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Reading diary 2018, #8

I don’t seem to be reading much current science fiction these days. Well, okay, I read three of the four novels shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and I recently bought four of the six novels shortlisted for the Clarke Award (I already owned one, and am not really interested in another.) And yes, I’ve read the first two books of NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which has been the most lauded genre series of the last couple of years… But no current science fiction here, I’m afraid.

Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). I stumbled across Henry Green’s writing a couple of years ago. I’d seen mention of him somewhere as a forgotten great writer in British twentieth-century literature, although at the time I saw this he had been re-discovered, not that I knew; but anyway I stumbled across an omnibus of three of his novels – Loving · Living · Party Going – and I read the first of these (actually the last published of the three) and, er, loved it. So I read more. And yes, he is indeed one of the best writers this country produced in the first half of last century. Pack My Bag is his autobiography, written in 1940 at the age of 35, after Green had volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service and was convinced he would not survive the war. (He actually survived, and died an alcoholic in 1973, having published only nine novels.) Pack My Bag is something Green banged out to assuage fears he might be forgotten and, quite frankly, I’m in awe of his talent. He led a privileged life, a minor member of the aristocracy, educated at Eton and Oxford – I can’t decide whether to despise him for his background, admire him for his writing, or grudgingly admit he was uncommon for his class – unpopular at school, and far too thoughtful; he left Oxford without graduating, to go work in his family’s bottling factory in Birmingham. Yet his wife was a member of his class, and a distant cousin too; and though he was clearly very intelligent, as a member of the upper classes he was the beneficiary of what is considered to be a top-notch education… and yet he admits the masters at Eton were hired for their sporting prowess and not their knowledge of their subjects, which in many cases was hugely deficient, and it would not surprise me if that has held true in the century since; and at university, he brags that his studies take up no more than six hours a week. Green is perfectly aware of what he is saying as he writes this – he is not a man afraid of burning bridges, or biting the hand that feeds him, or other such aphorisms.

The Masked Fisherman, George Mackay Brown (1989, UK). Someone on Twitter recommended Brown a couple of years ago, and so I’ve kept an eye open for his books in local charity shops ever since. Which is how I stumbled across Beside the Ocean of Time (see here), which I thought good; and why I later picked up this book when I found it in a charity shop. It’s a collection of twenty-two very short stories, some of which work very well and some of which didn’t seem to work at all. Some barely qualify as stories. They’re all set in Brown’s home ground, the Orkneys, and they take place between the eleventh and twentieth centuries. They’re not arranged chronologically, but jump about. The title story is historical, and reads more like a fable than a short story. Another, about a mean old lady who leaves a surprising bequest, feels a bit out of place. A short story about the town’s first lamp-lighter is especially good. Another about a writer researching his past also stands out. Some of the stories seemed less… lyrical than I had expected, not that Brown’s prose is ornate, it’s typically very plain but it’s also very evocative. And in a few places here, that felt slightly lacking. However, the more by Brown I read, the more by Brown I want to read. So I’ll continue to keep eye open for his books.

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol 2, (2010, India). This was a reward for a kickstarter – although maybe not from that particular website – for volume three (as was volume one, but there’s no sign of it yet; I’m still not convinced “kickstarters” – crowd-funding, that is – are actually viable or sustainable, but that’s an argument for another day). Anyway, in India – and in this case, the Tamil-speaking parts of it, such as Tamil Nadu – penny dreadfuls of a sort still exist. They are printed on extremely cheap paper and sold at newsstands or by boys at traffic lights. Authors who specialise in these Tamil pulp novels have bibliographies numbering in the high double figures, and some even in the high triple figures – and one author in this anthology, Rajesh Kumar, has written around 1500! While holding down day jobs. To be fair, they’re not long novels and, if the ones in this anthology are any indication, pretty badly-written, with an over-reliance on cliché, very little description and plots that are so pacey they frequently contradict themselves. The plots are mostly thrillers with real or faked supernatural elements. The opener, and the longest in the anthology, ‘The Palace of Kottaipuram’, features a second son from a tiny princedom in which the heirs are cursed to die before they reach their thirtieth birthday. When his older brother dies, making him the heir, his girlfriend – he met her at college – is determined to find the truth behind the curse and so thwart it. It’s all very, well, pulp, and probably the best story in the book. I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll read the third one too, of course; but it’s like watching Bollywood films: they might be terrible, but they’re entertaining and fun and different to what I normally read/watch.

Dan Dare: He Who Dares, Peter Milligan & Alberto Foche (2018, UK). I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since the early 1970s, and have kept up with him in all his re-imaginings since, most of which it must be said have been pretty shit. There was the 2000AD one (see here and here), then the re-launched Eagle with Dare’s… grandson?, also called Dare. And in the early 1990, out of Revolver, there was Dare by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes, to date the only halfway-decent Dare since the original (and it looks like Titan are publishing a new edition later this year). And Grant Ennis and Gary Erskine had a bash at a new Dan Dare a few years and it was pretty bad. But here’s a new one. It starts off really well. Dare and co. – specifically, Hank Hogan, Peabody and Digby; although Hank pretty much disappears after the first couple of pages, Digby is far more competent and assertive than his original, and Peabody, the most modern of the characters even back in the 1950s, has been updated a little. As has the Mekon. Dan Dare: He Who Dares starts out well, with some pointed political commentary. The Mekon was captured and is now in a secure facility on the Moon. He seems to have given up his evil ways, but only Dare believes he might be rehabilitated. And then a giant Treen spaceship appears in the Solar System, and Dare seeks advice from the Mekon on how to destroy it. With the help of a female warrior from an alien world. This is where it all falls apart. Dare was always interplanetary, and his only interstellar stories – Rogue Planet and Terra Nova – saw him and his colleagues spending weeks or months travelling to an alien world. There’s certainly no suggestion the Mekon carved out an interstellar empire. In fact, the Treens who invade the Solar System feel like an entirely different race, and not the Treens of Venus. A shame, as the story started off so well.

The Art of Edena, Moebius (2018, France). So I ordered this a couple of months ago, but Amazon failed to source it and after a month cancelled my order. And then a week after that, I noticed they had copies in stock. So how does that work? I know: it’s because people are so fucking lax about data that you can no longer uniquely identify something because there might well be hundreds of identical copies under different ids in a system. Anyway, I re-ordered it and it was delivered the next day. Despite the title, it’s not a study of Moebius’s Edena series (see here). It’s more of a companion volume, explaining details that are patently obvious in the series itself, but – and it’s worth buying for this if you’re a Moebius fan – it also includes several short graphical stories featuring Stel and Atan that are not in the Edena volume. And they’re pretty good.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Books in May

It’s a shame the York and Sheffield pub meets have packed in as it was a good way for me to get rid of books I didn’t want. After all, I’m not going to dump first editons in excellent condition I no longer want in charity shops. I’d much prefer them to go to a good home. Selling them on eBay is a faff, and no one will buy them on Amazon if you price them what they’re actually worth… Perhaps, instead of a book haul post, I should put up a book sale post here…

These books, however, are ones that have just arrived… although one or two I may be getting rid of once I’ve read them.

I was a bit behind on my Eric Brown books, so I ordered a bunch of them: Salvage, Jani & the Great Pursuit, Murder Takes a Turn and Satan’s Reach. Two are sequels, and I’ve yet to read the previous books. But I’ve been reading, and enjoying, the Langham and Dupree crime novels as they’re published.

I remember just before Loncon 3 seeing mention of a signed limited edition of a book of art by Chris Foss, Hardware, but had assumed they’d all been sold back then. But recently I discovered the Titan Books’ online shop still has copies. So, of course, I ordered one. I ordered The Art of Edena several weeks ago from a large online retailer, but they told me a month later the book was unavailable. A week later, it was in stock. Go figure. Years ago, I had the Dragons Dream book of Syd Mead art, but I gave it to a friend in payment for some cover art. I’ve always regretted that, but now I have The Movie Art of Syd Mead instead. And I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since I was kid. I’m not old enough to have read him in the Eagle; my introduction was via a 1974 Hamlyn annual containing two stories. Over the years, various attempts have been made at re-imagining him, mostly unsuccessfully. Dan Dare: He Who Dares is the latest such try.

I was very sad to hear of Philip Kerr’s death earlier this year as I’ve been a fan of his books for a long time, especially the Bernie Gunther ones. Greeks Bearing Gifts is the latest, but not, I think, the last. I seem to remember hearing there is one more to come. And then that’s it. A very big shame. Someone tweeted about Pascal Garnier a few weeks ago, and his books sounded interesting so I thought I’d give one a try: The A26. I already have a copy of Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, The Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes & Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil (a sure winner for the most unwieldy title of a sf novel evah), AKA Chronocules, but this one a) is in much much better condition than mine, and b) was really cheap. I’ve been after a hardback copy of In Search of Wonder for several years, most of those for sale on eBay are from US sellers. This copy – the third edition from 1996 – was from a UK seller. And it’s in mint condition. Result.

They announced the shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award a week or so ago, and I must admit it’s a more interesting shortlist than we’ve had for a number of years. I certainly agree that Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time should be there – I’ve been championing it since I read it last year. But the others? Spaceman of Bohemia I’ve heard some good things about. American War, Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust were completely off my radar, although I vaguely recall hearing mention of the last. Anyway, I’ll give them all a go. And yes, there is a sixth novel, Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I didn’t take to his Annihilation when I read it so I’m not going to bother with Borne.

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Reading diary 2018, #7

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. On the plus-side, I seem to be better at picking books I enjoy.

The Silent Multitude, DG Compton (1966, UK). After Gwyneth Jones, I would say DG Compton was likely the second-best sf writer the UK has produced. Except… His writing was a cut above what is typical for the genre, and his best work is among the top rank of British sf – and rather than being timeless, it makes a virtue of the fact it is tied to its time of writing – but… Compton’s range was somewhat narrow. He wrote many similar novels. And there are a number of other UK sf writers of the 1970s whose prose was perhaps not as good as Compton’s but who managed to produce more varied work. Which is not to say that Compton was never good, or that mediocre Compton is not a great deal better than some other writers’ best. The Silent Multitude is Compton coming into his voice, after a handful of years of writing crime novels as Guy Compton. A mysterious organism is spreading across the UK which dissolves mortar and reduces buildings to rubble in a handful of days. The “Sickness” has now reached Gloucester, a city completely rebuilt in the 1980s, which has now been evacuated. Except for the local dean, an old man who collects newspapers and lives alone among the tens of thousands he has collected, a twentysomething hoodlum who proves to be the son of the architect who designed the new Gloucester, and a twentysomething young woman reporter who is the daughter of the editor of the newspaper for which she works. (The mentions of a redesigned Gloucester reminded me not only of Portmouth’s Tricorn Centre, which I’ve only seen in photographs, but also the various plans to rebuild the city centre of Coventry and, of course, the precinct which eventually resulted.) The Silent Multitude is essentially these four characters witnessing the death of a city – the death of its buildings and infrastructure, that is; the people have already left – and while Compton is good on the descriptive prose and the characterisation, this novel doesn’t feature any of the narrative tricks he later used. The Silent Multitude is a slim work, ideas-wise, propped up by good prose, but that’s no bad thing as science fiction in general could do with upping its game prose-wise. Compton is good – bloody good, in fact – but this is nowhere near his best work.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss (2017, USA). Most of Goss’s short fiction that I’ve seen has been fantasy or reworked fairy tales, which is not really the type of fiction that interests me. But a year or two ago, she wrote ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’, which was the sort of referential mash-up genre fiction that does appeal to me – and I thought it so good, I nominated it for the BSFA Award, but it did not make the shortlist – and it seems she has written more in a similar vein. Anyway, I saw mention of this, her first novel, and its premise – the daughters of various nineteenth-century fictional scientists team up to help Sherlock Holmes solve Jack the Ripper’s murders – sounded like it might be worth a go. And so it was. It is, in fact, very good. Except. Well, it feels a bit dumbed-down. I’m not sure what it is, but it doesn’t feel as clever a novel as its central conceit would suggest. It doesn’t help that Mary Jekyll – yes, the daughter of that Jekyll – is the main character but spends much of the plot tagging along behind Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, the novel is explicitly presented as a narrative written by Catherine Moreau, often with interjections by the other women, and that works really well. It’s also quite funny. For a novel set in Victorian Britain, there are a few slips – the ground floor is continually referred to as the first floor; and some of the expletives are US English. Despite those minor quibbles, I enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and plan to pick up a copy of the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, when it’s published in July.

Author’s Choice Monthly 10: Tales from a Vanished Country, Elizabeth A Lynn (1990, USA). One day I will have all of these muahahah. Ahem. But for now, I have just over half of the series. Lynn was not an author known to me, so I came to this short collection cold. In the first story, a wizard runs a trading empire, and when his CEO, so to speak, betrays him, he imprisons him as water in the sea. Some time later, he frees him, because a rival wizard has been upsetting the balance of power. The two disguise themselves to visit the other wizard, but he sees through their disguises. Fortunately, after several months of drugged gaslighting, the CEO chap regains his senses, and the world is set right. So far, so consolatory. The second story, however, is anything but. Three sisters are noted for their beauty, intelligence and martial prowess. A mysterious woman appears and challenges them to combat. One accepts and is killed. Some time later, the mysterious challenger reappears, and this time the second sister is killed in combat. So the third sister hunts down the killer, who turns out to be an aspect of the Moon, and she becomes her lover. Years later, the sister decides to return to her family, but it seems decades have passed. But she stays and lives out her life, mourning her dead sisters and lost lover. The final story reads more like mythology than epic fantasy. A goddess entrusts command of the five winds to a reclusive astronomer who lives in a cave in the mountains. The goddess’s son decide to check this out, and becomes the woman’s lover. She has two girls, who grow faster than human girls. He leaves and steals the cloak the woman uses to command the winds. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the goddess returns. But the woman has disappeared and the two daughters are only just managing to survive. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Lynn before, and I have the impression I’ve seen her name chiefly on the covers of sharecropped novels… although checking on, I see that’s completely false and two of her three standalone novels are, in fact, science fiction. (The 1983 UK paperback edition of one has quite striking cover art.) The three stories in Tales from a Vanished Country are really good, which was completely unexpected. They make clever use of fantasy tropes, and are deeply feminist, even the first one which features no female characters. I think I’ll track down copies of those two science fiction novels…

Phosphorus, Liz Williams (2018, UK). This is the third novella of the third quartet of NewCon Press novellas, although the fourth book I read of the set. Not, I hasten to add, for any particular reason. It is subtitled “A Winterstrike Story’, and I have no objection to subtitles but I would like to point out that they are not titles. So when a data entry form has a field called “title”, it means title, not title and subtitle, not title and, as I have seen, “[random award] winner”. People complain about Big Data, but it would be much less of a problem if we didn’t have Shit Data. But that’s a rant for another day. I have read Winterstrike, but not the other books in the series. Neither is necessary to understand the story of Phosphorus, which, to be honest, isn’t much of a story. It’s extremely strong on setting – and Williams’s Mars is a fascinating place – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere or do much. A young woman with some mysterious quality is adopted by her mysterious aunt, who takes her from Winterstrike, which is under attack by another city, to the dead city of Tharsis. Meanwhile, the sole survivor of the Hunt – although she is dead, but animated by one of the Hunt’s starships – an alien race that saw its mission in life as “culling” other races, leaves her homeworld of Phosphorus, and eventually ends up on Mars. An event which, it transpires, happened centuries before the other narrative, and the young woman is in some way connected. And, er, that’s it. Pretty much. An interesting idea that’s not at all explored. It reads like the start of a novel. Nice writing, nice world-building, but disappointing plot.

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon (2007, USA). Back in the day, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union appeared on several genre award shortlists, IIRC, and I read it and thought it quite good. So I stuck The Amazing Adventures of  Kavalier and Clay on my wishlist and some years later was given it as a birthday present. And then I read it, an embarrassing number of years after that, and was much more impressed. And shortly after that I found a copy of Gentlemen of the Road in a charity shop, so of course I bought it. And… Chabon writes in an afterword that to him the novel (a very short novel) was always titled “Jews with Swords”. Because to him Jews had never been associated with swords – at least not since Biblical times. I’ve never attached a religion to a weapon – people with swords are people with swords, and I’ve never really thought about the religious tradition from which they came, perhaps because in most cases in fiction that tradition was invented, and for those where it was not the context more than explained it. But “Jews with Swords” gives us a Frankish Jew estranged from his European family, and an Ethiopian Jew from tribe that no other Jew seems willing to accept, on a mission which involves the Khazars, a Turkic state which converted to Judaism, but vanished after three centuries. The two unwillingly accept a commission to take a young Khazar prince, the last survivor of the family of a deposed bek (martial leader, a sort of government CEO to the kagan’s chairperson). But they lose him to some mercenaries, who are taking him to the new bek. Except the prince persuades the mercenaries to rally his cause, and sort of builds up an army from the Muslim Khazar cities in the south of the region which the new bek had let the Vikings plunder with impunity. And… well, the big secret about the prince is pretty obvious from about a page after he’s been introduced, and the only suspense is in wondering how the two main characters can be so dumb as to not figure it out. Having said that, the history is fascinating, the characters are interesting, and, while I find Chabon’s prose a bit hit and miss, the mannered style he adopts here works well with the story. I should read more Chabon. Fortunately, I have Wonder Boys on the TBR, picked up from a charity shop at the same time as Gentlemen of the Road

Inside Moebius, Part 1, Moebius (2004, France). I came to Moebius’s work from Jodorwosky, as Moebius – Jean Giraud – illustrated Jodorowsky’s Incal series, still one of the greatest sf bandes dessinées of all time. Although, having said that, I seem to remember seeing parts of Moebius’s Airtight Garage many. many years ago. Back in the early 1980s, I used to fly out to the Middle East for holidays via Schiphol Airport, and in the bookshop there I would often pick up a copy of Heavy Metal or Epic, and even an issue of 1984 (which I had to hide once I’d discovered what it contained). I’ve a feeling that’s where I first encountered Moebius’s work. That’s all by the bye. I’ve been a fan of Moebius for many years now, so I keep an eye open for when new stuff by him appears in English (I could, I suppose, buy the original French editions, but I have enough trouble keeping track of new stuff in one language market, never mind doing it in two). Inside Moebius, originally published in in six volumes in France but now as three volumes from Dark Horse, is a sort of autobiographical private project that blossomed. Moebius wanted to give up smoking, so he started writing a bande dessinée about it, and then sort of dragged in the books he had worked on, or was currently working on, and his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Particularly politics. Osama bin Laden makes an appearance in Inside Moebius, Part 1, as do some of Moebius’s characters – Blueberry, Arzak and the Major. The art is not as detailed as in other Moebius works, it’s almost sketches, in fact. But the way the book is designed, it’s clear the words are more important. The dialogue is full of puns, many of which have not translated but a helpful afterword explains them. (For the record, I did get the “Fumetti” one.) It’s all good stuff, although I could have wished for artwork as good as that in the aforementioned works.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Easter parade

Yes, I know, Easter is over. And I don’t think they have parades at Easter, anyway. At least not in this country. But it’s still April, and here is a parade of books wot I have recently added to the collection.

This is the third set of novellas from NewCon Press – I didn’t bother with the second set as it was horror – and, as you can see, the covers form a single piece of art. By Jim Burns. I’ve already read The Martian Job (see here), and The Martian Simulacra and The Greatest Story Ever Told (see here), but have yet to read Phosphorus.

Three new-ish science fiction books. Well, A Thorn in the Bush is not really new – it was written decades ago but never published – and it’s not actually science fiction either, as Herbert initially set out to be a writer of thrillers. But never mind. Songs of Leaving was the only book I bought in the dealers’ room at Follycon 2. I’m a big fan of Duchamp’s writing, so I’ve been after a copy of The Waterdancer’s World for a while.

I started reading Litt’s novels several years ago – although not in alphabetical order, as I started with Journey into Space (Litt has titled each of his books alphabetically; he’s currently up to N). I thought I ought to fill in some of the gaps, hence Beatniks. The True Deceiver was a charity shop find. Sea and Sardinia is another for the DH Lawrence Phoenix Edition collection. Such Good Friends was the consequence of drunk eBaying, bought after seeing Preminger’s not very good film adaptation, reading up about it on Wikipedia, and thinking the original novel sounded mildly interesting…

Some birthday presents from last month from my sisters. I’ve heard good things about Frankenstein in Baghdad. A Primer for Cadavers I’ve already read (see here). I’ve always wanted to work my way through Clarke’s short fiction, so I’m glad I now have The Collected Stories. And I’ve been a fan of Irwin’s writing since reading his book on classical Arabic literature years ago, and Wonders Will Never Cease is his latest novel.

Some collectibles. The Elizabeth A Lynn is actually titled Tales from a Vanished Country, although none of the books in the 29-volume Author’s Choice Monthly series from Pulphouse Publications actually put the titles on the cover. Anyway, I’m slowly completing the set. The Natural History of the P.H. is an essay by Roberts on something that drove his fiction in his later years. It was published by Kerosina. Judgment Night is a facsimile edition of the first edition, published by Red Jacket Press. Gerfalcon, is from the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library, although annoyingly I don’t think it’s the original cover art for the book.

Finally, some graphic novels. Memories from the Future (see here) is the final volume in the Valerian and Laureline series. While Crosswind (see here) is the first volume in a new series. And Inside Moebius Part 1 is, er, also the first in a series, of, I think, three volumes.

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Reading diary 2018, #6

More reading all over the place. And cheats too – a bande dessineé and two novellas. Oh well. At least I’m staying ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge target…

Fleet Insurgent, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction books since they first appeared back in the 1990s. They were definitely among the more interesting commercial sf being published in the US back then. Although apparently not interesting enough, as Matthews moved publisher after the first three Jurisdiction books, and two unrelated novels, and then lasted two Jurisdiction novels with her new publisher before being dropped. The next book came out from small press Meisha Merlin… who promptly folded. And it was another decade before Baen picked the series up, published two omnibuses, before continuing the series with Blood Enemies (see here). Fleet Insurgent, however, is a collection, some of it previously published, much of its contents intended to fill in gaps in the published series so far, or shed new light, or a new perspective, on some of its episodes. So it’s more like a companion volume than anything else, rather than a pendant volume. Which, as a fan, doesn’t overly bother me. If anything, the stories in Fleet Insurgent provide welcome insight – as Matthews is not a writer who likes to make things easy for her readers. The writing is a deal better than I remember from recent rereads of the first two books of the Under Jurisdiction series, but that’s hardly unusual. However, it’s certainly not a good entry point for the series, as most of the stories will make zero sense without knowledge of the novels (despite an introduction to each story by Matthews). I seem to recall that Matthews had plotted out a quite a number of books in the series. I hope we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next instalment.

Valerian & Laureline 22: Memories from the Futures, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2013, France). This is not the twenty-second volume in the story of Valerian and Laureline. Except it is. What I mean is, it’s not part of the story-arc which takes place over the previous twenty-one volumes, but rather pendants to the prior episodes. Most of these only occupy a double-page spread, and they don’t make much sense if you don’t know the volumes to which they refer. I’m not entirely sure why it needed to exist – they were contractually obliged to deliver a twenty-second volume? I don’t know. If you’ve read the previous twenty-one volumes – and I highly recommend them; ignore the crappy film – then you’ll know what to expect, and you’ll want the book anyway to complete the set. Now it’s all finished, I guess I’ll have to find another bande dessinée to read… perhaps in the original French? Now, where did I put my French-English dictionary…

Dreams of the Technarion, Sean McMullen (2017, Australia). I was sent this for review by Interzone. I don’t think I’ve read anything by McMullen before, a few short stories perhaps. Some of the stories in this collection appeared in Interzone, although I don’t recall them. As sf collections go, Dreams of the Technarion is strong on ideas, if not on story – one or two feel like premises in search of a plot. But what makes the book is the final story… which isn’t a story at all but an essay on the history of Australian science fiction. It’s fascinating stuff – and amusing too, albeit not always intentionally: when discussing early Australian pulp magazines, McMullen writes, “This is not the sort of thing to make the average SF reader do handstands, but it was good enough for an average Australian male caught in a toilet without a newspaper”, which I’m not entirely sure means what McMullen intended it to mean… Anyway, I almost certainly wouldn’t have read this had I not been sent it for review, but I’m glad I did. There’s certainly much worse out there, often much more acclaimed, and the essay on the history of Australian sf is fascinating stuff.

A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK). My sister bought me this for my birthday, although not from my wishlist. I’ve no idea why she chose it – when I asked, she said it looked “interesting”. Atkins’s name means much more to me now than it did this time last year, since I saw one of his video installations, ‘Ribbons’, at Kiasma in Helsinki, when I was in Finland for the Worldcon last August. I’m a big fan of video installations, and Atkins’s was one of the two in the museum I thought really good. So I was quite pleased to have a copy of his book. It’s a collection of… I’m not entirely sure what they are. Stream-of-consciousness pieces, I suppose. Neither poetry nor prose, but having some characteristics of both. One or two, I think, maybe the scripts from his video installations – they certainly share titles, such as ‘Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths’. Much of the writing is visceral, as in, er, about viscera, detailed narratives about parts of the body – one is more or less an annotated list of parts of the brain as mapped by Korbinian Brodmann (isn’t that a great first name?). Most of the pieces are peppered with cultural references – there’s a plot summary of the film Sphere in one of them. I’m not sure if I liked or enjoyed A Primer for Cadavers, as it’s not the sort of book you can like or enjoy. Bits of it are extremely well-done, and a good deal of the writing is very clever. I guess that, like video installations cross over that line between cinema and art into art, so this book crosses over a similar line between literature and art into art. I’d already planned to keep an eye open for Atkins’s work when I visit modern art museums in the future, and after reading A Primer for Cadavers I’m even more keen to do so.

The Martian Simulacra, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the second of the latest quartet of NewCon Press novellas, all of which are set on Mars. It’s subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”, which is a bit of a clue to the plot. As is the cover art. It’s set after Wells’s Martian invasion. Although the invaders died, a second lot, claiming to be good Martians and the enemies of the invaders, arrived, and have pretty much taken over. Holmes is approached by a Martian ambassador, who asks for his help in solving the murder of an important Martian philosopher. On Mars. So he and Watson travel there, meeting a yuong woman en route, who appears to be involved with some sort of Martian underground. Because the good Martians aren’t so good after all. It’s exactly the sort of story you would expect from a mash-up between Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds. Brown keeps it pacey, although he perhaps relies overmuch on stock tropes and imagery. A fun novella.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, Una McCormack (2018, UK). This is the fourth novella in the series – for some reason I skipped the third, not that they’re at all related in terms of story. And I think it’s set on Mars, like the other three, but it’s hard to be sure as there are no references to the Martian landscape. It’s not even as if the story needs to be set on Mars – The Martian Simulacra is a mash-up with Wells’s novel, so Mars is a given; and even The Martian Job (see here) required the Red Planet as its setting for its story, and almost certainly for its ending. The narrator of The Greatest Story Ever Told is a scullery maid in a household that trains “dance-fighters”. The society consists of masters, free people and hands. The hands are basically slaves. And they rebel. Led by the two most famous dance-fighters. After several months of freedom, by which time they’ve gathered several thousand to them, the masters send an army. You can guess the rest. Interspersed with the main narrative are short fables, framed as told by the narrator to other characters in the main narrative. Some of them have obvious morals, others I couldn’t see what point they were trying to make. Everyone in the story uses female pronouns. Of the three novellas from the quartet I’ve read so far, this was the least satisfying. The setting didn’t feel like Mars, I don’t think slavery belongs in science fiction stories, and the narrator’s voice was a little irritating. The stories-within-a-story, while hardly new, gave the novella a little more depth, but I suspect it was over-used a little. Not my favourite of the four, so far. And I still have one more to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


Reading diary 2018, #5

Bit of a cheat this one, as most of the books are either short or graphic novels – well, one graphic novel, two short collections, and a novella. One has also been shortlisted for the BSFA Award.

Author’s Choice Monthly 7: Neon Twilight, Edward Bryant (1990 USA). I had one of my semi-regular outbreaks of completist-itis, and since I owned about half of the Author’s Choice Monthly issues, I decided I needed to have the rest. A full set. Even though many of the authors in the series I’m far from a fan of. Like Mike Resnick. Ed Bryant I knew nothing about. The name rang a vague bell, but if I’ve read anything by him in the past, I don’t recall doing so. Bryant’s introduction explains he’s better known as a horror writer, although he did write heartland sf once – and it’s three of the latter stories which are collected here. All three are set in the same space opera universe – the first story he set there, a later one when he decided to use the setting for a commissioned story, and a third written specifically for this short collection. They are… okay. The stories are set in some sort of interstellar polity – it’s all a bit vague – in which disputes are settled through ceremonial wars, in which mercenaries in fighters battle each other. And those who survive, and have the highest kills, become popular heroes. The second story was written for an anthology set in Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker universe, so the mercenaries have to fight off a giant machine intelligence bent on killing everyone. And they do it using the previously unknown telekinetic powers of one settled world’s indigenes. The whole fighter/mercenary thing takes some swallowing, because there’s nothing remotely plausible about using fighters in space combat, despite their prevalence in science fiction. The whole folk hero thing doesn’t really parse either – after all, who remembers the aces from the Vietnam War? From any war? These Author’s Choice Monthly have proven to be very much of variable quality. But they’re a set, so I’m going to buy them all and read them all, damn it. Even if they’re crap.

The Obelisk Gate, NK Jemisin (2016, USA). Do I need to explain that this is the second book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy – preceded by The Fifth Season and followed by The Stone Sky – which, like The Fifth Season, won the Hugo, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Stone Sky also won the Hugo this year… Making it the only trilogy to ever win the Hugo for all three instalments in consecutive years. Which says more about the Hugo Awards, to be honest, than it does the books. Social media these days is completely fucking useless for finding out what’s worth reading – and the Hugo Award never has been – as it’s all tribalism and self-promotion, but I’d heard enough rumbles about The Fifth Season to prompt me to buy it when it was £1.99, and I was pleasantly surprised enough (see here) to stick this second book on my wishlist. And so was given it as a Christmas present. It is a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow a phrase, that the second books of trilogies are generally the least satisfactory. After the tricks Jemisin had used in The Fifth Season, I had, to be honest, expected more of The Obelisk Gate. It is pretty much a straight follow-on. However, where the best part of the first book was its time-stacked narratives, that’s a not a technique that can be continued once revealed. The Obelisk Gate doesn’t even try. It’s a linear narrative covering events chronologically following on from The Fifth Season. It rings a few changes – which are to its credit – inasmuch as it introduces a separate narrative for Essun’s daughter, who was abducted by her father and proves to be an extremely powerful orogene; and it also breaks its narratives with first-person sections which directly address the reader whose narrator is not initially obvious. The worldbuilding is basically more of the same from the first book. The level of brutality remains high, although much of the invention was frontloaded in the first book. This is good solid genre fiction, a cut above the average, which can be read as both science fiction or fantasy. Are they the best two genre fiction novels published in 2015 and 2016? Of course they’re not. The Fifth Season probably deserved its Hugo – and certainly did given the shortlist – but The Obelisk Gate‘s Hugo was not so deserved (although, given the rest of the shortlist…). I’ll certainly read The Stone Sky, and I hope it picks up a bit after The Obelisk Gate – although I suspect that since the shape of trilogy is now becoming so much clearer, it won’t do. The strength of The Fifth Season was that its shape was there to be discovered. But we shall see.

Author’s Choice Monthly 29: Moonstone & Tiger-Eye, Suzy McKee Charnas (1992 USA). There are only two stories in this collection, both technically novelettes (I say “technically” because novelette is the most useless fiction category on the planet and we should really stop using it). The first, ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’ I first read in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, and I liked it enough to moan that Charnas had never revisited the setting. It was apparently her first piece of short fiction, since she’d only written, and was known for, novels prior to it. On reread, I’m less enamoured of ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’. It’s heartland hard sf/space opera, the sort of stuff Cherryh, among countless others, is famous for, written in the first person, with an engaging narrator. But. The use of Nigerian culture feels a bit heavy-handed. It’s good to see something other than middle America as a cultural template in a science fiction story, but when you make use of someone else’s culture it has to be done very carefully. Her female narrator also has agency. In 1980, when this story first appeared, that wasn’t very common. The setting is all a bit identikit – Nigerians notwithstanding – and it’s still a shame Charnas never revisited it. The second novelette is ‘Evil Thoughts’, from 1990. A woman and her younger significant other have moved into a new house. Mushrooms keep appearing on their lawn, and the crazy lady just up the streets, with two yappy dogs, tells her they are “evil thoughts”. And the woman destroys the mushrooms, so the evil thoughts have nowhere to go… The story doesn’t make much of its conceit, and seems more concerned with the anxieties of the woman caused by other people’s thoughts on her having a younger partner. Disappointing.

Crosswind Volume 1, Gail Simone & Cat Staggs (2018, USA). Juniper is a Seattle housewife who is abused by her husband. Cason is a hitman for a mob boss in Chicago (I think), who seems somewhat more thoughtful and intelligent than is common for the breed. For reasons explained later, the two magically swap bodies. Cason finds himself in Juniper’s body; Juniper is now a male hitman. It’s hardly an original conceit – there’s a novel from 1931 which has exactly the same premise! – and it’s been used plenty of times since, both in cinema and written fiction. Simone and Stagg have bought a modern sensibility to the story, inasmuch as they were careful to consult trans readers in order to depict their characters’ experiences in an appropriately sensitive way. And yet… they marry this with a brutal mobster plot. Certainly, represent trans people as accurately and sensitively as posssible, but why do we need to have a story which features domestic violence and mobster brutality? Those earlier body swap stories? They were comedies. In Crosswind, it’s good the way the two principals adapt to their new situation… But I could have done without the clichéd violence – and using violence, by “Juniper”, to resolve the chauvinism she’d been experiencing? I’m not sure that’s a good message: woman experiencing chauvinism, can only be resolved by a man taking over the woman’s body and behaving like a man? Disappointing.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan). I’d not even heard of this, although I suspect it would have eventually come to my notice, when I saw it on the BSFA novel shortlist. Which was a surprise. No one I knew on social media had been talking about it. Who were the people who nominated it, enough of them for it to make the shortlist? Which, okay, might only have been half a dozen, given how poorly subscribed the BSFA is these days, and how few people bother to engage with the awards. Anyway, I picked up a copy, and pretty much read it on a train journey to and from Leeds. And… It’s good. It’s very good. In an unnamed Middle East city which is clearly modelled on Damascus, Saeed and Nadia meet. She wears an abeya from neck to toe although she is not religious; he does not believe in sex before marriage. A developing relationship in an Islamic society, in which moderates and fundamentalists coexist, is first upset by civil war, and then by the appearance of doors, existing doors, which now miraculously lead to doors in other, richer and Western, nations. And so refugees flood through them, and there’s no controlling them because they are never en route, or passing through somewhere else. Saeed and Nadia take advantage of this, and first move to Mykonos, and then to the UK, and finally to San Francisco. The premise is not thought through especially well, and the various Western nations’ responses to an unstoppable wave of refugees seems implausibly, well, accommodating – especially the UK, given the UK’s current policy of handling immigrants, as set out by Thereas May when she was Home Secretary, not to mention the whole Brexit fiasco… But Hamid focuses his story on the relationship between the two principals. On the one hand, Exit West makes an obvious point. And it’s a beautifully written novel – I really do like Hamid’s spare explicatory prose. But Exit West simply presents its premise, which doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, and never really interrogates it. Nor does it really interrogate the West’s response to immigrants, especially unannounced or unwanted ones. If you want to read a novel which does an excellent job of commenting on that, then read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. It is the much superior novel. But Erpenbeck wasn’t shortlisted for the BSFA Award – unsurprisingly, as her novel is not genre – amd Hamid was, and both tackle a subject important to our time. Much as I liked Exit West, I didn’t think it entirely successful. It’ll be getting the third slot on my BSFA Award ballot.

The Martian Job, Jaine Fenn (2017, UK). The title is a deliberate nod to the famous British 1960s movie, and the story even uses its own variant of Michael Caine’s famous line. But the plots don’t map precisely, nor the set pieces, and Fenn’s novella certainly ends in a completely different fashion. The famous car chase through the streets of Turin in Minis becomes a race through the tunnels of old Martian colonies in “tunnelbuggies”, and, yes, there’s a heist which kicks it all off… Lizzie Choi is a corporate administrator for one of the most powerful companies on Earth, the Moon and Mars, in a future doiminated by the Chinese. She has a criminal background, but walked away from it. Unfortunately, when her brother dies on Mars, she’s named as next of kin by her mother, currently in prison on the Moon, and so the company find out about her chequered past. Which results in her travelling to Mars to finish off the job her brother had begun: stealing the Eye of Heaven, the largest opal ever found and the property of her ex-employers. It’s all first person, and Choi is an engaging narrator and very much at the centre of the action. The Martian Job does a lot of things well, which mostly means deploys its tropes with assurance – not that any of the tropes are especially original. The references to The Italian Job are fun, but little more than easter eggs. The ending isn’t much if a surprise – it’s optimistic and well primed. This is solid feel-good sf, which might well be about a crime and feature criminals, but is not gratuitously brutal or right-wing. It’s a pleasure to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary 2018, #4

A mixed bag this time around, although I’ve used that excuse before. I read what interests me. If I’m swayed by fads, it’s for one book or two. I read books by friends – but I have a lot of friends who write a variety of types of fiction. Which doesn’t always mean that I automatically like it. The one thing I demand is quality of prose, and I’m happy to read books from any genre that is well-written. The only problem is that different genres seem to rate prose differently. Which is bollocks. I’ve seen reviews of YA novels rate the writing as “excellent” when it’s barely functional. If it’s not up there with the classics, then it’s hardly good. If your book is still admired for its prose 100 years later, then it might be considered excellent. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

The Ghost from the Grand Banks, Arthur C Clarke (1990, UK). Of the Big Three sf writers of the last century, I read more Heinlein than I did Clarke or Asimov. The last I always thought a piss-poor writer, and for some reason Clarke never clicked with me. You’d have thought he would, given he tackles the sort of subjects I enjoy in my sf, and he was very much the hardest, in sf terms, of the three. So you’d also think The Ghost from the Grand Banks, which is about something that has interested me for the past few years, would go down well. It didn’t. The title refers to the wreck of the Titanic, and the novel is basically a rewrite of Cliver Cussler’s Raise the Titanic!, without the implausible thriller-type histrionics, or exclamation mark, and with a series of lectures on, er, Mandelbrot Sets instead. Clarke even has a dig at the film adaptation of Cussler’s novel. The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is rapidly approaching, and two groups of people decide to raise the wreck to mark it. Since the wreck is in two parts, they’ll each raise one part using different methods. A British consortium plans to use glass spheres to float the forward part of the wreck, and a Japanese-American group will freeze the stern part in an iceberg, which they will then shoot to the surface using rockets. This is a book that revels in its use of future technology, and yet manages to get most of it wrong. It’s an occupational hazard of near-future sf, I admit, but most such novels are written such that they’re readable years later. Clarke didn’t appear to care. And perhaps with good reason: he’d sell boatloads, and if the book was out of print 12 months later, he had plenty of other properties pulling in the cash. It’s not that Clarke stinted on his research, more that it all feels re-used – as if he’d done it for another project and decided to get extra mileage out of it by writing this novel. Which is pretty bad. The characterisation is paper-thin, the plot is obvious, the science is mostly incidental, and the computer technology described is completely off-base… Not one of Clarke”s best. Missable.

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock (2013, UK). This was Charnock’s debut novel, but I’ve jumped about a bit in reading her books, having read her latest most recently. However, she doesn’t stray from her shtick, so I’d a good idea what to expect. A Calculated Life provides the setting of Charnock’s novella, The Enclave, which is good, but suffers from not knowing the setting, as revealed in A Calculated Life. A flaw I have now rectified. In the near-future of A Calculated Life, which seems to be set after some sort of climate crash as Lancashire now has a Mediterranean climate, “simulated humans” are relatively common in the workplace. They’re force-grown, and genetically-engineered for certain traits. The main character of A Calculated Life is Jayna, one such simulated human. She works for a private company in Manchester, predicting economic and social trends based on seemingly unconnected events. She is very good at it – much better than “bios” and earlier models of simulants. But driving her ability is an obsession to learn as much as possible about people… and so she begins to secretly break out of her carefully prescribed life. This involves several trips to an enclave, as sort of working class suburb of Manchester which the government has pretty much abandoned – a sort of a cross between a ghetto and a barrio. Charnock paints a convincing portrait of a late-twenty-first century Britain which has responded to a drop in population due to climate change (rather than due to Brexit, although climate change will inevitably follow). The world-building is very low-key – and if only more sf writers did it so – to the extent it takes a while to figure out what is what. There’s enough that is the same, and enough that’s very different, to keep the reader comfortable as they slowly learn what’s what. The writing is good, clear and neither showy nor flashy, but this is not a long novel, only 208 pages. It does make it feel a little insubstantial. It’s good, but, happily, each new book by Charnock is better than the last. Her most recent, Dreams Before the Start of Time, will be getting the #1 slot on my ballot at the BSFA Awards (I’m especially happy it made the shortlist). Charnock is proving to be a name to watch, although I think she has something much more substantial than what  she was written so far yet to deliver. If you’ve not read her yet, why not?

The Assassinators, Philip Boast (1976, UK). Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I read four books by Boast that were sort of deep history occult/religious thrillers set in and around London: Resurrection, Deus, Sion and Era. I really enjoyed them. But as far as I could discover, they were the only four books like that Boast had written (and Era, published in 2000, was his last). His other novels appeared to be historical fiction, also set in and around London. But recently I stumbled across mention of his first novel, The Assassinators, described as a straight-up thriller. So I found a cheap copy on eBay, bought it, and… Um, it’s not very good. The writing is pretty poor, in fact. A self-made millionaire decides the world is over-populated and it will lead to catastrophe in a decade or two. So there needs to be a cull – in fact, the UK’s population needs to be reduced to around thirty million. So he arranges to poison the water supply in Merton Regis, a south coast town mostly populated by OAPs (I think I’ve been there, but it was called Eastbourne; horrible place). The plan, of course, does not go as, er, planned. The thugs he hired to poison the water tank screw it up. They put the poison in successfully enough, but leave clues which lead back to the industrialist. Whose wife has also learnt of the plan and is against it, straining their already-strained marriage. Meanwhile, the industrialist has vivid dreams about a post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by a nucealr war brought on by his plans to cull the world population. The Assassinator is not a great book, and in places reads like it’s set much earlier than its publication date – by at least a decade or two. I still like Boast’s last four novels – and I ought to reread them one of these days – but this was an inauspicious start.

Devices and Desires, E Arnot Robertson (1954, UK). I already have a novel by a British postwar novelist titled Devices and Desires. That’s by Susan Ertz and it was published in 1972 (see here). Robertson’s book predates it by almost two decades… but it’s also the sort of story that would have been told two decades earlier. Hebe is a thirteen-year-old girl who, with her father, helps refugees cross Europe post-WWII. The book opens in Bulgaria, where they are helping a group of four refugees cross through Macedonia into Greece – during the Greek civil war – and so onto France and Spain. But Hebe’s father is accidentally shot by andartes – Greek resistance fighters – and so she is forced to lead the group on by herself. After entering Macedonia, they stop for food at a remote farm, and end up staying for several days. In fact, it gets easier to stay than to continue on. But when a “helobowie” – a Greek expat returning to his home village to show off his new-found affluence – turns up, it attracts the attentions of the andartes, and only Hebe and one of her refugees escape. Hebe is reluctant to accept help, because any well-meaning aid agency will immediately send her to a “displaced persons” camp, and she has her own plans. I had no real idea what to expect when I bought Devices and Desires. Robertson was a name on a list of postwar British women writers I planned to work my way through – I’m already a fan of a few, such as Olivia Manning and Elzabeth Taylor – and I admit I picked Devices and Desires because it shared its title with that Ertz novel. But. I liked it. It paints a vivid portrait of the Balkans, it’s careful to set out all the various factions as objectively possible, and it shows a pragmatic, but compassionate, attitude to the problem of refugees. Though it’s set in the decade following WWII, in lands still suffering from the war’s effects, both politically and economically, there’s little in it that dioes not apply today. Refugees deserve our compassion – and ours more than anyone else’s, since we’re the ones causing the refugee crisis in the first place. It’s quite simple: if you don’t want brown people flowing across your borders, don’t bomb the shit out of their homes or keep the various factions in their wars supplied with weaponry and ammunition. It’s a problem with a very simple solution. Unfortunately, that solution means multinational companies foregoing profits. Which will never happen. Devices and Desires is at least set post WWII, and during a civil war precipitated byt the invasion of Greece, and the withdrawal of the invading forces. Robertson’s prose is very much of her time, but I like that style of prose. Hebe is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Devices and Desires is not the most gripping novel ever written – it can be slow in places, and the interiority occasionally overwhelms the plot – but the characterisation is assured and the setting is described well. I’m tempted to try more by Robertson. Which was the whole point of reading postwar British women writers in the first place.

Dun da de Sewolawen, Christina Scholz (21018, Austria). I was completely clueless reading this until I later discovered that it was based on the language invented by French prog rock band Magma. When I looked them up, I had a brief moment of déjà vu… and I wondered if it had all been explained to me beforehand but I’d forgotten. If so, I had, er, forgotten. But my ignorance actually enahnced the reading. I found out about it afterwards, and that was interesting. Anyway. the story is a sort of Le Guin-esque coming-of-age piece, which partly uses the world and language of Magma. It’s set on a world colonised by humans, but which had previously be inhabited by a long-dead race. And the humans are slowly integrating some of the culture ofthat long-dead race – through the artefacts they discovered – into their own culture, most noticeably words from Magma’s made-up language, Kobaïan. The writing is polished – had I not known, I’d never have guessed English was not the author’s first language – and most of the unfamiliar terms are parseable from context. It’s a simple enough story, told in first person, that uses unfamiliar vocabulary to add a gloss of strangeness… but what makes it for me is that the strangeness exists independently of the story’s world. It is googleable. It was something I used when writing the Apollo Quartet, that as much as possible “invented” in the three novellas and one novel had an independent existence outside the story. You could look them up in Wikipedia. And that’s true here of Kobaïan and its concepts. For me, it gives an added dimension to the prose. And that pushed Dun da de Sewolawen from a nicely-written Le Guin-esque sf story to something a bit more than that. It also made me want to listen to anything by Magma. Which I have yet to do.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131