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Reading diary 2020, #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Best of the half– fuck, what a year it’s been so far… year

2020 has certainly been a year for the history books. True, more people died in the early decades of last century, but that did result in actually intelligent people being in charge for a while. But then old habits kicked back in and the British once again mistook privilege for intelligence and the US once again mistook the possession of wealth for intelligence, and so both countries now have the worst and most inept governments in living memory.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the pandemic. I’ve spent most of this year so far cooped up indoors. And all my holidays plans – conventions in Stockholm and the Åland Islands – were cancelled; and ones later this year – in Reykjavík and Copenhagen – may also come to naught. You would think that working from home and not socialising would mean I’ve spent the last six months readings tons of books and watching shitloads of films. Sadly, no. Which has made this best of the half year both easier and harder – easier because there’s less to choose from; harder because there were no real stand-outs, just an even split between good and bad. But here goes, anyway…

To date, I’ve read 49 books, of which ten were rereads. Female authors accounted for 43%, and male authors for 47%. The remainder were graphic novels and non-fiction. Half were by British authors, a third by US authors, and the rest from Sweden, New Zealand, Israel, France, Belgium and Canada. The oldest book I read was first published in 1923, and the most recent was published this year. The best five books read in 2020 so far are…

1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). From a relatively easy to understand premise – a group of “superheroes” taken from late Victorian/early Edwardian fiction – this extended series has turned increasingly metafictional as it has progressed. And every piece of British fiction sooner or later references Shakespeare. And if you’re going to do that, and you’re genre, why not go for the big one, The Tempest? (It’d be King Lear for other genres, I suspect; but A Comedy of Errors for, er, comedy.) This latest installment of The League of Gentleman doesn’t just up the metafictional states, it also functions as a history of UK comics. I can understand the motives behind this – and I’m well aware it’s something Moore has tackled many times in other properties – but certainly the breadth of British comics doesn’t seem so well-known – US comics: superhero comics … UK comics: everything from the Bash Street Kids to Dan Dare to Judge Dredd to Susan of St Bride’s to Lord Peter Flint…

2 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve been a fan of Russ’s fiction for many years, and a fan of Jones’s writing for considerably longer, and in hindsight the two have a great deal in common. The science fiction of both is intensely feminist, although in Russ’s fiction it feels more combative – but claiming that’s a consequence of its time is too easy an answer, because while Russ may have been earlier, the war is far from over, even 65 years after the publication of Russ’s first story in 1955. Jones provides an overview of Russ’s life, and then discusses her fiction, both short and long. This book does what all good books of its type should do: it makes you want to go back and revisit the subject’s works. I finished Joanna Russ wanting to reread Russ’s stories and novels. Job done.

3 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). Tidhar has spent a lot of time exploring alternative Israels and, sadly, history has given him plenty of plausible alternatives to explore. In Unholy Land, the Jews are offered land in Uganda by the British – which really sort of happened – and they accept the offer and call it Palestine. But Tidhar can never tell a straight alternative history, there has to be some sort of spin. In Unholy Land, a science fiction author returns to this Palestine, except he’s not from that reality, and his presence changes things. For all that this is not new territory for Tidhar, it’s good stuff. I’m also pretty sure one of the stories written by the sf author in the novel is the first sf story by Tidhar I ever read.

4 Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). It’s not just sentimentality that earns this novel its spot in this top five  – it’s the last of the Bernie Gunther books, as Kerr died the year before it was published – but as the last book in what has been an excellent series, and one of the better entries in that series, it definitely earns a place. Yes, there is a link with Lang’s film, but it’s pretty tenuous (Gunther is interviewed by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s scriptwriter and wife, and suggests the plot which becomes M). Metropolis covers Gunther’s career in its very early years, specifically an investigation into two serial killers, one who kills prostitutes and one who kills WWI veterans, and it’s excellent stuff. If you’ve not read these books, you really should give them a go.

5 Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). This is previously-mined territory for Charnock as Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as A Calculated Life and The Enclave. In fact, the opening chapters of the novel were previously published as The Enclave. Charnock presents a future UK suffering from both climate change and the migrant crisis, but also a world split into haves and have-nots where the distinguishing item is a brain chip allowing direct access to, well, something probably not unlike the internet – but without the trolls and fake news and shitstorm social media. Bridge 108 is a bit like Law and Order – a format I’ve used myself – as the story is carried forward from one character to the next. Science fiction which interrogates our world is becoming increasingly rare – indeed, science fiction which interrogates its own world seems on the wane – so we should value such novels when they do appear.

Honourable mentions: The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK), a trunk novel rewritten as a sequel to The Green Man’s Heir, and while it’s a bit, er, bitty, it’s a fun read and a good instalment in a series that deserves to continue; The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK), the Hitchcock connection, to be honest, is a bit of a red herring, as is the crime which opens the story, but this is a typically Robertsian exploration of political conflict between two worlds, in this case the real and the virtual, which on reflection seems particularly British; A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA), a short collection of metafictional pieces by an author who probably writes the best prose of any US genre writer currently being published; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), the third and, sadly, final, volume in the adventures of the Athena Club, a female-only group of fictional characters from Victorian literature, and, while it doesn’t celebrate the metafictions it explores, this trilogy is pleasingly metafictional; Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK), Ballard meets Greene in strange adventures in an alien zone in South America, which succeeds because it’s on strong on atmosphere and appropriately vague on rigour; Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK), after rabbits Adams turned to secondary-world fantasy, and managed something that is more literary than is common for the genre, even if it wasn’t published as genre per se, but is just as grim and bleak.

I bought a dozen Blu-rays with me when I moved here and I’ve still not watched them all. Admittedly, one is 17.5 hours long, so it may be a while yet before the shrinkwrap comes off that one. I’ve not watched any Swedish TV this year, but then I was never a fan of Midsomer Murders. But I have been binge-watching several sf TV series. After finishing off Stargate SG-1, I moved onto Quantum Leap. And there was a season of Space: 1999 in there somewhere as well- and that definitely didn’t match my fond memories of it. There were also some newer series, such as Watchmen, Avenue 5 and For All Mankind, of assorted quality. And then there were the films…

This year, I’ve seen 198 films, so slightly up on last year. Two-thirds were new to me. A third were from the US, slightly less than a third from the UK, and the rest from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China (including Hong Kong), Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Russia (including the USSR), South Africa, South Korea and Sweden. China, India and Italy were the top three among those – that’s a lot of Jackie Chan and Shaw Bros movies, Bollywood films and gialli. The best films – and one “limited event series” – I watched in 2020 so far are…

1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember watching some of this back in the 1990s – I’m pretty sure I did, although I left the UK in March 1994 and it was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 1993, which would have been my only chance to see it… So perhaps I didn’t it. I certainly knew of it. And at that time I likely thought it hugely self-indulgent – 79 minutes of a single shot of International Klein Blue? But I’ve now watched it several times, and I find it an extremely moving film. Plus, I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice for weeks.

2 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). I’m surprised I’d not come across this film sooner. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the name Labaki is not unknown to me. Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to find the sort of films I like these days. New releases on streaming services seem to dominate social media, and Amazon’s search engine is notoriously useless. And I no longer subscribe to either LoveFilm (which is defunct anyway) or Cinema Paradiso, which was one way of finding new films that might interest me… Fortunately, I stumbled across Capernaum on Amazon Prime, a film about how the West has comprehensively fucked up the Near East, as told through the story of a twelve-year-old Lebanese boy who stabs a man who buys his eleven-year-old sister as his wife (and she dies in childbirth), and the boy wants to sue his parents for having him. This is harrowing stuff, and a film that should certainly be better known.

3 In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). Skarsgård plays a taciturn Swede living in Norway who has just been made Man of the Year of his small town. Then his son is found dead of an overdose, except Skarsgård is convinced he never touched drugs. (He was actually murdered by a drug dealer.) Skarsgård investigates and works his way up the drug cartel hierarchy, killing off each person he finds, and inadvertently kicking off a gang war between the Norwegian drug dealers and a gang of Serbian drug dealers. This is the blackest of comedies and it’s perfectly pitched. The head of the Norwegian gang, a pony-tailed Vegan, is an excellent comedic character. Bizarrely, some of the characters spoke Swedish, some Danish, and the rest Norwegian. Which resulted in a somewhat weird viewing experience.

4 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks since it was first broadcast on British TV. The one thing I never thought it needed was a third season. And, to be honest, I’ve sort of gone off David Lynch’s movies. So expectations were mixed when I started watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series, as it was branded in the UK. And… The second season of Twin Peaks ended in a very strange place, and this third season takes that and runs with it. It’s almost impossible to summarise or make sense of the plot. Most of the original cast return, including several who had retired, but especially notable in this season was the cinematic quality of camerawork. The original two seasons of Twin Peaks were television soap opera, and both looked and felt like a – somewhat bizarre, admittedly – television soap opera. But the third season often looks and feels like a string of arthouse films. There’s that famous theme tune, and lots of familiar faces, but watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series is a bit like watching the entire oeuvre of an alternate world David Lynch.

5 Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A middle-aged divorcee decides she has spent long enough on the shelf, and begins to enjoy a social life. She meets a man of the same age, and they start seeing each other. But he’s still tied to his kids, and he can’t let them go and enjoy their relationship. Middle-aged women are not a common subject of movies – and particularly not, you would have thought, in South America – so such films should be treasured when they do appear. It helps that Gloria is so good. It’s mostly a one-hander, but Paulina García is excellent in the title role (and won a Golden Bear for it). Again, like the other two non-Anglophone movies above, this was a lucky find. I’m glad I found it.

Honourable mentions: Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China), highly entertaining kung fu action/comedy that starts in Hong Kong then moves to Tokyo; Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway), two nobodies who clean up after deaths get more than they bargain for when they discover a hulder, a Scandinavian forest satyr, in a dead man’s bunker; Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco), a movie with an amateur cast of Moroccan kids who decide to give one of their own a fitting funeral after he dies in a senseless gang fight.

No albums, I’m afraid. I’ve spent most of the last six months listening to playlists on Spotify. Some I created myself, some myself and colleagues put together, and others I found on Spotify. If I had the time, I could probably pick five best songs I’ve stumbled across in 2020, but that would be a monumental task and I don’t track the music I listen to like I do the films I watch and the books I read. But perhaps by the end of the year, I may have found some albums new to me in 2020 worthy of a top five.


Reading diary 2020, #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading diary 2020, #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading diary 2020, #5

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reading diary 2020, #4

I don’t need to self-isolate to read books, in fact I pretty much self-isolate every weekend anyway: a trip to my local supermarket on the Saturday, and perhaps a visit to the återvinningsrum, but other than that the front door remains locked. This is not – or has not been – necessarily a good thing: I should get out more, you know, go for a walk in the woods next to my apartment building, for instance. Instead, I read books. Such as these…

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds (2018, UK). This is a belated follow-on to 2007’s The Prefect – now re-titled Aurora Rising – and while the story is standalone, it makes several references to the events of the previous novel. And uses pretty much the same cast. A figure pops up giving speeches suggesting the various habitats of the Glitter Band should leave the Panoply, which is the implant-driven direct democracy system the habitats have been using for a couple of centuries. Reynolds is not being very subtle here – it’s clear what he’s writing about. But, there’s this universe hanging over the story, all that world-building documented in a dozen or so other novels… The main plot seems to be people whose implants suddenly boil their brains and kill them, and the Panoply – also a police force – is desperately trying to track down the cause and so prevent further deaths. Of course, the two – Glexiteer and brain-boiling implants – are connected, but only because Reynolds apparently has so little faith in democracy he built a backdoor into the “demarchy” he invented for his novels, sothat a powerful elite can alter the outcome of certain votes (which does sort of plug into all the conspiracy theories regarding the 2016 Referendum). Anyway, the two are indeed linked, and through the aforementioned backdoor,  which all feels somewhat too convenient when the climax hits. Some nice set-pieces, but story feels like two plots bolted together and the villains are somewhat pantomime.

Journey to the Center (now re-published as Asgard’s Secret), Brian Stableford (1982, UK). I think I read this many years ago, but under its UK title, which would be, er, Journey to the Centre. DAW never published books two and three of the trilogy, although they were published in the UK. And have been subsequently rewritten and published under new titles by a US small press and the SF Gateway (as ebooks). Throughout the 1970s to 1990s, Stableford reliably produced mid-list science fiction with UK sensibilities albeit mostly for, strangely, US publishers like DAW. This book is fairly typical. An adventurer makes his living hunting through the mysterious levels of the world Asgard – which may comprises levels of shells all the way to the centre, some of which could be occupied. It’s a great conceit, and Stableford makes good use of it. I’m reminded of the Kriakta Rift from Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow (1981, a favourite sf novel) more than I am Iain M Banks’s much later Matter (2008). The novel is a standalone, but leaves many questions about the world unanswered. Hence the sequels. Which I want to read. I suspect I will have to go for the ebook versions.

The Heiress of Linn Hagh, Karen Charlton (2012, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon, and  it was only a quid, so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a crime novel set in Regency England. I’ve always liked novels set in Regency England, such as, er, Heyer, and the occasional Signet and Zebra romance. And the late Kate Ross did write four really good crime novels set in Regency England. Anyway, I bought it, I read it. I think I have less of a problem with the setting and character than many of those reviewing it on Goodreads. The lead was a real historical character and the author admits she wrote him more like a twentieth-century detective than was likely true for the time. But that’s your “suspension of disbelief”, and I duly suspended it as required. Sadly, the book suffered from bad writing and inconsistent plotting. On the whole, I thought Charlton managed the period quite well, and her protagonists were not entirely reliant on cliché, but the poor prose discourages me from reading the rest of the series.

84K, Claire North (2018, UK). Between Jarman’s visions of a post-Thatcherite UK and North’s vision of a post-Austerity UK, I’m not sure I can either tell the difference or see much that distinguishes them. That the Tories have been systematically robbing the UK since 1979 is historical fact. How genre writers have responded to that – at least, the few that actually bothered – is a different matter. UK sf writers of the 1970s built the government’s incompetence into their worlds; later sf writers had plainly drunk too much Tory Kool-Aid (bar a few notable exceptions). But that’s an argument for another time. 84K reads like a cross between 1984 refashioned for a twenty-first century audience and a 1970s consumerism-gone-made satire. Which, sadly, makes it feel like a book out of its time. It has a point to make, and it tells its story well, but it feels mostly like the target at which it’s aimed no longer exists. North is a writer to be treasured, and if not every book she produces hits its mark, she has the virtue of actually aiming at something. I thought The Sudden Appearance of Hope much the better book, for all that 84K ought to be the more relevant book and so more impactful. I will however read more books by North because she is clearly worth it.

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Reading diary 2020, #3

I seem to be mostly reading science fiction at the moment. Not sure why. I mean, it’s not like I think we’re in a new golden age for genre or anything – in fact, I find a lot of the high profile science fiction being published at the moment completely uninteresting. Having said that, three of the books below, all published last year, are by writers I’ve been reading for decades, and two of them are favourites writers as well.

World Engines: Destroyer, Stephen Baxter (2019, UK). Reid Malenfant, he of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, is awakened in 2469 from cold sleep after a near-fatal accident in 2019 because Emma Stoney, she of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, who disappeared on a mission to Phobos in 2005… has just sent a radio message to Earth asking for Malenfant’s help. The world of the twenty-fifth century is considerably different to the world we, the readers, know and Malenfant remembers. The great push into space was reversed after native species on Venus and Europa were almost wiped out. There are AIs on the Moon and the other planets, but none on Earth, only “algorithmic-machines” (despite repeated assertions in the text that algorithmic machines are not aware, just sophisticated computers, they’re characterised pretty much the same as the human cast). For a third of the novel, nothing happens. Malenfant mooches about what’s left of Birmingham after 500 years of progress and climate change. But then he decides to go and rescue Stoney – although, from clues in the radio message, she’s a Stoney from an alternate universe, one in which Neil Armstrong did not die of a heart attack shortly before landing on the Moon. Fortunately, it transpires Earth has a sophisticated space capability, it just never uses it. Malenfant, his mentor (a teenage girl) and an algorithmic android (Malenfant’s nurse since he was awakened) head to Mars, meet Stoney, discover a weird tunnel in Phobos which gives access to alternate realities and they end up in one in which the British Empire is triumphant in space and head off with them to the “ninth planet”… We’ve all been here before; Baxter has been here before. The whole thing reads like it was cobbled together from discarded ideas from the Manifold trilogy and Proxima duology. It’s highly readable, but there’s a lot of set-up for very little pay-off. And the continuity is terrible, with characters joining in conversations despite not being present. Baxter bangs books like this out like sausages – an atelier can’t be that far off – and this one was clearly an opportunity to use some of that Britain in Space stuff he researched and wrote many years ago… When you see Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover, you pretty much know what to expect. This is not one of his better efforts, but it’s very much on-brand.

A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA). Park has had an interesting and varied career. He debuted with a complex sf trilogy set on a world with extremely long seasons and with a somewhat meandering plot. His next novel was postcolonial science fiction, and remains one of my favourite genre novels. He then wrote a pair of Biblical fantasies, followed by a straight-up, but very literary, portal fantasy set in a Romanian empire. Although Park moves effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, he has always worked at the literary end of both genres. But there has, in recent years, come an increasing narrative playfulness apparent in his fiction. His last novel was, among other things, about the Forgotten Realms novel he wrote under a pseudonym, the history of his family, an art installation he wrote a text for, and, in part, his writing career. A City Made of Words is more of the same. It’s a collection of short stories, most previously published, and an “interview”, and it’s more of the meta-fiction Park has been writing of late. He is one of my favourite writers, and has been for many years, and while for some that – being a favourite writer – means a consistent delivery of exactly the same stuff the reader likes, for me Park is a favourite writer because he is forever changing what he produces. The meta-fiction is not just a progression from earlier works, it’s built on earlier works and it’s extremely cleverly done. I suspect my opinion will be shared by few people but I consider Paul Park one of the best US science fiction writers currently being published.

Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve a feeling I read The Female Man back in the early 1980s, although I can’t be sure. I do remember buying a copy of The Adventures of Alyx, the Women’s Press edition, in a bookshop/stationery shop on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until I started up SF Mistressworks, however, that I started reading Russ’s fiction seriously, and the more I read the more I became a fan. Jones, on the other hand, I’ve been reading since the late 1980s, since when she has been one of my favourite genre writers. So that’s a double-win: a writer I  admire writing about a writer I admire. Jones does an excellent job of running through Russ’s life and career and the fiction she produced. Jones ties each piece of fiction to events in Russ’s life and to her changes in her views on feminism and science fiction – all backed up by references to letters and essays. I had always known Russ was a clever writer, and a sharp critic, but until reading this book I had not realised quite how prolific she was. I knew her fiction, but not her essays and letters and fan articles… and… Russ was a second wave feminist who eventually accepted third wave feminism (I think I’m getting this right). Jones is also a feminist, vocally so. I get the impression from this book that their different brands of feminism do not quite map onto the other, but I also get the impression that Jones very much admires Russ and her fiction. This is a book that will give you a fresh appreciation of Russ’s work. I was a Joanna Russ fan before reading it, now I am even more of one.

The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (2015, USA). I’ve read several short stories by Kosmatka and was impressed by them, but none of the blurbs to his novels – three to date, of which this is the last – made them sound as if they would appeal to the same extent. But then I started reading The Flicker Men and discovered that its plot was based on the Kosmatka story I’d admired the most. Except. How to…? Okay. There was was this one story in which Feynman’s double slit experiment revealed there were some people who could not collapse the wave function and so were not sentient as such. The Flicker Men takes that premise and runs with it. First, it posits a televangelist using it to prove that foetuses have “souls”, but then it turns out there are people from an alternate reality on Earth who are trying to shut down the experiment… and the novel turns into a somewhat implausible technothriller with the hero constantly on the run. I was… disappointed. The short story is excellent, but this expansion of it reads like it was handed to Tom Clancy as a premise. Okay, Kosmatka is a better writer than Clancy – but this is definitely more like Clancy’s output than the high concept sf I was expecting. Disappointing.


Reading diary 2020, #2

Although I’m reading less books since my move, it feels like I’m reading more. Partly I suspect that’s because I do around 70% of my reading on my Kindle, and it’s difficult to judge the size of ebooks – physically, I mean. But I’m also no longer “making up the numbers” by reading short non-fiction books about aircraft or spacecraft or any other of the various “enthusiasms” I’ve had – those books are all in storage. Which I suppose means the number of books I’m reading now is closer to my actual reading figures – although, to be fair, I don’t read on my commute to work, which I used to in the UK.

Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). This is the last Bernie Gunther from Kerr we’ll see as he died before it was published. He did finish it, however, although the novel as published includes a eulogising introduction by Ian Rankin. I’ve been a fan of Kerr’s fiction for many years, and have made no secret of it, and it’s never pleasant when a writer you admire, and whose books you like a great deal, dies. And not simply because the series must come to an abrupt end. (Without meaning to sound mercenary, others could write additions to the series – it’s been done before, with varying degrees of success and acceptance.) Metropolis, unsurprisingly, doesn’t read like the last book of a series, although it does cover the start of Bernie Gunther’s police career (which, if you know the series, isn’t as contradictory as it sounds). Unlike the other books, or at least the ones published after the original Berlin Noir trilogy, there’s no split narrative, with one narrative thread continuing Gunther’s story in the decades following WWII, while the other is set further back in time and covers a case or incident related to, or which provides a perspective on, the later narrative. In Metropolis, Gunther is a new detective in Weimar Berlin, who gets involved in two serial killer cases – the first kills sex workers (many women resorted to sex work to make ends meet), the second disabled WWI veterans who beg on the streets of Berlin – all of which is tied in with the rise of  Nazism, the excesses of the Weimar Republic, and provides plenty of back-placed hooks which tie back into the characters (most of them real) and events (most of them real) that Gunther encounters in earlier novels (which are, obviously, set later). Kerr’s Gunther novels started out good, and pretty much stayed good for the entire 14-book series. Which is quite an achievement. The title of Metropolis is a reference to Lang’s film, which the novel mentions – Gunther is even interviewed by von Harbou, who is researching what clearly becomes M – but the link is forced at best and the title is more a reference to the city of Berlin itself. Happily, it seems Bernie Gunther – and his author – ended on a high note as Metropolis is definitely one of the stronger books in an abnormally consistently good series.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 4: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). Whenever I mention the League of Extraordinary Gentleman I receive a blank look, and then I explain there was a movie adaptation with Sean Connery and there’s some glimmer of recognition. But, really, the film is awful and shouldn’t be considered in the same breath as the graphic novels from which it was adapted. By my count, there’ve been six previous volumes, and three spin-off volumes (the Nemo books). The last three books were actually one split into three, Century: 1910, Century: 1969 and Century: 2009, which is why The Tempest, the seventh graphic novel, is number four. For those who have never encountered this particular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they’re a group of fictional characters with, well, extraordinary abilities from Victorian/Edwardian literature. The original members were Mina Harker (from Dracula), Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyll, the Invisible Man and Allan Quatermain (from H Rider Haggard’s novels), but also featured Professor Cavor, Fu Manchu, Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty and HG Wells’s Martians. Subsequent volumes continued to mine and mashup proto-genre stories in many and clever ways. The Tempest, despite the ten-year gap, follows on directly from Century. As the title suggests, it centres around Prospero, and other fantastical Shakespearean characters, although it’s not unashamed to incorporate characters and institutions from other science fiction properties, such as TV21 – both Spectrum and World Aquanaut Security Patrol make an appearance. There are other dimensions to the pastiche – MI5, for example, operates a group of “J-series” secret agents, each of whom are modelled on the actors who played James Bond in the 007 movies, including Woody Allen. Some of the art is also clearly an homage to Jack Kirby’s. And it’s not all art – the book is split into six “issues” (was it published as a mini-series? I don’t know), each of which have cover art that spoofs well-known comics, and include an introduction and a letters page (written and collated by “Al and Kev”). The introductions are mini-essays on renowned British comic artists, such as Leo Baxendale and Frank Bellamy, and the letters pages are Viz-like spoofs in which it’s made clear the letter-writers are as fictional as the comic’s characters (or are they?). The story itself is told through a series of strips, echoing British comics’ anthology nature, some of which are colour, some black and white, and some 3D (glasses are included). This is a graphic novel that not only celebrates the works from which its characters were taken but also the British comics industry and its output. It is not just a graphic novel about the Blazing World – named for Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 proto-sf novel, and a sort of sanctuary for the series’s many characters – and the threat to its existence, but also a celebration of British comic history, told in a voice familiar likely only to those who have read British comics. I loved it. It wasn’t just the “spot the mashup”, or the somewhat convoluted story and its cast, but the fact it echoed my own experience of comics, British comics, although not entirely as, since I’m more than a decade younger than Alan Moore, it doesn’t quite map onto my comic-reading, which was Beano/Dandy to war comics such as  Warlord, Victor and the Commando Library, to 2000 AD and Star Lord and Tornado… to books without pictures. Ah well. The Tempest is a great piece of work, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an excellent series from start to finish. I find Alan Moore’s work stretches from the sublime to the indulgent, but this series is definitely the former. Recommended. But start from the beginning.

The Pawns of Null-A, AE van Vogt (1948, Canada). There’s a Brian Aldiss story called ‘Confluence’ which is little more than amusing dictionary definitions of phrases from an alien language. One phrase is defined as “in which everything in a book is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it”, and its converse, of course, is “in which nothing in a book is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it”. The Pawns of Null-A fails both definitions. I have no idea what van Vogt thought he was writing about and nothing in the novel makes the slightest bit of sense. It is nominally a sequel to The World of Null-A. Gilbert Gosseyn prevented the conquest of Earth by the Greatest Empire in that novel, but in this one he finds himself bouncing around the heads of various characters in the Greatest Empire in an effort to either stop it or prevent it from defeating the League of Galactic Worlds. Gosseyn finds himself caught in a trap and transported into the brain of the heir to the Greatest Empire’s leader. He surmises some other powerful player is doing this in order to hone Gosseyn as a weapon, but the reader is bounced from one unexplained situation to another, with a remarkable level of faith in the reader’s attention, certainly to a greater extent than any modern-day author would be able to get away with. Gosseyn stumbles across a planet of “Predictors”, who seem to be chiefly responsible for the Greatest Empire’s victories, but since Gosseyn – and by extension van Vogt – seem to have little idea what’s going on, there’s little point in the reader trying to figure it out. Damon Knight famously performed a hatchet job on this novel’s prequel, The World of Null-A, but later retracted it when he learnt van Vogt documented his dreams and used them as plots. That’s not an excuse. It’s an explanation, certainly, but “oh he plotted while he was asleep” does not suddenly make a book no longer open to criticism for shit plotting. I loved van Vogt’s novels as a teenager, but virtually none have survived adult rereads. And with good reason: he was a fucking shit writer. Damon Knight was right. He just wasn’t honest enough – something which has plagued the genre since its beginnings. The Pawns of Null-A is badly-written, has no real plot to speak of, and its past popularity should be considered an accurate indictment of past sf fans’ taste…

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA). This is the third book in the Adventure of the Athena Club series and, I am led to believe, the final book, although nothing about all three novels struck me as “trilogy” and I would be happy for the series to continue. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen above, Goss has repurposed well-known fictional characters from Victorian and Edwardian literature, but to a different purpose. First and foremost, her story is female-led and female-driven. She has had to invent characters in order for this to be the case. Such as Dr Jekyll’s daughter Mary, the leader of the Athena Club; or Catherine Moreau, the puma woman from the HG Wells novel. This is not a weakness but a strength. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these books are not entirely straightforward, and are framed as penny dreadfuls, explicitly written by Moreau, of the Athena Club’s adventures, in much the same way as the Sherlock Holmes stories were framed as the diary of Dr Watson. Although the books’ definition of penny dreadfuls seems to owe more to the anonymous female-authored books of Regency circulating libraries than it does actual Victorian pulp fiction. Not that the interpolations by the cast, which is all nicely meta, fit either. I’m a big fan of breaking the fourth wall, even if it’s fictionally. Having said all that… I don’t like the titles of these novels, but I love the stories they tell. This one has the Order of the Golden Dawn attempting to turn Britain into, well, pretty much what Johnson’s government has sort of been working toward. It plans to replace Queen Victoria with a compliant clone, and Queen Victoria was far more revered in the late nineteenth century than Queen Elizabeth II is now, and then turn Britain into an “England for Englishman”. Happily, this is derailed pretty quickly – not by the Athena Club, but by the female members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, who had their own plan: resurrect Tera, High Priestess of Isis, who died 5,000 years ago and was mummified, and she will take over the British Empire and remake it according to her desires. While those desires include such un-Victorian things as female emancipation and gender equality, the Athena Club oppose it on principle (no tyranny is ever benevolent, no matter how well-intentioned). The title refers to Tera’s power, which is considerably more than mere hypnotism, although the actual “mesmerizing girl” is the Athena Club’s maid, Alice, who has the same power, albeit a great deal weaker, and whose disappearance kickstarts the plot. I do like the series’s use of its characters – Van Helsing is a villain, Count Dracula is not, Ayesha is head of the Alchemist’s Society – and if there’s some occasional padding, and the plots don’t always quite fit together, never mind, they’re an interesting, and much-needed, take on the literature they pastiche.


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