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Reading diary, #37

I didn’t set out to read mostly women this month, but that’s the way it worked out. Still, if the reading plan is going to fail, it’s best to fail this way than the other.

sunboundThe Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981). I’d enjoyed Felice’s Godsfire, which I’d picked up at Archipelacon and was expecting something similar from The Sunbound, which I bought at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm. In the event, it proved quite a problematical novel – see my review on SF Mistressworks here – and I really can’t recommend it… although I’ve not given up Felice’s oeuvre by any means. In fact, the novel published after this one, Eclipses, looks quite interesting. I just need to find a copy…

arrival_missivesThe Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whitely (2016). I bought both this novella and the one below at Fantasycon. I’d been keen to read something by Whitely after a tweet had named half a dozen or so under-appreciated genre authors including Nina Allan, myself and Whiteley, among others; and given that’d read a lot of Allan’s fiction and found it good, I wanted to try Whiteley. I read this on the train on the way back from Scarborough – a surprisingly pleasant journey, given the shocking state of our railways. The Arrival of Missives is set immediately after the First World War, in a small village that has suffered its fair share of casualties. Most of those in the novella, however, are children – or at least were too young to fight. Shirley Fearn, a teenager, dreams of a life outside the small village in which she lives, although her father wants her to marry a local lad who can then inherit the farm. Shirley also has a crush on the new village school teacher, Mr Tiller, a veteran of the war. She makes plans to attend teacher training in a nearby town, and insinuates herself into Tiller’s life… only to discover that his torso has a largew piece of rock embedded in it, large enough that he should not be alive as it occupies the space where his organs should be. At this point, The Arrival of Missives takes this piece of weirdness and runs with it. The stone was sent back in time by humans from the distant future, and is one of many such “missives” – this one happened to find Tiller near-death and caught up on some barbed wire in No Man’s Land. It makes for a weird disconnect – a detailed story of post-WWI life in a small village, almost Lawrentian in tone, and this science-fictional idea, which has no rational support or narrative scaffolding. But that, I guess, is what New Weird is. And yet The Arrival of Missives works because the writing is so good. Shirley is a compelling narrator, and her concerns are well-handled. The “missive” adds an odd flavour to the novella, which most will like more than I did… but I suspect this is still a contender for a BSFA or BFS Award next year.

golden_notebookThe Golden Notebook*, Doris Lessing (1962). I admit it, I had thought this would be extremely hard-going. I’d read a couple of Lessing’s other novels and not been taken with them – and even if the first book of her sf quintet, Canopus in Argos Archives, Shikasta, felt to me like being beaten about the head by Ursula K Le Guin. The Golden Notebook, Lessing’s most celebrated novel, I expected to be a bit of a chore – especially given its 576 pages… So I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was an engrossing read. I’m only glad I read it after writing All That Outer Space Allows, as some structural elements of my novel might well have changed and in hindsight I’m not convinced they’d have been improvements. The Golden Notebook is a novel titled ‘Free Women’, about Anna Wulf, writer of a single successful novel based on her years in Africa during WWII, who is now living in London. She is also a communist. Between Sections of ‘Free Women’ are Wulf’s notebooks – black, red, yellow and blue. In the black notebook, she describes her time in Africa – on which her one published novel, ‘Frontiers of War’ (and which I kept on mis-thinking as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War) was based – and later, her life in London. The red notebook details Wulf’s politics and her interactions with the Communist Party. The yellow notebook is a fictionalisation of Wulf’s own life, title ‘The Shadow of the Third’, in which Wulf’s part is played by a woman called Ella. And the blue notebook starts out as a diary, but at times is more of a scrapbook, filled with newspaper cuttings. The five narratives, despite covering similar ground, don’t actually confuse The Golden Notebook‘s story, they actually deepen it and successfully show different aspects of Wulf’s character – as a writer, as a communist, her sex life (especially her affairs, none of which last) and her relations with her friends. The more observant among you will have noticed that the title of Lessing’s novel refers to a notebook not yet mentioned. This only appears near the end, opens by describing Anna breaking free of her then-boyfriend, before becoming that boyfriend’s own novel (a précis is given only), since writing is the catalyst the two use to part amicably. I really liked The Golden Notebook, and I honestly hadn’t expected to. I can see how it might have shocked in 1962 – Lessing is very forthright about Wulf’s sex life – and the sharp criticism of the lives women were expected to live can’t have gone down too well. I expect the communism would be more of a turn-off to twenty-first century readers than the sexual politics. But The Golden Notebook does read like a book ahead of its time. Recommended.

nocillaNocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I seem to remember seeing this discussed on David Hebblethwaites’s blog, and the fact it inspired a new generation of writers in Spain – the “Nocilla generation” – only made it me want to read it all the more. It’s actually the first book of a trilogy, and the second book, Nocilla Experience. will be published in English next month. Despite my disappointment with some aspects of Nocilla Dream, it’s on my wish list. But Nocilla Dream… The book is structured as 113 sections, which vary in length from several lines to several pages. There also excerpts from other books and scholarly articles, on a wide range of subjects. There is no plot per se. Repeated mention is made of a tree on the desert road between Carson City and Ely, Nevada, over whose branches people have thrown pairs of shoes. Some of the stories involve people who have provided at least one pair of those shoes; some of the others involve people who have interacted with those people. The stories take place all over the world – which results in one of my gripes: a couple of sections are set in Denmark and it’s a very unconvincing depiction of the country. Another gripe is more the publisher’s fault, as on page 87, the section is headed “Relevant physical constants”, and the exponential figures haven’t been printed with the powers as superscript – so you get, for example, “Speed of Light, c = 3.00 x 108 m/s” when it should be 3.00 x 108 m/s. Despite these, Nocilla Dream is fascinating, does some very interesting things with narrative structure, and I’m looking forward to reading the remaining two books in the trilogy. I will admit to some disappointment, however, when I discovered that Nocilla is a brand-name of a Nutella-like spread in Spain…

the_beautyThe Beauty, Aliya Whiteley (2014). I don’t think this is quite as successful a novella as The Arrival of Missives – partly because the writing is not as good, but also because it seems even more consciously New Weird. Fungi! The narrator is the storyteller of a group of men living in a remote valley in the south-west after a fungal infection killed off all the women (it’s not said but it’s implied it’s global). The Group had been formed before that, a back-to-the-land survivalist sort of commune. But then the women all begin to die from a strange yellow fungus. The Group stumbles on for a while without women. Then the storyteller, Nathan, is taken to see growths of the strange yellow fungus in the nearby wood, whic resemble those growing on the graves of the women in the Group’s cemetery – clearly indicating women are buried there. He is captured by a strange creature which looks like a woman but is made of yellow fungus. It traps him underground, but keeps him alive. He is initially revulsed, but comes to love the creature, which he names Bee. The rest of the Group soon have one each. These are the Beauty. They’re implied to be reincarnations of the lost women, but are unable to communicate except by projecting moods and feelings. Nathan has frequent sex with Bee – this despite there being a maternal element to their relationship (the other members of the Group treat their Beauty as they did their wives and girlfriends). But then one of the group, Thomas, begins to develop a tumour… except it isn’t a tumour, it’s a baby, part-human part-Beauty. And so the roles are swapped, and a new world is ushered in. The novella finishes with Nathan and Bee leaving the Group to find out what is happening in the outside world. There are some types of New Weird I can take – such as The Arrival of Missives, for example – and some I can’t. The Beauty falls squarely in the latter. Whiteley’s writing, while good, has definitely improved by the later novella – which is just as well as I doubt I would have read further had I come across The Beauty in 2014.

legacy_lehrThe Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz (1986). Another book from Fantastika 2016. Kurtz, of course, as the cover of this paperback makes plain, is better known for fantasy than science fiction. In fact, The Legacy of Lehr appears to be her only science fiction novel. And this despite having an engaging pair of protagonists in a set-up ripe for further adventures. Perhaps the book didn’t sell well  enough to encourage Kurtz, or the publisher, to continue as a series. I enjoyed the book, although it’s lightweight. My review will appear on SF Mistressworks later this week.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 127

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Mantlepiece goodies

I’ve actually been quite good of late and have cut down on the number of book purchases per month. Admittedly, it does seem to happen in phases. It’s not only that a book I’ve been after for a while suddenly appears on eBay – as was the case here – but I occasionally go a little mad and buy a bunch of books that I sort of feel like I want a copy of my own…


For the space books collection. I’ve been after a hardback copy of On The Shoulders of Titans, a history of the Gemini programme for several years, since I have the equivalent volumes in that format for the Mercury and Apollo programmes. Shortly after I bought the first two, NASA decided to publish new paperback editions, so all three are now readily available from Amazon. But I had to have the same edition for all three, of course. Apollo: the Panoramas I stumbled across recently, and went and bought a copy. It is a very pretty book – if, you, er, find the Moon’s “magnificent desolation” pretty…


My Fantasycon purchases. Yes, only three books. The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives were on offer – the two novellas for £15 – and I was keen to read Whitely after being named in a tweet as an under-appreciated author along with her. I’ve already read The Arrival of Missives and it’s good. Thirty Years of Rains I was browbeaten into buying by one of the editors (only joking, Neil).


The … Aircraft since [year] collection is coming along quite well, with these three – Westland, Boeing and the RAF – picked up on eBay for cheapness.


Finally, some of yer actual fiction (not purchased at a convention). I decided to upgrade my copy of The Golden to the slipcased edition and found a cheap copy on eBay. Revenger I bought when Alastair Reynolds and Peter F Hamilton were at the local Waterstone’s signing copies. I decided to promote Jenny Erpenbeck to hardback status – hence Visitation – and fortunately it turns out there are plenty of copies of her books available on eBay for very reasonable prices. Expect to see more over the next couple of months. A Romantic Hero I bought in a charity shop – Manning is on the list of authors whose books I always buy if I stumble across one I’ve not read in a charity shop.


Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.


Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…


The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.


To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.

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Reading diary, #36

My reading seems to have slowed a little, perhaps because I’m choosing books which aren’t quite such easy reads. On the other hand, it could just be that I’ve been quite busy. Anyway, an odd mix this time: two category genre books, one borderline and two classic twentieth century literature; three women, two men; two novels, three collections; three Americans, one Brit and a Dane. I really need to address that latter category a little more – I have a number of translated works on my bookshelves that I plan to tackle, such as Bolaño, Munif, Høeg, Myckle, Vargas Llosa, Gogol, Mallo… All I have to do is schedule them in. It’s easy to read diversely if you plan your reading, after all. Anyway, the five books in this post were all bloody good ones, so perhaps avoiding “easy reads” was worth it. Duchamp and Park are probably two of the best US writers currently working in genre and very much under-appreciated; Green and Dinesen may be from the first half of last century, but they wrote some bloody good stuff; and while LeGui many not always click with me, there’s no denying her importance or the fact she has writing chops we lesser mortals can only dream to possess. In all, a highly recommended handful of books.

laviniaLavinia, Ursula K LeGuin (2008). Who doesn’t love LeGuin’s fiction? It’s almost impossible not to, because it’s so wide-ranging, so clever and so beautifully written. Personally, I prefer her science fiction, and while I’ve enjoyed her high fantasies I’m not so enamoured of her literary fantasies like Orsinian Tales or Searoad. Lavinia, however, is more of an historical fantasy, and falls somewhere between the two stools of genre fantasy and literary fantasy. I have no especial interest in the period it covers, pre-Roman Italy, although a good book would, you’d hope, make me interested (after reading George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time, for example, I spent several hours looking up brochs online, and nearly even bought a book on the topic). Nor am I trained classicist and so familiar with the sources texts uses in Lavinia – chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid. In fact, to be honest, I know very little about Bronze Age Europe – it’s not an era I’ve read much about. The title character is mentioned in passing in the Aeneid as the wife of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who survived the fall of Troy. LeGuin takes Lavinia’s brief mention and runs with it, opening with Lavinia’s childhood, then there’s arrival of Aeneas and his Trojans, their marriage, the founding of Lavinium, war… Throughout, Lavinia visits a sacred grove, where she talks to the ghost of “the poet”, who is clearly Virgil (who lived over a thousand years later – some of the references by him to “the future” do initially suggest something a little more science-fictional, but no). I know some people were very taken with the novel, but it never quite clicked with, although there was no denying its quality.

never_at_homeNever at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011). I bought this a couple of years ago after being much impressed by Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle – which, incidentally, is one of the best sf series about first contact ever written – but had never got around to reading it for some reason. Which I have now rectified. Partly, I admit, prompted by the superb story by Duchamp which opens the VanderMeers’ feminist sf anthology, Sisters of the Revolution. That story is not in Never at Home, but those that are range from the merely good to the bloody excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a genre collection as strong as this one, and yet looking at the stories I’m not entirely sure why. They’re not bursting with ideas or “eyeball kicks” – that’s not what Duchamp does – but they’re certainly fascinating, and extremely well-written, explorations of very carefully explored ideas. In ‘A Question of Grammar’, for example, a woman taken from her family (who, it is implied, are considered unpersons by the galactic authorities) is bonded chemically to an alien to act as interpreter. I’m tempted to describe the story as “very”Gwyneth Jones”, high praise indeed from me, but I think that’s probably unfair to Duchamp. Either way, this was the best story in the collection and deserves to be much more widely known. ‘The Nones of Quintilis, Somewhere on the Southwest Slope of Monte Albano’ manages that very difficult balancing trick of being genre but not reading like genre. ‘Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable’ (Duchamp’s strong point clearly doesn’t lie in titling her short fiction) manages to evoke something like Area X half a decade before VanderMeer’s novels, and do so with more mystery and less fungi (both, it must be said, pluses in my book). This is a superior collection, probably the best genre collection I’m likely to read this year (yes, I think it just edges out Other Stories below). Not only do I recommend it, but I think everyone should also read Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle; and, of course, Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press does sterling work and has published some blinding works of fiction since its founding in 2004.

blindnessBlindness, Henry Green (1926). The authors you love, I’ve found, do not come about due to wide or deep reading of their oeuvre, but from a single piece of work, usually in the first half dozen or so by that author you’ve read. It blows you away… and it colours all your other encounters with that author’s works. With Lowry, it was his novella ‘Through the Panama’, with Durrell it was The Alexandria Quartet, with Blixen it was her story ‘Tempest’… and with Green it was the first novel by him I read, Loving. A pitch-perfect control of voice, a refusal to tell the story using normal narrative techniques, and an excellent eye for detail… what’s not to love? Blindness is Green’s first novel, and concerns a public schoolboy whose bright future is snatched from him in an accident which blinds him (a kid throws a stone at a passing train, smashing a window through which the protagonist is looking). The story is told firstly through letters, then through semi-stream-of-consciousness narratives by the young man and his mother and the young woman (of an unsuitable family) whose company he enjoys… It’s very much a story of privilege and deprivation – the main character is the scion of a wealthy family, with a country seat boasting a large staff (members of which which the mother complains about repeatedly); but the young woman is the daughter of an alcoholic vicar fallen on hard times and, if anything, reads more like a DH Lawrence character (on his good days, that is) than a fit companion for the blind boy. Green had a reputation as “a writer’s writer”, which is generally taken to mean he was much admired but sold few copies. It’s true that there’s a dazzling level of technique on display in Blindness, a facility with prose no writer can fail to admire. And it’s Green’s writing prowess I certainly admire, rather than his choice of subjects or the stories he chooses to tell. But there’s a profound pleasure to be found in reading prose that is just put together so well, and that’s why I treasure Green’s writing.

winters_talesWinter’s Tales, Isak Dinesen (1942). As mentioned earlier, Blixen impressed me with her story ‘Tempests’ in Anecdotes of Destiny (AKA Babette’s Feast and Other Stories), and so resolved to read more by her. (I’d also enjoyed the three films made of her works: Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast and The Immortal Story.) Winter’s Tales contains 11 stories, some of which are better than others, but all of which are good and all of which have an almost mythical feel to them. In some it’s quite overt – ‘The Fish’, for example, reads like mannered high fantasy but is about an actual king of Denmark. Most of the stories are historical, typically set in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Some are twist-in-the-tale type stories, such as ‘The Young Man with the Carnation’, in which a young husband reconsiders the future of his marriage after the eponymous person appears in the middle of the night at the door of the hotel room he is sharing with his wife. Only later, does the young husband realise he had been in the wrong room (whoops, spoiler). ‘The Heroine’ is a cautionary tale in which a French woman saves a group of travellers from being shot by Prussian soldiers (during the Franco-Prussian War) by refusing the Prussian commander’s offer. There was something quite DH Lawrence about the story. ‘The Pearls’ reminded me of Blixen’s own ‘The Immortal Story’, although its plot was very different. A woman marries a fearless man and her own sense of adventure is abruptly threatened when she realises the two of them skirt much too closely to danger – a realisation embodied in a  string of pearls he gives her and which she inadvertently breaks… There is, as I’ve said, a near-mythical to these stories, almost as if they’re parables. It’s a type of story that seems to have mostly fallen out of favour; and while that does make the contents seem of their time, there’s also a timelessness to them because they’re set in earlier decades and centuries. I’ll be reading more Dinesen/Blixen.

other_storiesOther Stories, Paul Park (2015). I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since reading Coelestis back in the mid-1990s, and I still think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written. Like LeGuin, Park’s career has been somewhat varied, albeit considerably less prolific, and his last novel, a metafictional piece that straddles science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and autobiography, All Those Vanished Engines, was for me one of the best novels of 2014. (It didn’t win any awards, of course.) So when PS Publishing announced they were publishing a collection of Parks stories, I was keen to get my hands on it… and it took a while to appear. But it was totally worth it. Some of the stories I’d read before – ‘No Traveller Returns’ was originally published as a signed limited novella by PS Publishing and, yes, I own a copy; ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ forms part of Park’s excellent novel, All Those Vanished Engines. Two stories appeared in Postscripts anthologies in which I also had stories – one of which, I – kof kof – provided the title story (#20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein and #32/33 Far Voyager). As for the rest… they’re slippery things, sliding between fantasy, alternate history and mimetic fiction, and even, in some cases, autobiography. ‘A Family History’ posits an alternate history in which the French Revolution fails and parts of North America remain in French control in the late nineteenth centiry… and the deconstructs the concept of alternate history. ‘Watchers at the Living Gate’ is straight-up fantasy, and while it owes more to Hope Hodgson than Tolkein, it still presents a singular vision. ‘Ragnarok’ is posta-apocalyspe fiction presented as epic poetry (not, to my mind, an experiment that works especially well). ‘Abduction’ is a frankly baffling story about what might, or might not be, alien abductions. But everything in the book is beautifully-written. Park and Duchamp are both massively under-rated US genre writers, and should be much more widely-read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126

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A critical bookshelf, part 2

I did one of these a while ago – see here – but I’ve bought more critical works since then… and here they are.


Five books on women science fiction writers, most of which I used as a research for All That Outer Space Allows. Galactic Suburbia discusses pre-feminist sf and demonstrates that it was in fact feminist. Daughters of Earth is an anthology, in which each of the female-authored stories is discussed in a following critical essay. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is about, well, the title pretty much says it all. Partners in Wonder is a history of women writing in genre magazines from 1926 to 1965. The Feminine Eye I found on eBay and contains nine critical essays on authors such as CJ Cherryh, CL Moore, Suzette Haden Elgin and Suzy McKee Charnas.


Three critical works by some British chap who, I believe, also writes fiction. Sibilant Fricative was shortlisted for the BFS Award, but Rave & Let Die won the BSFA Award. Science Fiction (Roberts) I bought in Stockholm at Fantastika 2016. There is a second edition now available. Science Fiction (Baker) I bought from Amazon. I’m mentioned in two of these critical works.


Uranian Worlds is an annotated list of genre works which feature LGBT themes or characters. My copy is an ex-library one I bought cheap from a reseller on Amazon. Red Planets is, as the title explains, about “Marxism and”Science Fiction”. I’ve yet to read it, though I’m interested in left-wing sf. My Fair Ladies discusses the depiction of artificial women in genre, although it seems to focus more on media genre than written.


Some critical works by writers: Starcombing I reviewed for Interzone (I later posted the review on my blog here). In Other Worlds was a lucky find in a remainder shop. The Country You Have Never Seen is apparently now as rare as rocking horse shit, so I was lucky to pick a copy up when I did (there’s a secondhand copy on Amazon for £693.49!). Magic Mommas. Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts I found on eBay. The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand I bought from Cold Tonnage. William Atheling, Jr, was, of course, James Blish.


Every now and again, science fiction throws up these annotated listicle books, ususally with contentious titles like 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels. I wrote a blog post after reading this, which morphed into a correspondence with the author – see here and here. Anatomy of Wonder is currently in its fifth edition and costs £55 new, so I bought an earlier edition for consierably less. Call and Response is Paul Kincaid’s second collection of essays and reviews. And In The Chinks of the World Machine was one of two non-fiction works published under The Women’s Press sf imprint (the other was LeGuin’s The Language of the Night, and I’ve yet to find a copy).

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Culture vulture

I could really do with another bookcase, but I don’t have a free wall to put it against. But then, pretty much every bookshelf I have is double-stacked… which I guess means I actually need more than one bookcase. Oh well.


Some for the collection. Carrying the Fire is the best of the astronaut (auto-)biographies I’ve read – I reviewed it here – but first editions are usually very expensive. This a lucky reasonably-priced find ($25!) on eBay. Another signed first edition by Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net. And I stumbled across this first edition of Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand for $20 on eBay and thought it worth getting.


Some non-fiction. Moonport U.S.A. is not the Moonport book from the NASA History series, but a chapbook published by the Air Force Eastern Test Range Public Relations Association. This is the fifth edition. Malcolm Lowry (Contemporary Writers) is one for the criticism bookshelf. And Blackburn Aircraft since 1909 means I now have 15 of these books, and only 5 more until I have all of the UK ones. Brasília: The Modernist Utopia is a collection of photographs of the eponymous city, a place I would love to visit. Unfortunately, it’s a POD book and the print quality of the photographs is not very good.


One for SF Mistressworks, Murray Constantine’s (Katherine Burdekin’s) Swastika Night. I thought Blixen’s Anecdotes of Destiny so good, I decided to try another of her collections and picked Winter’s Tales. I’m not sure where I stumbled across mention of Nocilla Dream, but it sounded intriguing so I put it on my wishlist… and bunged it on my last order. Finally, a pair of charity shop finds: Perfidia, and Ellroy’s novels are enormous and I’ve no idea when I’ll find the time to read them, and The Spire, the third of the four Goldings I found in a charity shop (I bought two on my first visit, but when I went back a week later someone had gone and bought the fourth, I think it was Lord of the Flies; oh well).

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Reading diary, #35

As a general rule, I try to spread my reading across genders and genres, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So far this year, around forty percent of my reading has been science fiction, I suppose chiefly because when I fancy an easy read it’s my go-to mode of fiction. Which might tell you something about recent sf, except that quite a bit of my sf reading has been twenty- or thirty-year-old sf novels by women writers for review on SF Mistressworks…

nodNod, Adrian Barnes (2012). We’ve just had a somewhat controversial Clarke Award – but then, when hasn’t the Clarke been somewhat controversial? It was back in 2013, when Nod was shortlisted. From what I remember, Nod was seen as a quite baffling choice; although the same could also be said for The Dog Stars, also shortlisted that year, and which I read a year or two ago and thought not very good at all. Whereas NodNod is one of those books written with a strong, idiosyncratic voice – not idiosyncratic like Riddley Walker or Engine Summer – but the first person narrator is chatty and irreverent and likes to pepper his story with witticisms and snide remarks and it’s really fucking annoying. The central premise is nicely done – suddenly no one can sleep, except for a handful – and the breakdown of civilisation as sleep deprivation psychosis kicks in, as seen in the narrator’s home town of Vancouver, is well-handled… But the way the book is written, the prose style, is like fingernails on a blackboard for me. I hated it. It was a test of endurance to read it. This is one of those books which illustrates the difference between “this book is good” and “I enjoyed this book”. I hated it, didn’t enjoy it at all, but could see it was put together with skill. My response to it is entirely personal; the book’s quality is intrinsic to it. The two should not be confused.

exploration_space_smallThe Exploration of Space, Arthur C Clarke (1951). Why did I read a book about space exploration written more than half a century ago, when the appropriate science and engineering was in its infancy, I hear you ask? Er, I don’t know. But I thought it might be interesting to see what Sir Arthur had got right – the edition I read was an updated one published in 1960, so pre-Gagarin and -Apollo – and the answer is… not all that much, actually. His explanation of freefall, for example, is sort of right but doesn’t explain it very well. Astronauts at the ISS (which, of course, didn’t exist when the book was written, so Clarke’s example is hypothetical) are not experiencing zero gravity because the gravity in Low Earth Orbit is exactly the same as it is on the ground. The astronauts are falling toward the ground, and so is the ISS, at exactly the same speed; but the ground is rotating away from them, also at the same speed. So, to paraphrase Douglas Adams’s description on how to fly, they’re throwing themselves at the ground… and missing. True, science and engineering didn’t know then what we now know, and the stuff Clarke gets right is the stuff that had been known for decades, if not centuries. The chapter on ‘The Lunar Base’ speculates the Moon would be exploited solely for minerals – thus ignoring the US Army’s Horizon lunar base study from 1959 – and that spacesuits would have to be hard-shelled. A later chapter on space stations claims their chief role would be in communications – and this from the man who “invented” the communications satellite… although first active repeater communications satellite wasn’t launched until 1960. The Exploration of Space is mostly good on the basics, and it has that weirdly unrealistic optimic take on its subject, much like those famous Colliers Magazine articles. But it’s very much an historical document, and no different in that respect to a science fiction novel published during the same year.

elysiumElysium, Jennifer Marie Brissett (2014). I must be getting jaded. I mean, I know I apparently don’t see science fiction in the same way as many others do – for instance, I thought The Book of Phoenix a terrible book, and yet it received a huge amount of praise (and was even tipped by many to take the Clarke). Elysium is another sf novel which has received lots of praise, but has a much lower profile than the Okorafor. It is also a better novel than The Book of Phoenix, but… The book opens with a series of vignettes depicting Adrian/Adrianne and Antoine/Antoinette, in each of which the two are of different genders – male/female, male/male, female/female; as are also some of the supporting characters. This section (sections) reads like mimetic fiction, but breaking them up is what appears to be output from a computer program (in the form of error messages). The novel then takes an abrupt swerve into alternate history, in which Adrianne is a Vestal Virgin in a modern-day Western city, before then heading into post-apocalypse territory as off-stage alien invaders release some form of dust which mutates human beings and brings about the collapse of civilisation. One of the two main characters becomes one such mutant herself and develops wings. Another shift, and now Adrian is the chief designer of an underground city – a geofront, from the description – in which some of humanity plan to survive, safe from the mutagenic dust and the alien invaders. They’re also building starships to take them to another world. It is at this point in the story that the novel reveals a plan to use the atmosphere to store an archive of human civilisation, and it is the operating system of this which is genersating the computer messages and actually “telling” the story of Elysium. In the final section, Adrianne is a prisoner in a concentration camp run by the alien invaders, and when one of the aliens is imprisoned with them, she learns from it that the aliens had killed all the humans who had not escaped Earth, and that she is no more than a simulation run by the archive in the atmosphere (as, indeed, were all the other narratives in the novel). While Elysium certainly has its moments, the writing is rough to begin with – “The water of sorrow ran like a river down the curve of Adrianne’s cheek”? – but soon improves, or at least becomes less of a barrier. The gender- and sexuality-switching in the opening sections is also neat and cleverly-done, and I thought the Vestal Virgin part especially good… but the post-apocalypse section, and the geo-front section, were a bit dull, and the novel only picked up again with Adrianne in the prison camp, a section which pretty much seems to serve no purpose other than to explain the entire book. In many respects, Elysium reminded me a lot of Sue Thomas’s Correspondence, although I thought Correspondence a much more difficult, but more rewarding, read (see here). I bought Elysium at the end of last year, along with Jackie Hatton’s Flesh & Wires, Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, and a pair of novellas, Lisa Shapter’s A Day in Deep Freeze and Lori Selke’s The XY Conspiracy, from Aqueduct Press (and I cannot recommend Aqueduct Press enough). The Shapter I thought good enough to nominate for the BSFA Award. I’ve yet to read the Taber; but of the other two novels, I think Hatton’s may just be the better one.

3bodyThe Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008). So the puppies managed to fuck up the Hugos in 2015, but one of the novels on their slate was pulled by its author, and The Three-Body Problem was promoted onto the shortlist… and went on to win the award. I don’t normally read books because they’ve won a Hugo – if anything, that’s a good indication I won’t like it – but the premise of The Three-Body Problem sounded interesting, and Liu is a big name in Chinese sf. (I have a collection of his three novellas, The Wandering Earth, knocking around somewhere, but have yet to get around to reading it.) So, anyway, The Three-Body Problem… I wasn’t expecting much: old school sf, but set in China, and with a clever premise. And so it initially seemed. The writing was serviceable at best, although the info-dumps were often intrusive and clumsy… but this is sf, this is what it looks like a lot of the time. However, when protagonist Wang Miao stumbles into the conspiracy at the heart of the novel, and the “end of science” is demonstrated to him through, first, a countdown mysteriously appearing on photographs he has taken, then in his actual vision, and then he witnesses the cosmic background radiation of the universe flicker… Well, this was a fascinating puzzle. Throw in a MMORPG set on a world orbiting three suns and in which players have to figure out a solution to the three-body problem – not that there is one, but the game proved an interesting illustration and history of the issue. It was all going so well: mysterious secret project, the end of science, clever VR game… And then Liu whips away the curtain to reveal what’s really going on and… big disappointment. It’s like a sf novel from the 2010s and a sf novel from the 1950s were welded together. Even that thing with the countdown proved to be a massive letdown. The Three-Body Problem is the first of a trilogy, followed by The Dark Forest and Death’s End. I won’t be bothering with them. But I will dig out that collection of novellas and read that, I think.

price_starsThe Price of the Stars, Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald (1992). This is the first book of the Mageworld series, as the cover helpfully explains. There are seven books in the series, the last in 2002 (the blurb for which does not read like it’s the final book of a series). Initially, I wasn’t all that impressed – The Price of the Stars wears its inspirations – kof kof St*r W*rs kof kof – far too openly, and even the changes it rings are overshadowed by that media behemoth. But I sort of got into it, and began enjoying the read… so I’ll probably end up tracking down the rest of the series and giving them a go, despite their faults.  I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

demonsDemons, John Shirley (2000). For some reason I have yet to figure out, I cottoned onto John Shirley as an author worth collecting… despite not being a fan of horror. I think it was partly because in the early 1990s, he was producing some exciting stuff – Wetbones, Heatseekers, Eclipse, A Splendid Chaos – and, like Lucius Shepard and Lewis Shiner, two genre writers I admire, he began publishing limited edition novellas through small presses. Anyway, I have a number of his books in those signed limited editions, and yet most of them are, well, pretty forgettable. Demons – not to be confused with the Ballantine collection of the same title which includes this novella/short novel (and which I’ve had to link to on Am*z*n because the Cemetery Dance limited edition is apparently very rare) – is fairly typical of Shirley’s output. The gonzo horror inventiveness, the slightly off-kilter approach to the world, nailed into place with the careful use of details, the often slapdash prose, and a story that’s usually more than it appears. In Demons, er, demons start to appear, all over the world. And they kill people, without rhyme or reason. There are seven specific types of demons, which a glossary before the story helpfully describes, and which artwork in the book depicts. Ira is an illustrator for an occult magazine and a bit of a slacker. He’s love with Melissa, the daughter of Dr Paymenz, an occultist professor at a California university. And he’s with them when the demons appear. The three manage to hook up with a symposium of like-minded academics, where Ira learns of the Conscious Circle of Humanity, a group of 23 psychically-gifted people who keep humanity safe, and about a conspiracy which prepared the world for the demons’ arrival. Eventually, they figure out that various large-scale industrial accidents were triggered to usher in the demons, so that a small group of men can use the ensuing slaughter as “sacrifices” to gain immortality. Cliver Barker would probably have made a 900-page epic out of this plot, but in Shirley’s hands it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Better than I had initially thought. But I’m still not sure why I collect Shirley’s books.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126