It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary 2020, #4

I don’t need to self-isolate to read books, in fact I pretty much self-isolate every weekend anyway: a trip to my local supermarket on the Saturday, and perhaps a visit to the återvinningsrum, but other than that the front door remains locked. This is not – or has not been – necessarily a good thing: I should get out more, you know, go for a walk in the woods next to my apartment building, for instance. Instead, I read books. Such as these…

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds (2018, UK). This is a belated follow-on to 2007’s The Prefect – now re-titled Aurora Rising – and while the story is standalone, it makes several references to the events of the previous novel. And uses pretty much the same cast. A figure pops up giving speeches suggesting the various habitats of the Glitter Band should leave the Panoply, which is the implant-driven direct democracy system the habitats have been using for a couple of centuries. Reynolds is not being very subtle here – it’s clear what he’s writing about. But, there’s this universe hanging over the story, all that world-building documented in a dozen or so other novels… The main plot seems to be people whose implants suddenly boil their brains and kill them, and the Panoply – also a police force – is desperately trying to track down the cause and so prevent further deaths. Of course, the two – Glexiteer and brain-boiling implants – are connected, but only because Reynolds apparently has so little faith in democracy he built a backdoor into the “demarchy” he invented for his novels, sothat a powerful elite can alter the outcome of certain votes (which does sort of plug into all the conspiracy theories regarding the 2016 Referendum). Anyway, the two are indeed linked, and through the aforementioned backdoor,  which all feels somewhat too convenient when the climax hits. Some nice set-pieces, but story feels like two plots bolted together and the villains are somewhat pantomime.

Journey to the Center (now re-published as Asgard’s Secret), Brian Stableford (1982, UK). I think I read this many years ago, but under its UK title, which would be, er, Journey to the Centre. DAW never published books two and three of the trilogy, although they were published in the UK. And have been subsequently rewritten and published under new titles by a US small press and the SF Gateway (as ebooks). Throughout the 1970s to 1990s, Stableford reliably produced mid-list science fiction with UK sensibilities albeit mostly for, strangely, US publishers like DAW. This book is fairly typical. An adventurer makes his living hunting through the mysterious levels of the world Asgard – which may comprises levels of shells all the way to the centre, some of which could be occupied. It’s a great conceit, and Stableford makes good use of it. I’m reminded of the Kriakta Rift from Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow (1981, a favourite sf novel) more than I am Iain M Banks’s much later Matter (2008). The novel is a standalone, but leaves many questions about the world unanswered. Hence the sequels. Which I want to read. I suspect I will have to go for the ebook versions.

The Heiress of Linn Hagh, Karen Charlton (2012, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon, and  it was only a quid, so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a crime novel set in Regency England. I’ve always liked novels set in Regency England, such as, er, Heyer, and the occasional Signet and Zebra romance. And the late Kate Ross did write four really good crime novels set in Regency England. Anyway, I bought it, I read it. I think I have less of a problem with the setting and character than many of those reviewing it on Goodreads. The lead was a real historical character and the author admits she wrote him more like a twentieth-century detective than was likely true for the time. But that’s your “suspension of disbelief”, and I duly suspended it as required. Sadly, the book suffered from bad writing and inconsistent plotting. On the whole, I thought Charlton managed the period quite well, and her protagonists were not entirely reliant on cliché, but the poor prose discourages me from reading the rest of the series.

84K, Claire North (2018, UK). Between Jarman’s visions of a post-Thatcherite UK and North’s vision of a post-Austerity UK, I’m not sure I can either tell the difference or see much that distinguishes them. That the Tories have been systematically robbing the UK since 1979 is historical fact. How genre writers have responded to that – at least, the few that actually bothered – is a different matter. UK sf writers of the 1970s built the government’s incompetence into their worlds; later sf writers had plainly drunk too much Tory Kool-Aid (bar a few notable exceptions). But that’s an argument for another time. 84K reads like a cross between 1984 refashioned for a twenty-first century audience and a 1970s consumerism-gone-made satire. Which, sadly, makes it feel like a book out of its time. It has a point to make, and it tells its story well, but it feels mostly like the target at which it’s aimed no longer exists. North is a writer to be treasured, and if not every book she produces hits its mark, she has the virtue of actually aiming at something. I thought The Sudden Appearance of Hope much the better book, for all that 84K ought to be the more relevant book and so more impactful. I will however read more books by North because she is clearly worth it.


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Reading diary 2020, #3

I seem to be mostly reading science fiction at the moment. Not sure why. I mean, it’s not like I think we’re in a new golden age for genre or anything – in fact, I find a lot of the high profile science fiction being published at the moment completely uninteresting. Having said that, three of the books below, all published last year, are by writers I’ve been reading for decades, and two of them are favourites writers as well.

World Engines: Destroyer, Stephen Baxter (2019, UK). Reid Malenfant, he of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, is awakened in 2469 from cold sleep after a near-fatal accident in 2019 because Emma Stoney, she of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, who disappeared on a mission to Phobos in 2005… has just sent a radio message to Earth asking for Malenfant’s help. The world of the twenty-fifth century is considerably different to the world we, the readers, know and Malenfant remembers. The great push into space was reversed after native species on Venus and Europa were almost wiped out. There are AIs on the Moon and the other planets, but none on Earth, only “algorithmic-machines” (despite repeated assertions in the text that algorithmic machines are not aware, just sophisticated computers, they’re characterised pretty much the same as the human cast). For a third of the novel, nothing happens. Malenfant mooches about what’s left of Birmingham after 500 years of progress and climate change. But then he decides to go and rescue Stoney – although, from clues in the radio message, she’s a Stoney from an alternate universe, one in which Neil Armstrong did not die of a heart attack shortly before landing on the Moon. Fortunately, it transpires Earth has a sophisticated space capability, it just never uses it. Malenfant, his mentor (a teenage girl) and an algorithmic android (Malenfant’s nurse since he was awakened) head to Mars, meet Stoney, discover a weird tunnel in Phobos which gives access to alternate realities and they end up in one in which the British Empire is triumphant in space and head off with them to the “ninth planet”… We’ve all been here before; Baxter has been here before. The whole thing reads like it was cobbled together from discarded ideas from the Manifold trilogy and Proxima duology. It’s highly readable, but there’s a lot of set-up for very little pay-off. And the continuity is terrible, with characters joining in conversations despite not being present. Baxter bangs books like this out like sausages – an atelier can’t be that far off – and this one was clearly an opportunity to use some of that Britain in Space stuff he researched and wrote many years ago… When you see Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover, you pretty much know what to expect. This is not one of his better efforts, but it’s very much on-brand.

A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA). Park has had an interesting and varied career. He debuted with a complex sf trilogy set on a world with extremely long seasons and with a somewhat meandering plot. His next novel was postcolonial science fiction, and remains one of my favourite genre novels. He then wrote a pair of Biblical fantasies, followed by a straight-up, but very literary, portal fantasy set in a Romanian empire. Although Park moves effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, he has always worked at the literary end of both genres. But there has, in recent years, come an increasing narrative playfulness apparent in his fiction. His last novel was, among other things, about the Forgotten Realms novel he wrote under a pseudonym, the history of his family, an art installation he wrote a text for, and, in part, his writing career. A City Made of Words is more of the same. It’s a collection of short stories, most previously published, and an “interview”, and it’s more of the meta-fiction Park has been writing of late. He is one of my favourite writers, and has been for many years, and while for some that – being a favourite writer – means a consistent delivery of exactly the same stuff the reader likes, for me Park is a favourite writer because he is forever changing what he produces. The meta-fiction is not just a progression from earlier works, it’s built on earlier works and it’s extremely cleverly done. I suspect my opinion will be shared by few people but I consider Paul Park one of the best US science fiction writers currently being published.

Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve a feeling I read The Female Man back in the early 1980s, although I can’t be sure. I do remember buying a copy of The Adventures of Alyx, the Women’s Press edition, in a bookshop/stationery shop on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until I started up SF Mistressworks, however, that I started reading Russ’s fiction seriously, and the more I read the more I became a fan. Jones, on the other hand, I’ve been reading since the late 1980s, since when she has been one of my favourite genre writers. So that’s a double-win: a writer I  admire writing about a writer I admire. Jones does an excellent job of running through Russ’s life and career and the fiction she produced. Jones ties each piece of fiction to events in Russ’s life and to her changes in her views on feminism and science fiction – all backed up by references to letters and essays. I had always known Russ was a clever writer, and a sharp critic, but until reading this book I had not realised quite how prolific she was. I knew her fiction, but not her essays and letters and fan articles… and… Russ was a second wave feminist who eventually accepted third wave feminism (I think I’m getting this right). Jones is also a feminist, vocally so. I get the impression from this book that their different brands of feminism do not quite map onto the other, but I also get the impression that Jones very much admires Russ and her fiction. This is a book that will give you a fresh appreciation of Russ’s work. I was a Joanna Russ fan before reading it, now I am even more of one.

The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (2015, USA). I’ve read several short stories by Kosmatka and was impressed by them, but none of the blurbs to his novels – three to date, of which this is the last – made them sound as if they would appeal to the same extent. But then I started reading The Flicker Men and discovered that its plot was based on the Kosmatka story I’d admired the most. Except. How to…? Okay. There was was this one story in which Feynman’s double slit experiment revealed there were some people who could not collapse the wave function and so were not sentient as such. The Flicker Men takes that premise and runs with it. First, it posits a televangelist using it to prove that foetuses have “souls”, but then it turns out there are people from an alternate reality on Earth who are trying to shut down the experiment… and the novel turns into a somewhat implausible technothriller with the hero constantly on the run. I was… disappointed. The short story is excellent, but this expansion of it reads like it was handed to Tom Clancy as a premise. Okay, Kosmatka is a better writer than Clancy – but this is definitely more like Clancy’s output than the high concept sf I was expecting. Disappointing.


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Reading diary 2020, #2

Although I’m reading less books since my move, it feels like I’m reading more. Partly I suspect that’s because I do around 70% of my reading on my Kindle, and it’s difficult to judge the size of ebooks – physically, I mean. But I’m also no longer “making up the numbers” by reading short non-fiction books about aircraft or spacecraft or any other of the various “enthusiasms” I’ve had – those books are all in storage. Which I suppose means the number of books I’m reading now is closer to my actual reading figures – although, to be fair, I don’t read on my commute to work, which I used to in the UK.

Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). This is the last Bernie Gunther from Kerr we’ll see as he died before it was published. He did finish it, however, although the novel as published includes a eulogising introduction by Ian Rankin. I’ve been a fan of Kerr’s fiction for many years, and have made no secret of it, and it’s never pleasant when a writer you admire, and whose books you like a great deal, dies. And not simply because the series must come to an abrupt end. (Without meaning to sound mercenary, others could write additions to the series – it’s been done before, with varying degrees of success and acceptance.) Metropolis, unsurprisingly, doesn’t read like the last book of a series, although it does cover the start of Bernie Gunther’s police career (which, if you know the series, isn’t as contradictory as it sounds). Unlike the other books, or at least the ones published after the original Berlin Noir trilogy, there’s no split narrative, with one narrative thread continuing Gunther’s story in the decades following WWII, while the other is set further back in time and covers a case or incident related to, or which provides a perspective on, the later narrative. In Metropolis, Gunther is a new detective in Weimar Berlin, who gets involved in two serial killer cases – the first kills sex workers (many women resorted to sex work to make ends meet), the second disabled WWI veterans who beg on the streets of Berlin – all of which is tied in with the rise of  Nazism, the excesses of the Weimar Republic, and provides plenty of back-placed hooks which tie back into the characters (most of them real) and events (most of them real) that Gunther encounters in earlier novels (which are, obviously, set later). Kerr’s Gunther novels started out good, and pretty much stayed good for the entire 14-book series. Which is quite an achievement. The title of Metropolis is a reference to Lang’s film, which the novel mentions – Gunther is even interviewed by von Harbou, who is researching what clearly becomes M – but the link is forced at best and the title is more a reference to the city of Berlin itself. Happily, it seems Bernie Gunther – and his author – ended on a high note as Metropolis is definitely one of the stronger books in an abnormally consistently good series.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 4: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). Whenever I mention the League of Extraordinary Gentleman I receive a blank look, and then I explain there was a movie adaptation with Sean Connery and there’s some glimmer of recognition. But, really, the film is awful and shouldn’t be considered in the same breath as the graphic novels from which it was adapted. By my count, there’ve been six previous volumes, and three spin-off volumes (the Nemo books). The last three books were actually one split into three, Century: 1910, Century: 1969 and Century: 2009, which is why The Tempest, the seventh graphic novel, is number four. For those who have never encountered this particular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they’re a group of fictional characters with, well, extraordinary abilities from Victorian/Edwardian literature. The original members were Mina Harker (from Dracula), Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyll, the Invisible Man and Allan Quatermain (from H Rider Haggard’s novels), but also featured Professor Cavor, Fu Manchu, Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty and HG Wells’s Martians. Subsequent volumes continued to mine and mashup proto-genre stories in many and clever ways. The Tempest, despite the ten-year gap, follows on directly from Century. As the title suggests, it centres around Prospero, and other fantastical Shakespearean characters, although it’s not unashamed to incorporate characters and institutions from other science fiction properties, such as TV21 – both Spectrum and World Aquanaut Security Patrol make an appearance. There are other dimensions to the pastiche – MI5, for example, operates a group of “J-series” secret agents, each of whom are modelled on the actors who played James Bond in the 007 movies, including Woody Allen. Some of the art is also clearly an homage to Jack Kirby’s. And it’s not all art – the book is split into six “issues” (was it published as a mini-series? I don’t know), each of which have cover art that spoofs well-known comics, and include an introduction and a letters page (written and collated by “Al and Kev”). The introductions are mini-essays on renowned British comic artists, such as Leo Baxendale and Frank Bellamy, and the letters pages are Viz-like spoofs in which it’s made clear the letter-writers are as fictional as the comic’s characters (or are they?). The story itself is told through a series of strips, echoing British comics’ anthology nature, some of which are colour, some black and white, and some 3D (glasses are included). This is a graphic novel that not only celebrates the works from which its characters were taken but also the British comics industry and its output. It is not just a graphic novel about the Blazing World – named for Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 proto-sf novel, and a sort of sanctuary for the series’s many characters – and the threat to its existence, but also a celebration of British comic history, told in a voice familiar likely only to those who have read British comics. I loved it. It wasn’t just the “spot the mashup”, or the somewhat convoluted story and its cast, but the fact it echoed my own experience of comics, British comics, although not entirely as, since I’m more than a decade younger than Alan Moore, it doesn’t quite map onto my comic-reading, which was Beano/Dandy to war comics such as  Warlord, Victor and the Commando Library, to 2000 AD and Star Lord and Tornado… to books without pictures. Ah well. The Tempest is a great piece of work, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an excellent series from start to finish. I find Alan Moore’s work stretches from the sublime to the indulgent, but this series is definitely the former. Recommended. But start from the beginning.

The Pawns of Null-A, AE van Vogt (1948, Canada). There’s a Brian Aldiss story called ‘Confluence’ which is little more than amusing dictionary definitions of phrases from an alien language. One phrase is defined as “in which everything in a book is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it”, and its converse, of course, is “in which nothing in a book is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it”. The Pawns of Null-A fails both definitions. I have no idea what van Vogt thought he was writing about and nothing in the novel makes the slightest bit of sense. It is nominally a sequel to The World of Null-A. Gilbert Gosseyn prevented the conquest of Earth by the Greatest Empire in that novel, but in this one he finds himself bouncing around the heads of various characters in the Greatest Empire in an effort to either stop it or prevent it from defeating the League of Galactic Worlds. Gosseyn finds himself caught in a trap and transported into the brain of the heir to the Greatest Empire’s leader. He surmises some other powerful player is doing this in order to hone Gosseyn as a weapon, but the reader is bounced from one unexplained situation to another, with a remarkable level of faith in the reader’s attention, certainly to a greater extent than any modern-day author would be able to get away with. Gosseyn stumbles across a planet of “Predictors”, who seem to be chiefly responsible for the Greatest Empire’s victories, but since Gosseyn – and by extension van Vogt – seem to have little idea what’s going on, there’s little point in the reader trying to figure it out. Damon Knight famously performed a hatchet job on this novel’s prequel, The World of Null-A, but later retracted it when he learnt van Vogt documented his dreams and used them as plots. That’s not an excuse. It’s an explanation, certainly, but “oh he plotted while he was asleep” does not suddenly make a book no longer open to criticism for shit plotting. I loved van Vogt’s novels as a teenager, but virtually none have survived adult rereads. And with good reason: he was a fucking shit writer. Damon Knight was right. He just wasn’t honest enough – something which has plagued the genre since its beginnings. The Pawns of Null-A is badly-written, has no real plot to speak of, and its past popularity should be considered an accurate indictment of past sf fans’ taste…

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA). This is the third book in the Adventure of the Athena Club series and, I am led to believe, the final book, although nothing about all three novels struck me as “trilogy” and I would be happy for the series to continue. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen above, Goss has repurposed well-known fictional characters from Victorian and Edwardian literature, but to a different purpose. First and foremost, her story is female-led and female-driven. She has had to invent characters in order for this to be the case. Such as Dr Jekyll’s daughter Mary, the leader of the Athena Club; or Catherine Moreau, the puma woman from the HG Wells novel. This is not a weakness but a strength. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these books are not entirely straightforward, and are framed as penny dreadfuls, explicitly written by Moreau, of the Athena Club’s adventures, in much the same way as the Sherlock Holmes stories were framed as the diary of Dr Watson. Although the books’ definition of penny dreadfuls seems to owe more to the anonymous female-authored books of Regency circulating libraries than it does actual Victorian pulp fiction. Not that the interpolations by the cast, which is all nicely meta, fit either. I’m a big fan of breaking the fourth wall, even if it’s fictionally. Having said all that… I don’t like the titles of these novels, but I love the stories they tell. This one has the Order of the Golden Dawn attempting to turn Britain into, well, pretty much what Johnson’s government has sort of been working toward. It plans to replace Queen Victoria with a compliant clone, and Queen Victoria was far more revered in the late nineteenth century than Queen Elizabeth II is now, and then turn Britain into an “England for Englishman”. Happily, this is derailed pretty quickly – not by the Athena Club, but by the female members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, who had their own plan: resurrect Tera, High Priestess of Isis, who died 5,000 years ago and was mummified, and she will take over the British Empire and remake it according to her desires. While those desires include such un-Victorian things as female emancipation and gender equality, the Athena Club oppose it on principle (no tyranny is ever benevolent, no matter how well-intentioned). The title refers to Tera’s power, which is considerably more than mere hypnotism, although the actual “mesmerizing girl” is the Athena Club’s maid, Alice, who has the same power, albeit a great deal weaker, and whose disappearance kickstarts the plot. I do like the series’s use of its characters – Van Helsing is a villain, Count Dracula is not, Ayesha is head of the Alchemist’s Society – and if there’s some occasional padding, and the plots don’t always quite fit together, never mind, they’re an interesting, and much-needed, take on the literature they pastiche.


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Reading diary 2020, #1

I think I’ll continue with this format, documenting the books I’ve read half a dozen at a time. But this year, I’m going to write up each book shortly after finishing it. At least, that’s the plan…

The Man in the Darksuit, Dennis R Caro (1980, USA). I picked this up from Fantastikbokhandeln, a secondhand genre bookshop that opened recently here in Uppsala. I’m not sure what prompted me to purchase it. The cover boasts an approving quote from Philip K Dick, but I’ve never really a fan of Dick’s writing. So it can’t have been that. The title sounded intriguing, but the backcover blurb reads more like the book is a piss-take… undercover reporter saves heiress from kidnapper and so uncovers galactic conspiracy, in the sort of language that implies it’s all very funny and witty and tongue-in-cheek. And it’s not, it’s really not. It reads a bit like Ian Wallace and a bit like Ron Goulart, and neither of those are really writers to admire. The titular character is the villain of the piece and his suit bends light around him so he’s effectively invisible. But the novel is more concerned with failed reporter Bos Coggins, who seems to have had a surprisingly successful career for a “failed” reporter, and Muffie Bernstein, the heiress he “rescues” in the opening chapters and who takes a shine to him and pretty much drives the plot thereafter. I have to wonder what was going through the editor’s mind when they chose to buy and publish this book. I mentioned Ian Wallace earlier, who had a career through the 1960s and 1970s, but whose novels at least made an effort at discussing science-fictional ideas and in fact used the genre as a springboard for a discussion on all manner of subjects. The Man in the Darksuit is a an attempt at farce, and while it shows a familiarity with sf tropes, it chooses to pastiche more general tropes, which renders its presentation as sf pretty moot. It is also clearly so popular, not a single secondhand copy is for sale through Amazon. A book to avoid.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005, USA). Scalzi is something of a lightning rod for science fiction and, while I find very little to disagree with in his public persona and what he chooses to champion, he’s no poster-boy for the best of what the genre can produce, and has, in fact, built a career on resolutely commercial science fiction of a type that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, albeit with 21st century sensibilities. Of course, science fiction is global, but Scalzi’s version of it is entirely parochial. And that’s woefully evident here. Old Man’s War is about a middle-class old man in Middle America who chooses to throw it all away – a comfortable retirement, that is, and eventual death; not that everyone, even in the US, gets the first – in order to fight for the Earth Federation in some sort of undefined war. And “undefined war” is the key to this novel. The protagonist, John Perry, knows nothing about the universe beyond Earth, or indeed what he’s signing up for by joining the Colonial Defense Force. His ignorance about the universe – imposed on Earth, incidentally, by the authorities – is the average American’s ignorance about planet Earth writ large. It turns out humanity is one of many races settling the galaxy – the science and background of which are hand-waved away quickly – but that has led to competition for habitable planets and Earth is in a war to maintain its own colonies. All of which are apparently only populated by emigrants from “developing” countries such as… Norway. Er, what? I mean, even imagining a programme in which India and Bangladesh only are allowed to send settlers offworld because, by implication, they’re failing as Earth-bound nation-states, but the US is not allowed to because… Present history, and orange buffoon in the White House, aside… even in 2005 this was a bad take. Old Man’s War is US exceptionalism writ large. And it doesn’t get any better. Characters lecture one another – the lecture on orbital elevators is dull and irrelevant – and then a love interest is – literally – manufactured, and this is used to drive the second half of the plot, despite somewhat dubious ethics. However… Old Man’s War has an engaging voice, and its story must have felt so comfortable to US sf readers of 2005 they probably wondered why they hadn’t read it a dozen times before in previous decades… Sadly, the book’s charm does not cross the Atlantic. It’s a bit like a Big Mac, a triumph of marketing over content, something that non-Americans see as an exemplar of US culture – or US sf culture, in this case – but Americans see as emblematic of culture as a whole, but of course there’s more to culture than just the US… Scalzi strikes me as a nice guy, I probably agree with 75% of his sensibilities, but that doesn’t make Old Man’s War a good book or worth recommending. It is, in fact, pretty awful. I won’t be bothering with the sequels.

Crimson Darkness, William Barton (2014, USA). I’ve been a fan of Barton’s fiction for many years – he’s American, by the way – ever since reading the collaborations he wrote with Michael Capobianco back in the 1990s. At one point, we were even corresponding. His last traditionally-published novel was 1999’s When We Were Real, and he has self-published ever since. On the one hand, this is almost a crime as he’s one of the best sf novelists the US has produced; on the other, Crimson Darkness is pretty much unpublishable in its current form… I’m describing it badly. Crimson Darkness is an excellent sf novel. It’s also a much harder read than most sf readers will accept. It’s a bravura piece of world-building, it takes no prisoners, and so creates a narrative that bounces from obtuse to obscure. No traditional publisher would touch it in its current form, but by self-publishing Barton allows us to decide for ourselves. This is complicated by a number of issues: one, it’s a big novel, 200,000 words; two, it’s the first in a series of, to date, three novels, with possibly more to come; and three, it’s supposed to be backed up by an online reference, particularly for the conlangs used in the novel, but that online reference is still “under construction”. I can’t fault Barton for his ambition, or indeed for failing to meet those ambitions. Been there done that, myself. Crimson Darkness is part Bildungsroman and part Secret-of-the-World story. A prince of a defunct kingdom bounces around various nations, gets embroiled in revolutions, witnesses great social and industrial change, but is also puzzled by the nature of his world. There’s a lot of discussion of the conlangs Barton has invented for the series, a lot of descriptive prose, which Barton does well (despite a tendency to use “it’s” when he means “its”), and an astonishing amount of detail in the worldbuilding. This is what Neal Stephenson should be like. As I said earlier, a bravura piece of worldbuilding. But also an engaging narrative. I’ve been aware of Barton’s self-published novels for a number of years, but they were only available on Kindle and until last year I didn’t have one. I now have access to a whole bunch of stuff he’s published since When We Were Real (since re-published by Barton himself in a preferred form), including preferred versions of earlier traditionally-published novels. His works are not easy reads, not the simplistic deathless prose and well-worn tropes of the more successful self-published sf authors. Obviously. I wouldn’t be reading them if they were. But for those who like intelligent sf, this is the real stuff.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik (2018, USA). I received a copy of this as part of the Hugo Voters Pack as it was shortlisted for the award in 2019. (I didn’t read it in time to vote, but I don’t vote anyway – why should I vote for the least worst of half a dozen books I don’t think are any good?). I’ve not read anything by Novik before – she was the GoH at IceCon 2 in 2018 in Reykjavik, which I attended, but her best-known series, the Napoleonic wars and dragons one, is not the sort of thing that appeals to me. Spinning Silver, and the earlier Uprooted, which was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016, were, I understood, retellings of fairytales, and while that does appeal to me a great deal more, it’s a genre that’s very much in the shadow of Angela Carter, a writer I greatly admire. Having said that, it’s a genre open to many different approaches, and one that’s good at reflecting the concerns of the time, and place, it was written. And so it proves with Spinning Silver, which actually bears little resemblance to the Rumpelstiltskin story on which it is supposedly based. The story is told – chiefly – from the viewpoints of three young women – and, to be fair, on the occasions when it uses other viewpoints, it weakens the story, if they’re necessary it’s because plot. Anyway, one is the daughter of a moneylender, who takes over her ineffectual father’s business, and proves very effective at it, and is only identified as Jewish a quarter of the way into the novel. Another is the plain daughter of a local earl who is unlikely to marry well. And the third is the abused daughter of a farmer who becomes the servant of the moneylender’s daughter… And the moneylender’s daughter – although she’s pretty much the moneylender by this point – attracts the interest of the Staryk , who are sort of winter elves, and Novik builds her story, which isn’t much of a retelling out of these three young women, and it works really well. If there’s a flaw to the novel, it’s that it feels like its story should be an allegory – but the Jewish experience, although it takes a while to be revealed, is explicit in the narrative – and so you have to wonder what point Novik is trying to make if it’s not about the treatment of Jews in Slavic Europe (which the book’s world is a thinly-veiled version of), or indeed Europe entire. Which is not to say the book has to be about that, or that there’s an expectation it is… it’s just that retellings of fairytales generally carry a different payload to the original fairytale, and in Spinning Silver that’s not actually apparent. Nonetheless, worth reading.

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019, USA). I will not be surprised if this appears on a few shortlists later this year. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good book, merely that’s it’s being pushed a lot… and being talked about a lot. However. Plot first. The Teixcalaani Empire asks Lsel Station, a small space-based polity on the edges of the empire, for a new ambassador. It seems the old one has died – murdered, the new ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, discovers shortly after arrival on the Teixcalaani capital world (which is one giant city). It turns out there’s a bit politicking going on, both on the capital world and on Lsel Station, none of which Dzmare is aware of, even though she should be carrying an “imago” of her predecessor, ie his memories and a copy of his personality, in her own head. First, a popular general is trying to seize the throne. Second, Lsel Station is trying to prevent impending annexation. Third, the Teixcalaani emperor is trying to safeguard his succession, using Lsel imago technology. And, on top of all that, it turns out there are powerful aliens lurking out past Lsel Station and Lsel wants the empire to keep it safe from them. With all that going on, it comes as something of a surprise to find that A Memory Called Empire spends more time on interiority than it does on plot or action. Or on worldbuilding – and there is a lot of worldbuilding. And it is, in the main, done quite well – except all the Teixcalaani words in the prose are italicised. Who still does that? Italicising non-English words in an English text is so twentieth-century. The end result reads a lot like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, albeit without the advantage of being first or using Leckie’s default gender trick – but fans of that trilogy will no doubt love this novel. The publisher seems to think fans of Le Carré and Banks will love it too, but comparisons to their oeuvres is one hell of a stretch (Dzmare could be a character name from a Culture novel, but that’s about it). In A Memory Called Empire‘s favour, it has a remarkably low bodycount for a space opera, in the high three figures. Space opera as a subgenre relies heavily on well-used tropes and worldbuilding-blocks (to coin a phrase), but there is also one type of space opera that makes a feature of its worldbuilding. A Memory Called Empire falls into the latter category. That makes it interesting, and a better read, than the majority of space operas, but it’s also plain most of the book’s energy has been invested in the worldbuilding… and the romance which forms the emotional core of the novel. As a result the science-fictional elements feel paper-thin – the infrastructure of the capital city, for example, is supposedly controlled by an AI, but the book presents this as little more a big computer, and the controlling “algorithm” for the AI even forms a minor unconvincing subplot. The central murder-mystery isn’t actually much of a mystery – the murderer confesses freely to Dzmare, knowing he won’t be prosecuted – and the offstage threat is so far offstage it only seems to impinge on the plot when the writer remembers it. This is a novel that is essentially all about the worldbuilding. The writer clearly revelled in it, and hopes the reader will too. And, in general, they’ve done an excellent job. A Memory Called Empire is not a great novel, or arguably a good novel, but it is the first novel – long overdue – in a form of space opera which needs to be more prevalent. It is an example of a model of space opera which could have appeared in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and would have made space opera a better subgenre, but which was pretty much squashed at the time. Instead of The Risen Empire or Spirit: the Princess of Bois Dormant, we’ve ended up with the Expanse and assorted clones. Sigh. A Memory Called Empire won’t make any of my award shortlists, but I’d sooner it was a typical example of 21st century space opera rather than something worth remarking on…

Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). I had wanted to buy a copy of this at the Worldcon in Dublin last August, but the handful of copies available in the dealers’ room had gone by the time I went to buy one. Fortunately, I recently found a copy in The English Bookshop here in Uppsala (albeit for somewhat more money). I’ve read most of Tidhar’s fiction – perhaps not all of the short stories, but there are so many of them, but certainly the longer works, especially the novels. So the self-referential elements of Unholy Land came as no real surprise, although the extent of them does feel greater than usual. So much so, in fact, that one important plot point, I think, is based on the first Tidhar story I ever read, some fifteen years ago, and whose title escapes me, but it was about a person browsing Hebrew pulp novels and stumbling across a novel which should not exist, or something. Which is, sort of, a fair description of Unholy Land itself. The starting premise is that Europe’s Jews accepted the British government’s offer of a homeland in east Africa (an actual historical suggestion, but the Zionist Congress rejected it in favour of historical Israel, although the first Aliyah to Palestine took place forty years prior to the Balfour Declaration). The novel is set in the 1980s, and the Jewish homeland, Palestina, is under constant attack by the African tribes who once lived in the territory it now occupies. The irony is thick here. A Jewish writer of pulp detective novels, resident in Berlin, returns to his home in Palestina on a visit. Except he has not been living in the Berlin of the same history as Palestina, and there is in fact a multiverse of alternate realities which can be accessed by certain people – in the writer’s case, unconsciously – and something is happening which jeopardises Palestina’s alternate reality… Not only does Unholy Land offer some seriously good worldbuilding and alternate history, but it also goes all meta and begins to deconstruct its own story from within its narrative. That’s so cool I’ve even done it myself. Tidhar has said he considers Unholy Land one of the best piece of work he has produced – so far – and though I take everything he says with a pinch of salt, having known him for several years, he may well be right in this case. It’s surprising how few awards picked up on Unholy Land. Well, no, it’s not really surprising – popular vote genre awards these days are entirely tribal and no longer fit for purpose, and Unholy Land is a genuinely good book.


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Reading diary 2019, #13

This is the last post of reading from last year, which is why it features seven books instead of the usual half-dozen. And is a bit, er, long. Sorry. I’ve set my reading challenge in 2020 to 120 books, twenty lower than last year but still nearly ten more than I managed in 2019. Hopefully, I’ll also blog better in 2020 about books than I did in 2019.

It’s sometimes hard to know what to write when you think of yourself as a genre commentator – I’ve been described as a “critic” but it feels like a label that’s only deserved when you make use of actual critical tools, and I’ve never studied those tools nor been trained in them, and have only read a little on the subject… Yes, I know, in the twenty-first century we don’t like experts and everyone is also an expert in everything. But science fiction is a thing that interests me – not so much how it works, because it’s been bent and twisted and shaped in so many different ways it would be like studying the workings of a stick which can substitute for every single tool in a regular DIY person’s toolbox. Your average stick can do a lot of different things, you know.

Science fiction has a well-documented history, comprised in part of the actual texts which form the corpus of science fiction. So there’s plenty there to interrogate. I’m not so good on individual texts – even my book reviews turn into mini-rants on one tangent or another – but I find the tropes science fiction has invented endlessly fascinating, especially since they seem to have weathered a century essentially unchanged while the world has changed greatly around them. That, I think, is  what I’d sooner comment on, and I must one day get back into the habit of doing.

But, for now, here are the last books I read in 2019, a year of many changes personally, none of which were actually reflected in my reading.

The Greenlanders, Jane Smiley (1988, USA). I’ve no idea why I decided to read this. I must have seen an approving mention of it somewhere, because it’s not the sort of fiction that usually crosses my path or appeals to me. It is pretty much straight-up historical fiction about a community in Greenland during the early decades of the second millennium. And it’s written in a style appropriate to the material. Which means it is has a sort of saga-like approach to its story. While this gives the prose verisimilitude, it does mean that no sooner have you begun sympathising with a character then they are killed off. And then characters mentioned in passing several chapters earlier appear and occupy centre-stage in the narrative. It’s not like it’s even focused on a particular family, even over several generations, which would limit its cast and make it more manageable. It is actually a about a community, spread across several steads, into which people from other steads, often distant, are married or adopted. It gives the narrative a meandering character, which certainly suggests the annals of a mediaeval Greenlandic community, but makes for a difficult read for those expecting a story. I can’t vouch for the verisimilitude or historical accuracy, although it seemed very like what it would have been like to me based on what little I know. It’s an excellent novel but it is, to be honest, a bit of a slog, and it’s hard to feel any real empathy with any of the characters given they don’t stay around very long. Worth reading, but with caveats.

The World of Null-A, AE van Vogt (1948, UK). This was a reread, although I forget when I originally read it, probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I’d always wanted to finish the trilogy – of which this is the first book – and last year stumbled across copies of The World of Null-A and The Players of Null-A at Fantasticon in Copenhagen and bought them (they were very very cheap, very very very cheap). I have all three books – in the nice NEL editions from the 1970s – and have had them for many years, but they’re in storage at present. Having found cheap copies of the first two, I thought it worth giving them a go. That was a mistake. I mean, I know what van Vogt’s fiction is like. I have, after all, read enough of it. Admittedly, that was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was a teenager. But every book I’ve read by him since I turned, say, thirty, has been awful – except perhaps rereads of the handful of his books I continue to think are not absolutely awful, such as The Undercover Aliens. Gilbert Gosseyn is in the city to take part in the Games, in which thousands participate, all overseen by a giant computer brain. Players are given jobs depending on how far they reach in the Games. But it turns out Gosseyn’s life is a complete lie – someone has implanted memories in him that are simply not true. And given that on the night before the Games start all laws in the city are temporarily rescinded and people lock themselves away in groups for safety… but Gosseyn’s identity can’t be established so he’s forced out onto the streets, where he meets a young woman and the two look out for each other… But it turns out she’s the daughter of the president, and it’s all a plot as the president is trying to destroy the giant computer brain, because there’s some secret galactic empire that wants to invade the earth… And Gosseyn was more or less grown to order to foil the secret galactic empire’s plans because… he has two brains! Or is it minds? I forget. And all this is wrapped around some guff about non-Aristotelian, or “null-A”, logic, which seems to be basically non-binary logic, or fuzzy logic. But, of course, binary logic is for computers, not people, so it’s not entirely clear what van Vogt is going on about. But then, that’s true of a lot of Golden Age science fiction: it’s complete bollocks, written by people who had no idea what the fuck they were wittering on about, but it managed to impress the shit out of poorly-socialised thirteen year old boys. And from such was a genre born. The really scary part of all this is not that the writers actually believed the shit they were peddling, or even that some were quite cynical about it – hello Elron and that evil “religion” you invented! – but that many adult fans were just as impressionable as those thirteen year olds. Van Vogt famously based his writing on the advice given by a how to write book – and there’s another genre entirely dependent on gullibility – chief among which was that scenes should be 800 words long and end on a cliff-hanger. Van Vogt took this advice, well, literally. And reading his books is like watching a magician pull a series of increasingly unlikely series of creatures out of a hat when you actually turned up to see a drag queen lipsynch the hits of Rihanna. I connected with a few of van Vogt’s novels as a young teenager, which mistakenly led me to believe he was an author whose oeuvre I should explore. And during the 1970s and 1980s, I bought and read his books. They were readily available in WH Smith during that period. But reading his books now, nearly forty years later… I’m slightly embarrassed at having been taken in all those years ago. He was an appalling writer, and the level of his success is mystifying. That people continue to champion him tells you more about them than, well, you really want to know. He’s a lot like Asimov in that respect. Although, to my knowledge, he was not a serial sexual harasser; but who knows… there were a lot of really fucking horrible people, fans and pros, in the first few decades of US science fiction – google the Breendoggle – and even now the recent death of an author popular since the 1980s has seen an outpouring of appreciation that conveniently forgets he was last “famous” for some sexist articles in the SFWA Bulletin that saw the entire organisation re-structured and its newsletter revamped. But that’s an argument for another day, and not one for a review of a van Vogt novel. The World of Null-A is typical van Vogt and really quite bad. This is not surprising. One for fans of van Vogt, I suspect. And if you’re a fan of van Vogt, I can only ask… why?

Murder Served Cold, Eric Brown (2018, UK). Crime fiction, bizarrely, is likely more technology-dependent than science fiction. The mobile phone has, for example, pretty much killed half of the standard crime novel plots… And who needs private detectives when you have the internet? Which makes it more difficult to come up with interesting stories for current-day crime or mystery novels. So some writers have chosen to write historical mysteries, and so bypass the issue. Such as these by Eric Brown, the Langham and Duprée series, which are set during the 1950s. As a conceit, it works fine, and Brown handles the period extremely well. But… Well, it does seem all a bit cosily familiar. I mean, it’s not “chocolate-box England” by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly a time and place that has been extensively colonised –  particularly by those who were present during that time and place – although not always with fictions that gave any real indication of what the period was actually like. The advantage of a series such as  Brown’s is that it offers twenty-first century commentary on 1950’s sensibilities, and it’s to this series’s credit that it judges the mix to a nicety. This book, the sixth of the series, sees the protagonists investigating the theft of an expensive painting at a country house, which then leads to murder. The crimes are solved relatively easily, but what makes Murder Served Cold (the titles are a joke that has overrun its course) more interesting than others of its type is that it comments intelligently on social mores of the time. It’s the secondary characters who carry the meat of the story, and that strikes me as something a lot of crime writers with flagship characters seem to forget. Brown uses his story to discuss a variety of topics that were around in the 1950 but still reflect on twenty-first century society. It’s a clever trick, and it works well – although I suspect not all readers will recognise what’s going on. The protagonists’ politics, for example, is diametrically opposed to that of their client, and while relations remain amicable there is political commentary in there. It’s nice to see a 1950s-set novel with a 21st century spin. I mean, there were lots of excellent novels written and published in the 1950s, but there are a lot of 21st century novels set in the 1950s which do little to engage with the mores and politics of that time. I hope this series continues.

Mission Critical, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (2019, UK). Strahan is something of an anthology engine. For the past decade and more, he has been churning them out with impressive frequency. When people look back on the first two decades of the twenty-first century, their view of science fiction may well be defined by Strahan’s anthologies. Certainly a similar process has taken place in previous decades with other editors. In the main, Strahan’s editorial work has been excellent – and that includes the collections he has edited for authors. Strahan edited the New Space Opera series of anthologies, which did much to define a subgenre that had been bent out of shape several times since its origin. In Mission Critical, Strahan attempts to tackle hard sf and the anthology’s strapline is “from our world, across the Solar System, and out into deep space to tell the stories of people who had to do the impossible”… but the contents don’t actually match this. There are some big names in the book, and it’s hard not to suspect their stories were accepted because of their names even though they weren’t quite on topic. True, names sell anthologies, but themes are a waste of time if they’re ignored because a BNA wrote a story that didn’t fit. I don’t know this, obviously. It’s just that some of the stories feel like they’re stretching the brief beyond breaking point. As it is, Mission Critical proves sadly forgettable. I can’t actually remember any of the stories in the anthology, and that’s a month after I read it. I look at the table of contents, and if I  remember the story it’s because it’s linked to a universe the author has used in other fiction – Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story, for example, reads like an offcut from her novel Dark Orbit, and while I’m a huge fan of her fiction this didn’t feel like a new and exciting entry in the universe. The way Mission Critical has been promoted, I was expecting near-future hard sf – and there’s Allen Steele, who writes exactly that, there on the TOC, even though I think he’s pretty poor – but then you have a Xuya story from Aliette de Bodard, and she’s good but how in fuck does a Xuya story qualify as “near-future hard sf?” So, a mixed bag… that comprehensively fails its brief and likely succeeds best the further (de Bodard) from its brief (Steele) it is. Anthologies these days are a waste of space. They’ll only work if they’re cheap enough to be offered as tasters. Shelling out the same amount as you would for a novel for a dozen short stories of variable quality and even more variable appeal is a mug’s game.

Hereward, James Wilde (2011, UK). Hereward the Wake is an English hero, so it’s somewhat surprising he’s not been dragged out of obscurity in these days of Brexit. Oh wait, he was fighting against the King of England. But no! The king was a foreign invader, William the Bastard of Normandy! Perfect material, you’d have thought. Unless it might offend the Queen, she is after all nominally descended from William the Conqueror. Or maybe it’s the institution, the British Throne, that should never be attacked. I don’t know. Brexiteers are just plain stupid, so who knows what goes through those defunct cells in their skulls. Hereward opens with its eponymous hero on the run after being accused by his father of the murder of his wife. It’s all to do with the successor to Edward the Confessor, who had no heirs. Hereward overheard something which jeopardised plans to put Harold, Duke of Wessex, on the throne after Edward. Hereward escapes to the Continent and spends many years as mercenary working for Flemish noblemen. But William the Bastard’s invasion pulls him back home – William’s sobriquet might refer to his birth, but is apparently an accurate representation of his character – where Hereward becomes something of a guerrilla, harrying the Norman occupiers. It’s an interesting period of history – only a thousand years ago! – with some fascinating historical characters, and Wilde handles his… information well. But the book is written in that commercial prose style that relies heavily on cliché and stock phraseology, and it turns what could have been an interesting commentary on English identity into an historical potboiler. True, that’s slamming the book for not being what it had no intention of being, although for me it would have made it a better read. Wilde’s research is spot-on, and evokes the period well, but for me the prose was just too commercial. Disappointing.

Paris Echo, Sebastian Faulks (2018, UK). I read Birdsong twenty years ago – I forget why I decided to do so – and I’ve sort of followed Faulks’s career ever since, possibly because his books were available in the subscription library I joined on my move to Abu Dhabi in 1994 and his name was familiar from Birdsong. None of his novels have matched that one, and in fact many have been disappointing in one way or another. But, as British middle-brow literary fiction authors go, he’s at least better than Ian McEwan. Paris Echo is middling Faulks. It presents an interesting slice of history – Paris under the Nazis – and comments on collaboration and its impact on people and families of the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer much in the way of plot as a substrate for this discussion, and in fact seems more concerned with the intersection of the lives of two immigrants in Paris, a female American academic and a teenage Moroccan who has had himself smuggled into the country, than the actual story the characters are intended to be springboards for. But the Maghrebi teenager’s experiences  are all very anodyne, and the US academic is a bit of a blank slate, and the two narratives run along side each other but do not influence each other to any degree which sort of renders it all a bit moot. There’s some good historical stuff in here, but there’s sadly little in the way of plot and the two protagonists are somewhat thin. Faulks has written some good stuff during his career, but this is not one of them.

Children of Dune, Frank Herbert (1976, USA). The reread of the Dune series continues, and now that I’ve finished the Children of Dune I have the somewhat daunting prospect of God Emperor of Dune next on the list. To be fair, I remember enjoying that book on previous reads. But it is big. Children of Dune, however… follows on directly from Dune Messiah, but the two children born at the end of that book, Leto and Ghanima, are now nine years old. Herbert conceived all three books as one since he was interested in exploring how a messiah figure might bend a society out of shape and what might happen after the fall of said messiah. Despite claims to the contrary, I suspect the first book was conceived alone and the story arc of the trilogy imposed later. But certainly, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune follow a story arc that proceeds naturally from the end of Dune. Paul Atreides’s children are both the future of Paul’s empire – and the enemy of its current regent, Alia – and so a threat to all those who would wrest power from the Atreides. But Leto and Ghanima have their own plan for the future, the Golden Path, based in part on their vision of possible futures and what they think is best for humanity… It’s been interesting during this reread seeing what I find in the novel when compared to my memories of earlier reads. Leto’s transformation, which ends the book and sets up God Emperor of Dune, obviously. Plus Alia’s take-over – Abomination! – by the Baron Harkonnen. But in Dune Messiah, Paul Atreides, now the Preacher, had come across as something of a cipher, but here he is much better characterised. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are not so well-drawn. There’s lots of politicking going on, as one of the old emperor’s daughters arranges for the assassination of Leto and Ghanima so her son can take the throne. But the twins have foreseen it all and… well, one of things that does annoy about Children of Dune is that the two protagonists are nine years old but behave like adults (and not just in dialogue, since Leto experiences “an adult beefswelling in his loins” at one point, which is totally WTF but also, are there cows on Arrakis?). True, the twins are “Pre-born” so they have genetic memories going back generations – although it’s not really clear how they manage to stay sane, despite frequent attempts in the text to explain it. Herbert’s views on government are also extremely annoying – at one point, Leto states that good government “does not depend upon law or precedent, but upon the personal qualities of whoever governs” – it’s even repeated as part of a chapter heading  – which is complete bullshit; but exactly the sort of meretricious bullshit that science fiction fans and creators seem to believe, and have done since the genre’s beginnings. But then space opera is a right-wing mode of fiction, and even its left-leaning creators write the same tired old right-wing crap – which makes them little different to actual right-wing writers. Herbert was no Heinlein or Pournelle, of course, but he was American, so even if he was left-wing his politics would still be to the right of mine. Certainly, the whole Dune series is all about an authoritarian empire, with a rich and powerful nobility lording it over serfs, who have no freedom of movement (something Brits will shortly lose, and you have to wonder how many actually know what that means) – and if Herbert’s empire is not actually fascist, it does love its giant architecture, as both the Imperial Keep and Temple are apparently single buildings the size of small towns (they were built remarkably quickly, given their size). In fact, in Children of Dune, the furniture somewhat overwhelms the story. Clearly Herbert wanted his trappings of imperial rule to impress but it’s like the fleet of a million battleships – it’s too much, it just generates questions – practical questions (how did they build them? where did they get the crews?) – all of which detract from the intended effect. But that’s a common failing of space opera. Children of Dune closes off the original trilogy, but it struck me on this reread that, although it’s a better put-together book than Dune, with better prose, Children of Dune‘s story detracts from the first book’s universe and story… Not, it has to be said, in an especially damaging way, since most people don’t even bother to read the sequels. Their loss, of course; and those who actually liked Dune, it makes you wonder why they even bother reading novels that start series… I’m undecided about Children of Dune, and the final shape of the trilogy, but I’m looking forward to reading God Emperor of Dune.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2019, #12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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100 books, part 4

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

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

Which brings us to…

The 2000s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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