all good solid Warshawski material, given an added boost because it’s not about Chicago or that city’s endemic corruption. I cannot recommend this series enough. The first half dozen or so can be read in any order, but I think the last dozen or so books probably need to be read after reading that first six. If so, you have a treat ahead of you. Paretsky is one of the best crime writers currently being published. These are excellent books. Read them.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was subject to quite a bit of online buzz. So I read it, and enjoyed it. And North’s second book too, Touch, I read that and enjoyed it. But North’s star seemed to wane a little and I sort of stopped reading her books. But then The Sudden Appearance of Hope popped up on promotion on Kindle, so I decided to give it a go. And I’m glad I did. It helped that the novel opened in Dubai, and actually managed to present the emirate in a way that resembled the real place. Which is more than can be said of most books featuring Dubai. Hope is a young woman cursed with the ability – left unexplained, and not entirely scientifically credible – which means people forget her completely minutes after she has stopped interacting with them. This makes life extremely difficult for her, but she has become a thief, and a very good one. She flits around the world, hanging out with the rich and famous. And robbing them. Which is why it all starts to go slightly wrong when in Dubai she robs someone at a party for an app called Perfection, which rewards people for doing things which “improve” them. This promptly drags Hope into a campaign to destroy Perfection, which is pretty much a pure distillation of late-stage capitalism, and… Like the two earlier books by North I read, The Sudden Appearance of Hope doesn’t seem quite know what it’s about. It’s had a great premise – two great premises, in fact. And they do neatly slot together. And provide opportunity for plenty of pithy commentary. But North can’t seem to decide where her focus lies. I’ve seen complaints the prose is “too literary”, but I actually liked that about the book – ie, it tried for something that wasn’t your bog-standard beige commercial prose. And although the novel wore its research lightly, it was clear North had done her homework. I put down The Sudden Appearance of Hope after I’d finished and decided I really should seek out her other novels.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Moving pictures 2019, #33

Gosh, only thirty-three Moving pictures posts and less than a fortnight left in the year. Last year, I hit post #33 in early June and finished the year on post #69. Which I guess means I’ve watched a third as many films in 2019 as I did in 2018. My move to the far north is not entirely responsible, although it did result in something of a life-style change (for the better, I hasten to add). But I’ve also been watching more television series box sets than in previous years, because of, er, reasons. I don’t know; perhaps it was too easy previously to find the sort of movies I wanted to watch – I was, after all, subscribed to two postal DVD services…

The Girl on a Motorcycle, Jack Cardiff (1968, UK). I have seen many films made in the 1960s, that could only have been made during the 1960s – and some of them also starred Alain Delon or Marianne Faithfull – but The Girl on a Motorcycle must be a top contender for the most 1960s film I’ve ever seen. And, astonishingly, it’s a British film. Faithfull plays the nubile daughter of a bookshop owner in rural Alsace. She’s engaged to be married to the local school-teacher, but then Delon, whole lives over the border in Germany, walks into the bookshop. A friendship that is clearly not innocent, although apparently no one can see it, sees Faithfull and Delon doing the rumpy-pumpy, and enjoying the freedom of the roads on Delon’s motorbike. He even teaches her how to ride a motorbike. And then buys her a motorbike as a wedding present. The film opens with Faithfull leaving her husband, and riding her motorbike into Germany to visit Delon. The story is mostly told in flashback, with voiceover by Faithfull. There are several psychedelic dream sequences. And the film ends with Faithfull dying in a pretty gruesome road accident. It’s all very 1960s, and while both Faithfull and Delon both smoulder on screen, there seems to be little chemistry between them. The shots of Faithfull riding are also patently fake, which does not help, although that may not have been such a hurdle back in 1968. But the film fails chiefly, unlike French films of the period, because it feels too calculated. There’s a feeling of rejection of commercial cinematic values evident in most Nouvelle Vague movies, and while The Girl on a Motorcycle seems superficially similar to them, it doesn’t exhibit that attitude. Which, perversely, makes it feel like more of an historical document then they do. Still worth seeing, however.

The Red Monks, Gianni Martucci (1989, Italy). I had thought this was another of the many gialli made available on Amazon Prime by Shameless, but when I went looking for the DVD cover art I discovered it wasn’t. It is, of course, giallo, and if it wasn’t directed by Lucio Fulci, it might as well have been. Which is somewhat ironic, as the makers went out of their way to associate Fulci’s name with it, first by crediting him as “director of special effects”, when he had never set foot on set, and then later marketing it as a movie “by Lucio Fulci”, which was only dropped when Fulci threatened to sue… There may well be a signature style to various giallo directors’ movies, but at present I see giallo itself as more of a signature style. In other words, I could identify a giallo movie, but whether it was directed by Fulci, Miraglia, Bazzoni or Petri I’ve no idea, although I think I might be able to spot a Bava or Argento… The Red Monks seems fairly representative, and somewhat average, for gialli. A young man inherits a mysterious castle, moves in, and has various strange encounters, which seems to involve lots of expository flashbacks, none of which in total actually make much sense. One for fans of giallo only.

Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011, Spain). I should not be surprised when I see an actor performing in a language other than their native tongue, and I say that as someone who speaks several languages (to varying degrees), but my upbringing has been mostly English-language and the Anglophone world is a dismayingly monoglot one… Which is a long-winded way of saying I should not have found Daniel Brühl’s presence in this film at all remarkable. Especially since, as I discovered on looking him up on Wikipedia, he was born in Spain and his mother is Spanish. But I knew him as a German actor, with several English-language roles under his belt, so there was a moment when he began speaking Spanish, with apparently native fluency – not that I would be able to tell the difference – that caused a moment of cognitive dissonance. Which is soft of appropriate to Eva. Brühl plays a robotics researcher in a near-future Spain, who returns home several years after walking out on a project to build a robot with real emotions. He picks up where he left off, but needs a source for the emotional model he plans to create for the robot he abandoned, a robot child. He spots a young girl and recruits her. It turns out she’s the daughter of his girlfriend, who was also a robotics researcher, who married Brühl’s best friend after he left. Except, it then turns out – slight spoiler here – the young girl is in fact a successful prototype of Brühl’s original robot, except she does not know it. Eva was one of those near-future films which treats its setting with a matter-of-factness that does more to ground the story than any amount of flashy effects. And with its top-drawer cast – not just Brühl, but the actors playing Eva herself and Brühl’s robot, Max, are really good. And, it all looked really good too. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film makes my best of year list.

The New York Ripper, Lucio Fulci (1982, Italy). Apparently this is the only film by Fulci which is still censored in the UK. I am horribly squeamish, and refuse to watch any film that has at some point been described as “torture porn”, and don’t really enjoy watching modern horror films, but I didn’t have any problems with The New York Ripper. For a start, it’s a 1982 film, so the effects, while gruesome, are patently special effects. They don’t look real enough to trigger my squeam. They are, however, pretty gross and brutal. It’s the usual giallo serial killer stuff, which means a string of seemingly unrelated, but vicious murders, usually of attractive women while undressing, but the plot which knits together the murders and the investigation often doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. I mean, you look up a giallo film on Wikipedia, and it usually takes a couple of thousand words to summarise their plots. Not because they’re complicated, but because they’re not entirely logical. To be honest, I’m not sure why The New York Ripper continues to be censored. It’s pretty tame by modern horror effects standards. Its sensibilities are early 1980s and Italian, which is likely to offend twenty-first century viewers more. Fans of giallo, and Fulci, are probably the only people likely to enjoy the film, but I still think Shameless are doing a marvellous job releasing these movies on DVD (and Amazon Prime).

The Arrow, Don McBrearty (1996, Canada). The UK had the TSR.2 and Canada had the Arrow. Both were prototype high-performance military aircraft, years ahead of anything produced by the US or USSR. Both projects were cancelled after a change of government, and everything to do with the aircraft was completely destroyed. Neither project managed to stay within budget or meet the original deadlines, but then neither has any military aircraft the UK has bought from the US. In fact, after the cancellation of TSR.2, the UK government was forced to buy the General Dynamics F-111 – but had to cancel the order due to significant cost and development time overruns. The Avro Arrow was a Mach 2 interceptor, designed to meet encroaching Soviet bombers over the Arctic and shoot them down with missiles, before they could drop nuclear bombs on either Canada or the US. The requirements were ambitious, but the eventual design promised to meet them. Unfortunately, that ambition turned the Arrow into a bit of a money-pit, and by the time the project was cancelled Avro had bought so many suppliers, in order to ensure it had parts and materials it needed for the aircraft, that it was one of the largest companies in Canada. There’s little doubt the Arrow was a ground-breaking aircraft but, given the Soviets never sent a fleet of nuclear bombers over the pole to North America, in hindsight it seems it was a solution for a problem that never manifested – or at least could be avoided by other, less expensive, means. (Well, “less expensive” in financial terms, definitely not cheaper in political terms, given the US’s hegemonic drive.) The Arrow, a straight-to-TV docu-drama hits all the main points of the story, although it takes several notable liberties, such as suggesting the Canadians invented the delta-wing and area-rule, or that one Arrow escaped the scrapyard. Dan Aykroyd plays Crawford Gordon, the industrialist brought in to make the Arrow reality, like, well, like every other Aykroyd character, but the real Crawford Gordon was actually a fascinating person. As drama, The Arrow doesn’t really stand out, but it’s of interest to aviation buffs because of its subject. Incidentally, after the cancellation of the Avro Arrow, most of the engineers who had worked on it – many of whom were British – were recruited by US aviation companies and were instrumental in putting the Americans on the Moon.

Gemini Man, Ang Lee (2019, USA). I must admit I’ve never been that much of a Lee fan. He’s a name I know, but I couldn’t tell you what he brought to his movies that any other director might not have brought. He’s certainly had a go at pretty much everything – Jane Austen, wu xia, MCU, literary adaptation… well, lots of literary adaptations, pretty much all North American, from Annie Proulx to Daniel Woodrell… And now we have Gemini Man, a high-concept thriller. Which incidentally bears no resemblance to the TV series of the same name starring Ben Murphy… The twist premise of Lee’s Gemini Man, kept carefully hidden for the first third of the movie but given away on the movie poster (doh), is that star Will Smith is an assassin, the most accuratest that evah lived, but he’s getting old and wants to retire, so his masters decide to “retire” (ho ho) him using their new young super-talented assassin, who happens to be… a clone of Will Smith. So you have like a cat-and-mouse chase movie where the hunter and hunted are equally matched because they’re the same person. Sort of. There’s an impressive amount of dumb in the premise, and the fact the film was actually made gives you little confidence in the collective intelligence of Hollywood. But even stories that are bad on paper can occasionally make good films, and Lee is a relatively good pair of hands… But even he can’t make Gemini Man into more than just a tired CGI-heavy thriller. It doesn’t help that Smith (old) opens the film by shooting a man in a fast-moving train from at least a kilometre away, an astonishing if somewhat implausible feat, but then spends pretty much the rest of the movie missing everything he shoots at. Because plot. I would be surprised if there such a thing as an “Ang Lee fan”, and if there were, their lives must be a rollercoaster ride of elation and disappointment. Gemini Man is definitely the latter. Even for them.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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100 books, part 5

100 books that “shaped your world”… Sounds easy enough. Until you start thinking about titles. I could have just banged out a list, and not worry about whether some of the books actually deserved to be on it. But no, I had to put together an annotated list – which meant I had to give a reason why each book made my 100. You can find the earlier parts of my list at: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. But I’ve also included a full list of the 100 Books That Shaped My World at the end of this post. Because this is the last post on the topic, and it covers…

The 2010s

I spent all but the last ten months of the decade living in South Yorkshire, buying far too many books online and from local charity shops. It all got a bit out of hand. When I put everything in storage and moved, I filled 85 boxes, mostly with books. I also sold about 15 boxes of books, and gave away close on 100 paperbacks. The good thing about this was it actually financed my move north. Even so, I was still a little surprised at how much I’d amassed.

I did, however, read plenty of books this decade. Just shy of 1500, in fact. My reading tastes also changed. As the 1990s and 2000s had progressed, I’d found myself reading more and more “literary” fiction, although science fiction still formed the bulk of my reading. During the 2010s, I started reading more British postwar fiction, and treasuring the prose of a number of such writers.

But I wasn’t just drifting toward fiction that wasn’t genre, I was also starting to be put off by current genre writing. Twenty-first century science fiction, especially US sf, began to privilege sentiment over rigour. And then there was the somewhat florid prose, and the over-use of metaphors in an attempt to add invention to over-familiar sf tropes. Changes in the publishing industry also meant editors chased debuts – because at least debuts weren’t “categorically killers”… yet – and the decline of marketing budgets pushed most of the promotion online and onto the authors themselves, and reviewers, bloggers, fans and readers. Which made it all tribal as fuck. The growing dominance of fantasy also limited the science fiction considered commercially viable, and in recent years several popular works have melded the two genres.

Of course, writers whose works I liked and admired were still published, and I discovered new writers whose books I liked and admired, and, even though I’ve been reading science fiction for close on 45 years, there’s still plenty of old science fiction for me to explore (even if its appeal is often somewhat limited).

This is, of course, a purely personal perspective. The science fiction genre has changed – this is hardly surprising – not only artistically but also in the way the publishing industry treats it. Some of those changes have worked for me, some haven’t. But it’s probably telling that only three category sf books from the 2010s appear in the list below, and one of those is in a negative capacity.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928). My father had been a big fan of Lawrence’s fiction for much of his life, even going so far as to drag my mother to Taos to visit Lawrence’s shrine during a visit to the US. I think perhaps because of my father’s reverence for Lawrence, and what I imagined 1920s prose to be like, I sort of avoided reading him. But for some reason I decided to give Lady Chatterley’s Lover a go, and immediately fell in love with the book and Lawrence’s prose. So much so, in fact, that I tracked down Lawrence’s other books. But even that wasn’t enough, and I spent a long time hunting down copies published in the 1970s by Penguin, with white covers and Lawrence’s name in orange, as shown to the left. I now have twenty-eight of them. I’m still working my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre.

Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz (1961). I can’t remember what prompted it – possibly watching the terrible BBC TV series The Deep – but deep sea submersibles, particularly historical bathyscaphes, became another “enthusiasm”. It took me a while, and it wasn’t cheap, but I tracked down a copy of Seven Miles Down, the only book written about the record-breaking descent to Challenger Deep, some 11,000 metres deep, by the Trieste in January 1960. Two people have since equalled that dive – James Cameron in 2012 and Victor Vescovo in 2019. The enthusiasm fed into my fiction, and the Trieste appeared in a couple of short stories and the third novella of the Apollo Quartet. I also collected several books on submersible and undersea habitats.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968). I consider Compton one of the best prose stylists UK science fiction has produced. He was not one of UK science fiction’s best plotters (which, as I suggested in a recent Reading diary post, may be why he switched from writing crime to science fiction). But it’s not just Compton’s prose I find so impressive, he was also superb at writing characters and he liked to experiment with narrative structure. All of which are on display in abundance in Synthajoy. The book is told entirely from the POV of its protagonist, but her story drifts back and forth seamlessly in time, building up the story from both present and past. Compton’s best books all exhibit a very 1970s aesthetic, which I admit I also find appealing. Compton’s books led me to the works of other British sf authors of the 1970s, some of whom I had read in previous decades, but now I found myself appreciating them, especially those whose novels were explicitly British.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992). This book makes my list not because it’s a good book – which it is – or because I’m a fan of the writer – I haven’t actually read all that much by her – no, it makes my list because it was the first book reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Back in 2010, there’d been a conversation online about the fact so few British women genre writers were in contract with publishers in the UK. So I put together a list of 100 science fiction novels by women writers that had been published prior to 2000, a sort of response to the SF Masterwork series published by Gollancz. And after the list, it seemed like a good idea to build a website which reviewed science fiction books by women writers published before 2000. So I did. And it certainly changed my reading. Not only did I seek out sf novels by women to review for SF Mistressworks, but I also made an effort to balance my reading between male and female writers, and not just in genre fiction.

Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991). When I was at university in Coventry, I remember visiting a bookshop/cafe called The Wedge. They had a carousel filled with books published by The Women’s Press, most of which, I seem to recall, were the sf titles in their distinctive grey design. I didn’t buy any, I wasn’t into that sort of science fiction at that time. But after kicking off the SF Mistressworks website, it occurred to me The Women’s Press sf titles would be good books to review. I had a read a few in the years since graduating from university, but now I decided to collect them. And I built up quite a collection: 45 out of 52 titles (including the two YA titles), both the grey cover design (A and B format) and the ones with the black-and-white striped spines. Correspondence was the first title published by The Women’s Press I read specifically because it had been published by them. I went on to read many more – again, because they had been published in The Women’s Press sf series.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011). I’m not sure it’s fair to say these two books “shaped” my world, but I bought and read them because of the social media buzz attending them. I thought them both good, but one better than the other, and I did read both trilogies through to the end. Of course, there have always been books published that generate excitement within fandom, but the ones I remember from the early 1990s were by authors with proven track records. Both Ancillary Justice and God’s War were debuts, and the buzz promised they were something different. They’re both space operas, of course, but very different in their approach to the subgenre. And, it had to be said, to me they felt like they were indeed doing something new with space opera, something interesting. There was nothing unique about that – Colin Greenland had done the same more than twenty years ago with Take Back Plenty, but his re-imagining of space opera seems to have ended with him. The success of Leckie’s and Hurley’s books – especially Leckie’s, which seemed to win every English-language sf award on the planet – promised real change in the subgenre. It could be argued Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet also fit the same pattern, but its online buzz felt manufactured, and I hated the book and thought it badly-written, derivative and mostly cheap sentimentality. But the Hurley and Leckie showed the power of social media in genre fandom, and that still influences my reading to some (albeit diminishing) degree.

Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002). Herter is an author I picked up on after reading his debut, Ceres Storm, published in 2000. He makes this list for two reasons. First, even though I bought Evening’s Empire when it was first published, it sat on my bookshelves for nine years before I eventually got around to reading it – and then I picked it as the best book I read that year. It’s not the book I’ve owned the longest without actually reading, but it’s a good example of one. The second reason is that Herter was quite open about his writing plans. He wrote an East European fantasy set in Czechoslovakia post-WW1, and a dark fantasy based on Something Wicked This Way Comes… but, sadly, the ambitious space operas he blogged about have yet to appear. It is, perhaps, one of the downsides of social media.

Spomeniks, Jan Kempenaers (2010). As I remember it, I stumbled across a website with photographs of Yugoslavian monuments to those who died in World War 2. Further research led me to an ad for Kempenaers’s exhibition of photographs of many of those monuments, not all of which had survived intact. The exhibition published a book of the photographs, which I bought. And that sort of sparked off another “enthusiasm”, this time for architecture, specifically East European and Soviet Modernism, and Oscar Niemeyer. To be honest, it was all pretty much eye candy to me. While the engineering of exploring space and underwater I find fascinating in a technical way, buildings and architecture not so much. But I do enjoy looking at pictures of the sort of buildings that seem to embody the enthusiasm for, a celebration of, the future that at some point around the middle of last century seemed humanity’s reward for its discoveries. Er, despite the Cold War and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946). Among the things my father left behind when he died was a collection of about one hundred Penguin paperbacks he’d bought in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of them directly from the publisher (there was a receipt in one). I’d read one or two of the books over the years, but few of the authors in the collection had appealed to me. But I took my pick of them, intending to give the authors I’d not read before a go. The Member of the Wedding was the first book I read of the ones I took. It wasn’t… to my taste. But it did not alter my plan to work my way through the collection. And that proved an excellent decision – as can be seen below. Twice.

Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (2011). Like the Leckie and Hurley mentioned above, this book received a lot of online attention. And even more so when it was turned into a television series. Many people recommended it to me because, they felt, it was the sort of science fiction I liked: near-future hard sf. I fucking hated it. I thought the book was terrible, with deeply embedded, and unquestioned, right-wing sensibilities. The attempt at diversity struck me as little more than a thin glaze. And the plot hinged on an act so heinous it should have been unthinkable to any civilisation that claimed to be, well, civilised. It was also American as fuck. I tried watching the TV adaptation, but gave up after one too many mentions of torture. Leviathan Wakes made me realise I was no longer willing to put up with the right-wing bullshit endemic in space opera which science fiction fandom, and the general sf-reading public, seems happy to accept.

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961). Among my father’s Penguin paperbacks were three by Malcolm Lowry – this collection, Under the Volcano and his debut, Ultramarine. I was aware of Under the Volcano, although I’d never read it; but I knew little about Lowry, his life or his other works. Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place was… interesting. Until I got to the novella, ‘Through the Panama’. It blew me away. I read more Lowry, learnt of the semi-autobiographical nature of his fiction. I loved that. I loved his discursive prose style, his use of meta-narratives. He became a favourite author, and I began to collect his books – in first edition. I have now read all of his fiction, except his last unfinished novel, La Mordida.

Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011). One of the things I dislike about the online culture surrounding books and fandom is that everything seems to be given five stars in reviews. It’s bad enough that many online reviews are indistinguishable from marketing hyperbole, but the tendency to give everything top marks has meant retailers’ ranking algorithms now count only the number of reviews, and don’t weight them by the number of stars given. Potentially, giving a book five stars is only setting up a future reader for disappointment. Which does not mean every now and again a book comes along that rightly deserves five stars. Girl Reading was one of those books. And, astonishingly, it was a debut. Sadly, Ward has yet to follow up on Girl Reading. I’ve been eagerly awaiting a second novel from her for eight years.

The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989). I started collecting copies of the Women’s Press sf titles partly because some of the books interested me, but also partly because they were ideal material for the SF Mistressworks website. Slonczewski was not an author I had read before, although her name was known to me, chiefly from her novel A Door into Ocean (also in the Women’s Press sf series). I had not expected much of The Wall Around Eden, but I was delighted to find the novel was put together like a precision-built watch. Many of the books I read, I read critically; but this was the first time I found the actual craft present in a novel to be the most impressive thing about it.

Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1974). Another read prompted by SF Mistressworks. Once I looked into it, I discovered there had been several female-only science fiction anthologies published over the years. Women of Wonder was not the first, but it was a prominent pioneer. And yet there are people who insist that women writing science fiction is a twenty-first century phenomenon. It’s a bullshit position. Women have been writing science fiction – very successfully – since it was invented. And there were many women who wrote novels and stories in early centuries which fed into what became science fiction. But, somehow, women sf authors were written out of the genre’s history, probably by the cyberpunks of the early 1980s. That rewriting of genre history was one of the inspirations behind SF Mistressworks. I went on to read – and review – several female-only sf anthologies, and found a number of authors whose longer works I then sought out.

HHhH, Laurent Binet (2012). This was a book that generated some small buzz among my circle of acquaintances on social media, despite not being genre – and most of my circle are genre writers and fans. It is, in fact, WWII history. And yet it’s also about the author and about the process of writing the history book. Its ostensible subject is Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi bigwig and war criminal, one of the men responsible for the Holocaust, and, during the period covered by HHhH, Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. But it’s not Heydrich, or Operation Anthropoid, the attempt to assassinate him (which succeeded more by accident than design), that puts HHhH on this list. The Nazis have never been an “enthusiasm” of mine. But I have always been a fan of experimental narratives – not so much experimental prose, like stream-of-consciousness, but narrative structures other than straightforward linear. HHhH helped crystallise my interest in such narratives – and helped explain why some books I had read in previous years had appealed to me so much. It’s something I’ve continued to explore, both in my reading and my own writing.

The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I think this was also a recommendation. Or perhaps I saw a review of it in a newspaper. There was another book with the same premise – a person who lives through several alternate variations of their life – which proved much more popular, particularly in genre circles, and that was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. But I fell in love with Erpenbeck’s dry reportage-like prose. If I had become disillusioned with genre’s turn to over-written and sentimental prose, then the clarity and emotional distance of Erpenbeck’s novel – albeit translated – was exactly the sort of fiction I wanted to read. And I went looking for it.

Party Going, Henry Green (1939). And speaking of clear prose, Henry Green is surely a master of it. I found this omnibus of three of his novels in a charity shop, but it was around six years before I got around to reading one of the novels. And then I was sorry I’d not read it much sooner. Green’s prose is among the best I’ve read. And, astonishingly, he makes no concessions towards his readers. Everything – the plot, the characterisation – is conveyed through dialogue. Coming from a science fiction background, a genre which feels a need to explain everything, a genre which has developed a number of techniques for lecturing the reader, not just in invented worlds and “facts”, but also in information the reader could easily find out for themselves, this was something to definitely striking. It might seem that mainstream fiction, or even crime fiction, or thrillers, do not use exposition, but of course they do, it just occupies a different place in the narrative. Green’s novels showed me that stripping back exposition to the bare minimum did not have to handicap a narrative.

Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). Nocilla Dream came to my attention via a review on a friend’s blog, and it sounded intriguing enough for me to give it a read. Like the Binet above, Nocilla Dream uses a non-standard narrative structure – in this case, short unrelated sections, only some of which are narrative. It is also pretty much the antithesis of Green’s fiction, in that some of the sections are pure exposition, pure dry reportage, not always related to the fictional narratives. There’s more, of course, to Mallo’s book, which is the first of a trilogy, and which spawned a literary movement, the Nocilla Generation, in Spain. I plan to explore the other Nocilla Generation writers, and have so far read only a novel by Álvaro Colomer, titled, coincidentally, Uppsala Woods, but few of the books have been translated into English, and Spanish is not a language I speak or read. Perhaps I should try learning it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1931). This was another book from my father’s Penguin collection. I knew of Faulkner, but knew nothing about the man or his fiction. An early twentieth-century US author – and while I had read one or two of them many years before, I couldn’t say any had really appealed to me. But The Sound and the Fury did something those other US novels had not done: it used an experimental narrative structure. It told its story through three limited POVs, none of which were actually central to the plot. I was hugely impressed. Books with complex narrative structures interest me, and it’s something I’m keen to explore in my reading. Faulkner’s prose is also wonderfully sharp. I have already read more Faulkner.

Here is the full list, for those of you like lists in, er, list form:

1 The Golden Bird, Jan Pieńkowski & Edith Brill (1970, UK)
2 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner (1960, UK)
3 Destination Moon, Hergé (1950, Belgium)
4 Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, Burne Hogarth (1972, USA)
5 Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951, UK)
6 Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton (1965, UK)
7 Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein (1953, USA)
8 Gray Lensman, EE Doc Smith (1951, USA)
9 The Trigan Empire, Don Lawrence & Mike Butterworth (1965, UK)
10 Jack of Eagles, James Blish (1952, USA)
10 Tactics of Mistake, Gordon R Dickson (1971, USA)
10 Time and Again, Clifford D Simak (1951, USA)
13 Final Stage, Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg, eds. (1974, USA)
14 Dune, Frank Herbert (1966, USA)
15 Traveller: Characters & Combat, Marc Miller (1977, USA)
16 The Undercover Aliens, AE Van Vogt (1950, USA)
16 The Winds of Gath, EC Tubb (1967, UK)
18 The Book of Alien, Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross (1979, UK)
19 The Dune Encyclopedia, Willis E McNelly, ed. (1984, USA)
20 The Future Makers, Peter Haining, ed. (1968, UK)
21 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975, USA)
22 The Right Stuff, Tom Wolff (1979, USA)
23 The Far Pavilions, MM Kaye (1978, UK)
24 Iceberg, Clive Cussler (1975, USA)
25 The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, Malcolm Edwards & Maxim Jakubowski (1983, UK)
26 Radix, AA Attanasio (1981, USA)
27 The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980, USA)
28 Serpent’s Reach, CJ Cherryh (1980, USA)
29 The Science Fiction Sourcebook, David Wingrove (1984, UK)
30 The War for Eternity, Christopher Rowley (1983, USA)
30 Under a Calculating Star, John Morressy (1975, USA)
30 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981, UK)
33 Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams (1985, USA)
34 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988, UK)
35 The Space Mavericks, Michael Kring (1980, USA)
36 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975, USA)
36 The Fith Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972, USA)
36 The Five Gold Bands, Jack Vance (1950, USA)
36 The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969, USA)
40 The Innocent, Ian McEwan (1990, UK)
41 Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990, UK)
42 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990, UK)
43 Raft, Stephen Baxter (1991, UK)
44 Semiotext(e) SF, Rudy Rucker, Peter L Wilson & Robert A Wilson, eds. (1989, USA)
44 The Brains of Rats, Michael Blumlein (1989, USA)
46 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988, USA)
47 Dreamside, Graham Joyce (1991, UK)
48 Iris, Wiliam Barton & Michael Capobianco (1990, USA)
49 A Vision of Battlements, Anthony Burgess (1965, UK)
49 How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge (1980, UK)
51 Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987, USA)
52 C is for Corpse, Sue Grafton (1986, USA)
52 Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992, USA)
54 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957, UK)
55 An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997, USA)
55 Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, Nicola Griffith & Stephen Pagel, eds. (1997, USA)
57 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993, USA)
58 Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996, USA)
59 Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953, UK)
60 The Master Mariner, Nicholas Monsarrat (1978, UK)
61 The Second Angel, Philip Kerr (1998, UK)
62 The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985, USA)
63 The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1974, USA)
64 The Mechanics of Wonder, Gary Westfahl (1998, USA)
65 The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA)
66 Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1987, UK)
67 The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowski & Moebius (1980, France)
67 Valérian and Laureline 4: Wlecome to Alflolol, Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières (1972, France)
69 The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980, UK)
70 Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin (1999, UK)
71 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007, UK)
72 Moondust, Andrew Smith (2005, UK)
73 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005, USA)
74 Poems, John Jarmain (1945, UK)
75 Postwar Military 4: Avro Vulcan, Andrew Brookes (1985, UK)
76 The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott (1966 – 1975, UK)
77 The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison (1961, USA)
78 First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005, USA)
78 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974, USA)
78 Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin (1973, USA)
81 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928, UK)
82 Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz (1961, USA)
83 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968, UK)
84 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992, USA)
85 Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991, UK)
86 Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013, USA)
86 God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011, USA)
88 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002, USA)
89 Spomeniks, Jan Kempenaers (2010, Belgium)
90 The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946, USA)
91 Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (2011, USA)
92 Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961, Canada)
93 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011, UK)
94 The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989, USA)
95 Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1974, USA)
96 HHhH, Laurent Binet (2012, France)
97 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012, Germany)
98 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006, Spain)
99 Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK)
100 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1931, USA)


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100 books, part 4

The 1990s had seen me expand my reading from purely genre fiction and read more widely within science fiction and fantasy. The former was chiefly from necessity – the only library I had access to possessed a limited genre collection. The latter was due to the members of the APA I was in discussing books that sounded like they were worth reading. The APA packed in shortly after the turn of the millennium, killed by the internet.

And the internet, ironically, made it much easier to purchase the books I wanted to read. No more poring through Andromeda’s monthly mailing catalogue to find interesting new books to buy. Now there was a certain humungous online retailer of books, and eBay for the out-of-print books. (This was not necessarily a good thing.) During the 1990s, I had bought books I wanted to own and read, but after my return to the UK in 2002 I started collecting them. Buying first edition copies, preferably signed, by my favourite authors. I returned to the UK with 45 boxes filled with books, of which around 80% were paperbacks. Over the next ten years, I would end up with five bookcases, double-stacked, of hardback books.

Which brings us to…

The 2000s

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1974). I’m not a fan of this book, or of Haldeman’s work in general, but this novel makes my list because it was the first book published in the SF Masterworks series. And the first book that really turned me into a collector of books. Originally, the SF Masterworks were numbered – although they managed to screw up the numbering… twice – and ran for ten years from 1999 to 2009, ending after 73 books. Naturally, I wanted them all. The series was relaunched in 2010 in a new yellow cover design, this time unnumbered, and with a much expanded list. I have all of the numbered versions – there was a rival Fantasy Masterwork series of 50 books, which I also collected – but have only dipped into the unnumbered series, some of which appeared in the original series anyway.

The Mechanics of Wonder, Gary Westfahl (1998). While I had read plenty of science fiction, I had read almost nothing about it. The previously mentioned APA often had discussions about the nature of the genre – there are as many theories of what it is as there are sf critics – which were formative in developing my own theories of science fiction, and where I often tried those theories out on my fellow APA members. The Mechanics of Wonder had a mixed response on publication, but I remember it being one of the first popular critical works on science fiction (rather than academic, that is; or collections of book reviews) I bought and read. I agree with Westfahl that the genre of science fiction as we now understand it was created in 1926 with the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories… but I’ve pretty much forgotten what else Westfahl had to say in the book.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990). Back in 2001, I bought the first six or so books of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series from a new bookshop in Abu Dhabi. I wanted to understand why they were so popular. I never did find out. It was the first instance I remember of reading a book (and its sequels) specifically to understand how they worked. They’re badly-written, bloated, and haphazardly plotted. The world-building is a hodge-podge of elements borrowed from other works, although it does seem to develop a character all its own as the series progresses. But it’s a mystery to me how the Wheel of Time ever became a best-seller. For some reason I have yet to work out, this year I decided to reread them all (to be fair, I’d never managed previously to make it to the final few volumes). Amusingly, people who had recommended the books twenty years ago now told me the books were rubbish. I knew that already.

Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1987). British comics tradition, unlike that of the US or France, has always been anthology-based – ie, each issue contains multiple strips, which may be standalone or part of a story spread across multiple issues. As a kid, I’d moved on from Beano and Dandy to war comics such as Warlord and Victory, which were popular then. Then 2000AD appeared, and that was the comic for me (plus Starlord and Tornado, which 2000AD later subsumed). I was never a big fan of US superhero comics, but growing up in the Middle East they were all that was available. The only superhero titles I remember reading from that time were The X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy, but I undoubtedly read others. I forget where I heard about Watchmen, and, to be honest, until I came to write this post I had thought I’d read it much early than after the millennium… but apparently not. It wasn’t just the main narrative that impressed me, but also that Moore had buttressed it with other narratives: some comic strips, some prose. Watchmen made me look afresh at superhero comics, particularly those published as “graphic novels”. My renewed appreciation of superhero comics did not last long – I gave up on them a second time a few years later. Oh, and for the record, the film adaptation of Watchmen has its flaws, but its ending is superior to the comic’s.

The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1980).
Valérian and Laureline 4: Welcome to Alflolol, Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières (1972). One of the reasons I turned my back on superhero comics was the new easy availability of French/Belgian bandes dessinées – initially English-language translations published only in the US, but also original French copies, sold on eBay; but then from publisher Cinebooks, who introduced a number of popular and long-running bandes dessinées series to the UK market. Some of these were not new to me. During the 1980s, when flying out to the Middle East for the holidays we would transit through Schiphol Airport, and there I would often buy copies of Heavy Metal, 1984 and Epic magazines. In Abu Dhabi in the 1990s, I stumbled across a few volumes of Valérian and Laureline, as well as individual volumes of the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, and Yoko Tsuno, all published as one-offs some time in the 1980s. But I didn’t start reading Valérian and Laureline (and Blake and Mortimer) in earnest until Cinebook began publishing them in the mid-2000s. Moebius, of course, I knew from Heavy Metal. Jodorowsky I discovered through his films, probably after hearing of his attempt at adapting Dune, and then learning he had written a highly-regard science fiction bande dessinée. Unlike superhero comics, I still read bandes dessinées, and there are a number of series I follow.

The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980). I think I set out to read this book, and its prequel, The Balkan Trilogy, specifically because Manning was in Egypt during World War 2 at the same time as Lawrence Durrell, and both were part of a community of British writers in North Africa. Which is partly where Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet came from. But I loved both of Manning’s trilogies, and hunted round for more of her fiction. Her books also kindled an interest in British postwar fiction by women writers, and I sought out female authors who had been active between the 1930s and 1960s. It proved to be a larger project than I’d anticipated, and many of the books were long out of print, but I did find some interesting works by the likes of Storm Jameson, Pamela Frankau, Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) and Susan Ertz, Taylor especially becoming a favourite writer.

The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin (1999). I remember reading this in a hotel in Altrincham. I was in the city for a two-day training course. Despite growing up in the Middle East, I knew very little about early Arab history and culture – although I did know the history of the countries in which I’d lived, Qatar, Oman and the UAE, and to some extent, Saudi Arabia. But I knew nothing about the Abbasids and the Ummayads and so on. The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, originally published as Night and Horses and the Desert, proved fascinating stuff, and triggered an interest in mediaeval Arabic literature.

Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007). My father had seen a review of Ascent in a newspaper and mentioned the book in passing. I found a review in another paper and, yes, it seemed very much a book I wanted to read. But then I promptly forgot about it… until a visit to Waterstone’s some months later where I saw piles of Ascent on one of the tables just inside the doors. I bought it, I read it, and I fell in love with the detail-oriented prose. I wanted to write like that. And Ascent did indeed become a touchstone work when I was writing the Apollo Quartet. It’s hard to overstate how much it inspired my writing of those books. I’ve kept an eye open for works by Mercurio ever since, although these days he’s better known for his TV work than his novels. I can certainly recommend An American Adulterer, but Bodies was a bit too gruesome for me (and I’m unlikely to ever watch the TV series). I’m eagerly awaiting more fiction from Mercurio, but meanwhile we have his Line of Duty TV series, which has proven to be one of the best thriller series on British television in recent years.

Moondust, Andrew Smith (2005). I don’t actually remember the Moon landings – I was only six when Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow valley. I do, however, recall watching on television the ASTP orbital rendezvous in 1975. I forget why I read Moondust, possibly a copy I found in a charity shop. I’d bought a couple of the Apogee mission reports several years before after finding them in an Abu Dhabi bookshop, and was fascinated by the engineering involved in the Moon landings. But Moondust deepened my interest – so much so I started hunting for astronaut autobiographies and other books about the US space programme. I call these “enthusiasms”, an interest that takes you over so much you build up an extensive library on the subject. I even went so far as to start up a website, A Space About Books About Space, where I reviewed the books on the topic I read. Sadly, the site has been moribund since 2013. I really should start contributing to it again, but all my books are now in storage. The books I bought, incidentally, proved extremely useful when writing the Apollo Quartet.

Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005). I became aware of Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press, an explicitly feminist genre small press based in the US, when it published Gwyneth Jones’s Life. I think the first three books of Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle were on sale, and they sounded interesting, so I ordered them. I read the first book and thought it was good. But it wasn’t until I had all five books that I read the rest – in fact, I reread Alanya to Alanya and then worked my way through the sequels. It is among the best first contact science fiction ever published. Elizabeth Weatherall is one of the genre’s great characters. The Marq’ssan Cycle made me a fan of Duchamp’s writing as well as her Aqueduct Press, and now I now buy her books as soon as they are published. Her work has also impacted how I read other science fiction works, due to its explicitly feminist approach, particularly those by female sf authors of the 1940s to the 1980s.

Poems, John Jarmain (1945). At one point in the decade, I frequented the Interzone forum online, and somehow or other found myself spending most of my time in its poetry forum. I’d been a fan of Wilfred Owen and his poetry since the early 1990s, had read several biographies of him, and could even quote two or three poems from memory. I had also explored other poetry of the Great War. The Durrell connection to Olivia Manning had led to an exploration of the Salamander and Personal Landscape groups of writers and poets based in North Africa during World War II. Which included John Jarmain. I tracked down a copy of his poetry collection, and even his sole novel, Priddy Barrows. He was killed in France in 1944. Neither of his books made it past their first printing – and copies of Priddy Barrows now go for around £200 – and he was mostly forgotten, until the publication of a book about him in 2012. Jarmain – and the Interzone forum – kicked off an interest in poetry, particularly that of the 1930s and 1940s, and I bought several anthologies published during that period – one even included a review slip – and discovered several poets who became favourites, such as Bernard Spencer and Terence Tiller.

Postwar Military Aircraft 4: Avro Vulcan, Andrew Brookes (1985). I forget what triggered it – perhaps it was a rewatch of the film Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart – but in the late 2000s, I decided I wanted to read about jet bombers, especially Cold War ones; and this became another “enthusiasm”. Postwar Military Aircraft 4: Avro Vulcan was the first book on the subject I read (and I eventually picked up copies of all seven books in the series). I remembered the Avro Vulcan from my childhood and teen years, and I’d always thought it a fascinating aircraft. Over several years, I bought lots of books on various fighters and bombers from US, USSR and UK. Although not as long-lived an enthusiasm as my space one – and I never did really get to use Cold War supersonic bombers in my fiction writing, despite the joke coining of a new subgenre, jetpunk – I still ended up buying far too many books on the topic. A lot of them I had to get rid of when I moved.

The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott (1966 – 1975). Like pretty much every Brit of my age, I had seen The Jewel in the Crown television series back in the early 1980s, and was aware it was an adaptation of a series of books. I stumbled across paperback copies one day in a charity shop – 69p each, buy one get one free; so I got the full quartet for the princely sum of £1.38. As soon as I started reading the books, I loved them. Scott’s control of voice was amazing, and Barbara Batchelor is one of British Postwar fiction’s greatest characters. As someone who had grown up in the Middle East, the books spoke to me in other ways as well. I immediately started collecting Scott’s books, and even tracked down copies of his earlier works, most of which are long out of print.

The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison (1961). I first read this back in the early 1980s. I suspect I bought the book in the school bookshop mentioned in an earlier post. But in 2009, I set myself a reading challenge: to reread science fiction novels I’d loved as a teenager. And I had loved The Stainless Steel Rat – and, in fact, had bought and read the series throughout the 1980s – but, oh dear, the reread did not go well. I absolutely hated the book. It was piss-poor science fiction – you could have moved the plot to the 1960s, with only superficial changes needed – and the treatment of the villain, Angelina, was hugely offensive. I purged my bookshelves of all my Harry Harrison novels. Just because you loved a book as a teen, that does not make it a good book or worth recommending to other people. Reread the book. If you still like and admire it, fair enough. You probably won’t, though. They say the Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen, but my reread of The Stainless Steel Rat, and some of the other books in that same reading challenge, brought that aphorism rudely home.

First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005)
Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin (1973). This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings, but back in 2009, as part of the fortieth anniversary celebrations, I decided to read the autobiographies – biography in Armstrong’s case – of the three Apollo 11 astronauts and review them on my A Space About Books About Space blog. Which I did. But I also wanted to write an alternate history story about the Apollo programme as part of my blog’s celebration. Unfortunately, I got stuck about 500 words in, and failed to finish it in time for the anniversary. Several months later, the writing group I was in put on a flash fiction competition and it occurred to me my alternate Apollo might work better as flash fiction. It did. I banged out an additional 500 words, titled the story ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, and published it on A Space About Books About Space here. I had enjoyed the process of researching and writing the story so much I wanted to try something similar at a longer length… and that’s where Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the Apollo Quartet, came from. I would subsequently read many more books on space exploration over the next few years as research for my writing.