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Reading diary, #52

I’m still trying to pick up the pace of my reading, but I’ve not had all that much success so far. I’m managing to keep ahead of my TBR – ie, I’m reading more books each month than I buy, although I’m not buying as many as I have done in the past – but I’m still more than a dozen books behind in my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books by the end of the year.

Valerian and Laureline 17: Orphan of the Stars (1998, France). The volumes in the Valerian and Laureline series have been forming an extended narrative for a while now. Initially, each was an unconnected story, then there were a couple of two-volume stories, but since the disappearance of Galaxity after the past was changed, the duo’s narrative has been more serial than series. The volume prior to this one, Hostages of Ultralum (see here), saw Valerian and Laureline rescue the Caliphon, the brattish young son of the Caliph of Iksaladam, a fabulously wealthy planet, from kidnappers, and in this book he’s still with them, and they’re still being pursued by the kidnappers. The three are now in the Asteroids of Shimballil, a belt close enough to the star system’s sun for the asteroids, each with their own atmosphere, to be habitable. The duo are trying to find a treatment for the Caliphon’s behavioural dificulties, but they need money… and after meeting a producer of popular entertainments, Laureline agrees to act for him for the money. Like many of the other tomes in the series, Orphan of the Stars takes satirical pokes at various things – in this case, the aforementioned entertainments industry (ie, the film industry), but also academia. I’ve yet to see Besson’s film, and I think I’ve missed its run at the cinemas, but from the reviews I’ve seen it seems to mangle an important aspect of the series, the relationship between Valerian and Laureline. Given that the relationship has developed and changed over 22 volumes, it’s no surprise the film fails to get a handle on it. But, more importantly, it also seems to me, the movie fluffs the books’ humour. It’s not just satire and piss-takes of contemporary culture which feature in the series, but also the banter between the two principals. Laureline is definitely the competent one, and has been since around volume three or four, and the two are in a relationship, but there’s a give and take between the two, between Valerian’s misplaced protectiveness and Laureline’s competence, it sounds like the movie has bungled. But I guess I’ll know that for sure when I finally get to watch it.

Living, Henry Green (1929, UK). What to say about Henry Green? At one point, he was considered by some as “the best English novelist” and – a phrase I quite like – as the “writer’s writer’s writer”. According to Wikipedia, he was always more popular among other writers than the reading public and “none of his books sold more than 10,000 copies”. From the 1950s onwards, his star faded – he died in 1973 – and by the 1980s, he was mostly forgotten… only to be rediscovered in the early 1990s, and omnibuses of his nine novels (three per omnibus) have been in print ever since. And yes, he is every bit as good as his admirers have/had it. Living, his second novel, is set in and around a Birmingham iron foundry in the 1920s – Green actually worked as the managing director of his family’s engineering firm in Birmingham – and focuses on a handful of its employees, including the London-based son of the company’s owner. The prose is modernist, and uses definite and indefinite articles sparingly. It takes a bit of getting used to, but Green’s writing is so good it’s highly effective. The dialogue is also written in dialect – although I could never quite make it sound Brummie in my head – which also takes a while to get used to. In terms of plot, there’s not a great deal, just the lives of its central characters, and how they cope with changes to the company’s fortunes. But reading Green just makes me want to push the envelope of my own writing. I don’t want to come up with cleverer plots, or more engaging stories, I want to sharpen my narratives, improve my word-choices, write the best damn prose I can, so that I too can be as lucid, as economical, and yet as lyrical, as Henry Green. Highly recommended.

Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK). This book was, in a roundabout fashion, my introduction to the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor – or rather, I learnt of her writing thanks to this book. Well, thanks to François Ozon’s adaptation of it, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed many years ago for videovista.net. I liked the film so much, I kept an eye open in charity shops for books by Taylor… and it’s taken till now before I finally stumbled across a copy of Angel (after first finding and reading Blaming and A Wreath of Roses). And the first thing I noted about Angel the novel was its differences to the film adaptation. The plots are pretty much identical – opening in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, working-class teeenager Angelica Devereux, Angel, writes a florid romance novel, publisher takes a chance on it, book is a success, Angel goes onto become a successful – if critically mocked – writer, falls in love with Esmé, an impoverished upper-class painter, who marries her for her money but cheats on her, he is wounded in WWI and dies in an accident soon after, her books are by then no longer popular, and she lingers on in poverty… The film has Esmé’s work re-evaluated after his death, so he becomes critically lauded, while Angel’s books continue to be seen as trashy potboilers. The film also makes Angel more of a figure of fun, and so more sympathetic, than the novel, although they make use of the same events. In that respect, in that Angel is an unsympathetic character, and not played for light laughs, the book is a tougher read than the film is a viewing. But Taylor’s prose is so very good, reading it is never a hardship (which is not say Ozon’s direction is bad, although he does film it in a very artificial, almost pantomime, style, which suits his treatment of the material). I’ve now read Angel, but I’ll continue to keep an eye open for Taylor’s novels – and I have her Complete Short Stories on the TBR…

Home Fires, Gene Wolfe (2011, USA). I picked up a copy of the signed and numbered PS Publishing edition of this novel for much cheapness a couple of years ago, although not being an especially big fan of Wolfe’s fiction I’ve no real idea why I did so. His The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a classic work of sf, The Book of the New Sun is a remarkable work but its sensibilities have not aged well, and everything else he has written I’ve found more or less meh. Except his short fiction – that I really don’t like at all, bar one or two stories. But Wolfe has a reputation for tricksiness and cleverness, as if the two things are the same, and his profile within genre remains extremely high, even if few people seem to read him these days. Home Fires does nothing to change my current opinion of Wolfe. It’s set a century or so hence. Skip Grison is a wealthy lawyer in his fifties. Twenty-something years before, he contracted (civil partnership) with Chelle Sea Blue (yes, really), who then left Earth to fight the Os. She is due to return home. Although she has been away decades, it has only been a handful of years for her. He is worried for their partnership, although he still loves her dearly. As a present for her return, Skip arranges for Chelle’s mother to be resurrected – ie, a brain scan of her is imprinted onto the mind of a volunteer. Skip and Chelle then go on a cruise on a sailing ship (the cover art depicts a motor cruise liner with masts and sails badly photoshopped on top, which is annoying). Things happen aboard the sailing ship – hijackers seize it, attempts are made on the life of Shelle’s mother, Wolfe plays his usual wordgames with the reader… But it all seems a bit, well, a bit feeble. Some of the puzzles presented in the narrative are easy enough to solve, and are indeed explained, but don’t seem to add much to the story. Those which are left unexplained, add even less. I can live with the mix-n-match worldbuilding, and while the old-fashioned sexual politics are uncomfortable they don’t actually overwhelm the narrative, but… it all feels like a pointless exercise. It doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like half a puzzle with no reward for solving it. I had expected some intellectual gratification from identifying the puzzles and then solving them, or failing to solve them, but to be honest I didn’t really care. Home Fires reads like a forgettable sf novel with a heavy reputation it doesn’t deserve hanging over it. Avoidable.

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, Jacques Tardi (2017, France). The first Tardi I read was The Arctic Marauder, and I liked its Verne-esque steampunk-ish flavour very much. So I continued to read his bandes dessinées – or rather, the Fantagraphics English translations of them. He’s probably best known for his The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, made into a film by Luc Besson, or perhaps for providing the production design, and the actual style of the art and animation, of the steampunk April and the Extraordinary World (see here). But Tardi’s graphic novels actually cover a variety of genres, from war to thriller to crime. And Fog Over Tolbiac is this last, an adaptation first published in French in 1982 of a noir novel by Léo Malet. (Tardi has adapted nine of Malet’s Nestor Burma novels to date, but Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge is the first to appear in English.) Burma is a private detective, who receives a letter one day from a man he knew twenty-five years before when both were anarchists. But the man has been murdered, and Burma finds himself trying to puzzle out the murder, its link to an unsolved robbery in 1936 on the eponymous bridge, and Burma’s old friends from his anarchist days at the “vegan hostel”. It’s a bit thin as a mystery, to be honest, though I suspect that’s an artefact of adaptation, but Tardi’s art is eminently suited to the material, both the story and the less-than-competent Burma. To date Tardi has published thirty-one bandes dessinées, of which around fourteen or fifteen have so far been published in English by Fantagraphics. After a hiatus of several years, brought about by illness, Fantagraphic seem to be back translating Tardi’s work… and I’ll continue to buy them.

Nomansland, DG Compton (1993, UK). Compton is a science fiction writer I admire a great deal. I think his prose is far far better than 99% of genre writers, living or dead, and his relatively low profile is not only due to the quality of his prose (many sf readers consider such prose either irrelevant or a hindrance), nor the fact his last novel was published in 1996 and only the SF Gateway has any of his books currently in print (as ebooks and omnibuses), although he does have one novel in the SF Masterworks series… but chiefly because the bulk of his fiction has a very British flavour and a lot of it is really quite miserable. Nomansland displays both these last two qualities, despite being set in an invented, and unnamed, European country, and because the world of the novel is forty years into the “Attrition”, an epidemic which causes pregant women to reject male embryos. In other words, only female babies have been born for nearly half a century. Nomansland also uses another common Compton technique – the double unsynchronised narrative, which is probably not the best way to describe it, but refers to paired narratives which differ in ways other than just POV. In Nomansland, one narrative is loosely-coupled third-person, set forty years after the Attrition, and focusing on scientist Dr Harriet Ryder-Kahn, who has just discovered a cure for MERS, Male Embryo Rejection Syndrome, but is being blocked from publication by her bosses at the Ministry of Science. The second narrative begins some ten years after the start of the Attrition, when Harriet is a young girl, and is first-person. It traces her history up to the 40-years-after narrative. There’s an elephant in the room in this story, and it takes two-thirds of the novel before anyone even mentions it: the world is a much nicer place now there are so few men (they’re still in charge, but they’re hugely outnumbered by women, and dying out). So the question becomes, is it worth actually curing MERS? Isn’t it better to leave the population as it is? Of course, the men – and few of them in this novel are painted in a flattering light – would like their own kind to be back in charge, but… I’m entirely sympathetic to the view a massively-majority, or entirely, female population would turn the planet into a much more pleasant place; and I can think of no good reason why men should be re-introduced, given a solution to reproductive needs. For all the crap we’re fed in the right-wing press about vile behaviour by other cultures, most of it is more a product of toxic masculinity than it is actual culture. In Nomansland, Compton is also clearly sympathetic, but he tries to present a balanced view and often undermines his point. MRA types will object to the characterisation of the male characters, but fuck ’em, they have no opinions worth treating seriously. If there is a problem, it’s that Compton is, if his fiction is any indication, somewhat misanthropic, and so even his female characters are far from sympathetic. Ryder-Kahn, for example, is fixated on publication, and does not seem to understand the impact of her cure. Nomansland is by no means one of Compton’s best, although my admiration for his writing remains undimmed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Reading diary, #51

With a TBR in the low four figures, it’s reached the stage where I’ve owned books for decades without having got around to reading them. This is, quite obviously, pretty dumb. So for several years now I’ve been trying to plan my reading, making a list of the books I intend to tackle in the coming month… But then, of course, the new shiny drops through the letterbox, and sometimes its lure is a little too strong and so it supplants one, or more, of the books on the TBR… Which is certainly what happened twice in the half a dozen books below.

Her Pilgrim Soul, Alan Brennert (1990, USA). I picked this up at Kontur in Uppsala last month, and ended up reading it on the train from Manchester Airport after stupidly leaving the book I had been reading on the plane. To be honest, I’d not been enjoying that book – it was The Music of the Spheres, and the writing was pretty bad – so it was no great loss. I was annoyed, however, about losing the 100 Yugoslavian dinar note I’d been using as a bookmark. (Um, I see there’s one for sale on eBay, from a seller located not all that far from Manchester Airport – they’re asking £1.40, although the market price appears to be 99p…) To be honest, I thought I might have read Her Pilgrim Soul before, but on reflection I think I’ve read some of its contents before – likely in one or another of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best SF anthologies, which I used to buy for many years. It’s a collection of well-crafted stories, a mix of science fiction and fantasy, most on the light side of either genre (but not the lighter side), and most not especially memorable. It’s been more than a month since Kontur, and I can remember very little about the contents of Her Pilgrim Soul. A good collection, I suppose, but in a way that has no lasting impact and leaves only a vague impression. Fiction, of course, should do more than that; but most manages much less.

The First Circle*, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1968, Russia). I suspect I like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer more than I like actually reading his writing. If that makes sense. I’d no real desire to read Solzhenitsyn until seeing Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (see here), and when I saw a copy of The First Circle, and immediately linked it to Sokurov’s The Second Circle, a favourite film, then I was suddenly keen to read Solzhenitsyn. And now I have read him – this book, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year (see here) – I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. True, I’m not reading him in the original Russian, so any infelicities in prose and style are more likely the fault of the translator, but… Well, the two books by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read so far are blackly comic works about the inhuman excesses of Stalin’s regime. And, well, I knew that, I knew Stalin was, and still is, the worst despot this planet has ever seen, responsible for a vast number of deaths, more perhaps than many historical epidemics. He killed more Russians in WWII, for example, than the Germans did. The First Circle, which is quite a hefty novel, covers three days among the inmates, and others linked to them, of Mavrino Prison, which is actually a secret penal laboratory staffed by politicial prisoners and others pulled from gulags and labour camps. Compared to others in the Soviet prison system, they have it cushy. But not as cushy as the family of the prison head, which includes his son-in-law, a young and upcoming diplomat, who foolishly telephones a doctor about to leave for Paris and warns him not to hand over some medical data to the West as he had threatened. The authorities were, of course, listening in… but they can’t identify the caller. Fortunately, some of the Mavrino inmates, and some of the equipment they’ve built, could help the MGB… The contrast with the lot of the prisoners and the diplomat’s family is stark, as is the contrast between those in Mavrino and their previous experiences in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn manages to find the nobility, and venality, in his prisoners, and paints them vividly as people. But the endless reiteration of bureaucratic cruelty – epitomised, if not literalised, by the treatment of the diplomat in the Lubyanka after his arrest – does pall on occasion. The First Circle, despite its short narrative timeframe, is surprisingly rambunctious, but less philosophical than I had expected – although, to be fair, most, if not all, of the references to Russian literature were lost on me. I still like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, and I still have another of his novels on the TBR, but I’ve yet to make up my mind about his actual writing.

Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks, Paul Kincaid (2017, UK). A housemate lent me a copy of The Wasp Factory back in 1987, and while it was certainly a memorable book, it wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t until I joined the British Science Fiction Association a year or two later that I discovered Banks also wrote science fiction – and I can remember finding a hardback copy of Consider Phlebas in WH Smith soon after, but at the time I would never have considered buying a book in hardback. Later, Banks was GoH at Prefab Trout, the second convention I ever attended, in September 1989, and I can remember a review of Canal Dreams in the programme booklet which described the novel as “a taunt thriller”. I think by that point I’d read Banks’s earlier novels – probably borrowed from Coventry City Library – the mainstream ones at least, but possibly also Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. I’m pretty damn sure, however, that the first Culture novel I actually bought was Use of Weapons, which was launched at Eastcon, the 1990 Eastercon, in Liverpool. I bought the hardback and Banks signed it for me. I stil have it, of course. From that point on, I purchased all of his books in hardback as soon as they were published. (However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I managed to track down first edition copies of the books before Use of Weapons.) So I guess you could say I am/was something of a fan. And yet, all those decades of reading him, but so few of his books seemed to manage the quality I expected of them – I enjoyed them, I appreciated them… but it always felt to me like he could do much better. I knew I was being unfair, but I could never help myself. And yet…. after reading Paul’s book on Banks’s novels, it occurs to me that my problem with Banks is that he rewarded careful reading but his prose was so effortlessly readable that I likely never gave his fiction the depth of reading which generated the most reward. And I reached this conclusion because Paul, a friend of many years, writes about Banks’s novels so well, so readably, that I want to go back to Banks’s books immediately and reread them and discover in them all the depth and goodness identified by Paul which I plainly missed… and knowing full well that I will also hugely enjoy the novels because they were always were, above all, hugely enjoyable. So, Paul, job done. (Although I’ll need more convincing about Transition, I think…)

The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967, USA). Okay, I admit I bought this novel – at this year’s Eastercon – because of the dreadful cover art. Comparisons with, and references to, The Martian proved inevitable, although the book itself is set on some random alien desert world. Humanity has spread out among the stars and pretty much conquered everyone it meets, most of whom also happen to be human, but nice and fluffy and progressive compared to Earth’s bigoted, racist and sexist conquerors. On one such world, the protagonist of The Killing Thing, Tracey, visits an open-cast mine and sees an experimental mining robot. It kills its inventor, and is taken by Earth’s military establishment for study. On Venus. Where it escapes. And now Tracey is the sole survivor of a ship that tracked the killer robot to the random alien desert world, and he’s stuck on its surface in a lifeboat with limited fuel and supplies, and must hold out until rescue arrives, while the robot hunts him down and tries to kill him. If it weren’t for the background material – most of which is, quite frankly, offensive – The Killing Thing would be padded out beyond boredom. As it is, it still reads like a short story bloated beyond its natural length. I’d had a quite high opinion of Wilhelm’s fiction based on previous stuff by her I’d read, but that opinion took a bit of a beating reading The Killing Thing. When I restart SF Mistressworks – soon, I hope – then I’ll bung a more comprehensive review of this book up there. For now: not a good work from a usually good writer.

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (2016, Israel). Once upon a time fix-up novels were pretty common in science fiction. Authors would take a bunch of stories, lash them together with a crude framing narrative, and then the whole thing would be presented as a novel. Some were more successful than others… but the fix-up is still an ugly, lumpy and lop-sided beast of a narrative form. Central Station, although presented as a fix-up novel, and on plenty of novel award shortlists, strikes me more as a collection of linked stories, although there is a story arc which progresses throughout it. I remember one or two of the stories appearing in Interzone and, at the time, I wasn’t especially taken with them. But given the success of this “novel”, and because several people have told me the stories work better together than they did in isolation, I decided to give it a go. And… it still doesn’t really read like a novel. But the individual stories do benefit from being in a collection. Alone, they felt incomplete, unresolved, whereas the novel shows that the resolution is merely cumulative and deferred. The title refers to space port in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and the stories are focused on a handful of families who live in the environs. There’s no date – it’s the future of a century or two hence – which occasionally leads to weird inconsistences in the setting, a feeling that tropes are deployed when needed rather than being integral, or natural, to the background. The prose, happily, is uniformly good, which means the stories are a pleasure to read. But if each individual story feels slightly unresolved, the novel, as a novel qua novel, manages not to feel that way. I don’t think Central Station is as adventurous, or as challenging, as some commentators have claimed, and it probably says more about the way we now view awards, than it does the book itself, that it’s appeared on so many shortlists – I mean, Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, those were genuinely challenging sf novels. But, on the other hand, Central Station is a well-crafted piece of science fiction, with visible writing chops in evidence, and such books seem all too rare in the genre these days…

The Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer (1940, UK). I’ve no record of when and where I bought this paperback, but I remember buying half a dozen or so secondhand Heyer paperbacks when I was in Great Malvern for a Novacon. That was back in 1997… So, um, two decades ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read The Spanish Bride, or if that was indeed when I bought the book, given that I’ve read all the other Heyer books I own – all thirty of them –  and some I’ve even read multiple times. I suspect it is because it’s a war novel, rather than a frothy Regency romance or eighteenth-century adventure. If the cover doesn’t make it plain, the first chapter certainly does, as it describes the Siege of Badajoz in quite gruesome detail. In fact, as a novel of the Peninsular War, The Spanish Bride does a pretty good job. Its hero, Brigade-Major Harry Smith of the Light Division, is perhaps a bit too much of a paragon – if not in his intent or actions, certainly in his ability to avoid harm – and its eponymous heroine is also far too chirpy and accepting and… well, only fourteen when she marries to Smith… and it’s hard to read the book without that fact floating about in the back of your mind. Heyer makes an excellent fist of describing the Spanish landscape, and while the blow-by-blow accounts of the various battles seem both accurately- and carefully-phrased, I often had trouble picturing the progress of the fighting. I wanted to see maps, or wargaming tableaux, or something that indicated how the oft-professed tactical genius of the various English officers actually manifested. I know Heyer for her Regency romance novels and, skeevy sexual politics of the time (or of her depiction of the time) aside, I had expected that element of The Spanish Bride‘s plot to be uppermost. But it isn’t. It is, as I wrote earlier, a war novel. If anything, “English officer marries underage Spanish hidalgo heiress” is merely subplot. And yet, having said that, Heyer’s prose has a clarity and wit few these days can match, and it’s readily evident here. The Spanish Bride is not a fun book, but then I don’t think it was intended to be. It’s almost cefrtainly going to be the Heyer novel I reread the least number of times – assuming I ever do reread it, which is unlikely – but I’m nonetheless glad I did read it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Reading diary, #50

Oops. I appear to have missed a number. I went straight from Reading diary, #47 to Reading diary, #49. I could have gone back and corrected the numbering, but I can’t be arsed. So this forty-ninth post is numbered fifty, and it’ll just have to carry on from there. All together now: deal with it.

The Memoirist, Neil Williamson (2017, UK). This is the fourth and final novella in NewCon Press’s new series of novella quartets (I wonder where they could have got that idea from?). These first four are straight-up sf, so I will admit to some surprise at seeing Neil Williamson’s name, since he’s not known for straight-up sf. But, thankfully, The Memoirist certainly qualifies as that, and even better, it’s a pretty damn good piece of straight-up science fiction. A ghost writer is hired to write the memoirs of the lead singer of a long-since defunct rock band that had a Moment a couple of decades previously. That Moment was at a near-legendary gig in a small club, of which no recordings or footage exists. And yet the myth of the gig overshadows what meagre impact the band itself ever had. In this world, ubiquitous “bees” provide 24/7 surveillance… but it seems that mythical gig triggered something which led to a new type of “bee”… and to say any more would give the plot twist away. I’ll admit I thought the mystery dragged out a little, but the way the plot then shifted into left-field more than made up for it. I enjoyed this, a good piece of near-future sf, almost McLeod-esque in places, with an interesting premise and an in interesting, and nicely oblique, approach to that premise (okay, it was a little Espedair Street too, but that’s hardly a complaint). Good stuff.

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, Ismail Kadare (2000, Albania). So I went looking for novels from countries I’d not read literature from before, and came up with this one. Kadare has won several international prizes, and been mooted as a Nobel laureate a number of times. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is his eleventh book, and his entire oeuvre – of novels, at least – appears to have been translated into English. Mark Gurabardhi is an artist in the provincial town of B—– and, well, things happen. Beginning with a bank robbery. People also tell each other stories, and each chapter is followed by a counter-chapter which expands on that story, as if it were the plot of the novel (but the counter-chapters are not a single narrative). Some sections of the novel deal with the old Albanian mountain code of Kanun, blood vendettas that go back generations, so far no one remembers what they were actually about, and how they’re in danger of kicking off again now that Hoxha’s communist regime has collapsed. Much as I enjoyed Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, it didn’t blow me away. I’m glad I read it, but I doubt I’ll read anything else by Kadare. But at least I can cross Albania off the list.

Project Clio, Stephen Baxter (2016, UK). I remember seeing this at the 2016 Eastercon in Manchester, but I own so many Baxter novels and novellas already, and had been badly disappointed by the last few I’d read, that I’d decided to give Project Clio a pass. But then recently I placed an order for the final novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass quartet and this novella sort of accidentally fell into my basket… It reads a little like Baxter had watched Danger: Diabolik, or any number of similar films, once too often, and while it’s a lot of fun it does read somewhat compressed and elided. It’s a carry-on from two earlier stories, which I have not read, even though I own the collection, Universes, in which the stories appear, which does mean Project Clio throws the reader in at the deep end since it assumes prior knowledge of the characters and set-up. There’s mention of Brutalist architecture in the novella, but I can’t work out if it’s approving, because being unapproving of Brutalist architecture would of course be unforgivable. The novella ends with a bit of a Dr-Who-style finish, which didn’t work for me. I liked the use of 1960s iconography, and the piss-takes of 1960s cultural artefacts, but the plotting did feel more like that of a television episode than an actual novella.

Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA). I’m still not entirely convinced by Robinson’s books, but they’re so beautifully written I’m prepared to forgive them much. Lila is written from the point of view of the wife of John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead and the patriarch depicted in Home. She was stolen as child, a neglected child, by a woman who calls herself Doll (and who gave Lila her name), and subsequently dragged about the Midwest looking for work. This was during the Great Depression, and anyone who has read Steinbeck, or even seen the film of The Grapes of Wrath, will have some idea of the abject poverty these people experienced. Eventually, Lila fetches up in Gilead as a young woman, and slowly, in much the same way a wild animal would, begins to explore the small town and its inhabitants. She starts working in the pastor’s garden, in return for his unprovoked acts of kindness toward her, and the two sort of drift together until he asks her to marry him and she says yes. While both Lila and Ames are drawn with an impressive amount of sensitivity – and Ames is clearly a remarkably, perhaps a little too remarkably, sensitive man for his time – and the interactions between the two are beautifully-written… but there’s that leap from friends who know very little about each other to marriage that seems somewhat ungrounded. I really do like Robinson’s prose – it’s deceptively simple – and I also really like the gentle pace of her novels, and the depth to which she explores her cast and their various interactions. But… they do also feel like they’re missing an edge, a bit of bite to temper the smoothness. The depiction of Lila’s childhood during the Great Depression is too bland to do the job. It means Robinson’s novels can feel a bit too, well, too pleasant. But still worth reading.

vN, Madeline Ashby (2012, Canada). According to my database, I bought this at the 2014 Fantasycon for £1. So it’s taken me nearly three years to get around to read it. I seem to recall it being quite well-received at its time of release, but, to be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed. The title refers to von Neuman machines, although in this novel they’re actually AI in humanoid bodies thatare faster, stronger, etc, than humans. They’ve integrated into society such that the story opens with a man, his vN wife and vN child (vN children are identical copies of their parent – created by both female and male vN; and, in fact, all vN come in a limited number of “models”, each one identical to the original vN of their line). In order for the child vN, Amy, to “grow” along a similar time-frame to a human child, her parents have been limiting her “food” intake. But when her vN grandmother, Portia, turns up to her kindergarten graduation and goes berserk, Amy eats her. And so grows almost immediately to adult size.  And goes on the run… The problem with vN is that the vN over-balanced the world-building, and Amy was a completely unconvincing character. The vN are so physically superior to human beings they made no sense unless they were non-sentient. But they’re AIs, and supposedly not dangerous because they have a “failsafe” (sort of Asimov’s Three Laws rolled up into one maguffin). Except Portia has overriden hers. And it’s likely Amy will be able override hers too. But since the entire novel is told from Amy’s POV- and she’s a very implausible five-year-old – we can only guess at what this might actually mean to society at large. If you want to read a book about robots and humans, Machine by Jennifer Pelland is much better. There’s apparently a sequel to vN, titled iD. I’ll not be bothering with it.

Blood Enemies, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book, An Exchange of Hostages, back in the 1990s when it was published. so I was pretty disappointed when Matthews’s original publisher, Avon Books, dropped the series after the original trilogy. It was then picked up by Roc, who published a further three novels before dropping it. A seventh novel was published four years later by Meisha Merlin, who went into administration shortly afterward. And now, eleven years later, we finally have the next book in the series, published by, of all people, Baen. Which at least explains the shit cover art. Happily, Baen are also rereleasing the earlier books in omnibus editions, which is just as well as Blood Enemies follows straight on from the previous book, 2006’s Warring States, and would be hard to follow without knowledge of the preceding books, despite Matthews’s lengthy introduction. Kosciusko had sent his freed bondsmen off into the Gonebeyond, but when he tried to follow them he found himself stuck on Safehaven. Meanwhile, Cousin Stanosz, an agent of the Malcontent (the Dolgurokij Combine’s unofficial secret service), has been investigating a series of brutal terrorist attacks on Gonebeyond colonies. He thinks Kosciusko’s brother is involved, and so impersonates Kosciusko to visit the brother in the company station he inhabits in Gonebeyond, travelling there in the bondsmen’s ship. Except Kosciusko manages to escape his house-arrest and tracks his b0ndsmen to the company station, inadvertently ruining Cousin Stanosz’s plan… This book is better-written than I remember the earlier books in the series being, and Kosciusko seems to have settled down as a character. But a lot happens in its 256 pages, and the constant referring back to events and people in the earlier books does tend to confuse in places. The Under Jurisdiction novels don’t have quite the same level of shine as they did back in the late 1990s and, while the genre has moved on in the eleven years since Warring States, although it has moved in much the same direction as the Under Jursidiction books were sort of heading… Blood Enemies still doesn’t feel much like a 2017 science ficiton novel. The world-building is strong, but it’s not the focus of the narrative. Nor are the characters’ emotions. Which does make it feel, when compared to present-day sf, as though everything in Blood Enemies is slightly off-centre. I’m not all that interested in the current sf narrative style, to be honest – world-bling and feels and word salad – but Blood Enemies reads like it’s trying to catch up rather than do its own thing. Having said that, I still intend to continue reading the series.

1001 Boks You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #49

I seem to have made up for the last post’s male heaviness, so to speak…

Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). A lot of people whose opinion I respect had said approving things about this book, and yet within less than a year after its publication conversation about it seemed to fade away. Nonetheless, it remained on my radar, and when I placed an order with Aqueduct Press – an excellent small press, by the way – I included it; or it may have been that I wanted this book and waited until there were others before ordering it, I forget which. Either way, that order also contained Flesh and Wires (see here) and A Day in Deep Freeze (see here), so it was a good purchase. All of which makes it a little embarrassing it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Necessary Ill. And, even more embarrassingly, I loved it. I don’t think it’s perfect, and at least one of the reasons I love it is because one of its elements fits so badly. It’s by no means a beautifully-written book, although its prose is generally better than average for sf, and its world-building does feel a bit hit and miss in places. But it’s premise has so much going for it, that I couldn’t help liking the book. At some point in the future, some babies are born neuter. They’re considered freaks, and those that do make it to adulthood disguise themselves as gendered people (those that haven’t had gender surgically forced on them as kids, that is). By the time the novel’s story starts, there’s a secret colony of them living deep in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The earth is also in serious trouble, thanks to a failing climate and scarce resources, and cannot handle its current population levels. Some of the neuters engineer plagues, which they release throughout the US, in an effort to cull the population. Jin is one such “spreader”, and is the chief character of the novel. While travelling about Texas, carefully spreading one of its plagues, Jin tangles with a man who seems to know a lot about the spreaders, and who appears to be behind an anti-neuter movement which is gathering steam. Meanwhile, Sandy, a young woman rescued by another neut, is now living with the neuts in their underground home. The plot spends a while exploring the world and the chief characters – but it’s all good stuff – before turning into the redemption of Jin, and by extension, all the neuts. This is done through a feature film about Jin, lightly fictionalised, and made by all the neuts who have infiltrated the film industry (inasmuch as they’re disguised as gendered people). The secret world of the neuts is handled really well, and if some of the science behind the plagues doesn’t quite sound like it could be true, it’s all presented with sufficient scientific grounding to be plausible. I think this book will make it into my top five for the first half of 2017, and might even make it to the end of year one.

Valerian and Laureline 16: Hostages of Ultralum, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1996, France). I do love this series, but not every album in it is all that memorable. And this, er, is one of the unmemorable ones. Ultralum is an important mineral used to fuel spaceships, but it only exists in areas of high spatio-temporal instability. Valerian and Laureline are still bouncing around after a previous album saw Galaxity, the pan-galactic peace-keeping organisation for which they worked, wiped out of existence and out of memory. There are a few references in this story to earlier albums, but from what I remember the plot was pretty thin and it felt more like the series was treading water than anything else. Plot-wise, that’s disappointing, but there are other aspects to the series which appeal – not least the mordant wit, which felt sadly lacking in the trailer for Besson’s film, although, to be fair, that focused on the visuals because that’s what modern audiences appear to want. But one of the strengths of the Valerian and Laureline series has been the shift in emphasis from Valerian to Laureline, and it would be a crying shame if the film characterised Valerian as the omni-competent hero and Laureline as his decorative sidekick. Because, to be honest, I had thought we were better than that. Still, this is Besson, so who knows. Mézières is apparently happy with the film, although as the illustrator I’d expect him to be concerned chiefly with the visuals. But I may be doing him a disservice – and Besson too, of course. We shall see. Meanwhile, the comics are readily available and definitely worth reading. Up to volume 17, at least.

Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson (2001, UK). I bought this when it was published 16 years ago, but I seem to have missed reading it and it’s only now I’ve finally got around to it. The novel opens with six prologues, each of which is based around one of the main narrative’s major characters. I’ve never been a big fan of prologues, but I like books that play around with narrative structure… And six introductory prologues strikes me as an interesting structural choice, even if their content doesn’t add all that much to the plot. Which concerns a pair of government projects, one in the UK and one in the US, based around some sort of neurological mapping technology, which could allow governments to control, and program, the thoughts of their citizens. Elements within the US security apparatus want control of the technology – and have already run a hugely illegal, and unsuccessful, test on human beings on a Native American reservation. In the UK, the research is being performed by a company owned by a mysterious Russian scientist (whose chain of identity changes forms one of the six prologues). When a test on a human subject is sabotaged, leading to a Dr Manhattan-like series of events, and infecting main character Natalie Armstrong with a more powerful version of the Mappa Mundi software… it kicks off a transatlantic techno-thriller plot that reminds me a little of a Cronenberg film, and in which the science-fictional technobabble floats uneasily on a well-realised real-world setting. The two main characters, Armstrong and half-Cheyenne FBI agent Jude Westhorpe, also felt a little good to be true. I suspect I’d have been more impressed with Mappa Mundi had I read it in 2001 (it made the Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love, and rightly so), but Robson’s subsequent novels have all been very good indeed and she’s one of the authors whose books I buy as soon as they’re published – even if it takes me sixteen years to get around to reading them…

Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (2015, UK). I forget why I read the first of Rowling’s pseudonymous crime novels (her disguise had been rumbled before I read it, so I knew it was by Rowling). Possibly it was because my mother had a copy and asked me if I wanted to read it and I said, go on then. And then she got hold of the second book in the series… And now the third… The prose is a little better than average for the crime genre, but not quite good enough to be called literary. And the crime elements are not especially well put together or convincing, perhaps about as poorly done as you’d expect in a literary novel. So the Cormoran Strike novels fall uneasily between two stools, without being quite good enough to be one or the other. Having said that, they’re easy reads, and the two protagonists – Strike himself, and his business partner, Robin – are engaging characters. In this one, an old enemy of Strike’s sends Robin the leg of a young female murder victim by courier, and clues suggest the perpetrator is an enemy from Strike’s past – two men he investigated when in the RMP, and a stepfather he hated. Rowling drags out the mystery for far too long, sending Strike and Robin up and down the country in search of clues. Meanwhile, Robin’s relationship with her fiancé hits a rocky patch – as the fiancé thinks Robin and Strike are attracted to each other (Rowling has been doing a Mulder/Scully thing with them). Oh, and the reference to Blue Oyster Cult in the title? (I spotted it immediately, I’m a BOC fan.) The entire book is filled with references to the songs and lyrics of Blue Oyster Cult. As a fan of the band, that was a draw, but I can’t see it being the same to those who aren’t. It’s not like the references add anything to the plot that could not have been done by a fictional band (and, let’s face it, Rowling could hardly write worse lyrics than some of Sandy Perlman’s). Of the three Strike novel so far published – and more will undoubtedly appear – Career of Evil was more likeable than its predecessors, but less satisfactory as a crime novel. I suspect that may be the series’ future…

Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK). New science fiction from my favourite sf author? That went straight onto the wishlist the moment it was announced… Two scientists from different fields, and with opposing views on how to conduct their science, join forces to run an experiment in a recently-discovered “void”, a hollow space deep in bedrock, in which they plan to make changes to “information space” and so instantaneously relocate their facility to an exo-planet. In the facility are the IS scientists and a “crew”, a group of reality TV stars who have been involved in several television interstellar mission simulations. The main character, Kir, is a young woman who grew up feral and now has an AI embedded in her skull. The Information Space thing reminds me of Buonarotti Drive from Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, and may in fact be the same thing. Proof of Concept starts out as an exploration of two incompatible groups of people living in a facility sealed off from the outside world, and in which tensions are heightened after a series of deaths – heightened to the point where the experiment is jeopardised. But then the experiment has also been dangerously compromised, and is not quite what it’s been presented to be. Reading Proof of Concept reminded me of all the reasons why Jones is my favourite sf author – that clear clinical prose, the knotty ideas, the sense there’s so much more to the story that’s not being told… Jones sketches in her near-future lightly, but there’s more than enough there to ground the story, even if current taste is for an excess of detail. She also pitches the readers straight into the story, which can leave readers floundering a little. But Jones’s fiction has always required work from the reader – as should all good fiction – and if Proof of Concept feels a little thin in places, it nevertheless has an interesting protagonist in Kir, and a fascinating idea, Information Space, at its core. More, please.

Monsieur d’Eon is Woman, Gary Kates (1995, USA). I have no idea how long I’ve had this book. I sort of found it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it. (Um, according to my database, I bought it cheap on eBay in 2005.) Anyway, I found it in a pile of books while I was doing a little light tidying in the study. I’d heard of the Chevalier d’Eon, of course, and thought I knew the basic details of his story… But apparently not. Kates bases his biography chiefly on d’Eon’s own writings – which, he is careful to point out, often contained fabricated and/or embroidered details (and in some cases, Kates provides historical evidence that d’Eon had lied in his autobiographical writings). The popular story has it that d’Eon was a spy for Louis XV, and he infiltrated the Imperial Russian court purporting to be a woman. After a period in England, he returned to France, adopted a female identity, and lived out the rest of his days as the Chevalière d’Eon. He claimed to have been born female, but brought up male because his father needed a son or they’d lose the family holdings. But on d’Eon’s death, it turned out d’Eon was male. Much of this history was fabricated by d’Eon himself. Kates maintains that d’Eon got himself in such bad favour with Louis XV, and yet was privy to so many embarrassing secrets, that the only way to neutralise d’Eon was to make him a woman – by royal decree. The book explains the historical and political background to d’Eon’s life and adventures, but it’s never quite clear why everyone thought a gender-change was suitable. Or what triggered the rumours he was really female. What is clear, however, is that d’Eon was an astonishing person, widely-read, learned, a gifted diplomat, a prolific author, and a minor war hero. He led a peculiar life – the first half as male, and a spy/diplomat for the French king; the second half in exile as a woman. Some of the details on d’Eon on his Wikipedia page are contradicted in Monsier d’Eon is a Woman – especially the bit about the Russian court. Kates maintains d’Eon invented the cross-dressing element years later (although he was indeed sent to the Russian court by Louis XV). A fascinating book about a fascinating person.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #48

I’m still struggling with my reading, and slipping further behind on my Goodreads challenge. It’s not the books I’ve been choosing to read, because most of them I’ve enjoyed and thought good, and none were hard work to get through. I love books, I love reading, and I want to read as many books as I possibly can. So I’m going to have to get back into it somehow… The books are a bit male-heavy this time around. I usually alternate genders in my fiction reading, but I seem to have had a short run on books by male authors. Ah well, it’ll balance out in the end.

The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK). Keiller is a film-maker, best-known for London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins, which are excellent lightly fictionalised cinematic meditations on the state of the UK, both economically and politically. He’s a bit like Adam Curtis, but without the found footage and global conspiracies. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet was published to accompany an exhibition of Keiller’s work – which I never saw as I only discovered his work after it had been on – and describes how Keiller went about making Robinson in Ruins, his thought processes as he wrote the script and what inspired him. It’s fascinating stuff. And you should definitely watch the films too.

Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book of the trilogy, but there’s apparently a fourth book in the works. Which is no bad thing, as it’s been an excellent series so far – and I’m not the only person to think so, as Europe in Winter won the BSFA Award only last month (although, bafflingly, it didn’t make the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; should I blog what I think of this year’s Clarke shortlist, or are we not allowed to have dissenting opinions any more?). It’s more of the same like Europe in Autumn, rather than Europe at Midnight, and in part follows on from the plot of the first more than that second. There’s a terrorist attack on the Line, and Rudi discovers his own father was heavily involved with a bunch of rogue topographers from the 1920s who might or might not have been responsible for an entirely separate pocket universe that might or might not be part of the Community. The person who promised so much in the the second book is assassinated from a distance in this one, abruptly cutting off that particular avenue of exploration by the narrative… Where these books are especially good – and it’s not the melding of sf and spy thriller, which has been done before, although no examples spring immediately to mind – but these books’ true strength is in depicting Europe as a coherent federation of cultures. They’re not entirely harmonious cutures, which is hardly unexpected, but the Europe books exhibit a magnificent sense of place. They could not have been written by a US author, that much is obvious; it’s slightly surprising they were written by a Brit… because the best European fiction has always been written by continental Europeans, not Brits. It’s an impressive achievement, which means cavilling over elements of the plots seems, well, cheap. But there are holes – the opening bombing is never satisfactorily explained, there’s always a sense the author is following a different agenda to his characters (and his readers must follow the characters’, of course), and there are one or two set-pieces which hint at a level of technology that’s never quite capitalised upon. But these are are minor quibbles. These are great books, superior near-future sf, and I’d put them in the top five of recent near-fututre sf with, er, Ken McLeod’s Intrusion – and that’s about it. Go read all three books.

Pirate Utopia, Bruce Sterling (2016, USA). Which a lot of people probably don’t know about as it seems someone fucked up the Nielsen data entry so badly that Amazon lists the book as by John Coulthart, Rick Klaw and Warren Ellis, and doesn’t mention Bruce Sterling anywhere. But now you know about it, and being a fan of Sterling’s work… Apparently, after World War I, the city of Fiume, now Rijeka, was claimed by both Italy and the recently-formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. But a group of anarchists, led by the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, seized power and declared the independent Regency of Carnaro. The city became something of a social experiment, but the fascists seized control after a couple of years and Fiume was annexed by Italy. Sterling’s short novel makes much of the birth of Futurism – indeed, the major character dreams of building “air torpedoes” and such, the sort of technology displayed in Lang’s Metropolis. But Pirate Utopia is also about the birth of fascism in Italy, and how it gained traction among the establishment. Of course, we’re seeing that happen on a daily basis here in the UK and the US. Pirate Utopia is a fascinating piece of history, but… as a piece of writing it felt a little lacking. Sterling was never much of a stylist, but I remember novels such as Distraction and Holy Fire being well-written novels. Pirate Utopia, on the other hand, seems to be written entirely in simple declarative sentences, which makes all feel a bit dumbed-down. I get that there’s a lot going on in the book, but it does feel a little Like Sterling didn’t trust his readers and so kept it simple. I suspect this is one for fans.

Bleed Like Me, Cath Staincliffe (2013, UK). I was a big fan of the Scott & Bailey TV series – and certainly for at least the first two series (or “seasons”, for US readers) it was superior telly. It slipped a bit in the third, and while it’s still very good it has seemed to lose its way a bit. And, to be honest, the 2016 series consisted only of three episodes, none of which were hugely memorable. The books are, sadly, much the same. I like that they’re built around the series, and include details revealed in the programme, but they’re otherwise straightforward police procedurals, heavy on the procedural and personal life of the two title characters (one of the series’ strengths, it must be said). In this book, a pub owner kills his wife, daughter and brother-in-law and then flees with his young son. The rest of the book is a manhunt – this is not a murder-mystery. They know who committed the crime, they just have to find him before he kills the young child he has with him. Meanwhile, Bailey is still trying to get over her relationaship with, and attempted murder by, her ex-boyfriend. Scott is having problems at home, which is not helped by her fling with a colleague, and syndicate leader Murray is worried about her son who has moved in with his estranged father and no longer seems interested in going to university. To be honest, I was expecting more in the way of plot. The manhunt is really dragged out, and reading this several years, and several series, after it was written, and so all the subplots have been resolved, kind of spoiled it a bit. But they’re easy reads, I like the characters, and if I stunble across the next one in a charity shop I’ll probably buy it and read it.

Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader, Robin Scott Wilson, ed. (1973, USA). I found this at Eastercon, and while it was quite tatty, and most of the contents wouldn’t normally appeal to me, but the fact it was a mix of short stories followed by essays by the authors on writing those stories, and some of the names involved included Delany, Le Guin and Russ, so I thought it worth a bash. It also included a story by the editor. I don’t get that. If you edit an anthology, you do not include one of our own stories. It’s hugely unethical. I don’t even care if you’re a co-editor. You edit, you do not contribute. It  makes you look bad, it makes everyone involved in the anthology look bad. And Scott Wilson’s story in this particular anthology, which is otherwise quite good, is easily the worst. As it is, the stories are variable – the Russ, ‘The Man Who Could Not See Devils’, is not one of her better ones, but the following essay is quite interesting. The Delany is ‘We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line’, which has always felt to me, in part, like a prototype for Dhalgren, and is one of those Delany stories I like more the more often I read it. His essay on the piece is especially good, and his approach to writing echoes my own in many ways. Le Guin contributes ‘Nine Lives’, the story about a ten-clone, and it’s okay. Damon Knight annotates his own story, ‘Masks’, although annotations overstate the literary quality of the story. And Kate Wilhelm’s dissection of her story ‘The Planners’ gives some useful tips on point of view. As a sf anthology, Those Who Can is middling at best, but the essays on writing greatly improve it. It’s a pity my copy is so tatty.

The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). I read Ouředník’s Europeana back in 2006, after something in the blurb persuaded me I might enjoy it. I loved it. I even picked it as one of my top five books of the year. I was less enamoured of his Case Closed, although it was good enough for me to continue to read him. The Opportune Moment, 1855, despite its unwieldy title, is not as good as Europeana, but it’s still huge fun. The novel opens with a letter from an Italian in 1902 to his beloved, before moving back half a century to the titular year and the journal of an Italian anarchist who travels to Brazil with a group of like-minded souls – well, not entirely like-minded, as they bicker and argue throughout the trip – to join a utopian community called Fraternitas. The book then jumps to six months after their arrival, and gives four slightly different entries on the first few months in the community. In each of them, the community fails because of the failings of its members; and while it makes for good satire to poke fun at idealism, not everyone is venal and corrupt despite all their protestations of high ideals. Ouředník is definitely worth reading, and The Opportune Moment, 1855, is very good, but it does feel a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, and even though the book is very funny in parts, and very good on human nature, I prefer my utopian fiction with a happy ending. Oh, and I’d really like to see more of Ouředník’s fiction translated into English.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #47

My reading slowed badly during March and April, so much so I’m ten books behind on my Goodreads reading challenge, and I picked a total ten less than the year before (which I just managed to reach). Partly it’s because I’ve been so busy at work, I’ve been eating my lunch at my desk, and so not reading during that break. But I’ve also found it harder to continue with the book I’m reading on the weekend. I really do need to pick up my reading pace.

The American Lover, Rose Tremain (2014, UK). Back when I lived in Abu Dhabi, I read several books by Tremain, both novels and collections, and enjoyed them. Since returning to the UK, I’ve not read anything by her, so I thought it time I rectified that and bought her latest collection. And… it was a good move. She’s worth reading. These stories are slight, it has to be said, but good, of a type I like and enjoy, but not exactly memorable. I find Helen Simpson’s short stories have more bite. The stand-out is probably ‘The Jester of Astapovo’, in which a dying Leo Tolstoy, fleeing from his wife, ends up at a nowhere railway stop “120 miles south-east of Moscow, on the Smolensk-Dankovo section of the Ural railroad line”, and spends his last few days there in the house of the station-master (aside, this is, from the use of the horrible Americanism “railroad”). I enjoyed The American Lover enough to decide to carry on working my way through Tremain’s oeuvre.

The Corporation Wars 1: Dissonance, Ken MacLeod (2016, UK). I’ve been buying and reading Ken’s novels since stumbling across a copy of his first novel, The Star Fraction, in Spinneys in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s. Throughout the years since, he’s published a variety of sf novels, and some I’ve liked a great deal more than others. Some have even been excellent – I still think his Intrusion is one of the best near-future sf novels of the past ten years. The Corporation Wars 1: Dissonance, on the other hand, has a title that really doesn’t appeal – it sounds like “Neoliberals in Spaaaace!” – and if it had been written by anyone other than Ken I’d have given it a wide berth. As it is… I’m unlikely to put it in my top five MacLeod novels. It’s a realistic treatment of robot sentience accidentally being created at a corporate mining site on a moon of Jupiter, and the team of avatars – virtual representations of dead human beings – who fight them. There’s a lot about simulated environments, a familiar topic to readers of Ken’s novels, and some intelligent treatment of the vast distances within the Solar System. But. Well, it never quite caught fire for me. The self-aware robots felt a bit clichéd, and the avatars were no better drawn. This is solid twenty-first century space opera, a bit more to the hard sf end of the spectrum than is usually the case, but I found it a little disappointing.

The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA). I forget who recommended the first book in this series, The Steerswoman, but when I came across a copy in a local charity shop, I bought it, later read it… and liked it so much I went and tracked down the remaining Steerswoman books (only the first was ever published in the UK, so I had to buy US editions… and there was such a long gap between books two and three that the first two were re-issued in an omnibus edition.) The Language of Power follows directly on from The Lost Steersman, but none of the books really make much sense unless read in order from The Steerswoman. Rowan is back in the seaport of Donner, trying to make sense of the events recounted in previous book. But her efforts to track down the records of a previous Steerswoman draw unwanted attention from the wizards… but then she stumbles upon Will, the boy genius who was taken on as apprentice by a friendly wizard, and it seems they’re trying to figure out the same things. These books are hugely likeable, and the presentation of science fiction as fantasy is perfectly pitched. It’s not a new idea, by any means – even Robert Jordan used it, for example – but Kirstein’s talent is in presenting understandable science fiction to the reader, not a handful of sf buzzwords or well-worn tropes, in such a way that it’s obvious this is sf to everyone except the characters. Sadly, the story is not yet complete and the recent installments have taken a while to appear. But it’s worth hanging in there, because these books are lots of fun.

Valerian and Laureline 15: The Circles of Power, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1994, France). Annoyingly, Cinebook have been prompted by the imminent release of Luc Besson’s Valerian film – which looks a bit dodgy as an adaptation, to be honest – to rerelease the Valerian and Laureline books in hardback omnibus editions. Argh. I’ve been buying the paperbacks as they’ve been published in English. And, as is evident in this blog post, I’m currently at volume 15. (Volume 16 will be published in April, but there are, to date, 22 volumes in French, the last published in 2013.) In The Circles of Power, the titular two find themselves on a world in which the city and society are organised into circles with increasing levels of authority and regulation. But something weird is going on in the highest circle, and since they need money to get their ship fixed, they’re forced to investigate. The solution to the mystery comes as no real surprise, but along the way – and this is where, on the strength of the trailer alone, I admit, I think Besson’s adaptation might fail – there is ample opportunity for Christin to display his mordant view of real world society and politics. And I saw nothing of that dry banter in the trailer for Besson’s film. Which is a shame – one of the joys of the Valerian and Laureline bande dessinée series is how it maps onto the its time of writing.

popCult!, David Barnett (2011, UK). I bought this at the Fantasycon before last, so it’s taken me about 18 months to get around to reading it. Which is actually pretty good – I have some books I bought over a decade ago I’ve yet to read. I can’t remember why I bought it, possibly because I know the author, but perhaps also because the blurb mentions a lost Carry On film as central to the plot… and for all their myriad faults I’m a reluctant fan of the Carry On series.  In the event, Carry On, You Old Devil!, the so-called missing film, turned out to be a maguffin. The actual novel is about the writer of the titular work – a non-fiction work on popular culture in the novel – and how he is recruited by the, er, titular underground organisation, which is dedicated to safeguarding popular expressions of mass culture – talent shows, reality television, anything which makes celebrities of nobodies, basically – against a mysterious and semi-immortal enemy. Unfortunately, the protagonist is thoroughly unlikeable, and his allies somewhat too perfect to be true, but there’s some excellent commentary on popular culture buried among the implausible goings-on. It’s a fun novel, but it’s one where the writer was clearly capable of better – and has subsequently proven so. One or two aspects proved uncannily prescience when I was reading it – especially the section where popCult! break into the Palace of Westminster… Worth reading, if you can find a copy.

Darkchild, Sydney J Van Scoyc (1982, USA). Many years ago, I decided I liked Van Scyoc’s novels – I forget which of her novels prompted it – and over a number of years I’ve picked up copies of all her books… and I’ve been very slowly reading them. Darkchild I actually read as the first part of SFBC omnibus edition, Daughters of the Sunstone, which also includes Bluesong and Starsilk. I was afraid I might have gone off Van Scyoc’s writing, but I was happy to find I still like it a lot. There’ll be a review of Darkchild on SF Mistressworks soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #46

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129