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Reading diary 2019, #13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2019, #12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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100 books, part 4

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

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

Which brings us to…

The 2000s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Reading diary 2019, #11

Winter has definitely arrived and we’ve already had several days of snow. I’m a good deal further north than I used to be, although for much of the year so far that’s not really been apparent – it was hot during the summer, when it wasn’t wet and windy. But there’s definitely less daylight up here now that summer and autumn are over. After fifteen years in the UK, it’s nice to live somewhere that has clearly demarked seasons.

Greeks Bearing Gifts, Philip Kerr (2018, UK). I’ve been a fan of the Bernie Gunther series for many years – and indeed of most of Kerr’s fiction (although, to be honest, a few of his thrillers are complete potboilers). Greeks Bearing Gifts is the thirteenth Bernie Gunther book, and the one following it, Metropolis, is unfortunately the last, as Kerr died last year. (And yes, I do have them all in first edition hardback.) Gunther is working as a porter at a hospital in Munich when he’s recognised by a local cop and blackmailed into assisting with a shakedown of a local bigwig with Communist connections. It goes wrong but gets Gunther a job at a reputable insurance company as an investigator. Which is why he ends up in Athens, investigating a claim for a yacht owned by a German that sank while searching for sunken treasure. Except, of course, nothing is ever that simple in a Bernie Gunther novel: and not only are the circumstances surrounding the sinking dodgy, but so too is the treasure they’re hunting – it’s gold stolen from Jews, basically – but then the owner of the yacht is murdered, and Bernie is up to his neck in events resulting from wartime incidents which he himself experienced but which make him look like a war criminal when he’s actually not one. They’re cleverly done these books, they treat their subject seriously. Kerr does his research and backs it up, and they show – through the point of view of a slightly corrupted witness – the many atrocities the Nazis committed and which people are now all too happy to dismiss. It’s quite simple: anyone who defends the Nazis is a Nazi. They were evil scum, and as the years pass and we learn quite how evil they actually were, so sympathising with them becomes even less justifiable. Bernie Gunther is a sympathetic character, and he worked with many Nazis – including a number of well-known ones, as is thrown in his face at one point in this novel. But he was never a Nazi and never sympathised with their views. And Kerr has used him extensively to criticise Nazi thought and views. It’s just a shame the people most likely to promote Nazi views are too stupid to read Kerr’s novel. Or indeed read books.

Farewell, Earth’s Bliss, DG Compton (1966, UK). Mars has become a new Botany Bay, and convicts are transported there at regular intervals. Life is brutal on Mars – although not as brutal as it would have been had Compton’s Mars been anything like the real Mars – as the latest group of transportees discover on arrival. I consider Compton one of the best science fiction writers the UK has produced. His prose is astonishingly good. But his best work was published in the 1970s and 1980s, and those books are very much of their time – to an extent, in fact, that it becomes part of their appeal. Farewell, Earth’s Bliss was Compton’s second sf novel – he had previously written crime fiction as Guy Compton, and continued for a few more years after his first sf novel. I’ve no idea why he decided to change genre. Perhaps he thought it would be easier to sell novels – although he doesn’t seem to have been discovered by the US until 1969, when his third sf novel, The Silent Multitude (see here), was published in the first Ace SF Special series. Anyway, Farewell, Earth’s Bliss owes much to Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday (see here), at least in terms of its depiction of the Red Planet. The characters are well-drawn but a deeply unpleasant bunch. And there’s a low level everyday racism – although one viewpoint character is black, and his narrative is handled sensitively – that does not sit well with modern readers. But, in common with other novels by Compton, it’s hard to see where the story is going. He was never one for plotting – perhaps that’s why he swapped from crime to science fiction, he couldn’t plot and could disguise that lack in sf – and Farewell, Earth’s Bliss is fairly typical in that regard. It reads like a series of character studies, something Compton did really well, although they work better when they’re in service to a barebones plot, which this novel lacks. It is a rare writer who impresses you with every book in their oeuvre, especially the early ones. Compton remains, to my mind, one of the best prose writers science fiction has produced, but that does not mean every book he wrote was amazingly good. (If you give a book five stars, what if you read one that’s even better? For fuck’s sake, give up with the juvenile “everything is awesome”, you’re not in the marketing department, you’re not being paid to make it easier for some multinational to rip you off.)

Semiosis, Sue Burke (2018, USA). This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and while I often disagree with the jury’s choices, there’s at least some expectation of quality in the books they pick. I mean, this is a national award. For science fiction. They might define the genre a little oddly every now and again, but they at least recognise good fiction when they see it. Except, well, maybe not last year. That was a really shit short list. Happily, the best book did indeed win. This year was quite an odd shortlist – the final book of a trilogy, a book of sf art, a horror novel, a debut novel, a mainstream novel that’s really sf, and… this, Semiosis. Which is certainly science fiction. It is, in fact, a first contact novel, and it says so on the cover. But it’s also surprisingly old-fashioned. I was reading sf like this back in the 1990s. The fact it’s done well doesn’t make it any more twenty-first century. The novel is structured as the diaries of members of a colony that has settled an alien world – a private venture, with very fixed ideas on minimising the colony’s impact on the alien world. The personal accounts follow on one generation from the next, first outlining the accommodations the colonists have made to survive, then the perversion of those accommodations in order to preserve ideals that no longer are relevant. Then the colonists learn there are others on the planet, descendants of colonists from an alien world. Where Semiosis differs from other first contact novels is that the major intelligence the colonists discover is a plant. And it more or less programmes the humans according to its own needs, which happily also result in some degree of success for the humans. That is until the humans meet the descendants of the prior alien colonists. There’s no denying Semiosis is done well, but there’s nothing I can see in it that makes it stand out from other well-crafted science fiction novels that privilege science. And while that may be a rarity in this day and age, it should not on its own be enough to merit appearance on a major genre award shortlist. Semiosis was good but I don’t think it deserved to be a Clarke finalist.

Throy, Jack Vance (1992, USA). So the Cadwal Chronicles comes to a close and it’s pretty much as expected, but this is Vance so it’s the journey that’s been the real source of entertainment. By the start of Throy, the conspiracy threatening Cadwal is pretty much understood. It seems to be driven chiefly by pique – the two sisters Spanchetta and Simonetta Clattuc couldn’t have Glawen Clattuc’s father, so they determined to destroy Cadwal’s society – in other words, the sort of brainless arrogance which seems to have been prevalent in British politics for the last fifteen years. Two factions want to open up Cadwal to exploitation – the LPF faction of the Naturalist Society, which owns Cadwal, wants a feudal society in which they lord it over vast estates of Yips, the planet’s servant race/class; while the two Clattuc sisters simply want to destroy the society in revenge. Unfortunately, the society’s ownership of Cadwal was safeguarded in the second book, Ecce and Old Earth (see here). Which means the two groups are forced to use more violent means to achieve their aims. Happily, the forces of good have a good idea of what is about to go down, and even though the novel is mostly a hunt for clues to resolve a couple of minor mysteries, and there’s a humongous atrocity which is pretty much passed over in a couple of paragraphs, everything works out pretty much as expected, and it’s all done very entertainingly. I’ve enjoyed these three books, more than I thought I would, and that’s despite being extremely familiar with Vance’s career. I’d happily recommend these above other better-known works by Vance.

Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1933, UK). Well, if I’d thought Black Mischief (see here) was racist, it’s almost woke compared to Scoop. And yet Scoop is the Waugh novel which appears on so many best of lists, including “Best British Novels of All Time”. Of course, the people putting together these lists are not the ones who are troubled by the casual everyday racism embedded in them, but things have changed – for the better – and these works really should be re-evaluated in light of present-day sensibilities. And yes, I’m happy to call any right-winger a fascist, even if their views don’t fit the dictionary definition of fascism, let’s not forget taxonomy is a derailing technique and the only people who derail arguments are people who don’t want their views held up to public scrutiny. Because they’re probably fascist. Or racist. Like Scoop actually is. Its story is apparently inspired by real events, but it’s still a story about a white man – a hapless white man, it must be said – who goes to an “uncivilised” African country. Because all brown countries are, of course, uncivilised. At least to 1930s white people. But then, to add insult to injury, the text is filled with a number of racial slurs, not just spoken in dialogue, but in the actual descriptive prose. I lost count of them. The big joke is that a newspaper magnate has picked the wrong man – due to some confusion over names – to be his foreign correspondent covering a civil war in the invented African nation of Ishmaelia, but the Ishmaelians are too stupid and indolent to actually fight and all that happens is a series of contradictory communiques by government agencies. It’s a variation on Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, but written from a British colonialist perspective of the 1930s. Waugh was a terrible snob and a horrible person – it’s well-documented, he was deemed “officer most likely to be shot by his troops” during WWII – but he had a wonderful prose style. It’s a dilemma. His command of English is a joy to behold, but he wrote horribly racist and snobbish books (the latter allegedly presented as “comedy”). Read him and then throw his books away, that’s my strategy.

Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK). These books have been recommended to me several times, although perhaps the third book, Before Mars, more than that others. And I’d had a vague ambition to give them a go, but then Planetfall was reduced to 99p for the ebook version so I though it worth a try. And I’m glad I did. From what I remember of the reviews, I had not thought it would appeal, but in actual fact it was much closer to my tastes in sf than I’d expected. There’s something in Planetfall that recalls a lot of older works – Rogue Moon is an obvious example – but also something very twenty-first century about the treatment. The narrator is  member of a colony on an exoplanet. She is in charge of the colony’s 3D-printers, which has caused problems for her, as the novel slowly reveals. The colony is also sited juts outside an alien enigmatic and uninhabited city. The novel does not explain the alien city, but it uses it and its strange properties to open up the workings of the human colony. Planetfall is not only very readable, it also makes an excellent first of its premise. Perhaps I would have liked the alien city to be a little more explained, but Planetfall is the first in – to-date – a series of four books, and I plan to keep on reading, so how knows what will be revealed…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2019, #10

I really should read more classic literature as I seem to be spending most of my time reading science fiction and a lot of it has been pretty shit. But, well, I’m a sf fan, and sf gives me something classic literature does not. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give me good writing. And all too often it doesn’t even give me good science fiction. Sf that’s well put together is getting harder to find – because that’s not a commercial quality and it is commercial qualities which determine whether a) books are published, and b) they are successful and so everyone talks about them and they’re easily available. Back in the day, when the NBA existed, editors could curate their lists, and publish books that might not sell many copies but were actually good. Now they have to chase the the bottom line. This is not a change for the better. It’s like privatisation: it never fucking works. Still, it makes the rentiers happy – and that’s basically what society apparently exists to do, so there you go.

Splintered Suns, Michael Cobley (2018, UK). Mike is a mate of many years, decades even, and I’ve followed his career from the beginning. Unfortunately – if that’s the right word – he’s a better writer than his books would suggest. Partly this is because he’s determined to write commercial genre fiction – fantasy initially, now space opera – and in order to get work accepted by publishers, he’s had to work within those constraints. With his Humanity’s Fire trilogy, he wrote a smart British space opera, based a little too obviously on the works of Iain Banks – which is hardly a crime – but with enough invention to hold its own. And if the descriptive prose and characterisation were a cut above what were typical for the sub-genre, well, that was all to the good. But these pendants to that series – Ancestral Machines (2016) and Splintered Suns – on the one hand haven’t done the trilogy any favours, but on the other are likely to have introduced new readers to the series. They’re weaker books – or rather, they’re lighter books, lacking the heft of the trilogy, with more adventure-oriented plots, explicitly so in Splintered Suns. Both make extensive use of a Big Dumb Object, but Splintered Suns is the more inventive of the two. And its plot is better suited to its cast. Who are the misfit crew of a trading ship which is often involved in less than legit business. And who remain still mostly irritating – especially the captain of the Scarabus, Brannan Pyke – and had they been players in a RPG the GM would have lied about their dice rolls very quickly to ensure they were killed off… Totally unfair, of course, as space operas like Splintered Suns are just as much about their cast as they are their setting. The plot, however… Not only do you have the crew of the Scarabus trying to track down a legendary two million year old giant spaceship, and when they find it they have to navigate a shifting set of time streams and alternate realities to do the space opera maguffin thing, meanwhile there are a set of copies of the crew stuck in a VR fantasy RPG who have to work their way up the levels to kaibosh the space opera maguffin from within. Cobley manages his cross-cut plots with impressive aplomb, although the dialogue does occasionally drift towards parody. Splintered Suns is, as I said, a better book than its predecessor, and it certainly demonstrates there are many stories to be told in the Humanity’s Fire universe.

Ecce & Old Earth, Jack Vance (1991, USA). I used to think Vance was great, one of the actual real great writers of science fiction, although these days that label seems to be handed out to books on a daily basis. Then I sort of went off Vance – the plots often seemed the same, the prose was variable, the invention a little too obviously copying from earlier works… There are great Vance works, but there are also a lot of mediocre ones. I still like the Alastor Cluster books, but the Demon Princes series is badly plotted. Happily, Ecce & Old Earth, the second book in the Cadwal Chronicles, a part of the Gaean Reach loose series, is good. It’s also late Vance, from a time when he was no longer at his prime… or so I had thought, except… I really enjoyed the first book of the trilogy, Araminta Station (see here), and thought it read like Vance on form. Happily, the same is true of Ecce & Old Earth. The plotting is not quite as solid, and the invention does not spark as much, but both seem more than suitable for the story. The world of Cadwal is protected by a charter held by the Naturalists’ Society, but the society is moribund and it seems the charter may have been sold decades before by an unscrupulous secretary. The plot of Ecce & Old Earth is compared by its characters to a ladder – one character starts from the bottom, the other from the top, both hope to discover who currently owns the charter and so safeguard Cadwal’s future. Most of the novel takes place on Earth, and Vance’s inventiveness fails him to some extent as he present Earth towns pretty much as they were at the time of writing (or at least some romanticised version of them from the time of writing). But then Vance was always one for recycling the real world, and even then he manages to give the quotidian a touch of the alien. But you read Vance for the prose style, not for the plotting, and Ecce & Old Earth is Vance in fine voice. And the wit seems a little funnier than I remember from other series. The Cadwal Chronicles have rekindled my respect for Vance’s works. I’ve already bought an ebook copy of Throy so I can complete the trilogy.

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee (2016, USA). This was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 2017, and its sequel in the year following, and the third book of the trilogy this year… so this is science fiction which is highly regarded by that small section of fandom which votes for the Hugo. I wasn’t planning to bother reading the trilogy – I’d bounced out of Lee’s short fiction enough times that trying it at novel-length didn’t appeal at all. But I was given a copy of the third book as part of this year’s Hugo Voters Pack (but not the first two books, even though the Machineries of Empire trilogy was nominated for Best Series), and the first book went on sale at 99p, so… Ah, why the fuck did I bother? This is pretty much fantasy with a spaceship on the cover. Also, it’s not very good, certainly not worthy of a Hugo nomination. In the space opera universe of the series – and assorted short stories, now collected – humanity has split into a variety of factions, six of them in fact, the “Hexarchate”, and they all make use of a specific calendar and “calendrical mathematics” to magically generate things like FTL or exotic weapons. Imposing this calendar is what allows the Hexarchate to maintain control. Except when one of its core fortresses decides to use a heretical calendar, and introduce democracy, so jeopardising the existence of the Hexarchate. Which responds by bonding the mind of the Hexarchate’s most successful general, a criminal psychopath whose mind is held in secure stasis, with that of a mathematically-gifted Kel (ie, military) officer. And the pair of them are charged with taking the fortress from the rebels. Most reviews I’ve read have praised this book’s worldbuilding, and the density of it, but it’s meretricious nonsense. The whole calendrical thing is no different to a RPG magic system. The plot of Ninefox Gambit consists chiefly of the two protagonists lecturing each other. And the whole thing exhibits the sort of mindless brutality and callousness at which even sociopaths would blanch. A calendar that requires ritual torture as reinforcement? Sounds a bit fascist. The Kel have “formation instinct”, which is where the individual Kel are neurologically programmed to obey orders. Sounds a bit fascist. There used to be seven factions, but one of them rebelled so the other six committed genocide. Sounds a bit fascist. It transpires the psychopath general objected to this and felt the Hexarchate – the Heptarchate as was – might not be such a good thing. So, Ninefox Gambit suggests towards its end, and the blurbs of the two sequels suggest it’s the story arc of all three books, he chose to do something about this. But the only way he could live long enough to bring down the Hexarchate was to be put in stasis as a criminal. So he commits a huge massacre. WTF? Not even the most cynical Jesuit could rationalise that means as justifying the ends. It would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on London to bring down Boris Johnson’s government and then writing it up as if the bomber were a hero. Welcome to US space opera. Abu Ghraib means nothing; Gitmo means nothing. With a total lack of irony or reflection, US space operas are willing to bake into their worlds the sort of shit George W Bush was happy to sign off on, even if as individuals they are committed to opposing neocon politics. What doesn’t seem to have occurred to them is that putting shit like that in sf novels only helps normalise it. They need to take responsibility for the worlds they build. I don’t care what the politics of the writer may be, but if they’re writing Nazis in space then their book is no different to anything written by an actual Nazi. It’s one thing to present bad ideas and then argue against them, but space opera doesn’t do that. It presents them as normal. And that is more damaging. To read the works of an author who is explicitly not fascist but whose works embody concepts that are fascist is… exactly the same as reading the works of a fascist. No art is created in a vacuum; no art is consumed in a vacuum. You cannot separate the art from the artist. You should not give a free pass to those creators whose personal politics you approve but whose works contain politics you do not approve… without commentary. The Machineries of Empire trilogy, which renders fantasy as space opera, normalises a level of brutality which differs from grimdark only in the gruesome destructiveness of its invented arsenal. And people nominate this for awards! Had Ninefox Gambit been brilliantly written, had it provided a morally-balanced commentary on its worldbuilding, then perhaps it might have been worthy of nomination. It is, and does, neither. The prose is about average for genre writing, the commentary is focused almost exclusively on the characters within their world. The whole idea of democracy being a bad thing is a wink at the reader – or rather, a knowing nod at what the author imagines is an enlightened reader. If there’s one thing the Sad Puppies debacle has taught us, it’s that not all sf readers are enlightened. Not on a literary level, not on a political level, not on an intellectual level. Indeed, some of them actively reject being enlightened, particularly on an intellectual level. The Sad Puppies were defeated and I am glad of that, but I do worry that science fiction learned nothing from the skirmish. It was presented as a battle for the heart and soul of science fiction, but it looks very much like it was a fight between authors who held different personal politics but were happy to write down exactly the same political line in their sf stories. A hollow victory indeed.

Kon-Tiki 2: Parasites, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK) and Kon-Tiki 3: Insights, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2019, UK). Both authors are friends. I’ve known them for many years, and their fiction has always struck me as good, but it never seems to garner the acclaim needed to raise their profiles. They’re craftsmen – what they write is well-written; but sometimes it lacks that additional inventiveness required to bounce it to the next level – and when it does, it doesn’t matter because they’re boringly ordinary people with very low, if not zero, online presences. PS Publishing have regularly published Brown’s novels and collections, as well as the novellas he’s written in collaboration with Brooke (and they’ve been collaborating, every now and again, for at least thirty years). The Kon-Tiki Quartet is about the colonisation of an earth-like exoplanet by an Earth very close to catastrophic failure from climate crash. The gimmick here is that copies of the colonists are sent and “printed” on arrival. Leaving the originals behind in. In Kon-Tiki 2: Parasites, the colonisation ship arrives at “Newhaven”, only to discover it was beaten there by a more efficient vessel. And so the crew – or rather, the handful the story concerns – discover they have copies of themselves, with different histories. If that isn’t enough, one of them has been researching the local fauna and discovered it has a form of hormonal telepathy which is compatible with human chemistry. And so an unregulated experiment becomes the means to untangle a love triangle, and some of its nasty secrets, including the murder which formed the plot of the first book of the quartet, while also presenting a magic bullet that will present all future human interactions in a different light. Which, unfortunately, certain movers and shakers on Newhaven have a problem with in Kon-Tiki 3: Insights. Because they have plans for Newhaven, which they intend to take back to Earth, and if everyone could read everyone else’s thoughts, experience their actual being, then not only are their plans jeopardised but their entire lives are rendered useless. And they don’t want that. Which does, unfortunately, give the novella more of a thriller plot – albeit on an alien world – than a science fiction plot. And the central premise, that people might be “printed” into bodies other than copies of their originals, is not really explored, other than as an enabler for infiltration of government offices. In many respects, the Kon-Tiki Quartet is almost the dictionary definition of traditional sf: it’s ideas-based, and carefully worked out and well-presented… but it’s also Eurocentric, with a cast of almost entirely white people, and concerns that apply chiefly to them. This is hardly unexpected, given the authors’ backgrounds. But a series about a project to safeguard humanity by settling an exoplanet you would expect to mention more races and cultures. Of course, this is all a bit Scylla and Charybdis – which is more damaging to the reputations of the authors, the lack, or including it and not getting it right enough for some readers? Given the authors’ lack of online presence, it hardly matters. What happens on Twitter only really matters to people on Twitter. I feel like I’m damning the Kon-Tiki Quartet with faint praise, when if in fact it’s a well-constructed series of four novellas (well, three to date) that occupies the heartland of Atlantic, albeit more UK than US, science fiction. It does what it does with a degree of accomplishment you’d expect of its authors. It may well be a shame neither are not better-known, either side of the Atlantic, but, to be honest, this is not the work to do that. One for fans – but I do recommend becoming a fan of both authors.

The Dragon Reborn, Robert Jordan (1991, USA). The reread continues, and most of the time I have to wonder why I’m bothering… The story arc is still bouncing around, trying to work out what length the series will finally be (and even then, Jordan had pretty much no clue right up until his death), most of the characters continue to be very irritating – or rather, Jordan’s repetitive way of presenting them is hugely annoying – but the worldbuilding, despite being somewhat identikit fantasy, is starting to come together. After the big battle which ended the previous book, and actually resolved very little, book three seems to be mostly explanations of what might happen. Rand al’Thor has declared himself as the Dragon Reborn, and is afraid he’ll go mad from channelling the One Power (as has every other bloke who could since the Age of Legends). But he’s determined not to be controlled by the Aes Sedai, or rather the small group of Aes Sedai who actually believe he is the Dragon Reborn. So he’s run away to Tear, partly driven by bad dreams and partly by the onset of madness caused by using the Source. The three young women, Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve, are on their own adventure – approved this time – to find the escaped Black Ajah, who have gone to ground in Tear. Moiraine, Lan, Loial and Perrin are hot on Rand’s tail, but having adventures on their own. And Mat, cured by the Aes Sedai, has been sent to Caemlyn to deliver a letter to the queen, but then heads for Tear after overhearing a plot to murder Elayne… In other words, the plot is eighty percent travelogue, with plenty of history lessons, before everything comes to an explosive head in Tear in the final chapter. Nynaeve’s constant tugging of her braid is getting really fucking annoying. Rand is pretty much a blank, chiefly because his viewpoint appears very little – amusingly, the Wikipedia describes The Dragon Reborn as “unique at the time” in the series because of this. It’s the third book in the series, FFS. Anyway, The Dragon Reborn is a definite improvement on the preceding two books, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. I can see why people became invested in the Wheel of Time as this is the first book of the series which actually feels like part of a series. And that’s not just because the end clearly slingshots into the next book. It’s like the setting is starting to develop a third dimension. That doesn’t stop it from being 75% identikit, but it’s like that tilt-shift thing where a flat backdrop sort of refocuses and… Hmm, isn’t that effect used in the opening credit sequence of Game of Thrones? Anyway, next up: The Shadow Rising. Although I think I will continue with my Dune reread before tackling it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2019, #9

My trip to Dublin for Worldcon entailed a few hours strapped to a chair, which meant I got some reading done. This may be a mixed blessing. I should probably rename my “book reviews” as “book rants” since, to be honest, I tend to use the books under discussion chiefly as jumping off points for commentary on fiction in general – if not genre in general (which sounds a bit weird but there you go). After all, my reviews have caused me a few problems with writers who have disagreed with my assessment. Repeat after me: REVIEWS ARE NOT FOR THE WRITER.

Brush Back, Sara Paretsky (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since being introduced to them by my mother back in the mid-1990s. Not only are they well put-together crime novels with a likeable protagonist, but Warshawski – and Paretsky, by extension – wears her politics on her sleeve. And they’re politics I pretty much agree with. It’s not entirely political, however. Given that these books are set in the US, and moreover in Chicago, corruption plays an important role and Warshawski continually battles against it. It features in Brush Back, of course, but the novel opens with a completely unrelated incident, one which, it transpires, was indirectly caused by corruption. A woman from Warshawski’s old neighbourhood is released from prison after serving twenty-five years for the murder of her daughter. She now claims she is innocent, more so she claims the actual killer was Boom-Boom, Warshawski’s cousin and much-loved ice hockey star who was murdered in the second Warshawski novel, Deadlock, published back in 1984. Warshawski is rightly affronted, but she is involved in another case, also centred on the same neighbourhood. Of course, the two are linked, and it’s all to do with a local councillor who’s as bent as they come and another man, an old protege, who looks like he’s got a shot at power. When you start a Warshawski you pretty much know what you’re going to get, and Brush Back delivers that as effectively as any of Paretsky’s novels. It’s a good addition to an excellent series, and more people should be reading them.

New Suns, Nisi Shawl, ed. (2019, USA). I have never really been a fan of anthologies. If they’re themed, and the theme interests me, then sometimes they work for me. But anthologies, not just genre ones, and pretty much since they were invented, have a fatal flaw: cronyism. Editors invite their friends to contribute, or people they hope will draw in readers, or people who tick certain boxes. Some people say tables of contents have to be built, which means going out and finding the writers whose presence in the anthology are not going to cause a stink on social media. The alternative is open submissions. Anyone and everyone sends in a story, and the editor picks the best, or most suitable, stories. This too has its problems. A lot of crap gets submitted; not everyone seems to understand the concept of a brief – the editor wants hard sf and someone submits urban fantasy, the editor asks for stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words and there’s a 10,000 word story or two sitting in the queue… Also, many well-known writers won’t submit unless asked (why should they invest time and effort in something with no guarantee of a sale? On the other hand, if invited why should they assume their submission will be accepted?). So, anthologies: by definition a mixed bag, irrespective of how they’re put together. New Suns is sort of themed, in as much as its contributers are all people of colour. The stories themselves cover a wide range, from Tobias S Buckell’s relatively straightforward sf to the almost mythical fantasy of Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’. Some stories work better than those, but overall this is a pretty strong anthology. And I suspect part of the reason for that is its variety – okay, I mean I realise that sort of contradicts what I wrote earlier, but the contributors’ backgrounds certainly inform their stories (mostly) and that works in the anthology’s favour. As indeed it was no doubt intended to. I still have mixed feelings about the usefulness of anthologies (that is, to anyone except their contributors), but I do recognise that some serve a useful purpose as showcases, and New Suns sits firmly in that category, and does it well. Worth reading.

Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson (2018, UK). So the trilogy becomes a  quartet, and it’s an odd book that rounds off the three-book story. It’s sort of an extension, but it’s also a recapitulation of the previous three books. It tells their story – or rather, the story actually begun in the second novel, Europe at Midnight – but from perspectives, and featuring some characters, that weren’t in the preceding novels, but in a way that sort of weaves its narrative in and around their narratives. Rudi, who is perhaps the chief protagonist of the series, is definitely front and centre in Europe at Dawn, although he takes a while to appear, something that’s seems to be a stylistic tic of the quartet. Initially, Europe at Dawn is about a flunky in the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, who finds herself on the run thanks to events of which she understands nothing. And it all sort of goes round in circles, although perhaps more like a Slinky than just a plain circle, and it takes a while before the novel’s direction truly becomes apparent. Essentially, there is someone else out there, not just the fractured EU and the Community, or indeed the Line, which may not be as simple as presented in earlier novels. There’s always been something of the spy novel to this series, the way the stories are constructed: firmly bedded on a science-fictional conceit, but the various misdirections of the plot are not from the genre kicked into life in 1926 by Amazing Stories. It makes of the central conceit something more than is usual, something more than just near-future science fiction. These books are masterful at narrative sleight of hand, and Europe at Dawn does this more than the others – it’s not until the final chapter that the purpose of the various narratives is revealed. That Hutchinson manages to do this by keeping the individual narrative tense but not the underlying story-arc is perhaps what’s most impressive. The end comes into shape, and it’s neither expected nor completely out of left field. These are excellent books. I suspect Europe at Dawn may not be the actual end, but you won’t hear me complaining if it itn’t…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016, USA). Only one novel has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Arthur C Clarke Award. This one. The Pulitzer Prize is not known for giving out gongs to genre works, so it comes as little surprise on reading The Underground Railroad to discover that it’s not actually a genre novel. It’s not even borderline. Its one conceit is related to the title – that the underground railroad, a network of people who smuggled escaped slaves north, was an actual railway. Underground. A very forgiving genre reader might consider that alternate history, except, well, it doesn’t actually change history. Cora’s story would be exactly the same without the book’s conceit. Which doesn’t make sense anyway. The first underground railway was in London and it opened in 1863. The Underground Railroad takes place before the American Civil War, which began in 1861. However, not only is the underground railroad of the book historically unlikely, it’s also technologically unlikely. How would it be built? And run? But then, it doesn’t actually feature that much in the novel. Cora rides on it twice. She spends a third of the story hiding in an attic. As a dramatised history of slavery in mid-nineteenth century US, The Underground Railroad does an admirable job of demonstrating how vile and reprehensible an institution it was, although to be fair if you need that demonstrating to you then there’s something wrong with you. There is no moral justification for slavery. Of any sort. Whitehead structures his narrative weirdly and I’m not convinced it works. He skips back and forth in time, from character to character, promising stories that take nearly half the book to appear, or reporting on the death of a character before jumping to a point just before his death (and, to be honest, the scene serves no real purpose). I’m not convinced The Underground Railroad is an especially good novel. On a sentence by sentence level, the prose is good, and often excellent. But the structure is all over the place and the central conceit is a paper-thin gimmick. It’s certainly not genre. However, it tackles an important topic, and does so in a way that gives it a wide audience – and that’s something that shouldn’t be trivialised.

Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s work since reading a short story by him in Interzone back in the late 1980s. At novel length, his work has been… variable. Only his one horror novel, X, Y, seemed to match his short fiction in style and tone. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, but after a short hiatus he seems to have become productive than before, with two novels and three collections published in the last ten years. Longer is marketed as  a novel, but it’s published by Tor.com, who chiefly publish novellas, and it’s pretty thin, at only 227 pages. It’s also written in a very stripped-down style, with lots of dialogue and very little descriptive prose. Gunjita and Cav are the sole occupants of an orbiting laboratory, one of many owned by Gleem Pharmaceutical. Gunjita has rejuved, her second and last, but Cav has not, and it becomes increasingly obvious he has no plans to do so. Not only is his decision affecting their work, it’s also affecting their relationship – they’ve been happily married for a very long time. And then they discover something strange on a passing comet, a smear of material which may be organic but is certainly not terrestrial… In other hands, this could turn into, well, something not unlike a shitty sf film such as Life. But Blumlein is not interested in alien monsters, or even in the nature of the alien on the comet. It’s the relationship between Gunjita and Cav, and the way it fractures due to Cav’s choice, that drives the story of Longer. The alien is merely a crutch to bolster Cav’s decision; much as Gunjita is presented with one herself when the head of Gleem Pharmaceuticals, who has uniquely survived three rejuves, reveals to her the consequences of that third rejuve. The busyness of the story, and the depth of the themes it covers, with the bare-bones prose, unfortunately makes Longer read more like an outline or an excerpt than a full novel. Blumlein sets his scenes, and lays out his world, with enviable brevity, and the interiority of the main characters never feels lacking… but the plot seems to be mostly carried in discussion between Cav and Gunjita and it sometimes leaves you wanting more from the narrative. Blumlein is very good, but Longer is more like a charcoal sketch than an oil painting – it tells a story, and the artistry is plain to see, but there’s no colour.

Y is for Yesterday, Sue Grafton (2017, USA). So, that’s it. The Alphabet series is over, and Grafton unfortunately died before starting work on a book for the letter Z. Still, the books were bestsellers so some publisher somewhere is probably already trying to get permission for an official sequel by some ghost writer or desperate Big Name Author. I have no real feelings either way. It’s sad when a much-loved series ends, and you can understand the creator’s decision to let it die with them. On the other hand, some series and worlds you want to continue to explore, and the authors chosen to continue the works have produced work as good, and sometimes even better, than the creator’s. So, Tintin died with Hergé, but the Edgar P Jacobs Studio, set up after Jacobs’s death, has produced better instalments in The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer series than Jacobs ever did. And then there are the sequels to the Dune books, written by Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert, which are unutterably shit. But I digress. Y is for Yesterday both follows on from the preceding volume, X (see here), and is centred around a new mystery. Ned Lowe, the serial killer from X, is still on the loose, and now hiding out somewhere in Santa Teresa and bent on revenging himself on Kinsey Millhone. Meanwhile, Millhone has been hired by the family of a recently-released con who served eight years for shooting and killing a classmate at a party. A videocassette of the guy and two friends raping a drunken classmate has surfaced, and the parents want Millhone to identify the blackmailer. Ten years previously, two students were caught cheating on a SAT, and another student blamed for dobbing them in. Some weeks later, that student is shot and killed when an attempt at intimidation goes badly wrong. The instigator – not the shooter – promptly disappears and has been on the run ever since. Much as I’ve enjoyed reading these books over the years, this last one… well, the central mystery feels a bit insubstantial. I’d noticed in recent books that Grafton had taken to at times moving the narrative away from Millhone’s first-person account, something I don’t remember happening in the earlier books (although I may be misremembering). In Y is for Yesterday, one narrative is set ten years in the past and, to be honest, it doesn’t really add much to the story. Millhone’s investigation should be enough to explain events. But that’s a minor quibble. These are fun, readable books, less political than Paretsky’s but very similar in tone and style. I’m sorry there will be no more of them.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2019, #8

After cracking through a bunch of novels, I hit the last book of the half-dozen below and ground almost to a halt. Possibly a result of its size as much as its extremely poor writing. Not to mention that the main characters are annoying as hell. Why on earth did I decide to reread the series?

Permafrost, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). I picked up a copy of this at the SF-Bokhandeln in Stockholm while meeting up with family over on a visit to Sweden. It’s not Reynold’s usual fare, but a near-future time travel story. The human race is pretty much over, killed off by its appalling lack of husbandry of its environment (that’s pollution, Global Warming, germ warfare, hunting to extinction, etc, etc), but a group in Russia have perfected time travel and send someone back into the past to make enough of a change to allow humanity a small chance at survival. It’s not actual physical time travel – which means it’s at least free of the risible technobollocks in Avengers: Endgame – but the consciousness of the tempunaut is sent back to occupy the mind of a person of the target period. (A similar conceit, I believe to Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time.) Of course, as is ever the way, nothing goes as planned, and protagonist Valentina must race across Russia to deliver the maguffin, only to learn how the future has changed when she returns to it. I thought Permafrost pretty good, but I wasn’t entirely sure why it was set in Russia, or what the setting brought to the story, other than, well, the title. Reynolds has never had much luck with the Hugos, but given that Permafrost was published by Hugo darlings Tor.com then perhaps he stands a chance next year.

Big Cat and Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). A new book by Gwyneth Jones, whether a novel, novella or collection, is cause for celebration in this house. She’s been my favourite sf writer since reading Kairos in the early 1990s, and I’d even go so far as to say sheäs the best science fiction writer who is still writing the UK has produced. Big Cat and Other Stories collects eleven stories originally published between 2007 and 2016 (and one original to this volume), only two of which I’d  previously read. Three of the stories are set in worlds from Jones’s novels, although one of those novels was published under Jones’s YA pseudonym, Ann Halam. This does mean for those three that you get more out of them if you know the original novels, more so for the story which lends the collection its title as it’s set in the universe of the Bold As Love quintet and features its central triumvirate of characters. The stories are chiefly science fiction but spread  widely across the genre, from the slightly off-kilter pulp adventure on Venus of ‘A Planet Called Desire’ and the Leigh Brackett/Lovecraft mashup of ‘The Vicar of Mars’ to the near-future of ‘Stella and the Adventurous Roots’, ‘Emergence’ and ‘Bricks, Stick, Straws’, although they depict worlds not quite the same as our own. All of the stories are a hit of the pure Jones, and if you appreciate her science fiction then Big Cat and Other Stories is as good a selection as any other. Recommended.

Red Clocks, Leni Zumas (2018, USA). I’m not sure why I bought this. I guess the blurb must have caught my fancy or something. Although that doesn’t seem right, because, well, “near-future dystopia”. I mean, who reads them anymore? With the actual shit that’s going down in Trump’s US and Brexit Britain, literary dystopias are starting to look like weak sauce. In Red Clocks, the Republican Christian nutjobs are firmly in charge, abortion is illegal, and only families of one father and one mother can adopt kids. Which is unfortunate for a couple of the characters in Red Clocks, a pregnant schoolgirl and a single teacher desperate for a child (and whose numerous tries at IVF have all been unsuccessful). Zumi chooses to tell her story from the viewpoints of each of her characters, but in their viewpoint chapters they’re not identified by name, only by their role in the story – so “the biographer”, “the wife”, and so on. It doesn’t work. It’s an unnecessary hurdle – although it does successfully disguise for at least the first quarter of the book quite how ordinary its story is. I was also annoyed by the attempt at found documents pertaining to the historical figure who is the subject of the biographer’s unfinished, er, biography, a female polar explorer from the turn of the twentieth century. She’s named Eivør Minurvasdottír – and  the first time I saw it I thought, there’s no ø in Icelandic. But there is in Faroese. Which is where she’s from. But the accent on the surname is in the wrong place. It should be -dóttir. The name is misspelt throughout the novel. Didn’t the author check? Didn’t the editor? The publisher? It’s not like it’s hard to find out. It’s a minor complaint – and from someone who chiefly reads science fiction! But for all that Red Clocks was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, the first time an Orwell Prize has been offered for fiction, there didn’t seem much to me that stood out. (The Orwell Prize is probably best remembered for giving an award to Johann Hari, only to demand it back when it transpired Hari had plagiarised and misrepresented facts in his articles. He returned the prize but has never returned the prize money.) But Red Clocks. Dull and unoriginal. Not worth reading.

Breakwater, Simon Bestwick (2018, UK). A Facebook friend has been working his way through the works shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, and I saw this novella in my timeline and since it’s set in an underwater base, something I find fascinating, and was extremely cheap on Kindle, I decided to give it a go. And… oh dear. The title refers to an underwater complex just off the the coast of the UK. Originally built for research, it has been taken over by the military as a first line of defence against a mysterious underwater race who, we are told in an infodump, are now at war with humanity because of humanity’s history of polluting the oceans. The widow of the man with whom she co-designed Breakwater still works there. With the Royal Navy. And, wouldn’t you know it, the underwater people decide to attack a couple of pages into the novella, and this time it’s the biggest attack ever. The woman manages to escape, with the help of a female petty officer. They run through an empty complex, staying just ahead being drowned. But then the petty officer lets slip she’s one of the underwater people – or rather, one engineered to look human – and she belongs to a faction that wants to open dialogue with humanity… And, well, that’s it. The author doesn’t seem to understand how depth works – there’s a few mentions of airlocks and ears popping; oh, and the woman’s husband died of the bends – otherwise, changes in pressure are blithely skated over. There’s a bit of authorial prurience over the two female leads, which reads a bit old-fashioned. And something I’ve not seen in a book for years: a detailed description of the protagonist’s appearance. Who still does that? The British Fantasy Awards are, like the Hugos and Nebulas, prone to logrolling, and it’s not unusual for people well-known and well-liked among the voters to have their works find their way onto the shortlist irrespective of the quality of the work. The voting pool for the BFA is very small, probably even smaller than the average attendance of the annual Fantasycon (ie, a couple of hundred).

The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal (2018, USA). I had sort of avoided reading this as I’d covered similar material myself, although with a considerably lower profile and less commercial success. But then it was nominated for the Hugo, and so was made available in the Hugo Voter Pack, and a quick look persuaded me that there’s actual very little overlap between The Calculating Stars and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. In Kowal’s novel, a large meteorite strikes the earth in the early 1950s, crashing down somewhere in the north Atlantic and so kicking off an accelerated greenhouse effect. Elma York is a gifted mathematician and a pilot. She and her husband, a rocket engineer at NACA, survive the meteorite and are instrumental in the creation of an international space agency to lead the quest to settle another world so humanity survives once the earth as become uninhabitable. So this is the very early days of the Space Race, more Hidden Figures than The Right Stuff. But Elma also wants to be an astronaut, so there’s also a lot of the Mercury 13 in the story (and several names familiar to me from my research; but, strangely, not Jerrie Cobb). There’s much to like in the novel: the swing about halfway through to a Mercury 13 narrative (although Kowal characterises Jackie Cochran as a much nicer person than she was – it was Cochran who famously said that women shouldn’t be taking jobs from men but should “follow after and pick up the slack”). I liked Kowal’s stand-in for Al Shepard, Stetson Parker, although the narrative seemed curiously ambivalent about him, feeling like at times it was trying to make him sympathetic. I thought the anxiety aspect overdone, but I’ve been told by sufferers they thought it accurate and found it welcome. On the other hand, I’ve heard there has been grumbling about the presentation of Judaism in the novel (York and her husband are Jews). In hindsight, The Calculating Stars is a novel that wants to tell a story about a space programme created in response to an extinction-level meteorite strike, but it also wants to be Hidden Figures and feature women computers… Which gives it a slightly anachronistic feel despite the very good period detail. In the real world, women went on to become programmers, too, but were then supplanted by men – in many cases, the female programmers were moved to assistant positions despite being better qualified and more experienced. That, I think, might have made for a more interesting story, and would not have meant pulling the start of the space programme back to the early 1950s. (On the other hand, having it when Kowal set it meant there were lots of ex-WASP female pilots around, as well as the women computers.) The Calculating Stars won the Hugo last weekend. Should it have done? I’m told Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is the better novel, although I’ve not read it yet, but The Calculating Stars was certainly my choice to take the award.

The Great Hunt, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). I’ve been told the Wheel of Time was originally pitched as a trilogy but then cut down to a single novel, but proved so successful the trilogy was reinstated, before mutating into the bloated fourteen-volume beast it eventually became. Certainly the pacing in The Eye of the World is so bad it’s entirely plausible its story was intended to stretch over several books. You have ten percent introduction to the world and characters, then 80% travelogue, and everything gets wrapped up in the last ten percent. The Great Hunt has slightly better pacing, and a great deal more happens in it, but there’s still a lot of travelogue. And padding. Reams and reams of padding. There’s even three or four pages where Rand experiences the same thing over and over again. It makes for a dull read. The one thing I’m noticing about these books during my rereads – other than the derision of friends when I tell them I’m rereading the Wheel of Time – is that the world-building is a strange mix of identikit sword-and-sorcery and weird but interesting original touches. It also feels strangely “lived-in”, with its various parts slotting together in a way that doesn’t feel entirely the result of authorial fiat. Having said that… the characters are still as annoying as shit. Rand al’Thor reads like a thirteen year old and his friends are no better. An important minor character turns out to be a Darkfriend (ie, agents of the the Dark Lord) but it comes totally out of left-field. The actual Darkfriend the protagonists spend the entire book chasing is far too pantomime. And another character do be talking like this all the time and it do be fucking irritating. The Great Hunt is a great improvement on The Eye of the World, but that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. There are some enjoyable set-pieces and some good hooks set for later in the series. But the praise this series received back in the 1990s still astonishes me. It’s a poor piece of work – and that in genre not known for the high quality of its prose or plotting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135