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Reading diary 2021, #5

It’s time to retire this blog. All I’m doing is posting mini-rants-masquerading-as-reviews of books and movies, and that at increasingly longer intervals. Plus, WordPress have gone and fucked up a perfectly good product, and their new “Gutenberg” block editor is shit. It now takes ten times longer to format a blog post, and I had to trash the one I’d planned to post before this one because I couldn’t get the editor to let me format it how I wanted. If I want to use the old editor, I have to pay extra money. I’ve no desire to support a business that blackmails its customers by removing functionality and then demanding money to return it. So, fuck them.

I could, I suppose, move to another platform. Not Blogger. I was on that originally. But they kept on randomly blocking my blog because their AI had decided it was spam… and Blogger made it increasingly difficult to get it unblocked. “Customer support” is not a phrase that seems to be in Google’s vocabulary. I’ve also heard their current version is even worse than WordPress.

Other blogging platforms seem more in the nature of website-building platforms for complete idiots. All drag and drop and fixed templates and zero actual control on the part of the user. And yes, I do still use the CLI in $dayjob.

Anyway, blogs are dead, social media is a cesspool of stupidity and tribalism, fandom is a pitched battle between various groups determined to police and/or gatekeep everyone else, and who knows when physical conventions will be a thing again? (I refer, of course, to English-language genre culture.)

Anyway, for this ultimate post, I shall finish much as I’ve been going on these last few years. With sort of reviews of half a dozen books.

submissionSubmission, Michel Houellebecq (2015, France). I can’t decide if this novel is irresponsible race-baiting or a clever commentary on the culture war. It’s probably both. In Submission‘s 2022, a moderate Muslim candidate becomes president of France and remakes French society along moderate Islamic lines – which are not all that moderate. In a word, the patriarchy is back. Women can no longer work. The narrator is a professor at a Parisian university, who is forced to retire when the new regime takes over. While the new government greatly reduces crime, it is at the cost of women’s freedoms. Professors are “bribed” back into their positions by finding them biddable female students as wives. Which, to be fair, is not how Islam works. It is, however, how patriarchy works. And that’s definitely one of the unacknowledged planks of the right-wing adherents of the “culture war”. They hate Muslims. But they want women back in the kitchen and no brown people in sight. But I’m not sure this novel is commenting on them, and I don’t think Islam is a good vehicle to make that point. But then France has a different reaction to its Muslim citizens than the UK, and I grew up in the Middle East so I’ve lived in actual Islamic countries, and Houellebecq’s presentation of Islam is hopelessly simplified, even though he provides a character to actually explain the religion. There’s also an unacknowledged issue here. I’ve seen it in the real world. In Houellebecq’s France, women can still study, but they cannot work. So their studies are worthless. But those women don’t want their daughters to suffer the same fate, so they agitate for jobs. It’s what’s been happing in the Gulf states for the past 30 years. Houllebecq’s interpretation of an Islamic Europe is unsustainable. You can’t disenfranchise half of the population and expect that to continue unopposed. Houellebecq is a controversial figure, but much of the controversy he has manufactured himself. Submission is the sort of novel that will upset people, but it’s not really a thought experiment. it’s a piss-take. Houellebecq is upsetting the people he’s taking the piss out of. Seems fair to me.

binaryBinary System, Eric Brown (2017, UK). This was originally published as two ebooks in 2016 and 2017, but that seems an odd decision since neither seem to stand on their own. It is good old-fashioned – where “old-fashioned” means 1990s – science fiction, but with updated sensibilities. To be fair, UK sf of the 1990s and English-language sf of today doesn’t require much in the way of “re-alignment”. Female protagonists were common in male-authored sf by UK writers in the 1990s; the fact it took an additional decade for female protagonists to begin appearing in US male-authored sf is another matter. And, to be fair, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US published a great deal more women genre writers than the UK did. Anyway. In Binary System, Delia Kemp is the sole survivor of an explosion as a ship is translating through a wormhole type thing, and finds herself marooned on a world thousands of light years away. It is inhabited by several alien races – and Earth has yet to encounter any aliens. She is taken prisoner by insectoid aliens, but then broken free by gibbon-like alien, and with him she agrees to travel south to witness the ten-yearly appearance of his god. They’re helped by a “spider-crab” alien. The insectoid aliens, she learns, are invaders, devolved ones, it’s true; but the other races, native to the planet, would be happy to be rid of them, and Kemp is worried they might at some point reach Earth. Not that she expects to ever reach Earth herself as she’s marooned so far away. It’s all very trad sf, and there are few real surprises – other than wondering how they story could have been split into two – but it’s well-crafted stuff. And if some of the tropes are a little shiny around the edges, they’re at least used by someone who knows what he’s doing. This is not Brown’s best book, but it’s emblematic of the solid, heartland, unassuming science fiction that he writes when he’s writing moderate to good sf. He’s actually written some excellent sf, but has never been popular enough for it to be noticed. Which is a shame.

empty_quarterIn the Empty Quarter, G Willow Wilson (2021, USA). This was actually free, and I don’t think I’ve read anything by Wilson before – although I do remember she was flavour of the month some ten years ago, but has been writing comics the last few years. An American couple are in an invented city in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, as the husband is part of a team prospecting for oil. The wife, Jean, has been shown about town – as much as she can be – by a local contact of her husband, Mahmoud, and while she’s starting to harbour romantic thoughts toward him, she’s also bored. So she persuades her husband to allow her to accompany him on a trip into the Empty Quarter, the Rub Al-Khali. But she finds herself even more bored, standing around while he works, so she explores a cave she finds in a sabkha, gets trapped, and is rescued by a djinn. I’ve actually camped in the Empty Quarter, so I know what it’s like, and I’m not really convinced by Willow’s description (which does not mean she has never visited it, of course). For one thing, she doesn’t use the term sabkha, and her description of one doesn’t quite ring true. Despite all that, the entire novella feels like packaging for a single line, “You’ve been treating me like a guest, but I’m here without an invitation”. Which is, of course, true – of the Brits and French in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. But the novella’s story isn’t really a commentary on that one line, just its delivery vehicle. And that, I think, is where it fails. Jean sees Saudi Arabia as “exotic”, which fits her character, but Willow seems more interested in commenting on the US’s exploitation of the Arabian peninsula than US, or indeed Western, attitudes to the cultures of the region. Having said that, this is a novella. If it disappoints, it’s because it implies a wider remit than it actually delivers on.

pincherPincher Martin, William Golding (1957, UK). Some friends of mine have recently been writing about William Golding, although they initially encountered him many decades ago. I did too, in a fashion, as I read Lord of the Flies at school – at least, I’m pretty sure I did – but I didn’t try another Golding novel until only a couple of years ago. So I’ve not had that long an appreciation of his books, and the few that I’ve read so far have been somewhat variable: Rites of Passage is amazing, The Inheritors is very good, but The Pyramid and The Paper Men are only mildly amusing. Pincher Martin is a remarkable book, and I think if it had been one of the first books by Golding I’d read I might perhaps hold him in as high esteem as the aforementioned friends. The title refers to a RNVR lieutenant in a destroyer in a trans-Atlantic WW2 convoy. The ship is sunk – probably by a U-Boat – and Martin finds himself on his own floating in mid-Atlantic. He manages to land himself on a tiny rock island, and has to subsist on rain water and mussels until he is rescued. As he waits, and suffers from exposure and malnutrition, flashbacks, some of which are more or less stream-of-consciousness, tell something of his past. And he was not a nice man. Much of the novel recounts, in excruciating detail, Martin’s situation and efforts to keep himself alive. It’s hard reading. And then there’s the final chapter… I’ll say there’s a twist, but I won’t spoil it. Recommended.

mitfordChristmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford (1932, UK). The second of The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford, and it’s more of the same as the first. But much funnier. Some of the characters featured in Highland Fling (like Waugh, Mitford seems to have a stable of characters for her books), but this time they’re spending Christmas in the country. Amabelle Fortescue, rich widow and ex-sex worker, has hired a cottage in Gloucestershire. She invites the Monteaths to join her. Meanwhile, novelist Paul Fotheringay, a friend of Amabelle’s, whose tragic debut novel has been hailed as a comic masterpiece, deeply hurting him, has decided a biography of his favourite Victorian poet is what is needed to convince people of his serious literary nature. So he wangles a post, under a false name, as tutor to the poet’s descendant, a teenage baronet, whose home is near the country cottage rented by Amabelle. Some of the poet’s verse is reproduced, and it’s brilliant – “Think only, love, upon our wedding day / The lilies and the sunshine and the bells / Of how, the service o’er, we drove away / To our blest honeymoon at Tunbridge Wells.” The cast are grotesques, even when presented as relatively normal for the milieu, and it’s Mitford has a sharp tongue when poking fun at them and their world. But this is no social commentary – nor was Waugh’s, to be fair – and if Mitford’s humour is at the expense of her characters, it’s at least it’s  not Waugh’s contemptuous cynicism. They’re well put-together these novels. Recommended.

vanished birdsThe Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez (2020, USA). I’d given up on reading US genre debuts, but then I go and pick one up and read it. To be fair, I’d heard good things of The Vanished Birds from people whose opinion I trust, and I’ve not seen it mentioned often on social media, which means it probably doesn’t appeal to the sort of people who champion books I’ve found I definitely don’t like. (And it hasn’t made any award shortlists this year.) But, oh dear. Tricked again. On the plus side, it’s better written than is usually the case – but given it was apparently a thesis for a Creative Writing MFA, that’s hardly a surprise. Unfortunately, it fails pretty much everywhere else. It opens with a section set on a world which is visited by twelve spaceships every fifteen years, there to collect… a fruit which apparently stays fresh for up to fifteen years after harvesting. The economics make no sense – there are other villages, and hence more spaceships, on different schedules, so demand for this fruit must be huge. Except… the ships only appear every fifteen years, but for them the trip takes days, and they’re away from their destination for only months. (This time discrepancy in FTL applies nowhere else in the novel.) All this has little to do with the story, which is all about a mysterious boy one such ship picks up on a trip to the planet. There are a series of spacestations, in a universe that borrows most of its visuals from media sf, especially Star Wars, and which are shaped like birds because… because why? Their architect is treated more or less like an empress, for no discernible reason. She goes into cold sleep at regular intervals and has now lived for over a thousand years. She has determined the mysterious boy has the ability to “jaunt”, ie, travel from planet to planet without a spaceship. This ability could, understandably, upset the standard corporatist US-imagined space opera bollocks universe, with its serfs and one-percenters and child abuse and slavery, all of which exist because. For all its praise, The Vanished Birds is a creative writing exercise that strives more for effect than rigour, has a plot that makes little sense, and  a universe  cobbled together from a dozen ro so properties and overlaid with the usual US science fiction fascist nonsense. (In one scene, 2,500 innocent men, women and children are herded into a room and shot dead by corporate soldiers in order to “punish” the aforementioned architect who had created the secret complex where they lived and worked. Seriously, this fascist shit needs to stop. It’s a failure of imagination, and says more about US culture than it does English-language science fiction. And The Vanished Birds will definitely be the last twenty-first century US genre debut novel I ever read – at least until those authors have several more novels under their belt.

So, that’s it. The end of a blog. It had a good run – November 2006 to April 2021. I’ll keep it up, as there are one or two posts that still get visitors, like 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women. But I’ll no longer be adding new content. And the URL may change as I no longer see the point in paying to redirect to my own domain.


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Reading diary 2021, #4

I had a week off work, and spent most of it stretched out on the sofa, reading. Which is not that much different, these days, to a working day – with me stretched out on the sofa, doing $dayjob on the MacBook. I’d hoped to read more during my holiday, but got bogged down in the Márquez, which I appreciated more than I liked. Having said that, on the whole not a bad selection of books…

Highland Fling, Nancy Mitford (1931, UK). Once upon a time, I had an idea to focus my reading on British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century – I even wrote a blog post about it, here. I was already a fan of the novels of Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress), so it wasn’t much of a stretch. In the event, I only read a dozen or so qualifying novels, but it did introduce me to writers whose oeuvres I wanted to further explore – such as Pamela Frankau, Storm Jameson and Susan Ertz. I later read novels by Hilda Vaughn and Rosamund Lehmann. Nancy Mitford, however, was not on my list, possibly because she was best-known for her 1930s novels, which was a little earlier than I was interested in. But then I started reading Evelyn Waugh, and Mitford’s novels are often compared to his, and – which is probably the most important factor – The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford on Kindle was on offer for £2.99 (that’s eight novels, btw). Comparisons with Waugh are inevitable – both wrote satirically about “Bright Young Things” during the inter-war years. Waugh’s prose is sharper, but his satire is meaner; Mitford plainly doesn’t hold her subjects in contempt, and her set-pieces are slightly more absurd than Waugh’s. In this, her first novel, her characters are put in charge of Highland castle for a shoot, despite being complete upper class twits. And destitute. Because, like Waugh, Mitford is keen to stress how poor most of the upper classes are. It doesn’t wash. Poor working class person asks bank for loan, bank says fuck off. Poor upper class person asks for bank loan, bank throws bundles of cash at them. The upper classes have always been the UK’s worst enemy, and that’s as true now as it was in the 1930s. Or even the 1130s. Highland Fling is mildly amusing – not as cutting as Waugh, but not as racist either – but, you know, if everyone wiped out the entire English upper classes I would not shed a single tear. I might fucking celebrate, though.

Love in the Time of Cholera*, Gabriel García Márquez (1985, Colombia). The title of the book and the name of the author were known to me – and are no doubt known to many people – but I had absolutely no idea about the story. And while I’ve read and enjoyed some South American literature, it’s not a tradition that figures highly in my chosen reading. The book was, of course, on offer, and it’s also on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so I thought it worth a punt. And after a diet of far too much bad high fantasy, it was surprisingly refreshing to read prose by someone who could actually put a sentence together. An old man in a South American country dies. The novel then flashes back fifty years to a fifteen-year-old girl, who is being wooed by a young man of middling means. Her father takes her on a road trip to stay with relatives inland in order to block the relationship. When she returns a couple of years later, she finds herself suddenly no longer in love with her suitor. He, however, continues to love her. She marries an urbane and wealthy doctor who studied in France. The story then follows both her paramour, and the years – decades – he spends trying to get on with his life, while loving her from afar, and her own life. She is seemingly content in a marriage that gives her everything but love. Her husband is widely admired, which is all he ever wanted. And the old suitor has a string of jobs and affairs, none of which change him in any meaningful way. It gets distinctly dodgy some three-quarters of the way in, when the suitor takes charge of a thirteen-year-old cousin, and then makes her his lover. That’s straight up paedophilia. I don’t care when and where the book was set, and whether it was even considered acceptable in that time and place – and surely it wasn’t? – but writers choose what they write about, and García Márquez chose to write about a relationship between a man in his fifties and a girl not yet fifteen years old. As for the rest… the story jumps around a little, and I got a bit lost in the internal chronology – suitor works for the telegraph office, then he lives in a brothel, then he gets a job with a telegraph office, and somewhere in there he unsuccessfully tries to retrieve some sunken treasure… The novel revels in the filth and squalor of its setting – obviously the cause of the frequent cholera outbreaks which lend the book its title – and though ostensibly about love and romance, its female characters often feel like walking plot-points. The novel has its moments, but its blithe treatment of paedophilia, not to mention honour killings. or just plain indifference to the preventable squalor and deaths of the poor, make it a hard book to read in the twenty-first century. García Márquez’s other really famous novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I suspect I’ll give it a miss.

Master of Paxwax, Phillip Mann (1986, New Zealand). I’ve been a fan of Mann’s fiction for many years, and even reviewed several of his books – positively, of course – for the BSFA’s critical journal, Vector, back in the day. I liked that Mann was considerably more literate than most of his peers, and exhibited a somewhat sideways approach to common science fiction tropes. I’d forgotten that Master of Paxwax, followed by The Fall of the Families, was Mann’s second novel, but I’d remember the broad shape of the story. What had not occurred to me at the time, and struck me quite strongly on this decades-later reread, was how much Master of Paxwax is a pastiche of Frank Herbert’s Dune. More than that – and the timing is tight, so perhaps I’m reaching – but quite a bit of the imagery in Master of Paxwax evokes David Lynch’s movie adaptation of Dune, released in late 1984. After discovering an alien Way Gate, humanity spread out into the galaxy and wiped out all (alien) competitors. This was the Great Push. Centuries later, human society has ossified into an imperium ruled by eleven Great Families, and countless other ones. The Paxwax are the Fifth Family, and Pawl, the third son, finds himself head of the family when his father and elder brother die. The second brother had joined the Inner Circle, ostensibly a semi-religious order of diplomats and advisors, but secretly the last refuge of the alien races subjugated, or even destroyed, by humanity. The Inner Circle has determined that Pawl Paxwax will return the galaxy to the aliens; Pawl Paxwax just wants to break with tradition and marry someone he loves, who is not of the Eleven Families. On the surface, this is a space opera that makes free use of the subgenre’s tropes. But there are many similarities with Dune, while not mapping directly onto its story – no white saviour narrative, no appropriation… And there’s all those aliens, of course. It is, perhaps, a more sensitively-written Dune… but it never manages Herbert’s book’s weight of background, one of Dune‘s chief appeals, because Master of Paxwax relies overmuch on space opera tropes. It’s a good book, perhaps even a forgotten space opera masterpiece, although I suspect that’s a label that applies to a great many books given the low bar most fans seem to apply to space opera…

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (2008, USA). I had the title of this book written down on a list of books I wanted to read, and for the life of me I can’t remember why I’d listed it. But it popped up for 99p on Kindle, I remembered the title, and my finger went straight to the “buy now” button. And having now read it, I still can’t remember why it was on that list. It won the Pulitzer Prize, but I’ve never read a book simply because it won that prize – although I’ve read books that have won it. Olive Kitteridge reminds me a great deal of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction – and I’m a huge fan of her novels; signed first editions only sort of fan – but it doesn’t have the warmth and easy domesticity of her prose. It’s set in small town USA, a foreign country of not much interest to me, north or south, and any familiarity I might have with that world, in broad stroke, is down to a shared language only and the vigorously exported parts of a culture that has pretty much inundated the rest of the Anglophone sphere. The novel is about the eponymous woman. It’s part of a fictional universe built up over several works – in this case, all contained in this “novel”, and a later novel published in 2019. Olive Kitteridge is actually a collection of linked stories, in which the title character appears, either as the PoV character or in a supporting role. She was a maths teacher at the local school, but is retired at the time the novel opens. The comparison to Robinson is not entirely unfair – both writers detail a small community in their fiction, telling the stories of several interlinked families. The Wikipedia page for Olive Kitteridge boasts a complete cast of characters from the book – that’s eight families, and half a dozen assorted other groups. Strout manages to make her characters believable – although one or two seem to be defined solely by a couple of traits – despite the fact most of them only appear for a handful of pages. Much as I enjoyed the Olive Kitteridge, I doubt I’ll bother with the sequel.

Dune: The Graphic Novel, Book 1, (Frank Herbert), Brian Herbert, Kevin J Anderson, Raúl Allén & Patricia Martín (2020, USA). Despite repeated attempts to find further means of cashing in on the Dune corpus, by 2010 interest had clearly begun to wane and two planned Dune books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson were quietly cancelled (although another trilogy was completed and published). With, it must be said, good reason: their additions to the Dune universe have been uniformly shit. But then the Dune film – its second movie adaptation – was greenlighted, with no less than semi-auteur box-office darling Denis Villeneuve at the helm, and the Dune universe suddenly got a shot in the arm. I’d thought this graphic novel adaptation was, like the earlier Marvel one, tied in to the new movie adaptation. But now I’m not so sure. The artwork in the graphic novel doesn’t appear to match the production design from the Dune movie trailer. Which suggests it’s yet another cash-in. On the one hand, the graphic novel is faithful to the novel. But it fluffs some scenes – the banquet scene especially – and puts too much emphasis on others, such as the gom jabbar scene. But, worse than that, everything looks disappointingly generic. Lynch’s film had its problems, but it looked absolutely gorgeous. It had exactly that level of over-elaborate design you’d expect of Frank Herbert’s universe. I doubt Villeneuve’s production design will match it. The graphic novel art looks, well, boring. The characters appear far too ordinary and similar and, disappointingly, there’s no intricate detail in the backgrounds. This is the blandest version of Dune that has been produced yet. I will, of course, be buying books two and three.


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Reading diary 2021, #3

My reading remains a little bit all over the place. I’ve been keeping an eye on the Kindle daily deals, and picking up books that look interesting when they’re going cheap. I’ve even bought a few I’ve read previously and have in storage back in the UK. I’ve had the Kindle now for two years, and it has 200 books on it already. Which, when I think about it, is certainly less than I used to buy when I lived in the UK and bought paperbacks and hardbacks from all manner of places, online and IRL. Even better, I’ve read about 70% of the books I have here, although there are still half a dozen or so I brought with me two years ago that are still unread…

The Master & Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1966, Russia). This is a book that’s mentioned often, sometimes in genre conversations given its fantastical content. In brief, the devil visits Moscow and involves himself – with the help of a personal assistant and a very large cat, that talks and walks upright – with various people, who suffer as a consequence. I’m not a big reader of Russian fiction – in translation, obviously – War and Peace many years ago, a couple of novels by the Strugatsky brothers, some Solzhenitsyn, We last year, and now this. I remember enjoying War and Peace, and the Solzhenitsyns were good, but the translations of the Strugatskys’ novels into idiomatic American English didn’t do them any favours… But I can’t say I thought either We or The Master & Margarita particularly good books or enjoyable reads. The story leaps all over the place, and it’s all very excitable. Some parts consist of one character telling another character what happened to them. Other parts seem to make little sense or directly contradict themselves. On the plus-side, it’s all very Russian and the culture in which the novel is set comes through on every page – which is more than could be said for the Strugatskys novels I read. The Master & Margarita is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, and while it’s preferable to yet another literary novel about a college professor suffering a mid-life crisis, is it really the best mid-twentieth-century Soviet literature could produce? Or is it chiefly revered because it’s critical of the USSR? Some of the best Soviet films are pretty much propaganda – being anti-USSR does not make a Russian novel, or film, good in and of itself. The US spent almost a century so worried its proletariat would see through its structural inequality, it demonised communism to the extent half of the population still believe social healthcare is evil, and most of them can’t see that Putin,. ie capitalist Russia, is far more dangerous than the USSR ever was. Sigh.

By Force Alone, Lavie Tidhar (2020, Israel). I’d say the last thing the Matter of Britain needs is another interpretation, but King Arthur has been reinvented a number of times, and it does seem somewhat fitting given the nature of the myth – a hero for a time when he’s needed. Except, of course, most retellings of the Matter of Britain aren’t actually about the time of the retelling, and are usually no more than badly-faked historical stories distorted by the lens of the present. Which is also true of By Force Alone. But here it’s deliberate, very much so. In typical Tidhar fashion, By Force Alone makes heavy play with present-day cultural references. Arthur’s early years, and the formation of the Round Table, read like a cross between The Sopranos and a Guy Ritchie movie. But, Tidhar being a genre author, the novel features a weird mix of fantasy and science fiction tropes. It’s very much a book of two halves; and in the second half, a meteor impacts in Scotland, thought by all to be a dragon, and the area around the impact site is heavily poisoned, but also generates strange magical effects. Tidhar manages to graft the Grail Quest onto this, including rivalry among the Fae over the champions they have chosen. By Force Alone hits the main beats of the legend, but it’s a singular interpretation of it, one which, unlike most Matter of Britain stories, neither romanticises nor valorises Arthur and his knights, nor presents them as avatars of English exceptionalism (they weren’t, of course, English; assuming they ever existed, that is). I didn’t need another spin on King Arthur, but Tidhar delivered one and I find myself glad he did. If there’s any justice, this novel will kill the Arthuriana genre stone dead. And Guy Ritchie’s career.

Devil’s Road, Gary Gibson (2020, UK). I think this novella is set in a world explored in other works by Gibson – a novel, I believe, or perhaps more than one. I’ve not read his last few books, so I’m not sure. In the world of Devil’s Road, an experiment gone horribly wrong opened a portal to other dimensions in an invented island nation in the Far East, and out of this portal came various kaiju – ie, monsters. They’re confined to the island by an international blockade, and once a year because reasons a handful of people are allowed to race around the island for prize money. Dutch McGuire, the only person to have survived repeated races, is broken out of a Russian prison to compete once more. But this time she’s to help an industrialist get hold of some alien tech discovered on the island by a rival corporation. I didn’t think people still wrote science fiction like this. The whole ersatz cyberpunk kick-ass heroine thing is pure 1990s, although the kaiju add a twenty-first century spin. I really like Gibson’s space opera series, but this novella did nothing for me. But then I’m the sort of person who loves the films of Ishiro Honda but thought Pacific Rim was rubbish.

The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks (1977, USA). It was on offer, okay? TThe Sword of Shannara was also the first of the high fantasy best-sellers, and since I’m in the middle of a (partial) reread of the Wheel of Time series, I thought it might be worth seeing what this novel was like. I shouldn’t have bothered. It’s fucking dreadful. A “Valeman” on his way home one night is scared by some giant flappy thing in the sky, and then waylaid by a scary man over seven foot tall with a goatee. Except the scary man is well-known to the Valemen (they live in a vale, see), although he is very mysterious. Cue info-dump. The Valeman’s adopted brother is half-elvish, and is actually the only surviving relative of an ancient elvish king. Because of this, he’s the only person who can wield the Sword of Shannara, an ancient, er, sword, and defeat the Warlock Lord, an evil sorcerer who is about to invade the Four Lands and kill everyone. Or maybe just enslave them. It’s not clear. There’s the good guys – one of which is a dwarf, and another is Boromir in all but name – and they have to make their way to Druid’s Keep to retrieve the sword before the evil gnome army. But the gnomes get there first, and Shea (the naming is absolutely terrible in this book), the half-elf half-not-a-hobbit-honestly, is separated from the others and ends up travelling into absolutely-not-Mordor chasing after the titular sword. Meanwhile, the others are involved in defending Tyrsis – which is definitely not Minas Tirith – against a huge army of gnomes and rock trolls… This was the first of the big-selling Tolkien rip-offs, and I can’t honestly see what its appeal is. Did people just want another LotR with the serial numbers filed off? And were they so desperate for it, they’d accept this sub-literate crap? Even now, fantasy fans still recommend this book – and then they do that thing, which is absolutely fucking stupid, of explaining that the first few books are not very good but “it gets a lot better around book four or five”. Seriously, fuck off. I’m not going to read half a dozen shit 700-page novels to reach one which is “better”, especially since as a fan of the series, the person recommending it clearly has no idea what a good book actually is. Books like this should no longer be in print. They do the genre a disservice, they do its readers a disservice.

Settling the World, M John Harrison (2020, UK). Harrison is a writer whose works I admire more than I like. I do indeed like some of Harrison’s novels a great deal, but they’re the more explicitly genre works, and the sort of liminal fantasy he usually writes doesn’t appeal to me all that much. Settling the World is a career retrospective of sorts, so it includes both the stuff I like and the stuff that does little for me. Although all of it, of course, is beautifully written. The early works are those sort of mannered, very English, almost a pastiche of 1940s and 1950s English prose, stories, but twisted through a genre sensibility. Well-written, but there’s little here to stand out. True, there’s a strange imagination at work, which lifts even those sorts of stories above others of the same type. The title story is a case in point – the narrator is a very English agent of some unidentified bureaucratic service, who is tasked with spying on “God’s Highway”, a stretch of alien road that appeared on UK soil after God – a giant insect – was discovered on the far side of the Moon (only in the UK, apparently, which is also typical of this sort of fiction). The final line of the story is not the kicker it may have been when the story was published, but then the story is nearly half a century old. But the title story is not the collection, and what Harrison wrote in the early 1970s is not what he wrote in later decades. And is still writing. As I mentioned before, I find the liminal stuff doesn’t work as well for me, but even in those stories Harrison has a real genius for dropping in snippets of conversation that sound like parts of actual real conversations. And even if the individual story doesn’t seem to quite gel, there’s more than enough good writing to carry the reader through. At a time when publishers seem to want us to read only debuts, we need to support those writers who have had careers lasting several decades. It might sound like heresy, but a new novel by someone whose debut was twenty years ago is likely to be a better novel than someone whose debut novel was last month. We need to support a rich ecosystem of genre writers, so they have careers stretching decades, so they improve, the genre improves, our appreciation and enjoyment improves. Chasing the shiny new is a mug’s game, and just means readers are buying into the publishers’ desperate scramble for quick profit.

Walking to Aldebaran, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2020, UK). Some time around 2028 or 2030, British science fiction will consist only of books published by Adrian Tchaikovsky. But there will still be several hundred such books published each year. I’ve no idea how he manages to write so much. True, Walking to Aldebaran is a novella and, it has to be said, clearly written quickly. I’ve not read much of Tchaikovsky’s fiction, but certainly the other works I’ve read were quite huge novels with much better prose than this. Walking to Aldebaran is narrated by Gary Rendell, an astronaut who was part of a mission to explore an alien object discovered in the Oort Cloud. A team is landed in an opening in the artefact, and it becomes clear it’s some sort of space/time gateway that provides access, via tunnels and corridors and chambers, to an uncountable number of planets scattered throughout the galaxy. The novella is told in alternating chapters, in which Rendell describes how the mission to the artefact, called the Crypts, came together, and his experiences since the mission landed on/in the Crypts. Unfortunately, Walking to Aldebaran reads like someone wandering through a dungeon – the tunnels are apparently made of stone, which makes no sense… until you realise it’s just a dungeon. The final twist – that the narrator has become a dungeon monster themself – really does little to redeem a dungeon-exploration story layered onto a fairly standard Big Dumb Object. This is a series of well-used fantasy RPG tropes given a science-fictional spin, with no real resolution. Expect it to appear on an award shortlist or two next year.


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Reading diary 2021, #2

Something of a first here – some Swedish fiction. Sadly, read in English. But given how bad the appalling translation of The Millennium trilogy was, and the simple prose of Still Waters, I’m tempted to try both series of books in Swedish…

The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley (2017, USA). I was a big fan of Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, but was put off her later works after failing to finish The Mirror Empire. But she continued to get good notices and this, her first novel for the newly-formed Saga imprint – as of 2017 – is explicitly science fiction. And, yes, okay, so the sf novel after this, The Light Brigade, was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year and I had a brainfart one day and saw The Stars are Legion for 99p on Kindle and thought it was the Clarke-nominated novel… The Stars are Legion is set aboard an organic starship the size of a small planet which is part of a large fleet. It’s not clear whether they’re moving, or stopped, or where they’re going. The two protagonists have a plan which will allow them to refurbish an abandoned and dying starship which has the unique ability to leave the fleet. One of the protagonists has lost her memory – deliberately, it seems, in order to safeguard the plan. As with Hurley’s other fiction, this is brutal stuff, with a body count that can probably be measured in five figures, if not more. The world-building with all the organic technology is cleverly done. But the novel really comes into its own when Zan – that’s the one who’s lost her memory – is left for dead and dumped down a tube leading to the starship’s lower levels. She has to climb back up, passing through vast internal spaces, each with their own populations and flora and fauna, in order to reach the surface. The battles and various political machinations I found less interesting. Oh, and the book is entirely populated by women. There isn’t a single male character in it, or in, it is implied, the entire fleet. Even though I bought The Stars are Legion by accident, I enjoyed it and thought it a lot better than I’d expected. I think I’ll stay away from The Mirror Empire and its sequels, but I’m now more keen than before to read The Light Brigade.

The Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson (2005 – 2007, Sweden). I read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (AKA Män som hatar kvinnor) back in 2012, and I’ve seen both the Swedish adaptations of all three books, starring Noomi Rapace, and the Hollywood adaptation of the first by David Fincher, starring Rooney Mara; and even though it may jeopardise my standing in Sweden I actually prefer the Fincher film. But then, that’s part of the problem with this trilogy. The first book is an excellent thriller about the accidental uncovering of a serial killer. But as the two sequels dig into Lisbeth Salander’s past, so the entire thing begins hurdling one shark after another. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander develops an interest in advanced mathematics, as you do, despite never finishing school. After six months of reading, she manages to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem using only the mathematics that had been available to Fermat. FFS. At the end of the book, she is shot in the head and buried alive by her estranged father. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, she is in hospital, recovering from brain surgery to remove the bullet, and the only ill effect seems to be she can no longer remember her proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Sigh. The idea of a secretive department in the Swedish intelligence community which went rogue is interesting, but Salander is such an over-powered and implausible protagonist the novels don’t so much teeter on the edge of suspension of disbelief as joyfully dive into the depths of WTF. It didn’t help that the translations were terrible – I don’t mean I compared the original Swedish text to the English text and found it wanting – but they’re so clumsy and ill-written the translator did an Alan Smithee on them. It wasn’t just the lumpen prose, but also details which made it plain the translator knew very little about Sweden or its society. There was, for example, a mention of Myorna which implied it was a clothing shop, when in fact it’s a chain of charity shops. There were also a number of continuity errors – Lisbeth Salander’s height varied from 4 foot 11 inches to 124 centimetres (!). The tattoo of a wasp on the side of her neck apparently was 25 cm long, which would mean she had a neck like a giraffe. The books use Fröken throughout for Miss, but the word is pretty old-fashioned and rarely used these days. Every single red wine in all three novels is described as “robust”. Most of the frobt doors in the books open inwards, when here the reverse is true. The novels also do that thing where people entering a country have their luggage searched, which has not been in common in Europe since the 1980s (Sweden joined the EU in 1995 and the Schengen Area in 2001; the books were published 2004 – 2006, but had been written over a ten-year prior to that.). I’m reliably informed the original Swedish version are much better, but if I’m not really convinced by the story I don’t think better prose is going to make me like or admire this trilogy.

XX: A Novel, Graphic, Rian Hughes (2020, UK). I bought this mistakenly thinking it was a graphic novel, and remembering Hughes’s name from the excellent Dare from 1990, which, yes, was thirty years ago (and yes, I have a copy) and was probably not a good reason to shell out for a first edition hardback but it looked interesting… And it was not what I expected at all, it’s an actual prose novel, but it’s also really good. Jodrell Bank receives a “Signal from Space”, and after some investigation discovers it is the DNA of billions of aliens, of millions of alien races, encoded. Meanwhile, an alien spacecraft has crashed into the Moon, and the astronaut sent to investigate finds a (barely) live alien, which dumps its memories into her brain. Back on Earth, an AI start-up, whose lead programmer (of a team of two) seems to have implausibly built half the computer systems mentioned in the novel, gets involved and discovers a way to a) create AIs from memes, which represent the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries (the 20th Century one is called XX, as in the novel’s title, which, given the story, seems a strange choice of title), and b) thoroughly explore the “Grid”, which is a virtual representation of the aliens in the Signal from Space, including digging through its layers to uncover its history, and so the history of the universe. It all gets a bit cosmological, and the hacker character’s skills and experience are hardly plausible… Not to mention that the story is basically resolved through his genius and the implanted alien memories in the astronaut’s head… But I did enjoy the ride. There’s lots of typographical tricks used throughout the novel, as well as a number of “found documents”, including a mock-up of a serialised novel from an invented Golden Age sf magazine… which reminds me of a book by someone or other that did something similar… Recommended.

Exile’s End, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2020, USA). I’m a big fan of Gilman’s fiction. Her Isles of the Forsaken duology is a superior fantasy, but she has also spent a lot of time exploring her “Twenty Planets” universe – in two novels, two novellas, and several short stories. And now three novellas. A member of a believed-to-be-extinct race, the Atoka, turns up to a museum 700 years after the race were reputedly wiped out. This person wants to reclaim some of the museum’s Atoka artefacts. A small community managed to escape and survive on a distant world, and they want what belongs to them. Unfortunately, there are, as far as the museum is concerned, two problems. First, the main artefact, a painting of a young woman, has been adopted by the museum planet’s people and is central to their history of settling the planet. Second, the Atoka would periodically destroy all their possessions, and start again from scratch. It’s an argument perhaps more topical than it would have been, say, twenty years ago. While there have been repeated calls for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece for several decades, for example, it’s only in the last couple of years that historical statues have been toppled by members of the general public who find them, and what they represent, offensive. The artefacts of Exile’s End are closer to the Elgin Marbles than Edward Colston’s statue, but they are all symbols of imperialism and colonialism. Gilman stacks the decks by making it plain the Atoka remnants will destroy the painting, thus manufacturing opposition to giving it back. But Gilman works through her argument carefully and clearly, and provides sufficient grounding for the position of the Atoka. Unfortunately, the Twenty Planets have only STL travel between worlds, meaning interstellar journeys separate origin and destination by decades. Which means there is a weird break in chronology in the novella, as its resolution takes place so many years later than its opening. The end is… fitting, but I do wonder if the story really needed it, and could have ended before everything arrived at the Atoka’s current home. Still, I would not be unhappy to see this on a few award shortlists next year. Gilman is under-appreciated. The novella can also be read for free here on tor.com.

Still Waters, Viveca Sten (2008, Sweden). I watched the TV adaptation of this – called Morden i Sandhamn – and bought my mother the book for Christmas, and then spotted the ebook was only 99p so I decided to give it a go myself. I couldn’t actually remember the plot of the TV episode based on this novel, although bits of it seemed familiar. But then about halfway in, I suddenly remembered who the murderer was. Oh well. But I’m fairly sure there’s an entire subplot that never made it into the TV adaptation. Sandhamn is the only village on the island of Sandön, which means “the sand island”, because it’s known for being sandy rather than rocky, as all the other islands in the Stockholm archipelago are. Thomas Andreasson is from Sandhamn, but currently works for the Stockholm police in Nacka. When a body washes ashore at Sandhamn, and the victim has no connection to the village or island, it’s initially thought to be an accident. But then the victim’s only living relative, his cousin, is murdered, and it’s starting to look like something strange is going on… The book pushes one theory of the crimes for much of its length, before more or less stumbling over the real motive, and murderer. The prose is basic at best, and I wonder how much of that is down to the translation. Annoyingly, everything has been translated from metric to Imperial (for the US market, obviously). It made for an entertaining piece of television but felt a bit slow for a novel of 448 pages. There are currently ten books in the series. If the Swedish prose is as simple as the English prose, I’m tempted to try one in its original language…

On, Adam Roberts (2001, UK). This was Roberts’s second novel, and it’s now twenty years old, which I suppose explains some aspects of it – but I really could not understand what this novel was supposed to be about or how it was meant to explore its central premise. Tighe lives on the worldwall, a seemingly infinitely tall vertical surface, on which humanity ekes out a precarious existence on “shelves” and “ledges” and “crags”. Tighe’s village lives in abject poverty. And yet there are marginally more prosperous towns nearby, one of which charges a toll to climb the ladder to reach it. Tighe’s father is prince of the village, although this title is apparently meaningless, and his grandfather is the head priest. Tighe’s parents disappear, and he is taken in by his grandfather but soon realises the man is petty and venal (as if religious leaders are never that…), and after various arguments and such, Tighe… falls off the village ledge. This is usually a death sentence. However, several miles below, Tighe lands on a partially deflated balloon belonging to a small empire occupying several ledges. Tighe is badly injured but recovers, and is pressganged as a kite-pilot in the imperial army. The empire invades a neighbouring state, which apparently guards a door through the worldwall. The invasion goes badly, the empire is defeated, and Tighe is captured and made a slave. He is purchased by a man who takes him further east, a man who repeatedly rapes one of his female slaves, and kills and eats another of his male slaves. Tighe is rescued by a mysterious man in a silver flying craft – centuries more technologically advanced than the people on the worldwall – who explains the world to him – which has been pretty obvious for more than two-thirds of the book – and plans to use Tighe, through the machinery implanted in Tighe’s brain, to return the world to its former state. It’s all complete nonsense. Roberts provides appendices explaining the set-up, but they’re so dull it’s hard to believe he expected anyone to either read them or believe them. There’s no justification for the poverty and cruelty endemic on the worldwall, and certainly none for the cannibalism and casual rape. The door through the worldwall, and the occasional theological discussions, are complete red herrings. The invasion achieves nothing except subject Tighe to jeopardy and deprivation. I’ve always found Roberts’s novels a bit hit and miss, but the general consensus on this one seems to be it’s a substantial miss. It tells a pointless story set in a horrible world, and shows all the amoral disregard for cruelty and violence of the worst grimdark.


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Reading diary 2021, #1

In 2020, I read 105 books by 75 authors. Seventeen of them were rereads. Forty-five percent were science fiction, thirteen percent were fantasy, and nine percent were mainstream. Just over half (52%) were by male writers and 38% by women writers. The remainder were either non-fiction, graphic novels or had more than one author. I apparently didn’t read any anthologies. The authors were from the UK, US, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, France, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, Russia and Sweden.

Some of the books below I finished last year. Some of them I read this year. Usually, during the Christmas holiday I read a book a day but, thanks to the pandemic, I spent Christmas on my own and didn’t feel much like picking up a book. It wasn’t until the second week of January, which I’d booked as holiday, that I started reading again… and I managed six books over ten days… And I seem to be maintaining that reading pace.

London Rules, Mick Herron (2018, UK). The fifth book of the Herron’s soon-to-be-televised Slough House / Jackson Lamb series, and it’s more of the same – offensive incompetents who manage to out-perform the best of MI5, chiefly, we are supposed to believe, because Lamb’s leadership is not hamstrung by all the politicking that goes on among the organisation’s upper echelons. A series of weirdly ineffective terrorist attacks persuade the Slow Horses that some unknown actor is following a playbook put together by the British government in the 1920s to destabilise nations which either threaten the British Empire or need a little persuading in order to “join” the British Empire. The whole thing is intended to embarrass HMG, but, of course, the current shower of shits in charge of the UK have proven HMG is immune to embarrassment – and indeed that neither blatant corruption nor outright lying to the public is unacceptable, never mind  indirectly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, through their policies before and the pandemic now. Herron’s thinly-disguised caricatures of UK political figures are more annoying than amusing. It all seems very middle-class – the nudge-nudge-wink-wink offensiveness, the cynical acceptance of injustice, the commentary-free amorality… Still, only one more to go.

The Kon-Tiki Quartet 4: Iterations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2020, UK). The final novella and the story comes full circle, in a number of ways. Earth has sent a ship containing copies of the personalities of the scientists who worked on the project to colonise an exoplanet . They’re decanted into bodies created by “somatic printers” on arrival. The protagonist discovers that the local fauna produce a substance which, when processed, allows humans to read each other minds. This is liable to change human society on the exoplanet. Unfortunately, a group of militant eco-terrorists have infiltrated the colony and attempt to seize control. Their coup fails, but another set of copies of them heads back to Earth, which has suffered climate crash. This fourth book starts as the bad guys and good guys arrive in orbit about Earth. Both descend to the surface, to Norfolk, where the original starship was launched 200 years previously. In the two centuries since launch, Earth has regressed, with people barely capable of speech enslaved by “Long People”, who prove to be the original eco-terrorists who have stretched their lifetimes by printing new bodies for themselves when the old ones run down. But the printers too are running down, and each new generation of printed body suffers from “transcription errors”. This is solid science fiction of a sort that’s been around since the 1970s. The villains are perhaps a bit pantomime, but it makes a nice change that the protagonists are just plain ordinary and it’s not the universe at stake.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – The Martian Menace, Eric Brown (2020, UK). Apparently, there are several of these The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes novels published by Titan Books. I’m not a Holmes fan, but Eric is a friend of many, many years and I do like his books. The Martian Menace is an expansion of a novella, The Martian Simulacra, published back in 2018 by NewCon Press. In that novella, a mashup of Doyle and Wells, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are flown to Mars to solve the murder of an important Martian philosopher. But it’s all a ruse, as the Martians are replacing important individuals (only the British ones are named, of course, as this is Edwardian fiction; much like in US genre fiction) and replacing them with robots indistinguishable from the originals. But Holmes and Watson escape this fate with the help of an enterprising young woman from the resistance (comprised of humans wise to the Martians’ plans and the Martian enemies of those Martians who have been welcomed on Earth). The Martian Menace takes this story, and then does something very clever with it. Dragging Moriarty into the story is perhaps a no-brainer. Brown positions Moriarty as the architect of the Martians’ plot, but only by creating a multitude of simulacra of him… and it is the fate of the original Moriarty which proves to be the driver behind the plot of the novel and the enabler of its resolution. Reading this novel was an odd experience. It was as if the novella were two-dimensional, and the novel suddenly added a third dimension. Perhaps read from fresh, without knowledge of the novella, The Martian Menace would read as an inventive take on Sherlock Holmes meets Wells’ Martians. But having, read the novella, the novel went from the familiar to a quite unexpected place. I enjoyed it more than I expected.

The Stone Sky, NK Jemisin (2017, USA). The final novel in the Broken Earth trilogy, each book of which won the Hugo Award for best novel in three successive years. The first, The Fifth Season, was a worthy winner, but I’m not so convinced books two and three were. To be fair, neither 2017 nor 2018 had particularly good shortlists. There were perhaps a couple of books more deserving on the 2018 shortlist, but the 2017 one was pretty awful. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. The Broken Earth trilogy is a good trilogy, and while the second book, The Obelisk Gate, does the usual treading water thing, The Stone Sky is very much a conclusion, and actually takes the story in a direction not hinted at in earlier volumes. It also deliberately positions itself as far-future science fiction, while still presenting its ideas as fantasy tropes. In hindsight, I suspect the trilogy is a good candidate as a future genre classic. It does interesting things with narrative in the first book, the worldbuilding is excellent, it makes a series of important points about race and slavery, and it manages to build up to a big, if not entirely plausible, idea that provides a fitting capstone. Essun, and her daughter Nassun, both powerful orogenes who can control the obelisks, make their way independently to Corepoint, a research station/city in the middle of the ocean on the other side of the planet to the Stillness. Both have the same aim – stopping the cycle of seasons (by returning the Moon to its orbit) – although at the prompting of different factions of stone eaters. A narrative thread set in the past reveals the origin of both the obelisks and the stone eaters. It’s all fascinating stuff, and if the villain of the piece, as revealed in the final chapters, takes a bit of swallowing, there’s no denying Jemisin’s ambition. And, to be fair, she nails it. I still don’t think all three books deserved to win a Hugo, but I do think the trilogy belongs in the “canon” of great sf works.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson (1962, USA). A US classic, I’m told, but other than the title, I knew nothing about it. A copy popped up for 99p on Kindle, so I thought it worth a go. The novel opens with the sort of declarative introduction used by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, a US literary technique, I think – in which the novel’s narrator reveals she is eighteen, has a somewhat warped view of the world, is despised by the inhabitants of the village in which she lives, and resides alone with her older sister in a large house on the outskirts. It’s gradually disclosed the family were poisoned some years previously, and the older of the two women was charged but then acquitted. A male cousin comes to visit, and gradually takes over the women’s lives, incurring the resentment of the younger. And eventually changing their situation profoundly, although perhaps not in the way he wanted. Is it a classic? I’m not sure… The central twist is obvious a handful pf pages in, and doesn’t really add much to the narrative. The narrator’s worldview is… individual. But the book still feels it belongs on a straight line from Catcher in the Rye, and Salinger’s novel is not a book I hold in high regard. I suspect it’s a novel I simply don’t have the cultural baggage to fully appreciate – which is something a lot of US critics and commentators should acknowledge, particularly in genre, as they seem to think the entire planet shares their worldview, sensibilities and culture. I may share a language with US citizens, but that’s all I share.

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951, UK). This is one of those books  where one element of the story has entered public consciousness and actually drowned out the actual, well, story of the book. So everyone knows about the triffids, ambulatory plants which can kill by means of a whip-like stinger. Most people who haven’t read the book probably assume the triffids are alien, but the book actually suggests they were created in a Soviet laboratory. I’ve seen a couple of adaptations of the novel, and I had still forgotten that the entire plot, and menace of the triffids, is predicated on a global outbreak of blindness, caused by lights in the night sky (conveniently forgetting that half the planet would not be in darkness), initially blamed on a comet, but later implied it might have a human technological cause. The protagonist is not blinded because he was in hospital with his eyes bandaged, and the story is basically his survival story, along with the other few who were not blinded, and the various factions the sighted people have separated into. And all the while avoiding the triffids. I did at first wonder why the two things – blindness and triffids – when one or the other on their own would have provided sufficient drama. But the triffids are too easy to avoid by sighted people, and blindness alone wasn’t enough to cause human civilisation to collapse in such a short time-frame. The Day of the Triffids is definitely a book of its time – not just the sexism, but the comfortable middle-classness (so much so, one character in the book can “translate” from working-class to middle-class; this is, I hasten to add, British class, not American, and the two are not the same), and the relative ease with which the survivors manage to build sustainable communities. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it condemnation of fascism, but this novel, like many of Wyndham’s novels, is a pretty good example of a “comfortable catastrophe”.  I enjoyed it, but it was a much lighter read than I’d expected, and it’s certainly a well-known historical sf novel… but one for those eager to explore the history of the genre, including those novels some would have you believe are not genre…


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2020 – the best of the year

And what a year it’s been.

I refer, of course, to the pandemic. And Brexit. And Trump.

Admittedly, the last didn’t impact me at all. And I was sensible enough to flee the UK before Brexit.

Then there’s Covid… When you look at the low number of deaths in Asian nations, it’s clear no Western nation has handled the pandemic well. While Covid has been the most documented pandemic in history, it’s also been the most politicised. The latter is never going to result in intelligent or useful commentary, especially during a time when so many Western nations are led by populist governments and the press actively lies and misinforms in order to serve its owners’ agendas.

But enough about Covid. I’m profoundly glad I didn’t have to experience it in the UK, but I have many relatives and friends there, so there’s scant relief in that. I deliberately fled the UK because of Brexit, and I do not for one single fucking minute regret that decision. BoJo’s mishandling of Brexit – an appalling decision, in the first place – has made my situation confusing at best, and difficult at worst. Don’t forget: Brexit hasn’t just affected everyone in the UK, but also every UK citizen currently resident, or who owns property, in EU member states. Not to mention all those who operate businesses across what is now the UK-EU border. It is a criminal enterprise, and everyone associated with it belongs in prison. There is no outcome which is better than remaining a member of the EU. And if you believe otherwise, then you are a fucking idiot.

But let’s not talk about 2020… Except, well, this post is all about 2020. Specifically, the books, films and music I enjoyed most during the year. I usually do two of these a year: one in June (see here) and one in December or January. Because, well, things change. Although perhaps not that much. The numbers in square brackets below are that item’s position in my June best of the half-year.

books
1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK) [1]. Moore has spent a lot of time exploring the history of UK comics, and not just in this property, which originally set out to explore early fictional heroes. But here the commentary on UK comic history is explicit, and even though married with the Shakespeare play of the title, it still hangs impressively together and provides a coherent commentary and story. I find Moore a bit hit and miss, although I don’t doubt he’s the smartest writer currently working in comics. This book is the best he’s done for a long time. One day, I must read his prose novels. I’m told they’re difficult…

2 Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK) [-]. I stumbled across Thorpe’s debut, Ulverton, by accident several years ago and was impressed. I put him down as a name to look out for when I was browsing charity shops. And subsequently read a couple of books by him. But it wasn’t until reading Still I realised how singular a talent he is. The book is framed as a spoken narrative by a second-tier British film director, who nonetheless is present for many of the great cinematic moments of the twentieth century, or at least knows the names involved. It’s an impressively sustained narrative, and a clear indication that although Thorpe is not a popular writer he has a voice that will continue to impress in decades to come.

3 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK) [2]. Gwyneth Jones is a favourite writer. Joanna Russ is a favourite writer. This is almost a dream pairing. I know Jones is a sharp critic, I’ve read her criticism. But I was not so sure how she would approach Russ’s fiction. Happily, I need not have worried. Jones’s treatment of Russ’s career is factual and sympathetic. And extremely informative. Jones discusses Russ’s stories in relation to her life and career and the general shifts in science fiction occurring at the time. True, her essay on Russ in Imagination/Space does a better job on The Two of Them than this book does, but Joanna Russ is more of a career overview. Good stuff. Especially for fans of Russ.

4 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2017, Israel) [3]. Tidhar either writes alternative histories of the Jewish people, often involving Hitler, or sometimes only involving Hitler, or novels about superpowers made manifest in actual recent history. And sometimes he writes other types of science fiction. In Unholy Land, the Jews were offered land in central Africa after WWI, and accepted it. They called their country Palestina. A Jewish pulp writer based in Berlin returns to Palestina, and as he explores the country’s capital, and his past, so the history of Palestina, and the story itself, begin to unravel. It’s territory Tidhar has explored before – I’m pretty sure there’s an early short story buried in part of this novel – but Unholy Land is a much more effective treatment. His best yet.

5 The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK) [-]. North’s novel may sometimes wander a bit, but she shows an impressive degree of rigour in the treatment of her ideas and clearly puts a great deal of effort into her research. It pays off. Abbey is being chased by a shadow, after failing to save the life of a boy in late 19th-century Natal, and that shadow means he can now hear the truth in what people say. Unless the shadow catches him, in which case someone he loves dies. The British Empire have learnt to make use of people like Abbey, and he is co-opted into the Great Game. The premise is pure fantasy, but it’s treated like science fiction. North does an excellent job on its ramifications, and if the book tends to melodrama in places, it’s also an intelligent commentary on colonialism and imperialism.

Honourable mentions: Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK) [5], set in a post-climate change UK where migrants and refugees are indentured labour, it’s technology-driven but smells uncannily like recent political changes; All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA), excellent collection by a writer I’ve admired for many years, who sadly died in 2019; Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia), Regency fantasy that makes a good fist of its setting but perhaps leaves a few too many bits of the plot unexplained; Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK), women-only island retreat keeps one of the Greek fates in check, and so allows men the freedom to be themselves, but then the retreat is destroyed, resulting in a somewhat off-centre literary fantasy; Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados), Senegalese-inspired fantasy that may not be hugely original but has bags of charm; The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK), third instalment in an urban fantasy series, and probably the best yet; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), third and sadly final episode in the adventures of the Athena Club, a group of female Victorian fictional characters, and I like the fact the books are explicitly framed as the written-up adventures of the club, including commentary on the narrative by the characters.

films
1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK) [1]. It probably says something about the sort of year 2020 has been that my pick for best film is 79 minutes of a single unchanging shot of International Klein Blue accompanied by a voiceover by Nigel Terry. But I could listen to Terry’s voice for hours. And Blue is such a perfect endpoint to Jarman’s remarkable career, an encapsulation of the life of a man who was more than just a film-maker, whose art defined an aesthetic and possibly a country’s cinema (more so than Richard fucking Curtis does). The BFI have released two Blu-ray collections containing all of Jarman’s movies. I urge you to buy both box sets. He made some remarkable films and they’re worth watching.

2 Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China) [-]. Although this film is not unlike those made by Sixth Generation directors, as far as I know Bi does not belong to that group. Yet Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks – a simple and yet very personal story, told in a a very stripped-back way. The centre of the film is a 41-minute single take, which is not only a remarkable piece of film-making, but also makes extensive use of the stunning Chinese geography in the area. It is a less overtly political film than those made by most Sixth Generation directors, but its commentary remains effective all the same. A man tries to discover the fate of his nephew, and ends up in a village where past, present and future co-exist. But not in an obvious way. A beautiful-looking film.

3 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon) [2]. A young Lebanese boy sues his parents for having him, which is merely the entry to a story of child brides, indentured labour, refugee abuse, and Western imperialism. Everything in Capernaum is true, everything in Capernaum is the consequence of the foreign policies of centre-right and right-wing Western nations, everything in Capernaum should be condemned by anyone with an ounce of humanity. I was surprised I’d not heard of this film, and I’m familiar with Labaki’s previous movies, but given its subject perhaps that’s not so surprising. Capitalism does not work, the current world order is broken. We need more films about its victims. Capernaum is a beautifully-made and important film.

4 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia) [-]. If Capernaum suggests that things might change for the better, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith demonstrates they won’t. It’s a heart-breaking movie, set in late nineteenth-century Australia. Which is probably all that needs to be said. Australia’s history of race relations, especially with its indigenous people, has been far from exemplary. Jimmie Blacksmith, who is half-Aboriginal, accidentally kills a white woman after his white wife is persuaded to leave him, and subsequently goes on the run. The film show cases both Australia’s landscape and its systemic racism. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be set at the turn of the twentieth century, but more than 100 years later it often seems little has improved.

5 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA) [4]. I loved Twin Peaks. It started out as a perfect pastiche of US daytime soap operas, before heading off into some very strange territory – which was not entirely unexpected, as I’d followed David Lynch’s career for several years. For all that, the last thing I thought the series needed was a third season, especially one made 27 years after the last season. But… it not only worked, it was brilliant. It recapitulated the strangeness of the original, it advanced the plot, it remained just as fucking strange. It also looked gorgeous. It didn’t answer any of the questions left over from the  original two seasons, but it was clearly never intended to. It was, as the UK branding makes abundantly clear, a “limited event”. I think this may be a good strategy for TV series.

Honourable mentions: Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Run Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia), amusing comedy in which a man supplements his income by posing as a waiter in various restaurants and taking diners’ money, and gets so good at he becomes a folk hero; Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden), dramatic treatment of a Sami teenage girl turning her back on her culture, and encountering prejudice and racism as she tries to fit into 1930s mainstream Swedish society; Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland), a man goes to stay with an ex-boyfriend who is holed up in a secluded cabin, but someone has been prowling around the cabin, and then things start to get really strange; Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA), classic Hollywood melodrama of the period, with a razor-sharp script. Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK), extremely low-budget UK film, set in Selby, about a woman who shows promise as a comedian; The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran), beautifully-shot documentary about the Baha’i religion, especially in regards to a man who tends a Baha’i garden in Israel.

television
I’ve been doing a lot of box-set bingeing this year, so I decided to introduce this category. And, to be fair, the music category has been somewhat moribund these last few years.

Two of the series I watched this year were structured around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. If it takes nigh on 100 years to comment on these horrible events in our popular culture, then perhaps we need to look again at our popular culture. Drama series about the Windrush scandal are not going to cut it in 2115. Get that shit out now, put it in front of as many people as possible, show them that the Tories are Nazis. Fascists shouldn’t have to storm the Capitol for people to take notice, especially when the evidence is there all along.

But, I digress. Or rant. One or the other. TV is a a more immediate medium than books or films. I suspect it’s also a more demotic medium than cinema or books, and so punches above its weight. It’s a medium that’s interrupted by what’s allegedly called news. Not if you box-set binge or stream, of course. But even so, we’re still at the point where a significant portion of the electorate have trouble accepting anything beyond the terrestrial channels… Which might not be so bad if the terrestrial channels had remained true to their charters, but they plainly have not.

1 Watchmen (2019, USA). I am perhaps in a minority in thinking the ending to the movie adaptation of Watchmen superior to the original comic book ending. And Watchmen, the TV series, was written by Damon Lindelof, best-known for Lost – which, when it wasn’t doing “backstory of the week” wasn’t all that bad, although it clearly wasn’t planned – and Prometheus, which is an appalling piece of writing. And yet, Watchmen is… seriously clever, both fitting within the world built by Moore and Gibbons and also extending it. Watchmen starts with police officers hiding their identities in order to protect themselves from Neo-nazi militias and then folds that into the universe of the graphic novel – which had much to say about fascist violence – before eventually dragging it back, as all things Watchmen-related must do, to Dr Manhattan. Smart television.

2 Lovecraft Country (2020, USA). I’d heard good things about this, but it didn’t sound like it would appeal as I’m not a fan of horror and, let’s face it, Lovecraft was a horrible fucking racist so it would take some fancy footwork to re-imagine him for a twenty-first century audience. Happily, Lovecraft Country sidesteps that problem by only referencing Lovecraft obliquely and – more controversially, for US TV at least – by basing it on black history. The end result is a mini-series that feels complete after two episodes, but still manages to keep the plot going for a further eight episodes. Nigerian/British actress Wunmi Mosaku stands out as Ruby Baptiste, and not just because her character comes across as the most rounded of them all. I didn’t expect to like Lovecraft Country, but I thought it excellent.

3 His Dark Materials (2019 – 2020, UK). An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which I read back in the 1990s – and the first book was adapted for the cinema back in 2007, but no sequels appeared after underwhelming US box office performance and public criticism of the movie from the Catholic Church… But I had fond memories of the books, and occasional rumours of adaptations kept me hopeful we’d see it gain eventually on big or small screen. This British TV adaptation, however, has proven really good – despite not having a $180 million budget – and the second season, which aired this year, is even better than the first.

4 Morden i Sandhamn (2010 – 2020, Sweden) This is a police drama set in a small village in the Stockholm archipelago, about 60 km east of the city centre. It’s all a bit chocolate-box, which is what I call TV designed to showcase the appeal of places, even if the stories involve murder. They are… comfortable. Sufficiently fictional not to upset prospective tourists who like the look of what they see. Like Midsomer Murders, which features murder but nothing so upsetting as brown people. Morden i Sandhamn wins hands-down on the scenery front, and it did have a tendency to reach for cliché at moments of high drama. But it had a likeable cast – that were not exemplary, it must be said – and it took some effort over its plots.

5 Murder Call (1997 – 2000, Australia). A police drama set in Sydney. It is… extraordinarily ordinary. If that makes sense. Its gimmick is that its chief detective, Tessa Vance, would subconsciously solve the case three-quarters of the way into the episode’s 45-minute slot. While the crimes the homicide squad investigated ranged from the banal to the bizarre, it was Vance’s epiphany that pretty much defined each episode. I’ve always had a soft spot for female detectives – my favourite crime writers are Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton – and I’ve always much preferred police procedural TV series which feature female leads. Murder Call was very much a product of its time, but I quite liked the fact it made its central premise seem entirely reasonable and plausible.

Honourable mentions: Star Trek: Picard (2020, USA), Patrick Stewart is dragged out of dotage for one last mission, and it’s probably the smartest bit of writing set in the Star Trek universe ever put on screen; Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013, USA), the eleventh incarnation of the series, but the smartest yet, filled with clever references and in-jokes, including spoofs of David Lynch’s work: Beck (1997 – 2018, Sweden), definitive Swedish cop show, entertaining to see how it changed – and the genre changed – over a decade; The Mandalorian (2019 – 2020, USA), Star Wars fanfic TV series, never very convincing but it did have its moments; For All Mankind (2019, USA), alternate Space Race which, unsurprisingly, reminded me a great deal of a quartet of novellas by someone or other…


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Reading diary 2020, #15

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot recently, and then I look at a list of what I’ve read recently and it doesn’t seem like very many books at all. There are some I’ve read which I don’t bother writing about, typically Heyer rereads, but during these dark Scandinavian winters I’d expected to be reading more than I am. Oh well.

Speaking of Heyer… I’m a little embarrassed at my choice of comfort reading. I find the books fun, but there’s so much wrong with them. The whole thing about “Quality”- which they really aren’t – being better than everyone else and not subject to the laws of the land to the same degree, and their marrying only in the same sector of society, which is why we have royalty with six fingers on each hand who drool all the time, not to mention the current UK government, who can’t muster a single working brain cell between the lot of them. Heyer is not political, but the society she depicts, and appears to promote, is vile. The women are always young, and the men a decade or more older. The plots are entertaining, and I won’t deny they’re reasonably accurate in their historical depictions, nor indeed that stories set among common folk would never fit the plots she devises – but we are better people than this and it feels like I’ve abandoned my principles a little because I read and enjoy these books.

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler (1939, USA). I’m not sure if I’ve read this book before. I know I’ve seen the film several times. Which meant some details were familiar but some weren’t and I couldn’t work out if I remembered them from the movie. The Big Sleep is Chandler’s first novel and its plot is as convoluted as any of the later ones, if not more so. Marlowe is hired to investigate a blackmail demand received by a wealthy retired general, but there proves to be more to the case. The general’s youngest daughter has been photographed nude, and the husband of the older daughter disappeared some weeks before and the general is keen to learn his whereabouts. The relationship between Marlowe and the older daughter generates sparks in the novel, but apparently Bogart and Bacall were much more so during the film shoot so they recut the movie to forefront their relationship at the expense of the plot. There are apparently two cuts of the film, one more faithful to the book, the other more of a Bogart-Bacall star vehicle. I’ve no idea which I’ve seen, the latter I suspect. The book at least has the canonical plot, and while it’s not Chandler’s best, it does demonstrate his style was pretty much fully formed from the start. It does not read like a novel written by someone finding their way.

Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK). This is the fourth book by Thorpe I’ve read, and I’ve decided he’s possibly a great unacclaimed, and perhaps even collectable, writer. He has received some acclaim, but I’m pretty sure he’s much better than a great many writers who have been more lauded. But this is not unusual. Thorpe’s first novel, Ulverton, is remarkable, a gallop through the history of the eponymous village in numerous impressively-rendered voices. His short story collection, Shifts, I found more impressive in the variety of its voices than its stories. Hodd was a fascinating and clever take on the Robin Hood legend. And then we come to Still. Which is his second novel. (The bibliography on Wikpedia is a mess, as usual, giving his US publisher when he’s British and was first published in the UK… as usual). Still is an impressive achievement, a verbal narrative by a film director, a not entirely successful or famous one,  which maintains its voice for all 320 of its pages. Richard Thornby knows all the greats in mid-twentieth century Hollywood, and witnessed a great many of its events. The entire novel is told as if Thornby is doing a podcast, or something, about his career, which makes the title a joke on the book’s contents. It’s pretty clear from what I’ve read so far that Thorpe’s strength is his ability to do voices, but he is so much better at it than most other contemporary writers I can name. For me, voice is an important element of prose, tied in with rigour and verisimilitude, that lifts one work of fiction above another. Thorpe’s books are difficult reads and I’ve been slow to appreciate precisely how good he is, but my appreciation of his works has definitely increased in the last few years.

World Engines: Creator, Stephen Baxter (2020, UK). The sequel to, of course, World Engines: Destroyer. Baxter, I’ve found, is good at starting series, but not so good at continuing them. And this duology suffers from the same problem. Having said that, the first book did feel like an off-cut from another project… Reid Malenfant, or rather, a Reid Malenfant, is defrosted in the twenty-third century after an unexpected SOS from his ex-wife sent from Phobos. Except she vanished centuries before. It turns out Phobos is some sort of portal to alternate universes. Malenfant and crew meet up with a spaceship from a triumphant British Empire – it’s not all ripe gammon, however, as Baxter does indeed critique colonialism, although it’s a very middle-class English take – and, anyway, they bounce through several universes, puzzle out the secret of the portal and… it’s a bit, well, weak. Baxter, as usual, fluffs the dismount. The final third of World Engines: Creator is pretty much entirely exposition, and it doesn’t really tally up with the preceding plot. There are plenty of good ideas in here, more than most sf writers can manage in an entire career, but Baxter fluffs half of them, and pulls his trilogy back into a duology with an info-dump. Having said all that, this is Baxter as Baxter does – if you know, and like, his work, you’ll get exactly what you expect; if you’re looking for a more rounded exploration of the ideas its presents, this is not the author for you.

Son of Man, Robert Silverberg (1971, USA). I fancied reading something old school, saw this mentioned somewhere and it sounded intriguing, and it was very cheap. I wish I’d never bothered. A man contemporary to the time of writing wake sup in the far future, and has various encounters – most of which are sexual, although, to be fair, there is a lot of genderfluidity – with denizens of that age and earlier. The Time Machine this is not. In parts, it reads like a writing exercise, Silverberg using his thesaurus with a vengeance, albeit not abusing it as Fanthorpe did; but, all the same, it’s still a novel desperately in search of a story. I can’t decide if the book reads like a novel written to fulfil a contract or a book written as an experiment in style and content. The fact it fails so dismally on the latter suggests the former, but then it was published in 1971, so perhaps it was intended as a literary experiment. Still, no matter how you look at it, Son of Man is an historical document that’s best forgotten. Much as I admire SF Gateway for making older works of science fiction available, there are some that are perhaps better not re-issued, and this would be one of them.

The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK). This is the third book in a series which hadn’t been planned. The first book, The Green Man’s Heir, was, I believe, a one-off, but proved so successful McKenna dug out an old project and rewrote it to provide a sequel, The Green Man’s Foe. Which did equally well. And with good reason. These are fun, well-crafted urban fantasy novels, more Mythago Wood than fang-banger, which is a decided advantage. In this novel, written from scratch as part of the series – and I’m not alone in hoping there are more – has narrator Dan Mackmain, son of a dryad, in the Fens, preventing a nasty piece of work from using John Dee’s crystal ball, as used by Edward Kelley, for nefarious – and, it has to be said, petty – purposes, which unfortunately are having an adverse effect on the various folklore creatures of the Fens. So not only do we have local English mythology, and Mackmain’s life as revealed in earlier instalments, but also John Dee and his alchemy. It’s a clever mix, and it works extremely well. I thought this a much better book than the preceding volume, and its combination of modern life, English folklore and Elizabethan occultism worked perfectly. Given The Green Man’s Foe was nominated for awards, then this one deserves to win them.


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Reading diary 2020, #14

There has been an entirely predictable second wave here in Uppsala. It wasn’t predictable simply because the rest of Europe is suffering a second wave, but predictable because Uppsala is a ghost town during the summer and now all the students are back. The same has happened to university cities in the UK. The majority of the new cases reported here by the Akademiska Sjukhus have been students. As a result, slightly tighter restrictions have been imposed, which means my employers have closed the office and I’m once again working from home. And it looks like that might now be until the New Year, given a recent ban by the government – and this is an actual law, not advice from Folkhälsomyndigheten (people’s health authority) – of public gatherings of more than eight people.

Personally, I prefer working in an office. It creates a better separation of work and, well, not-work. Which, understandably, means that that when I work from home, not-work suffers. Such as writing blog posts. I spend all day on the sofa doing database things, so once I sign off from the company VPN I prefer to do stuff that doesn’t require creativity – in other words, reading, or watching films. Also, spending all day on the sofa is not good for my back.

But on with the relatively recent reads…

The Dollmaker, Nina Allan (2019, UK). Of the handful of genre writers to gain attention in the UK in the past decade, Nina Allan is certainly one of the better ones. At a prose level, she’s an excellent writer, but I’ve never been quite convinced by the way she puts her stories together. They’re very clever, and they make smart use of genre conventions while, at the same time, exploring or even subverting those same conventions. But, to my mind, at times, it all feels a bit forced. Allan’s writing is driven by effect, rather than allowing effect to be a consequence of story. Which is not to say it doesn’t result in a good read. But when the two finally align, Allan will produce something really notable. For the time-being, we have only the merely good. The Dollmaker is less overtly genre than other Allan works, if not explicitly not genre. The title refers to a man of short stature who is an expert on dolls and makes them for a living. He is corresponding with a fellow doll collector currently resident in sanatorium on Bodmin Moor. He decides to visit her unannounced, despite not being entirely sure about her situation. She sends him a short story collection by a Polish writer and doll-maker she has been researching. He reads the collection as he travels south, and the stories he reads are reproduced in The Dollmaker. Which is, I think, where The Dollmaker begins to unravel. Two of the writer’s stories were previously published by Allan (in 2010 and 2012), which explicitly means there’s little or no literary ventriloquism happening here. And I think there needs to be when a writer is as centred as this one in a novel.

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). This volume includes ‘Like a Sniper Lining Up his Shot’ and ‘Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell’, both of which I already own as Fantagraphics graphic novels, so I’m somewhat mystified by the need for this book. True, they’re excellent stories… but they’d already been published. Equally annoying, Fantagraphics have now released both Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder volumes in a boxed set. So, Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2 is of limited value if you’ve been following Fantagraphic’s publication of Tardi’s works. Otherwise, it’s a good intro to his work. Well, their work, as it’s explicitly Tardi’s adaptations of Manchette’s novels. I’m not familiar with the novels, but if the stories here are any indication they’re pretty brutal. And Tardi’s art can border on gruesome in places. This is not the noir of Nouvelle Vague films. Recommended.

The Hour of the Thin Ox, Colin Greenland (1987, UK). I’ve been a fan of Greenland’s writing for many years, especially the Plenty books and Harm’s Way. He was very active throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as a critic, an editor of Interzone, and a writer, but his last published novel was Finding Helen in 2002. Which is a shame. The Hour of the Thin Ox is one of three literary fantasies, the Daybreak trilogy, he published in the 1980s. I don’t actually recall if they’re set in the same universe – I suspect yes, if only because they’re lumped together as a trilogy. Anyway, in The Hour of the Thin Ox, the heir to a wealthy merchant family in Bryland finds her fortunes so diminished she ends up joining the army to fight the empire invading the countries to the north. This is not a novel that would really pass muster in 2020. It’s well written, but there’s an uncomfortable thread of orientalism running throughout the story, with its emphasis on the Far-East-inspired Escalans and their drive to expand and assimilate other nations and cultures. The second half of the novel takes place in a jungle region, partly conquered by the Escalans, but they’re in the process of killing off its indigenes. The Brylander now leads a small guerrilla group against the Escalan invaders. And, of course, the indigenes are neither as savage nor as primitive as the Escalans insist. The story seemed like it was going somewhere with its jungle warfare plot, but other than a big set-piece, it more or less petered out. A novel that felt like it was part of a larger series and not a complete instalment, despite being well written with some effective world-building.

All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). A Locus review by Gary K Wolfe claims this is a collection of all of Blumlein’s fiction, which is not true. If anything, it’s a collection of his less obviously genre short fiction, although most of it was actually previously published in genre venues. It does indeed contain some of the stories also in What The Doctor Ordered (2013, USA), but with four additional ones – ‘Bloom’, ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’, ‘Success’ and ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’, but they appeared in Interzone, F&SF and Asimov’s SF, and ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’ is original to this collection. Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, and I’ve championed his works whenever I could, but we lost him last year to cancer, and I can only be grateful he was held in high enough regard that pretty much all of his short fiction output has been collected over the years. His novels, however, are mostly out of print, and have been for a long time. The stories in All I Ever Dreamed are not heartland sf, and one or two hew closer to dark fantasy than science fiction. The three novellas are probably the strongest works. ‘The Roberts’ is available separately from Tachyon Publications, and is typical of Blumlein’s work: dense, intense and set somewhere at the intersection of science and technology and human relationships. ‘Success’, on other hand, does not use science and technology to fix a relationship, but to comment on it. The third novel sees three women, all named for flowers, each involved with a man, for better or for worse, on a desert island. There’s almost no obvious genre content, but the way the three narratives reflect on each other is cleverly done. Blumlein was a singular talent in science fiction, and there were, and are, few genre writers of his generation who matched his level of thoughtful rigour.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, Russia). This book was written between 1920 and 1921 but not published until 1924 – in English. The USSR authorities may have seen it as a commentary on themselves. I wonder why. To be fair, it’s hardly subtle. But this is the 1920s, and science fiction didn’t do subtle in those days. The idea of a unifying state state can hardly be said to be Zamyatin’s invention – insects beat him to it, for one thing – but certainly We influenced a number of later works, and even arguably created an entire subgenre. The problem with said subgenre, however, is that it magnifies the fears and sensibilities of the writer, without actually making any kind of cohesive argument either for or against the society described in the book. David Karp’s One is a good example: most Americans will read it as a dystopia, most Europeans with read it as a utopia. We‘s United State is a state regimented to the nth degree, to such an extent the plot is pretty much narrator D-503 discovering he has a “soul” and the changes in perspective and sensibility that wreaks on him. It’s triggered by his relationship with a woman who clearly is not a typical state drone, and even on occasion dresses up in “old-fashioned” clothing like dresses. Unfortunately, the book is all a bit over-wrought, with excessive use of ellipses, and references to “ancient times” that are clearly the time of writing, as if there were no history between the novel’s present and the 1920s. I can see how it’s a seminal and influential work, but it’s not an enjoyable read and I’d sooner stick to works without such fevered prose. Most certainly an historical document, and important in that respect, but don’t read it for pleasure.


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Reading diary 2020, #13

I remember once upon a time I used to read good books. Something seems to have gone wrong. The Chandler wasn’t bad, and the Cho managed a fair fist of its setting, but the rest were pretty bad. True, my expectations were not high for the Jordan – I’d thought it terrible the first time I read it twenty years ago… although it did seem to be much worse than I remembered it. The Farmer – also a reread, although I’ve no memory of reading it before – was also shit.

Spook Street, Mick Herron (2017, UK). As a writer, you often wonder if it’s possible to tell a story using completely unlikeable characters. But then you grow up and realise no reader is interested in a story involving characters who repel them. Unless you’re Mick Herron. In this installment, a suicide bomber kills a bunch of teens in a shopping mall and then one of the Slough House agents is murdered, and the dead agent’s grandfather, the “Old Bastard”, an ex-MI5 bigwig, goes missing… and it’s all to do with a rogue CIA agent who set up a secret school in France to raise kids as terrorists and everyone is surprised when they turn out to be terrorists… The Slough House books do not score well on plausibility when it comes to their plots, but this one is even less believable than the ones preceding it. Herron seems keen to depict MI5 as a bunch of criminals – although he lavishes real contempt on Tory politicians – but his so-called heroes are all unlikeable incompetents. Sigh. The first book in the series is possibly worth a go, but the sequels are entirely missable.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis (1963, USA). This is one of those rare cases where I’ve seen the film – several times – before I read the book. And the film isn’t exactly a faithful adaptation. It covers the main points, but the movie is very much about its visuals and the book is just a bog-standard early 1960s sf novel that’s actually set in the early 1960s. Which at least means mean wearing hats is plausible. The title character is Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from Anthea – implied to be Mars – who has infiltrated Earth – ie, the US – in order to save his home world. He introduces technological innovations from his planet and so makes a vast fortune, which he uses to build a spaceship. But the government are suspicious and eventually arrest him. The CIA uncover his secret, but they keep it from the FBI, who bungle their investigation and blind Newton. The point of the book is that Newton is discovered. And despite a long list of technological innovations introduced by Newton, the government still manages to fuck things up. I’m surprised this was considered a shocking perspective in 1963, especially in the US, a nation famous for its distrust of its government (to be fair, for good reason). But the idea of an alien not being an actual evil invader seems to have struck US sf fans as something, well, entirely novel. Seriously? That says more about US sf fandom than it does this book. Which is otherwise ordinary, and you would be better off watching the film as it’s more rewarding.

Lord of Chaos, Robert Jordan (1994, USA). I’d say this is where the rot sets in, but given the how the series was put together, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. This is, after all, the sixth novel of a series that was intended to be ten volumes long, but that length wasn’t decided until after the second volume… You can just imagine how the conversation went – RJ: it’s three books. Publisher: make it one. Publisher (later): it’s going really well, we’ve sold loads, how does ten books sound? RJ (Ker-ching!): Shit shit fuck fuck fuck. RJ (later): this ten book thing is not working out, can we make it a few more? Publisher (ker-ching!): no problemo. It doesn’t help that the title of this book is a title assigned to series hero Rand Al’Thor that has never been mentioned before. Because, of course, why would it? Jordan only invented it when he set out to write this installment. Meanwhile we have the rest of the cast doing exactly what they did at the end of the last book. With added recaps. Lots of fucking recaps. If, perhaps, we’d not read the preceding five books, these might be useful. But we have! Because who the fuck starts reading a fantasy series at volume six? And, if we had, Jordan explains what happened in the preceding five volumes. Several times. I seem to remember from my prior read back in the late 1990s that book seven was where things started to go downhill, but I’d thought book six, Lord of Chaos, was one of the last good ones. Only, it turns out it’s the first of the bad ones. Although, to be fair, that term is relative. I have this desire to complete the Wheel of Time, and there’s no way I’m going to do that based on my readings of the books from the 1990s. So I have to reread them all. It’s proving, entirely predictably, easier said than done. Sadly.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia). I should have been on this like, well, like really quickly, since it is after all a fantasy set in Regency England and I’m a big fan of Georgette Heyer (and, more recently, Alice Chetwynd Ley). But I am not, to be fair, a fan of Regency fantasy. It’s not a large genre – unless you include timeslip romances – and most examples I’ve read have not been especially good, mostly because they’ve been by US authors who haven’t quite understood Regency England (at least not to the extent it convinces an experienced Heyer reader), and while I have mostly positive memories of Sorcery & Cecelia, that was a) pretty much the first Regency fantasy, b) an epistolary novel, and c) I read it a long time ago and would reread it except it’s now in storage. Anyway. Anyway. Zen Cho is not an English author, but has lived and worked in the UK for a number of years and so is to all intents and purposes an English author. If Sorcerer to the Crown falls over sometimes in terms of its Regency prose, that’s a failure of craft – Cho knows the period inside-out, that much is clear – and Regency diction can be a little convoluted at the best of times. Having said that, not everything in the plot actually adds up. Britain’s magic has been decreasing, and the witches of Bandar Jaik are partly responsible, but the decrease predates their involvement and is never explained. But Sorcerer to the Crown is more concerned about the race of its title character, the emancipated son of slaves, who takes the title of the, er, title under mysterious circumstances, and his colour of course makes him a number of enemies as well. I wanted to like this book, and I did like it – but I have caveats: the plotting needed to be more rigorous, some of it doesn’t quite add up, and the Regency prose slips on occasion. Heyer, this is not; but then its sensibilities are twenty-first-century and that’s definitely a plus over Heyer. I understand a sequel appeared last year. I would definitely read it. Oh, and apparently there are two sequels to Sorcery & Cecelia, which I didn’t know.

The Long Good-bye, Raymond Chandler (1954). I was introduced to Chandler through my father, who had a collection of his books in Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s. Chandler has always been there for me as an early writer of crime fiction, certainly more so than Dorothy L Sayers or Nicholas Blake or Margery Allingham. So my knowledge of early crime fiction is more California noir than English aristocratic sleuths. The Long Good-bye is a well-known title by Chandler, as well as a movie set in the 1970s starring Elliott Gould. I like Chandler’s fiction. I think he’s over-rated – or rather, I think his influence on the genre is greater than he deserved. But I do like his books. One of the things I like is his certitude. Chandler was certain about everything he wrote and how he wrote it. I’m amused by the fact he despised Philo Vance of SS Van Dine’s hugely successful novels, and can only imagine his ire was stoked by Vance, and by extension Van Dine, clearly being gay. Marlowe was, of course, famously a womaniser, and all of Chandler’s novels are predicated on Chandler’s relationship with a woman. Which is not, surprisingly, how The Long Good-bye opens. Marlowe makes friends with a man, and helps the man escape justice when he brutally murders his wife. But then the murderer is murdered in Mexico… But Marlowe never believed he was guilty, and never believed the account of his suicide was legit. Throw in a California millionaire (what would be a billionaire now), a literary writer who found success as a writer of historical best-sellers but despises himself and has hit the bottle big time, and the writer’s manipulative wife… This is classic Chandler, but it’s also a book that doesn’t go where you expect it to. If you have to read a Chandler novel, it’s a good one to choose. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s especially typical of the Marlowe novels. You might as well read a couple of them. You won’t regret it.

The Day of Timestop, Philip José Farmer (1960, USA). I had it in my mind Farmer was one of those off-beat sf authors of the 1960s and 1970s who never scored big but produced interesting work nonetheless. We’ve all heard of Riverworld, and despite a reread a few years ago of To Your Scattered Bodies Go not exactly impressing, the concept seems to be “high” enough to keep interest in Farmer’s works alive. Sadly, his reputation doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. I’d previously read The Day of Timestop under the title A Woman a Day, because it was also republished by Beacon Books under that title, and I have the Beacon Books edition. Which I’ve not actually read yet – and, of course, it’s currently in storage. So, anyway, I bought the SF Gateway edition as it was cheap, but I was still robbed because this book is really bad. More than a thousand years in the future, after much of humanity was wiped out, the world has split into three main blocs – the religious Haijac Union, the Israeli Republics (because a US author has to promote Israel, even if he’s not Jewish) and I forget what the third one was. Oh, and Marcher, a neutral state in west Europe. The story takes place in the Haijac Union, specifically in Paris, where a Marcher agent has infiltrated the Haijac Union to the highest level – he’s a lamech-man, ie, beyond reproach, beyond suspicion, incorruptible, so pretty much how Tories see themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, you know, like letting kids starve over Christmas – but then Tories are scum – and while Farmer sets up his  world with economy, it makes zero sense, and the plot which follows on from it makes even less. There’s a woman who’s an alien because she has some sort of organic battery wired to her vagina (really!), but then it turns out she’s not an alien. And there are some Bantu who have been literally whitewashed – “depigmentized” (really!) – and they’re some weird sort of hippy Christians, and the initials “JC” seem to refer to half a dozen messiahs – and the title actually refers to one of them, who is supposed to return from his time-travelling on the “Day of Timestop” to trigger Rapture for everyone in the Haijac Union. Everything in this book is wrong – the ideas are complete nonsense, the sensibilities are all over the place and not in a good way, the prose is functional at best, and if the story doesn’t go where you expect it to that’s because Farmer probably didn’t know himself where he was going. A book to avoid.


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Reading diary 2020, #12

Bit of a cheat this post, as two of the books are graphic novels – well, bandes dessinées. But both are from series I’ve been following. Also here is the third book of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which I am no longer enjoying but I bought six of the damn things so I’ll work my way through them, FFS. Who knows, they might improve. Tremain I used to read when I lived in the UAE, and I decided to start reading her again a couple of years ago. Tom Toner I’ve met several times at conventions – we’ve even been on a few panels together – but I’d never read any of his fiction, and last year his debut novel was only 99p on Kindle. Whitely has been getting a lot of critical acclaim in the UK the last few years. Her career is almost textbook… for the 1990s. A decade of short stories in genre magazines, then some novellas and novels from small presses… Next step, a major imprint. While I don’t particularly like the type of genre fiction she writes, there’s no denying she has strong writing chops, and it’s heartening to see writers can still achieve success by actually following an actual career path and not being held up as the Next Best Thing because they happen to be on-message with the fad du jour.

Real Tigers, Mick Herron (2016, UK). While the first book in this series, Slow Horses, was a good, if somewhat off-beat, spy thriller, and the second, Dead Lions, occasionally came close to jumping the shark, Real Tigers hurdles that fish with abandon. Lamb’s PA, Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, once used as a smokescreen by MI5’s biggest traitor, has been kidnapped. And it’s all because the kidnappers want access to MI5’s “grey files”, where all the nutjob stuff – UFOs, lizard Royals, Brexit’s benefits, QAnon – is recorded, and also where the current head of MI5 hid some compromising material. All this leads to a 007-like raid on an underground archive and a pitched battle between a security company’s wannabe mercenaries, actual ex-SAS kidnappers, and Jackson Lamb’s bully boys (ex-members of that MI5 department that kicks in doors, you know, just like Special Branch, except it never gets mentioned in the news because, well, Special Branch usually does it). The Herron books score well on characterisation, unfortunately all of the characters are unlikeable shits. And as the books progress, and those characters display yet more exceptional skills, then the fact they’ve been sent into the outer darkness, AKA Slough House, seems increasingly unlikely. Herron also has a really annoying writing tic, in which the prose steps back and does this hyper-observant, and yet snide, omniscient POV which speculates on what the purported observer might see. It’s over-used. I’m hoping the next book, Spook Street, will be better than this one.

The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain (2016, UK). I read several books by Tremain when I lived in Abu Dhabi, and might even have read one or two before I moved there, and found her an excellent prose stylist, perhaps more interesting at short story length than novel length. A couple of years ago, I decided to reconnect with her oeuvre. That went quite well. So it’s fortunate I didn’t pick The Gustav Sonata at that time. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s a good one. But when I look at all the admiring reviews of The Gustav Sonata, all I see is reviewers finding something in the novel that doesn’t, well, exist. The title refers to a boy who grows up in a small unimportant town in post-war Switzerland. His mother has never emotionally bonded with him, and his father lost his prestigious position as assistant police chief after helping Jews fleeing the Nazis. Gustav makes friends with a delicate and musically-talented Jewish boy whose family have recently moved to the town, an affluent family in direct contrast to the straitened circumstances now experienced by Gustav’s family. Gustav tries to provided emotional support to Anton during his piano competitions, but nerves get the better of Anton. The story then jumps back to the early years of Gustav’s parents, but since we never learn who shops his father to the authorities, there seems little point. And finally, the book leaps ahead to Gustav’s and Anton’s forties. Gustav runs a well-regarded small hotel in the town, and still burns a torch for Anton. Who is now a music teacher at a prestigious local school and has obviously never thought about Gustav in that way. Anton is offered the chance to record some piano sonatas – and in a recording studio his nervousness before audiences is irrelevant. And that’s pretty much it. Several interconnected relationships, some of which are left unrequited, some of which are temporary, but all of which have some small impact on those involved. It all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. I will admit that classical music, of whatever kind, as a motif in fiction leaves me completely cold. I know nothing about it and it does not appeal to me. And yet vast swathes of literary fiction seem to treat is as the only genre of music in existence. Where’s the literary fiction about death metal? prog? bubblegum pop? It’s either classical music or, if the author is being really edgy, punk. Disappointment.

Orbital 8: Contacts, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2019, France). This is the second book of the fourth story featuring the mixed human-Sandjarr law enforcement/troubleshooter team of Caleb and Mezoke. The Neuronomes, alien living spaceships, have been launching suicide attacks on Confederation population centres. It’s up to Mezoke and Caleb, now renegades, to uncover why… and it’s all to do with something that’s attacking the original home world of the race which turned themselves into the Neuronomes millennia previously. I like this series, chiefly because it looks good and the world-building is interesting; but the plotting leaves a little to be desired. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it’s so frantic, with a couple of panels of exposition followed by several pages of chase scenes. It makes for somewhat uneven pacing. I have no idea how many more books there’ll be in this series, but given Mezoke is lost at the end of this volume, I’m guessing at least two more…

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Volume 1, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). While Tardi has produced a number of original bandes dessinées, he has also adapted several stories and novels by French thriller writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has even tried adapting a couple, but given up after a few pages. This is the first volume of two which publish those complete and incomplete adaptations. The two completes here are ‘West Coast Blues’ (which was also published as a separate volume in 2009 by Fantagraphics, and which I own) and ‘Griffu’. Both are French noir, which is to say American noir but with added existentialism. In ‘Griffu’, a private detective finds himself embroiled in a plot with developers and gangsters. There’s not much in the way of wisecracks, but everything else is there. It’s surprisingly brutal. ‘West Coast Blues’ is equally brutal. An executive finds himself the target of two hitmen through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to kill one, more by accident than design, then runs away from his family and hides out for months in the French Alps, before being tracked down by the surviving hitman. I’ve been picking up these Tardi volumes published by Fantagraphics as they appear, and they’re definitely worth collecting.

The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner (2015, UK). Titles are important when it comes to books, especially genre books, and I’m really not convinced The Promise of the Child works as a title for a space opera novel. The only clue here to the book’s contents – other than the fact it’s published by a genre imprint – is the cover art, which is sort of vaguely Banksian and does far more to position the novel than its title. And The Promise of the Child is indeed Banksian space opera… mashed up with Warhammer 40k. I’m still unsure what to make of it. There are three types of novel – single narrative, multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is clear, and multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is not clear. (There are more than three types of novel, of course.) In the distant future of The Promise of the Child – the 140th century – a few hundred thousand achieved immortality in the twenty-first century, and those that have survived the following twelve thousand years are now known as the Amaranthine. They rule several star systems and live in hollowed-out planets known as Vaulted Lands. There are also a confusing number of human derivatives, some of which serve the Amarathine, some of which are allied with the Amaranthine, and some of which are independent and somewhat hostile to the Amaranthine. The oldest living human is made emperor of the Amaranthine, but the current incumbent has descended into senility. The appearance of a mysterious figure who claims to be older than anyone else alive – and many of the oldest Amaranthine seem to sort of remember him – has upset the current succession. As has the invention of the Shell, or Soul Engine, a mysterious device which appears to bring people back from the dead. Several narratives run alongside each other, with no seeming connection between them, until the final set-piece, a giant battle. There’s a lot here that doesn’t quite add up – a plot that features too many reverses to easily follow, one narrative that goes from bucolic romance to racist violence without any grounding in the world-building, and an opening act of destruction that is never really justified by the story. I will say I didn’t see the final reveal coming at all, and it was an excellent twist, and clearly sets up the rest of the trilogy. And I did like the prose, which was much better than is typical of space opera… But I couldn’t get on with the Warhammer 40k aesthetics, the steampunk magic technology, and the massively high body-count. I doubt I will read the sequels.

Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK). Whitely is clearly a singular talent, and I’m happy her star is currently in the ascendant – not just because she is a female UK genre writer, a group that can never be too big, but also because she seems to have followed a fairly traditional career path. Short stories published in UK small press magazines. Then pro mags. Then books published by small presses. And now the big league. Except not really – Skein Island was published by Titan Books, but her next book, Greensmith, is due from a small press. Whitely certainly has writing chops, and I am all for writers who are known for their writing rather than their world-building. But the latter is not something Whitely will ever be praised for because she writes a sort of unsettling soft fantasy that relies on subtle changes to the real world. It doesn’t always work for me. I am, by temperament, a hard sf reader, and I value rigour in stories. Whitely does write rigorous stories but that rigour follows her own rules – and when those rules are revealed in the text, it works; and when they’re not, I find it less successful. Skein Island falls into the former category. The Fates – or rather, the single mythical figure on which they were based, called Moira – has been imprisoned, as a statue, and so controlled. Water filtered through her is given away in pubs as part of a game involving cubes of four colours – red , blue, green and yellow. Which refer to hero, sidekick, sage and villain. The four roles men play out in that pub game. But only when Moira is safely imprisoned. Once she is released, as she is, men start following their archetypal roles. It’s not an entirely convincing scenario, but Whitely gives it a viable history and is rigorous in its effects on society. Whitely is definitely a name to watch, and this novel made it clear why.