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Reading diary 2020, #14

There has been an entirely predictable second wave here in Uppsala. It wasn’t predictable simply because the rest of Europe is suffering a second wave, but predictable because Uppsala is a ghost town during the summer and now all the students are back. The same has happened to university cities in the UK. The majority of the new cases reported here by the Akademiska Sjukhus have been students. As a result, slightly tighter restrictions have been imposed, which means my employers have closed the office and I’m once again working from home. And it looks like that might now be until the New Year, given a recent ban by the government – and this is an actual law, not advice from Folkhälsomyndigheten (people’s health authority) – of public gatherings of more than eight people.

Personally, I prefer working in an office. It creates a better separation of work and, well, not-work. Which, understandably, means that that when I work from home, not-work suffers. Such as writing blog posts. I spend all day on the sofa doing database things, so once I sign off from the company VPN I prefer to do stuff that doesn’t require creativity – in other words, reading, or watching films. Also, spending all day on the sofa is not good for my back.

But on with the relatively recent reads…

The Dollmaker, Nina Allan (2019, UK). Of the handful of genre writers to gain attention in the UK in the past decade, Nina Allan is certainly one of the better ones. At a prose level, she’s an excellent writer, but I’ve never been quite convinced by the way she puts her stories together. They’re very clever, and they make smart use of genre conventions while, at the same time, exploring or even subverting those same conventions. But, to my mind, at times, it all feels a bit forced. Allan’s writing is driven by effect, rather than allowing effect to be a consequence of story. Which is not to say it doesn’t result in a good read. But when the two finally align, Allan will produce something really notable. For the time-being, we have only the merely good. The Dollmaker is less overtly genre than other Allan works, if not explicitly not genre. The title refers to a man of short stature who is an expert on dolls and makes them for a living. He is corresponding with a fellow doll collector currently resident in sanatorium on Bodmin Moor. He decides to visit her unannounced, despite not being entirely sure about her situation. She sends him a short story collection by a Polish writer and doll-maker she has been researching. He reads the collection as he travels south, and the stories he reads are reproduced in The Dollmaker. Which is, I think, where The Dollmaker begins to unravel. Two of the writer’s stories were previously published by Allan (in 2010 and 2012), which explicitly means there’s little or no literary ventriloquism happening here. And I think there needs to be when a writer is as centred as this one in a novel.

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). This volume includes ‘Like a Sniper Lining Up his Shot’ and ‘Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell’, both of which I already own as Fantagraphics graphic novels, so I’m somewhat mystified by the need for this book. True, they’re excellent stories… but they’d already been published. Equally annoying, Fantagraphics have now released both Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder volumes in a boxed set. So, Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2 is of limited value if you’ve been following Fantagraphic’s publication of Tardi’s works. Otherwise, it’s a good intro to his work. Well, their work, as it’s explicitly Tardi’s adaptations of Manchette’s novels. I’m not familiar with the novels, but if the stories here are any indication they’re pretty brutal. And Tardi’s art can border on gruesome in places. This is not the noir of Nouvelle Vague films. Recommended.

The Hour of the Thin Ox, Colin Greenland (1987, UK). I’ve been a fan of Greenland’s writing for many years, especially the Plenty books and Harm’s Way. He was very active throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as a critic, an editor of Interzone, and a writer, but his last published novel was Finding Helen in 2002. Which is a shame. The Hour of the Thin Ox is one of three literary fantasies, the Daybreak trilogy, he published in the 1980s. I don’t actually recall if they’re set in the same universe – I suspect yes, if only because they’re lumped together as a trilogy. Anyway, in The Hour of the Thin Ox, the heir to a wealthy merchant family in Bryland finds her fortunes so diminished she ends up joining the army to fight the empire invading the countries to the north. This is not a novel that would really pass muster in 2020. It’s well written, but there’s an uncomfortable thread of orientalism running throughout the story, with its emphasis on the Far-East-inspired Escalans and their drive to expand and assimilate other nations and cultures. The second half of the novel takes place in a jungle region, partly conquered by the Escalans, but they’re in the process of killing off its indigenes. The Brylander now leads a small guerrilla group against the Escalan invaders. And, of course, the indigenes are neither as savage nor as primitive as the Escalans insist. The story seemed like it was going somewhere with its jungle warfare plot, but other than a big set-piece, it more or less petered out. A novel that felt like it was part of a larger series and not a complete instalment, despite being well written with some effective world-building.

All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). A Locus review by Gary K Wolfe claims this is a collection of all of Blumlein’s fiction, which is not true. If anything, it’s a collection of his less obviously genre short fiction, although most of it was actually previously published in genre venues. It does indeed contain some of the stories also in What The Doctor Ordered (2013, USA), but with four additional ones – ‘Bloom’, ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’, ‘Success’ and ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’, but they appeared in Interzone, F&SF and Asimov’s SF, and ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’ is original to this collection. Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, and I’ve championed his works whenever I could, but we lost him last year to cancer, and I can only be grateful he was held in high enough regard that pretty much all of his short fiction output has been collected over the years. His novels, however, are mostly out of print, and have been for a long time. The stories in All I Ever Dreamed are not heartland sf, and one or two hew closer to dark fantasy than science fiction. The three novellas are probably the strongest works. ‘The Roberts’ is available separately from Tachyon Publications, and is typical of Blumlein’s work: dense, intense and set somewhere at the intersection of science and technology and human relationships. ‘Success’, on other hand, does not use science and technology to fix a relationship, but to comment on it. The third novel sees three women, all named for flowers, each involved with a man, for better or for worse, on a desert island. There’s almost no obvious genre content, but the way the three narratives reflect on each other is cleverly done. Blumlein was a singular talent in science fiction, and there were, and are, few genre writers of his generation who matched his level of thoughtful rigour.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, Russia). This book was written between 1920 and 1921 but not published until 1924 – in English. The USSR authorities may have seen it as a commentary on themselves. I wonder why. To be fair, it’s hardly subtle. But this is the 1920s, and science fiction didn’t do subtle in those days. The idea of a unifying state state can hardly be said to be Zamyatin’s invention – insects beat him to it, for one thing – but certainly We influenced a number of later works, and even arguably created an entire subgenre. The problem with said subgenre, however, is that it magnifies the fears and sensibilities of the writer, without actually making any kind of cohesive argument either for or against the society described in the book. David Karp’s One is a good example: most Americans will read it as a dystopia, most Europeans with read it as a utopia. We‘s United State is a state regimented to the nth degree, to such an extent the plot is pretty much narrator D-503 discovering he has a “soul” and the changes in perspective and sensibility that wreaks on him. It’s triggered by his relationship with a woman who clearly is not a typical state drone, and even on occasion dresses up in “old-fashioned” clothing like dresses. Unfortunately, the book is all a bit over-wrought, with excessive use of ellipses, and references to “ancient times” that are clearly the time of writing, as if there were no history between the novel’s present and the 1920s. I can see how it’s a seminal and influential work, but it’s not an enjoyable read and I’d sooner stick to works without such fevered prose. Most certainly an historical document, and important in that respect, but don’t read it for pleasure.


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Reading diary 2020, #13

I remember once upon a time I used to read good books. Something seems to have gone wrong. The Chandler wasn’t bad, and the Cho managed a fair fist of its setting, but the rest were pretty bad. True, my expectations were not high for the Jordan – I’d thought it terrible the first time I read it twenty years ago… although it did seem to be much worse than I remembered it. The Farmer – also a reread, although I’ve no memory of reading it before – was also shit.

Spook Street, Mick Herron (2017, UK). As a writer, you often wonder if it’s possible to tell a story using completely unlikeable characters. But then you grow up and realise no reader is interested in a story involving characters who repel them. Unless you’re Mick Herron. In this installment, a suicide bomber kills a bunch of teens in a shopping mall and then one of the Slough House agents is murdered, and the dead agent’s grandfather, the “Old Bastard”, an ex-MI5 bigwig, goes missing… and it’s all to do with a rogue CIA agent who set up a secret school in France to raise kids as terrorists and everyone is surprised when they turn out to be terrorists… The Slough House books do not score well on plausibility when it comes to their plots, but this one is even less believable than the ones preceding it. Herron seems keen to depict MI5 as a bunch of criminals – although he lavishes real contempt on Tory politicians – but his so-called heroes are all unlikeable incompetents. Sigh. The first book in the series is possibly worth a go, but the sequels are entirely missable.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis (1963, USA). This is one of those rare cases where I’ve seen the film – several times – before I read the book. And the film isn’t exactly a faithful adaptation. It covers the main points, but the movie is very much about its visuals and the book is just a bog-standard early 1960s sf novel that’s actually set in the early 1960s. Which at least means mean wearing hats is plausible. The title character is Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from Anthea – implied to be Mars – who has infiltrated Earth – ie, the US – in order to save his home world. He introduces technological innovations from his planet and so makes a vast fortune, which he uses to build a spaceship. But the government are suspicious and eventually arrest him. The CIA uncover his secret, but they keep it from the FBI, who bungle their investigation and blind Newton. The point of the book is that Newton is discovered. And despite a long list of technological innovations introduced by Newton, the government still manages to fuck things up. I’m surprised this was considered a shocking perspective in 1963, especially in the US, a nation famous for its distrust of its government (to be fair, for good reason). But the idea of an alien not being an actual evil invader seems to have struck US sf fans as something, well, entirely novel. Seriously? That says more about US sf fandom than it does this book. Which is otherwise ordinary, and you would be better off watching the film as it’s more rewarding.

Lord of Chaos, Robert Jordan (1994, USA). I’d say this is where the rot sets in, but given the how the series was put together, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. This is, after all, the sixth novel of a series that was intended to be ten volumes long, but that length wasn’t decided until after the second volume… You can just imagine how the conversation went – RJ: it’s three books. Publisher: make it one. Publisher (later): it’s going really well, we’ve sold loads, how does ten books sound? RJ (Ker-ching!): Shit shit fuck fuck fuck. RJ (later): this ten book thing is not working out, can we make it a few more? Publisher (ker-ching!): no problemo. It doesn’t help that the title of this book is a title assigned to series hero Rand Al’Thor that has never been mentioned before. Because, of course, why would it? Jordan only invented it when he set out to write this installment. Meanwhile we have the rest of the cast doing exactly what they did at the end of the last book. With added recaps. Lots of fucking recaps. If, perhaps, we’d not read the preceding five books, these might be useful. But we have! Because who the fuck starts reading a fantasy series at volume six? And, if we had, Jordan explains what happened in the preceding five volumes. Several times. I seem to remember from my prior read back in the late 1990s that book seven was where things started to go downhill, but I’d thought book six, Lord of Chaos, was one of the last good ones. Only, it turns out it’s the first of the bad ones. Although, to be fair, that term is relative. I have this desire to complete the Wheel of Time, and there’s no way I’m going to do that based on my readings of the books from the 1990s. So I have to reread them all. It’s proving, entirely predictably, easier said than done. Sadly.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia). I should have been on this like, well, like really quickly, since it is after all a fantasy set in Regency England and I’m a big fan of Georgette Heyer (and, more recently, Alice Chetwynd Ley). But I am not, to be fair, a fan of Regency fantasy. It’s not a large genre – unless you include timeslip romances – and most examples I’ve read have not been especially good, mostly because they’ve been by US authors who haven’t quite understood Regency England (at least not to the extent it convinces an experienced Heyer reader), and while I have mostly positive memories of Sorcery & Cecelia, that was a) pretty much the first Regency fantasy, b) an epistolary novel, and c) I read it a long time ago and would reread it except it’s now in storage. Anyway. Anyway. Zen Cho is not an English author, but has lived and worked in the UK for a number of years and so is to all intents and purposes an English author. If Sorcerer to the Crown falls over sometimes in terms of its Regency prose, that’s a failure of craft – Cho knows the period inside-out, that much is clear – and Regency diction can be a little convoluted at the best of times. Having said that, not everything in the plot actually adds up. Britain’s magic has been decreasing, and the witches of Bandar Jaik are partly responsible, but the decrease predates their involvement and is never explained. But Sorcerer to the Crown is more concerned about the race of its title character, the emancipated son of slaves, who takes the title of the, er, title under mysterious circumstances, and his colour of course makes him a number of enemies as well. I wanted to like this book, and I did like it – but I have caveats: the plotting needed to be more rigorous, some of it doesn’t quite add up, and the Regency prose slips on occasion. Heyer, this is not; but then its sensibilities are twenty-first-century and that’s definitely a plus over Heyer. I understand a sequel appeared last year. I would definitely read it. Oh, and apparently there are two sequels to Sorcery & Cecelia, which I didn’t know.

The Long Good-bye, Raymond Chandler (1954). I was introduced to Chandler through my father, who had a collection of his books in Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s. Chandler has always been there for me as an early writer of crime fiction, certainly more so than Dorothy L Sayers or Nicholas Blake or Margery Allingham. So my knowledge of early crime fiction is more California noir than English aristocratic sleuths. The Long Good-bye is a well-known title by Chandler, as well as a movie set in the 1970s starring Elliott Gould. I like Chandler’s fiction. I think he’s over-rated – or rather, I think his influence on the genre is greater than he deserved. But I do like his books. One of the things I like is his certitude. Chandler was certain about everything he wrote and how he wrote it. I’m amused by the fact he despised Philo Vance of SS Van Dine’s hugely successful novels, and can only imagine his ire was stoked by Vance, and by extension Van Dine, clearly being gay. Marlowe was, of course, famously a womaniser, and all of Chandler’s novels are predicated on Chandler’s relationship with a woman. Which is not, surprisingly, how The Long Good-bye opens. Marlowe makes friends with a man, and helps the man escape justice when he brutally murders his wife. But then the murderer is murdered in Mexico… But Marlowe never believed he was guilty, and never believed the account of his suicide was legit. Throw in a California millionaire (what would be a billionaire now), a literary writer who found success as a writer of historical best-sellers but despises himself and has hit the bottle big time, and the writer’s manipulative wife… This is classic Chandler, but it’s also a book that doesn’t go where you expect it to. If you have to read a Chandler novel, it’s a good one to choose. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s especially typical of the Marlowe novels. You might as well read a couple of them. You won’t regret it.

The Day of Timestop, Philip José Farmer (1960, USA). I had it in my mind Farmer was one of those off-beat sf authors of the 1960s and 1970s who never scored big but produced interesting work nonetheless. We’ve all heard of Riverworld, and despite a reread a few years ago of To Your Scattered Bodies Go not exactly impressing, the concept seems to be “high” enough to keep interest in Farmer’s works alive. Sadly, his reputation doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. I’d previously read The Day of Timestop under the title A Woman a Day, because it was also republished by Beacon Books under that title, and I have the Beacon Books edition. Which I’ve not actually read yet – and, of course, it’s currently in storage. So, anyway, I bought the SF Gateway edition as it was cheap, but I was still robbed because this book is really bad. More than a thousand years in the future, after much of humanity was wiped out, the world has split into three main blocs – the religious Haijac Union, the Israeli Republics (because a US author has to promote Israel, even if he’s not Jewish) and I forget what the third one was. Oh, and Marcher, a neutral state in west Europe. The story takes place in the Haijac Union, specifically in Paris, where a Marcher agent has infiltrated the Haijac Union to the highest level – he’s a lamech-man, ie, beyond reproach, beyond suspicion, incorruptible, so pretty much how Tories see themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, you know, like letting kids starve over Christmas – but then Tories are scum – and while Farmer sets up his  world with economy, it makes zero sense, and the plot which follows on from it makes even less. There’s a woman who’s an alien because she has some sort of organic battery wired to her vagina (really!), but then it turns out she’s not an alien. And there are some Bantu who have been literally whitewashed – “depigmentized” (really!) – and they’re some weird sort of hippy Christians, and the initials “JC” seem to refer to half a dozen messiahs – and the title actually refers to one of them, who is supposed to return from his time-travelling on the “Day of Timestop” to trigger Rapture for everyone in the Haijac Union. Everything in this book is wrong – the ideas are complete nonsense, the sensibilities are all over the place and not in a good way, the prose is functional at best, and if the story doesn’t go where you expect it to that’s because Farmer probably didn’t know himself where he was going. A book to avoid.


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Reading diary 2020, #12

Bit of a cheat this post, as two of the books are graphic novels – well, bandes dessinées. But both are from series I’ve been following. Also here is the third book of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which I am no longer enjoying but I bought six of the damn things so I’ll work my way through them, FFS. Who knows, they might improve. Tremain I used to read when I lived in the UAE, and I decided to start reading her again a couple of years ago. Tom Toner I’ve met several times at conventions – we’ve even been on a few panels together – but I’d never read any of his fiction, and last year his debut novel was only 99p on Kindle. Whitely has been getting a lot of critical acclaim in the UK the last few years. Her career is almost textbook… for the 1990s. A decade of short stories in genre magazines, then some novellas and novels from small presses… Next step, a major imprint. While I don’t particularly like the type of genre fiction she writes, there’s no denying she has strong writing chops, and it’s heartening to see writers can still achieve success by actually following an actual career path and not being held up as the Next Best Thing because they happen to be on-message with the fad du jour.

Real Tigers, Mick Herron (2016, UK). While the first book in this series, Slow Horses, was a good, if somewhat off-beat, spy thriller, and the second, Dead Lions, occasionally came close to jumping the shark, Real Tigers hurdles that fish with abandon. Lamb’s PA, Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, once used as a smokescreen by MI5’s biggest traitor, has been kidnapped. And it’s all because the kidnappers want access to MI5’s “grey files”, where all the nutjob stuff – UFOs, lizard Royals, Brexit’s benefits, QAnon – is recorded, and also where the current head of MI5 hid some compromising material. All this leads to a 007-like raid on an underground archive and a pitched battle between a security company’s wannabe mercenaries, actual ex-SAS kidnappers, and Jackson Lamb’s bully boys (ex-members of that MI5 department that kicks in doors, you know, just like Special Branch, except it never gets mentioned in the news because, well, Special Branch usually does it). The Herron books score well on characterisation, unfortunately all of the characters are unlikeable shits. And as the books progress, and those characters display yet more exceptional skills, then the fact they’ve been sent into the outer darkness, AKA Slough House, seems increasingly unlikely. Herron also has a really annoying writing tic, in which the prose steps back and does this hyper-observant, and yet snide, omniscient POV which speculates on what the purported observer might see. It’s over-used. I’m hoping the next book, Spook Street, will be better than this one.

The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain (2016, UK). I read several books by Tremain when I lived in Abu Dhabi, and might even have read one or two before I moved there, and found her an excellent prose stylist, perhaps more interesting at short story length than novel length. A couple of years ago, I decided to reconnect with her oeuvre. That went quite well. So it’s fortunate I didn’t pick The Gustav Sonata at that time. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s a good one. But when I look at all the admiring reviews of The Gustav Sonata, all I see is reviewers finding something in the novel that doesn’t, well, exist. The title refers to a boy who grows up in a small unimportant town in post-war Switzerland. His mother has never emotionally bonded with him, and his father lost his prestigious position as assistant police chief after helping Jews fleeing the Nazis. Gustav makes friends with a delicate and musically-talented Jewish boy whose family have recently moved to the town, an affluent family in direct contrast to the straitened circumstances now experienced by Gustav’s family. Gustav tries to provided emotional support to Anton during his piano competitions, but nerves get the better of Anton. The story then jumps back to the early years of Gustav’s parents, but since we never learn who shops his father to the authorities, there seems little point. And finally, the book leaps ahead to Gustav’s and Anton’s forties. Gustav runs a well-regarded small hotel in the town, and still burns a torch for Anton. Who is now a music teacher at a prestigious local school and has obviously never thought about Gustav in that way. Anton is offered the chance to record some piano sonatas – and in a recording studio his nervousness before audiences is irrelevant. And that’s pretty much it. Several interconnected relationships, some of which are left unrequited, some of which are temporary, but all of which have some small impact on those involved. It all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. I will admit that classical music, of whatever kind, as a motif in fiction leaves me completely cold. I know nothing about it and it does not appeal to me. And yet vast swathes of literary fiction seem to treat is as the only genre of music in existence. Where’s the literary fiction about death metal? prog? bubblegum pop? It’s either classical music or, if the author is being really edgy, punk. Disappointment.

Orbital 8: Contacts, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2019, France). This is the second book of the fourth story featuring the mixed human-Sandjarr law enforcement/troubleshooter team of Caleb and Mezoke. The Neuronomes, alien living spaceships, have been launching suicide attacks on Confederation population centres. It’s up to Mezoke and Caleb, now renegades, to uncover why… and it’s all to do with something that’s attacking the original home world of the race which turned themselves into the Neuronomes millennia previously. I like this series, chiefly because it looks good and the world-building is interesting; but the plotting leaves a little to be desired. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it’s so frantic, with a couple of panels of exposition followed by several pages of chase scenes. It makes for somewhat uneven pacing. I have no idea how many more books there’ll be in this series, but given Mezoke is lost at the end of this volume, I’m guessing at least two more…

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Volume 1, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). While Tardi has produced a number of original bandes dessinées, he has also adapted several stories and novels by French thriller writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has even tried adapting a couple, but given up after a few pages. This is the first volume of two which publish those complete and incomplete adaptations. The two completes here are ‘West Coast Blues’ (which was also published as a separate volume in 2009 by Fantagraphics, and which I own) and ‘Griffu’. Both are French noir, which is to say American noir but with added existentialism. In ‘Griffu’, a private detective finds himself embroiled in a plot with developers and gangsters. There’s not much in the way of wisecracks, but everything else is there. It’s surprisingly brutal. ‘West Coast Blues’ is equally brutal. An executive finds himself the target of two hitmen through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to kill one, more by accident than design, then runs away from his family and hides out for months in the French Alps, before being tracked down by the surviving hitman. I’ve been picking up these Tardi volumes published by Fantagraphics as they appear, and they’re definitely worth collecting.

The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner (2015, UK). Titles are important when it comes to books, especially genre books, and I’m really not convinced The Promise of the Child works as a title for a space opera novel. The only clue here to the book’s contents – other than the fact it’s published by a genre imprint – is the cover art, which is sort of vaguely Banksian and does far more to position the novel than its title. And The Promise of the Child is indeed Banksian space opera… mashed up with Warhammer 40k. I’m still unsure what to make of it. There are three types of novel – single narrative, multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is clear, and multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is not clear. (There are more than three types of novel, of course.) In the distant future of The Promise of the Child – the 140th century – a few hundred thousand achieved immortality in the twenty-first century, and those that have survived the following twelve thousand years are now known as the Amaranthine. They rule several star systems and live in hollowed-out planets known as Vaulted Lands. There are also a confusing number of human derivatives, some of which serve the Amarathine, some of which are allied with the Amaranthine, and some of which are independent and somewhat hostile to the Amaranthine. The oldest living human is made emperor of the Amaranthine, but the current incumbent has descended into senility. The appearance of a mysterious figure who claims to be older than anyone else alive – and many of the oldest Amaranthine seem to sort of remember him – has upset the current succession. As has the invention of the Shell, or Soul Engine, a mysterious device which appears to bring people back from the dead. Several narratives run alongside each other, with no seeming connection between them, until the final set-piece, a giant battle. There’s a lot here that doesn’t quite add up – a plot that features too many reverses to easily follow, one narrative that goes from bucolic romance to racist violence without any grounding in the world-building, and an opening act of destruction that is never really justified by the story. I will say I didn’t see the final reveal coming at all, and it was an excellent twist, and clearly sets up the rest of the trilogy. And I did like the prose, which was much better than is typical of space opera… But I couldn’t get on with the Warhammer 40k aesthetics, the steampunk magic technology, and the massively high body-count. I doubt I will read the sequels.

Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK). Whitely is clearly a singular talent, and I’m happy her star is currently in the ascendant – not just because she is a female UK genre writer, a group that can never be too big, but also because she seems to have followed a fairly traditional career path. Short stories published in UK small press magazines. Then pro mags. Then books published by small presses. And now the big league. Except not really – Skein Island was published by Titan Books, but her next book, Greensmith, is due from a small press. Whitely certainly has writing chops, and I am all for writers who are known for their writing rather than their world-building. But the latter is not something Whitely will ever be praised for because she writes a sort of unsettling soft fantasy that relies on subtle changes to the real world. It doesn’t always work for me. I am, by temperament, a hard sf reader, and I value rigour in stories. Whitely does write rigorous stories but that rigour follows her own rules – and when those rules are revealed in the text, it works; and when they’re not, I find it less successful. Skein Island falls into the former category. The Fates – or rather, the single mythical figure on which they were based, called Moira – has been imprisoned, as a statue, and so controlled. Water filtered through her is given away in pubs as part of a game involving cubes of four colours – red , blue, green and yellow. Which refer to hero, sidekick, sage and villain. The four roles men play out in that pub game. But only when Moira is safely imprisoned. Once she is released, as she is, men start following their archetypal roles. It’s not an entirely convincing scenario, but Whitely gives it a viable history and is rigorous in its effects on society. Whitely is definitely a name to watch, and this novel made it clear why.


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Reading diary 2020, #11

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. Not sure why. I’ve enjoyed the last few books I’ve read by North, so she’s a safe read. Herron had been recommended to me several times by various people, and the first six books were a daily deal at 99p each, so I bought them. The Roanhorse was part of the 2019 Hugo Voters Pack, and I finally got around to reading it.

The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK). To me, the phrase “high concept” feels like it should apply to some profound and intellectually challenging premise around which a novel or film is based, when in fact it just means you can reduce a work’s plot to a simple easily-understood sound-bite. North writes “high concept” sf novels, and yet she manages to put together complex stories based around her “sound-bite” premises. And her plots are buttressed by well-used and extensive research. Her prose has an authority few of her contemporaries can match – and that includes hard sf writers who at least have the laws of physics and known cosmology to underpin their stories. The Pursuit of William Abbey is, ostensibly, framed as a story told by a doctor to a nurse in a casualty clearance station during World War I. She had noticed his suspicious behaviour regarding a particular patient – a young officer who has lost both his legs – and after she quizzes the doctor, he tells her his story. Abbey, the doctor, was cursed during the Boer War when he failed to prevent the murder of a young black man. The murdered man’s shadow now follows him and, when the shadow is close, Abbey can read “truth” directly from a person’s mind. But should the shadow catch up with him, then someone he loves will die. The British Empire has realised the usefulness of people who can read truth from others, and Abbey is press-ganged as a spy. But the British Empire wants to control this ability, and has been experimenting – deliberately “cursing” people with shadows, then lobotomising them and turning them into “truth machines”. The young officer is the son of the man driving the programme. This is the fate they have planned for Abbey. North has taken a fantasy premise and treated it as rigorously as science fiction, but based around a plot inspired by the Great Game (as in Kim). This is good stuff. North is definitely on my list of authors whose latest books I buy.

Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner (1948, USA). There are writers whose works you admire and enjoy, there are writers whose works you enjoy, and there are writers whose works you admire. Faulkner definitely falls into the last category. His novels – and I base this only on a sample of three – are far from easy reads but the writing is absolutely amazing. They’re modernist, and I do like me some modernism, and written in long run-on sentences in great blocks of text in something close to dialect, which makes them difficult to read, but also rewarding, although they’re mostly set in the American South, with all its overt racism, and poverty… The subjects don’t interest me, but the writing is so dazzling, so precise, it overcomes that. Like many people, when I wasn’t reading genre I read contemporary fiction, including exploring back-catalogues – Anthony Burgess, for example, was still being published when I first started reading him. But I’d never really tried reading authors who were active in the first half of the twentieth-century. Perhaps I’d been exposed to some of them at school and so reading them felt like “school work”. Which is not exactly true, as I read The Cruel Sea (1951) at prep school in 1978 or 1979, but in the 1990s sort of rediscovered Nicholas Montsarrat and became a fan of his novels. DH Lawrence’s fiction I’d previously avoided partly because my father was a huge fan (I didn’t feel a need to find something, such as an author we both liked, to connect with my father; we already had a good relationship). But I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover as part of a reading challenge ten years ago, loved it, and decided to explore Lawrence’s oeuvre further… As a result, partly inspired by my father’s collection of 1960s paperbacks, which included some Lawrence, but also also Malcolm Lowry, another writer I became a big fan of, and The Sound and the Fury and Intruder in the Dust, I discovered Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury blew me away. And if the novles by him I’ve read since have not been impressive, I have still found them amazingly written. I will certainly read more Faulkner – he has consistently proven an impressive, although difficult, read. Once, I’d have spent time – and money – tracking down good condition copies of the nice 1960s Penguin editions that match the two I inherited from my father. But these days, I think I’ll just go for the ebook editions. Faulkner is definitely an historical author worth reading.

Slow Horses & Dead Lions, Mick Herron (2010/2013, UK). These have come highly recommended, and I do like me some spy-fi – I’m a big fan of Anthony Price’s Audley/Butler novels, and I also highly recommend them – but Herron is no Price, and, even worse, his schtick does not really survive prolonged exposure. A “slow horse” is a resident of Slough House, which is an off-site office of MI5 where the failures and screw-ups are sent. The idea being that MI5 cannot actually fire them for their transgressions, so instead assigns them to Slough House in the hope that the shit work and drudgery performed there will persuade them to resign. All under the leadership of Jackson Lamb, a fat slob (described repeatedly in the first book as resembling “Timothy Spall gone to seed”, but apparently played by Gary Oldman in the upcoming TV adaptation), who has enough dirt on the current MI5 leadership to do what he wants. Which, fortunately, is not much. In Slow Horses, Lamb’s team inadvertently becomes involved in a plot by right-wing nutjobs to fake an online beheading of an Asian, but it all goes horribly wrong because too many people in the intelligence community have had a hand in creating the situation and their agendas are confusing everything. In Dead Lions, the same crew become involved when it looks like an old KGB sleeper network in the UK known to Lamb has been reactivated and it might have something to do with assassinating a Russian oligarch in London for secret talks with MI5… Herron nails the topical talking-points, but he peoples his novels with a cast of the most unlikable shits this side of the Conservative Party front benches, and it’s hard to care about them. Even Jackson Lamb is such a fucking throwback, you have to wonder why Herron thought he might be considered sympathetic. I don’t want to read stories peopled by arseholes. Especially people who are actually worse than those I meet in real life or on social media or who are running the UK government. Plus, the computing in these novels is complete bollocks. The hacker character is apparently so amazing he can hack “air-gapped” networks and if he were indeed as good as advertised, MI5 would keep him even if he were a completely self-deluded incel troll… which he is. But… unlikable characters, implausible plots… not a deal breaker, especially for a science fiction reader… But when the second book follows exactly the same pattern as the first book. And the third book does too… I’m sorry. I’ve got six of the fucking things to read, I’ve read three to date, and I’ll read the other three, but I can’t in all honesty recommend any but the first.

Total Eclipse, John Brunner (1974, UK). I’ve no idea why I bought this, and even less why I read it. Call it a whim. I’ve read perhaps half a dozen novels by Brunner over the years, and while he wrote some notable sf during his time I’ve never really felt a need to read him. He is, I suppose, a sort of British Silverberg. And, like Silverberg, he produced a handful of  highly-regarded works, a great many potboilers, and a number of solid science fiction novels. Total Eclipse falls into the last category. It’s a straightforward sf mystery, its plot almost a staple of the genre: humans colonise a long-dead world but, despite all their research, cannot figure out what killed off the world’s original inhabitants. Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is deteriorating and it’s no longer certain Earth’s one and only starship will return to Draco Pavonis on its next supply run. Cue a fevered attempt to understand what killed the planet’s indigenes, driven partly by desperation and partly by the arrival of a neuro-atypical archaeologist. Eventually, of course, they find out what happened, but it’s too late to save them. This is not a cheerful book. I liked it. I thought it made a good fist of its premise. The science seemed mostly convincing to me, although actual experts – remember those? people who have actually studied shit and know what it means – might be less forgiving of some aspects of the novel. Overall, it struck me as a solid piece of seventies UK sf.

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse (2018, USA). Roanhorse’s career has been nothing short of meteoric. Her first short story was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo, and won the former. She has written two short stories since, both for themed anthologies. Her first novel, this one, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award. It was followed by a sequel, Storm of Locusts, a year later, then a Star Wars novel, and a middle-grade fantasy from a Disney imprint. With a career path like that, you’d expect something amazing. So it’s a surprise to discover Trail of Lightning is, well, nothing special. It’s a bog standard urban fantasy but with Navajo mythology. Yes, the latter is interesting, and it’s good to see something other than the usual suspects used for world-building. But there’s little else in the book that isn’t entirely cliché. The narrator, Maggie, kills monsters, is emotionally damaged after her relationship with her mentor, a Navajo immortal, imploded, drives a 1970s pickup truck, fetishises over her weapons, and basically gets the entire plot wrong by jumping to conclusions. The book tries to turn the tables by casting a male as the pretty sidekick, but we’ve all seen enough manga and anime to find that one familiar. The prose is a cut above average for urban fantasy, but Laurell K Hamilton was doing the damaged kick-ass female urban fantasy heroine three decades ago – and her prose wasn’t bad either. There’s not enough here to justify the heights Trail of Lightning has achieved. It’s true that Native American mythology has not appeared much in genre, but it has appeared. And there have been Native American genre writers. Less than you can count on the fingers of one hand, true. But there are other modes of fiction, and fiction that privileges Native American culture exists in those. It’s good that genre – science fiction and fantasy and horror – wants to be more diverse and more inclusive, but many cultures have their own literary traditions, and while they may not be positioned as genre, they may be close enough to genre to be of interest to genre readers should they make the effort to look for them. When it comes to Navajo culture, I will freely admit I’ve not made that effort. I suppose in that regard it makes Roanhorse’s novel a gateway book. But had I been interested, I would have made the effort. I’ve done so for other cultures whose literary tradition has interested me. Rather than agitate for people to write sf based in and around those cultures, I’ve sought out the fiction the culture has already produced (where translations exist, of course). The point I’m trying to make is that genre fiction doesn’t have to include all other modes of fiction or cultures. It needs to be relevant to its readers, yes, and so it needs to be inclusive and diverse. But it should never take the place of the literary traditions that already exist in those cultures. It should complement them.

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man, Dave Hutchinson (2019, UK). There is a short story, ‘The Incredible Exploding Man’, which I don’t believe I’ve read, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this novel is an expansion of that short story, or at the very least is set in the same world and features some of the same characters. It’s a novel set in the US but could have only been written by a Brit, and not just because the narrator is British. Alex Dolan is a Scottish journalist, currently unemployed in the US. He is approached by a billionaire, who wants him to write a book about the his pet project, a supercollider built under a town in Iowa. It’s all a bit shifty, and various personalities seem to both hinder Dolan and make his new life more bearable. It feels a little like a pastiche of US life, albeit from a UK perspective, and it takes a good three-quarters of the novel before the plot even gets going. But it’s a fun read, the dialogue is snappy, and even if the central premise is somewhat familiar, the book is still entertaining. Basically, it’s Doctor Manhattan. They turn on the supercollider, something goes wrong, and Dolan turns into Doctor Manhattan. But there’s been a sort of plot leading up to that point, and the novel after the event is pretty much Dolan repeatedly resolving the after-effects of switching on the supercollider – or, at least, one particular after-effect. The end, however, is surprisingly abrupt. Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works – The Comeback of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Reappearance of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Return of the Return of the Incredible Exploding Man? Anyway, worth reading.


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Reading diary 2020, #10

I would be dishonest if I’d not wondered this last couple of years why I continue blogging. All I’m posting are book and film reviews, and they’re not even reviews per se, but often turn into mini-rants about various things triggered by the book or film I’m supposedly reviewing. I firmly believe the author is not dead, and if an author says shitty things on social media – hello, JK Rowling! trans women are women! – then reviewers have every right to take those things into account when reviewing their work. The New Criticism only worked when the author was effectively anonymous, and in these days of social media, personal branding and self-marketing, that just isn’t true anymore. The New Criticism is dead, long live the Old Criticism! Context matters, an author’s politics matter… more so in genre, where fans organise into tribes behind authors based on those author’s politics, even if they’re all writing the same old genocidal right-wing space opera…

I should also mention I’ve deleted my account on Goodreads – long story; one day I may share it – so I can no longer cross-post my reviews there. Which seems to be where most people saw them – at least, when I received push-back, it was from people who’d seen my reviews there. Of course, “push-back” usually meant an author telling me how I should review his book. Repeat after me: reviews are not for authors. As an author myself, I understand the thrill of a reading a positive review, but it is not something I can or should police. On Goodreads, that line has become somewhat blurred.

Bone Silence, Alastair Reynolds (2020, UK). This is the final book of the Revenger trilogy, which I seem to remember was intended to be YA but certainly doesn’t read like YA. The story is set millions of years in the future, after the Solar system has been broken up into hundreds of thousands of habitats, among which are “baubles”, which are alien vaults which open up on occasion and can be raided for mysterious artefacts worth much money. By Bone Silence, the Ness sisters captain the most feared ship in the Congregation, but are determined to solve the mystery of the many civilisations which have risen and fallen in the Congregation over millions of years at strangely increasing intervals. Then are the “quoins”, used as currency, but which are now exhibiting strange behaviour… And the various alien races in the Congregation, whose motives and objectives are unknowable… And… and… The previous two books, Revenger and Shadow Captain set up several pretty interesting mysteries, and it would not be unreasonable to expect this final book in the trilogy to explain them. And it tries to. But it doesn’t do a very good job. The explanation for the increasing gaps between successful cycles of civilisation in the Congregation is a bit, well, mundane, and the means of discovering it sacrifices real understanding of the universe for cheap thrills. There’s a great deal of build-up in this trilogy, and the mysteries it sets up are fascinating… but the final instalment does not deliver. For the Ness sisters, yes; but not for the reader who is keen to explore the story’s universe. That doesn’t mean these are bad books. Reynolds is a reliable pair of hands and usually delivers good science fiction. These are among his better books, but not among his best.

The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (1977, UK). The more I explore Adams’s oeuvre, the more remarkable it becomes. Adams, of course, is best known for his debut, Watership Down, one of those novels which became a cultural phenomenon and continues to be popular today. That’s a difficult act to follow. Adams’s subsequent books sold well but never reached the heights of Watership Down, and few of his books are now in print. Watership Down was followed by a Bronze Age fantasy, Shardik, which reads partly like something already covered many times by genre fantasy and partly like a somewhat sideways approach to fantasy by someone unfamiliar with the genre. And then we have The Plague Dogs, Adams’s third novel, a novel that in precis seems relatively straightforward. Two dogs used in animal research, anthromorphised as the rabbits were in Watership Down, escape the lab and manage to survive in the wild. But this all takes places in the Lake District, and most of the dialogue is written in dialect, including that of some of the animals encountered by the two dogs, Snitter and Rowf. It doesn’t help that the laboratory is called Animal Research (Scientific and Experimental) or ARSE, and that The Plague Dogs actually reads like it might have been intended as a comedy. But not a black comedy. A black comedy would be ironic, and The Plague Dogs is far from ironic. Adams was a singular talent, with an oeuvre worth exploring even now, more than a decade after his last book. His career clearly declined after the mid-1980s, but his books after Watership Down are, I’m discovering, worth reading.

And Go Like This, John Crowley (2019, USA). Crowley occupies a position on the edge of genre – but also highly regarded outside genre, yet highly regarded by some within genre. And yes, most of his output has been identifiably genre. As a prose stylist, he’s one of the best and his Ægypt Sequence is a major literary achievement. Earlier explicitly genre works are also among the top genre works produced during their time. In recent years, Crowley’s career seems to have flat-lined somewhat. Despite the acclaim of the first three books, the final book of the Aegypt Sequence was published by a small press. His last three books from William Morrow, a non-genre publisher, were… variable. I thought Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land was excellent, but was not so impressed with either The Translator or Four Freedoms (although I note the first is out of print but the latter two are not, which is fucked up). I have yet to read Ka: Dar Okaley in the Ruins of Ymr, which I believe is straight-up fantasy. And Go Like This is a collection of Crowley’s most recent short fiction, including two novellas published by Subterranean Press, and which I bought at the time. This is good short fiction, and certainly a better collection than his last, Totalitopia, although some pieces here are more successful than others. There’s something measured, but also slightly bucolic in a peculiarly American way, and which achieves cleverness without seemingly trying for it, about Crowley’s prose, such that reading it is always a pleasant experience. Crowley doesn’t write prose to just carry a story forward, he writes prose to treasure. That’s why I buy his books when they are published.

The Fires of Heaven, Robert Jordan (1993, USA). The fifth book of the Wheel of Time, and it seems Jordan is now fully onboard with the concept of a plot stretching over more than half a dozen books. Which, on the one hand, means not much happens to actually advance that plot; but, on the other, things are actually starting to get moving. Which means, er, Rand al’Thor has brought the Aiel over the Spine of the World because the false Car’a’carn has already left the Waste and started razing cities. Meanwhile, Elayne and Nynaeve are hiding out in a travelling circus. Min is stuck with the stilled ex-Amyrlin Seat and ex-Keeper, and they’re trying to find out where the rebel Aes Sedai have set up shop. It all feels a bit like the middle of a chess game that started out one move away from Fool’s Mate, and has been on the run ever since. It doesn’t help that the villains are turning even more pantomime, and the quirks Jordan uses to identify each character – Nynaeve pulling her braid, for example – have gone way beyond annoying. All the major characters are written like slightly dim teenagers – I don’t understand women, wail the men; you need to boss men about if they’re to be any use, declare the women – and yet they’re supposed to be the leaders in a struggle to save the world. Rand has gone from shepherd to king, with no underpinning for the psychological change. It’s a major failing in a series which has little technically to recommend it. Some of the world-building is interesting, but the plotting is erratic, there’s a lot of padding, and the prose is barely competent at best. Even so, the piss-poor characterisation is probably the series’ biggest handicap. I’ll continue with my reread, of course, because I want to finish the damn thing. And for all the lumpen prose and clangingly duff characterisation, the 880 pages of The Fires of Heaven were actually a quick read.

The First Time Lauren Pailing Died, Alyson Rudd (2019, UK). Every now and again, I check the kindle deals page on the Amazon website. If I see a book going for 99p I have in storage but have not read, or fancy reading again (since it was likely many years since I last read it), I generally buy it. Same too for books that look like they might be interesting, even if I know nothing about the book or author – although I do read the excerpt, just to give me an idea. The First Time Lauren Pailing Died was explicitly likened to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book I’d enjoyed. And appeared to tell a similar story to Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, a novel which had turned me into a fan of Erpenbeck’s writing. So The First Time Lauren Pailing Died had much to live up to. The fact it fails to do so doesn’t make it a bad book, just not as good as the Atkinson or the Erpenbeck – although, to be fair, those are high bars to clear. As Lauren grows up she often sees silver beams of light, like beams of sunlight, through which she can see alternate versions of her own life. But then she dies in an accident at the age of thirteen. And then the novel follows her family as they deal with their grief and lead their lives. It also follows a Lauren who survived the accident, moved to London, joined an ad agency, married one of its founders… And a Lauren who married a childhood sweetheart, but then wakes up one day after a nap and can remember events from her other lives… The one constant in all three lives is the mysterious disappearance of her father’s boss when Lauren was young. And it’s that which drives the plot. Unfortunately, it’s a weak engine for what is a nice piece of speculation of lives lived in alternate realities and the Many Worlds Hypothesis. Lauren’s narrative is a good read, but making it all about the disappeared man leads a to a weak ending.

Episodes, Christopher Priest (2019, UK). I’m not a huge fan of Priest’s work. Something about it leaves me cold. Mostly. He’s a very clever writer and I treasure that cleverness, but he’s also a writer whose work I can take or leave. I was drawn to Episodes because Priest provides a “before” and an “after” for each story, in  which he discusses how it came about, and what happened as a result of its publication. The stories are from the length of Priest’s career – the earliest was originally published in 1972, the latest in 2017. Some have never been collected before. The stories are… surprisingly gruesome. Obviously, they’re well-crafted… but there’s still something in their careful prose that leaves me mostly unaffected. The annotations to the story are interesting, and certainly add value to the collection. Which is not, I hasten to add, by any means a bad collection. Priest is one of the UK’s best science fiction writers, and he has written a number of excellent novels, and excellent stories too, although only one or two, ‘Palely Loitering’ for example, included here qualify. Episodes is going to appeal more to fans of Priest’s writing than others, and while I can’t call myself a fan, I did think the collection good. Annoyingly, my paperback copy was bound with only 344 of 368 pages – so it was missing the last story and the end of the penultimate story. I pinged Gollancz on Twitter, but no response…


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Reading diary 2020, #9

It seems my last Reading diary post upset a few people. I’m not in the slightest bit bothered, of course, because those people are the selfsame ones whose opinions I said I didn’t care about and, er, it’s that which has upset them.

But back to the books. This post includes another Clarke Award nominee. I’m not sure if I’ll read the others. Two I would certainly like to, but there’s something about ebooks… well, I’m reluctant to buy them when they’re priced the same as the paperback edition. I mean, at least you get an object for that money with the paperback. As yet, the three nominees I’ve yet to read have not been on offer on Kindle. I may bite the bullet at some point, but when there’s so much else to read I’m not in a rush.

Meanwhile, I’ve been doing quite a bit of comfort reading – mostly Georgette Heyer, er, when they’re available for 99p on Kindle; although I’m also enjoying novels by Alice Chetwynd Ley – which I don’t bother writing about here. Of the books I have written about below… One was a reread by a favourite writer, although I’ve no idea when I originally read it. One was by another favourite writer, but I found it bitter and disappointing. One is, as mentioned earlier, a Clarke nominee. One was by a writer I’d been meaning to read for many years but had never quite got around to (one of their novels looked interesting, but reviews were lukewarm). And one is another instalment in a series I’ve enjoyed, although I found this one a little disappointing.

Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados). This was a freebie, or rather a “BONUS BOOK!”, as a strip of paper tucked into the book informed me. I’d ordered a copy of And Go Like This by John Crowley from Small Beer Press (this was not the John Crowley first edition I accidentally ordered twice, by the way), and they included Redemption in Indigo free of charge. All of which is incidental. I was pleasantly surprised by Redemption in Indigo, although to be fair it has had mostly positive reviews. It’s not my favourite type of story – it is, in fact one I generally avoid. The book is structured as a tale told about a woman in a Senegalese-inspired fantasy world who leaves her husband, is gifted with the power of chaos, learns some important lessons at the hands of the god who previously held that power – as does he, of course – before giving the power back and finding contentment. The story is overtly told, and the identity of the narrator is part of the world-building. There’s nothing especially remarkable about either the story or the world-building. While the prose harkens back to older styles of story-telling, it’s a mode that’s been used quite a lot in fantasy fiction. Fortunately, Redemption in Indigo succeeds because it has bags of charm. Its story is not always nice – horrible things happen – but it feels pleasant, and it makes for an enjoyable read. This is a nice book, despite its plot, and the genre needs more of them.

The Jewels of Aptor, Samuel R Delany (1962, USA). I know I’ve read this before – I’ve certainly had the Sphere paperback edition pictured for several decades – so it was probably back in the late 1970s or early 1980s. And having now reread The Jewels of Aptor, nothing pinged any memories. Oh well. A poet and a sailor sign aboard an expedition to rescue the Goddess Argo’s sister from Aptor, a distant continent of horrors and monsters. They are joined by a four-armed boy who is telepathic. Once Geo and Orson and Snake have explored some of Aptor, it’s clear the continent was once technological and suffered an unspecified “atomic” disaster. Quite how this exists alongside a mediaeval style civilisation on Leptor, which is where Geo, Orson and the Goddess Argo are from, is never explained. Perversely, if the book has a flaw, it’s that it has too many explanations. Whenever something happens, Geo and Orson speculate on what it might mean, or what is being planned. Most of the time they’re wrong; most of the time, it reads more like the author is trying to figure out the plot. But for a work by a nineteen-year-old, this is a better novel than by some current authors twice Delany’s age when he wrote it. Yes, it’s an early work, and the plotting is a bit hit and miss, but the beginnings of the language are there, as is the singular approach to the genre. When I think about what Delany has written over the years… He was a genre stalwart and award winner but has since moved out to the edges of genre, and yet has continued to be one of the real innovators in science fiction, both as a writer and a critic, and more people in genre should pay attention to him.

The Doves of Venus, Olivia Manning (1955, UK). I’ve been a fan of Manning’s writing since reading her The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy (they were adapted for television as Fortunes of War). Manning spent World War II outside the UK after her husband was first posted to Romania… followed by Greece, Egypt and Palestine. She then returned to England, where she remained until she died in 1980. And The Doves of Venus is clearly written by someone who had tasted better and now found the UK miserable and close-minded. I can sympathise. The book is set in the 1950s but is partly based on Manning’s own life in London during the 1930s. An eighteen-year-old young woman tries to make her own way in London. She meets a man, much older, whose wife has left him, and enters into an affair. Her lover’s wife comes back. She makes friends with a woman at work and they visit the friend’s rich uncle in the country. And so a small group of people sort of circle about each other, meeting up unexpectedly, some living hand-to-mouth, but others rich but parsimonious… and I suppose part of the problem with this novel is that its cast is too small for its story, and the way they keep on bumping into each other seems wildly implausible in a city the size of London. The protagonist, Elsie, is well-drawn and refreshingly independent, especially so given the period (and this was written in the 1950s too), although she’s woefully naive when it comes to her lover (albeit not entirely implausibly). But the 1930s casts a shadow over The Doves of Venus its purported setting can’t overcome. I’ve read other novels set in London during the 1930s, set in the same group of people to which Manning belonged, such as Lawrence Durrell’s Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), and it bears more resemblance to The Doves of Venus than, say, many of the films I’ve watched that were set, and made, in 1950s Britain. There’s also that bitter air to the novel, the feeling of constraint and close-mindedness, that is hard to get past. Manning’s books apparently received mixed reviews on release, with The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy generally highly regarded and other books less so. I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring, even if it is variable, and the aforementioned trilogies certainly giver her a huge amount of credit. One for fans.

Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2019, UK). I’ve now read half of this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. And… oh dear. One nominee is a space opera du jour, also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula (which it did not win), and spends more time on world-building and its protagonist’s love life than it does on plot or ideas. Another is a near-future B-movie, poorly-written hackwork filled with recycled tropes. And now, Cage of Souls… Tchaikovsky is scarily prolific, banging out novels in a range of genres and subgenres with inhuman rapidity. He previously won the Clarke in 2016 for Children of Time, and the BSFA Award this year for its sequel, Children of Ruin. I’ve read the first, but not the second. His other books have been fantasy or steampunk. Cage of Souls is, at least, quite well-written – certainly above average for the genre, but not really stand-out prose – but unfortunately it also reads like a novel Robert Silverberg could have written in the 1970s. It is bizarrely old-fashioned. It is set during the final days of Earth, when only a single city, Shadrapar, remains. So who the stranger in the line, “How can I describe to you, a stranger who will never know it, the place of my birth?”, is something of a mystery. The characters have mostly contemporary names, and are pretty much exclusively European. There are very few women in the cast, and they’re chiefly defined by their attractiveness. The words “man” and “mankind” are used to refer to humanity. And the plot assumes that after hundreds of thousands of years of civilisation, humanity will have regressed to something like late nineteenth-century USA, or, er, early twenty-first century USA. The narrator is sent to the Island, a prison located in the middle of distant swamp, where the inmates are treated worse than slaves, and could be killed by the guards for no reason – the Marshal even murders one of each new intake of prisoners simply to prove that he’s a hard bastard. I honestly thought we’d got this sort of nonsense out of our system. Yes, there’s all those self-published mil sf and space operas, but who takes them seriously? Except recently there have been announcements about new space operas by established writers, and it’s the same tired old genocide in space shit. Is it the times? The US and UK are currently led by half-witted corrupt incompetents who make Nero look “strong and stable”, and both have dismally failed to contain the pandemic, with catastrophic consequences… So the genre starts churning out mindless genocidal crap as some sort of antidote? Seriously? Sf is, I admit, a US mode of fiction, but we are under no obligation to accept uncritically its specifically American tenets. Having said that, it wasn’t until two thirds into this novel I realised Tchaikovsky was riffing off Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and while I have to applaud the ambition – and my feelings toward Wolfe’s fiction are conflicted – the comparison does Cage of Souls few favours. I looked at the full submissions list for the Clarke Award and it took me no more than five minutes to find a dozen books more interesting than those on the actual shortlist. I’ve not read much Tchaikovsky but I’d consider him a safe pair of hands – and he did win the BSFA Award this year – but I have to wonder why Cage of Souls was picked for the shortlist because it doesn’t feel at all like twenty-first century science fiction.

Valour and Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal (2014, USA). This is the fourth book in a, to date, five book series about a married pair of “glamourists” in the early eighteenth century. Or, in other words, Austen with magic. Or maybe Heyer. Except… while the husband’s patron is the Prince Regent, the tone doesn’t really match Heyer’s Regency novels. On the other hand, they’re lighter, and more overtly romantic, and less wittier, than Austen. Still, they’re fun. In this instalment, David and Jane Vincent are visiting Italy, chiefly to work with Venetian glassmakers. Their ship is attacked by corsairs while travelling from Trieste to Venice, but it all turns out to have been part of a scam to steal the pair’s secret of invisibility. Kowal manages a mostly English feel to her prose, although the level of emotion is obviously aimed at a contemporary US audience rather than a British one (and certainly not a UK audience of Austen’s or Heyer’s times). However, something about Valour and Vanity never quite gelled for me. Perhaps it was the fawning depiction of Byron, or the excessive interiority, or the overly-complicated convolutions of the plot, or the flatness of the supporting cast. Having said that, to get to book four before delivering a duff instalment is a notable achievement. I’m obviously going to pick up the final book, and I hope more will appear.


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Reading diary 2020, #8

I was briefly tempted to review all six books on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, as announced in mid-June, given there’s been a tradition of commentary throughout the award’s history. Of course, there is no guarantee I’d finish reading the books by the time the winner is announced in September. Once upon a time, the Clarke Award used to generate interesting, if occasionally controversial, shortlists. While you might not have agreed with every book nominated, the shortlist generally included books otherwise unknown that were worth reading. But things seem to have slipped these last few years. Not just the presence of Sea of Rust on the shortlist in 2018, which was quite frankly hackwork… I mean, when you remember bad nominees of the past, such as Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three in 2012, it was at least a novel in conversation with the genre, and Bear is an accomplished craftsman… Some of the more recent nominees, unfortunately, can claim neither.

The Clarke commentary no longer takes place. An attempt to reinvigorate it several years ago with a shadow jury was loudly condemned by US fans who plainly didn’t understand what a shadow jury is and equally plainly hadn’t bothered to find out. Despite all claims to the contrary, fandom is not a community. Once upon a time, it was an emergent phenomenon of the stories’ existence. Now it’s just a part of the marketing machine, and, happily for the publishers, it costs them nothing. Five stars means less than one star. Giving a book five stars just makes you a fucking mug. And everything is dominated by the US, a nation which seems congenitally incapable of recognising that other countries exist and they do things differently there (yes, I know, that’s a time-based reference, not geographic one; but never mind). True, science fiction is an American mode of fiction, and the single largest market for its creations, so its dominance is hardly surprising. But us non-USians, while we may appreciate the genre output of the US – the stories, the novels, the films, the TV series – we don’t actually give a shit about what US fans think. Science fiction fandom is not one giant global family. It never has been. And it never should be. Vive la différence.

All but one of the books below were nominated for genre awards. One won. Deservedly, I must admit. ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ was on the Nebula novella shortlist in 1966 (the award’s first shortlist), but lost to joint winners ‘He Who Shapes’ and ‘The Saliva Tree’. Space Opera was nominated for the Hugo in 2019. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein won the BSFA Award in 2020. The Last Astronaut has been nominated for the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. And Borne was on the 2018 Clarke Award shortlist. Strandloper is non-genre, and was not, as far as I can discover, nominated for any awards. You’d expect some top-drawer reading out of that bunch of accolades. A shame, then, to find it wasn’t the case.

The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1965/1966, USA). I’m pretty sure I first read this on a family holiday in Paris in the early 1980s. I have a memory of buying Delany’s collection, Driftglass (the Panther/Granada paperback edition), from an English-language bookshop in Paris, chiefly because I’d taken the 1977 Sphere paperback of The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star with me to read during the holiday. While both ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ and ‘Empire Star’ had stayed with me during the nearly forty years since, ‘Empire Star’ more than ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, it must be said, I’d never bothered to reread them. Until now. And this despite being a big fan of Delany’s fiction and non-fiction. True, some of his output is hugely dated. But some of his output is brilliant precisely because it is dated. The two novellas here have aged extremely well, and while the clever Moebius-strip narrative of ‘Empire Star’ I’d remembered pretty much accurately over the last four decades, I’d forgotten how good was ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’. An anthropology student is sent to study the eponymous song, the only original piece of art created by the Star Folk, the degenerate survivors of a convoy of generation starships, who were beaten to the rest of the galaxy by progress. The story behind the song is pretty much handed to the student on a plate, but it’s an interesting story, and not at all what the reader would have expected. ‘Empire Star’ has a simple plot: Comet Jo, a plyasil farmhand in a “simplex” asteroid-based community finds a crystallised Tritovian and is told to take it to Empire Star to deliver a message. And that’s what he does. Along the way he meets people who have previously interacted with him at different points in their lives, and learns about the Lll, the only enslaved people in the galaxy and the galaxy’s greatest builders, and the war fought over them and their emancipation. I’ve long considered ‘Empire Star’ one of my favourite novellas – I reread it early this century, I seem to remember – and on this reread, my admiration of it remains undiminished. Read both of these novellas, they’re worth it. But definitely read ‘Empire Star’.

Strandloper Alan Garner (1996, UK). This was inspired by the real life story of William Buckley, a giant of a man – between 6ft 5 inches and 6ft 7 inches, apparently – and an ex-soldier, who at the turn of the nineteenth century was transported to Australia for 14 years for carrying a bolt of cloth he maintained he had not known was stolen (British justice – the envy of the world, eh?). Shortly after arrival in what is now Australia, he learnt the penal colony was being moved to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and escaped. He was taken in by the Wathaurong People and spent thirty years living among them. The protagonist of Strandloper – also called William Buckley – is transported for “lopping” the local squire’s oaks, and sedition – the latter based on a piece of paper, a “tract”, containing passages from the Bible, chosen by the squire’s son, the semi-literate Buckley had been using to practice his writing. Buckley survives passage to Australia and, like his namesake, escapes and lives among one of the local peoples. Strandloper is a disconcerting read. There is no clear sense of time running through the narrative. The dialogue is given in local dialect, and for the first section consists mostly of local nonsense words used in songs and pagan practices. The end result is a short book, only 200 pages, which packs quite a punch. I’m reminded of Golding’s Rites of Passage, although that may simply be because they share an historical period. Yet now I think about it, both novels have an impressive immediacy, in Golding’s case generated by the use of journal entries as the narrative… and the fact Garner manages it using a (relatively) straightforward omniscient POV narrative is probably the greater achievement. Previously, I had only read Garner’s children books, and enjoyed them, and a Young Adult I found less satisfying. But Strandloper is good, and persuades me to hunt down more of his adult fiction.

Space Opera, Cathrynne M Valente (2018, USA). This was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2019. Its genesis is simple, and explained by the author in an afterword. A US genre author discovered the Eurovision Song Contest and was much taken with it. A fellow author persuaded them to use it in a science fiction novel. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. The US does not compete in Eurovision. People in the US have no idea what Eurovision means… and it means different things to different countries. In the UK, it is considered somewhat risible, with a side-order of resentment. In Sweden, there is a month-long televised Melodifest merely to pick the song to represent the country. Valente decided to appropriate Eurovision for a US audience and base it all on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She failed. Not only are the references a weird mishmash of UK and US that make no sense, embedding UK cultural elements in US cultural movements, but the whole thing is a litany of megaviolence and genocide from start to finish… While Eurovision was indeed created to help rebuild links between the war-torn nations of Europe after WWII, it does not celebrate the death and destruction which occurred between 1939 and 1945. Nor does it boast of the weaponry, tactics or bodycounts of the various competing nations. Valente also chose to model her prose on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I am not, I admit, a great fan of Adams’s novels, although I’ve read them and, when I was young, enjoyed them. But Adam’s books at least contained ideas and riffed off them. Valente’s does not. Adams’s jokes were carefully set up, and then left quickly behind, to crop up again when least expected. Valente belabours her jokes, sometimes with almost Fanthorpe levels of repetition. You end up skipping pages, trying to find the narrative. To be fair, I tried reading a Valente novel once before, Palimpsest, and ended up throwing it against the wall because it was so overwritten. And I admire Lawrence Durrell’s prose! I managed to finish Space Opera, but it was a slog. I can only recommend people avoid it. Especially if they’re fans of Eurovision.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (2019, UK). Reading this proved interesting after reading Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ a couple of months ago. Chiefly because I have read many of the books written by both subjects. However, where Jones’s Joanna Russ persuaded me to reread Russ’s oeuvre, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein does not do the same for Heinlein. But for a different reason. When I read Joanna Russ, I felt as though I’d missed important points in in Russ’s fiction. When I read The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Mendlesohn’s criticism opened up his books for me in interesting ways but didn’t substantially change what I remembered of them from my own readings. Admittedly, I read the books several decades ago, but Mendlesohn’s argument didn’t strike me as sufficient grounds to track down copies of the books and reread them (I binned most of my Heinlein paperbacks years ago). Don’t get me wrong, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein is a fascinating read in its own right, and an informative study of Heinlein’s fiction. It is a worthy winner of the BSFA Award (even though one of the other nominees contains a critical essay on my Apollo Quartet…). I’m not entirely convinced by some elements of Mendlesohn’s analysis – for example, Mendlesohn fails to point out that Wyoming pretty much vanishes from the narrative of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress once she’s married (she becomes a hairdresser); I also thought the novel’s code-switching was cack-handed at best. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I read a few years ago for the first time, so it’s relatively fresh for me. Other books, as mentioned above, I read back in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think the only one I’ve subsequently reread was Stranger in a Strange Land ten years ago. And now I’m starting to persuade myself perhaps I should try rereading them… Perhaps that’s the difference between The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein and Joanna Russ. The latter inspired me to read and reread Russ more urgently than the former did for Heinlein. Nevertheless, both critical works are definitely worth reading.

The Last Astronaut, David Wellington (2019, USA). Hmm, near-future novel about a mission to an asteroid that has just entered the Solar System. But this is several decades from now and the US space programme is dead, so they have to drag an astronaut out of retirement. This sounds right up my street… There’s a follow-up to Oumuamua thirty-five years from now, but this one is considerably bigger. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have a space programme after their Mars mission ended in tragedy. But they cobble together a mission, crewed by 1) the geek who discovered the asteroid and realised it as was decelerating, b) a young xenobiologist, c) a Space Force pilot of the X-37 drone (that’s the same one being flown now, by the way), and d) the ex-astronaut captain of the Mars mission with all her baggage. But they’re overtaken en route by a corporate mission – who describe NASA as “the enemy” – and then spend very little time analysing the asteroid before following the corporate team inside. In a tweet, I characterised this book as being “a mashup of Rendezvous with Rama and Prometheus, with none of the sense of wonder of the first and all of the baffling stupidity of the second.” To be honest, I was being generous. The central premise of The Last Astronaut is that the asteroid is a space-based life-form, whose life-cycle requires it to crash on habitable planets in order to breed. Which makes not the slightest bit of sense. How did they evolve if they required Earth-like worlds in order to reproduce? And, apparently, the asteroid creature rapidly generates interior flora in order to feed its rapacious young… except, where does it get the energy from to grow that flora? Not to mention the asteroid creature’s ability to accelerate rapidly using solar sails. This is a sf novel written by someone who has done a little bit of research but not actually applied any intelligence to their premise. It doesn’t help the prose is the sort of bland simplistic prose of techno-thrillers, the characterisation is single-note throughout, and the Mars mission commander is repeatedly labelled a murderer throughout the book despite doing the only thing possible to save the Mars mission. Wellington has tried to update his presentation by including “interview” excerpts of the main cast (although some, I think, seem to have taken place after their deaths), and adding an “excerpt from author’s foreword to the 2057 edition” by David Wellington. I read The Last Astronaut in mounting disbelief – its complete failure to present a believable near-future, its reliance on present-day tech, its pantomime corporate villains, its hokey premise, its weirdly small cast for the story it told, its complete lack of originality… How it ended up on the shortlist of a major genre award is a fucking mystery.

Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (2018, USA). I don’t get it. I read Annihilation and, okay, Ballard did it first and Ballard did it better, but I thought Annihilation quite good, and VanderMeer is one of the good guys and his Wonderbook is a damn sight more useful as a writing tool than 99% of the how-to-write books out there. But reading Borne, I’m reminded of The Book of Phoenix and the Binti novellas by Nnedi Okorafor, both of which read like they were written by a teenager, but Okorafor has a PhD in English, and if you know that much about writing fiction, why would you deliberately write something bad? And Borne – which, it must be said, has been highly praised – did not seem to me to be very good at all. There’s this post-apocalyptic city, and a five-storey flying bear, yes, really, and a woman called Rachel who finds some sort of biotech creature which grows and grows and can imitate all manner of things. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, nor gives you any reason to continue reading. It doesn’t help that the prose is so lazily written, such as the narrator witnessing an invisible person make a gesture, or crashed helicopters having “wings crumpled”. I read Borne and I didn’t see any reason to get invested in the story. It felt like a half-a-dozen pet images on endless recycle. I thought Annihilation was good but didn’t bother with the sequels. Borne is apparently the first in a trilogy but I definitely won’t be bothering with the sequels.


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Reading diary 2020, #7

I used to be quite disciplined about making time to read, but since I’ve been working from home I’ve been finding it harder. Some books are easier to read than others, of course, and if I limited myself to those I might perhaps get more reading done. But I like difficult books, and I find them more rewarding to read. I just need to be a bit more, well, disciplined about making time to read them…

Raising the Stones, Sheri S Tepper (1990, USA). This is the second book in the Arbai trilogy, although it might as well be a standalone as knowledge of the previous book, Grass, is not needed, and any references to it in this one barely affect your understanding of the story. I’m not entirely sure when it takes place – clues seem to suggest several thousand years after the events of Grass, although human society seems pretty much unchanged. Which is part of the problem. Tepper’s targets are plain – abundantly so – which means the societies she depicts have to hew closely to present day ones, or rather ones derived from those extant at the time of writing. And Tepper was never afraid to push something into implausibility in order to make a point. So, on the one hand, we have the peaceful agrarian settlements of Hobbs Land, who have found themselves building temples to alien gods (actually some sort of alien fungus), but since it makes them happy and productive, where’s the harm in it? Meanwhile the patriarchal sexist slave-owning violent (seriously, they couldn’t be made more worse) Voorstodders, inhabitants of a region on another planet of the system, have triggered the final stages of their plan to attain apotheosis by killing all the unbelievers. Tepper was not one for subtlety and there’s certainly an argument the sf audience is incapable of processing subtlety – just look at the current crop of genre award winners… For me, Tepper’s novel are like a brick in the face, but I’d sooner there were writers like her than the books appearing on award shortlists these days. I plan to read more Tepper. You should too.

Panic Room, Robert Goddard (2018, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s thrillers since stumbling across one of his books in the 1990s when I lived in Abu Dhabi. They’re easy reads, and generally quite entertaining – although there’s always something about them that never quite fits together, as if they’re 90% of a well-plotted thriller. In this one, a newly-fired high-end estate agent is hired by his lawyer ex-wife to do a valuation on a billionaire’s retreat in Cornwall. He finds evidence in the house of a panic room, but it’s sealed. This somehow catapults him into a conspiracy involving the billionaire’s theft of huge amounts of money from the US corporation which bought his company, some secret project that has been running for years out of Switzerland, and the suspicious death by drowning of a teenage boy decades before… Goddard keeps the mystery going quite entertainingly for three-quarters of the book, but his resolution spirals off into the sort of science fiction no self-respecting sf author would use. Still, it’s a Goddard novel, you should know what you’re getting when you open the book.

A Sea-Grape Tree, Rosamond Lehmann (1976, UK). I’ve been meaning to try something by Lehmann for several years as she’s one of the more prominent British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. (She was also an anti-fascist.) I’m a big fan of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor and Olivia Manning, who were active from the 1920s through to the 1970s, and Lehmann’s career covered pretty much the same period. But she also had a twenty-year hiatus between 1953 and 1976, and A Sea-Grape Tree was her first novel after that – and by all accounts something of a change of style, despite making use of characters from earlier novels… So perhaps it wasn’t the best book to choose as an introduction to Lehmann’s works. On the other hand, it was on offer. The novel takes place among the British expat community on a Caribbean island – and I use the term “expat” deliberately. I am myself a migrant, although I grew up as an expat. To me, the difference is plain: a migrant integrates, an expat does not. In A Sea-Grape Tree, it is the 1930s and a woman has recently arrived on the island and been accepted into the expat community there. It turns out someone she knew earlier in her life – the details of which are the subject of an earlier Lehmann novel – endear her further to the local expat community. This is a novel about larger-than-life characters and their interactions within a constrained community. It feels… weirdly like it was written at the time it is set, rather than 40 years later. I’ve no idea what to make of it, given that it’s generally acknowledged to be a complete change of style for Lehmann. I suspect I’ll have to read more by her. There were a number of British women writers active in the first half of last century who also agitated for women’s rights and/or against fascism, and how many present day writers can say the same? There’s a heritage to be proud of, and to build on. We should read more of those writers. I know I plan to.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar (2019, Israel). Originally published in F&SF, but then as a stand-alone by JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. The story is set several centuries hence, after climate crash and wars have depopulated the earth. The narrator, who lives in, I think, what is currently Israel, is invited to New Atlantis, which proves to be an archipelago that was once the United Kingdom. Much of the story is a travelogue, but once she arrives in London, she’s taken to see the time-vault whose discovery prompted her journey. The story is filled with references to other sf works – including the chapter titles – but, to be honest, Tidhar has written better. For much of its length, the narrative feels like it’s treading water, holding off the reveal on what a “time-vault” actually is. Unfortunately, the path the story takes is well travelled, and while spotting Easter Eggs can be fun, it’s not enough to maintain interest. Tidhar seems to have three modes: genre piss-take, genre Easter Egg hunt, and the interface of Jewish and Nazi history. When he’s working in the first and last, he produces good material; less so the middle one.

Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). Major déjà vu reading this, as the first section is basically the novella The Enclave, which was published in 2017 and won the BSFA Award (I seem to remember voting for it, too). Three years later, and child slavery and human trafficking is not what I want to read about in a sf novel, but then Bridge 108 abruptly flips POV to that of an undercover immigration agent and we get some actual commentary on the world being described. I understand that to write from the POV of a child slave would mean the narrative accepting the situation – but it also normalises it. Science fiction, especially US science fiction, which this is not, I hasten to add, has an extremely bad habit of normalising the worst excesses of humanity in pursuit of “drama”. It’s s complete bollocks stance. If you write a fascist story with no commentary, you’re writing exactly what a fascist would write. Your personal politics are irrelevant. Charnock presents a UK in which refugees end up living illegally in “enclaves” alongside legal residents who do not have implanted chips, but then shows these enclaves are breeding-grounds of illegality and immorality. Sadly, too many people are like those fuckwits who voted for the Tories and now clap for the NHS. Or worse, voted for Brexit and now clap for the NHS – that £350 million a week would be fucking useful now, you hypocritical morons. British – and American – politics are perhaps extreme examples, but something similar exists in science fiction: authors saying, “look at me! I’m left-wing!” and then they write the most fascist space opera you could imagine. The genre is inherently right-wing, but they take it to excess. They’re a blight on the genre, and there are far too many of them and they’re far too popular. The Sad Puppies were right that the heart of science fiction had been colonised, but were too stupid that to see that it was their stories which had done so. They looked only at the politics of the writers. Had they based their argument on the politics of the stories, perhaps they might have kept their mouths shut.

Red Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson (2018, USA). Robinson’s first book was first published in 1984, and there are many sf reviewers and voters these days who won’t read him for that reason. It’s true that Robinson writes a particular type of science fiction, but after nearly forty years he’s got pretty damn good at it. Better than some random debut author, anyway. Not every Robinson book has impressed me, although he has consistently produced work that I think speaks more to science fiction than many sf writers. Red Moon is… mostly a good sf novel. It reads, in parts, like off-cuts from the Mars trilogy. And the whole set-up does seem somewhat… accelerated for being set thirty years from now. Red Moon is definitely techno-utopian, and I’d sooner see sf like that than some jack-booted interstellar slavery space opera, which is all too sadly common these days, but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticise its vision or the points Red Moon makes. A US engineer who works for a Swiss firm delivers a qubit-entangled phone to the head of the Chinese settlement about the south pole of the Moon. Except the Chinese official dies seconds after meeting the engineer, who himself is rendered seriously ill, and he’s charged with murder by poison. It’s all about factions within the Chinese government, and partly related to the daughter of one minister who is the figurehead of a movement to seek justice for internal migrants within China. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here, mostly to do with China’s recent history and its government; but there’s also a lot about the colonisation of the Moon – not just by the Chinese, but also the Americans and a group of techno-utopian freethinkers who run their own lunar colony (whose precepts I don’t think actually work because they rely on defined identities). I think Robinson’s timeline for the novel is somewhat unrealistic, although I can see how his story forced him into that situation. And I can disagree with the political arc of the story. I likely can’t say this enough: Red Moon is a novel about politics, and the politics in the novel are laid out for discussion. Unlike far too many sf novels where the politics is baked into the world-building, and a rejection of the politics is by definition a rejection of the entire novel. Red Moon is not the best novel Robinson has written, but is ample demonstration of why his novels are worth reading. Each new one has added something to the genre ur-conversation, whether you like them, or agree with them, or not.


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Reading diary 2020, #6

You know that thing where you accidentally scheduled a post, even though you hadn’t finished writing it? I seem to have done that with this Reading diary, which is why it briefly appeared a couple of weeks ago. And then I sort of forgot to go back to it and finish it off, so the blog went into an unplanned hiatus for a few weeks. I think after two months of working from home, it’s starting to wear me down. I’m looking forward to getting back into the office.

The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK). Well, this didn’t go where I where I expected it to. Adam Roberts is an excellent person, and probably the best genre critic currently active in the UK, and while he writes enormously clever science fiction it is not always to my taste. But The Real-Town Murders has a heroine called Alma and is all about Hitchcock, and I’ve been a huge Hitchcock fan for many, many years, so this was a book I wanted to read. And yes, it starts out like a locked-room mystery, not that Hitchcock made many locked-room mysteries – maybe in Alfred Hitchcock Presents?- but The Real-Town Murders then goes off down a completely different path, which resulted in a very different novel to what I had been expecting to read. Alma is a private detective in a UK where most of the population live in a virtual world and rarely experience “the Real”. A bit like now, I expect. Except for the virtual world. She is called in to solve how a dead body appeared in the boot of a car at an automated factory even though there is complete footage of the car being made and at no time could a body have been placed in it. Alma is led to believe this may have been accomplished by teleportation. And if teleportation were real, then people might start returning to the Real because travel will have become as trivial there as it is in the virtual world. Except, it’s not teleportation (the solution is not hard to figure out, to be honest). And Alma finds herself being harassed by various arms of the government’s security services, which jeopardises the life of her partner, who had been infected with a hacked disease linked to Alma’s DNA and only Alma can prepare a a treatment when the disease threatens to kill her partner every four hours or so. So, not really a murder-mystery. And the plot makes so many swerves, despite being essentially a fugitive story, that at times it’s in danger of burying its ideas. Nonetheless, I liked it. There is apparently a sequel.

A Very British History, Paul J McAuley (2013, UK). It’s almost certainly the case McAuley is one of the best hard sf writers the UK has produced, and yet I find it difficult to connect with his fiction. He should be a favourite author, he writes precisely down the line I appreciate most in the genre. But many of his novels have left me cold, and I can’t work out quite why I finish his books more annoyed than satisfied. This collection, which was, and still is, free on Kindle, although I’d apparently bought the signed limited edition when it was launched at an Eastercon, which is of course currently in storage, the book that is, was I thought a perfect way to explore McAuley’s fiction and perhaps understand why I didn’t connect with it. A Very British History is subtitled “The best science fiction stories of Paul McAuley, 1985 – 2012, so it’s an excellent career retrospective. And the one thing the collection really displays is that McAuley writes to market. Perhaps that’s too severe a way to describe it. It’s more that he writes the sort of science fiction, mostly of the hard variety, that is fashionable at the time of writing. He cuts his cloth to suit what seems to be the “in” thing. He writes with a distinctive voice, and his prose is never less than good, but in the space of half a dozen stories, or novels, his readers can be bounced from far future sf set aboard a vast unimaginably old artefact to neoliberal capitalism in near-future space to cyberpunk-recast-as-fairytale. The reason I don’t connect with McAuley’s fiction, it seems, is because I can’t determine an identity behind it. It sounds like the harshest of criticisms, and I apologise, but it’s not. If you read three unrelated McAuley novels in a row, it would be like reading three novels by three different – but similar – authors in a row. It’s a good trick, and it has resulted in some excellent science fiction, but it doesn’t work for me. One thing notable about the stories in this collection, a consequence of the twenty-six years they cover, is that while some of the sensibilities embedded in them have not aged well (although better than many of McAuley’s contemporaries), the science fiction in the stories has remained timeless. McAuley has been praised throughout his career for ideas and his ability to present them, and it’s true they’re a major factor in the appeal of his fiction. But that lack of consistency of identity behind his work has always proven a stumbling block for me.

Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK). Adams is best-known for Watership Down, an excellent novel about rabbits. Two years after that book’s massive success, he published a… straight-up fantasy novel. It wasn’t published as such, of course. If anything, Penguin tried hard to pretend Adams had pretty much invented fantasy with their marketing for the novel. But Shardik is set in an invented land, at a technology level not far above Bronze Age, and is about a giant bear considered to be a god, or an avatar of a god, by a race of people. So it’s basically a fantasy novel. It just happens to be better written than is typical for genre fiction. The title refers to an ancient god of the Ortelgans, personified as a giant bear, who was kept on an island inhabited by priestesses. But the empire fell, the capital Bekla was conquered, and a new empire rose in its place. Shardik died and did not reappear. Generations later, a giant bear appears on the island the Ortelgans, now simple hunter folk, settled on after the fall of their empire. And they see it as the second coming of their god, and use it to take back Bekla and re-establish their empire. But they are not the people they once were. The novel mostly concerns Kelderek, the hunter who discovers Shardik, becomes his priest, and then the priest-king of Bekla. But it’s an empire doomed to failure, and Shardik escapes after an attempt on its life. Kelderek goes after him, and the two travel about the country – there’s a handy map, of course – both sinking further and further from what they were as the book progresses. Kelderek encounters enemies he made while priest-king, and evil people he helped create. It’s all a bit grim, and Adams has this weird trick of referencing culture that would be known to a well-educated Brit in the 1970s, which does sort of kill the immersion. You do not, after all, except to see a mention of Shakespeare in a secondary-world fantasy novel. I suspect I wanted to like Shardik more than I did. It felt like it didn’t try hard enough to be a fantasy, even though the world-building was generally good. The quality of the prose, however, was a definite bonus.

The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK). I read The Green Man’s Heir last year and enjoyed it very much. To be honest, I’d been wanting to read some of McKenna’s fantasy for many years but had never got around to it. The Green Man’s Heir was on offer at the time I bought it, and while I’m no fan of urban fantasy I’d certainly enjoyed its Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders story. The book proved successful enough to warrant a sequel (which has been nominated for the BSFA Award, but lost out to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, which is also a sequel, as indeed was every book on the shortlist.). In an afterword, McKenna writes that The Green Man’s Foe had originally been a completely unrelated story, but had never been finished. But the story proved ideal as a sequel for The Green Man’s Heir, so she rewrote it as such. In this novel, carpenter and son of a dryad Daniel Mackmain is asked to project manage the conversion of an old mansion into a boutique hotel – because there is something weird going on in the attached woodland, and it may be tied in with the house’s history and its link to early twentieth-century British occultism. McKenna introduces a cast of believable and appealing characters, and lets her mystery develop over the length of the novel. There are some odd tonal changes as the story develops – is it a ghost story, an occult story, or does it all plug into the mythology developed in the first book? The answer is, well, all three, and the three aspects at times interfere with each other. It’s also much more Midsomar than the first book, although that is almost certainly a consequence of its location, a Cotswold village. And at times it felt a bit like a British detective series from the 1980s. But they’re minor quibbles. This is entertaining stuff, put together by someone who knows what they’re doing. The cast are likeable, the mythology works, and it all feels like a series with legs. More, please.

Billie’s Kiss, Elizabeth Knox (2002, New Zealand). I think this was on offer, but I’m not entirely sure what it was about the blurb which persuaded me to buy the book and read it. Something about “an Edwardian twist on The Tempest”, and a feeling the novel was sort of magical realism set some 100 years ago in the Shetlands. I knew nothing about the author, or even her most famous book, The Vinter’s Luck. Having now read Billie’s Kiss I can say many of the things its blurb promised it is not, although that does not make it a bad novel. Billie lives with her sister and brother-in-law. She is illiterate (actually dyslexic), a bit of a free spirit, and has been unable to find a situation of her own. Her brother-in-law is hired by a soap magnate, Lord Hallowhulme, who owns one of the Shetland islands, to catalogue the book collection in his castle there. Billie accompanies the couple. As the ferry approaches the island’s jetty, something in the hold explodes and the ship sinks, filling fifteen people. The magnate’s brother-in-law, Murdo Hesketh, a half-Swede who had served with the army in Stockholm but now works on the island, decides to investigate. This is by no means a murder-mystery. It’s the story of the Hallowhulme and Hesketh families, and the story of Billie, an innocent who gets caught up in pretty much everything that’s going on. It’s not an easy plot to summarise, and probably not worth the effort of doing so. Despite not being the book I was expecting it to be, I enjoyed Billie’s Kiss. The prose was generally good, if a little over-wrought in places, as indeed were some of the characters, and one or two of them tended a little toward pantomime. But it handled its time and place well, and Billie proved an interesting protagonist. Worth reading.


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Reading diary 2020, #5

I’ve actually been reading a bit more than usual during these days of self-isolation, chiefly because my “commute” is a two-second walk from dining-table to sofa, and so the half-hour I’d spend on the bus, or walking, home I can now spend sitting comfortably and reading. And it’s been an odd reading selection in recent weeks. The five books below include an old sf novel I’ve wanted to read for several years, a new novel by a friend whose previous books I had mixed feelings about, a volume in an interminable fantasy series, and a debut by a US sf author which persuaded me it was about time I stopped reading debuts by US sf authors since the last dozen or so had all been pretty bad.

Missing Man, Katherine MacLean (1975, USA). I put this on my SF Mistressworks list several years ago based on its reputation, and the fact it won a Nebula, although that was for the original novella, not the novel (although the novel too was nominated four years later). MacLean’s name popped up a number of times in Judith Merril’s (auto)biography (see here) – she was part of the same Futurians group, with Merril and Pohl, banging out stories for the sf mags, which garnered praise from the likes of Damon Knight and Brian Aldiss. So it came as something of a surprise to discover that Missing Man was actually sort of rubbish. George is an idiot savant  – an uneducated orphan, physically strong but good-natured, with an unnaturally strong empathic ability. He meets up with a friend from childhood, who is in the Rescue Squad, and is hired as a consultant because he can use his ability to find missing people. Meanwhile, there’s a blackmail plot by a gang of teenagers, who have kidnapped a city engineer (the missing man of the title) and learnt of a design flaw in the city’s systems. As proof of this, they cause the collapse of two undersea cities, killing thousands. MacLean clearly just made shit up as she went along. It’s bad enough that Missing Man, a mid-1970s novel, reads more like a mid-1960s one, but then you come across a line like “The distilled water, being pure and without salts, carried no radiation back from the ‘hot’ place it circulated through”, and it’s clear the author’s grasp of science is feeble at best… But then, from what Merril wrote in her autobiography, they were really quite cynical about writing for money, and would bang out any old crap, knowing that Pohl, as editor, would buy it (although he pocketed half of the fee). I had expected much more of Missing Man, given the author’s reputation. Disappointing.

Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK). I’ve known Chris for many years, and read and enjoyed his short fiction. I’ve also read several of his novels and, while I’ve appreciated the quality of their prose – which is definitely a cut above what is typical for science fiction – I’ll admit I found their conceits and plots felt a little second-hand. That’s sort of true here, and it gives the novel a slightly old-fashioned feel. But that actually works in its favour, given it’s set in a mysterious place the world has forgotten. Ben Ronson, a British policeman, is sent to the Submundo Delta in Brazil to prevent the locals from killing the indigenes, called duendes. The Submundo Delta is surrounded by the Zone, which, on exiting it, wipes all memories of what happens within it. Partly because of the Zone, the only way to travel to the Submundo Delta is by boat, and so visitors must spend a day in the Zone. The novel opens as Ronson leaves the Zone and enters the delta – and he has no idea what he did when the ship stopped, and is too scared to read the journal entries he made. That fear drives him as he tries to stop the duende killings by the locals and come with some way of preventing them from occurring. This is not helped by the fact the duendes trigger some sort of mental barrage of anxieties and phobias in humans when they are close. Everything in the delta is low tech, like the early decades of the twentieth century. It makes the strangeness of the world seems a little more, well, plausible. But not entirely. Beneath the World, a Sea reminded me chiefly of Paul Park’s Coelestis, a favourite sf novel, although since it’s not set on an alien world it doesn’t have sf’s scaffolding to support its world, and relies more on a Ballardian twisting of mundanity for its setting. The plot is almost incidental – Ronson investigates, Ronson falls prey to the place’s atmosphere, in an almost Graham Greene sort of narrative. Beckett’s novels have always been strong on character, and that’s equally true here – to such an extent, the focus on character actually results in the plot losing its way around midway through. It doesn’t seem to matter much, however, because Ronson’s failure was pretty much obvious from the start. The only duff note is what happens to him in the Zone on his departure from the Submundo Delta. It feels like a twist that needed more set-up and yet was an obvious conclusion from the first chapter. Despite all that, Beneath the World, a Sea is very strong on atmosphere, the prose is excellent, and I thought this one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Shape of Further Things, Brian W Aldiss (1970, UK). Back in 1969, for whatever reason, Brian Aldiss decided the world needed a book in which he discussed a couple of items of interest to science fiction – more so than science – most of which were inspired by the researches of his friend Christopher Evans (who is not the Christopher Evans of Capella’s Golden Eyes, Aztec Century or Mortal Remains, all of which are recommended). Aldiss’s acerbic criticism is very much of its time, although it certainly includes a few amusing and clever aperçus on the science fiction world. What really stands out, however, is how little impact women made on Aldiss’s study. He mentions his wife, and Evans’s wife, but otherwise the entire planet might as well have been inhabited by men. I’m not so daft I don’t recognise this was the (male) worldview back then, but to a twenty-first century reader it paints a bizarrely one-sided view of the planet. I mean, a woman writer actually won a Hugo Award in 1968, and yet Aldiss writes as if the genre were entirely male. As it is, Aldiss’s musings are uninteresting – dreams and dream-logic – or so out of date – computing – to be laughable. Despite some nice writing, this is a book which is pretty much a perfect example of a phrase from his short story of three years previously, ‘Confluence’, one of whose definitions is “a book in which everything is understandable except the author’s purpose in  writing it”. One for fans.

The Shadow Rising, Robert Jordan (1992, USA). The reread continues. The plot really does shift into high gear in this volume. I’d almost forgotten what was supposed to be going on. Jordan seems to have realised he hadn’t actually achieved anything in the previous book, and so decided to get things moving. So Rand al’Thor heads into the Waste to recruit the Aiel (fearsome desert warriors totally cribbed from the Fremen). Egwene goes with Rand to learn how to dream-walk from the Aiel. Elayne and Nynaeve head for Tarabon to track down the Black Ajah sisters and prevent them from discovering something there which might threaten Rand. Perrin has heard the Two Rivers is under threat by Trollocs, and so returns there and sets up a local defence – undermined by the most obvious villain yet to appear in the series. Meanwhile, there’s a coup in the White Tower, and the Amyrlin Seat is deposed and stilled (ie, her powers are taken from her), and it’s all done so underhandedly you have to wonder why Jordan decided to make a rival faction behave like the Black Ajah, ie, the people they’re allegedly both dedicated to fighting. But then nuance is not something this series really has going for it, with a cast of stereotypes and archetypes, pantomime villains, and a frankly idiot plot. And yet, and yet… every now and again, Jordan throws in these neat little world-building elements, and you wonder what more he has up his sleeve… Very little, it turns out, as these elements are pretty much irrelevant as far as the main plot goes. In this volume, Rand has to undergo the same magical test as Aiel clan chiefs and Wise Ones, which basically involves reliving episodes from the Aiels’ past, which reveals them to have been cast-offs from a pacifist group who fought back against attackers and so ritualised their approach to combat. It’s all a bit Dune, but Jordan was never ashamed to steal from the best. Thankfully, The Shadow Rising is a surprisingly fast read, if only because you can skim over all the braid-pulling and “Mat would know how to deal with girls” repetitive bollocks. These are without a doubt appallingly written books, and their haphazard plotting was clearly a consequence of Jordan not being in control of his material – he didn’t even know how long the series would be! It continues to astonish me they were bestsellers.

Noumenon, Marina J Lostetter (2017, USA). This had lots of positive blurbs from well-known sf authors and, more importantly, it was 99p for the ebook, so I decided to take a chance on it. What a mistake. I’ve not read a good science fiction debut by a US author for several years but this one failed to make even that low bar. It is 2088 and an astronomer has discovered an unusual variable star. The world is putting together twelve missions to travel into interstellar space, using a “subdimension drive”, which, despite being FTL, will still mean several generations will pass before their destinations are reached. The variable star is chosen as the target of one such convoy. Which comprises seven ships and several hundred thousand clones of the scientists and engineers who put the convoy together. Lostetter uses this somewhat tired set-up to explore a number of banal situations. A young boy doesn’t want a sister. Slavery is bad. AIs can have feelings too. When the convoy reaches its destination, it discovers an enormous alien artefact but does not learn what it is or what it’s for. The author also clearly has a problem with orders of magnitude, as she states Jupiter is one AU wide. And her dimensions of the alien artefact make no sense. She also seems to think sonar works in space (and that subsonic waves can be detected in a vacuum). When two US characters, in the first chapter, enter a traditional pub in Oxford, UK, and a waitress brings beer to their table, I was afraid this was going to be one of  those sf novels where the author had done little or no research. That particular faux pas proved to be the least of the book’s problems. Later, two characters watch an episode of Star Trek – yes, this one of those novels set in the future where all the cultural references have relevance only to the author’s generation. The prose is so bland it is entirely forgettable. The science fiction is just complete rubbish from start to finish. The science is made-up. And the whole is in service to a plot which has no end – this is the first book in a trilogy – and whose only quality appears to be triteness. Avoid. In fact, I will go a step further: from this point, I will not read any debuts by US sf authors, say, post-2016. I don’t know what’s happened to US sf publishing, but the books they’ve been pushing over the past couple of years by debut authors have been fucking appalling. As someone or other once said, won’t get fooled again. The same applies to fantasy as well, of course. However, I’m not going to boycott debut sf novels from other nations. I mean, I’m not saying UK sf debuts are better, but UK genre publishing has been pushing fantasy – and YA – debuts for the past few years, and they’re not my thing. Given that more books than ever before are currently being published, when debut novels win major awards… there is definitely something wrong with genre publishing….