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Reading diary, #46

I try to plan my reading, but usually end up not following the plan at all… other than in its broadest intentions, ie, alternating male/female writers, for example… Which I only just managed to do here. Ah well.

river_titashA River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). Good books don’t always made good films, and great films are not always made from great books. Nonetheless, A River Called Titas by Ritwik Ghatak is one of my favourite films, so I had high hopes of the novel from which it was adapted. From what I’d read the novel was held in high regard, which is always a good start, although apparently not enough to be still in print in English in the twenty-first century. And since I couldn’t find a copy of its original 1950s Penguin release, I ended up with a university press edition… which actually proved a bonus as it included footnotes and appendices that added to the reading experience. A River Called Titash is mostly autobiographical – Mallabarman, who died in 1950, the novel was published posthumously six years later – was born and grew up in a Malo village on the River Titash, which is an offshoot of the Meghna River in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh, which is basically just one giant flood plain pouring into the Bay of Bengal. Obviously, I read A River Called Titash as the source text for A River Called Titas… and the most obvious difference seems to be that the film confused the Titash and Meghna. True, some of the story takes place on the latter river, but the film implies it all does – although it does follow, in broad stroke, the same story. A fisherman from a Titash village defends a young woman – actually only fifteen years old in the novel – during an attack on her village by pirates. So she is given to him by her family in marriage, they consummate their union, and and the next day set off in his boat for the trip home where the actual marriage ceremony will take place. En route, while anchored at night, pirates sneak aboard and kidnap her. But she escapes and ends up at a third village. She doesn’t know her husband’s name, or the name of his village. (Nor did the husband learn his bride’s name – in fact, she’s never named in the novel, and referred to only as “Ananta’s mother” – and saw her face only on a handful of occasions.) She has a son, Ananta. Some time later – in the novel Ananta is four, in the film he’s considerably older – mother and son have finally learnt the origin of the lost husband and make their way to his village. But the husband had lost his mind shortly after his bride was stolen. So the “widow”, as she has to pretend to be, ekes out an existence while trying to reconnect with her insane husband. I absolutely adore Ghatak’s movie, and this novel is equally fascinating. It provides more detail, indeed, it’s been described as just as much an ethnographical text as it is a novel – it is set, after all, in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, and documents a way of life long since lost (although I think some remnant of it was still around when the film was made in the 1970s).  In one respect, reading the novel was especially helpful as it put some of the events in the film in context, and explained why the characters behaved as they did. A fascinating read, and likely to make my top five of the year.

snowdriftSnowdrift and Other Stories, Georgette Heyer (2016, UK). I do love me some Heyer, so I was a bit excited when I discovered a new collection of her short stories had been published. In the event, Snowdrift turned out to be a retitled Pistols for Two, which I already own and have read, but with the addition of three previously uncollected stories. On the one hand, these stories are lots of fun and Heyer was a dab hand with the prose. On the other… well, it’s all about entitled nitwits, and bears as much likeness to real history as, well, the Bible. It’s fun reading about Corinthians and Nonpareils and headstrong mistresses who Adventure, but they’re all aristocracy and there’s only one story in this collection, and new to it too, in which any one from the working class has any agency. Heyer is frothy and witty and fun, but the tribulations and concerns she invariably writes about no sensible person cpuld honestly give a shit about in this day and age. In one story, for example, an impressionable young woman (sixteen or so, I think) has learnt that her irresponsible brother has been challenged to a duel by a regular Man in Grey (lots of Heyer’s story follow the plot of The Man in Grey). So she tries prevent this but accidentally stumbles into the orbit of a supercilious noble (in his thirties) who promises to see her brother comes to no harm. He is, of course, the challenger, and only a complete idiot would fail to spot it. And it is only the fact he has the hots for the hothead’s teenage sister that saves the day. The problem with most Heyer stories is that you can change the words a little, without being inaccurate, and the plots would sound really skeevy. “Jaded thirtysomething chats up teenager in pub on way to arranged marriage… only to discover teenager is his proposed partner.” “Eloping teenagers mistake thirtysomething roué for irate brother hot on their heels, but when they realise their mistake teenage girl goes off with roué instead.” I had thought when reading A River Called Titash I could overlook the young ages at which girls were married off as a cultural thing from more than 100 years ago, only to realise that Heyer valourised something similar happening in the UK a hundred years before the events of Mallabarman’s novel. A River Called Titash at least has the advantage of being an historically correct ethnographical novel by a member of that culture, whereas Heyer wrote about a tiny sector of Regency England society more than 100 years afterwards. Still, they are fun, and I’m not about to give up my Heyer collection any day soon.

speed_of_lightAt the Speed of Light, Simon Morden (2017, UK). This is the second of the four novellas published recently by NewCon Press. It opens with a man waking up on board a spaceship, ignorant of his surroundings or his purpose. And, it is eventually revealed, not entirely human. I admit it, I sighed. This is a cliché. But I know Simon – although I don’t know his writing – and I should not have been so quick in jumping to conclusions. Because when the situation is finally revealed, in the third of the novella’s three sections, that opening section makes perfect sense and is actually quite clever. A spacecraft which can travel at a substantial percentage of the speed of light has accelerated out of control until it is now travelling fractions of a percentage less than c. Then the AI which controls the spacecraft notices a second one travelling in formation with it. And it realises this new spacecraft was sent by a planetary system the AI had travelled through, but since the AI had been in a fugue state at the time it had not noticed the communication attempts by the system’s inhabited world. The plot develops logically from there. It’s not Mundane SF by any means, although it initially pretends to be (an FTL drive pops up toward the end). The physical effects of travelling at very close to the speed of light are handled especially well, and although the novella is structured as an opening puzzle followed by a long extended info-dump as the narrator works out what’s going on, it’s a very good example of its type.

ghosthuntGhosthunt, Jo Clayton (1983, USA). I picked up the first seven books of this nine-book series at a Swecon because Clayton was not a name known to me at the time and I thought they’d make suitable review material for SF Mistressworks. This series was apparently very popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s but has since been forgotten, and having now read them I’m mostly happy with that state of affairs. When you read forgotten or obscure sf, there’s always the hope you’ll stumble across a lost masterpiece; and it’s certainly true I’ve found some forgotten female writers of sf, or books by female sf writers, from past decades who deserve far more of a reputation than they currently have – anything by Marta Randall, for example, and Judgement Night by CL Moore should rightly be considered one of the classic space operas. But a lot of books vanish into obscurity for very good reason. The Diadem series has its high points and its low points, but its lows are pretty damn low, and even when it manages to be inventive progressive space opera it only just clears the bar. The series improved as it progressed, but not by a great deal. Still, there are the last two books to go – copies of which I will have to track down. My review of Ghosthunt will appear shortly on SF Mistressworks.

conspiracyThe Conspiracy & Other Stories, Jaan Kross (1991, Estonia). In an effort to widen the geographical spread of my reading, I picked a bunch of writers from random countries to try. One of them was Jaan Kross from Estonia. I’ll admit to knowing nothing about Kross, or indeed Estonian literature, when buying the book; and, to be honest, I’m not a great deal wiser now. Kross apparently specialised in historical fiction set in Estonia’s past, and his best-known work is the Between Three Plagues trilogy set in the sixteenth century. The stories in The Conspiracy, however, are set shortly before, and during World War 2, in German-occupied Estonia, and are told in the first person by Peeter Mirk, a stand-in for Kross himself. The stories are rich in period and place detail (so much so, each stories has end-notes… even though some of the glossed terms are later explained in the narrative). In one story, Mirk persuades an old university friend to desert the German not-so-voluntary Hilfswilliger levy corps, only for Mirk’s plans to see his friend off to Finland fall apart, but so putting his friend in his debt that the friend takes a stupidly risky route of his own choosing and dies in the attempt. In another, Mirk is attempting his own escape from Nazi-occupied Estonia, but the boat he is aboard is caught by a German patrol boat. Mirk has with him the manuscript of his first novel, which is highly critical of the Nazis. He throws his suitcase overboard, but the Germans manage to retrieve it. But there’s nothing in the suitcase to identify the owner (not even a name on the manuscript), except for… a collectible book given to him by a friend in lieu of payment for a debt moments before they boarded the boat to Finland which has an ex libris sticker giving that friend’s name. If Mirk says nothing, then his friend will be executed… There are half a dozen stories in the collection, and they’re well-written and interesting. I doubt I’ll dash out and buy something else by Kross to read – have you seen the size of my TBR? – but at some later date I might give something else by him a go.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #45

The reading further afield thing hasn’t quite kicked into gear yet, with an almost entirely UK set of books in this post – and a lone bande dessinée from Belgium (which is, ironically, about a British writer: William Shakespeare…).

blake_24The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 24: The Testament of William S., Yves Sente & André Juillard (2016, Belgium). I’ve been picking these up as Cinebook publish the English translations, and if that’s not a testament to their quality, then I don’t know what is. Perversely, they’ve improved considerably since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. In most cases, the originator does it best – Hergé refused to let anyone continue the Tintin series after him; but the Asterix and Obelix series is generally considered to have declined now that both Goscinny and Uderzo are dead. But Jacobs’s stories for Blake and Mortimer were very much of their time – even offensively so: the villains for several stories is the “Yellow Empire”, ffs – and the science fiction elements were complete bollocks. Since the Edgar P Jacobs Studio has been producing the books, they’ve turned into clever alternate history conspiracy thrillers – such as this one. The William S. of the title is the Bard himself, and the story revolves around two societies who have been feuding for decades over who actually wrote the plays and sonnets. One believes it was indeed Shakespeare; the other believes it was the Earl of Oxford. But a clue hinting at vital evidence proving the claim of one of the societies is unexpectedly discovered in Venice, and, since there’s a huge bequeathed fortune tied up in the answer, the race is on to puzzle out the hidden location of the evidence, and either publish it or destroy it. Good stuff.

a_romantic_heroA Romantic Hero, Olivia Manning (1967, UK). I’m a big fan of Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, and always pick up her books when I spot copies in charity shops… which is where I bought this collection of her short stories (her second collection, apparently). I’d not read her short fiction before, only her novels, so I was interested to see how it compared. And, initially, not so good… the two opening stories, written in the 1930s feature two children of impoverished middle class parents (in a collapsing marriage) who live on the coast of Ireland. Fortunately, things pick up quite dramatically, and some of the following stories are excellent, with some lovely prose and sharply drawn characters. One features the semi-autobiographical characters from the Balkan Trilogy; another is set in Cairo during WW2, but I’m not sure if the characters appear in the Levant Trilogy. The stories in A Romantic Hero stretch from the 1930s to the 1960s (and a couple from the 1930s were re-written in the 1960s), but there’s no discernible change in Manning’s writing with each decade. Perhaps some of the earlier ones seem less individual, more like other fiction of the time; but still well-written. A good collection. Worth reading. Although, annoyingly, the book doesn’t have a table of contents.

cover_truth_largeA Thread of Truth, Nina Allan (2006, UK). I’m still in two minds about Allan’s work. I think that what she does is very interesting, I just don’t think it succeeds that often. On a prose level, she is an excellent writer, one of the best currently writing in UK genre fiction, and her ability to blur the lines between genres, narratives and even characters is both a clever and worthwhile schtick. A Thread of Truth is an early collection – her first, in fact – and is a nicely-produced hardback by Eibonvale Press (who do very nice books, it must be said). I found the stories… mixed. Allan’s prose is very good, but I’m not always convinced by her research. Some of the settings she describes are clearly based on personal experience – she knows these places and does an excellent job in conveying to the reader. But in the title story, the narrator enrolls on a Surveying and Land Management course at university because he wants to be a quantity surveyor. Er, that’s not what quantity surveying is. Every now and again in Allan’s fiction I stumble across things like that, and they spoil the story for me. Two of the stories in A Thread of Truth are actual science fiction, although neither to my mind pull it off especially well. ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ is set on an alien planet, where a team are studying a troop of local creatures which resembles dragons. And ‘The Vicar with Seven Rigs’ reads like mimetic fiction, until the penultimate page where it’s revealed it takes place in a future UK where travel between planets is routine, as if the narrator had sideslipped into an alternate reality. Neither worked for me.

poseidons_wakePoseidon’s Wake, Alastair Reynolds (2015, UK). If there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s when publishers completely redesign the covers of a trilogy for the last book. As Gollancz did for the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Now the design for Poseidon’s Wake is a very attractive design, but it’s not the same as the two earlier books, Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Argh. And after all that… Poseidon’s Wake proved a disappointing end to what had promised to be a good sf trilogy. The story picks up several decades after the events of On the Steel Breeze. the holoship Zanzibar is now just a belt of rocks orbiting Crucible, the settled planet orbiting 61 Virginis (I think). And then the world receives a message from Gliese 163, a star system some seventy light-years distant, which reads only “Send Ndege”, Ndege being the woman who was responsible for turning the Zanzibar into rubble by playing around with the Mandala and accidentally triggering it. So Crucible sends a mission to Gliese 163, which includes not Ndege but her daughter, Goma, and several others. En route, Goma’s uncle, Mposi, the head of the mission, is murdered, and the evidence points to a Second Chancer (ie, religious extremist) in the team. The ship arrives at Gliese 163 and discovers… that the three taken by the Watchkeepers are still alive – well, two of them are, Eunice Akinya and the uplifted elephant, or Tantor, Dakota – and Eunice was the source of the message. Because she’s fallen out with Dakota. Who now rules a colony of thousands of Tantors in Zanzibar, which was not apparently destroyed but sent on a near-lightspeed journey to Gliese 163. Oh, and there’s a waterworld superearth whose oceans is dotted with thousands of two-hundred-kilometre-diameter metal hoops, whose apexes are almost out of the atmosphere – and the world is protected by a belt of hundreds of artificial moons in complex orbits. This was all built by the Mandala-builders, and is perhaps a clue to their history and technology… so obviously everyone is keen to go and have a look at it. Including the Watchkeepers. But the moons will only let organic intelligences through… I remember enjoying Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze (read in 2012 and 2014, respectively), but this was all a bit meh. The characters were mostly unlikeable, and it was hard to figure out if they were meant to be likeable. One character is set up as a possible murderer, but he’s paper-thin and not at all convincing. Even Dakota, the uplifted elephant – and since uplifted even further by the Watchkeepers – doesn’t really come across as an alien intelligence. The prose is sketchy, with very little description (except of planets and stars and suchlike), which I didn’t like. And the book’s big takeaway is that apparently the universe doesn’t offer meaning, life has no meaning – and I’m sorry and everything, but I pretty much figured that out when I was about eight years old. There’s an interesting discussion about intelligence without consciousness, made in reference to the Watchkeepers, who apparently are no longer conscious. Because a feed-forward intelligence is not conscious, and a feedback intelligence, given enough resources, can simulate a feed-forward intelligence… except if A is superior to B, why use more resources to simulate B than A requires? It is, in somewhat apposite words, completely illogical. I didn’t take to Poseidon’s Wake, but no doubt others will.

book_enclaveThe Enclave, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). So I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds (see here), which was the first of four sf novellas from NewCon Press. And when I saw who had written the other three, I decided I wanted them too. The Enclave is actually the third, but I’ve not read the second yet. I read Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind last year (see here) and thought it very good. In fact, it reminded me of Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years or so. Despite that, I hadn’t really known what to expect on opening The Enclave. Happily, it is good, although I’ve yet to decide if it’s good enough to be nominated for an award (although given how few novellas I read in their year of publication… On the other hand, I wouldn’t nominate an unworthy novella just because it was the only one I’d read that year). The title refers to a ghetto in, or near, a UK city, in which live migrants and UK citizens who have refused to be chipped. (It’s not entirely clear what this chipping entails or means in the story, but given The Enclave is set in the same world as Charnock’s novel A Calculated Life, I imagine it’s explained there.) Caleb is a twelve-year-old boy who walked from Spain to the UK with his mother, hoping to find his father who had left earlier. But somewhere in England, he lost his mother, was picked up by Skylark and sold into indentured labour under Ma Lexie. So now he lives in a shack on a rooftop in an enclave. Ma Lexie sells “remade clothes” at a street market, and has three boys to do the sewing for her. But Caleb has an eye for fashion and so Ma Lexie boots out her old overseer and puts Caleb in charge. The story is told first-person, initially from Caleb’s point of view, then from Ma Lexie’s, and finally again from Caleb’s. The characters are convincing, the setting is an all-too-frighteningly-likely consequence of Brexit and the rise in institutional racism in the UK, which means the whole chipping thing does tend to dilute the politics. I’ve never really taken to first-person narrative – it’s always struck me as the weakest, and the one writers with poor imaginations most frequently employ. A first-person narrator who is a Mary Sue (of any gender) is a complete waste of time. Happily, neither Caleb nor Ma Lexie can be accused of that, and the use of first-person here allows Charnock to confine the narrative only to what the narrators know. Although well-written, I’ve a feeling The Enclave could have been stronger, made more of a meal of its setting, said something trenchant about UK politics of the last twelve months. Other than that, bits of The Enclave reminded me, of all things, of Kes, especially the end. And there’s a slight hint of Keith Roberts to it, which is, of course, a plus. I think I probably will end up nominating it next year.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #44

Having found myself no longer enjoying genre fiction as much as I once did, I went and read a load of it – four science fiction books and one fantasy novel. The lone mainstream is by a Norwegian writer, and I doubt I’ll be bothering with any more books by him.

memoirs_spacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962, UK). One from my Women’s Press SF collection and read for review on SF Mistressworks – see here. It felt more fabulist than science-fictional, with a chatty narrator and an almost childish approach to genre trope, although the book is anything but childish. The prose is a good deal sharper than is typical of the genre, but not, it must admitted, of the novels published under the Women’s Press SF imprint. I’d like to read more Mitchison, I think, and her The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) is, according to Wikipedia, “regarded by some as the best historical novel of the 20th century”.

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989, USA). Also read for SF Mistressworks, although the review has yet to appear there. I’ve always been a fan of Cherryh’s writing, and have been reading her books since first stumbling across them in the early 1980s. She used to be ubiquitous in the UK back then, you’d see a dozen or so titles in your local WH Smith, back when WH Smith was better known for selling books than selling stationery. I’ve got quite a few Cherryh first editions, some of them signed. When I lived in the UAE, I used to order her books from Amazon as soon as they appeared, and I’ve been half-heartedly collecting her ever since. I really ought to see about completing the collection – but the science fiction only, I’m not interested in the fantasy novels.

marauderMarauder, Gary Gibson (2013, UK). I’ve known Gary for a couple of decades now, and I’ve been buying his books and reading them right from the start. Marauder is a return to the universe of Stealing Light (2007), Nova War (2009) and Empire of Light (2010), and is in part an extension of that trilogy’s plot. Gary does some things very well, sometimes a little too well, and that can result in him over-doing it. And the thing he does well is: scale. These are stories that cover thousands of light years, that throw out mentions of histories going back millions of years. But this sense of scale is also one of the things that really annoyed me about Marauder… and which also fed into some thoughts I’ve been having recently about science fiction in general. The title refers to a vast starship from a machine civilisation – so we’re in Fred Saberhagen, Greg Benford and Alastair Reynolds territory here – which once aided a civilisation hundreds of thousands of years before and raised its tech level substantially in a short period of time. Meanwhile, in the recent past, the Three Star Alliance has had to hand over its FTL starships to the Accord, a much larger and more powerful human polity, because the FTL nova drive is also the deadliest weapon known to humanity, the nova mine. This seriously pisses off the plutocrats who run the TSA and they decided to try and negotiate with the Marauder, having figured out where it is, for some of that ancient high tech. The pilot on their mission is Megan, a machine-head (ie, she has implants), and the leader of the expedition uses her best friend as a conduit to speak to the Marauder, burning out his brain in the process. The mission is a failure and the Marauder destroys their starship. Megan manages to escape. Some years later, her new ship is hijacked by the same people (who, it seems, were eventually rescued), because they’re determined to try again. Meanwhile, there’s Gabrielle, who has been born for a specific purpose and now, aged twenty-one, it has come upon her: she must go to the Magi (another ancient alien race with FTL, now extinct) starship which crashed on her planet, Redstone, and try to eke more technological goodies out of its AI’s databanks for her theocratic regime. This is all good stuff, and the two plots not only slot together pleasingly but there’s a nice twist that serves to tighten the links between them. It’s all good space opera, but sometimes the vast distances feel a bit too much and the sense of scale sort of fades from 3D to 2D, if you know what I mean. But that over-egging of scale is also what spoiled the novel for me, as mentioned earlier. Gabrielle, it transpires, is important to the TSA’s return visit to the Marauder. But they can’t just invite her along, because of her role in the theocracy. So they kidnap her. But they don’t just send in a special forces team and abduct her. No, they arrange for something – a huge starship carrying antimatter – to crash into the planet and cause a tsunami which kills tens of millions of people, just so they can kidnap Gabrielle in the confusion and hope everyone assumes she died in the disaster. This is one of the things that pissed me off about Leviathan Wakes, and why I’ve never read further in the series. Seriously, killing tens of millions of innocent people just to kidnap one? WTF? I find it hard to believe someone would consider that a defensible plan. I get that the leaders of the TSA are desperate (and, from their later actions, it must be said, also unbelievably psychopathic; but even with the Accord running things, they’d still be rich and powerful, so why behave like monsters?), but when your story covers millions of years and thousands of light years there’s a tendency to upscale the villains too. And I think that’s not only wrong, it also feeds into the whole right-wing mindset of science fiction. Good sf is not about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it’s about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – and that includes the villains too. Science fiction needs to scale back on the bodycounts and fascism, otherwise it’s just one of the many things in popular culture normalising such behaviour.

rubiconRubicon, Agnar Mykle (1965, Norway). My mother found this in a charity shop somewhere, and asked me if I’d be interested, I said go on then, so she bought it and gave it to me. And… Well, after going on a rant about normalising fascism, Mykle sets a quarter of his novel in your actual Nazi Germany of 1939 and doesn’t manage more than a handful of back-handed criticisms. True, the book is more about the narrator’s home circumstances, from which he is fleeing, and his romantic ideas about Paris, and clearly positioned as comedy – there’s even a scene in which he encounters a French toilet for the first time. The narrator is painted as part-naïf part-idiot part-bumpkin, and while his romantic misconceptions provide a good base for some of the humour, some of it is also a bit too, well, adolescent, male adolescent. Mykle died in 1994, and his last novel was… Rubicon – chiefly, it seems, because of the controversy caused by an earlier novel, 1957’s The Song of Red Ruby (which resulted in an obscenity trial in Norway). I’m tempted to have a go at that controversial novel – secondhand copies in English seem to be readily available – but I can’t say that Rubicon motivates me to track down a copy. Rubicon is a well-crafted novel, with a good control of voice, but it all felt a bit meh to me. Incidentally, inside the book I found an Air France boarding card dated January 1978. It’s not the oldest bookmark I’ve found in a book. I found one once dated 1945…

elegy_angelsThe Graveyard Heart / Elegy for Angels and Dogs, Roger Zelazny / Walter Jon Williams (1964/1990, USA). I have almost a complete set of the Tor doubles, which I started collecting after finding half a dozen of the early ones in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi. I’m not convinced there’s been a consistent editorial agenda with this series – which topped out at 36 books in two years – given that earlier volumes were just two novellas back-to-back (tête-bêche, to be precise), but that was dropped in favour of printing both the same way up, as if it were an anthology of two stories. Some of the later ones also featured classic novellas with modern sequels by another hand, as this one does. ‘The Graveyard Heart’ by Roger Zelazny is from 1964. ‘Elegy for Angels and Dogs’, a direct sequel, is from 1990. To be honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Zelazny’s fiction. He’s reckoned to be one of science fiction’s great wordsmiths, and while he may be a great deal better at stringing a sentence together than many of his peers, I’ve never really understood why his prose is held in such high regard. It’s… okay. And in ‘The Graveyard Heart’, some of it is actively bad. In the novella, a subset of the jet set, a group of rich young party animals sleep in cryogenic suspension for most of the year, and only appear for exclusive and expensive social events. They are the Party Set. So while they live the sort of life capitalist society continues to valourise, they also travel forward through time, experiencing years in subjective weeks. But then one of them is murdered and… yawn. Dull murder-mystery in totally unconvincing setting ensues. Williams’s sequel moves the action forward a couple of centuries, tries to show the changes in Earth society the Party Set are missing (and that does, in fact, drive part of the plot), but also throws in a couple of murders for good measure. The result is something which isn’t sure how direct a sequel it should be. It’s more inventive than its inspiration, the language is plainer and better for it, but its lack of focus tells against it. Both are no more than average.

lord_slaughterLord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK). I bought the first book of this series, Wolfsangel (2010), at a convention after meeting the author, and got it signed. But I’ve been continuing with the series, despite my general apathy toward fantasy, and especially urban fantasy, because they’re actually bloody good. They’re more like historical novels, but based on Norse mythology and featuring werewolves. This one is set in Constantinople during the reign of, I think, Basileios II, 953 – 1025 BCE, certainly an  emperor of that name appears in the book. A wolfman sneaks into the emperor’s tent just after a battle and asks the emperor to kill him. Instead, he takes him prisoner, and throws him into the Numera, Constantinople’s chief prison. Somewhere in the caves under the Numera is the well of knowledge, from which Odin drank, and for the privilege he paid with an eye. And that’s how the story plays out. Aspects of Odin, hidden in two of the characters, along with aspects of the three Norns, all descend on the well, while chaos rages in Constantinople. Because the Norns want Fenrir released so he will kill Odin, but Odin is not ready to die just yet and is happy for his aspects to be reborn throughout history, all with a vague desire to cause death and destruction. The story’s told from a variety of viewpoints, some of which are instrumental in the final showdown, some of which are just enablers. The setting is convincing, and if the characters have a tendency to blur into one another a little, it doesn’t detract from the story. This is superior fantasy, assuming you can define historical novels with werewolves and Norse gods as fantasy. And why not. There’s a fourth book available in the series, Valkyrie’s Song, which I plan to buy and read. Good stuff.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #43

For reasons that probably made sense when I made the decision, I’m keeping the reading diary numbering scheme going, even though it’s a new year. Not that I posted 42 reading posts in 2016, anyway. This year, I’m also going to document the country of origin of the books I read, as I plan to read geographically more widely in 2017 than I have done in previous years. This will likely mean less science fiction, although the percentage of my reading that can be categorised as genre has been steadily dropping for a long time. I still call myself a sf fan, and the genre usually offers me something as a reader I don’t get from other modes of fiction, or even non-fiction. But. There’s also a lot that sf is mostly very, very bad at, and I want to read books where those things are done well. And, I’d like to hope, that feeds into my own writing – which is, of course, predominantly science fiction…

heart_of_stoneHeart of Stone, Denny DeMartino (2001, USA). And speaking of things that sf does badly… I read this book for SF Mistressworks, and its protagonist and narrator is, quite frankly, the most ineptly-drawn British character I have ever come across in fiction. See my review on SF Mistressworks here for some choice quotes. I forget where I stumbled across mention of the book, and its sequel Wayward Moon, but the cover art looked quite appealing… A cheap copy of Wayward Moon in good condition appeared on eBay, I bought it… but no good condition copy of Heart of Stone followed and so I ended up buying a tatty one just so I could read the book. And having now read that tatty paperback, I think I would have been overcharged if it had cost me a penny. I will probably one day read Wayward Moon just to complete the pair on SF Mistressworks, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it…

princes_of_airThe Princes of the Air, John M Ford (1982, USA). Ford is one of those sf authors whose books are held in high regard by a small number of discerning people. He’s perhaps best remembered for his Trek novelisations, but everyone who has read his non-Trek output has only good words to say of it. True, his alternate history/fantasy The Dragon Waiting was in the original Fantasy Masterwork series, but pretty much everything he wrote is long out of print and most of it was never even published in the UK. Having read Ford’s collection, Heat of Fusion, several years ago and thought it very good, I’d kept a weather eye open for his other non-tie-in novels, and The Princes of the Air popped up on eBay for a reasonable price some time last year, so I bought it. And I’m glad I did. This is well put-together stuff, even if it does borrow overmuch from the models it uses. But, to Ford’s credit, those models are plucked from more high-brow sources than your average science fiction novel. The title refers to three young men who decide to make the most of themselves. One is indentured to become a diplomat, if he passes all his training; the other two are so practiced on battle simulation VR games, one as a tactician, the other as a pilot, that they soon find work for themselves in those roles. But then there’s a plot to seize the throne from the queen, and the three work together to foil it. The chess references are a bit heavy-handed, but there was something else the book kept on reminding me of as I read it, and for the life of me I can no longer remember what it was. The plot of one of Shakespeare’s plays? Something like that. The world-building is put together well but feels a little dated. Ford’s prose is cut above the average, and he’s clever in subtle ways – the diplomatic language, for example, is rendered as iambic pentameter. The Princes of the Air has a sort of Tron-ish feel about it: good for its time, but very much the product of an earlier decade. If you stumble across a copy, it’s worth giving it a go.

valerian_14Valerian and Laureline 14: The Living Weapons, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1990). I’ve been buying these translations of Valérian et Laureline since Cinebook started publishing them, although I really should get the original French ones… But Cinebook are now up to volume 14 (originally published in 1990) of the current twenty-two books. This is good stuff although, to be fair, the shortness of each individual episode does mean the quality of the story can be a little variable. This is one of the less good ones… Valerian and Laureline land on a planet, not entirely in control, and hook up with a circus, each of whose four members have talents that make them closer to weapons than entertainers. There’s an ongoing war on the planet, and one war leader hopes to use the circus to “end war” – by winning it comprehensively of course, the sort of solution that Trump and Putin and your usual right-wing morons cannot see beyond – but Valerian has another plan… and, er, so he does it. Ironically, the “living weapons” eventually end up joining the Moscow State Circus. If only Gorbachev had known they were there, maybe he could have made glasnst actually work. On the other hand, I’m not sure this is what is meant when science fiction is described as an “ironic” mode of fiction…

peripheralThe Peripheral, William Gibson (2014). The last Gibson novel I read before tackling this one was Virtual Light back in 1994, although I’d read the Sprawl trilogy and Burning Chrome prior to that. I then sort of lost interest in what he was writing, and it’s only in recent years that I decided to give his novels another go… So when I spotted The Peripheral in a charity shop, I bought it and it sat on my bookshelves for about six months before I picked it up and started reading it… I believe The Peripheral is more science-fictional than the novels Gibson has been writing since the late 1990s, given he’s no longer published as genre – not, of course, that The Peripheral was published as category science fiction anyway – but this novel’s story is, I believe, more overtly sfnal than the rest of Gibson’s output of the last decade or so. There’s a really cool idea at its core, although the mechanics of it are left unexplained: a mysterious server on the Internet (there’s a running joke it’s located in China) in the early twenty-second century allows people to communicate with the past. But only just less than a century into their past. And any intereference in that past causes it to branch off, and form a “stub”. Meanwhile, in near-future small-town USA, a young woman substitutes for her brother in what she thinks is an online game… but she’s actually flying a drone in twenty-second century London, working security for the sister of a famous performance artist. And she witnesses that sister being murdered by nanobots. Which kicks off a police investigation in London, a symptom of a struggle for power between two immensely wealthy factions, and which then leads to heavy interference in the near-future USA in order to protect the witness (like making her and her family the richest people in the country). (The title, incidentally, refers to the android avatar the young woman uses when visiting the future (to her) London.) About halfway through the novel, it’s revealed – although there are some pretty heavy hints – that eighty percent of the world’s population had died during the latter half of the twenty-first century, thanks to climate crash, economy crashes, epidemics, etc. You’d think with all this going on, I’d have been more impressed with The Peripheral. But… Everyone in the novel is near-superhuman – in the US, they’re ex-special forces or something; in London, nanotechnology gives everyone something like superpowers. No one in the book comes across as a human character. And then there’s callousness with which people are treated – this a book with a high bodycount. There’s even mention that in the twenty-third century, interfering in “stubs” is a hobby. In other words, those people enjoy fucking up the lives, often fatally, of more than six billion people. Which, I guess, makes them little different to the immensely rich today. But I don’t want to read novels in which stuff like that is treated casually, novels which set their stories in worlds which operate with all the morality of a computer game. Science fiction has always been a genre which seems happy to dehumanise every one except the protagonist and his, or her, band of hardy chums. That’s one way in which science fiction seriously needs to grow up. But it’s disappointing to see a writer of Gibson’s stature seemingly subscribing to that view.

edenaThe World of Edena, Moebius (2016). I’m a big fan of The Incal, although I’ve never really made an effort to track down Moebius’s solo work, possibly because it’s so hard to find in English-language editions. I’ve mentioned before, for example, the beautiful collections published in Danish I saw in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen (and, I discovered last Christmas while showing them to one of my nephews, actually published by Faraos Cigarer’s own imprint). Which is a bit of a long-winded way of getting around to the fact that last year Dark Horse collected all of Moebius’s Stel/Atana bandes dessinées and published them in a 350-page collection under the title The World of Edena, and I spotted it on Amazon but they had run out of stock so I ended up buying it from an eBay seller and saving myself a fiver… The original Stel/Atana story was written for Citroën for an advert in 1983, but Moebius expanded it a great deal over the years following. Basically, Sten and Atan visit a friend on an asteroid community, but it crashes onto the giant featureless planet it orbits… where Stel and Atan discover a giant pyramid, around which is a city 700,000 years old containing members of all the intelligent races in the galaxy, living and extinct. It transpires the pyramid is a giant spaceship and Stel is the pilot it has been waiting for. It transports everyone to the paradise planet of Edena… Once forced to live off the land, Stel and Atan develop secondary sexual characteristics and Atan proves to be Atana, a woman. The two are separated and the rest of the story describes their attempts to find each other, which are prevented by the masked inhabitants of the Nest, who are a particularly cool invention, and especially their semi-godlike creator, the Paternum. The action takes place both in dreams and on Edena itself, and it sometimes gets a little confusing. And even the final twist, with its deliberate attempts to leave everything unresolved, doesn’t quite work… But the artwork is gorgeous throughout, the Nesters are brilliant, and it’s clear from page one this is high-quality bandes dessinées which any self-respecting fan should own.

chernobyl_prayerChernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997). So, one evening on Twitter I was chatting with some friends about female Nobel laureates for literature and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and read some – other than those I’d already read, Lessing and, er, Jelinek… And so I bought myself copies of Herta Müller’s The Appointment (see here) and Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. I knew nothing about either writer, other than the fact they had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chernobyl Prayer is… probably going to be one of my top five reads of the year come December. Yes, it is that good. Read it now. Alexievich has made a career out of publishing the stories told to her by people regarding certain events, and in Chernobyl Prayers she interviewed lots of people in Belarus and Ukraine about the nuclear reactor meltdown in that town, and used their accounts to build a narrative of events and the effects of the accident. I remember Chernobyl being on the news and, like most people in Western Europe, I never really understood the damage wrought by the disaster. It was severely downplayed by governments and the media throughout the world – but nowhere quite as extensively as it was in the USSR, especially in the areas most affected by Chernobyl. Chernobyl Prayers is not only eye-witness accounts of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, but every account editorialises on the incident, on the USSR and Russian character, and so provides a rich and deep portrait. I’ve heard it said Alexievich “embellishes” the testimonies she collects, but I was under the impression going in that Chernobyl Prayers was on the borderline between fact and fiction, and that’s an area I enjoy exploring in literature. So I consider that a value-add, not a criticism. I’ve since added Alexievich’s next book, Second-Hand Time, to my wishlist.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #42

Well, the promised catch-up with female authors didn’t exactly happen, so 2016 ended with male authors just slightly ahead of female authors. Women will probably take back the lead in 2017. That seems to be the way it works…

where_my_heartWhere My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks (2015). I’ve read each of Faulks’s novels as they’ve hit paperback, and I’ve never really worked out why I fastened onto him as a modern author to read. I think he’s much better than McEwan, who managed a couple of stonkers early in his career, but then Faulks’s career has never really matched Birdsong… although I thought the story of Human Traces danced about a pretty interesting idea… And that same idea sort of crops up in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Faulks has… odd ideas about consciousness, and the historical origin of human awareness. In a science fiction writer, they’d be understandable, if not even defensible. But Faulks writes lit fic. In Where My Heart Used to Beat, which is set in the 1980s, a UK doctor is invited to a small French island to meet a famous neurologist at the end of his life and career. The neurologist wants the doctor to be his literary executor, partly because he commanded his father during WWI and holds a secret about that, and partly because the doctor’s career hints that he might be receptible to the neurologist’s Big Idea. The narrative dips in and out of the doctor’s life, mostly focusing on WWII, when he was involved in the Allied invasion of Italy. During that time, he met a young Italian woman and weas convinced she was the love of his life; but she turned out to be married, and he never really recovered. And it’s the concept of love, and Faulks’s previously trotted-out theory on inter-brain communication, that provides the substrate for Where My Heart Used to Beat. It’s a very readable novel – Faulks’s prose is never less than readable – and a more coherent one that his last couple… but it doesn’t have the… weight of Human Traces, and so its central premise dosn’t in the slightest convince. Faulks produces polished middle-brow material, and he does it well, much better than McEwan – but every time I read one of his novels I find myself wondering why I continue to read him. I still don’t know.

hoddHodd, Adam Thorpe (2009). I have made a habit of picking up Thorpe’s novels when I see them in charity shops and I’m not entirely sure why. True, Ulverton was very good indeed – an English village’s history described through a variety of narrative forms – but the collection Shifts was, to be honest, a bit dull. But I have three or four of his books, and I grabbed this one to read over Christmas. Which I did. I knew it was about Robin Hood, a legendary figure I feel somewhat protective toward, given that I was born in Mansfield, which was once within the precincts of Sherwood Forest (in fact, there’s a plaque in Mansfield which declares the “dead centre” of Sherwood Forest was once at that spot). On the other hand, I’m well aware that Robin Hood is as real an historical figure as Jesus Christ. And, much as I love the 1938 Technicolor movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn in the title role, I know it has as much connection to real actual history as the Bible does – ie, none. Hodd is fiction, and clearly presented as fiction… but it’s also yet another version of Robin Hood. In this case, he’s a heretic who lives in the woods north of Doncaster, and his story is told as a manuscript, found by a British officer in a bombed-out church in Belgium during WWII, written by a ninety-year-old monk who was once “Much the Miller’s son” in Hodd’s band. It’s very cleverly done. There are footnotes by the officer who translated the manuscript, which explain some of the lesser known facts about mediaeval life (and also feature some editorial comments by him). The plot will come as no surprise to those who know the Hood legend, even if it’s only from the Flynn movie, and while Thorpe’s recasting of Hood as Hodd doesn’t seem to asdd all that much to the story, the way the story is presented definitely does. It put Thorpe back in my, so to speak, good books. Hodd is a clever and convincing historical palimpsest of a novel, and it’s a joy to see how well it is put together. Recommended.

starlightStarlight, Mark Millar & Goran Parlov (2014). So many English-language graphic novels and trade paperback collections involve over-entitled fascists in Spandex costumes. And if it’s not superheroes, it’s noir. Like that’s a new thing. I wanted science fiction. But I spent a good while perusing the English-language shelves of Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and there was very little that appealed. Starlight looked like it might – a test pilot is pulled to another dimension, defeats a planet’s tyrant, Flash-Gordon-fashion, and returns to Earth… only to be disbelieved by all and sundry, and so treated as something of a joke by friends and family. Forty years later, his help is required again, this time to overthrow invaders who have enslaved the world. So back he goes, only to discover his legend has grown to a level he couldn’t possibly match it, especially now he’s four decades older. The brutal occupiers also consider him something of a joke, and the populace too weak to rise up under his leadership. The art has a nice pulp sf sensibility to it, although the story seems unable to decide if its hero is pulp sf hero or a superhero. In fact, that’s not the only thing that’s a little confused, as Starlight tries to gives its story a modern spin while at the same time throwing in references to early sf serials. So, tonally, it’s a bit all over the place. Good in parts, though.

beautiful_indifferenceThe Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall (2011). Unlike some people I know, I’m not a fan of Hall’s writing – but then, her writing is very tied to her region – Cumbria – so much so that many of the stories in this collection are written in local dialect, or use local dialect terms. They’re good stories, they’re polished stories. There are seven of them in The Beautiful Indifference, some of which are set in Cumbria, one of which is set in Finland. They’re worth reading, although fans of her writing will get more from them than I did. I found this book in a charity shop, and I’ll continue to keep an eye open for her works, but I do find her prose a bit too much in your face for my taste. I like my fiction distant and bolstered by fact, and I find it hard to accept a facility with local dialect as a substitute for fact. Or rather, I appreciate fiction that includes elements which can be looked up on Wikipedia, and while Hall’s use of Cumbrian dialect is, as far as I know, accurate, it adds only a thin wash of colour to the stories, where a reference to a real event or thing defined in Wikipedia would add depth. But that’s a personal thing. Certainly, Hall is a good writer, and these are some polished pieces of work. Worth reading.

sagaSaga Volume 1, Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012). Many people, many many people, have recommended this, and so I had initially avoided it. But there I was in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and I picked out Starlight as worth a read and all the graphic novels I really wanted were upstairs and by Moebius and in Danish… so I eventually succumbed and bought the first volume of Saga. I could have bought the Danish bandes dessinées by Moebius, of course, or even the hardback volumes of Valerian and Laureline, also in Danish, but it would mean learning a new language to read them, which seems daft when they’re originally French and that’s a language I can actually read (with a dictionary at hand, admittedly). Anyway, Saga… I didn’t like it. I really didn’t. It is allegedly a space opera, but there’s zero rigour to the setting, one side uses magic, there are a race of robots who have human bodies but TVs for heads, and people actually use mobile phones and apps. See, you have a man and a woman, from each side of a generational war – one lot have wings, the others have horns – and they have a child. Er, so why do you need science fiction to tell this story? I guess calling a race war story a “space opera” makes it more palatable to readers. And, of course, it means the story is not “politicized”. FFS. So there you have it: weak title, paper-thin allegory, paper-thin setting, and a total lack of rigour. Nice art, though.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #41

An odd selection this time around. I normally like to plan my reading but the following were all pretty much random choices, grabbed when I needed a fresh book for my morning commute. Well, all except the last one, of course.

midnight_wellMidnight at the Well of Souls, Jack Chalker (1977). I’ve had this series on my bookshelves for several years and I’m not entirely sure why. I think Chalker was an awful writer, slapdash, fixated on a handful of not very original ideas, and content to pad out the thinnest of stories to trilogy, and longer, length. I don’t think he wrote a single good book, but he does have legions of fans. Which, I guess, makes him much like every other science fiction author. Anyway, Midnight at the Well of Souls is the first book in Chalker’s The Saga of the Well World series, which had reached seven books by the time Chalker died in 2005. A group of archaeological students studying a Markovian ruin on a dead world are murdered by their instructor after he has figured out how to access the Markovian world-computer. He, and the one surviving student, find themselves transported to the Well World. Some time later, spaceship captain Nathan Brazil is transporting a handful of passengers through space when he receives a distress call. It’s from that same world where the instructor murdered his students. And so Brazil and his passengers find themselves also in the Well World. Which is an artificial planet in another dimension or something, and is divided into 1,560 hexagons, each one 355 by 615 kms and containing a completely different ecosphere and associated alien races. Brazil and his passengers are scattered across different hexes, each transformed into a native of that hex. Well, except Brazil isn’t. Because it turns out he’s some sort of immortal, and he knows how to work the Well World’s controlling computer, which is just as well because the aforementioned instructor wants to use the controlling computer for his own ends (and which will in consequence destroy the real universe). So Brazil and allies must trek across half a dozen hexes, having adventures along the way, in order to reach the equatorial wall and the secret entrance to the control room. It’s science fiction by numbers, light on invention, characterisation, rigour and, er, substance. It has all the originality of a basement RPG session by a group of twentysomething nerds. I doubt I’ll be continuing with the rest of the series.

book_wordsThe Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck (2005). Words are powerful, though you’d not know it from the bulk of novels written. As the title of this short novel, perhaps even a novella, shows, its story is about words and their uses and the way in which they can create a world for a protagonist and hint to the reader at the context for that world. The narrator discusses words as she describes her childhood in an unnamed country suffering under an oppressive regime, and in which her father works. It’s a completely self-centre narrative, as every word in the book is about the narrator or her world. But what she writes does provide clues to the reality underlying the narrative. The mother is German, and had fled her country for political reasons – mostl likely because she was a Nazi. Though the Germans have contributed to the father’s country, they are not liked. The regime is brutal – the father talks openly about torture, and even describes atrocities committed by some unnamed Germans (one of which is clearly Mengele). The Book of the Words is closer to The Old Child than it is Visitation or The End of Days. It’s not an easy read – and in parts, it is quite gruesome – but it is very clever in the way it doles out information to the reader, aithout breaking the narrator’s character. Erpenbeck has to date published six books, although, I think, only four have been translated into English. My German is probably too rusty to fully appreciate her prose in that language. So can someone publish those other two books in English, please?

other_windThe Other Wind, Ursula K LeGuin (2001). I have a lot of time for LeGuin’s writing, although I can’t say I’ve enjoyed everything she’s written. I knew The Other Wind was a sequel of sorts to the Earthsea quartet, and I do think those books are very good. Nonetheless, my expectations for The Other Wind were middling, perhaps because I was under the impression it was YA. True, the Earthsea books were published for many years in the UK by Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin; but I’ve never really thought of them as YA. The Other Wind is set late in the lives of Ged and Tenar, Ged has long since retired as Arch-mage and no longer has any magic powers. He is visited by Alder, a village magician who has been dreaming about meeting his much-loved late wife at the wall between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Ged advises Alder to consult with Tenar, and their daughter Tehanu, currently on Havnor, advising King Lebannen on recent incursions by dragons. It turns out the dragons are upset because the humans of the archipelago do ont return to the world on dying, but instead gather in the land of the dead. Dragons are apparently trans-dimensional. And all those dead folk are cluttering up their private dimension. It’s a completely new view of the afterlife as presented in the Earthsea quartet, and yet it doesn’t contradict it. There’s a wonderfully elegiac, and yet matter-of-fact, tone to the prose, and a beautifully-drawn cast, from Alder through Tehanu to King Lebannen… but especially the princess from the Kargad Empire who has been sent to Havnor to marry the king. It feels like damning the book with faint praise, especially since the last LeGuin collection I read was a bit dull, but The Other Wind is a thoroughly charming novel. I loved it. It made me want to reread the Earthsea quartet, it made me want to read more LeGuin. Recommended.

borderlinersBorderliners, Peter Høeg (1995). Høeg’s 1992 novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow was an international sensation, and rightly so, and was made into a film directed by Bille August and starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne. Borderliners was Høeg’s next novel (he had published two before Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), and it’s a very different novel. Peter, the narrator, and Katerina and August are all pupils at a private school in the 1970s. All three are orphans – Peter has spent most of his life in children’s homes, Katerina’s parents died shortly before she was sent to the school, and August is on licence after killing his abusive parents. Shortly after his arrival at the school, Peter realises that everything in it is governed by schedule – he thinks of it as governed by time – and he theorises that this generates a particular way of seeing the world, which is what leads to the school’s success (it boasts a prime minister among its alumni). Although the three are not supposed to mingle, and make a secret of their friendship, they pass notes back and forth, meet in odd corners, and generally try to upset the school’s effect on themselves. August proves a handful, as he erupts into violence when threatened. Readers going into Borderliners expecting something like Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow will be disappointed – even Wikipedia states that Høeg’s novels tend to defy easy categorisation. Fortunately, I already knew this going in, although it’s certainly true Borderliners doesn’t have the immediate appeal of the earlier novel. Nonetheless, Høeg is an author whose work is worth exploring, I think. And, thanks to my brother-in-law, I now know how to pronounce the author’s name correctly.

iron_tactnThe Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds (2016). There are few things as dependable in science fiction as an Alastair Reynolds novella. Even before you turn the first page, you know you’re going to get an entertaining story larded with eyeball kicks and laid on a substrate of some big idea or other. It’s almost the dictionary definition of twenty-first century sf… except, well, the genre now covers so much ground, and is so diverse, that Reynolds’s ur-sf is only one strand among many. Which is a good thing, I hasten to add. The Iron Tactician is about as dictiuonary-definition Reynolds sf as you can get, on the other hand. It’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Minla’s Flowers’ and ‘Merlin’s Gun’. Merlin stumbles across a cold swallowship and decides to see if it has a working syrinx (used to access a NAFAL network created by mysterious aliens). There’s one survivor aboard the derelicxt, and she reveals that the ship traded its syrinx centuries before to a nearby star system locked into a planetary war. So Merlin and Teal head for the planetary system, planning to trade back the syrinx. The locals ask them to perform a task in payment: recover the titular AI from a pirate band, because they need it to win the centuries-long war against their enemies. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems – not the Iron Tactician, nor the the prince who represents the owners of the syrinx, or indeed the syrinx itself. I enjoyed the novella, even though something slightly familiar about it nagged me as I read it. I’m not sure what it was, but something in it felt second-hand and I had not expected it. It’ll probably end up on a coyuple of award shortlists, because genre awards these days are totally corrupt, although I don’t think it deserves to. (No reflection on Alastair or his work, he’s very good at what he does – but I’d hate to think The Iron Tactician is one of the best novellas the genre has produced in 2016, and I know it’s not the best Alastair has written.)

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #40

I’m not sure what’s been going on with my reading recently. I usually alternate genders in my fiction reading, but I seem to have had a run of male authors. I’ll probably make up for it before the end of the year.

hollow_manThe Hollow Man, John Dickson Carr (1935). Whenever I spot one of these Crime Masterworks in a charity shop, I pick it up. I’m not a big fan of crime fiction, although it does seem many sf fans are, and when I do read crime I tend to stick to a handful of favourite authors, like Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton. But some of the classic stuff makes for an easy light read, along with the sf, amongst all the literary fiction I seem to mostly read these days… I’ve read Dickson Carr before – I seem to remember buying one of his books at a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi during the 1990s – but I couldn’t tell you anything about him or his oeuvre. The Hollow Man was apparently voted the “best locked room mystery of all time”, so it comes as no surprise to discover its one of those completely contrived murder mysteries which are set up in order to make the protagonist – eccentric detective Gideon Fell, who is based on London – appear enormously clever. The Hollow Man is split into three sections. In the first, an emigré professor is threatened in a pub, and then is later murdered in his room after admitting a stranger – but when the locked door is forced, the stranger has vanished and there’s no other exit. In the second section, the chief suspect is then shot in the middle of an empty street, with no visible assassin, by witnesses. The final section reveals the back-history of the two dead men (they were brothers) and Fell explains, with diagrams, how both murders were committed. The first was deliberately contrived to be a locked room mystery, the second only became a mystery through a sequence of unlikely events. Although set in London, Dickson Carr completely fails to evoke time or place, and most of the characters are painted very broadly. It’s a mildly entertaining, but slight, intellectual exercise, and requires about as much suspension of disbelief as your average space opera.

sign_in_the_moonlightThe Sign in the Moonlight, David Tallerman (2016). I was given a copy of this by the author, and I’ll freely admit horror, or dark fantasy, is not really my thing. Even so, if there was one thing which jumped out at me about the stories in this collection, it’s that they pastiched their inspirations a little too effectively. In fact, for much of the collection, it felt like the author had no voice of their own. Granted, it takes good craft to pastiche so effectively, and in an individual story read in, say, a magazine or anthology, it wouldn’t present a problem… but in a collection of such stories, you start to wonder who has actually written them… I wasn’t as taken with the Lovecraft-kiddie story, ‘My Friend Fish Finger By Daisy, Aged 7’, which I first heard at a York pub meet, as much as I know others have been; and I thought the title story, an Aleister Crowley story, suffered from a lack of, well, Aleister Crowley… although I thought it quite effective otherwise. The stories are, on the whole, well-crafted and polished, and wouldn’t look out of place in any random Weird Tales sort of anthology or magazine. The collection is also very nicely illustrated, with a page of art introducing each story. But for me, that lack of a voice felt like a deal-breaker, and it all seemed somewhat too polished, so your attention tended to slide from the prose. It has occurred to me that short stories succeed when they contain a high concept conceit that resonates with readers or a strong voice – and the best stories have both. In terms of strong conceits, some of the stories in The Sign in the Moonlight get close, and in isolation those conceits might have seemed stronger. I’ve always liked collections, I much prefer them, in fact, to anthologies… but reading this one made me think about why I prefer them, and why some are more successful than others.

game_of_authorsA Game of Authors, Frank Herbert (2013). Of course, Frank Herbert didn’t write this novel in 2013. WordFire Press – better known as Kevin J Anderson – has been publishing Herbert’s previously unpublished work, and this mainstream thriller is one of those. And I can see why it never saw print back in the day. A journalist is sent a letter in broken English which reveals that a long-missing Pulitzer Prize-winning author is hiding out in Mexico. The journalist persuades his paper to let him check it out… but it’s all a plot by the missing author, who has been imprisoned in a hacienda, with his nubile daughter, by the head of the local communist cell, because the author has been writing propaganda stories for them and selling them under pseudonyms to US slicks. The writing in A Game of Authors is definitely Herbert’s, but it’s much cruder than his later work and some of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad. The Mexican characters are all stereotypes, and the communist conspiracy plot is too weak to justify the violent showdown which results. If you’re interested in Herbert’s career, A Game of Authors might be worth a read; but letting it see the light of day will not do his reputation all that much good.

oneOne, David Karp (1953). This was from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks and, despite being a literary dystopia, it wasn’t a novel I’d heard of until I came across his copy. I mean, I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World and I’m aware of We and ‘When the Machine Stops’… but I don’t recall ever seeing mention of One in discussions of dystopian fiction. Has it dropped out of favour? Is it considered not sfnal enough to mention in discussions of dystopias? Because it’s a damn sight more science-fictional than Nineteen Eighty-four. (And is no longer in print, I see.) A couple of centuries from now, the “benevolent State” rules the entire planet. A college professor is a secret informer for the State and writes regular reports on his colleagues and students. But then he is called in for a random check, mistakes his interview with the Department of Internal Examination as an indication the department is about to reward him for his diligence, and so reveals himself to be a “heretic”. But a senior member of the department believes heretics such as the professor are curable, and tries to do so. (Normally, they’re  simply executed.) The professor is brainwashed and rejoins society under a different name and with an entirely different personality. But his subsequent behaviour, although he appears to be a model citizen, reveals that his heresy has not been completely eradicated… Clearly, the 1950s US fear of communism is the driving force behind the world and plot of One, but such novels reveal more about the flaws of the writer’s society than they do those of their invented dystopia (hello there, Fahrenheit 451). The benevolent State is crime-free and the vast majority of its citizens are happy. Why is this a bad thing? A handful of malcontents who believe their dissatisfaction is a result of their “individualism” being curtailed is no reason to write off the entire society. But, of course, that’s how dystopian fiction works. It reinforces present-day values by valourising one single aspect of the writer’s society that a “dystopia” might diminish, while ignoring all the social problems said dystopia might actually fix. Obviously, the USSR was far from a utopia, but at least it tried to become one – which is more than can be said for the US (or indeed most nations). One has its flaws – it’s simplistic, it’s all a bit men-in-hats sf, and its prose is functional rather than evocative (although better than most sf novels of the time). It also makes a meal of the whole “individualism” thing, when it actually does a better job of disproving the need for it. It’s still worth reading.

mars_1999Mars 1999, Brian O’Leary (1987). I bought this a few years ago when I was collecting books on missions to Mars, and while its title alone indicated it was now alternate history, I hadn’t expected it to posit such a, well, utopian vision of the early twenty-first century. It’s all very well imagining NASA will expand their space programme and put together a mission to Mars. It’s even plausible such a mission might be a joint mission with the USSR (because, of course, in 1987, everyone thought the Soviet Union was still in rude health). But it’s a frankly bizarre stretch to think that a US-USSR mission to Mars might lead to a world government two decades later… O’Leary covers some of the necessary science in basic fashion, then documents the design of spacecraft which would be used in his preferred mission plan (including some not very good illustrations of the spacecraft), and even intersperses his discussion of his topic with short chapters of a fictionalised mission featuring an international crew. Well, not precisely international – there’s a Soviet spacecraft and a US spacecraft travelling in formation, but the US crew is not entirely American. The commander is, however. And another American in the crew gets to be the first human being to step onto the Martian surface. I didn’t read Mars 1999 looking for a fictional treatment of the first mission to Mars, but I was expecting something a little heavier on the science and engineering that what I found. I suspect the book was among the first on its topic to be published, so all due credit to the author, but thirty years later it reads like, er, science fiction, or alternate history. And not particulary good science fiction or alternate history.  One for those interested in the topic, I suspect.

labyrinthsLabyrinths*, Jorge Luis Borges (1962). I had a copy of this years ago but it seems to have gone missing at some point, and I’d never got around to reading it. So I bought a replacement copy, and ended up reading it a couple of weeks after it had arrived. There’s not much you can say about Borges or this collection – either you know what he writes, or you don’t, because explaining it is pretty difficult. Labyrinths contains some of Borges’s best-known stories, such as ‘The Library of Babel’, which describes an infinite library and those who live in it; or ‘Funes the Memorious’, about a boy who falls from a horse, injures his head, and develops a perfectly eidetic memory; or ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius’, about an encylopaedia which includes an article on a country which does not exist and triggers an obsessive search for more information by the narrator; or ‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote‘, which discusses an author who plans to become Cervantes in order to write a word-for-word copy of Don Quixote… The stories have a sort of dry, academic tone, almost reportage in places, but certainly a demonstration, much like I found Blixen’s Anecdotes of Destiny to be, that “show, don’t tell” is a relatively recent writing fad. I particularly liked ‘The Immortal’, but ‘Three Versions of Judas’ read like uninteresting biblical scholarship. Labyrinths also includes ten essays and eight “Parables”. This is erudite, intelligent stuff, and while Borges is fully deserving of his reputation, I can’t see anyone writing anything like it today – at least, writing it and being published… Every self-respecting literature fan should have a copy of Labyrinths on their book shelves, real or virtual.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129