It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


1 Comment

Reading diary 2019, #10

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


4 Comments

Airs of empire

I have for the last few years documented my reading in Reading diary posts, where I typically write about – “review” is probably too strong a word – half a dozen books. I haven’t written a blog post about a single book for quite a while – chiefly because I sort of lost the habit of blogging regularly enough for me to write about a book within days of finishing it.

But sometimes books, or films, make good springboards for more general commentary on genre, and I think that makes for a more interesting blog post than a straight-up review. In this particular case, it’s a relatively recent space opera novel which triggered some thoughts on twenty-first century science fiction, particularly space opera; and that space opera novel is Heirs of Empire by Evan Currie, published in 2015 by 47North. It’s the first in a two-book series and is followed by An Empire Asunder (2016). I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to buy and read Heirs of Empire, to be honest. The 99p price point certainly helped. Or it could have been the fact it’s a space opera which features knights. I’ve been there, done that, so there was a certain curiosity in seeing how Currie had handled it.

But. Oh dear. Heirs of Empire reads like a self-published novel. 47North, Amazon’s own publishing imprint, is a reputable publisher – it published last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner! – but I find it hard to believe Heirs of Empire was actually edited. It’s not just that the prose relies overly on cliché for cheap and easy description. Or the dialogue is completely tin-eared. Or the characters are stereotypes, and not very interesting ones at that. Or even that the world-building is cobbled together from assorted past science fiction works…

A general of the emperor’s personal hyper-trained elite, the Cadre, is being transported to a remote high-security prison after a failed attempt on the throne. The train, which is travelling at hypersonic speeds, is derailed by the usurper’s confederates. He escapes, steals an advanced super-secret warship, and uses it to attack the imperial palace and seize power. Even though he failed once – or perhaps he was captured before he made his move, I forget – apparently he can still throw together a successful rebellion. He kills the emperor, but the youngest members of the imperial family, fourteen year old twins, escape. Eventually the twins are discovered by loyalist forces, and are instrumental in retaking the throne. And that’s it. The plot. Pretty much.

It doesn’t take a savvy sf reader to figure out the story is set on the inside surface of a Dyson Sphere, although the empire is bounded on all sides by an impassably high “God Wall”. Several items of technology used by the empire are also artefacts of an earlier civilisation and not understood. Much like the author and science. There is suspension of disbelief and then there is a completely inability by the writer to present anything remotely plausible even in an invented universe. That earlier hypersonic train crash? The villain survives it, losing a leg and an eye and suffering a few minor injuries. That’s: a hypersonic train crash. A few days later, sporting a prosthetic leg a few inches too short, he manages to defeat the emperor, a highly-trained swordsman, in single combat. Later, another hypersonic train is hijacked by loyalist pirates (don’t ask). But this one is pulling 30 million tons of carriages. It’s like Currie added a couple of zeroes to every figure in the story and so rendered them completely implausible. There’s a missile that apparently accelerates at 40,000 G, not to mention some parachuters who are identifiable by their terminal velocity. And cannons which can shoot 10,000 feet straight up.

In other words, the science in Heirs of Empire is complete bollocks. There’s an attempt at some sort of steampunk atmosphere, with the ships having sails and poop decks and cannons, but none of it really fits together.

It occurred to me that deploying physics uncritically – ie, without any understanding of how it works – as Currie has done in Heirs of Empire is little different in principle to deploying science fiction tropes uncritically. Which is something space opera routinely does, even twenty-first century space opera, if not especially twenty-first century space opera. Those tropes have meaning and history, they have baggage. Spaceships are basically cruise liners – and not the floating hotels of today, whose passengers rarely step foot on land during their holidays; but the cruise liners of the early twentieth century, with their “exotic” destinations and colourful posters which blatantly othered the inhabitants of those destinations. Robots are either a metaphor for slaves (in the US sf tradition) or possibly service (from a UK perspective), but given the history of automata, the trope could also be seen as a metaphor for biddable women. Real robots, CNC machines, are perfect production line workers, but you don’t see them in science fiction.

It hasn’t always been this way. New British Space Opera introduced four new elements to space opera, each one embodied by a germinal work. Consider Phlebas (1987), in fact all of Iain M Banks’s oeuvre, introduced a left-wing sensibility to a right-wing subgenre. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1990) made knowing use of its science fiction tropes. Eternal Light by Paul J McAuley melded space opera and hard sf, applying a high level of rigour in the world-building. And… it’s a cheat, but John Clute’s Appleseed (2001), for its use of literary metaphor as signifiers for genre tropes, and which has definitely influenced current space opera, although it was published too late to be classified as New British Space Opera. Which is a term that has apparently been wiped from genre history, thanks to The Space Opera Renaissance, which repositioned it as American and re-labelled it as simply New Space Opera.

We have been here before, of course: the New Wave.

New British Space Opera was new, but not everything it introduced took hold – Alastair Reynolds has had a great deal of success with melding space opera and hard sf, for example; but where are all the left-wing space operas now that Banks is gone? New Space Opera, the US re-imagining, was a step backwards. The only element it kept was the one introduced last, the use of metaphor to disguise tropes. Yet tropes are themselves metaphors. When a space opera author uses the word “moth” to refer to spaceships, they’re applying a metaphor to a metaphor.

True, space opera was not the first to do this. When you use your computer’s graphical user interface, you’re using a metaphor of the way the computer stores and accesses data. Cyberpunk took that and invented a second-order metaphor: cyberspace. Twenty-first century space opera no longer bothers with rigour, left-wing sensibilities or a knowing use of genre tropes, but it certainly does love its second-order metaphors.

It also apparently loves overt slavery, inequality, psychopaths and sociopaths, mega-violence and seven-figure bodycounts.

There have been some improvements, however. Space opera is now a much more diverse subgenre. There are no more Men In Fucking Hats™. This can only be applauded.

It could be argued that Currie’s appalling grasp of physics in Heirs of Empire is not so much a lack of rigour in a space opera universe than an outright rejection of it, inspired perhaps by the film industry’s creative approach to the laws of physics. And so too, by extension, for twenty-first century space opera: the use of metaphors to disguise genre tropes could be seen as a rejection of what those tropes actually represent. Mind you, given that space opera seems more than happy to incorporate uncritically what was being represented in the first place… Tropes have become decoupled. All is subject to authorial fiat. Physics has become magic; space opera has become fantasy.

Space opera has thrown away the hats, but it has also thrown away the science. And these days we need science more than ever.


2 Comments

Reading diary 2019, #9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


Leave a comment

Reading diary 2019, #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


1 Comment

Reading diary 2019, #7

I was never much of a fan of ebooks, but circumstances forced me to use them. Because of my move, I got a Kindle and, since it took a while for me to find somewhere reasonably permanent to live, I was reluctant to buy hardbacks or paperbacks due to the hassle of shifting them from one address to another. So the Kindle has proved extremely useful. In the last three months, my reading has been around 80% ebook. There are some books I would like to keep as physical copies, which means I’m not going to buy them as ebooks. I have some catching up to do there, however.

Meanwhile, below are: a paperback I brought with me to Sweden, and five ebooks I bought once I was here, two of which I actually have as physical copies, but in storage back in the UK.

Lord of the Flies*, William Golding (1954, UK). This was Golding’s debut novel, and probably the only book for which he is known by most people. Which must have rankled. I have a feeling I read this at school, perhaps when I was eleven or twelve, although the only novels I remember reading at that time as part of my schooling are Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea. But I did read a lot then. In fact, it was around that time I was introduced to science fiction when a lad in my class lent me a copy of Starman Jones. Another boy in the year below me then lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith Lensman novels… and the rest, as they say, is history. Lord of the Flies has sort of entered British culture and its central conceit is part of the country’s popular consciousness. That conceit is, of course, schoolboys marooned on a desert island who start behaving like, well, children. Everyone remembers Piggy and his glasses, but he’s not the focus of the story. (I’ve not seen the film adaptation, from 1963 or 1990, so I don’t know if either made changes.) There is Ralph, mysterious and charismatic (and reads like Golding recalling a school boycrush), who is more or less dragooned into leadership. And there is Jack, leader of a choir, who fancies himself a leader (so is the Boris Johnson of the group). Ralph rightly insists on a signal fire to attract the attention of any passing ship. But Jack is more interested in hunting wild pigs. The conflict splits the group of schoolboys, and Piggy is accidentally killed. It has been said that Lord of the Flies is not as universal as it’s proclaimed to be, because its cast consists entirely of white British schoolboys (mostly) from the middle classes and above. This is only a problem if you think Lord of the Flies was intended to be, well, universal. I don’t think it is. It’s about public schoolboys (well, mostly; I think a few are not). If Golding was making a point that might be applicable to a much wider group then he wouldn’t have been so careful about the make-up of the marooned boys and their group dynamics. I know very little, I admit, about Golding’s life, or his thoughts on writing, so I may be projecting. But Lord of the Flies strikes me as too carefully staged and cast to be chiefly allegorical – an assumption based on a reading of only third of his oeuvre, I admit. But careful writers are careful writers, and careful writing is a good indicator of a habit of carefulness, much as a history of stupid decisions is a good indicator of stupidity (hello, Boris Johnson). I finished Lord of the Flies surprised it was Golding’s best-known work as it felt too slight. And this after reading The Pyramid (see here) and The Paper Men (see here). Perversely, though they felt too much like what they were, they also felt more… considered than Lord of the Flies. This is not to say it’s a bad book, but it is more of an historical document than its reputation would suggest. Read it by all means, but Golding wrote more interesting novels and they would be better reads.

Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK). I’d heard a number of good things about this novella, and while I’m usually sceptical about recommendations, and, to be honest, I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions, but… it’s a novella, and it was on offer on Kindle. So I went for it. And I’m glad I did. The purported Nazi invasion of Shingle Street, Suffolk, has pretty much entered WWII mythology. McDonald posits it as a Project Rainbow-like experiment (AKA The Philadelphia Experiment), which actually results in sending two men careering independently through time. Unfortunately, they happen to be in a relationship. Fortunately – and this provides the entry to the story – they communicate using a collection by an obscure poet, left in antiquarian bookshops scattered throughout Europe. (Reading this novella, I was reminded of the Italian publisher who published a pirate edition of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned in the UK at the time, and was so embarrassed at how it successful it was he sent royalties to Lawrence.) So Time Was is sort of a literary detective novel because the obscure collection is really obscure. But it also hints at a relationship between two men that leaves evidence scattered throughout the twentieth century. It’s cleverly done. And, I must admit, it did remind me of something, or perhaps several somethings – but I couldn’t think what. Which is not presented as a criticism. If anything, those echoes of other half-remembered stories added to Time Was. I liked this novella a lot, and I’m surprised it didn’t make more award shortlists. It won the BSFA Award, and was shortlisted for the Campbell and Dick, but didn’t even warrant mention for the Hugo or Nebula. A shame. This is an excellent novella.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert (1969, USA). The Dune series reread continues, although perhaps not as quickly as I’d hoped. It’s all down to me, of course; there’s nothing stopping me reading the books one after the other. Except I have a habit choosing something different to my last read for my next one. Probably not a great strategy when reading a series – but given this year I also decided to have a go at rereading the Wheel of Time series, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t survive reading those books in quick succession… Anyway, Dune Messiah. Popular wisdom would have it that Dune Messiah is the best of the original Dune trilogy – or, as some would day it, the best of the Dune sequels. Which tells you how wrong popular wisdom is. Dune Messiah is not a sequel – Herbert conceived of the trilogy as a whole, although perhaps not in detail. It’s also not the best of the three. Neither, to be honest, is the first book, Dune. Which means it must be the third one… but I’ve yet to reread it. Dune Messiah is set some years after the end of Dune. Paul Atreides is now emperor and has become increasingly disenchanted with the institution he has created. Meanwhile, there is a plot to kill him, led by some Fremen who fought with him and are unhappy with the changes to Arrakis. There are also a series of sub-plots. Princess Irulan, Paul’s wife, is angling for an heir, and has joined a conspiracy with a Guild navigator, a Tleilaxu Face-Dancer and a Bene Gesserit. It’s clear they all have different objectives, and it’s a marriage of convenience, so to speak (marriages of convenience pop up a lot in the Dune books). Meanwhile, Chani is pregnant and Paul knows she will die in childbirth. Which she does. She has twins, which Paul had not foreseen. And it turns out the Tleilaxu are more interested in finding a trigger for the ghola Hayt, a clone of Duncan Idaho, to recover Idaho’s memories. While rooting out the plot to kill him, Paul was permanently blinded by a “stoneburner”, a type of nuclear weapon. It’s Fremen tradition to abandon blind people in the desert, and eventually that’s what Paul does: walks out into the desert. Some years later, a blind Fremen called the Preacher appears in Arrakeen, the capital city of Arrakis, and rants against the regency that has taken over from Paul. Is Dune Messiah better than Dune? Yes. The prose is much better-written. But then it improves as the series progresses, so that’s no surprise. But where Dune had the fifteen-year-old Paul Atriedes as its focus, a character readers, especially male teen ones, can glom onto, Dune Messiah has no one. Which means it reads as a more distanced narrative. Paul is presented as a tragic figure – in fact, no one in the book is all that sympathetic, except perhaps, perversely, Princess Irulan. (Since first reading the book in my teens, I’ve always been fascinated the most by Skytale, the Tleilaxu Face-Dancer.) Dune was definitely a book of two halves: ‘Dune World’ and ‘The Prophet of Dune’. But Dune Messiah also feels like a book of parts, perhaps because its sub-plots don’t gel especially well. To some extent, that’s down to Herbert’s decision to have a cabal of four plotters all pursuing different aims, and a plot to kill Paul on top of that. It makes for a busy narrative, and yet Dune Messiah is only 256 pages. So the plot jumps around and Herbert skimps on some of the detail. Dune Messiah reads like Herbert stringing together his favourite scenes from the story he had planned. It works – better than Dune does, to be honest – but it does feel more like a best-of than a coherent narrative. The Dune series is a science fiction institution, and is likely to be even more so in the future. After decades of trying to raise the profile of the Dune series, leading to the questionable decision to publish a series of shit novels by Kevin J Anderson, Herbert Limited Partnership have finally got their wish, with a two-movie adaptation of the Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve and a supporting TV series. Dune is going to be up there with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. The good news is the books are just as capable of supporting the cross-platform media giant Dune will become as Tolkien and GRRM. This is not necessarily a compliment. However, the Dune series reread continues and perhaps I will surprise myself with my re-evaluation of the following books…

Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (2018, UK). Speaking of series, my mother lent me the first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and, while I wasn’t overly impressed, it did strike me as interesting enough to continue with the series. Not because Galbraith was really JK Rowling (to be honest, I’ve only read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) but because The Cuckoo’s Calling sort of fell between the stools of crime fiction and literary fiction without actually being good examples of either, and yet still managed to present a pair of sympathetic characters more than capable of carrying a number of novels. And so I read The Silkworm and Career of Evil… and now Lethal White. The continuity between novels is good, even if the individual novels continue to suffer from that unfortunate fall between two stools. However, Galbraith does at least choose interesting subjects around which to base her novels (okay, so yes, Career of Evil was structured around the songs of Blue Oyster Cult, and I’ve been a fan of the band since my schooldays). Lethal White is, to be honest, more of the same. A politician somewhere between Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (AKA between arsehole and scumbag; or vice versa), is murdered. He had been the subject of a Strike investigation, which proves embarrassing. And so Cormoran and sidekick Robin Ellacott (Robin, get it?) have to solve the murder – initially thought to be suicide under weird circumstances (a time-honoured Tory tradition) – and clear the wife and estranged son of blame. But everyone seems to have an alibi. As mentioned previously, Lethal White does well as a follow-on from the previous book, and its central crime is sufficiently puzzling to drive the plot. But there’s a strange whiff of approval for the central Tory character, and I’m not sure if I misread the novel because this is JK Rowling and even vast riches wouldn’t turn her into a fan of Boris Johnson. Although, to be fair, Michael Heseltine might be a better model, and the extremism of the current Conservative Party has helped rehabilitate him and he’s now seen as almost moderate. I’m not saying the Galbraith novels are good – either as novels qua novels or as crime novels. But they’re certainly very readable and they do seem to have a somewhat sideways approach to crime… and this is in a genre which doesn’t necessarily prize originality.

Araminta Station, Jack Vance (1987, USA). I first read this many years ago, probably soon after it was published in 1989 (the edition pictured, the NEL A-format paperback, is the one I own), which was a few years before I started recording the books I read. For some reason, I never got around to picking up copies of the two sequels, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy, until many, many years later… Then I never got around to actually reading them. And now, of course, they’re in storage. Happily, all three books of the trilogy are available as ebooks from the SF Gateway, so I picked up the first as a reread. The planet of Cadwal has been declared off-limits to development and is ostensibly policed by a group based at the eponymous station. Which has existed so long its workings have come to define its society. Glawen Clattuc is a teenager likely to take a middling position in the Araminta bureaucracy. But enemies of his father arrange for him to be given a much lower ranking than he deserves. He goes to work for the station’s police force. At a festival, Glawen’s girlfriend disappears, believed murdered and her body shipped off-world in a wine cask. There’s a suspect, but no evidence to charge him. There’s also a plot brewing in Yipton, an offshore community composed entirely of Yips, a human subspecies used as temporary labour at Araminta Station. All of which results in Glawen being sent on a mission to another world, where he ends up imprisoned in a monastery. And that, and the plot in Yipton, seems to link into mutterings about opening up Cadwal for development… I remember reading Vance’s last couple of sf novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and being disappointed by them. And the Cadwal Chronicles trilogy were the novels published prior to those. So my expectations weren’t especially high. Happily, Araminta Station proved to be Vance on fine form. It’s busier than most of his other novels, but it’s also better plotted. The characterisation also seemed less arbitrary than I recalled in other novels. And the comic lines were good too.

The Battle to the Weak, Hilda Vaughan (1925, UK). A few years ago, I put together a list of postwar British women writers. Some of them were already known to me – Olivia Manning, Naomi Mitchison, Elizabeth Taylor – and not all of them began their careers after WWII, but there were undoubtedly some particularly big names from the period I chose to ignore… Not, I hasten to add, that I considered my list in any way complete. It was a selection. And I did indeed track down books by some of the names on the list – Katherine Burdekin, Susan Ertz, Pamela Frankau, Storm Jameson, E Arnot Robertson, GB Stern… and Hilda Vaughan. Who, it turns out, probably didn’t really fit on the list, although her last novel was published in 1954, as she was chiefly active between the wars and is probably better considered a contemporary of DH Lawrence than a postwar writer. And, in fact, The Battle to the Weak, her first novel, has much in common with Lawrence’s novels. A young woman from a poor farming family in mid-Wales is sent to stay with an aunt at a seaside town. There she meets a young man, and the two fall in love. Unfortunately, it turns out he’s the son of her father’s mortal enemy, a neighbouring farmer he’s been violently clashing with for years. The son was given to his aunt at a very young age and more or less adopted, so he’s not at all involved in the feud. When the young woman’s father learns the identity of her fiancé, he forbids the wedding. As does the fiancé’s father. So the fiancé goes off to Canada to make his fortune. The young woman prepares to join him, but her father fights with her sister, who falls down the stairs and is paralysed from the waist down. The woman puts her plans on hold to look after her sister. Years pass. The sister dies. The young woman prepares to move to Canada. Then the father dies, so the young woman stays on to help her mother. The man in Canada writes and tells the young woman he couldn’t wait and has married. Years pass. The man returns to Wales, and the two eventually reconnect. In its depiction of rural life in the 1920s, The Battle to the Weak is very Lawrentian. There’s also a cross-generational aspect. But Vaughan’s novel is much more grim than anything Lawrence wrote. The lives she documents are hard, and the men – bar a couple of exceptions, one of which is the fiancé – are monsters. Especially the father. The prose is typical of the period, but it’s good. If you like fiction from the early part of the twentieth century, then Vaughan is definitely worth a go.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


6 Comments

Reading diary 2019, #6

My reading seems to be all over the place of late. Mostly it’s because I’ve been limiting myself to buying ebooks, and only when they’re cheap. I did bring some books with me, and I bought a few at the recent Swecon, but I put a lot of unread books into storage. So with less to choose from, my reading has proven less planned. Ah well.

X, Sue Grafton (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels since discovering them back in the mid-nineties. As well as being good crime novels with an engaging narrator, Grafton’s decision to keep the internal chronology consistent irrespective of how long it took her to produce a novel has meant each book has slipped further and further back into the past. Even now, thirty-seven years after the series began – or rather, thirty-three years from A to X – and X is still set in the 1980s, albeit towards the end of the decade. Millhone is hired by a local rich woman to check up on the son she gave up for adoption decades before, and who has just been released from prison after committing a string of burglaries. She does as asked but then discovers the man was no relation… and that the rich woman is the estranged wife of millionaire, and the two are trying to screw as much money out of each other as possible. Throw in a string of missing women and the man responsible for their deaths, identified by Milhone, and who then begins stalk her. Plus an elderly couple who have moved into Milhone’s neighbourhood but do not prove to be who they claim… It’s a bit busier than most of the Milhone novels, and the millionaire man and wife plot actually has a happy end; but these are good books and definitely worth reading.

Embers of War, Gareth L Powell (2018, UK). This won the BSFA Award earlier this year, although I don’t chose the books I read because they won awards (ha!). I’d sort of gone off space opera in recent years as none of the stuff being published really appealed – and, to be honest, most of it seems to resemble military sf more than it does space opera. But UK space opera is a different beast to US space opera, and closer to my sensibilities. I’d also heard a few good things about Embers of War… But, well, having now read it, I’m not entirely convinced. Powell’s decision to tell his story using a number of different points of view in short chapters, I think, worked against it. It didn’t help that so many of the voices were similar, including that of the ship’s AI whose story the novel ostensibly is (in fact, Embers of War is the first in a series about the ship; the sequel is Fleet of Knives). Anyway, the ship Trouble Dog used to be a warship but is now a de-armed rescue ship with your typical space opera crew of misfits. A spaceliner is attacked by a mysterious enemy while visiting a planetary system whose planets were all reshaped into giant sculptures by a powerful and long-dead alien race. Trouble Dog goes to the rescue. Meanwhile, the target of the spaceliner attack – and why do sf novels think it’s acceptable to murder thousands in pursuit of just one person? It needs to stop – has managed to survive and finds herself on the surface of the planet known as the Brain (because, er, it looks like one). She discovers a labyrinth inside the planet – this part of the novel reminded me a great deal of a favourite sf short story, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ by Sean Williams – and so discovers its secret. The real identity of the woman was not hard to figure out, and it’s the reason why people want her dead – although given she was following orders at the time, it did seem a bit like they were going after the wrong person. The last Powell novel I read was The Recollection back in 2011 (see here), and I thought that started well but then turned boringly generic. Embers of War suffers from the latter as well. The world-building is all a bit too identikit and the ideas feel somewhat second-hand (cf my mention of the Williams story earlier). The characterisation is either bland or relies on quirks, and the prose is readable without being memorable. Readers who like BDOs and alien puzzles will find something to their taste here, but for me this is just Extruded Space Opera Product, with little or nothing that makes it stand out.

The Paper Men, William Golding (1984, UK). I’m having trouble making up my mind about Golding. Until a couple of years ago, I knew him only as the author of Lord of the Flies – his debut novel and his most famous, which must have really hurt – but then I read Rites of Passage and was very impressed. I picked up several of his books in a charity shop, so I had more to read. But… I’m reminded of John Fowles’s oeuvre: he wrote a couple of novels that were stunning pieces of work, but also a number that were almost emblematic of the output of a British white middle-class middle-brow male writer and so not so good. I think Golding was a better writer than Fowles, although none of his books, other than his debut, were as successful as either The Magus or The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and while the latter is an excellent piece of work, the former is very much the sort of book that’s admired only by people in their early twenties). So too with Golding: a handful of beautifully-written but quite strange novels, and then some that are pretty much emblematic of the output of a British white middle class male writer, although perhaps never middle-brow. And The Paper Men falls into the latter category. It’s a first-person narrative by a famous writer who has managed to build a successful career out of a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful novel and a series of much less successful follow-on works. But he’s seen as an important man of letters, and a US academic turns up on his doorstep asking to be his official biographer. The writer refuses. Shortly afterwards, the writer’s marriage breaks up and he heads off to foreign parts. There’s then a sort of hallucinatory chase around the world, with the biographer trying, and failing, to gain permission to access the writer’s papers. There’s something more going on there, or at least it feels like there should be, but if it’s a reference to anything it pass me by. There’s some very male-gazey – well, pretty lecherous – depictions of the biographer’s young wife, and a number of situations with border on farce. In fact, at times The Paper Men feels like it’s supposed to be a comic novel, even though it’s not at all humorous for most of its length. I’ll certainly read more Golding, but the last two books by him I’ve read have been somewhat disappointing.

The Bitter Twins, Jen Williams (2018, UK). I read the first book in this trilogy earlier this year (see here), and only did so because some friends were extremely effusive with their praise of it… I mean, I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy, although I’ve read a lot of it in the past, and I’m pretty sure there’s very little overlap between my taste in genre fiction and that of the one friend who praised these books the most… But I’m happy to read outside my comfort zone because how else would I discover new authors to like and admire? While bits of the first book, The Ninth Rain, didn’t entirely work for me, I do like fantasy worlds that are couched as science-fictional – and vice versa, of course – so there were definitely things to appreciate there. Enough, at least, to read the second book. Which is, I think, better than the first. And middle books of trilogies generally are not that. It’s better because it introduces a mystery in one of its narratives, gives it a satisfying conclusion, and also uses it to reveal some deeper background about the world. On the other hand… there was something about the writing style which didn’t quite click with me. It wasn’t until a chat at a con with the aforementioned friend where she mentioned “cock-blocking” and quoted a particular line from The Bitter Twins that I figured out what it was about the prose that was giving me trouble: it was written like fan fiction. The author was having far too much fun with their characters, to the extent that “having fun with characters” was driving the story rather than the plot. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. That friend? She’s a big fan of fan fiction, so it’s an approach and style of narrative that appeals to her. I don’t have that background – she had to explain what “cock-blocking” was to me – and I prefer my narrative voice distanced (see pretty much every Reading diary post on this blog). Despite that, the world-building in this trilogy remains very good – in many respects, it reminds me of Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy – and while the good guys tend to be a bit too good to be true at times, the villains of the piece are interesting. Worth a go.

Air Force!, Frank Harvey (1959, USA). I think it was the cover art which prompted me to buy this. I do like books about the Space Race, and while a cherry-picker was never used to deliver astronauts to their space capsule – whatever capsule that’s supposed to be on the cover – it all looked close enough to reality to appeal. If you know what I mean. The contents turned out to be somewhat different to what I’d expected. For a start, I’d thought it was non-fiction, a series of essays written for the popular press about the Space Race, or extrapolations of its future. It turned out to be entirely fictional, albeit based on extrapolations of the state of aviation and space technology in the US at the time.  There are eight stories, originally published chiefly in the Saturday Evening Post. One story is about the first X-15 flight to achieve orbit (the X-15 never did), another is about a pilot whose wife is pressurising him to leave USAF and go into business but his successful prevention of a disaster on a flight persuades him to say. Another story has a fighter pilot “demoted” to transport planes but he manages to prevent a fatal crash during a catastrophic failure of his plane’s systems and that persuades his superiors he should be back flying fighters. It’s all very gung-ho and USAF rah rah rah, and while the technical details are spot-on, the extrapolations are closer to the military’s wishful thinking than what actually happened. This is Man In Space Soonest rather than Skylab, if you know what I mean. The prose is not even serviceable, it’s “journalese” and presents each story as a cross between fiction and a personal account. It’s fun, if you’re into mid-twentieth century US aviation fiction, but its appeal these days, ie sixty years later, is going to be limited pretty much to fans of that. Like, er, me.

A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, Alex White (2018, USA). I should have known from the title… and its sequels’ titles (currently A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy and The Worst of All Possible Worlds). This is the Becky Chambers school of titling books, and I’m not a fan of Becky Chambers’s novels. Although to be fair, I was unimpressed with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe for a number of reasons, of which its terrible title was probably the least objectionable. The bad news starts pretty much on the first page. This is a far-future space opera universe… and it has magic. There’s no sense to it, clearly it was added because the author it was a cool idea. Half the stuff magic does in the book is also done by technology. Why would they do that, build a technological solution to a problem already solved by magic? It’s like that throughout the story. But, you know, some people like tech and magic; the fact it makes no sense, that it destroys any rigour the universe might claim to possess, is not a deal-breaker for them. It’s certainly a hurdle more easily scaled by some readers than others. Had that been my only issue with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, then I’d have simply written it off as “not for me”. But… The novel opens with car race on a space station and it’s clear this is a sport all worlds enjoy and follow, and there’s a lot of money and prestige invested in it, much like Formula 1 in the real world. During the race, one of the drivers, the favourite to win the championship, witnesses the murder of her rival by a strange masked magical figure who seems to have EVEN MOAR magical powers than is known to be possible. The driver is charged with the murder, fears for her life, and does a runner (despite belonging to one of the richest families in the galaxy). Meanwhile, a woman who makes a living selling fake treasure maps to gullible treasure hunters finds herself being hunted by unknown assailants. And she is one of those rare people who have no magical ability whatsoever. Both end up being kidnapped by, and then dragooned into, the crew of the Capricious, an ex-warship from the losing side of an earlier war. The map-seller was once a member of the crew but walked away when the war ended. Bad feelings remain. The plot is all about a super-warship that disappeared during the war, and somehow the super-magic assassin is associated with it. After some internal tensions, the crew of the Capricious track down the ship with authorially imposed ease, but then find themselves the targets of a group of super-powerful magicians, including the aforementioned assassin, who seem to have no trouble razing rich and powerful galactic institutions to the ground. And that is this novel’s biggest problem. The villains are super-powerful, and their strategy of slash and burn is at complete odds with the conspiracy’s previous actions, and it all seems EVEN MOAR implausible than having random magic powers in a technological space opera universe. And if that weren’t enough, the hardy band of adventures otherwise known as the crew of the Capricious still manage to win the day. They are massively outgunned, hugely outgunned… But they win. A battle, not the war – as indicated by the presence of sequels. I mean, there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s suspension of disbelief. The presence of magic is stretching it, but I’m willing to go with it. The rest? No! Dial it back, FFS. It’s nonsense. Super-villains taken down by hardy adventurers with no special powers? There’s no rigour here, no attempt at it. It’s like the author just threw “cool” ideas at the page with no regard for what fitted. It’s not like the plot is super original, because it’s not, in fact it’s a pretty standard one for RPGs (and “ordinary” player-characters overcoming super-powered NPCs is also pretty common in RPGs). Anyway, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe is not a good book. I will not be continuing with the series.


2 Comments

Apollo 11 x 50

Today is  the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. So the media is full of science fiction writers commenting on the event, many of whom weren’t even alive when it happened. To be fair, I was only three when Armstrong took his “one small step”, and the only Apollo mission I actually remember watching was ASTP. It’s not like science fiction writers are even experts on the Apollo missions, or indeed actual realistic space exploration. Not unless they’ve written a novel about it. Which some have.

I did too. It was a few years ago now. The Apollo Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015.  I’d planned to publish an omnibus edition in time for today, but then I went and moved countries… So, sorry, no omnibus edition. But the four individual volumes are still available on Amazon, in paperback, audiobook and Kindle editions.

1 Adrift on the Sea of Rains

2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself

3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

4 All That Outer Space Allows

All four are based on alternate visions of the Apollo programme – except for All That Outer Space Allows, which takes place during the actual Apollo programme (but is still alternate history).

For those wanting more realistic space-based science fiction, there is also Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories.