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Reading diary 2018, #4

A mixed bag this time around, although I’ve used that excuse before. I read what interests me. If I’m swayed by fads, it’s for one book or two. I read books by friends – but I have a lot of friends who write a variety of types of fiction. Which doesn’t always mean that I automatically like it. The one thing I demand is quality of prose, and I’m happy to read books from any genre that is well-written. The only problem is that different genres seem to rate prose differently. Which is bollocks. I’ve seen reviews of YA novels rate the writing as “excellent” when it’s barely functional. If it’s not up there with the classics, then it’s hardly good. If your book is still admired for its prose 100 years later, then it might be considered excellent. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

The Ghost from the Grand Banks, Arthur C Clarke (1990, UK). Of the Big Three sf writers of the last century, I read more Heinlein than I did Clarke or Asimov. The last I always thought a piss-poor writer, and for some reason Clarke never clicked with me. You’d have thought he would, given he tackles the sort of subjects I enjoy in my sf, and he was very much the hardest, in sf terms, of the three. So you’d also think The Ghost from the Grand Banks, which is about something that has interested me for the past few years, would go down well. It didn’t. The title refers to the wreck of the Titanic, and the novel is basically a rewrite of Cliver Cussler’s Raise the Titanic!, without the implausible thriller-type histrionics, or exclamation mark, and with a series of lectures on, er, Mandelbrot Sets instead. Clarke even has a dig at the film adaptation of Cussler’s novel. The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is rapidly approaching, and two groups of people decide to raise the wreck to mark it. Since the wreck is in two parts, they’ll each raise one part using different methods. A British consortium plans to use glass spheres to float the forward part of the wreck, and a Japanese-American group will freeze the stern part in an iceberg, which they will then shoot to the surface using rockets. This is a book that revels in its use of future technology, and yet manages to get most of it wrong. It’s an occupational hazard of near-future sf, I admit, but most such novels are written such that they’re readable years later. Clarke didn’t appear to care. And perhaps with good reason: he’d sell boatloads, and if the book was out of print 12 months later, he had plenty of other properties pulling in the cash. It’s not that Clarke stinted on his research, more that it all feels re-used – as if he’d done it for another project and decided to get extra mileage out of it by writing this novel. Which is pretty bad. The characterisation is paper-thin, the plot is obvious, the science is mostly incidental, and the computer technology described is completely off-base… Not one of Clarke”s best. Missable.

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock (2013, UK). This was Charnock’s debut novel, but I’ve jumped about a bit in reading her books, having read her latest most recently. However, she doesn’t stray from her shtick, so I’d a good idea what to expect. A Calculated Life provides the setting of Charnock’s novella, The Enclave, which is good, but suffers from not knowing the setting, as revealed in A Calculated Life. A flaw I have now rectified. In the near-future of A Calculated Life, which seems to be set after some sort of climate crash as Lancashire now has a Mediterranean climate, “simulated humans” are relatively common in the workplace. They’re force-grown, and genetically-engineered for certain traits. The main character of A Calculated Life is Jayna, one such simulated human. She works for a private company in Manchester, predicting economic and social trends based on seemingly unconnected events. She is very good at it – much better than “bios” and earlier models of simulants. But driving her ability is an obsession to learn as much as possible about people… and so she begins to secretly break out of her carefully prescribed life. This involves several trips to an enclave, as sort of working class suburb of Manchester which the government has pretty much abandoned – a sort of a cross between a ghetto and a barrio. Charnock paints a convincing portrait of a late-twenty-first century Britain which has responded to a drop in population due to climate change (rather than due to Brexit, although climate change will inevitably follow). The world-building is very low-key – and if only more sf writers did it so – to the extent it takes a while to figure out what is what. There’s enough that is the same, and enough that’s very different, to keep the reader comfortable as they slowly learn what’s what. The writing is good, clear and neither showy nor flashy, but this is not a long novel, only 208 pages. It does make it feel a little insubstantial. It’s good, but, happily, each new book by Charnock is better than the last. Her most recent, Dreams Before the Start of Time, will be getting the #1 slot on my ballot at the BSFA Awards (I’m especially happy it made the shortlist). Charnock is proving to be a name to watch, although I think she has something much more substantial than what  she was written so far yet to deliver. If you’ve not read her yet, why not?

The Assassinators, Philip Boast (1976, UK). Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I read four books by Boast that were sort of deep history occult/religious thrillers set in and around London: Resurrection, Deus, Sion and Era. I really enjoyed them. But as far as I could discover, they were the only four books like that Boast had written (and Era, published in 2000, was his last). His other novels appeared to be historical fiction, also set in and around London. But recently I stumbled across mention of his first novel, The Assassinators, described as a straight-up thriller. So I found a cheap copy on eBay, bought it, and… Um, it’s not very good. The writing is pretty poor, in fact. A self-made millionaire decides the world is over-populated and it will lead to catastrophe in a decade or two. So there needs to be a cull – in fact, the UK’s population needs to be reduced to around thirty million. So he arranges to poison the water supply in Merton Regis, a south coast town mostly populated by OAPs (I think I’ve been there, but it was called Eastbourne; horrible place). The plan, of course, does not go as, er, planned. The thugs he hired to poison the water tank screw it up. They put the poison in successfully enough, but leave clues which lead back to the industrialist. Whose wife has also learnt of the plan and is against it, straining their already-strained marriage. Meanwhile, the industrialist has vivid dreams about a post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by a nucealr war brought on by his plans to cull the world population. The Assassinator is not a great book, and in places reads like it’s set much earlier than its publication date – by at least a decade or two. I still like Boast’s last four novels – and I ought to reread them one of these days – but this was an inauspicious start.

Devices and Desires, E Arnot Robertson (1954, UK). I already have a novel by a British postwar novelist titled Devices and Desires. That’s by Susan Ertz and it was published in 1972 (see here). Robertson’s book predates it by almost two decades… but it’s also the sort of story that would have been told two decades earlier. Hebe is a thirteen-year-old girl who, with her father, helps refugees cross Europe post-WWII. The book opens in Bulgaria, where they are helping a group of four refugees cross through Macedonia into Greece – during the Greek civil war – and so onto France and Spain. But Hebe’s father is accidentally shot by andartes – Greek resistance fighters – and so she is forced to lead the group on by herself. After entering Macedonia, they stop for food at a remote farm, and end up staying for several days. In fact, it gets easier to stay than to continue on. But when a “helobowie” – a Greek expat returning to his home village to show off his new-found affluence – turns up, it attracts the attentions of the andartes, and only Hebe and one of her refugees escape. Hebe is reluctant to accept help, because any well-meaning aid agency will immediately send her to a “displaced persons” camp, and she has her own plans. I had no real idea what to expect when I bought Devices and Desires. Robertson was a name on a list of postwar British women writers I planned to work my way through – I’m already a fan of a few, such as Olivia Manning and Elzabeth Taylor – and I admit I picked Devices and Desires because it shared its title with that Ertz novel. But. I liked it. It paints a vivid portrait of the Balkans, it’s careful to set out all the various factions as objectively possible, and it shows a pragmatic, but compassionate, attitude to the problem of refugees. Though it’s set in the decade following WWII, in lands still suffering from the war’s effects, both politically and economically, there’s little in it that dioes not apply today. Refugees deserve our compassion – and ours more than anyone else’s, since we’re the ones causing the refugee crisis in the first place. It’s quite simple: if you don’t want brown people flowing across your borders, don’t bomb the shit out of their homes or keep the various factions in their wars supplied with weaponry and ammunition. It’s a problem with a very simple solution. Unfortunately, that solution means multinational companies foregoing profits. Which will never happen. Devices and Desires is at least set post WWII, and during a civil war precipitated byt the invasion of Greece, and the withdrawal of the invading forces. Robertson’s prose is very much of her time, but I like that style of prose. Hebe is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Devices and Desires is not the most gripping novel ever written – it can be slow in places, and the interiority occasionally overwhelms the plot – but the characterisation is assured and the setting is described well. I’m tempted to try more by Robertson. Which was the whole point of reading postwar British women writers in the first place.

Dun da de Sewolawen, Christina Scholz (21018, Austria). I was completely clueless reading this until I later discovered that it was based on the language invented by French prog rock band Magma. When I looked them up, I had a brief moment of déjà vu… and I wondered if it had all been explained to me beforehand but I’d forgotten. If so, I had, er, forgotten. But my ignorance actually enahnced the reading. I found out about it afterwards, and that was interesting. Anyway. the story is a sort of Le Guin-esque coming-of-age piece, which partly uses the world and language of Magma. It’s set on a world colonised by humans, but which had previously be inhabited by a long-dead race. And the humans are slowly integrating some of the culture ofthat long-dead race – through the artefacts they discovered – into their own culture, most noticeably words from Magma’s made-up language, Kobaïan. The writing is polished – had I not known, I’d never have guessed English was not the author’s first language – and most of the unfamiliar terms are parseable from context. It’s a simple enough story, told in first person, that uses unfamiliar vocabulary to add a gloss of strangeness… but what makes it for me is that the strangeness exists independently of the story’s world. It is googleable. It was something I used when writing the Apollo Quartet, that as much as possible “invented” in the three novellas and one novel had an independent existence outside the story. You could look them up in Wikipedia. And that’s true here of Kobaïan and its concepts. For me, it gives an added dimension to the prose. And that pushed Dun da de Sewolawen from a nicely-written Le Guin-esque sf story to something a bit more than that. It also made me want to listen to anything by Magma. Which I have yet to do.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131



Reading diary 2018, #3

Another half a dozen books read. So far, I’m staying on track with my reading challenge.

Calling Major Tom, David M Barnett (2017, UK). I know the author and had previously enjoyed his popCult! (see here), and Calling Major Tom sounded like it might appeal and was getting a big push from its publisher… And, okay, “feel-good” is not a term likely to draw me to a book, nor is “quirky” for that matter. But I trusted Barnett not to be horribly sentimental… and I’m glad I did. Major Tom is a British astronaut on his way to Mars. He wasn’t the original choice for the mission, he was actually a chemist working at the British Space Agency, who had been tasked with looking after the real astronaut. But the real astronaut keeled over and died of a heart attack – no one said this novel was especially plausible; it has a UK with a space programme instead of one on a headlong rush to economic catastrophe, after all – and Thomas Major, a complete misanthrope, took his place. But when his spacecraft’s communications gear goes offline after something strikes the antenna, he has to use a mobile phone to contact Earth. And he decides to use it to contact his ex-wife. Except the number now belongs to a dysfunctional family in Wigan, the Ormerods: Gladys (Nan), teenager Ellie and eight-year-old James. Their father is in prison, their mother died years before, Gladys is suffering from the onset of dementia, Ellie is holding down two jobs to bring money into the household after Nan was 419’d, and James is being bullied at school. And somehow, Major Tom, a complete curmudgeon, who wants nothing to do with people anymore, helps them turn their lives around. Calling Major Tom is, scarily, clearly “feel-good”. But it’s also funny… and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. Frankly, I’m not surprised it’s doing so well because it ticks a lot of the boxes that successful commercial fiction – that isn’t thriller fiction with plots generated by a very small shell script – ticks. Worth reading. (And yes, the central premise of a lone astronaut travelling away from Earth did remind me a little of a short story which appeared in Postscripts, but never mind…)

Love’s Body, Dancing in Time, L Timmel Duchamp (2004, USA). Duchamp is possibly best-known as the owner of Aqueduct Press, an excellent US small press which focuses on feminist genre fiction, but she is also an accomplished science fiction and fantasy writer in her own right. In fact, her ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ I would count as one of the ten best science fiction stories ever written and her Marq’ssan Cycle one of the best sf series about first contact. Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is her first collection, and contains a short story, two novelettes and two novellas. ‘Dance at the Edge’ takes place on a world where some people – or so the narrator believes – can see a border into another world, but they lose the facility when they turn adult. In ‘The Gift’, a travel writer returns to a world famous for its culture, falls in love with a famous singer, but then discovers the price he paid for his voice (think The Alteration). ‘The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi’ is something Duchamp has done before – a well-researched, and convincing, historical story that slowly drifts into genre territory. In this case, the title character is a young woman confined to a convent to keep her away from a young man whose father wants him to marry well. This is very much a story which takes place in the world of women. The shortest peice in the collection is ‘Lord Enoch’s Revels’, which describes a party hosted by the eponymous peer, during some indefinable period, which may or may not be supernatural. The last story in Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is also the longest: ‘The Héloïse Archive’. It is worth the price of entry alone. A framing narrative describes the main text as a series of undiscovered letters between famous historical romance lovers Héloïse and Abelard, but as the letters progress so things begin to diverge from known history. It’s hardly an original idea, although showing the effects of time travellers’ interference in this secondary manner is quite original – the only other example I can think of is Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History. And like that humungous novel, Duchamp’s novella displays an impressive amount of research. The story of Héloïse and Abelard is fascinating in its own right – the real story, that is, as it unfolds here, before gradually swerving off the rails. Every time I read something by Duchamp, I’m surprised she’s not better known. I suspect the fact that much of her output these days is published through Aqueduct Press, her own press – and that’s not a criticism, by any means – which is a proudly feminist genre press, and Duchamp herself is a very feminist writer… and I’m all too sadly aware how many Neanderthals there are in sf fandom who think “feminism” is a dirty word… Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is not an especially strong collection – although that last novella is a killer – but there are works I would demand be read in Duchamp’s oeuvre – both mentioned earlier (and I’m not the only one to think so about ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ as it opens Sisters of the Revolution, an excellent anthology of feminist sf). Seek out her work – especially the Marq’ssan Cycle or a more recent collection, Never at Home (see here).

The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I’m trying to get things back on track in 2018 that I’d let slide in 2016 and 2017. Such as SF Mistressworks, which now has two new reviews up after a nine-month hiatus – Emma Bull’s Falcon (see here) and Sydney J Van Scyoc’s Darkchild (see here). And reviewing books for Interzone. The last book I reviewed for the magazine was The Sand Men, which appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue (and the author was extremely unhappy with the review, but so fucking what). Anyway, it had always been my intention to return to reviewing for the magazine, and when I saw Simon Ings’s latest, The Smoke, was available, I thought it the perfect book to get me back into it. I’m not going to say too much about the novel here – you’ll have to buy the copy of Interzone for that – but I’ll admit I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s either bloody brilliant, or merely very good. It does so many things I’ve not seen a category sf novel do before, and it does them very effectively. I really liked Ings’s Wolves (see here) and it made my best of the year list. I suspect The Smoke will too.

The Taborin Scale, Lucius Shepard (2010, USA). I probably have this novella in The Dragon Griaule collection, but since I bought Shepard novellas as they were published (mostly by Subterranean Press, who these days seem happier publishing limited editions of best-selling genre novels – like Andy Weir’s Artemis, WTF?), so I also have The Taborin Scale as a standalone. In fact, I might well have all of the contents of The Dragon Griaule as either standalone novellas or in other collections, unless there was a story original to the collection, of course. Anyway, The Taborin Scale… A numismatist, George Taborin, comes across a dragon scale in among a collection he bought, and travels to Teocinte, the town that has grown up beside the vast corpse of Griaule. There he consorts with a prostitute, to whom he gives the name Sylvia (not her real name). But something happens, and the two find themselves transported to another time, where Teocinte does not exist and Griaule is young and active and seems to have some purpose in drawing people to that time, although what it is remains unknowable. Taborin rescues a young girl from a group of transportees who had been abusing her, and the three eke out a precarious existence. But then Griaule dies – following the events of The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule – and Taborin and Sylvia and the girl find themselves abruptly back in Teocinte… And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure where this novella was intended to go. It felt like a story in search of a plot, spiced up by the use of footnotes, and carried on the back of earlier Griaule stories. Shepard was a bloody good writer, but he was often sloppy and some of his work often felt half-baked. He was widely-admired, and notoriously cranky, which may be why publishers accepted his stuff when it really needed another go around. And yet, having said that, Shepard’s prose was usually top-notch. It was a bit magpie-like, with a tendency to borrow styles, but it was always put together well. Which is why The Taborin Scale feels so much like a curate’s egg: a well-established prose style, a milieu Shepard had explored in other works (all based around a humungous metaphor)… but then there are the footnotes… and the general vagueness of the story. The Taborin Scale reads like a cross between an experiment and a contractual obligation. I guess I shall have to read the collection to see how it all fits together…

October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada). I came to Lowry’s fiction sort of accidentally. I knew of him, of course, and of his most famous novel, Under the Volcano; but I’d never read him, nor had any real desire to do so. But after my father died, my mother was clearing out some stuff, including a collection of Penguin paperbacks my dad had bought in the late 1960s (the receipts were still in the books), and which included, among many other authors, three books by Lowry. I took about two dozen of the paperbacks, including the Lowrys, and the first of the Lowrys I read was his collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. I was hugely impressed by the novella, ‘Through the Panama’. So I read the other two paperbacks, Ultramarine (see here) and Under the Volcano (see here). And then I wanted to read more… So I started collecting first editions of his books. And I have now read them all. October Ferry to Gabriola was his last, not published until thirteen years after his death. (In fact, only Ultramarine and Under the Volcano, and some of the contents of his collection, were published during his lifetime.) Ethan Llewellyn and his wife, Jacqueline, have been evicted from their shack on the Eridanus river and, after some time spent in Vancouver, have chosen to head for the small island of Gabriola to buy an advertised property. The novel opens on the bus to the seaside town where they will catch the ferry, but pretty much heads straight into flashback, beginning with their home in Niagara-on-the-lake. But their home there burns down in a freak lightning strike. Leading to their move to Eridanus. October Ferry to Gabriola is a hit of the pure Lowry – from the plot recycling parts of Lowry’s own life, never mind parts of his other works (their neighbours in Eridanus are Sigbjørn and Primrose Wilderness, Lowry analogues in Dark is the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, ‘Through the Panama’ and a handful of stories), the long discursive sentences, the detailed self-reflective and self-analytical prose, the self-deprecating humour, and, of course, the copious amount of alcohol. This is great stuff, it’s just so good. I went slightly mad when I decided to collect Lowry, but I’ve yet to read anything by him that has caused me to question that madness. I’m only sorry I’ve run out of novels by him to read. I guess I’ll just have to start re-reading them…

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee (2017, USA). At Sledge-Lit last year, I was talking to Jeannette Ng, author of Under the Pendulum Sun, and we were discussing the novels of Georgette Heyer, and Jeannette recommended The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (she was clearly a fan as she’d decorated her nails in homage to the book). When I got home that evening, sat watching telly and having a drink or two, as you do, I found myself visiting the website of a well-known online retailer and ordering myself a copy of the book, as you, er, do… And now I have read it. Well, I complained earlier in this post that “feel-good” and “quirky” are not descriptors that draw me to a book, and there’s a lot in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue that would normally mean I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. For one, it’s YA. The narrator, Monty, is a bisexual teenager, the son of an earl. In eighteenth century England. In a novel written by an American woman. His sister, Felicity, is a bluestocking who wants to study medicine, and Percy, his best friend (for whom he’s burning a torch), is the adopted mixed parentage son of a family of Quality. The two guys are off on a Grand Tour, delivering the sister to a finishing school en route in Marseilles. In Paris, they’re invited to a party at Versailles, where Monty, who is a complete rake, upsets the the king’s ex-PM, the Duke of Bourbon, steals something from him, and then makes a complete tool of himself by running around the famous garden stark bollock naked after being caught in flagrante delicto… Except the item he stole proves to be important, especially to the Duke of Bourbon. It’s a box with a combination lock, and it contains a key to a tomb in which can be found an alchemical pancea. So Monty, Percy and Felicity are forced to go undercover and travel incognito to Barcelona to find the original owner of the box… The novel is told entirely from Monty’s point of view and he’s not at all convincing as an eighteenth-century teenager – and did they allow children out of the schoolroom before the age of twenty-one in the 1700s? The prose tries for British, but a quarter of the way in gives up, then it’s all “goddamn” this  and “goddamn” that. But pretty much everything Monty does or says results in a lecture from the other characters. Percy lectures him on his white privilege; Felicity lectures him on his male privilege; yet’s he’s bisexual and there’s little discussion of that, other than a generic condemnation by society (the author says in an afterword she researched “mollies”, but Monty doesn’t feel like a person who would be part of molly culture). The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue reads like contemporary characters in an historical setting. Lee is quite good at plotting, and she is generally good at setting the scene. But the characters do not convince. And the frequent lectures feel contemporary. When I compare a book like this to, say, William Golding’s Rites of Passage, then there’s no comparison. Golding’s novel does more, and more convincingly, in half the pages than The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. True, it doesn’t include the lectures on privilege, and there’s certainly a place for that, and I rue that fiction has to include such explicit lectures – but that says more about modern society and fandom than it does an individual novel. All told, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was not for me. The lessons it was teaching, I have been taught elsewhere (not that it isn’t an ongoing process)… which meant I looked at other elements of the story. And there, it failed. I can’t fault its objectives, but I wasn’t impressed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary 2018, #2

Okay, we’re just about a month into 2018 and it’s already proving a better reading year than 2017. Of course, the real test is keeping it going for 12 months… One of the other things I’d like to do, reading-wise, in 2018, beside read fiction from other countries, is to try and increase that 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count at the bottom of each of these posts. I’m not good on the classics, I need to read more of them. Would you believe I’ve only ever read one book by Charles Dickens? And while I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novel (except Emma), I’ve never read anything by a Brontë.

Meanwhile, some recently-published and recently-read fiction…

Acadie, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). I’m not entirely convinced by’s line of novellas if only because they like to suggest they either saved the novella or created the current market for them. Small presses have been publishing novellas for decades. Which is not to say are doing a bad thing. I like novellas so I can’t fault’s mission. True, many of the novellas they’ve published have not been to my taste – and one or two have, I feel, been lauded far more than they deserve – but … one or two of them have been entirely to my taste. Like this one. Dave Hutchinson is a friend but I also think his soon-to-be-more-than-a-trilogy of Europe books is excellent. Acadie, however, is much closer to heartland sf. The narrator is the president of the Writers, a group outlawed because of their experimentation on the human genome. He was a famous whistleblower and was recruited by them. When the Writers learn their hideout may have been discovered, they kick into action a plan to abandon the star system and settle elsewhere. The narrator is one of several people left behind to oversee the withdrawal and ensure the Writers are not tracked to their new home. But what he learns calls into question everything he knows. Okay, so the big twist isn’t that hard to spot, and while I’m no fan of first-person narratives, it’s hard to see how this story would work in third-person. If I have one complaint, it’s the depictions of the Writers’ society are both a little extreme, which undermines the point they’re trying to make. But otherwise, this is good stuff. It may well make the BSFA Award shortlist.

Orbital 7: Implosion, Pellé & Runberg (2017, France). Cinebook have been doing an excellent job introducing well-known bandes dessinées to the UK market, but my interest lies pretty much exclusively in the sf titles, such as Valerian and Laureline and this one, Orbital. The series follows the adventures of a human and Sandjarr, both mavericks, who were once members of their respective races’ diplomatic corps. Humanity lost a war to the Sandjarrs and hate them, so the first couple of volumes were chiefly concerned with normalising relations between the pair. But now they’re pretty much partners, and it’s a wider conspiracy seeking to undermine the human-Sandjarr alliance which provides the stories. Neuronomes, giant sentient ships which were instrumental in saving the galaxy in the previous two-volume story, have been mysteriously blowing themselves up, killing millions of people. Caleb and Mezoke are on the alien space station of Tetsuam, trying to track down a clue to what is affecting the Neuronomes. This may be the start of a new story, but it makes little or no sense without knowledge of the earlier six volumes. Which are worth reading anyway. Good stuff.

The Rift, Nina Allan (2016, UK). There’s no doubt that Allan is one of the more interesting genre writers the UK has produced in the past few years. She came out of slipstream and dark fantasy and has moved into science fiction, and her beginnings very much flavour her stories. The Rift is only her second try at novel-length, and even then her first, The Race, felt more like three novellas badly welded together than it did a novel… which sort of makes The Rift Allan’s first successful attempt at novel-length fiction. Because the one thing The Rift is… is a much more coherent narrative than The Race. (To be fair, the lack of coherence was a feature of The Race‘s narrative, it just didn’t quite work for me.) The problem I have with The Rift, and it’s fairly minor, is that I can’t decide if it’s stunningly clever, or just very clever with accidental elements of stunning cleverness. Obviously, I’d like to believe the former, but I’m also all too aware of how writers can unwittingly include more in their fiction than they realise. The plot in a nutshell: Selena’s sister, Julie, disappeared twenty years ago, assumed to have been a victim of a serial killer caught at that time, but now she has re-appeared and claims to have spent much of the two decades on an alien world she accidentally reached through a “rift”. The alien world feels like something which might have been invented for a 1970s science fiction novel, internally rigorous but also strangely familiar. It didn’t help, for me, that some of the invented names sounded like places in Denmark (Nooraspoor = Nørreport?). The big question is: did Julie really spend her time there, or has she made it up? And The Rift refuses to commit to one or the other. Is Julie perhaps an imposter? The final section of the novel seems to suggest as much, but Serena refuses to believe it, on more than sufficient evidence. The beauty of The Rift is that refusal to commit. It’s a lovely piece of writing – but that’s not unexpected for Allan – but it’s also a coherent straight-through narrative, enlivened with a few tricks such as changes of tense or person or POV, and it’s because the story is a neat contained whole, so to speak, that the narrative’s refusal to commit to a truth is so striking. It’s a novel that stays with you, not just because of the story it tells but because of the way it tells its story. It is, without a doubt, Allan’s best work yet.

My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (2015, USA). I nominated this for a BSFA Award in 2016 based on a read of the first few chapters… but I never got around to finishing the book off. Which I have now done. And it deserved that nomination. Which, sadly, came to nothing anyway. Inspired by the sight of a mannequin’s head in a basket of tat at a flea market, Wosk began researching female automatons, both historical and fictional. But not just mechanical ones, or indeed magical ones from mythology. She discusses Eliza Doolittle, for example, as well as several early genre stories about mechanical women. The book then goes on to cover mechanical women in films of the 1920s and 1930s, then films and television of the decades following, before moving onto actual female robots. If you consider the robot trope in science fiction as a signifier for slavery, or for at the very least for “invisible” domestics, then it’s no great stretch to see artificial women as little more than a signifier for deep misogyny. Artificial women are, after all, above all biddable. They are the ultimate in male gaze, mirrors of the male gaze in fact; so it’s little wonder they’ve proven popular in genre. Of course, there are those examples which subvert the trope – at the end of Pygmalion, Eliza is her own woman and no longer Higgins’s toy; in Metropolis, the robot Maria is used to foment revolt among the workers; in Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, Ossi Oswalda’s impersonation of a doll sees her take control of the story… If there’s a weakness to My Fair Ladies, although it is a fascinating read, it’s that it doesn’t cover much written science fiction, covering only early genre stories and then films and television. When you consider the use of artificial women in written sf since WWII, and especially in the past couple of decades… the trope is even more pernicious, such as the title character of the awful The Windup Girl. There are no female Pinocchios. At least, there are none written by men. Madeline Ashby’s vN features a female robot as a protagonist, but she’s on the run after breaking free of her safety protocols. Jennifer Pelland’s Machine is a much more interesting work, although it is about a woman who has been decanted into a robot body while her human body is treated for a fatal condition. The treatment of artificial women in science fiction is, of course, a consequence of the treatment of women in science fiction – both in narratives and in the real world. And while women have always been writing science fiction, it’s a trope they’ve not typically made use of, and so it’s been developed almost exclusively by male writers. I would like to see that change.

Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I bought this when it was first published, so it’s taken me nearly eight years to get around to reading it. And I’m a big fan of Crowley’s writing. Oops. Having said that, I’ve yet to read Endless Things, which I bought in 2007, chiefly because I want to reread Ægypt (AKA The Solitudes), Love & Sleep and Dæmonomania first… But: Four Freedoms, which is entirely unrelated and not even genre. The title refers to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”: 1 freedom of speech, 2 freedom of worship, 3 freedom from want, and 4 freedom from fear. It is is set during WWII and chiefly concerns people who work at an aircraft factory in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The bomber these people are building is the B-30 Pax, but it’s clearly an analogue of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, which did not see service during WWII (but from 1949 to 1959, to be precise) and was one of the great Cold War bombers of the US. Only 384 were built, but the novel claims 500 of its “B-30″s were built. Crowley mentions in an afterword that he didn’t intentionally model the B-30 on the B-36 and only later discovered the Pax / Peacemaker synchronicity and that the B-36 had been damaged by a cyclone at Fort Worth echoing events in his novel. I believe him – you don’t put “wow synchronicity!” notes in your afterword unless that’s what they were. The actual story of Four Freedoms is that of female and disabled members of the US workforce during WWII. The novel focuses on the factory which builds the B-30, but tells the story of several characters, introducing them and then telling their back-story through flashback. It’s a beautiful piece of writing – effortlessly readable, effortlessly convincing. I had forgotten how good Crowley is. I really ought to get started on my read of Endless Things

Autumn, Ali Smith (2016, UK). This was my first Ali Smith. I know her name, of course, although she has appeared on my radar more often recently as her fiction of the last few years seems to be borderline genre. Or rather, is genre but not published as such. And Autumn seems to be a case in point. Although to be fair, had it been published as genre, it would have generated no end of complaints and killed Smith’s career as a genre writer. Happily, it was published as lit fic, and those of us not so tied to space opera, mil sf, grimdark, etc. we can read nothing else, can enjoy it as genre. The novel opens with a man on a beach who appears to be in some sort of afterlife, and then abruptly shifts to the life of Elisabeth Demand, an art history lecturer. As a child she had made friends with her neighbour, an OAP called Daniel, who had been a songwriter. Years later, she discovers he is terminally ill and begins visiting him in his nursing home. At which point she realises that he is the only man she has ever loved, despite their great difference in ages, and that has affected all her relationships. The narrative bounces back and forth through time, telling each character’s story, and introducing Pauline Boty, a female British Pop artist, whose works and contributions have been criminally forgotten (in real life, that is). She was Daniel’s one great love, although she was married and did not return his feelings – but because of her, Daniel could not love Elisabeth. Much is made in reviews of the book’s post-Brexit setting, but to anyone who has lived in the North after a decade of the Tories’ criminal Austerity it seems pretty much what life in the UK is like now. I’m not sure about Smith’s prose. It seemed at first a little OTT, and some of the stream of consciousness sections seemed to serve little purpose. I’ll read more by Smith, I think, but I’m not about to dash out and read everything she has written.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #1

I seem to be keeping up with my New Year Resolution to read more books. Monday to Thursday, when I get home from work, I spend an hour reading before making dinner or putting on a DVD. And I managed to polish off five books over the first weekend of the year – true, three were bandes dessinées and one was novella, but still…

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK). I’d expected to dislike this – so why I took with me to read over Christmas, I’ve no idea. I read Faber’s Under the Skin many years ago, and hated it (but I thought Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation was excellent). So I had expected something similar, even if the blurb sounded more like the BBC TV series Outcasts than anything else (although I may have been getting confused because there’s apparently a TV series in development based on The Book of Strange New Things; and, to be fair, I thought Outcasts a great deal better on rewatch). Anyway, expectations relatively low. So I was surprised to find that not only did I enjoy The Book of Strange New Things, but I also thought it pretty good. Peter Leigh has been selected by corporation USIC to serve as pastor at their exoplanet settlement. His wife, unfortunately, has to remain behind in the UK. On arrival at the exoplanet, called Oasis, he finds a small colony of apathetic engineers, all of whom live mostly on foodstuffs provided by a nearby town of the planet’s low-tech and enigmatic natives. It’s the natives, in fact, who have demanded a vicar’s presence, as some of them have taken up Christianity and the company doesn’t want to jeopardise the supply of foodstuffs. Leigh decides to build a church, with the help of his “Jesus Lovers”, the Oasisan Christians. Meanwhile, Leigh writes emails to his wife back in the UK. As he tend his flock on Oasis, and gradually understands what drives them, so she describes a UK falling apart bit by bit, testing both her faith and her love for her husband. Leigh is a bit pathetic as a protagonist, and the people with which he works are no better; but the aliens are really done quite well, and aspect of their nature which has driven some of them to human religion is tragic and provides a neat twist. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award in 2015, but lost out to Station Eleven (see here). I thought the Faber an odd choice at the time, but it deserved its place.

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I bought this after seeing many positive comments about it and, happily, it met my expectations. Cora Seaborne’s husband has just died and she, an amateur palaeontologist, decides to investigate stories she’s heard of the Essex Serpent. While in Chelmsford, she bumps into friends who tell her of their friend, William Ransome, a pastor, and his family in a coastal Essex village near where the Serpent has been spotted. So Cora and her autistic son go to visit them, and they all get on famously. Meanwhile, Luke Garrett, an ambitious surgeon, has his eye on Cora – he treated her late husband, and now that she’s widowed he is keen to deepen his friendship. And his friend, George Spencer, a rich dilettante playing half-heartedly at doctor, has fallen in love with Cora’s maid, Martha, a socialist activist. It sounds like it should be a mess, a story pulling in so many different directions – Cora and her desire to solve the mystery of the Essex Serpent, not to mention her own ambivalence toward her gender and role in society; Garrett’s ambitions; Martha’s activism in the London slums; Ransome’s rational approach to his Christianity; Spencer’s failed romance with Martha… There’s a Gothic feel to the story, a likeness that’s heightened by its use in places of letter exchanges, but the prose is anything but Gothic. It’s, well, breezy – hugely readable, often funny, and with some very nice descriptive passages. The cast are drawn well, as are their relationships. And there’s plenty going on – politics, religion, science, not to mention a commentary on Victorian society. I thought The Essex Serpent very good indeed, an early possible contender for my best of the year. Recommended.

The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Writings, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1989, USA). I knew Gilman’s name chiefly from Herland, an early novel about a feminist utopia, which I own in the Women’s Press SF edition but have yet to read. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is perhaps her best known piece of short fiction. The narrator and her husband move into an old house, and the narrator becomes obsessed by the wallpaper in an attic room. She is convinced there is someone hidden inside the wallpaper who is desperate to escape and… well, it’s very atmospheric. The other stories, such as ‘If I Were a Man’ or ‘Turned’, are of their time, except for their overt feminist sensibilities. I’ve read early genre fiction by women writers, like Francis Stevens, Agatha Christie, Leslie F Stone, and, of course, CL Moore… but none them seemed to my mind to have as strong a female point of view as the stories in Gilman’s collection. The book also included an except from Herland, and a couple of excerpts from some of Gilman’s non-ficiton writing. I found the book in a charity shop a while ago, and bought it because I knew the name. But now I’m really glad I own a copy of it.

New Adventures in Sci-Fi, Sean Williams (1999, Australia). I’ve been a fan of Williams’s fiction since reading the space opera Evergence trilogy he wrote with Shane Dix back in 2003. And I’ve bought and read the sf novels written by the pair, and by Williams alone, ever since. And quite a few of Williams’s collections too. This was quite a hard one to find, I seem to remember. It’s relatively early stuff, but polished nonetheless, and even includes a favourite of mine, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ from 1995; although this time around it didn’t read quite as smoothly as I’d remembered. It’s still a bloody good sf story, though. The stories are mostly heartland sf, with a few dark fantasy. Of the sf, ‘The Soap Bubble’, in which a survey starship’s regular reports home are presented as episodes of a melodrama, at least until they meet an alien race, was quite cleverly done, and had a neat twist. ‘Reluctant Misty & the House on Burden Street’, a variation on the haunted house, was probably the best of the dark fantasy stories. The premises of some of the others felt a little secondhand and threadbare, although the stories were well told. I’m not sure what Williams is doing now – he started writing YA for a few years, and then went to Antarctica on some sort of writers’ programme. I really liked his space opera and hard sf novels, and it’s a shame he doesn’t seem to be writing them anymore.

Valerian and Laureline 20: The Order of the Stones and 21: The Time Opener, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2007/2010, France). These two volumes end the Valerian and Laureline story, begun back in 1967, although I’m sceptical the story-arc was fully plotted out at that time. Anyway, midway through the series, Galaxity, Valerian and Laureline’s employer disappeared after someone meddled with history, and the Earth was destroyed. After acting as free agents for several volumes, Valerian and Laureline ended up aboard an expedition to explore the Great Void. Where the Wolochs, mysterious stone beings, have appeared and are using the Triumvirate, three heads of criminal gangs, to attack humanity. In The Order of the Stones, the Wolochs go on the offensive, and the galactic civilisation is hard pressed to fend off their attacks. But there is one hope: the Time Opener. Which contains the Earth. But it can only be opened if enough people pure of heart are gathered together. And it’s the bringing together of these which forms the story of The Time Opener. Of course, they succeed. Interestingly, there were some bits and pieces from these two installments I sort of recognised from Luc Besson’s movie adaptation, demonstrating, I suppose, that his film was based on the entire series. Not that it was a good film. Overall, Valerian and Laureline have had a good run, and if the plot got somewhat convoluted somewhere around the middle – the final volume includes a timeline which does little to make sense of it all – and the ending was a bit weak, there were some excellent episodes along the way. It was a product of its time, but it didn’t hesitate to slip in contemporary digs at the real world in each of the volumes, which worked quite well because the two characters had travelled back in time and so the stories were partyl set on contemporary Earth. But there was plenty of space opera stuff too – so much so, the series is often mistaken taken to be an inspiration for Star Wars (there are similarities but they’re apparently coincidental). Perhaps the art never approached the gorgeousness of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, but the scripts were considerably better, albeit often somewhat compressed since each volume was no more than 48 pages. I first stumbled across these during the 1990s after Dargaud, their French publisher, made a half-hearted attempt to introduce them to the Anglophone market and published four random volumes in English. I started reading them in French, but happily Cinebook have been banging them out in English since 2010. They’re also now available in omnibus editions. Worth getting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #59

This is the last of 2017’s reading. I’m going to restart the numbering for 2018. I don’t remember why I didn’t for 2017, but never mind.

The Metabaron Book 1: The Techno-Admiral & the Anti-Baron, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen & Valentin Secher and The Metabaron Book 2: The Techno-Cardinal and the Transhuman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen & Niko Henrichon (2016/2017, France). As far as I can work out, Jodorowsky’s name only appears on the covers of these two graphic novels because the Metabarons are his characters (they were originally spin-offs from The Incal). The actual story of this trilogy – the third book is due out this year, I think – is by Jerry Frissen. The Techno-Techno Empire has control of Marmola, the planet that is the only source of the Epiphyte, used to fuel all starships. When they learn the last Metabaron is on his way to the planet, they assume he is going to wrest it from them. So they assign the Techno-Admiral, their cruellest warlord to to stop him. In the second book, the Techno-pope’s closest advisor is promoted to Techno-cardinal and then sent to Marmola to take over production, as the Eipiphyte stocks are dwindling. With him, he takes the Transhuman, an engineered assassin who has all sorts of built-in weapons. But the Metabaron is still out there, causing problems… Frissen manages a good pastiche of Jodorowsky’s bonkers storytelling – not just the bizarre ideas; but also the male gaze and whiff of misogyny (something happily missing from The Incal, but sadly not from its spin-offs). The artwork in the first volume is very -CG-like and really quite gorgeous. In the second, however, it’s more sketchy, more like the penciller’s work has been coloured. I didn’t think it as effective. On the whole, I suspect it’s a series for fans only, as there’s little here to attract a new audience or those unfamiliar with the universe or Jodo’s work.

Ways of Worldmaking, Ben Rivers (2017, UK). A compilation of notes by Rivers on his films, and essays by critics, some of which are about Rivers’s art/films while others are about the man himself. The book is copiously illustrated with stills, photographs and strips of film. It’s also a handsomely put together volume, a solid hardback (and stitched, not glued!), of the sort you seldom see these days in bookshops. Obviously, it’s only going to appeal to someone who appreciates Rivers’s films. I’ve seen only a handful of them – his three feature-length pieces and a couple of short films (included as extras on the DVDs of the former) – but I’m definitely a fan. So Ways of Worldmaking certainly gave me an insight into the man and his works. The title, incidentally, is deliberately taken from Nelson Goodman’s 1978 book, which was a seminal influence on Rivers at college. Goodman argued that “art, philosophy, and the various sciences all make statements about the nature of reality through the creation of ‘worlds’,” as one of the essays in Rivers’s Ways of Worldmaking explains. As someone who reads and writes science fiction, that’s an idea which resonates for me, although in sf the act of worldmaking is not so much overt as it is a fundamental tenet of the genre.

Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, Maryam Omidi (2017, UK). Titles don’t get more descriptive of a book’s contents than this one. Apparently, back in the day, Soviet workers were encouraged to go on holidays to places that were a combination of holiday resort and health spa (and surely the plural is sanatoria?). Many were on the Caspian Sea, but there were also plenty in the mountains, particularly the Urals and Caucasians. With the fall of the USSR, most of them fell into disrepair and closed down. But some kept on going, and some have since been re-opened by private consortiums (or even consortia). Architectually, most of the sanatoriums were good examples of Early Soviet Modernist, and several of them are attractive buildings. The holidays offered varied by region and sanatorium, with many having specialist treatments, such as crude oil baths, mineral waters, or just sun, sea and sand. There are plenty of photographs in Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, but it’s not a deep study of its subject and the text is quite light. But I just wanted the pictures anyway.

Bodies of Summer, Martín Felipe Castagnet (2012, Argentina). I saw mention of this on someone’s blog, and the central premise sounded interesting so I picked up a copy. In the near-ish future of this short novel – it might even be a novella – the minds of dead people can be downloaded into reanimated corpses. But those who keep their own corpses for their life after death are shunned as pariahs. The narrator occupies the body of an old and overweight woman – he was male when alive – and lives with his grandson. The older the reanimated corpse when it died, the more power it needs to remain whole; otherwise, it starts to fall apart. The science in all this, incidentally, is complete bollocks, but never mind. Some people choose not be reanimated, but stay as virtual personalities on the Web. On the one hand, there’s a Catholic country (the author’s own) and a world in which there is demonstrably no afterlife. But the reanimation thing is also economic, and the quality of the body being occupied is dependent upon the price. The narrative mentions in passing rich people who deliberately kill themselves in order to inhabit better, or different, bodies; as well as those who indulge in dangerous pasttimes with no fear of really losing their lives. For the narrator, however, it’s more a case of reconnecting with his family, both alive and dead, and navigating a world that has changed considerably since he died. Much as I enjoyed Bodies of Summer, I didn’t find it an especially convincing story, but it was clearly not intended to be. I don’t mean that old thing about literary writers “slumming it” in genre, because that’s complete bollocks. It’s not just a matter of approach, or perspective, or even focus; but also how the writer chooses to use the tools available in genre. And there’s enough variation in those among writers who self-identify as genre, never mind among those who don’t. Worth reading.

Emperor (Time’s Tapestry 1), Stephen Baxter (2006, UK). I’m not really sure what to make of Baxter’s novels. He’s frighteningly prolific, and keeping up with his books is almost a career in itself. Some of his novels I’ve enjoyed and thought quite good. And then the next one I pick up is weak and juvenile. And there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it. For example, I liked the first book of the Destiny’s Children quartet, Coalescent, but was bitterly disappointed by the second, Exultant, and I really must read last two some day… Emperor I quite enjoyed, although it was ridiculously contrived. A woman in pre-Roman Britain begins speaking in tongues while in labour. Someone recognises it as Latin and writes it down. She dies in childbirth, but the son survives. And the Latin becomes the family prophecy… It is supposedly the words of the “Weaver”, a mysterious someone from the future. At least, this is the interpretation by several of the characters, as the prophecty is passed down, and mangled, through generations, and elements of it come true. The novel paints an interesting portrait of Roman Britain, mostly in the region around Hadrian’s Wall – the building of which comprises one section, and a visit to it a couple of centuries later forms another. The whole Weaver thing, however, feels too modern a conceit for the novel’s setting, but since it’s the link which ties the four novels of the quartet together – or so I’m guessing – then I suppose the novel is stuck with it. As Baxter novels go, this is a thin one, a mere 302 pages in hardback. I’m hoping I’ll find the second book as enjoyable a read, unlike the Destiny’s Children quartet.

Murder Take Three, Eric Brown (2017, UK). Despite the title, this is the fourth book in Brown’s Langham and Dupré series of crime novels. They’re set in the 1950s, Donald Langham is a midlist crime writer who works part-time for a private investigation agency with a wartime buddy, and French emigrée Maria Dupré is Langham’s agent and fiancée. A Hollywood starlet, filming at a country house, employs Langham to snoop around the set as she thinks there’s something fishy going on. Langham duly heads up there for the weekend, with Maria in tow, and they get to meet the cast (there is, curiously, not much of a crew on this film). It transpires that Langham knows the scriptwriter, a crime novelist like himself. The cast of the film are a mostly unpleasant lot, and there’s definitely an odd atmosphere to the place, but nothing especially peculiar seems to be going on… Until the starlet is found shot to death in the director’s trailer… They’re easy reads these books, and setting them in the 1950s means all the old murder-mystery tips and tricks and tools can still be used. The two leads are engaging characters, and if the supporting cast tend to drift into caricature territory, it’s no big deal. I think on balance I preferred the volume prior to this, Murder at the Loch, as its plot revolved around an interesting historical mystery. This one feels more like a pastiche of a 1940s Hollywood take on an English countryhouse murder, which gives it more of an air of unreality than it deserved.

The Chrysalids, John Wyndham (1955, UK). I may have read a Wyndham novel when I was at school, but I’m not entirely sure. I do remember reading one of his collections a few years later – if only because the cover art was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Colonial Viper from Battlestar Galactica. From what I recall, the stories were pretty bad. But Wyndham occupies a peculiar position in British sf – considered an important writer in the history of the genre by many, but also widely accepted by the mainstream. Some elements of his novels have even entered British culture, such as the Triffids. The Chrysalids, however, is set in Canada, although it might as well be set in Kent. The Earth has been depopulated by nuclear war, and much of it lies in ruins. In Labrador, in a small farming community, the narrator and seven other kids can all talk to each other telepathically. But they keep it secret, because mutations are ruthlessly culled (if animal) or exiled (if human), although the latter do sometimes have a tendency to turn up dead. Unfortunately, the secret gets out when the narrator is in his late teens/early twenties, Chiefly thanks to his very young sister, who is an extremely powerful telepath, so powerful in fact that she can just about hear the thoughts of people in New Zealand… which comes in useful as New Zealand is apparently a near-utopia for telepaths, and they’re sending a mission to Labrador to rescue the mutant teenagers. But not before the teenagers have been chased into the badlands and have witnessed a battle between the farmers and the mutants. Of course, radiation doesn’t cause hereditary mutation, we know that now, although perhaps they didn’t in the 1950s. The whole “keeping the genome pure” thing is also policed using religion, leading to some all too plausible – and sadly common, even now – Bible-backed bigotry. The narrator’s father is an especially big arsehole in that regard. And yet… it all feels very Home counties. For all the regard in which Wyndham is held, he’s never been an important figure in my map of science fiction, UK-only or Anglophone; and I’ve yet to be convinced he should be considered as important as he is.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #58

This is the last but one Reading diary post before my 2017 reading is all written up. And then, of course, I’ll have to start documenting my 2018 reading… Which I hope to do more frequently and more diligently than I did in 2017.

The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts (2015, UK). I have not in the past got on especially well with Adam Roberts’s novels. He’s an enormously clever bloke and has excellent taste in fiction, but I think there’s something in his approach to the genre which rubs me up slightly the wrong way. Except. I really did like The Thing Itself and thought it very good indeed. The narrator is a radio astronomer, wintering in Antarctica with a creepy geek. This is during the 1980s. The geek is secretly experimenting with perception – the idea that our senses mediate the world, that there is something there, in reality, an idea based on Kant’s Ding an sich, which our senses edit out… but what if we could actually perceive it… “It” all turns out to be a bit Lovecraftian and eldritch, but the geek’s unsuccessful attempt to kill the narrator, and the brief glimpse the narrator has of unadulterated reality, were enough to fuck him up. And now, decades later, he’s a complete loser (although the geek is in Broadmoor). But then he’s contacted by a secret thinktank – and it’s pretty obvious they’ve built themselves an AI, but the narrator is too dumb to realise this – because they need him to approach the geek… And, of course, everything goes horribly wrong and the narrator ends up on the run, not entirely sure who he’s running from and increasingly convinced the mad geek has developed some sort of superpower. There are also a number of historical sections, which better explain, and illustrate, the book’s central Ding an sich premise. I do have a couple of minor niggles, however. The narrator uses a cane, which he loses while fleeing from hospital… but mysteriously has it back a chapter or two later. And a female character changes name over a couple of pages. But that’s minor, trivial even. I thought this a very good sf novel.

Crashing Heaven, Al Robertson (2015, UK). The trade paperback of this, among several others, was being given away free at Mancunicon, the 2016 Eastercon, so I grabbed myself a copy because, well, free. And, you know, it’s twenty-first century space opera and I still pretend to like that – although it does seem like increasingly fewer of them float my boat, as it were. Crashing Heaven is a case in point. It ticks all the boxes for 21st-century space opera, but that to me felt like more of a handicap than an advantage. Forster is an ex-soldier and POW, returning home to the Station after the cessation of hostilities with a collective of AIs who apparently dropped a rock on a lunar outpost that happened to be hosting a children’s schooltrip. (They denied doing it, of course.) Implanted inside Forster is an AI called Hugo Fist, which was designed to kill AIs (in that sort of handwavey computing cyber warfare bollocks that sf seems to love) and which manifests as an old-style music hall ventriloquist’s dummy. Unfortunately, due to some contract shenanigans, Fist is due to soon take-over Forster’s body, effectively killing him. Worse, Forster thinks the AIs are innocent of the lunar rock thing (I mean, come on, it’s obvious right from the start they didn’t do it). It’s all a plot, of course, by the “gods” of the Station  – who are apparently uploaded humans so sociopathic they refuse the same existence and abilities to every other human, which to me is just putting a sf spin on slavery. And that’s pretty much the world of the Station – slavery, genocide, megaviolence, the usual 21st century science fiction crap. Not interested. Crashing Heaven is apparently the first book in a series. I won’t be reading the sequels.

Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (2012, USA). I read the first book of this series a while ago, and a conversation on Twitter in late 2017 persuaded me to carry on with the series. So I bought book two. Which is Glamour in Glass. (Amusingly, according to the spine, it’s the second book in the “lamourist Histories”. Oops.) At the end of the first book, plain-but-talented Jane married estranged-earl David, and the two make their living as among the best glamourists in England. One of their clients is the Prince Regent,. He reveals to Jane that she will finally get her postponed honeymoon. In Belgium. Ostensibly there to study a new glamourist technique which can make things invisible, it turns out David is spying for the British Crown – since Napoleon has escaped and is expected to retake France… The end result is less Jane Austen and more Georgette Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, but the Heyer of An Infamous Army rather than Cotillion. Which is no bad thing, although the change in tone between the first half of the book and the second did jar a little. And the final scene wasn’t quite as dramatic as the lead-up had suggested. (On the other hand, a modern eye does mean some of the more skeevy aspects of Heyer’s fiction are avoided.) But I did enjoy the book, and I’m glad I was persuaded to give them another go. I think I’ll carry on reading them.

Swastika Night, Murray Constantine (1937, UK). It says Murray Constantine on the cover but it’s sort of an open secret that Constantine was a pseudonym of Katherine Burdekin, so I have to wonder why Gollancz chose to use the pseudonym on the SF Masterwork edition. I mean, no one remembers either name these days, so it makes no fucking difference. Use her real name, make it obvious the writer was female. Anyway, the story is set 700 years after the Axis won WWII, and and Europe is all Greater Germany. People – well, men… as women are considered subhuman and treated like animals – are divided into Nazis, Germans and everyone else. A clever Englishman visits Germany on pilgrimage and hooks up with a German friend who had worked in the UK. Through him, he meets the local Nazi lord, who reveals a secret history. Hitler was not tall and blond and godlike, and women were once considered equal to men… There are perhaps a few people in the US, or members of UKIP, who may be surprised by these revelations, but to the human race it’s the sort of reveal which has almost no dramatic impact. It’s not helped by the fact the narrative consists mostly of characters lecturing each other. The misogyny is baked into the world but, despite suggesting homosexual relationships are both common and unremarkable, there’s a still a whiff of homophobia. Swastika Night is not a great book. Had its profile remained prominent in the decades since it was first published, it might have been considered an important book. Sadly, it was all but forgotten. It’s good that the SF Masterworks series has chosen to publish it – although it would have been better thad they used the author’s real name – and it is scarily more relevant now than it has been since the 1940s… It’s an historical document, it reads like an historical document… but it’s a sad reflection on our times that its premise is no longer historical…

Bluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983, USA). This is the second book of Van Scyoc’s Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, which I have in the SFBC omnibus edition. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s fiction for a long time, and I’m not entirely sure why. Or rather, I hadn’t remembered why until I started reading this trilogy, beginning with Darkchild (see here), and now Bluesong. She was genuinely good. She built strange worlds and set stories in them that were predicated on that strangeness and yet had plots which explained the cause, and sometimes cure, of the strangeness. She was never especially popular, but I think I’d rate her one of the best female US sf writers of the 1980s. Sadly, her last novel appeared in 1991 (although she apparently had a couple of stories in F&SF about ten years ago). The Sunstone novels are set on the world of Brakrath which, although mostly low tech, was settled from another world centuries before and remains aware of them. The planet is a bit too cold to be comfortable for humans, so they hibernate during the winter. Even during the spring, the valleys would be too cold for agriculture… but for the barohnas, the female rulers of each valley, who have the power to focus and direct the sun’s rays… to defrost the land and provide sufficient warmth to grow things. In Bluesong, a young woman realises she is not one of the river people among whom she lives, runs away, and eventually ends up finding her father among the desert people… But she is actually a daughter of a barohna, and so will change into one herself. Van Scyoc draws her alien societies well, and this series is particularly good at dropping hints toward a story arc. I liked Bluesong more than Darkchild, but they’re both pretty good. Cherryh may have received more love during the 1980s, and, er, since, and was hugely more prolific, but Van Scyoc was just as good.

The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987, USA). I don’t think I ever doubted that Russ was an extremely clever writer, although it was more evident in some stories than others – some of her short fiction, in fact, was so much of its time, it was hard to see see past how emblematic of their period of writing they were. But it wasn’t until I read The Hidden Side of the Moon that I realised how consistently clever a writer was Russ. This is not a specially curated collection, but it’s so much more intelligent a collection than her The Zanzibar Cat. Perhaps it’s because not every story in it is genre, and it was not put together to showcase her genre credentials. Perhaps it’s because every story in it is fiercely feminist. I don’t know. I do know a collected works of Russ is long past overdue – not just the short fiction, but also the non-fiction, like the essays in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, or her criticism. She is, like Samuel R Delany, one of the most important writers American science fiction has produced. And yet who is it who remains in print and has countless stories and novels adapted by Hollywood? Philip K Dick. A drug-addled hack. We are, I suppose, fortunate that Asimov, one of the most graceless prose stylists of his generation, has not been so enthusiastically adopted by Hollywood. And while I still have a soft spot for some of Heinlein’s works, he’s pretty much science fiction’s embarrassingly outspoken old uncle with all the offensive opinions at the family barbecue, who’s pretty harmless until he starts touching up his young nieces. It’s long past time science fiction stopped venerating skeevy old hacks like Asimov and Heinlein and Dick, and started lauding the real grand masters, like Delany, Russ, Tiptree and Le Guin.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #57

I’ve got a few of these posts to get out before I complete documenting my 2017 reading. The books below were all read two months ago, but I’ve been a bit crap at writing them up. I’ve been a bit crap at finishing books, in fact, and have got into the bad habit of picking up a new book before reaching the end of the current one… and then having to go back and finish it later. I’ve got piles of books scattered around the living-room which only need me to read the last twenty or so pages so I can put them back on the shelves (or send them off to the charity shop). I think I’ll make that a resolution for 2018: only pick up a new book when I’ve actually reached THE END in the one I’m reading. And if that means carrying two books on my daily commute, so be it.

Anyway, November 2017’s reading consisted of…

Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain). This is the sequel to Nocilla Dream, which I read and thought very good last year – see here. There is a third book, Nocilla Lab, although I can find no information on when Fitzcarraldo Editions plans to publish it, or indeed Mallo’s most recent novel, Limbo. Like the first book, Nocilla Experience is split into numbered sections, 112 in total, some several pages long, others no more than a sentence or two. They are a mix of fiction and fact, or, such as in the case of the snippets of dialogue from Apocalypse Now, found documents. The main narratives all deal with obsession – a man who is trying to eat every box of corn flakes he can find with a sell-by date the same as his ex-wife’s birthday; another who turns bubblegum stuck to pavement into tiny paintings; a third man runs a restaurant that serves up found objects instead of food, although they’re presented as food… It’s a fascinating literary experiment, although I’m not entirely sure how it’s supposed to fit together – or if indeed it’s meant to. And, for some reason, much as I liked it, Nocilla Experience didn’t quite appeal to me as much as Nocilla Dream did. But I’m still looking forward to the third book… and I wonder if there are any Spanish writers inspired by Mallo – the “Nocilla generation” – who have also been translated into English…

The Silver Wind, Nina Allan (2011, UK). I’m still not sure if that’s “wind” as in what you do to a clock, or “wind” as in the movement of air. And I heard the author read one of the stories from this linked collection at a Fantasycon in Brighton several years ago. But there’s a fob watch prominent on the cover, and the six stories inside are all about time – so much so, watches and clocks are repeatedly called “time machines” – and there are definite hints that travel through time takes place in some of the stories. But each story also features variations on a small cast of characters, suggesting alternate universes more than time travel. It all makes for an unsettling read, a mosaic narrative which refuses to remain constant, which refuses to settle down. While the plots themselves are little different to those you might find in a series of literary fiction short stories, the fact the world in which they take place seems to rest on shifting sands gives them a fantastical atmosphere. It’s something Allan does in most of her fiction, but in The Silver Wind, because of the small cast and the interweaving of lives and stories, it’s much more obvious. Good stuff.

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood (2009, Canada). This is the sequel to Oryx & Crake, and now apparently the second book of a trilogy, followed by MaddAddam, which I also own. I read Oryx & Crake a couple of years ago and, to be honest, I don’t recall much of the plot. I do remember finding it all very unconvincing and Atwood’s neologisms quite cringeworthy. That last is still true in The Year of the Flood, but the world it describes seems much better made. But brutal. Horribly, stupidly brutal, in fact. It’s cruel in a way that only science fiction and fantasy can manage, a scale of brutality that needs an invented world to achieve. Atwood seems to revel in the gore in parts of this novel, and I’m not interested in such fiction. I don’t want to read books that normalise psychopathic behaviour, and far too much science fiction does that. On the other hand, the “sermons” which introduce each section of The Year of the Flood are hilarious. It is, I think, a much better book than its predecessor, but it is also disappointingly violent. I don’t know when I’ll get to MaddAddam, but I suspect it’ll take me a while.

Prussian Blue, Philip Kerr (2017, UK). This is the twelfth novel in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, begun back in the early 1990s with his Berlin Noir trilogy. Since returning to the series in 2006, Kerr has been banging them out one a year, with no discernible loss in quality. And over the twelve books, we’ve seen Bernie survive WWII, bounce around South America, Cuba, Germany, and now it’s the mid-1950s and he’s a concierge at a small hotel on the Riviera. Each of the Gunther novels has followed the same template – what Bernie is doing now, and how he gets himself out of the bad situation he seems to have got himself into, and a narrative set at some point before, or during, the Second World War, when he worked for various iterations of the Berlin police. In Prussian Blue, a face from the past turns up and blackmails Bernie into murdering a woman in England, so he goes on the run. That face from the past was Bernie’s criminal assistant during an investigation into a murder in Obersalzberg, Hitler’s mountainside retreat in Bavaria, which he had to solve in a week before Hitler arrived to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Unfortunately, Obersalzberg, administered by Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Borman, is rife with corruption, and there is no shortage of suspects. Just make matters worse, Borman doesn’t much care if the crime is solved, just as long as he has someone he can put in front of a firing squad. Which he soon finds. But Gunther also has a suspect. Unfortunately, the murder is linked to the millions Borman and his cronies are ripping off from the Third Reich. And while Borman’s brother, who hates him, is waiting in the wings to bring him low, he and Gunther have been out-manoeuvred.  Worth reading.

Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). I forget who originally recommended Charnock, but I read her Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (see here), and was impressed enough to want to read more. Which I now have done. Although it has taken me pretty much exactly twelve months. But it was worth the wait. Dreams Before the Start of Time is… an ensemble piece. There are a group of people, related by blood or marriage or just friends, and they’re living their lives in London and Shanghai over the next few decades, beginning several years from now. The story opens with a young woman deciding to become a single mother, but using a sperm donor. Her friend, on the other hand, has a one-night stand, and decides to keep the consequences. As the years unfold, attitudes to the means of conception, gestation and child-rearing change as technology progresses and sensibilities reflect new social mores. A sf novel like this in direct opposition to the Atwood above – the world has not ended, there are no sexual assaults, no mega-violence, no violence, in fact. There needs to be more science fiction like this. Of course, it helps that the writing is really good – good enough for me to pick the novel as one of my top five books of the year – see here. I was given Charnock’s A Calculated Life, her debut novel, for Christmas. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Final Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Ladrönn (2017, France). Jodorowsky keeps on coming back to the Incal. This is hardly a surprise as it’s been his most successful title – although Incal spin-off the Metabarons has probably appeared in more media incarnations. In Final Incal, the multiverse is in danger when an evil machine intelligence creates a plague and the only defence is to convert everyone into a robot… Three iterations of John DiFool all meet up between universes, in the hunt for their lover, Luz, and the means to save the multiverse from destruction. But only one of them can complete the task. The artwork, by Ladrönn, is very good indeed. Apparently, Moebius did start work on the project, but only completed the first part, so Jodorowsky had Ladrönn redo it from the start. The story is the usual Jodorowsky weirdness, although it’s starting to feel a little recycled by now. This was an astonishing piece of sf in its day, and it continues to make for good reading decades later. But I have to wonder whether these returns and extensions to it are doing it any favours. I guess I’ll find out when I get around to reading Deconstructing the Incal

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131