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Reading diary 2020, #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Reading diary 2019, #13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Best of the year 2019

I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.

Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.

books
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.

1 Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.

2 Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.

3 The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.

4 As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.

5 The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.

Honourable mentions: Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.

films
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.

1 Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.

2 The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.

3 Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.

4 Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.

5 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.

Honourable mentions: War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.

music
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.

However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.

1 Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.

2 Scars II (The Basics), Panopticon (2019, USA). One of my favourite tracks on 2018’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness double album was an acoustic track called ‘The Itch’ whose lyrics were a savage attack on Trump and Republicans. Scars II (The Basics) is an entire album of acoustic songs, including ‘The Itch’, although it’s the only one with that lyrical content.

3 Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.

4 In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.

5 Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.

Honourable mentions: Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.


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100 books, part 5

100 books that “shaped your world”… Sounds easy enough. Until you start thinking about titles. I could have just banged out a list, and not worry about whether some of the books actually deserved to be on it. But no, I had to put together an annotated list – which meant I had to give a reason why each book made my 100. You can find the earlier parts of my list at: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. But I’ve also included a full list of the 100 Books That Shaped My World at the end of this post. Because this is the last post on the topic, and it covers…

The 2010s

I spent all but the last ten months of the decade living in South Yorkshire, buying far too many books online and from local charity shops. It all got a bit out of hand. When I put everything in storage and moved, I filled 85 boxes, mostly with books. I also sold about 15 boxes of books, and gave away close on 100 paperbacks. The good thing about this was it actually financed my move north. Even so, I was still a little surprised at how much I’d amassed.

I did, however, read plenty of books this decade. Just shy of 1500, in fact. My reading tastes also changed. As the 1990s and 2000s had progressed, I’d found myself reading more and more “literary” fiction, although science fiction still formed the bulk of my reading. During the 2010s, I started reading more British postwar fiction, and treasuring the prose of a number of such writers.

But I wasn’t just drifting toward fiction that wasn’t genre, I was also starting to be put off by current genre writing. Twenty-first century science fiction, especially US sf, began to privilege sentiment over rigour. And then there was the somewhat florid prose, and the over-use of metaphors in an attempt to add invention to over-familiar sf tropes. Changes in the publishing industry also meant editors chased debuts – because at least debuts weren’t “categorically killers”… yet – and the decline of marketing budgets pushed most of the promotion online and onto the authors themselves, and reviewers, bloggers, fans and readers. Which made it all tribal as fuck. The growing dominance of fantasy also limited the science fiction considered commercially viable, and in recent years several popular works have melded the two genres.

Of course, writers whose works I liked and admired were still published, and I discovered new writers whose books I liked and admired, and, even though I’ve been reading science fiction for close on 45 years, there’s still plenty of old science fiction for me to explore (even if its appeal is often somewhat limited).

This is, of course, a purely personal perspective. The science fiction genre has changed – this is hardly surprising – not only artistically but also in the way the publishing industry treats it. Some of those changes have worked for me, some haven’t. But it’s probably telling that only three category sf books from the 2010s appear in the list below, and one of those is in a negative capacity.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928). My father had been a big fan of Lawrence’s fiction for much of his life, even going so far as to drag my mother to Taos to visit Lawrence’s shrine during a visit to the US. I think perhaps because of my father’s reverence for Lawrence, and what I imagined 1920s prose to be like, I sort of avoided reading him. But for some reason I decided to give Lady Chatterley’s Lover a go, and immediately fell in love with the book and Lawrence’s prose. So much so, in fact, that I tracked down Lawrence’s other books. But even that wasn’t enough, and I spent a long time hunting down copies published in the 1970s by Penguin, with white covers and Lawrence’s name in orange, as shown to the left. I now have twenty-eight of them. I’m still working my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre.

Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz (1961). I can’t remember what prompted it – possibly watching the terrible BBC TV series The Deep – but deep sea submersibles, particularly historical bathyscaphes, became another “enthusiasm”. It took me a while, and it wasn’t cheap, but I tracked down a copy of Seven Miles Down, the only book written about the record-breaking descent to Challenger Deep, some 11,000 metres deep, by the Trieste in January 1960. Two people have since equalled that dive – James Cameron in 2012 and Victor Vescovo in 2019. The enthusiasm fed into my fiction, and the Trieste appeared in a couple of short stories and the third novella of the Apollo Quartet. I also collected several books on submersible and undersea habitats.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968). I consider Compton one of the best prose stylists UK science fiction has produced. He was not one of UK science fiction’s best plotters (which, as I suggested in a recent Reading diary post, may be why he switched from writing crime to science fiction). But it’s not just Compton’s prose I find so impressive, he was also superb at writing characters and he liked to experiment with narrative structure. All of which are on display in abundance in Synthajoy. The book is told entirely from the POV of its protagonist, but her story drifts back and forth seamlessly in time, building up the story from both present and past. Compton’s best books all exhibit a very 1970s aesthetic, which I admit I also find appealing. Compton’s books led me to the works of other British sf authors of the 1970s, some of whom I had read in previous decades, but now I found myself appreciating them, especially those whose novels were explicitly British.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992). This book makes my list not because it’s a good book – which it is – or because I’m a fan of the writer – I haven’t actually read all that much by her – no, it makes my list because it was the first book reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Back in 2010, there’d been a conversation online about the fact so few British women genre writers were in contract with publishers in the UK. So I put together a list of 100 science fiction novels by women writers that had been published prior to 2000, a sort of response to the SF Masterwork series published by Gollancz. And after the list, it seemed like a good idea to build a website which reviewed science fiction books by women writers published before 2000. So I did. And it certainly changed my reading. Not only did I seek out sf novels by women to review for SF Mistressworks, but I also made an effort to balance my reading between male and female writers, and not just in genre fiction.

Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991). When I was at university in Coventry, I remember visiting a bookshop/cafe called The Wedge. They had a carousel filled with books published by The Women’s Press, most of which, I seem to recall, were the sf titles in their distinctive grey design. I didn’t buy any, I wasn’t into that sort of science fiction at that time. But after kicking off the SF Mistressworks website, it occurred to me The Women’s Press sf titles would be good books to review. I had a read a few in the years since graduating from university, but now I decided to collect them. And I built up quite a collection: 45 out of 52 titles (including the two YA titles), both the grey cover design (A and B format) and the ones with the black-and-white striped spines. Correspondence was the first title published by The Women’s Press I read specifically because it had been published by them. I went on to read many more – again, because they had been published in The Women’s Press sf series.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011). I’m not sure it’s fair to say these two books “shaped” my world, but I bought and read them because of the social media buzz attending them. I thought them both good, but one better than the other, and I did read both trilogies through to the end. Of course, there have always been books published that generate excitement within fandom, but the ones I remember from the early 1990s were by authors with proven track records. Both Ancillary Justice and God’s War were debuts, and the buzz promised they were something different. They’re both space operas, of course, but very different in their approach to the subgenre. And, it had to be said, to me they felt like they were indeed doing something new with space opera, something interesting. There was nothing unique about that – Colin Greenland had done the same more than twenty years ago with Take Back Plenty, but his re-imagining of space opera seems to have ended with him. The success of Leckie’s and Hurley’s books – especially Leckie’s, which seemed to win every English-language sf award on the planet – promised real change in the subgenre. It could be argued Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet also fit the same pattern, but its online buzz felt manufactured, and I hated the book and thought it badly-written, derivative and mostly cheap sentimentality. But the Hurley and Leckie showed the power of social media in genre fandom, and that still influences my reading to some (albeit diminishing) degree.

Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002). Herter is an author I picked up on after reading his debut, Ceres Storm, published in 2000. He makes this list for two reasons. First, even though I bought Evening’s Empire when it was first published, it sat on my bookshelves for nine years before I eventually got around to reading it – and then I picked it as the best book I read that year. It’s not the book I’ve owned the longest without actually reading, but it’s a good example of one. The second reason is that Herter was quite open about his writing plans. He wrote an East European fantasy set in Czechoslovakia post-WW1, and a dark fantasy based on Something Wicked This Way Comes… but, sadly, the ambitious space operas he blogged about have yet to appear. It is, perhaps, one of the downsides of social media.

Spomeniks, Jan Kempenaers (2010). As I remember it, I stumbled across a website with photographs of Yugoslavian monuments to those who died in World War 2. Further research led me to an ad for Kempenaers’s exhibition of photographs of many of those monuments, not all of which had survived intact. The exhibition published a book of the photographs, which I bought. And that sort of sparked off another “enthusiasm”, this time for architecture, specifically East European and Soviet Modernism, and Oscar Niemeyer. To be honest, it was all pretty much eye candy to me. While the engineering of exploring space and underwater I find fascinating in a technical way, buildings and architecture not so much. But I do enjoy looking at pictures of the sort of buildings that seem to embody the enthusiasm for, a celebration of, the future that at some point around the middle of last century seemed humanity’s reward for its discoveries. Er, despite the Cold War and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946). Among the things my father left behind when he died was a collection of about one hundred Penguin paperbacks he’d bought in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of them directly from the publisher (there was a receipt in one). I’d read one or two of the books over the years, but few of the authors in the collection had appealed to me. But I took my pick of them, intending to give the authors I’d not read before a go. The Member of the Wedding was the first book I read of the ones I took. It wasn’t… to my taste. But it did not alter my plan to work my way through the collection. And that proved an excellent decision – as can be seen below. Twice.

Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (2011). Like the Leckie and Hurley mentioned above, this book received a lot of online attention. And even more so when it was turned into a television series. Many people recommended it to me because, they felt, it was the sort of science fiction I liked: near-future hard sf. I fucking hated it. I thought the book was terrible, with deeply embedded, and unquestioned, right-wing sensibilities. The attempt at diversity struck me as little more than a thin glaze. And the plot hinged on an act so heinous it should have been unthinkable to any civilisation that claimed to be, well, civilised. It was also American as fuck. I tried watching the TV adaptation, but gave up after one too many mentions of torture. Leviathan Wakes made me realise I was no longer willing to put up with the right-wing bullshit endemic in space opera which science fiction fandom, and the general sf-reading public, seems happy to accept.

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961). Among my father’s Penguin paperbacks were three by Malcolm Lowry – this collection, Under the Volcano and his debut, Ultramarine. I was aware of Under the Volcano, although I’d never read it; but I knew little about Lowry, his life or his other works. Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place was… interesting. Until I got to the novella, ‘Through the Panama’. It blew me away. I read more Lowry, learnt of the semi-autobiographical nature of his fiction. I loved that. I loved his discursive prose style, his use of meta-narratives. He became a favourite author, and I began to collect his books – in first edition. I have now read all of his fiction, except his last unfinished novel, La Mordida.

Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011). One of the things I dislike about the online culture surrounding books and fandom is that everything seems to be given five stars in reviews. It’s bad enough that many online reviews are indistinguishable from marketing hyperbole, but the tendency to give everything top marks has meant retailers’ ranking algorithms now count only the number of reviews, and don’t weight them by the number of stars given. Potentially, giving a book five stars is only setting up a future reader for disappointment. Which does not mean every now and again a book comes along that rightly deserves five stars. Girl Reading was one of those books. And, astonishingly, it was a debut. Sadly, Ward has yet to follow up on Girl Reading. I’ve been eagerly awaiting a second novel from her for eight years.

The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989). I started collecting copies of the Women’s Press sf titles partly because some of the books interested me, but also partly because they were ideal material for the SF Mistressworks website. Slonczewski was not an author I had read before, although her name was known to me, chiefly from her novel A Door into Ocean (also in the Women’s Press sf series). I had not expected much of The Wall Around Eden, but I was delighted to find the novel was put together like a precision-built watch. Many of the books I read, I read critically; but this was the first time I found the actual craft present in a novel to be the most impressive thing about it.

Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1974). Another read prompted by SF Mistressworks. Once I looked into it, I discovered there had been several female-only science fiction anthologies published over the years. Women of Wonder was not the first, but it was a prominent pioneer. And yet there are people who insist that women writing science fiction is a twenty-first century phenomenon. It’s a bullshit position. Women have been writing science fiction – very successfully – since it was invented. And there were many women who wrote novels and stories in early centuries which fed into what became science fiction. But, somehow, women sf authors were written out of the genre’s history, probably by the cyberpunks of the early 1980s. That rewriting of genre history was one of the inspirations behind SF Mistressworks. I went on to read – and review – several female-only sf anthologies, and found a number of authors whose longer works I then sought out.

HHhH, Laurent Binet (2012). This was a book that generated some small buzz among my circle of acquaintances on social media, despite not being genre – and most of my circle are genre writers and fans. It is, in fact, WWII history. And yet it’s also about the author and about the process of writing the history book. Its ostensible subject is Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi bigwig and war criminal, one of the men responsible for the Holocaust, and, during the period covered by HHhH, Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. But it’s not Heydrich, or Operation Anthropoid, the attempt to assassinate him (which succeeded more by accident than design), that puts HHhH on this list. The Nazis have never been an “enthusiasm” of mine. But I have always been a fan of experimental narratives – not so much experimental prose, like stream-of-consciousness, but narrative structures other than straightforward linear. HHhH helped crystallise my interest in such narratives – and helped explain why some books I had read in previous years had appealed to me so much. It’s something I’ve continued to explore, both in my reading and my own writing.

The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I think this was also a recommendation. Or perhaps I saw a review of it in a newspaper. There was another book with the same premise – a person who lives through several alternate variations of their life – which proved much more popular, particularly in genre circles, and that was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. But I fell in love with Erpenbeck’s dry reportage-like prose. If I had become disillusioned with genre’s turn to over-written and sentimental prose, then the clarity and emotional distance of Erpenbeck’s novel – albeit translated – was exactly the sort of fiction I wanted to read. And I went looking for it.

Party Going, Henry Green (1939). And speaking of clear prose, Henry Green is surely a master of it. I found this omnibus of three of his novels in a charity shop, but it was around six years before I got around to reading one of the novels. And then I was sorry I’d not read it much sooner. Green’s prose is among the best I’ve read. And, astonishingly, he makes no concessions towards his readers. Everything – the plot, the characterisation – is conveyed through dialogue. Coming from a science fiction background, a genre which feels a need to explain everything, a genre which has developed a number of techniques for lecturing the reader, not just in invented worlds and “facts”, but also in information the reader could easily find out for themselves, this was something to definitely striking. It might seem that mainstream fiction, or even crime fiction, or thrillers, do not use exposition, but of course they do, it just occupies a different place in the narrative. Green’s novels showed me that stripping back exposition to the bare minimum did not have to handicap a narrative.

Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). Nocilla Dream came to my attention via a review on a friend’s blog, and it sounded intriguing enough for me to give it a read. Like the Binet above, Nocilla Dream uses a non-standard narrative structure – in this case, short unrelated sections, only some of which are narrative. It is also pretty much the antithesis of Green’s fiction, in that some of the sections are pure exposition, pure dry reportage, not always related to the fictional narratives. There’s more, of course, to Mallo’s book, which is the first of a trilogy, and which spawned a literary movement, the Nocilla Generation, in Spain. I plan to explore the other Nocilla Generation writers, and have so far read only a novel by Álvaro Colomer, titled, coincidentally, Uppsala Woods, but few of the books have been translated into English, and Spanish is not a language I speak or read. Perhaps I should try learning it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1931). This was another book from my father’s Penguin collection. I knew of Faulkner, but knew nothing about the man or his fiction. An early twentieth-century US author – and while I had read one or two of them many years before, I couldn’t say any had really appealed to me. But The Sound and the Fury did something those other US novels had not done: it used an experimental narrative structure. It told its story through three limited POVs, none of which were actually central to the plot. I was hugely impressed. Books with complex narrative structures interest me, and it’s something I’m keen to explore in my reading. Faulkner’s prose is also wonderfully sharp. I have already read more Faulkner.

Here is the full list, for those of you like lists in, er, list form:

1 The Golden Bird, Jan Pieńkowski & Edith Brill (1970, UK)
2 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner (1960, UK)
3 Destination Moon, Hergé (1950, Belgium)
4 Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, Burne Hogarth (1972, USA)
5 Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951, UK)
6 Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton (1965, UK)
7 Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein (1953, USA)
8 Gray Lensman, EE Doc Smith (1951, USA)
9 The Trigan Empire, Don Lawrence & Mike Butterworth (1965, UK)
10 Jack of Eagles, James Blish (1952, USA)
10 Tactics of Mistake, Gordon R Dickson (1971, USA)
10 Time and Again, Clifford D Simak (1951, USA)
13 Final Stage, Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg, eds. (1974, USA)
14 Dune, Frank Herbert (1966, USA)
15 Traveller: Characters & Combat, Marc Miller (1977, USA)
16 The Undercover Aliens, AE Van Vogt (1950, USA)
16 The Winds of Gath, EC Tubb (1967, UK)
18 The Book of Alien, Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross (1979, UK)
19 The Dune Encyclopedia, Willis E McNelly, ed. (1984, USA)
20 The Future Makers, Peter Haining, ed. (1968, UK)
21 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975, USA)
22 The Right Stuff, Tom Wolff (1979, USA)
23 The Far Pavilions, MM Kaye (1978, UK)
24 Iceberg, Clive Cussler (1975, USA)
25 The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, Malcolm Edwards & Maxim Jakubowski (1983, UK)
26 Radix, AA Attanasio (1981, USA)
27 The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980, USA)
28 Serpent’s Reach, CJ Cherryh (1980, USA)
29 The Science Fiction Sourcebook, David Wingrove (1984, UK)
30 The War for Eternity, Christopher Rowley (1983, USA)
30 Under a Calculating Star, John Morressy (1975, USA)
30 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981, UK)
33 Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams (1985, USA)
34 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988, UK)
35 The Space Mavericks, Michael Kring (1980, USA)
36 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975, USA)
36 The Fith Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972, USA)
36 The Five Gold Bands, Jack Vance (1950, USA)
36 The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969, USA)
40 The Innocent, Ian McEwan (1990, UK)
41 Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990, UK)
42 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990, UK)
43 Raft, Stephen Baxter (1991, UK)
44 Semiotext(e) SF, Rudy Rucker, Peter L Wilson & Robert A Wilson, eds. (1989, USA)
44 The Brains of Rats, Michael Blumlein (1989, USA)
46 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988, USA)
47 Dreamside, Graham Joyce (1991, UK)
48 Iris, Wiliam Barton & Michael Capobianco (1990, USA)
49 A Vision of Battlements, Anthony Burgess (1965, UK)
49 How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge (1980, UK)
51 Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987, USA)
52 C is for Corpse, Sue Grafton (1986, USA)
52 Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992, USA)
54 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957, UK)
55 An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997, USA)
55 Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, Nicola Griffith & Stephen Pagel, eds. (1997, USA)
57 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993, USA)
58 Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996, USA)
59 Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953, UK)
60 The Master Mariner, Nicholas Monsarrat (1978, UK)
61 The Second Angel, Philip Kerr (1998, UK)
62 The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985, USA)
63 The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1974, USA)
64 The Mechanics of Wonder, Gary Westfahl (1998, USA)
65 The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA)
66 Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1987, UK)
67 The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowski & Moebius (1980, France)
67 Valérian and Laureline 4: Wlecome to Alflolol, Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières (1972, France)
69 The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980, UK)
70 Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin (1999, UK)
71 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007, UK)
72 Moondust, Andrew Smith (2005, UK)
73 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005, USA)
74 Poems, John Jarmain (1945, UK)
75 Postwar Military 4: Avro Vulcan, Andrew Brookes (1985, UK)
76 The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott (1966 – 1975, UK)
77 The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison (1961, USA)
78 First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005, USA)
78 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974, USA)
78 Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin (1973, USA)
81 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928, UK)
82 Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz (1961, USA)
83 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968, UK)
84 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992, USA)
85 Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991, UK)
86 Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013, USA)
86 God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011, USA)
88 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002, USA)
89 Spomeniks, Jan Kempenaers (2010, Belgium)
90 The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946, USA)
91 Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (2011, USA)
92 Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961, Canada)
93 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011, UK)
94 The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989, USA)
95 Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1974, USA)
96 HHhH, Laurent Binet (2012, France)
97 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012, Germany)
98 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006, Spain)
99 Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK)
100 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1931, USA)


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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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100 books, part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about the “100 Books That Shaped My World”, as inspired by the list published by the BBC. Parts one and two are here and here.

And so we come to…

The 1990s

The major event in the 1990s which impacted by reading habits was moving to the United Arab Emirates. One of the first things I did on arriving in Abu Dhabi was join a subscription library – the Daly Community Library, run by Jocelyn Henderson – which was a real life-saver… but did not have much of a genre collection. So I was forced to read further afield. I had started reading literary fiction (not a term I like) a few years earlier during my last year in Coventry, but that was more in the nature of exploration. In Abu Dhabi, I  had no choice: if I wanted to take out four books a fortnight, I could not do so if they were only genre, the library simply didn’t have enough of them.

The Innocent, Ian McEwan (1990). I borrowed this book from Coventry Central Library, and it’s one of the first “literary fiction” novels I remember reading. I probably read others before The Innocent, and certainly there were books I studied at school that weren’t science fiction or fantasy, but I’m fairly sure this was the first novel I read I consciously identified as “literary fiction”. I continued reading McEwan for many years afterward, but eventually gave up on his books after reading Saturday and hating it.

Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990). I first met Iain Banks at the second convention I attended, Prefab Trout in Glasgow in 1989, but at the 1990 Eastercon in Liverpool the editor of a magazine called Back Brain Recluse borrowed my hotel room for an interview with Banks. About a dozen of us sat in on it. As far as I know, the interview never saw print. Use of Weapons was also launched at the con, so I bought a copy and got it signed. I think I’d read a couple of Banks’s novels prior to that weekend, but after reading Use of Weapons I made sure to pick up each new book as it was published – both Iain M Banks and Iain Banks. In first edition.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). I remember the fuss when this was published. Greenland had previously published three literate fantasies, was also known as a critic (and a co-editor of Interzone), and was a well-respected name in British sf. Take Back Plenty, word had it, was something very different, a literate science fiction novel that made knowing use of pulp sf tropes. Word was correct. Take Back Plenty showed me that tropes were not only the building-blocks of science fiction but they could also be interrogated. And they could be deployed in a narrative that used literary tricks not commonly found in science fiction. (Many years later on this blog, I would take a second look at the deployment of tropes in science fiction, and the unacknowledged baggage those tropes carried.) Take Back Plenty remains an important novel in British science fiction; and in my own approach to the genre. It’s no longer as popular as it once was, and its importance seems to have been lost in the success of Banks’s space operas. Banks wrote superior space opera, true, but it was less consciously literary than Greenland’s sf; and, of course, Banks published considerably more books.

Raft, Stephen Baxter (1991). I met Stephen Baxter at a convention in the late 1980s, and we would often hang out together. There was a group of us who hung out together at UK cons – some had been published, some hadn’t, but quite a few went on to have careers as science fiction writers and are still being published now. I’d read several of Baxter’s stories in British small press magazines – does anyone remember Dreams and New Moon Quarterly? At that time, a typical sf writer’s career progression went: publish short stories in small press magazines, publish short stories in Interzone, attract interest of genre imprint editor, submit novel or collection… I seem to remember Baxter’s debut was originally going to be a collection of Xeelee stories but his editor decided a novel was safer. Anyway, Baxter added me to a list at his publisher so I’d receive review copies (it wasn’t as easy for an individual to get review copies then as it is now). I was sent copies of his first four books as they were published, but then my parents sold their house and moved abroad. After that, I had to buy my own copies.

The Brains of Rats, Michael Blumlein (1989)
Semiotext(e) SF, Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson & Robert Anton Wilson, eds. (1989). I’d been hugely impressed by Blumlein’s story, ‘Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report’, when I first came across it in, I think, an Interzone anthology. It was shocking but I loved its – no pun intended – clinically sharp prose. Naturally, I bought his first collection when it was published (I upgraded my copy to a signed slipcased edition a few years ago). I was not the only fan of the story among the people I hung out with at conventions at that time (a slightly different group to the one mentioned above). We were all into a particular group of US sf writers who appeared, or were discussed, in the magazine SF Eye and, later, Journal Wired, particularly the more gonzo science fiction writers. And you couldn’t get more gonzo than Semiotext(e) SF. It further helped shape my understanding of science fiction, a demonstration the genre wasn’t limited to the sort of heartland sf found in those books I’d bought from WH Smith and the like in the 1970s and 1980s…

Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988). Kadrey was one of the aforementioned SF Eye authors and Metrophage was his debut. I have long maintained its publication pretty much killed cyberpunk as a serious sf subgenre. The 1980s had seen me explore heartland sf widely, discovering new authors and notables works both old and new. During the 1990s, my definition of the genre expanded – well, perhaps not definition, more that my view of sf had been quite “trad” and I’d previously interpreted what I read in light of that view. I had, for example, read Tiptree in the very early 1980s (after she had been outed), but had not read her stories as feminist (feminism was not something I knew of as a thing at that time, although I agreed with its aims and had even internalised some of them). Metrophage was one of the first novels I read which gave me the beginnings of a critical framework for my appreciation of science fiction. I still think the novel is hugely under-rated.

Dreamside, Graham Joyce (1991). I met Graham Joyce at Mexicon 4 in Harrogate during a weekend in May 1991. He was there to help promote his first book, Dreamside. I offered to interview him for a magazine I co-edited, The Lyre, and pretty much read Dreamside in a single day as preparation. Unfortunately, the interview took place on the Sunday, after many of us had stayed up until about 4 am drinking the previous night, and neither Joyce nor myself were feeling particularly smart. Weeks later, I sent him a verbatim transcript, and he wrote back that he remembered the interview as “quite insightful… so who were those two fucking Martians on the tape?”. I lost touch with Joyce after I left the UK, and I was never much of a fan of the genre in which he wrote, although I did read several of his novels. When I first met him, I could not have predicted how important he would prove to British fantasy, but he was a force for good and is sorely missed.

Iris, William Barton & Michael Capobianco (1990). Prior to my departure for the UAE in 1994, I was part of a group of young UK sf fans and writers who attended conventions, were members of the BSFA, read and were published in UK small press magazines, and possessed a mostly homogeneous taste in fiction – which in no way mapped onto the tastes of fans of the previous generation. I had perhaps read more of the older stuff than many of the group, but we were all keen (mostly) on the same US and UK genre writers. Except for William Barton and Michael Capobianco (and, later, William Barton alone). I was the only fan among us of the pair’s books. I’d regularly recommend their books, but either my friends didn’t read them or, if they did, they weren’t as impressed as I had been. And this despite the fact Iris was approvingly reviewed in SF Eye. I suspect Barton and Capobianco were too much hard sf rather than flavour of sf du jour (which was sort of post-cyberpunk), and I’ve always been more hard sf than my friends in fandom. My own writing is no doubt proof of this. But Barton and Capobianco, and later Barton solo, have been for me a mini-fandom of my own within my fandom cohort. (Coincidentally, Barton wrote about Traveller for RPG magazines early in his career.)

A Vision of Battlements, Anthony Burgess (1965)
How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge (1980). A pair of literary authors I started reading because of the Daly Community Library. Lodge I think I started reading because I remembered the TV adaptation of his novel Nice Work. I’m not so big on Burgess these days – he often seemed to obscure his story behind unnecessary linguistics tricks, although there’s no denying either his erudition or facility with prose and language. He just isn’t, in many of his novels, as readable as he could have been. Lodge’s novels I found interesting in terms of their narrative structure, which taught me about different ways of reading (and writing), but as Lodge moved his interest to fictionalising real people and dropped the structural experiments, so I lost interest in his fiction. How Far Can You Go?, his novel about Catholicism, is, I think, his best, perhaps because it’s his most personal. A Vision of Battlements, on the other hand, was a Burgess trunk novel, but it did kickstart my reading of his work, hence its appearance here.

Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987). Another thing I did during my first few weeks in Abu Dhabi was discover the location of the city’s few book shops, including one that sold remaindered books from the US and UK, less than a block away from my apartment. It was called Isam Bookshop. Many of the books it sold were science fiction and, at 5 Dirhams each, they were ridiculously cheap. I’m pretty sure I found Angel at Apogee in that shop, and liked it so much I tracked down the author’s other books. She unfortunately stopped writing about 20 years ago. They are solid mid-list US sf.

C is for Corpse, Sue Grafton (1986)
Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992). Both of these books I borrowed from my mother, and subsequently became a fan of their authors. Grafton died in 2017, having only reached the letter Y in her Alphabet series. I didn’t read the first half dozen books in order – which is not really necessary – but I have read all twenty-five of the books. I’ve also read all of Paretsky’s novels, including her two non-VI Warshawski ones. She has a new Warshawski novel out next year. It’s on my wishlist. For some reason, I much prefer female-authored crime fiction, especially those with female protagonists. In the 1970s, when Grafton and Paretsky were beginning, it was a small field. Now it’s enormous, but I feel no urge to keep up. I tried a few other female crime writers during the 1990s – Liza Cody, for example – but never found one to match either Grafton or Paretsky (at least, not until the 2010s).

Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957). I knew very little about Lawrence Durrell – I  think I may have read a Gerald Durrell book at school – when I borrowed the omnibus of the Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library. Unfortunately, I didn’t get round to reading it and to return it unread. But I still wanted to read it, so I bought a slipcased set of the four paperbacks during a trip to Dubai (the one pictured, in fact). When I read the books, I fell in love with Durrell’s prose and started collecting Durrell’s oeuvre. In first edition. I now have quite a large collection, including some rare books and chapbooks.

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997)
Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, Nicola Griffith & Stephen Pagel (1997). I’m not sure these two books deserve to be lumped together, although I suspect I first read them around the same time. I can’t remember what clued me into Susan R Matthews’s novels – a review somewhere, I suspect – but I’ve remained a fan since reading An Exchange of Hostages. They’re not perfect, and what worked in 1997 doesn’t play as well in 2019, but it’s a remarkable series and worth reading. The Bending the Landscape series, on the other hand, only comprised three volumes – fantasy, science fiction and horror. The remit was simple: genre authors write LGBT genre stories, LGBT authors write LGBT genre stories. The results were… mixed. The idea now sounds seems somewhat quaint, which gives you an idea of the progress made in genre fiction. I value the series because it introduced me to authors I had not previously known. But science fiction as a genre has always been very hetero- and cis- and even in the late 1990s finding commercial fiction that was neither was difficult. The Bending the Landscape trilogy were important in redressing that balance.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993). I know this was the first Park novel I ever read, and I know I bought it in Abu Dhabi. I suspect it was in All Prints, not Isam Bookshop, as it cost more than 5 Dirhams and was not remaindered. John Clute described it as “Third World sf”, but to me it’s one of the first post-colonial science fiction works. I’m surprised it hasn’t been properly studied. It deserves to be in the SF Masterworks series. It’s been a favourite sf novel for a couple of decades, and Park is a favourite writer. I have all of his books. In first edition.

Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996). I’m not sure which Sterling novel I read first, possibly Schismatrix, but by the early 1990s, after the success of Mirrorshades, the 1986 cyberpunk anthology he co-edited with William Gibson, and the spread of awareness of “The Movement”, Sterling had become something of a cyberpunk guru. Among the group of fans mentioned above, he was known as “Chairman Bruce”. While I read and appreciated his novels, it wasn’t until Holy Fire – arguably post-cyberpunk – that I saw up and took notice. And later went on to buy his novels as they were published. In first edition. Holy Fire remained my favourite Sterling novel until 2009’s The Caryatids – and I was fortunate enough to interview Sterling for Interzone in connection with that novel. It is, I think, my best interview.

Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953). For much of the 1990s I was in an APA with a group of well-known UK science fiction fans. It was a bit like a postal forum or group blog. Each month, the members would write a contribution of one or more sides of A4 (you didn’t have to contribute every month, but were expected to do so a certain number of times a year), make 30 copies of it and then send them to the administrator. Who would then put together 30 envelopes containing a copy of each of the contributions for that month, which was then posted to each member. Although the APA was ostensibly about science fiction and fantasy, the discussion often ranged over a wide variety of topics, including other literary genres. I forget who recommended the novels of Georgette Heyer – I think it was after I’d read a Jane Austen novel – but I thoroughly enjoyed Cotillion, and slowly worked by way through Heyer’s historical romances. I still have all the ones I bought and occasionally reread them – they make excellent comfort reading.

The Master Mariner, Nicholas Monsarrat (1978). I remember reading Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea at school as part of a reading group, but I didn’t discover Monsarrat had written other books until I joined the Daly Community Library and saw several of his books on their shelves. The Master Mariner, comprising two volumes, Running Proud and Darken Ship, was Monsarrat’s last work and is unfinished. Running Proud is complete, but Darken Ship consists only of a handful of chapters and notes. They’re excellent and I later began working my way through Monsarrat’s oeuvre, and even collecting them in first edition. I think Monsarrat’s oeuvre told against him, and the fact he’s best known for The Cruel Sea had him pegged as a WWII writer. He wrote across a number of genres, including science fiction. Although rarely mentioned in the same breath, the writer closest to him is probably Nevil Shute, whose profile is much higher. I will admit to a tendency to privilege the underdog (relatively speaking, of course), but that’s perhaps because I find lesser reputations are typically undeserved after reading the author’s works.

The Second Angel, Philip Kerr (1998). I’d come across Kerr very early in the 1990s when I read the first three Bernie Gunther novels, possibly borrowed from Coventry City Library. Kerr later returned to the Gunther series after a 15 year gap in 2006. But he also wrote other novels, some of which it has to be said are bit potboiler-ish, but among them is The Second Angel, which is pure science fiction. And very good too. I thought it so good I started reading the rest of Kerr’s books, and was especially glad he started writing Bernie Gunther novels again as they really are very good. Sadly, Kerr died in 2018. I’ve read all of his books except his last one, Metropolis, a Gunther novel, the children’s books he published as PB Kerr, and his “football detective Scott Manson trilogy.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985). The more observant among you will have noticed that most of the books in this post, and the two preceding, have been by male writers. I did not at that time note the gender of the authors whose books I read. I did read some female science fiction authors – and indeed some were favourites, such as Cherryh – but my reading was predominantly genre books by male writers. The Children of Anthi, and its sequel Requiem for Anthi, are not generally held up as great science fiction, although they’re much better than they should be. Blakeney is a pseudonym used by Deborah Chester for four sf novels published between 1985 and 1990. I’ve never read anything else by Chester other than her Blakeney books, and she used a number on pen-names. The Children of Anthi is an excellent exemplar of one stream of my science fiction reading during the decade, possibly inspired by Angel at Apogee: I actively sought out books by female US mid-list sf authors – at least in Isam Bookshop which, fortunately, seemed to have a good supply. This later fed into SF Mistressworks, a project I kicked off in 2010.