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Reading diary, #39

Reading that massive Vargas Llosa tome derailed my reading timetable somewhat, and I’m currently ten books behind on my Goodreads reading challenge of 150 books read in 2016. So I’m going to have to do some intensive reading to catch up. Meanwhile…

valerian13Valerian and Laureline 13: On the Frontiers, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1988). The previous two volumes in this series saw Galaxity, the organisation for which Valerian and Laureline work, wiped out of history, and now the pair are trapped on 1980s Earth. The frontiers in the title refer to those on our planet. The story opens with Valerian helping the Soviets to determine the cause of a nuclear accident – it’s sabotage, but it’s not clear who was responsible, or why they did it. The story then abruptly shifts to a galactic space liner, and a pair of aliens who wear golden armour. There are apparently so few of the Wûûm left, that a meeting between them is exceedingly rare… and so leads to a shipboard romance. Except the male Wûûm is really a human, and he kills the woman and steals her psychic power so he can use it to kick off a nuclear war on Earth, by, for example, sabotaging nuclear power plants, and so bring about the creation of Galaxity earlier than in now-disappeared timeline. I’ve said all along the Valerian and Laureline series is superior space opera, but it’s also a clever commentary on the world at the time of publishing. It’s easy enough to deride France’s tradition of science fiction as bandes dessinée – they’re comics! – but many of them are a damn sight more intelligent than actual written-words novels published at that time in the US. I mean, seriously, do you think Larry Niven wrote more intelligent sf than Moebius?

in_valley_statuesIn the Valley of the Statues, Robert Holdstock (1982). These days, Holdstock is best known for his Mythago Wood sequence of novels, beginning with the novel of that name. But he originally started out writing science fiction – in fact, his sf novel Where Time Winds Below is still one of my favourites, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him as much at a con way back in the early 1990s. The 1970s were an especially strong period in British sf. It’s mostly forgotten, or ignored, now, of course, but you had writers like DG Compton, Richard Cowper, Josephine Saxton, Keith Roberts, churning out some blinding stuff; and even into the early 1980s, with Gwyneth Jones, Robert Holdstock, Christopher Evans… But the so-called history of science fiction has wiped them all from the narrative, preferring to focus on the best-selling shit produced by US writers like Niven, Asimov, Heinlein. In the Valley of the Statues is very much a short story collection of its time, containing eight well-written and thoughtful science fiction stories, including the original ‘Mythago Wood’ novella. The considered prose would probably be thought dated in some quarters, but it’s actually better than the bulk of award-winning genre fiction being produced today. I enjoyed Mythago Wood, and its sequel Lavondyss, but when Holdstock continued working that – commercially successful – vein, fantasy’s gain was science fiction’s loss.

the_old_childThe Old Child, Jenny Erpenbeck (1999). I’ve seen this desccribed as a difficult read, and I wonder that there is such a thing. Because it’s not a quality of the book, it’s a consequence of the effort put in by the reader. Which is not to say that everyone wants to put that effort into reading, or indeed that every book deserves such an effort (either deliberately or not). The Old Child is the story of an orphan accepted into a children’s home, who is either wise beyond her years or far too innocent for her purported age. She spends much of the story as a tabula rasa, and deliberately so from her perspective, and only begins to engage with the other kids when her ability to keep silent becomes of use to them. It’s a bleak tale and told in a distant tone, which really appeals to me. It’s a way of looking at East Germany and its fate, but it’s not a point that’s belaboured or even made explicitly. Erpenbeck is a supremely clever writer, and the way she uses prose is both interesting and expertly done. I’ve made no secret of the fact I consider Erpenbeck my “discovery” of 2016. This is the third book by her I’ve read so far this year, and I have one more on the TBR which I plan to get to shortly. Then it’ll be a little harder to track down the rest of her oeuvre, as it’s only been intermittently translated from German to English. (I’m tempted to try the German, but my skill in that language is a bit rusty these days.) Anway, read Erpenbeck; she is quite brilliant.

dream_dancerDream Dancer, Janet Morris (1980). Back in the mid-1980s, I picked up a copy of Cruiser Dreams, the middle book in Morris’s Kerrion Consortium trilogy, in, I seem to remember, a junk shop in C oventry. I read it and enjoyed it enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy. Eventually, I tracked down copies of the first book, Dream Dancer, and the third, Earth Dreams. I’ve no idea where and when I found this particular book, Dream Dancer, but I apparently bought Earth Dreams at a Novacon in 2007. And yes, it’s taken me since then to get around to actually reading the trilogy. Although I’m seriously starting to doubt my memories of Cruiser Dreams as Dream Dancer is one of the worst-written books I’ve come across in a long time. I don’t think it was even edited. If it was, the editor should hang their head in shame. “Irregardless” is not a word. There are also lots of malapropisms. And the prose is so over-written most of it makes no sense. Now, I like lush prose, I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Durrell, after all; but the writing in this book is complete nonsense. Anway, a more detailed review appears on SF Mistressworks here.

dan_dare_2Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2, Lowder, Finley-Day & Gibbons (2016). My first memory of the 2000AD Dare is a Bellardinelli centre-spread depicting Dan Dare arriving in London and being shocked at the changes while he had been frozen. But I also remember Dave Gibbon’s cleanly-drawn lines in a story in which Dare had the “Cosmic Claw”, a mystical alien weapon which had “chosen” Dare as its wielder. I’d missed much of the story of Dare’s acquisition of the Cosmic Claw, so it was good to read that in this volume, except… Well, the artwork is nice, but the stories really were shit. Hoary old crap any sf magazine editor would have bounced without a second thought. But for comics it was considered acceptable. I don’t understand this. Of course, at the time, I was a kid and I gleefully swallowed whatever crap was fed me. It’s true, I marvelled at the artwork and let the story wash over me… but I can’t do that now. I have to consider both. And the 2000AD Dan Dare stories were shit. I’m not saying the Eagle ones were any better, because many of them were also complete bollocks. But some of Hampson’s work was actually amazing – ‘Safari on Venus’, for example – whereas the 2000AD Dare was never even close to mediocre, never mind good. I bought this book out of nostalgia; by reading it I promptly set fire to said nostalgia. Be wise, readers, do not do as I have. Leave your childhood illusions as they were, let the memories comfort you in your dotage.

sleeping_embersSleeping Embers on an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015). When someone names half a dozen writers, and includes both myself and another couple of writers whose fiction I like, then it stands to reason I’ll probably like the others I’d not previously read. So I bought a couple of Aliya Whiteley novellas, and read them and thought them very good (although one more so than the other – see here). And now to Anne Charnock… and I have to admit I’d not otherwise have given the book a second look given that title – and yes, I know my own stuff has long and none-too-informative titles. But I’d have missed out. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind comprises three stories, set in 2013, 2113 and 1469. The links between the three are tenuous (yes, it does remind me a bit of my own writing). In 2113, Toniah has returned to London, is living with her parthogenetic sister (they’re third-generation partho) and has taken up a position as an art history researcher at the Academy of Restitution, which seeks to promote women in history whose contributions were unfairly forgotten, and likewise reassess those of men whose reputation is undeserved (a lovely idea, we should have one of these now). Toniah begins researching the career of… Antonia Uccello, the daughter of Paolo Uccello, a fifteenth-century Italian known for having introduced perspective into Italian Renaissance painting. Although there are a small handful of women painters, it is a male career. Those women were only permitted to paint because they are nuns – and so Antonia, who is talented, must join a convent. By the twenty-second century only her name survives, and only a single painting found in a provincial museum’s archive. The third story follows Toni, a thirteen-year-old Brit, whose father is a professional copyist and whose mother died in a freak accident before the story opens. After a visit to meet a client in China, Toni is inspired to ask her friends and online acquaintances to contribute to her history homework, and so she learns of a great-uncle who died in the Great War before he could marry his betrothed. So Toni and her father go on holiday to France to visit his grave. There’s no neat resolution to the three narratives, to the novel in fact. It tells its stories and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. In some respects, it reminds me of Katie Ward’s excellent Girl Reading (and still no follow-up novel from her, which I would really love to see). I think Ward’s prose style is more to my taste than Charnock’s, which is not to say the latter is bad: it’s unadorned and straightforward, with an enviable clarity. Whoever called out Charnock has done me a favour, and I’ve already put her other two novels (one due in January next year) on my wishlist.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 128


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Reading diary, #38

The bulk of my reading is still science fiction – 38% of my reading, in fact, with mainstream next highest at 25% – although that sf percentage has steadily declined in recent years. In fact, it seems these day the only sf I read are new books by sf writers I’ve been reading for decades, or somewhat older sf novels for review on SF Mistressworks. This is hardly surprising. Literary fiction delivers more of what I look for nowadays in fiction, and the current fashion in science fiction is not to my taste at all. In other words, I’d sooner watch, say, a Brazilian Cinema Novo movie than the latest MCU blockbuster. I suspect my own writing reflects that. But if diversity is a big thing in genre right now – and not before time, I admit – then it seems foolish to apply it only within the genre. Read more diversely, by all means; but read more diversely in non-genre fiction as well – if not more so, given there’s a much wider selection of diverse things to read outside science fiction and fantasy. The following books are part of my ongoing journey in doing just that…

rites_of_passageRites of Passage, William Golding (1980). Back at school, I read Golding’s Lord of the Flies – at least I’m pretty sure I did; I can distinctly remember the class reading Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea, but my memories of reading Lord of the Flies are somewhat vague – but that was all I knew of Golding. And then a couple of months ago, a local charity shop had four of his paperbacks in stock – I’m not sure who donated them, since they were in excellent condition and had even been protected by sticky-back transparent plastic. I bought two – Rites of Passage and The Inheritors – but on a later trip, only one was left, The Spire, and I now can’t remember what the fourth title was. At the time I wasn’t especially bothered, but having now read Rites of Passage and discovered how bloody good it is… Rites of Passage is the first book of the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and was apparently adapted for television, with Blunderbuss Cucumbersnatch in the lead role, although I don’t recall seeing it. The novel is presented as the journal of Edmund Talbot, a minor member of the aristocracy, who has taken ship to Australia in the early 1800s to take up a position in the governor’s office in New South Wales. Also onboard the ship – a converted man-of-war – is a member of the clergy, a somewhat obsequious young parson called Colley. The trip does not start well. Both Talbot and Colley earn the ire of the captain by disobeying his standing orders and approaching officers on watch, and the captain himself, on the poop deck. Talbot is, eventually, forgiven; Colley is not. In fact, Colley becomes the unwitting butt of the crew’s vulgar and insulting “ceremony” for crossing the equator. But he forgives them and persuades the captain, who is embarrassed at Colley’s treatment, to allow him to perform the offices of vicar for the crew. But it goes badly wrong, and Colley dies. After Colley’s death, Talbot comes into possession of the parson’s journal, and realises what he had missed, and how remiss he had been. I had no idea what to expect when I started Rites of Passage, but found it to be an astonishingly good novel. Golding’s control of voice is second to none, his evocation of the period is supremely convincing, and he does not beat the reader about the head with the plot or its meaning. This is what proper fiction is like. I now want to read the other two books of the trilogy – Close Quarters and Fire Down Belowand see the TV adaptation. Oh, and I want to read more Golding. Fortunately, I have another two books of his on the TBR…

appointmentThe Appointment, Herta Müller (1997). A conversation on Twitter late one night after I had imbibed a portion or two of wine turned to laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature (writers, not fucking folk singers), and female laureates in particular, and, well, before I knew it, I’d gone and bought a couple books by female Nobel laureates on the web site of a very large online retailer. The first was this, The Appointment by Herta Müller, a German writer who, despite her name is, er, actually Romanian. Her family belonged to the German-speaking minority in Romania, but in 1987 she was given permission to leave and settle in Germany after many years of trying. Her most successful novel to date has been 2009’s The Hunger Angel, and that same year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Until prompted to look her up by the aforementioned Twitter conversation, I had not even heard of Müller or her fiction. But I bought The Appointment, and read it on a trip to, and from, Leeds one Saturday. The Appointment was published in Germany – she is, despite her origin, probably best considered a German writer – but the novel is set in Romania, as indeed is apparently much of her fiction. The title refers to the meeting the narrator has with Albu, a major in the Romanian secret police. The narrator used to work in a garment factory, whose products were mostly destined for export – and in a shipment of trousers destined for Italy, she hid a series of notes, asking to be rescued, through marriage, by an Italian man. But the notes were found and she was reported to management. Unfortunately, she had a bad relationship with her manager, and when a later series of notes were found, critical of the regime, she was blamed and sacked. And forced to attend interrogation sessions with Major Albu. It’s grim stuff. I’ve visited Romania – it’s a lovely country, full of lovely people – but the Ceaucescu regime was brutal and Müller pulls no punches in depicting how it impacted the lives of ordinary people. I’m in two minds whether to read more Müller – she writes in a style I like, present tense and slightly distant, and while I’m not especially keen on first-person narratives it works extremely well here; but the story is punishingly hard to read. Having said that, writing about the book for this blog post is sort of persuading me to try something else by her…

wreath_of_rosesA Wreath of Roses, Elizabeth Taylor (1949). I first came across Taylor via François Ozon’s adaptation of her novel Angel, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed for Videovista (see here) and liked. Prior to that, I’d not known there was a writer who shared a name with the famous actress. I later stumbled across a copy of Taylor’s Blaming, read it and enjoyed it… and so she became a name to look out for in charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of A Wreath of Roses. Camilla and Liz are visiting Liz’s ex-governess, Frances, for the summer, something they have done for many years. Liz is now married to a vicar and has a small baby, Camilla is a school secretary at a private girl’s school, and Frances has been a painter since giving up her profession many years before. Something about this particular summer is not as idyllic as previous ones – perhaps it’s the presence of Liz’s baby, or that the years are beginning to weigh on Frances, or that Camilla finds herself unaccountably attracted to a man she met on the train who is now staying in a local inn… This is a very English novel, depicting a post-war south England which seems chiefly characterised by its landscape, flora and fauna than by the depredations of the recent war. All three of the women are flawed, and it’s their fears which essentially drive the story. There’s a bit of condescension to a working-class woman who cleans for Frances, and a film director who collects her paintings doesn’t seem entirely convincing when he appears. But there’s a pleasing manneredness to Taylor’s prose, and while I prefer Olivia Manning’s tales of expats, the two writers are enough alike that I’ll continue to read Taylor’s novels when I find them. Happily, all of her novels are still in print, and there is even a collection of her Complete Short Stories available.

other_sideThe Other Side of Silence, Philip Kerr (2016).  I’ve been a fan of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels for many years, but the more books appear in the series the more worried I am that Gunther has overstayed his welcome. The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh book in what was originally a trilogy. And while I don’t think the books have seen a diminution in quality, I’m starting to wonder just how many events of the twentieth century Gunther is going to find himself involved in. (I had a similar problem with Allan Mallinson’s Matthew Hervey series, in which the protagonist seemed to be involved in every major military conflict between 1812 and, to date, 1830…) However, Kerr has managed to avoid this problem so far by a) doing his research, so none of it feels forced or overdone, and b) picking little-known incidents from the years following World War II. Having said that, I’d still like to see a breakdown of Bernie Gunther’s career by year, because it’s beginning to feel a little packed. In The Other Side of Silence, sixty-year-old Gunther is a concierge in a posh hotel in Nice in 1956. When a face from his past – a Gestapo officer with a penchant for blackmail – appears, things rapidly go downhill. Gunther finds himself acting as a middleman for W Somerset Maugham in a classic queer blackmail sting, only for it to turn into a convoluted plot to catch Soviet moles in the British intelligence services. Except perhaps it isn’t. Kerr slots Gunther’s story neatly into real history, and he doesn’t belabour the point of the novel (knowledge of a certain book which caused a huge fuss in the UK in the 1980s is useful in figuring out what’s really going on). The Gunther novels can be read in any order, although they usually include a reference to events in one or more of the preceding volumes – but then they’re usually structured with twin narratives, one set in the novel’s present-day (1956, in this case), and one set in Gunther’s past. Worth reading.

war_endThe War of the End of the World*, Mario Vargas Llosa (1981). I picked this book several years ago for a world fiction reading challenge, but never got around to buying it, never mind reading it. But I eventually purchased a copy last year, and it sat on my shelves… until I decided it was a good book to take on my trip to Iceland since I’d have several uninterrupted hours of reading while travelling. In the event, I didn’t read as much of it as I’d expected to, and it’s taken me a couple of weeks since my return to finish it off. The novel is set in the state of Bahia, in the north-east of Brazil, a poor state characterised chiefly by desert, and not the Amazonian forest popular wisdom insists Brazil is covered by, in the 1890s, shortly after Brazil overthrew its monarchy and declared a republic. (The author, by the way, is Peruvian.) A messianic preacher, called the Counselor, appears in the povetry-stricken villages of Bahia and builds up a following. They occupy some land belonging to the area’s most powerful “colonel” (ie, landowner), the Baron de Canabrava, Canudos, and create a utopian village opposed  to the republic. Which promptly responds by sending elements of the army to wipe out the Counselor and his followers. And they fail each time. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Glauber Rocha’s excellent 1964 film, Black God White Devil, which covers a similar subject, albeit in the 1940s, but is also set in Bahia. The War of the End of the World is based on real history – the War of Canudos 1896-1897 – which makes me wonder if the same event didn’t inspire Rocha. Vargas Llosa handles his large cast with skill, using a variety of narrative techniques, and even tenses, to tell each individual’s story. It’s engrossing stuff, and it’s only the sheer size of the novel – 728 pages! – and a need to concentrate that has led to me taking to so long to read it. I might try something else by Vargas Llosa some time. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 128


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Reading diary, #37

I didn’t set out to read mostly women this month, but that’s the way it worked out. Still, if the reading plan is going to fail, it’s best to fail this way than the other.

sunboundThe Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981). I’d enjoyed Felice’s Godsfire, which I’d picked up at Archipelacon and was expecting something similar from The Sunbound, which I bought at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm. In the event, it proved quite a problematical novel – see my review on SF Mistressworks here – and I really can’t recommend it… although I’ve not given up Felice’s oeuvre by any means. In fact, the novel published after this one, Eclipses, looks quite interesting. I just need to find a copy…

arrival_missivesThe Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whitely (2016). I bought both this novella and the one below at Fantasycon. I’d been keen to read something by Whitely after a tweet had named half a dozen or so under-appreciated genre authors including Nina Allan, myself and Whiteley, among others; and given that’d read a lot of Allan’s fiction and found it good, I wanted to try Whiteley. I read this on the train on the way back from Scarborough – a surprisingly pleasant journey, given the shocking state of our railways. The Arrival of Missives is set immediately after the First World War, in a small village that has suffered its fair share of casualties. Most of those in the novella, however, are children – or at least were too young to fight. Shirley Fearn, a teenager, dreams of a life outside the small village in which she lives, although her father wants her to marry a local lad who can then inherit the farm. Shirley also has a crush on the new village school teacher, Mr Tiller, a veteran of the war. She makes plans to attend teacher training in a nearby town, and insinuates herself into Tiller’s life… only to discover that his torso has a largew piece of rock embedded in it, large enough that he should not be alive as it occupies the space where his organs should be. At this point, The Arrival of Missives takes this piece of weirdness and runs with it. The stone was sent back in time by humans from the distant future, and is one of many such “missives” – this one happened to find Tiller near-death and caught up on some barbed wire in No Man’s Land. It makes for a weird disconnect – a detailed story of post-WWI life in a small village, almost Lawrentian in tone, and this science-fictional idea, which has no rational support or narrative scaffolding. But that, I guess, is what New Weird is. And yet The Arrival of Missives works because the writing is so good. Shirley is a compelling narrator, and her concerns are well-handled. The “missive” adds an odd flavour to the novella, which most will like more than I did… but I suspect this is still a contender for a BSFA or BFS Award next year.

golden_notebookThe Golden Notebook*, Doris Lessing (1962). I admit it, I had thought this would be extremely hard-going. I’d read a couple of Lessing’s other novels and not been taken with them – and even if the first book of her sf quintet, Canopus in Argos Archives, Shikasta, felt to me like being beaten about the head by Ursula K Le Guin. The Golden Notebook, Lessing’s most celebrated novel, I expected to be a bit of a chore – especially given its 576 pages… So I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was an engrossing read. I’m only glad I read it after writing All That Outer Space Allows, as some structural elements of my novel might well have changed and in hindsight I’m not convinced they’d have been improvements. The Golden Notebook is a novel titled ‘Free Women’, about Anna Wulf, writer of a single successful novel based on her years in Africa during WWII, who is now living in London. She is also a communist. Between Sections of ‘Free Women’ are Wulf’s notebooks – black, red, yellow and blue. In the black notebook, she describes her time in Africa – on which her one published novel, ‘Frontiers of War’ (and which I kept on mis-thinking as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War) was based – and later, her life in London. The red notebook details Wulf’s politics and her interactions with the Communist Party. The yellow notebook is a fictionalisation of Wulf’s own life, title ‘The Shadow of the Third’, in which Wulf’s part is played by a woman called Ella. And the blue notebook starts out as a diary, but at times is more of a scrapbook, filled with newspaper cuttings. The five narratives, despite covering similar ground, don’t actually confuse The Golden Notebook‘s story, they actually deepen it and successfully show different aspects of Wulf’s character – as a writer, as a communist, her sex life (especially her affairs, none of which last) and her relations with her friends. The more observant among you will have noticed that the title of Lessing’s novel refers to a notebook not yet mentioned. This only appears near the end, opens by describing Anna breaking free of her then-boyfriend, before becoming that boyfriend’s own novel (a précis is given only), since writing is the catalyst the two use to part amicably. I really liked The Golden Notebook, and I honestly hadn’t expected to. I can see how it might have shocked in 1962 – Lessing is very forthright about Wulf’s sex life – and the sharp criticism of the lives women were expected to live can’t have gone down too well. I expect the communism would be more of a turn-off to twenty-first century readers than the sexual politics. But The Golden Notebook does read like a book ahead of its time. Recommended.

nocillaNocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I seem to remember seeing this discussed on David Hebblethwaites’s blog, and the fact it inspired a new generation of writers in Spain – the “Nocilla generation” – only made it me want to read it all the more. It’s actually the first book of a trilogy, and the second book, Nocilla Experience. will be published in English next month. Despite my disappointment with some aspects of Nocilla Dream, it’s on my wish list. But Nocilla Dream… The book is structured as 113 sections, which vary in length from several lines to several pages. There also excerpts from other books and scholarly articles, on a wide range of subjects. There is no plot per se. Repeated mention is made of a tree on the desert road between Carson City and Ely, Nevada, over whose branches people have thrown pairs of shoes. Some of the stories involve people who have provided at least one pair of those shoes; some of the others involve people who have interacted with those people. The stories take place all over the world – which results in one of my gripes: a couple of sections are set in Denmark and it’s a very unconvincing depiction of the country. Another gripe is more the publisher’s fault, as on page 87, the section is headed “Relevant physical constants”, and the exponential figures haven’t been printed with the powers as superscript – so you get, for example, “Speed of Light, c = 3.00 x 108 m/s” when it should be 3.00 x 108 m/s. Despite these, Nocilla Dream is fascinating, does some very interesting things with narrative structure, and I’m looking forward to reading the remaining two books in the trilogy. I will admit to some disappointment, however, when I discovered that Nocilla is a brand-name of a Nutella-like spread in Spain…

the_beautyThe Beauty, Aliya Whiteley (2014). I don’t think this is quite as successful a novella as The Arrival of Missives – partly because the writing is not as good, but also because it seems even more consciously New Weird. Fungi! The narrator is the storyteller of a group of men living in a remote valley in the south-west after a fungal infection killed off all the women (it’s not said but it’s implied it’s global). The Group had been formed before that, a back-to-the-land survivalist sort of commune. But then the women all begin to die from a strange yellow fungus. The Group stumbles on for a while without women. Then the storyteller, Nathan, is taken to see growths of the strange yellow fungus in the nearby wood, whic resemble those growing on the graves of the women in the Group’s cemetery – clearly indicating women are buried there. He is captured by a strange creature which looks like a woman but is made of yellow fungus. It traps him underground, but keeps him alive. He is initially revulsed, but comes to love the creature, which he names Bee. The rest of the Group soon have one each. These are the Beauty. They’re implied to be reincarnations of the lost women, but are unable to communicate except by projecting moods and feelings. Nathan has frequent sex with Bee – this despite there being a maternal element to their relationship (the other members of the Group treat their Beauty as they did their wives and girlfriends). But then one of the group, Thomas, begins to develop a tumour… except it isn’t a tumour, it’s a baby, part-human part-Beauty. And so the roles are swapped, and a new world is ushered in. The novella finishes with Nathan and Bee leaving the Group to find out what is happening in the outside world. There are some types of New Weird I can take – such as The Arrival of Missives, for example – and some I can’t. The Beauty falls squarely in the latter. Whiteley’s writing, while good, has definitely improved by the later novella – which is just as well as I doubt I would have read further had I come across The Beauty in 2014.

legacy_lehrThe Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz (1986). Another book from Fantastika 2016. Kurtz, of course, as the cover of this paperback makes plain, is better known for fantasy than science fiction. In fact, The Legacy of Lehr appears to be her only science fiction novel. And this despite having an engaging pair of protagonists in a set-up ripe for further adventures. Perhaps the book didn’t sell well  enough to encourage Kurtz, or the publisher, to continue as a series. I enjoyed the book, although it’s lightweight. My review will appear on SF Mistressworks later this week.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 127


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Reading diary, #36

My reading seems to have slowed a little, perhaps because I’m choosing books which aren’t quite such easy reads. On the other hand, it could just be that I’ve been quite busy. Anyway, an odd mix this time: two category genre books, one borderline and two classic twentieth century literature; three women, two men; two novels, three collections; three Americans, one Brit and a Dane. I really need to address that latter category a little more – I have a number of translated works on my bookshelves that I plan to tackle, such as Bolaño, Munif, Høeg, Myckle, Vargas Llosa, Gogol, Mallo… All I have to do is schedule them in. It’s easy to read diversely if you plan your reading, after all. Anyway, the five books in this post were all bloody good ones, so perhaps avoiding “easy reads” was worth it. Duchamp and Park are probably two of the best US writers currently working in genre and very much under-appreciated; Green and Dinesen may be from the first half of last century, but they wrote some bloody good stuff; and while LeGui many not always click with me, there’s no denying her importance or the fact she has writing chops we lesser mortals can only dream to possess. In all, a highly recommended handful of books.

laviniaLavinia, Ursula K LeGuin (2008). Who doesn’t love LeGuin’s fiction? It’s almost impossible not to, because it’s so wide-ranging, so clever and so beautifully written. Personally, I prefer her science fiction, and while I’ve enjoyed her high fantasies I’m not so enamoured of her literary fantasies like Orsinian Tales or Searoad. Lavinia, however, is more of an historical fantasy, and falls somewhere between the two stools of genre fantasy and literary fantasy. I have no especial interest in the period it covers, pre-Roman Italy, although a good book would, you’d hope, make me interested (after reading George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time, for example, I spent several hours looking up brochs online, and nearly even bought a book on the topic). Nor am I trained classicist and so familiar with the sources texts uses in Lavinia – chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid. In fact, to be honest, I know very little about Bronze Age Europe – it’s not an era I’ve read much about. The title character is mentioned in passing in the Aeneid as the wife of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who survived the fall of Troy. LeGuin takes Lavinia’s brief mention and runs with it, opening with Lavinia’s childhood, then there’s arrival of Aeneas and his Trojans, their marriage, the founding of Lavinium, war… Throughout, Lavinia visits a sacred grove, where she talks to the ghost of “the poet”, who is clearly Virgil (who lived over a thousand years later – some of the references by him to “the future” do initially suggest something a little more science-fictional, but no). I know some people were very taken with the novel, but it never quite clicked with, although there was no denying its quality.

never_at_homeNever at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011). I bought this a couple of years ago after being much impressed by Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle – which, incidentally, is one of the best sf series about first contact ever written – but had never got around to reading it for some reason. Which I have now rectified. Partly, I admit, prompted by the superb story by Duchamp which opens the VanderMeers’ feminist sf anthology, Sisters of the Revolution. That story is not in Never at Home, but those that are range from the merely good to the bloody excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a genre collection as strong as this one, and yet looking at the stories I’m not entirely sure why. They’re not bursting with ideas or “eyeball kicks” – that’s not what Duchamp does – but they’re certainly fascinating, and extremely well-written, explorations of very carefully explored ideas. In ‘A Question of Grammar’, for example, a woman taken from her family (who, it is implied, are considered unpersons by the galactic authorities) is bonded chemically to an alien to act as interpreter. I’m tempted to describe the story as “very”Gwyneth Jones”, high praise indeed from me, but I think that’s probably unfair to Duchamp. Either way, this was the best story in the collection and deserves to be much more widely known. ‘The Nones of Quintilis, Somewhere on the Southwest Slope of Monte Albano’ manages that very difficult balancing trick of being genre but not reading like genre. ‘Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable’ (Duchamp’s strong point clearly doesn’t lie in titling her short fiction) manages to evoke something like Area X half a decade before VanderMeer’s novels, and do so with more mystery and less fungi (both, it must be said, pluses in my book). This is a superior collection, probably the best genre collection I’m likely to read this year (yes, I think it just edges out Other Stories below). Not only do I recommend it, but I think everyone should also read Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle; and, of course, Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press does sterling work and has published some blinding works of fiction since its founding in 2004.

blindnessBlindness, Henry Green (1926). The authors you love, I’ve found, do not come about due to wide or deep reading of their oeuvre, but from a single piece of work, usually in the first half dozen or so by that author you’ve read. It blows you away… and it colours all your other encounters with that author’s works. With Lowry, it was his novella ‘Through the Panama’, with Durrell it was The Alexandria Quartet, with Blixen it was her story ‘Tempest’… and with Green it was the first novel by him I read, Loving. A pitch-perfect control of voice, a refusal to tell the story using normal narrative techniques, and an excellent eye for detail… what’s not to love? Blindness is Green’s first novel, and concerns a public schoolboy whose bright future is snatched from him in an accident which blinds him (a kid throws a stone at a passing train, smashing a window through which the protagonist is looking). The story is told firstly through letters, then through semi-stream-of-consciousness narratives by the young man and his mother and the young woman (of an unsuitable family) whose company he enjoys… It’s very much a story of privilege and deprivation – the main character is the scion of a wealthy family, with a country seat boasting a large staff (members of which which the mother complains about repeatedly); but the young woman is the daughter of an alcoholic vicar fallen on hard times and, if anything, reads more like a DH Lawrence character (on his good days, that is) than a fit companion for the blind boy. Green had a reputation as “a writer’s writer”, which is generally taken to mean he was much admired but sold few copies. It’s true that there’s a dazzling level of technique on display in Blindness, a facility with prose no writer can fail to admire. And it’s Green’s writing prowess I certainly admire, rather than his choice of subjects or the stories he chooses to tell. But there’s a profound pleasure to be found in reading prose that is just put together so well, and that’s why I treasure Green’s writing.

winters_talesWinter’s Tales, Isak Dinesen (1942). As mentioned earlier, Blixen impressed me with her story ‘Tempests’ in Anecdotes of Destiny (AKA Babette’s Feast and Other Stories), and so resolved to read more by her. (I’d also enjoyed the three films made of her works: Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast and The Immortal Story.) Winter’s Tales contains 11 stories, some of which are better than others, but all of which are good and all of which have an almost mythical feel to them. In some it’s quite overt – ‘The Fish’, for example, reads like mannered high fantasy but is about an actual king of Denmark. Most of the stories are historical, typically set in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Some are twist-in-the-tale type stories, such as ‘The Young Man with the Carnation’, in which a young husband reconsiders the future of his marriage after the eponymous person appears in the middle of the night at the door of the hotel room he is sharing with his wife. Only later, does the young husband realise he had been in the wrong room (whoops, spoiler). ‘The Heroine’ is a cautionary tale in which a French woman saves a group of travellers from being shot by Prussian soldiers (during the Franco-Prussian War) by refusing the Prussian commander’s offer. There was something quite DH Lawrence about the story. ‘The Pearls’ reminded me of Blixen’s own ‘The Immortal Story’, although its plot was very different. A woman marries a fearless man and her own sense of adventure is abruptly threatened when she realises the two of them skirt much too closely to danger – a realisation embodied in a  string of pearls he gives her and which she inadvertently breaks… There is, as I’ve said, a near-mythical to these stories, almost as if they’re parables. It’s a type of story that seems to have mostly fallen out of favour; and while that does make the contents seem of their time, there’s also a timelessness to them because they’re set in earlier decades and centuries. I’ll be reading more Dinesen/Blixen.

other_storiesOther Stories, Paul Park (2015). I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since reading Coelestis back in the mid-1990s, and I still think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written. Like LeGuin, Park’s career has been somewhat varied, albeit considerably less prolific, and his last novel, a metafictional piece that straddles science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and autobiography, All Those Vanished Engines, was for me one of the best novels of 2014. (It didn’t win any awards, of course.) So when PS Publishing announced they were publishing a collection of Parks stories, I was keen to get my hands on it… and it took a while to appear. But it was totally worth it. Some of the stories I’d read before – ‘No Traveller Returns’ was originally published as a signed limited novella by PS Publishing and, yes, I own a copy; ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ forms part of Park’s excellent novel, All Those Vanished Engines. Two stories appeared in Postscripts anthologies in which I also had stories – one of which, I – kof kof – provided the title story (#20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein and #32/33 Far Voyager). As for the rest… they’re slippery things, sliding between fantasy, alternate history and mimetic fiction, and even, in some cases, autobiography. ‘A Family History’ posits an alternate history in which the French Revolution fails and parts of North America remain in French control in the late nineteenth centiry… and the deconstructs the concept of alternate history. ‘Watchers at the Living Gate’ is straight-up fantasy, and while it owes more to Hope Hodgson than Tolkein, it still presents a singular vision. ‘Ragnarok’ is posta-apocalyspe fiction presented as epic poetry (not, to my mind, an experiment that works especially well). ‘Abduction’ is a frankly baffling story about what might, or might not be, alien abductions. But everything in the book is beautifully-written. Park and Duchamp are both massively under-rated US genre writers, and should be much more widely-read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


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Reading diary, #35

As a general rule, I try to spread my reading across genders and genres, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So far this year, around forty percent of my reading has been science fiction, I suppose chiefly because when I fancy an easy read it’s my go-to mode of fiction. Which might tell you something about recent sf, except that quite a bit of my sf reading has been twenty- or thirty-year-old sf novels by women writers for review on SF Mistressworks…

nodNod, Adrian Barnes (2012). We’ve just had a somewhat controversial Clarke Award – but then, when hasn’t the Clarke been somewhat controversial? It was back in 2013, when Nod was shortlisted. From what I remember, Nod was seen as a quite baffling choice; although the same could also be said for The Dog Stars, also shortlisted that year, and which I read a year or two ago and thought not very good at all. Whereas NodNod is one of those books written with a strong, idiosyncratic voice – not idiosyncratic like Riddley Walker or Engine Summer – but the first person narrator is chatty and irreverent and likes to pepper his story with witticisms and snide remarks and it’s really fucking annoying. The central premise is nicely done – suddenly no one can sleep, except for a handful – and the breakdown of civilisation as sleep deprivation psychosis kicks in, as seen in the narrator’s home town of Vancouver, is well-handled… But the way the book is written, the prose style, is like fingernails on a blackboard for me. I hated it. It was a test of endurance to read it. This is one of those books which illustrates the difference between “this book is good” and “I enjoyed this book”. I hated it, didn’t enjoy it at all, but could see it was put together with skill. My response to it is entirely personal; the book’s quality is intrinsic to it. The two should not be confused.

exploration_space_smallThe Exploration of Space, Arthur C Clarke (1951). Why did I read a book about space exploration written more than half a century ago, when the appropriate science and engineering was in its infancy, I hear you ask? Er, I don’t know. But I thought it might be interesting to see what Sir Arthur had got right – the edition I read was an updated one published in 1960, so pre-Gagarin and -Apollo – and the answer is… not all that much, actually. His explanation of freefall, for example, is sort of right but doesn’t explain it very well. Astronauts at the ISS (which, of course, didn’t exist when the book was written, so Clarke’s example is hypothetical) are not experiencing zero gravity because the gravity in Low Earth Orbit is exactly the same as it is on the ground. The astronauts are falling toward the ground, and so is the ISS, at exactly the same speed; but the ground is rotating away from them, also at the same speed. So, to paraphrase Douglas Adams’s description on how to fly, they’re throwing themselves at the ground… and missing. True, science and engineering didn’t know then what we now know, and the stuff Clarke gets right is the stuff that had been known for decades, if not centuries. The chapter on ‘The Lunar Base’ speculates the Moon would be exploited solely for minerals – thus ignoring the US Army’s Horizon lunar base study from 1959 – and that spacesuits would have to be hard-shelled. A later chapter on space stations claims their chief role would be in communications – and this from the man who “invented” the communications satellite… although first active repeater communications satellite wasn’t launched until 1960. The Exploration of Space is mostly good on the basics, and it has that weirdly unrealistic optimic take on its subject, much like those famous Colliers Magazine articles. But it’s very much an historical document, and no different in that respect to a science fiction novel published during the same year.

elysiumElysium, Jennifer Marie Brissett (2014). I must be getting jaded. I mean, I know I apparently don’t see science fiction in the same way as many others do – for instance, I thought The Book of Phoenix a terrible book, and yet it received a huge amount of praise (and was even tipped by many to take the Clarke). Elysium is another sf novel which has received lots of praise, but has a much lower profile than the Okorafor. It is also a better novel than The Book of Phoenix, but… The book opens with a series of vignettes depicting Adrian/Adrianne and Antoine/Antoinette, in each of which the two are of different genders – male/female, male/male, female/female; as are also some of the supporting characters. This section (sections) reads like mimetic fiction, but breaking them up is what appears to be output from a computer program (in the form of error messages). The novel then takes an abrupt swerve into alternate history, in which Adrianne is a Vestal Virgin in a modern-day Western city, before then heading into post-apocalypse territory as off-stage alien invaders release some form of dust which mutates human beings and brings about the collapse of civilisation. One of the two main characters becomes one such mutant herself and develops wings. Another shift, and now Adrian is the chief designer of an underground city – a geofront, from the description – in which some of humanity plan to survive, safe from the mutagenic dust and the alien invaders. They’re also building starships to take them to another world. It is at this point in the story that the novel reveals a plan to use the atmosphere to store an archive of human civilisation, and it is the operating system of this which is genersating the computer messages and actually “telling” the story of Elysium. In the final section, Adrianne is a prisoner in a concentration camp run by the alien invaders, and when one of the aliens is imprisoned with them, she learns from it that the aliens had killed all the humans who had not escaped Earth, and that she is no more than a simulation run by the archive in the atmosphere (as, indeed, were all the other narratives in the novel). While Elysium certainly has its moments, the writing is rough to begin with – “The water of sorrow ran like a river down the curve of Adrianne’s cheek”? – but soon improves, or at least becomes less of a barrier. The gender- and sexuality-switching in the opening sections is also neat and cleverly-done, and I thought the Vestal Virgin part especially good… but the post-apocalypse section, and the geo-front section, were a bit dull, and the novel only picked up again with Adrianne in the prison camp, a section which pretty much seems to serve no purpose other than to explain the entire book. In many respects, Elysium reminded me a lot of Sue Thomas’s Correspondence, although I thought Correspondence a much more difficult, but more rewarding, read (see here). I bought Elysium at the end of last year, along with Jackie Hatton’s Flesh & Wires, Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, and a pair of novellas, Lisa Shapter’s A Day in Deep Freeze and Lori Selke’s The XY Conspiracy, from Aqueduct Press (and I cannot recommend Aqueduct Press enough). The Shapter I thought good enough to nominate for the BSFA Award. I’ve yet to read the Taber; but of the other two novels, I think Hatton’s may just be the better one.

3bodyThe Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008). So the puppies managed to fuck up the Hugos in 2015, but one of the novels on their slate was pulled by its author, and The Three-Body Problem was promoted onto the shortlist… and went on to win the award. I don’t normally read books because they’ve won a Hugo – if anything, that’s a good indication I won’t like it – but the premise of The Three-Body Problem sounded interesting, and Liu is a big name in Chinese sf. (I have a collection of his three novellas, The Wandering Earth, knocking around somewhere, but have yet to get around to reading it.) So, anyway, The Three-Body Problem… I wasn’t expecting much: old school sf, but set in China, and with a clever premise. And so it initially seemed. The writing was serviceable at best, although the info-dumps were often intrusive and clumsy… but this is sf, this is what it looks like a lot of the time. However, when protagonist Wang Miao stumbles into the conspiracy at the heart of the novel, and the “end of science” is demonstrated to him through, first, a countdown mysteriously appearing on photographs he has taken, then in his actual vision, and then he witnesses the cosmic background radiation of the universe flicker… Well, this was a fascinating puzzle. Throw in a MMORPG set on a world orbiting three suns and in which players have to figure out a solution to the three-body problem – not that there is one, but the game proved an interesting illustration and history of the issue. It was all going so well: mysterious secret project, the end of science, clever VR game… And then Liu whips away the curtain to reveal what’s really going on and… big disappointment. It’s like a sf novel from the 2010s and a sf novel from the 1950s were welded together. Even that thing with the countdown proved to be a massive letdown. The Three-Body Problem is the first of a trilogy, followed by The Dark Forest and Death’s End. I won’t be bothering with them. But I will dig out that collection of novellas and read that, I think.

price_starsThe Price of the Stars, Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald (1992). This is the first book of the Mageworld series, as the cover helpfully explains. There are seven books in the series, the last in 2002 (the blurb for which does not read like it’s the final book of a series). Initially, I wasn’t all that impressed – The Price of the Stars wears its inspirations – kof kof St*r W*rs kof kof – far too openly, and even the changes it rings are overshadowed by that media behemoth. But I sort of got into it, and began enjoying the read… so I’ll probably end up tracking down the rest of the series and giving them a go, despite their faults.  I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

demonsDemons, John Shirley (2000). For some reason I have yet to figure out, I cottoned onto John Shirley as an author worth collecting… despite not being a fan of horror. I think it was partly because in the early 1990s, he was producing some exciting stuff – Wetbones, Heatseekers, Eclipse, A Splendid Chaos – and, like Lucius Shepard and Lewis Shiner, two genre writers I admire, he began publishing limited edition novellas through small presses. Anyway, I have a number of his books in those signed limited editions, and yet most of them are, well, pretty forgettable. Demons – not to be confused with the Ballantine collection of the same title which includes this novella/short novel (and which I’ve had to link to on Am*z*n because the Cemetery Dance limited edition is apparently very rare) – is fairly typical of Shirley’s output. The gonzo horror inventiveness, the slightly off-kilter approach to the world, nailed into place with the careful use of details, the often slapdash prose, and a story that’s usually more than it appears. In Demons, er, demons start to appear, all over the world. And they kill people, without rhyme or reason. There are seven specific types of demons, which a glossary before the story helpfully describes, and which artwork in the book depicts. Ira is an illustrator for an occult magazine and a bit of a slacker. He’s love with Melissa, the daughter of Dr Paymenz, an occultist professor at a California university. And he’s with them when the demons appear. The three manage to hook up with a symposium of like-minded academics, where Ira learns of the Conscious Circle of Humanity, a group of 23 psychically-gifted people who keep humanity safe, and about a conspiracy which prepared the world for the demons’ arrival. Eventually, they figure out that various large-scale industrial accidents were triggered to usher in the demons, so that a small group of men can use the ensuing slaughter as “sacrifices” to gain immortality. Cliver Barker would probably have made a 900-page epic out of this plot, but in Shirley’s hands it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Better than I had initially thought. But I’m still not sure why I collect Shirley’s books.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


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Reading diary, #34

I stuck to my plan to read only non-fiction in July, but unfortunately I’d not considered one consequence: it usually takes longer to read non-fiction than fiction. So I’ve still not finished The Third Reich: A New History, I’m only three-quarters of the way through The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, and I barely got started on Imagination/Space. However… I did manage to sneak in a few fiction books…

visitationVisitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). Erpenbeck’s The End of Days was the best book I read during the first half of this year, and is likely set to take the top spot come December… which I guess implies that I didn’t think Visitation as good. And, well, fair enough, it’s not as good as The End of Days… but it’s still an excellent novel. It’s written in a similar distanced sort of present tense without direct speech or speech tags. It’s also similarly episodic, although rather than the episodes being based around a person they’re based around a place. Which, in this case, is a patch of land beside a lake in what became East Germany. The story opens in the late nineteenth century (and it really does have a The White Ribbon atmosphere), when the land was covered by a wood. But the owner is forced to sell it after the First World War, and a succession of holiday homes are built on it. There’s some continuity in the form of the “Gardener”, a man who lived in the wood and who never speaks in the novel. At one point, the holiday home is owned by a Jewish family, but is then seized by the Nazis. It comes into the hands of a professional couple from East Berlin, and an old woman who has returned home after several decades living and working in Moscow… The land endures; the people, and the systems they create, do not. Erpenbeck is definitely my discovery of the year, and if Visitation doesn’t quite have the breadth or audacity of The End of Days, it’s likely only because it’s a much thinner book, little more than novella length. But in its approach to its material, it certainly presages The End of Days, although it runs as serial history rather than parallel or alternate history. I can’t recommend Erpenbeck enough. She has one more book available in English. I will be buying it and reading it before the year is out.

hangmanTor double 21: Home is the Hangman / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, Roger Zelazny / Samuel R Delany (1968/1975). A bunch of these Tor doubles appeared in the Isam Bookshop in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s when I lived in the city. They’d obviously been remaindered as that was all the shop sold: remaindered books from the US and UK. (A colleague I ran into once in the shop told me in all seriousness that the books had been “rejected because they contain spelling mistakes”.) Every now and again, when I can find copies, I add to my collection. Tor published 36 doubles in total between 1989 and 1991; some, like this one, are a pair of older reprints, some an older work and a newer one (which was often a sequel or prequel by another hand to the earlier work). The two stories in this double, however, are completely unrelated – if there’s a thematic link, I missed it. According to the cover of Home is the Hangman, “He’s back from the stars – and he isn’t happy”, which tells you two things about the title character and manages to get both wrong. A nine-word blurb that is 100% wrong. Quite an achievement. The novella is narrated by a private investigator / security specialist type, who manages to live under the radar because he was a programmer on a project to computerise everyone’s personal details and ensured his own data was not recorded (this may have seemed like a plausible idea in 1968, but in 2016 it makes no sense). This, however, adds almost nothing to the story… which is about an AI which had been built to explore the moons of the outer planets, and has now returned to Earth for reasons unknown. Four people had been involved in “training” the AI and now, a couple of decades later, one runs a store, one is a psychiatrist, one is an engineer and one is a wealthy industrialist. The store-owner is brutally killed and the industrialist thinks the AI was responsible because of something horrible that happened in the past. Think Original Sin. This novella won the Hugo and Nebula and came second in the Locus Award. Zelazny is a well-known name, and a famous genre prose stylist… so I was surprised at how rubbish this was. The prose was bland, the plot obvious, and time had has not been kind to the world-building… But turn the book upside down and flip it about and you get… We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, which is a pure hit of the pure Delany… and yes, it’s dated quite a bit but it doesn’t matter because with Delany it’s always the late 1960s/early 1970s… and yes, the central premise – giant crawler factories which lay electricity cable, free of charge, to every household on the globe – is bizarrely old-fashioned and weird for 1975… But but but. There are Hells Angels living in an abandoned house in the mountains, and they ride flying bikes. And when one of the crawling factories offers to lay cable to the house (what was wrong with the original utilities infrastructure? Delany never tells us), it breaks apart the biker gang. It’s pretty much nonsense from start to finish but it’s also what a real prose stylist looks like. Reading these two novellas is a bit like reading some sort of writing match between a pair of big names from the late 1960s. Delany wins hands-down, no doubt there; especially since Delany’s novella reads like a product of its time but the Zelazny reads like a story that could have been written at any time but does a piss-poor job of its world-building. So, Delany 1 – Zelazny 0.

agentAgent of the Imperium, Marc Miller (2015). The Traveller RPG was first published in 1977, and has been through several incarnations in the decades since. And during those years, there have been a handful of tie-in novels published – two by the game’s original publishers, GDW; one by a major imprint; but most by fans. Miller was the inventor of the game, and has been seen as its authority ever since – much as Gary Gygax was for Dungeons & Dragons – but until Agent of the Imperium, Miller had never published fiction (unlike Gygax). Agent of the Imperium was published by Miller’s company, Far Future Enterprises, but was financed via Kickstarter. Despite not think highly of other Traveller novels I’ve read, I decided it might be worth reading Miller’s go at one. And… there’s some interesting ideas in the novel, and the way it covers so much of the Third Imperium’s history is cleverly done… But it reads like a series of unconnected episodes, which eventually lead up to the seizing of the Iriridum Throne by Arbellatra, the founder of the Alkhalikoi dynasty (which was still in power five hundred or so years later, at the time the setting of Traveller “began”). The narrator of the novel is the agent of the title, and he works for the Imperial Quarantine Agency, which is charged with preventing epidemics on individual worlds from spreading across the Imperium. Of course, it takes something especially virulent to put the Imperium in danger, and the opening incident describes a world where a species of parasite has taken mental control of the population. The Agent, however, is not a real person. He was a high-level bureaucrat during the early years of the Imperium, but his personality was encoded on a wafer (a fatal process), and now, in certain circumstances, the commanders of Imperial Navy vessels or fleets are instructed to insert a copy of the wafer into a suitable officer equipped with a jack, and so invoke the Agent, who can then advise on the situation. These situations usually result in the Agent advising the fleet to destroy the world. After several such incidents, the Agent (there is a system in place to keep his memories updated and in synch) assists Arbellatra onto the Iridium Throne. I’m a big fan of Traveller and the universe its designers have created and yes, it’s a good playground for fiction… But most of the fiction set in the universe has never quite managed to grasp the flavour of it. Unsurprisingly, Miller manages that really well – despite throwing in virtual personalities and wafers and jacks, none of which, as far as I remember, appeared in any of the incarnations of the RPG. However… Miller is no prose stylist; in fact, he makes Asimov look like a prose stylist. This is commercial sf prose stripped down to its most basic, and the best that can be said of it is that it’s serviceable (although an editor should have spotted that “flang” is not the past tense of “fling”). The story is also far too episodic, and the links between the episodes too minor, to give the whole a feeling of a plot. Fans of the RPG will enjoy it – because it’s by Miller, because it’s set in the RPG’s universe – but if it had been a non-Traveller work it would be a poor one.

Vendetta, MS Murdock (1987). I stumbled across this at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm, looked it up online and decided it was eligible for review on SF Mistressworks. Which I have now done. It wasn’t… very good. See here.

coming_up_for airComing Up for Air, George Orwell (1939). George Bowling is in his forties, fat, works as in insurance inspector for the Flying Salamander, and ives in the suburbs with a wife and two kids. He is, in pretty much every respect, an ordinary lower-middle-class Londoner of the thirties. He wasn’t always, of course. He was born and grew up in a small Thames Valley village, the son of a seed merchant whose business is failing. He leaves school early and goes to work for a local grocer. And then war is declared, and George signs up. He finishes the war as a commissioned officer, which is enough to lift his ambitions above a grocer’s shop. He is, he admits, one of many men who survived the Great War and whose experiences were enough to lift them from working class to the lower rungs of middle class. All this is told to the reader by George in evocative and surprisingly chatty prose – his childhood in Lower Binfield, his aspirations, his current mid-life crisis… And it’s the latter which persuades him to return to Lower Binfield for a visit after twenty-five years away. Naturally, what he finds is not the bucolic village of the turn of the century that he remembers. I took this book with me to Bloodstock, something to read when I needed an occasional time-out from the metal and the beer, and when I started it I wondered if I’d picked a wrong ‘un. The only Orwell I’d read previously was Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, his two most famous works – and Coming Up for Air‘s chatty first-person narrative is nothing like those. But the more I read, the more I found myself fascinated by George Bowling and his life. Orwell paints a picture of a life that is as foreign to me because of the time it’s set as it is because Bowling grew up in a small agricultural village in southern England (ie, not the industrial north). I enjoyed Coming Up for Air a lot more than I’d expected to, and found it a much better book than I’d anticipated. Worth reading.

FIGURESThe Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szaniawski (2014). Though I’ve been subscribing to Sight & Sound for nearly two decades, I’ve never read any actual academic film criticism. Until now. But I’m a huge a fan of Sokurov’s films, and I felt I needed a little help to parse some of them. And Figures of Paradox has been very useful in that regard, but… The language used throughout is that sort of obfuscatory academic bollocks that gives academic criticism a bad name. Having said that, Szaniawski knows his subject well, and there is plenty of information about the production of Sokurov’s films which I found both fascinating and helpful in deciphering them. However, the more I read the book, the more it becamse clear that Szaniawski had A Theory, and he was determined to prove it. There is, it cannot be denied, a certain amount of homoeroticism in Sokurov’s films, and Sokurov himself is famously celibate. Although Sokurov has denied being gay, Szaniawski is convinced he is, and the evidence for it is there in his films. I can see in part what Szaniawski claims, but there’s as much evidence in Sokurov’s filmography to “prove” he is gay as there was in Ken Russell’s – and Russell wasn’t gay. Not, of course, that it makes the slight bit of difference. It just seems a peculiar drum to bang. Reading the book, I put it down to an academic’s need to add some new angle to justify their research. (Szaniawski’s book is not the only critical work on Sokurov, but the others are all spread across a variety of magazines.) In all, I found Figures of Paradox something of a curate’s egg – a useful work in helping to parse Sokurov’s films, and better appreciate them; but it also displayed some of the worst aspects of academic film criticism. But Sokurov is still an amazing director, though.


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Reading diary, #33

I decided that July would be a month of only reading non-fiction, and I stuck mostly to that – although first I had to finish Arcadia; and there were a couple of graphic novels during the month as well…

arcadiaArcadia, Iain Pears (2015). I’d heard mixed reports about this book, none of which especially encouraged me to read it. But it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and I had planned to read all of the shortlisted books. Over the years, I’ve read Pears’s other novels – although only one or two of his Jonathan Argylle series – and thought them very good. Mention of an Arcadia app also made the book sound intriguing. While I’m not one to look down my nose at lit fic authors attempting genre – some do it badly, but a lot of the more interesting genre fiction these days is being written by those with no genre history – my views on Arcadia on opening the novel were at best conflicted. And when I actually came to read it… I was surprised. It’s woefully old-fashioned, there’s no doubt about that; despite the app, despite the fact it opens in the 1960s. And lead character Rosie Wilson reads like a Lucy Pevensey for the 1970s. But Arcadia is also addictively readable, more so than any other book on the Clarke shortlist – I polished it off, all 736 pages, in a weekend. There are, basically, four plot-threads. The first is set in 1960s Oxford and features a member of the Inklings and the fantasy world he has developed, Anterworld. Then there is the narrative set in Anterworld, featuring some of the characters he’s invented. And another thread in which it’s visited, Narnia-like, by the aforementioned Rosie, a fifteen-year-old girl who part-time housekeeps for the Oxford professor. Then there’s a thread set in a near-future totalitarian UK, where a secretive project on Skye turns out to be time-travel and not, as believed, a portal to alternative worlds which can be colonised. Except the time-travel/Anterworld thing wants to have its cake and eat it too, which leads to some pretty torturous plot-logic, delivered via info-dumps and lectures, in order for it to all link up. There are a few halfway decent ideas in here – and if most of them feel somewhat familiar, that hardly makes this book unique among, well, among award-nominated genre novels… Much as I enjoyed Arcadia, it did feel a little like reading a book from the 1970s or 1980s. But I’d still rate it higher than at least half of the Clarke shortlist.

faulksFaulks on Fiction, Sebastian Faulks (2011). This book was published as a companion piece to a BBC television series which I’ve not seen. In it, Faulks considers twenty-eight characters from literature, and comments on them. The characters are split into “types”: heroes, lovers, snobs and villains. And within each group, he considers a well-known character from a famous novel. Some of the choices are obvious: Sherlock Holmes as a hero, Constance Chatterley as a lover, Fagin as a villain. Some are a bit odd: James Bond as a snob (although given the use of brand-names in the books, it does sort of make sense), Winston Smith as a hero… And I wouldn’t have chosen Ronald Merrick as a villain to represent the Raj Quartet – Barbie Bachelor is a much more interesting character; nor do I necessarily agree with the conclusions Faulks draws about the four books and Merrick’s role in them. But then the Raj Quartet is one of the few works covered in Faulks on Fiction which Faulks read for the first time for the television series. Many of the others he had read as a schoolboy or a student, and he writes as much about how his view of the book has changed with this new read as he does in analysis of the character under discussion. Of the twenty-eight novels covered, I’ve read only nine (but I’ve seen film/tv adaptions of a further seven), which at least gives me a position to compare Faulks’s thoughts with my own. He raises points I’d not considered in many cases and there’s very little I’d disagree with on those characters with which I’m familiar. Admittedly, I seem to hold both DH Lawrence and Paul Scott in higher regard than Faulks does – though, to be fair, I don’t prize Lawrence for his characterisation, and that’s pretty much the focus of the essays in Faulks on Fiction. An interesting read.

restrictedRestricted Areas, Danila Tkachenko (2016). Tkachenko is a Russian photographer and this is his second collection. The photographs focus on the wreckage of the Soviet Union, photographed in winter and covered in snow. So there are ruined apartment blocks, an ekranoplan (a Bartini Beriev VVA-14, in fact), and even the Buzludhzha Monument, among other subjects. Photography is not a hobby in which I indulge, but I do like these collections of the failures of the twentieth century (particularly when the failure was not a result of anything intrinsic to the failed object). It is, I suppose, a form of armchair urban exploration – but it has the advantage of someone else catching that moment of sublimity and making it public. There is something about the technological and engineering hubris of the twentieth century, and the artefacts which are all that remain, that I find particularly appealing. Tkachenko’s photographs capture some of those in a particular light, and that in turn adds an interesting dimension to the subjects of the photos.

valerian_12Valerian and Laureline Vol 12: The Wrath of Hypsis, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1985). This volume immediately follows on from The Ghosts of Inverloch, which was pretty much set-up… and it feels a little like there’s a middle volume missing somewhere. In the first of the two-parter, Earth and Galaxity Central (the HQ of the time-travelling intergalactic agency for which Valerian and Laureline work) was under threat from something either in the distant past or the deep future. The head of Galaxity gathered together a group of disparate characters – human and alien – at Inverloch Castle in Scotland in the 1980s… and in The Wrath of Hypsis they follow a ghost ship from Earth to the mysterious world of Hypsis… where it all goes a bit silly. The Holy Trinity – although not as they’re typically depicted in various works of dubious historical accuracy – are residents of Hypsis and responsible for Earth, and they’ve come to the conclusion the “experiment” is not working. It’s all a bit random and unsupported, and probably felt a bit more cutting-edge and dangerous back in 1985. Thirty years later, it reads like an incomplete premise. A shame… because this really is a superior space opera series. I suspect splitting a story over two episodes was considered pushing it for a bande dessinée that averaged 48 pages in length, but this particular story could have done with more room.

antares_6Antares Episode 6, Léo (2015). I started reading Léo’s sf bandes dessinées at the tail end of 2013, starting with the Aldebaran series, after stumbling across them on Amazon and thinking they might be worth a go. They were. After the three books of the Aldebaran series (published as five books in the original French) came Betelgeuse in three volumes (also originally five books), and now Antares, which has stretched to six “episodes”. (There’s a further linked series, The Survivors, currently unfinished, with three volumes.) Anyway, in Aldebaran, Kim Keller, a native of the human colony on a world orbiting that star, finds herself involved with a group who have been granted immortality by the enigmatic alien Mantris. In Betelgeuse, she is recruited for a mission to discover why the colony on a world orbiting that star has suddenly gone silent, and so finds herself involved with another Mantris and a humanoid alien race. Finally, in Antares, Kim is asked to join an expedition to settle a planet orbiting… not Antares, which is a red giant, but GJ-1211, a main sequence star which is invisible from Earth against the brightness of Antares. The expedition is run by religious zealots, and they don’t get on at all with Kim – especially when it seems she’s tied into whatever’s going on. They’re pretty good these bandes dessinées – smart science fiction and well-drawn. Worth reading.

third_reichThe Third Reich: A New History, Michael Burleigh (2000). I’ve had this for a few years but it’s a bit on the thick side – 965 pages! – which has always put me off reading it. But when I decided that July was going to be a month of reading non-fiction, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally tackle it. As I write this, I’m about a third of the way into the book, but I didn’t think it worth waiting until I’d actually finished it before writing about it because… well, we all know what happened, and it’s the way in which Burleigh tackles and presents his material that is important. And… he likes his big words. For example, “fissiparous” appears at least once a chapter. This is a writer who is determined not to dumb down his style. Burleigh’s approach also seems to demand some form of collusion from the reader, inasmuch as there are a number of editorial comments suggesting the reader is of course clever enough to agree with Burleigh’s point. The events recounted in The Third Reich: A New History took place between 100 and 70 years ago, and it’s pure coincidence that I chose to read the book now, in a post-Brexit UK and Trump-possible US, a time which scarily re-enacts some of the history described by Burleigh. Since the EU referendum, hate crimes are up in the UK by 57%. (And it’s all very well saying a leave vote was a protest vote against the political classes; but when the leave campaign’s main plank was xenophobic and racist anti-immigrant rhetoric, it takes a peculiar kind of blindness to paint it as a political protest.) How long before the EDL start wearing uniforms? How long until immigrants are asked to wear badges indicating their origin? Only this week, a chain of gourmet hamburger restaurants colluded with immigration police to arrest and deport some of their staff – and given that some of those staff had been working for the chain for at least four years… I’ve not yet finished The Third Reich: A New History – it’s going to take me a couple of months, I think, to do that – but I at least know how it ends. As we approach the 2020s, I have no idea what’s in store for the UK, the EU, the US, indeed this planet… Which makes it all too easy to sympathise with the Europeans of the 1920s…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126