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Reading diary 2018, #8

I don’t seem to be reading much current science fiction these days. Well, okay, I read three of the four novels shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and I recently bought four of the six novels shortlisted for the Clarke Award (I already owned one, and am not really interested in another.) And yes, I’ve read the first two books of NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which has been the most lauded genre series of the last couple of years… But no current science fiction here, I’m afraid.

Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). I stumbled across Henry Green’s writing a couple of years ago. I’d seen mention of him somewhere as a forgotten great writer in British twentieth-century literature, although at the time I saw this he had been re-discovered, not that I knew; but anyway I stumbled across an omnibus of three of his novels – Loving · Living · Party Going – and I read the first of these (actually the last published of the three) and, er, loved it. So I read more. And yes, he is indeed one of the best writers this country produced in the first half of last century. Pack My Bag is his autobiography, written in 1940 at the age of 35, after Green had volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service and was convinced he would not survive the war. (He actually survived, and died an alcoholic in 1973, having published only nine novels.) Pack My Bag is something Green banged out to assuage fears he might be forgotten and, quite frankly, I’m in awe of his talent. He led a privileged life, a minor member of the aristocracy, educated at Eton and Oxford – I can’t decide whether to despise him for his background, admire him for his writing, or grudgingly admit he was uncommon for his class – unpopular at school, and far too thoughtful; he left Oxford without graduating, to go work in his family’s bottling factory in Birmingham. Yet his wife was a member of his class, and a distant cousin too; and though he was clearly very intelligent, as a member of the upper classes he was the beneficiary of what is considered to be a top-notch education… and yet he admits the masters at Eton were hired for their sporting prowess and not their knowledge of their subjects, which in many cases was hugely deficient, and it would not surprise me if that has held true in the century since; and at university, he brags that his studies take up no more than six hours a week. Green is perfectly aware of what he is saying as he writes this – he is not a man afraid of burning bridges, or biting the hand that feeds him, or other such aphorisms.

The Masked Fisherman, George Mackay Brown (1989, UK). Someone on Twitter recommended Brown a couple of years ago, and so I’ve kept an eye open for his books in local charity shops ever since. Which is how I stumbled across Beside the Ocean of Time (see here), which I thought good; and why I later picked up this book when I found it in a charity shop. It’s a collection of twenty-two very short stories, some of which work very well and some of which didn’t seem to work at all. Some barely qualify as stories. They’re all set in Brown’s home ground, the Orkneys, and they take place between the eleventh and twentieth centuries. They’re not arranged chronologically, but jump about. The title story is historical, and reads more like a fable than a short story. Another, about a mean old lady who leaves a surprising bequest, feels a bit out of place. A short story about the town’s first lamp-lighter is especially good. Another about a writer researching his past also stands out. Some of the stories seemed less… lyrical than I had expected, not that Brown’s prose is ornate, it’s typically very plain but it’s also very evocative. And in a few places here, that felt slightly lacking. However, the more by Brown I read, the more by Brown I want to read. So I’ll continue to keep eye open for his books.

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol 2, (2010, India). This was a reward for a kickstarter – although maybe not from that particular website – for volume three (as was volume one, but there’s no sign of it yet; I’m still not convinced “kickstarters” – crowd-funding, that is – are actually viable or sustainable, but that’s an argument for another day). Anyway, in India – and in this case, the Tamil-speaking parts of it, such as Tamil Nadu – penny dreadfuls of a sort still exist. They are printed on extremely cheap paper and sold at newsstands or by boys at traffic lights. Authors who specialise in these Tamil pulp novels have bibliographies numbering in the high double figures, and some even in the high triple figures – and one author in this anthology, Rajesh Kumar, has written around 1500! While holding down day jobs. To be fair, they’re not long novels and, if the ones in this anthology are any indication, pretty badly-written, with an over-reliance on cliché, very little description and plots that are so pacey they frequently contradict themselves. The plots are mostly thrillers with real or faked supernatural elements. The opener, and the longest in the anthology, ‘The Palace of Kottaipuram’, features a second son from a tiny princedom in which the heirs are cursed to die before they reach their thirtieth birthday. When his older brother dies, making him the heir, his girlfriend – he met her at college – is determined to find the truth behind the curse and so thwart it. It’s all very, well, pulp, and probably the best story in the book. I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll read the third one too, of course; but it’s like watching Bollywood films: they might be terrible, but they’re entertaining and fun and different to what I normally read/watch.

Dan Dare: He Who Dares, Peter Milligan & Alberto Foche (2018, UK). I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since the early 1970s, and have kept up with him in all his re-imaginings since, most of which it must be said have been pretty shit. There was the 2000AD one (see here and here), then the re-launched Eagle with Dare’s… grandson?, also called Dare. And in the early 1990, out of Revolver, there was Dare by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes, to date the only halfway-decent Dare since the original (and it looks like Titan are publishing a new edition later this year). And Grant Ennis and Gary Erskine had a bash at a new Dan Dare a few years and it was pretty bad. But here’s a new one. It starts off really well. Dare and co. – specifically, Hank Hogan, Peabody and Digby; although Hank pretty much disappears after the first couple of pages, Digby is far more competent and assertive than his original, and Peabody, the most modern of the characters even back in the 1950s, has been updated a little. As has the Mekon. Dan Dare: He Who Dares starts out well, with some pointed political commentary. The Mekon was captured and is now in a secure facility on the Moon. He seems to have given up his evil ways, but only Dare believes he might be rehabilitated. And then a giant Treen spaceship appears in the Solar System, and Dare seeks advice from the Mekon on how to destroy it. With the help of a female warrior from an alien world. This is where it all falls apart. Dare was always interplanetary, and his only interstellar stories – Rogue Planet and Terra Nova – saw him and his colleagues spending weeks or months travelling to an alien world. There’s certainly no suggestion the Mekon carved out an interstellar empire. In fact, the Treens who invade the Solar System feel like an entirely different race, and not the Treens of Venus. A shame, as the story started off so well.

The Art of Edena, Moebius (2018, France). So I ordered this a couple of months ago, but Amazon failed to source it and after a month cancelled my order. And then a week after that, I noticed they had copies in stock. So how does that work? I know: it’s because people are so fucking lax about data that you can no longer uniquely identify something because there might well be hundreds of identical copies under different ids in a system. Anyway, I re-ordered it and it was delivered the next day. Despite the title, it’s not a study of Moebius’s Edena series (see here). It’s more of a companion volume, explaining details that are patently obvious in the series itself, but – and it’s worth buying for this if you’re a Moebius fan – it also includes several short graphical stories featuring Stel and Atan that are not in the Edena volume. And they’re pretty good.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary 2018, #7

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. On the plus-side, I seem to be better at picking books I enjoy.

The Silent Multitude, DG Compton (1966, UK). After Gwyneth Jones, I would say DG Compton was likely the second-best sf writer the UK has produced. Except… His writing was a cut above what is typical for the genre, and his best work is among the top rank of British sf – and rather than being timeless, it makes a virtue of the fact it is tied to its time of writing – but… Compton’s range was somewhat narrow. He wrote many similar novels. And there are a number of other UK sf writers of the 1970s whose prose was perhaps not as good as Compton’s but who managed to produce more varied work. Which is not to say that Compton was never good, or that mediocre Compton is not a great deal better than some other writers’ best. The Silent Multitude is Compton coming into his voice, after a handful of years of writing crime novels as Guy Compton. A mysterious organism is spreading across the UK which dissolves mortar and reduces buildings to rubble in a handful of days. The “Sickness” has now reached Gloucester, a city completely rebuilt in the 1980s, which has now been evacuated. Except for the local dean, an old man who collects newspapers and lives alone among the tens of thousands he has collected, a twentysomething hoodlum who proves to be the son of the architect who designed the new Gloucester, and a twentysomething young woman reporter who is the daughter of the editor of the newspaper for which she works. (The mentions of a redesigned Gloucester reminded me not only of Portmouth’s Tricorn Centre, which I’ve only seen in photographs, but also the various plans to rebuild the city centre of Coventry and, of course, the precinct which eventually resulted.) The Silent Multitude is essentially these four characters witnessing the death of a city – the death of its buildings and infrastructure, that is; the people have already left – and while Compton is good on the descriptive prose and the characterisation, this novel doesn’t feature any of the narrative tricks he later used. The Silent Multitude is a slim work, ideas-wise, propped up by good prose, but that’s no bad thing as science fiction in general could do with upping its game prose-wise. Compton is good – bloody good, in fact – but this is nowhere near his best work.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss (2017, USA). Most of Goss’s short fiction that I’ve seen has been fantasy or reworked fairy tales, which is not really the type of fiction that interests me. But a year or two ago, she wrote ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’, which was the sort of referential mash-up genre fiction that does appeal to me – and I thought it so good, I nominated it for the BSFA Award, but it did not make the shortlist – and it seems she has written more in a similar vein. Anyway, I saw mention of this, her first novel, and its premise – the daughters of various nineteenth-century fictional scientists team up to help Sherlock Holmes solve Jack the Ripper’s murders – sounded like it might be worth a go. And so it was. It is, in fact, very good. Except. Well, it feels a bit dumbed-down. I’m not sure what it is, but it doesn’t feel as clever a novel as its central conceit would suggest. It doesn’t help that Mary Jekyll – yes, the daughter of that Jekyll – is the main character but spends much of the plot tagging along behind Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, the novel is explicitly presented as a narrative written by Catherine Moreau, often with interjections by the other women, and that works really well. It’s also quite funny. For a novel set in Victorian Britain, there are a few slips – the ground floor is continually referred to as the first floor; and some of the expletives are US English. Despite those minor quibbles, I enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and plan to pick up a copy of the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, when it’s published in July.

Author’s Choice Monthly 10: Tales from a Vanished Country, Elizabeth A Lynn (1990, USA). One day I will have all of these muahahah. Ahem. But for now, I have just over half of the series. Lynn was not an author known to me, so I came to this short collection cold. In the first story, a wizard runs a trading empire, and when his CEO, so to speak, betrays him, he imprisons him as water in the sea. Some time later, he frees him, because a rival wizard has been upsetting the balance of power. The two disguise themselves to visit the other wizard, but he sees through their disguises. Fortunately, after several months of drugged gaslighting, the CEO chap regains his senses, and the world is set right. So far, so consolatory. The second story, however, is anything but. Three sisters are noted for their beauty, intelligence and martial prowess. A mysterious woman appears and challenges them to combat. One accepts and is killed. Some time later, the mysterious challenger reappears, and this time the second sister is killed in combat. So the third sister hunts down the killer, who turns out to be an aspect of the Moon, and she becomes her lover. Years later, the sister decides to return to her family, but it seems decades have passed. But she stays and lives out her life, mourning her dead sisters and lost lover. The final story reads more like mythology than epic fantasy. A goddess entrusts command of the five winds to a reclusive astronomer who lives in a cave in the mountains. The goddess’s son decide to check this out, and becomes the woman’s lover. She has two girls, who grow faster than human girls. He leaves and steals the cloak the woman uses to command the winds. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the goddess returns. But the woman has disappeared and the two daughters are only just managing to survive. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Lynn before, and I have the impression I’ve seen her name chiefly on the covers of sharecropped novels… although checking on isfdb.org, I see that’s completely false and two of her three standalone novels are, in fact, science fiction. (The 1983 UK paperback edition of one has quite striking cover art.) The three stories in Tales from a Vanished Country are really good, which was completely unexpected. They make clever use of fantasy tropes, and are deeply feminist, even the first one which features no female characters. I think I’ll track down copies of those two science fiction novels…

Phosphorus, Liz Williams (2018, UK). This is the third novella of the third quartet of NewCon Press novellas, although the fourth book I read of the set. Not, I hasten to add, for any particular reason. It is subtitled “A Winterstrike Story’, and I have no objection to subtitles but I would like to point out that they are not titles. So when a data entry form has a field called “title”, it means title, not title and subtitle, not title and, as I have seen, “[random award] winner”. People complain about Big Data, but it would be much less of a problem if we didn’t have Shit Data. But that’s a rant for another day. I have read Winterstrike, but not the other books in the series. Neither is necessary to understand the story of Phosphorus, which, to be honest, isn’t much of a story. It’s extremely strong on setting – and Williams’s Mars is a fascinating place – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere or do much. A young woman with some mysterious quality is adopted by her mysterious aunt, who takes her from Winterstrike, which is under attack by another city, to the dead city of Tharsis. Meanwhile, the sole survivor of the Hunt – although she is dead, but animated by one of the Hunt’s starships – an alien race that saw its mission in life as “culling” other races, leaves her homeworld of Phosphorus, and eventually ends up on Mars. An event which, it transpires, happened centuries before the other narrative, and the young woman is in some way connected. And, er, that’s it. Pretty much. An interesting idea that’s not at all explored. It reads like the start of a novel. Nice writing, nice world-building, but disappointing plot.

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon (2007, USA). Back in the day, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union appeared on several genre award shortlists, IIRC, and I read it and thought it quite good. So I stuck The Amazing Adventures of  Kavalier and Clay on my wishlist and some years later was given it as a birthday present. And then I read it, an embarrassing number of years after that, and was much more impressed. And shortly after that I found a copy of Gentlemen of the Road in a charity shop, so of course I bought it. And… Chabon writes in an afterword that to him the novel (a very short novel) was always titled “Jews with Swords”. Because to him Jews had never been associated with swords – at least not since Biblical times. I’ve never attached a religion to a weapon – people with swords are people with swords, and I’ve never really thought about the religious tradition from which they came, perhaps because in most cases in fiction that tradition was invented, and for those where it was not the context more than explained it. But “Jews with Swords” gives us a Frankish Jew estranged from his European family, and an Ethiopian Jew from tribe that no other Jew seems willing to accept, on a mission which involves the Khazars, a Turkic state which converted to Judaism, but vanished after three centuries. The two unwillingly accept a commission to take a young Khazar prince, the last survivor of the family of a deposed bek (martial leader, a sort of government CEO to the kagan’s chairperson). But they lose him to some mercenaries, who are taking him to the new bek. Except the prince persuades the mercenaries to rally his cause, and sort of builds up an army from the Muslim Khazar cities in the south of the region which the new bek had let the Vikings plunder with impunity. And… well, the big secret about the prince is pretty obvious from about a page after he’s been introduced, and the only suspense is in wondering how the two main characters can be so dumb as to not figure it out. Having said that, the history is fascinating, the characters are interesting, and, while I find Chabon’s prose a bit hit and miss, the mannered style he adopts here works well with the story. I should read more Chabon. Fortunately, I have Wonder Boys on the TBR, picked up from a charity shop at the same time as Gentlemen of the Road

Inside Moebius, Part 1, Moebius (2004, France). I came to Moebius’s work from Jodorwosky, as Moebius – Jean Giraud – illustrated Jodorowsky’s Incal series, still one of the greatest sf bandes dessinées of all time. Although, having said that, I seem to remember seeing parts of Moebius’s Airtight Garage many. many years ago. Back in the early 1980s, I used to fly out to the Middle East for holidays via Schiphol Airport, and in the bookshop there I would often pick up a copy of Heavy Metal or Epic, and even an issue of 1984 (which I had to hide once I’d discovered what it contained). I’ve a feeling that’s where I first encountered Moebius’s work. That’s all by the bye. I’ve been a fan of Moebius for many years now, so I keep an eye open for when new stuff by him appears in English (I could, I suppose, buy the original French editions, but I have enough trouble keeping track of new stuff in one language market, never mind doing it in two). Inside Moebius, originally published in in six volumes in France but now as three volumes from Dark Horse, is a sort of autobiographical private project that blossomed. Moebius wanted to give up smoking, so he started writing a bande dessinée about it, and then sort of dragged in the books he had worked on, or was currently working on, and his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Particularly politics. Osama bin Laden makes an appearance in Inside Moebius, Part 1, as do some of Moebius’s characters – Blueberry, Arzak and the Major. The art is not as detailed as in other Moebius works, it’s almost sketches, in fact. But the way the book is designed, it’s clear the words are more important. The dialogue is full of puns, many of which have not translated but a helpful afterword explains them. (For the record, I did get the “Fumetti” one.) It’s all good stuff, although I could have wished for artwork as good as that in the aforementioned works.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #6

More reading all over the place. And cheats too – a bande dessineé and two novellas. Oh well. At least I’m staying ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge target…

Fleet Insurgent, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction books since they first appeared back in the 1990s. They were definitely among the more interesting commercial sf being published in the US back then. Although apparently not interesting enough, as Matthews moved publisher after the first three Jurisdiction books, and two unrelated novels, and then lasted two Jurisdiction novels with her new publisher before being dropped. The next book came out from small press Meisha Merlin… who promptly folded. And it was another decade before Baen picked the series up, published two omnibuses, before continuing the series with Blood Enemies (see here). Fleet Insurgent, however, is a collection, some of it previously published, much of its contents intended to fill in gaps in the published series so far, or shed new light, or a new perspective, on some of its episodes. So it’s more like a companion volume than anything else, rather than a pendant volume. Which, as a fan, doesn’t overly bother me. If anything, the stories in Fleet Insurgent provide welcome insight – as Matthews is not a writer who likes to make things easy for her readers. The writing is a deal better than I remember from recent rereads of the first two books of the Under Jurisdiction series, but that’s hardly unusual. However, it’s certainly not a good entry point for the series, as most of the stories will make zero sense without knowledge of the novels (despite an introduction to each story by Matthews). I seem to recall that Matthews had plotted out a quite a number of books in the series. I hope we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next instalment.

Valerian & Laureline 22: Memories from the Futures, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2013, France). This is not the twenty-second volume in the story of Valerian and Laureline. Except it is. What I mean is, it’s not part of the story-arc which takes place over the previous twenty-one volumes, but rather pendants to the prior episodes. Most of these only occupy a double-page spread, and they don’t make much sense if you don’t know the volumes to which they refer. I’m not entirely sure why it needed to exist – they were contractually obliged to deliver a twenty-second volume? I don’t know. If you’ve read the previous twenty-one volumes – and I highly recommend them; ignore the crappy film – then you’ll know what to expect, and you’ll want the book anyway to complete the set. Now it’s all finished, I guess I’ll have to find another bande dessinée to read… perhaps in the original French? Now, where did I put my French-English dictionary…

Dreams of the Technarion, Sean McMullen (2017, Australia). I was sent this for review by Interzone. I don’t think I’ve read anything by McMullen before, a few short stories perhaps. Some of the stories in this collection appeared in Interzone, although I don’t recall them. As sf collections go, Dreams of the Technarion is strong on ideas, if not on story – one or two feel like premises in search of a plot. But what makes the book is the final story… which isn’t a story at all but an essay on the history of Australian science fiction. It’s fascinating stuff – and amusing too, albeit not always intentionally: when discussing early Australian pulp magazines, McMullen writes, “This is not the sort of thing to make the average SF reader do handstands, but it was good enough for an average Australian male caught in a toilet without a newspaper”, which I’m not entirely sure means what McMullen intended it to mean… Anyway, I almost certainly wouldn’t have read this had I not been sent it for review, but I’m glad I did. There’s certainly much worse out there, often much more acclaimed, and the essay on the history of Australian sf is fascinating stuff.

A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK). My sister bought me this for my birthday, although not from my wishlist. I’ve no idea why she chose it – when I asked, she said it looked “interesting”. Atkins’s name means much more to me now than it did this time last year, since I saw one of his video installations, ‘Ribbons’, at Kiasma in Helsinki, when I was in Finland for the Worldcon last August. I’m a big fan of video installations, and Atkins’s was one of the two in the museum I thought really good. So I was quite pleased to have a copy of his book. It’s a collection of… I’m not entirely sure what they are. Stream-of-consciousness pieces, I suppose. Neither poetry nor prose, but having some characteristics of both. One or two, I think, maybe the scripts from his video installations – they certainly share titles, such as ‘Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths’. Much of the writing is visceral, as in, er, about viscera, detailed narratives about parts of the body – one is more or less an annotated list of parts of the brain as mapped by Korbinian Brodmann (isn’t that a great first name?). Most of the pieces are peppered with cultural references – there’s a plot summary of the film Sphere in one of them. I’m not sure if I liked or enjoyed A Primer for Cadavers, as it’s not the sort of book you can like or enjoy. Bits of it are extremely well-done, and a good deal of the writing is very clever. I guess that, like video installations cross over that line between cinema and art into art, so this book crosses over a similar line between literature and art into art. I’d already planned to keep an eye open for Atkins’s work when I visit modern art museums in the future, and after reading A Primer for Cadavers I’m even more keen to do so.

The Martian Simulacra, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the second of the latest quartet of NewCon Press novellas, all of which are set on Mars. It’s subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”, which is a bit of a clue to the plot. As is the cover art. It’s set after Wells’s Martian invasion. Although the invaders died, a second lot, claiming to be good Martians and the enemies of the invaders, arrived, and have pretty much taken over. Holmes is approached by a Martian ambassador, who asks for his help in solving the murder of an important Martian philosopher. On Mars. So he and Watson travel there, meeting a yuong woman en route, who appears to be involved with some sort of Martian underground. Because the good Martians aren’t so good after all. It’s exactly the sort of story you would expect from a mash-up between Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds. Brown keeps it pacey, although he perhaps relies overmuch on stock tropes and imagery. A fun novella.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, Una McCormack (2018, UK). This is the fourth novella in the series – for some reason I skipped the third, not that they’re at all related in terms of story. And I think it’s set on Mars, like the other three, but it’s hard to be sure as there are no references to the Martian landscape. It’s not even as if the story needs to be set on Mars – The Martian Simulacra is a mash-up with Wells’s novel, so Mars is a given; and even The Martian Job (see here) required the Red Planet as its setting for its story, and almost certainly for its ending. The narrator of The Greatest Story Ever Told is a scullery maid in a household that trains “dance-fighters”. The society consists of masters, free people and hands. The hands are basically slaves. And they rebel. Led by the two most famous dance-fighters. After several months of freedom, by which time they’ve gathered several thousand to them, the masters send an army. You can guess the rest. Interspersed with the main narrative are short fables, framed as told by the narrator to other characters in the main narrative. Some of them have obvious morals, others I couldn’t see what point they were trying to make. Everyone in the story uses female pronouns. Of the three novellas from the quartet I’ve read so far, this was the least satisfying. The setting didn’t feel like Mars, I don’t think slavery belongs in science fiction stories, and the narrator’s voice was a little irritating. The stories-within-a-story, while hardly new, gave the novella a little more depth, but I suspect it was over-used a little. Not my favourite of the four, so far. And I still have one more to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #5

Bit of a cheat this one, as most of the books are either short or graphic novels – well, one graphic novel, two short collections, and a novella. One has also been shortlisted for the BSFA Award.

Author’s Choice Monthly 7: Neon Twilight, Edward Bryant (1990 USA). I had one of my semi-regular outbreaks of completist-itis, and since I owned about half of the Author’s Choice Monthly issues, I decided I needed to have the rest. A full set. Even though many of the authors in the series I’m far from a fan of. Like Mike Resnick. Ed Bryant I knew nothing about. The name rang a vague bell, but if I’ve read anything by him in the past, I don’t recall doing so. Bryant’s introduction explains he’s better known as a horror writer, although he did write heartland sf once – and it’s three of the latter stories which are collected here. All three are set in the same space opera universe – the first story he set there, a later one when he decided to use the setting for a commissioned story, and a third written specifically for this short collection. They are… okay. The stories are set in some sort of interstellar polity – it’s all a bit vague – in which disputes are settled through ceremonial wars, in which mercenaries in fighters battle each other. And those who survive, and have the highest kills, become popular heroes. The second story was written for an anthology set in Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker universe, so the mercenaries have to fight off a giant machine intelligence bent on killing everyone. And they do it using the previously unknown telekinetic powers of one settled world’s indigenes. The whole fighter/mercenary thing takes some swallowing, because there’s nothing remotely plausible about using fighters in space combat, despite their prevalence in science fiction. The whole folk hero thing doesn’t really parse either – after all, who remembers the aces from the Vietnam War? From any war? These Author’s Choice Monthly have proven to be very much of variable quality. But they’re a set, so I’m going to buy them all and read them all, damn it. Even if they’re crap.

The Obelisk Gate, NK Jemisin (2016, USA). Do I need to explain that this is the second book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy – preceded by The Fifth Season and followed by The Stone Sky – which, like The Fifth Season, won the Hugo, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Stone Sky also won the Hugo this year… Making it the only trilogy to ever win the Hugo for all three instalments in consecutive years. Which says more about the Hugo Awards, to be honest, than it does the books. Social media these days is completely fucking useless for finding out what’s worth reading – and the Hugo Award never has been – as it’s all tribalism and self-promotion, but I’d heard enough rumbles about The Fifth Season to prompt me to buy it when it was £1.99, and I was pleasantly surprised enough (see here) to stick this second book on my wishlist. And so was given it as a Christmas present. It is a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow a phrase, that the second books of trilogies are generally the least satisfactory. After the tricks Jemisin had used in The Fifth Season, I had, to be honest, expected more of The Obelisk Gate. It is pretty much a straight follow-on. However, where the best part of the first book was its time-stacked narratives, that’s a not a technique that can be continued once revealed. The Obelisk Gate doesn’t even try. It’s a linear narrative covering events chronologically following on from The Fifth Season. It rings a few changes – which are to its credit – inasmuch as it introduces a separate narrative for Essun’s daughter, who was abducted by her father and proves to be an extremely powerful orogene; and it also breaks its narratives with first-person sections which directly address the reader whose narrator is not initially obvious. The worldbuilding is basically more of the same from the first book. The level of brutality remains high, although much of the invention was frontloaded in the first book. This is good solid genre fiction, a cut above the average, which can be read as both science fiction or fantasy. Are they the best two genre fiction novels published in 2015 and 2016? Of course they’re not. The Fifth Season probably deserved its Hugo – and certainly did given the shortlist – but The Obelisk Gate‘s Hugo was not so deserved (although, given the rest of the shortlist…). I’ll certainly read The Stone Sky, and I hope it picks up a bit after The Obelisk Gate – although I suspect that since the shape of trilogy is now becoming so much clearer, it won’t do. The strength of The Fifth Season was that its shape was there to be discovered. But we shall see.

Author’s Choice Monthly 29: Moonstone & Tiger-Eye, Suzy McKee Charnas (1992 USA). There are only two stories in this collection, both technically novelettes (I say “technically” because novelette is the most useless fiction category on the planet and we should really stop using it). The first, ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’ I first read in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, and I liked it enough to moan that Charnas had never revisited the setting. It was apparently her first piece of short fiction, since she’d only written, and was known for, novels prior to it. On reread, I’m less enamoured of ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’. It’s heartland hard sf/space opera, the sort of stuff Cherryh, among countless others, is famous for, written in the first person, with an engaging narrator. But. The use of Nigerian culture feels a bit heavy-handed. It’s good to see something other than middle America as a cultural template in a science fiction story, but when you make use of someone else’s culture it has to be done very carefully. Her female narrator also has agency. In 1980, when this story first appeared, that wasn’t very common. The setting is all a bit identikit – Nigerians notwithstanding – and it’s still a shame Charnas never revisited it. The second novelette is ‘Evil Thoughts’, from 1990. A woman and her younger significant other have moved into a new house. Mushrooms keep appearing on their lawn, and the crazy lady just up the streets, with two yappy dogs, tells her they are “evil thoughts”. And the woman destroys the mushrooms, so the evil thoughts have nowhere to go… The story doesn’t make much of its conceit, and seems more concerned with the anxieties of the woman caused by other people’s thoughts on her having a younger partner. Disappointing.

Crosswind Volume 1, Gail Simone & Cat Staggs (2018, USA). Juniper is a Seattle housewife who is abused by her husband. Cason is a hitman for a mob boss in Chicago (I think), who seems somewhat more thoughtful and intelligent than is common for the breed. For reasons explained later, the two magically swap bodies. Cason finds himself in Juniper’s body; Juniper is now a male hitman. It’s hardly an original conceit – there’s a novel from 1931 which has exactly the same premise! – and it’s been used plenty of times since, both in cinema and written fiction. Simone and Stagg have bought a modern sensibility to the story, inasmuch as they were careful to consult trans readers in order to depict their characters’ experiences in an appropriately sensitive way. And yet… they marry this with a brutal mobster plot. Certainly, represent trans people as accurately and sensitively as posssible, but why do we need to have a story which features domestic violence and mobster brutality? Those earlier body swap stories? They were comedies. In Crosswind, it’s good the way the two principals adapt to their new situation… But I could have done without the clichéd violence – and using violence, by “Juniper”, to resolve the chauvinism she’d been experiencing? I’m not sure that’s a good message: woman experiencing chauvinism, can only be resolved by a man taking over the woman’s body and behaving like a man? Disappointing.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan). I’d not even heard of this, although I suspect it would have eventually come to my notice, when I saw it on the BSFA novel shortlist. Which was a surprise. No one I knew on social media had been talking about it. Who were the people who nominated it, enough of them for it to make the shortlist? Which, okay, might only have been half a dozen, given how poorly subscribed the BSFA is these days, and how few people bother to engage with the awards. Anyway, I picked up a copy, and pretty much read it on a train journey to and from Leeds. And… It’s good. It’s very good. In an unnamed Middle East city which is clearly modelled on Damascus, Saeed and Nadia meet. She wears an abeya from neck to toe although she is not religious; he does not believe in sex before marriage. A developing relationship in an Islamic society, in which moderates and fundamentalists coexist, is first upset by civil war, and then by the appearance of doors, existing doors, which now miraculously lead to doors in other, richer and Western, nations. And so refugees flood through them, and there’s no controlling them because they are never en route, or passing through somewhere else. Saeed and Nadia take advantage of this, and first move to Mykonos, and then to the UK, and finally to San Francisco. The premise is not thought through especially well, and the various Western nations’ responses to an unstoppable wave of refugees seems implausibly, well, accommodating – especially the UK, given the UK’s current policy of handling immigrants, as set out by Thereas May when she was Home Secretary, not to mention the whole Brexit fiasco… But Hamid focuses his story on the relationship between the two principals. On the one hand, Exit West makes an obvious point. And it’s a beautifully written novel – I really do like Hamid’s spare explicatory prose. But Exit West simply presents its premise, which doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, and never really interrogates it. Nor does it really interrogate the West’s response to immigrants, especially unannounced or unwanted ones. If you want to read a novel which does an excellent job of commenting on that, then read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. It is the much superior novel. But Erpenbeck wasn’t shortlisted for the BSFA Award – unsurprisingly, as her novel is not genre – amd Hamid was, and both tackle a subject important to our time. Much as I liked Exit West, I didn’t think it entirely successful. It’ll be getting the third slot on my BSFA Award ballot.

The Martian Job, Jaine Fenn (2017, UK). The title is a deliberate nod to the famous British 1960s movie, and the story even uses its own variant of Michael Caine’s famous line. But the plots don’t map precisely, nor the set pieces, and Fenn’s novella certainly ends in a completely different fashion. The famous car chase through the streets of Turin in Minis becomes a race through the tunnels of old Martian colonies in “tunnelbuggies”, and, yes, there’s a heist which kicks it all off… Lizzie Choi is a corporate administrator for one of the most powerful companies on Earth, the Moon and Mars, in a future doiminated by the Chinese. She has a criminal background, but walked away from it. Unfortunately, when her brother dies on Mars, she’s named as next of kin by her mother, currently in prison on the Moon, and so the company find out about her chequered past. Which results in her travelling to Mars to finish off the job her brother had begun: stealing the Eye of Heaven, the largest opal ever found and the property of her ex-employers. It’s all first person, and Choi is an engaging narrator and very much at the centre of the action. The Martian Job does a lot of things well, which mostly means deploys its tropes with assurance – not that any of the tropes are especially original. The references to The Italian Job are fun, but little more than easter eggs. The ending isn’t much if a surprise – it’s optimistic and well primed. This is solid feel-good sf, which might well be about a crime and feature criminals, but is not gratuitously brutal or right-wing. It’s a pleasure to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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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


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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 tor.com’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 tor.com are doing a bad thing. I like novellas so I can’t fault tor.com’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