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Reading diary 2018, #11

Several years ago, I came up with a cunning plan. I had so many books, I found it hard to choose what to read next. So I put together a reading plan: a list of ten books I would read each month. But ten proved a bit too optimistic, so after a couple of years I reduced it to eight a month. And then again to six… So, obviously, it’s not exactly worked out in practice. Chiefly because the book you pick up next depends as much on what you feel like reading as it does what you want to read. I mean, there are loads of books I want to read, like Remembrance of things past, but usually Swann’s Way feels like it’s going to be too much like hard work, so I never pick it up… So all five books been languishing on my bookshelves for years. Oh well.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK). Ishiguro is one of the UK’s literary treasures – and I’m not the only one who thinks so: last year he was awarded the Nobel, and this year he was knighted. Ishiguro has never been afraid to explore genre territory, indeed his best-known novel these days is probably Never Let Me Go, which has an explicitly science-fictional idea at its core. And The Buried Giant is, by any definition of the term, fantasy. It’s sort of ninth century historical fiction, but it’s also about the Matter of Britain and it makes reference to a number of fantasy tropes. I had forgotten the commentary which came out after the book first appeared three years ago, so I pretty much came to it cold (although I’m entirely familiar with Ishiguro’s oeuvre, having read all of the books prior to this one). Anyway, I’d forgotten the genre complaints against the book, but sort of know what to expect given the other Ishiguro books I’d read. And in the latter respect, it did not disappoint. Axl and Beatrice are Britons, old Britons, seeing out the last of their years in a small Briton village, when they decide to go visit their son in a nearby village. They can’t remember exactly which village, but suppose they’ll figure it out as they travel. In fact, they’ve noticed an increasing forgetfulness on everyone’s part, and they don’t like how it has changed things. Of course, it’s not just the forgetfulness brought on my old age, it’s something endemic to everyone in post-Arthurian Britain. En route, they are joined by a Saxon warrior and a Briton boy believed to have been “infected” after being abducted by ogres and who has been rejected by his village. They also bump into Sir Gawain several times. It’s all very cleverly done. The forgetfulness is real, a magic spell laid on the land by a dragon, and it’s a consequence of the last great battle between the Britons, led by Arthur, and the Saxons. Unfortunately, Ishiguro takes his time getting to the core of the novel, and the first third, in which Axl and Beatrice eventually decided to travel, and then walk several miles to the nearest Saxon village, drag badly. But once Gawain appears on the scene, and the central premise begins to be revealed in hints and clues and glimpses, then things begin to pick up. I finished The Buried Giant a great deal more than I had done halfway in. And, to be honest, I couldn’t really give a fuck about whether it was genre or not. It was beautifully-written and cleverly done, and if it felt a little old-fashioned genre-wise in places that suited the material. I wasn’t so sure on the authorial interventions – or rather, the conceit which presented the narrative as told to the reader by Ishiguro, even though I’m a fan of breaking the fourth wall, as it felt unnecessary and added nothing to the story. Everything in a novel should be part of the story. I thought The Buried Giant, despite its longeurs, a better work than Never Let Me Go.

C, Tom McCarthy (2010, UK). I forget why I bought this, I think it might have been recommended by Jonathan McCalmont, but it sat on my bookshelves for several years, until I decided to take it with me to Sweden to read during Swecon. In the event, I finished The Buried Giant on the Saturday of the con, but didn’t finish C until I’d returned to the UK on the Monday. Chiefly because I found its opening section a bit hard-going. But by the time I was settled on the plane from Arlanda to Manchester, I’d got past that and remained engrossed for the entirety of the flight from Sweden to the UK. The story concerns a young man, Serge Carrefax, who is obsessed with signals. The opening section of the novel details his childhood, with his inventor father, who is working on wireless communication, and his deaf mother, and it was, to be honest, somewhat over-detailed and dull. I like detailed fiction, but the early chapters of C seemed to be sacrificing readability for detail. But then Carrefax’s brilliant sister dies – and, to be honest, I could see no reason why this needed to happen narratively – and the story begins to pick up. Carrefax spends several months at an Austrian spa. He then enlists as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI – and this section is especially good. And finally, he is sent out to Egypt to help set up a secret British wireless system. It’s when Carrefax is doing things, rather than reacting to things, that C is at its most interesting. There are some parts of the story which seem to serve no narrative purpose – not just the tragic death of Carrefax’s sister, but also his affair with a masseuse in… um, I no longer have the book and I can’t find a single review online which mentions the town, although I do remember that it was Central European and later had links to the Nazi regime. Much, incidentally, in those reviews is made of McCarthy’s cleverness in covering such a wide range of subjects in such detail. Er, that’s what research is for. I like a lot of detail myself, but the cleverness lies in making it palatable not in its presence. And if there’s one thing about C, much as I enjoyed it, that argued against cleverness, it was the lack of narrative cohesion. That is, it must be said a philosophy all its own, but C presented no evidence it adhered to it, no argument that it followed it. But then one of the advantages of not imposing a pattern is that people will find one anyway. I thought C a well-written novel on a prose level, and fascinating, but for me it failed at everything it claimed to want to do.

The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz (1952, Poland). I bought this last year in an effort to widen my reading. I hadn’t realised when I purchased it that it wasn’t fiction. It’s a political diatribe written by someone who survived both WWII and the Soviet takeover of Poland, but managed to resist the blandishments of both the Underground during WWII and the Soviet occupiers afterwards. As a writer, an intellectual, with acceptable political credentials, he ended up as cultural attaché in Washington but, disgusted by the responses of his peers to the new regime, he chose to exile himself. Miłosz first points out that intellectuals were a peculiar class of their own in Central and East European countries, and this particularly applied to writers, one that had no equivalent in Western European – or American – societies. After discussing “ketman”, which seems to be a a misunderstanding of an historical Islamic term (now known as “taqiya”), Miłosz describes four writers of his acquaintance and their response to Soviet occupation – and this is where The Captive Mind comes into its own. I’ve no idea who the writers are he describes, although it probably isn’t difficult to figure out, but his dissection of their character and ambitions in light of Polish history during and after WWII is fascinating stuff. I don’t think for an instant that The Captive Mind is a warning against “totalitarian culture” as the book is often described. It is specific to a time and place, and I suspect some of the tactics described by Miłosz are triggered more by an institutional drive for survival than by an y kind of coherent political thought. The Captive Mind was intended to make for scary reading, but its teeth have long since been pulled – first by Solidarność, then by glasnost, although both of course were the end result of long and dangerous campaigns. On the other hand, in 2018 we seem to be staring down the throat of full-blown fascism, despite everything our parents and grandparents fought against last century, despite the clear benefits to all and sundry that progressivism and regulated economies bring… The Captive Mind is an important historical document, but its remit is too narrow, its lessons are too focused, and the passage of time has rendered its general sense of alarm both moot and badly aimed. However. Worth reading, if you’re interested in the subject.

Author’s Choice Monthly 8: Swatting at the Cosmos, James Morrow (1990, USA). I think I read a novel by Morrow back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but I can’t be sure – actually I can: I record everything I read, FFS, and have done since 1991: I read his City of Truth on 10 December 1992 and The Wine of Violence on 29 March 1995 (at least, that’s the dates I finished reading those books). He’s certainly a name I’ve been aware of, but not one I’ve made an effort to read his books. I’m not sure why. From the material in this collection, I think I’d like his fiction – most of the stories in this short collection interrogate religion in a way which I wholly approve. The opening story, ‘The Assemblage of Kristin’, is especially  good, in which the recipients of body parts from the deceased Kristin meet up once a year to indulge in Kristin’s fancies, although the so-called science in this science fiction is almost non-existent. Other stories in the collection recast Biblical stories – the Deluge, the Tower, the Covenant – with varying degrees of success (I seem to remember that least as the most successful). The whole point of the Author’s Choice Monthly series, as I understand it, is that the chosen authors selected what they felt were their best material. That’s  almost impossible; and probably changes on a daily basis. Some tried to game the choice by selecting stories to a theme. This is the best of those themed selection collections I’ve so far come across in the series. so perhaps I should read more by Morrow. A short story collection, perhaps.

Fantasy Masterwork 31: Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, CL Moore (2002, USA). I know more about Moore than I know of her fiction, which has to date meant only a couple of short stories and her novel Judgment Night. Now, I rate Judgment Night highly, it is a superior space opera, especially for its time. This Fantasy Masterwork, however, gathers together all the Jirel of Joiry stories and all the Northwest Smith stories… and they do not present well in such close proximity. The first Jirel story, ‘Jirel of Joiry’, and also Moore’s first professional sale, is a great piece of work, but her follow-ups are somewhat formulaic and not to Jirel’s benefit. The same is true of Northwest Smith – ‘Shambleau’ has real mythic overtones, but the other NWS stories are just the same thing over and over again. And the thing that stands out the most is that the heroes have little or no agency: they get themselves into scrapes and they have to be rescued, sometimes by men, sometimes by women, but they never win through because of their own actions. Or, at least, not entirely. There are a couple of NWS stories where his ineluctable masculine cussedness sees him overcome the evil god of the week, but there’s usually a henchman (or woman) or ally who is instrumental in his escape. Jirel needs help often as not, which is not true in the story in which she first appears. Partly this is because both characters’ antagonists are super-powerful gods from other dimensions, and there’s no way either could plausibly defeat them without some help. But when hero/heroine finds themselves in Yet Another Evil Dimension and they are Powerless, then having someone give them a close, or appear at the last minute with a flame-pistol, does tarnish their appeal. It’s not like they’re intended to be straight-up heroes. Northwest Smith is after all a villain – although he’s never presented as such, it’s told to the reader. Moore clearly found a formula that worked, and stuck to it. It’s not like there’s a huge amount of invention in the world-building either – this is the Solar System as imagined by way of Leigh Brackett and Robert Howard. It feels like a common playground. Moore was an important writer in the early days of genre, and she wrote some important historical works, but I have to wonder if she’s being remembered for the wrong things because the stories in this volume position as no better than an average pulp writer, and I know she was better that that from Judgment Night.

Murder Takes a Turn, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the fifth book in Brown’s 1950s-set crime novels featuring thriller writer/private detective Don Langham, and his fiancée now wife and literary agent Maria Dupré. Setting these novels in the 1950s was a cunning move, as it means all the modern technology that “breaks” crime fiction does not exist, like mobile phones or the internet. This is old school crime fiction, and deliberately so. And yet, Brown manages to give Langham and Dupré sensibilities that would not be out of place in twenty-first century Britain (well, the Remain part of twenty-first century Britain, that is). In this instalment, a critically-acclaimed writer invites half a dozen people he had wronged in the past to his Cornish pile with a promise of making amends. One of those is Dupré’s partner in the literary agency, Charles Elder, and he persuades Dupré and Langham to accompany him. Which is quite handy as Langham has been hired by the writer’s daughter to investigate the writer’s new business manager. Needless to say, once all are on site, the writer is murdered… but everyone apparently has an alibi… I had thought the writer, and his travel-writer brother, were based on the Durrells, but Eric tells me the writer figure was actually inspired by John Fowles. Murder Takes a Turn – and the title is a bit of a spoiler – is much like the previous books in the series, although it does have a tendency to reveal information to the reader before it’s revealed to the principles, so you wonder why they’re so slow to spot clues… But the two leads are likeable and well-drawn, and the supporting cast are equally well-drawn, and if sometimes it doesn’t always feel quite like the 1950s (which I say only having read fiction written then), it does at least avoid sensibilities which would offend in the twenty-first century. These books are quick reads, but they’re fun with it, and they’re as satisfying as murder mysteries as they are 1950s-set fiction.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Summer bounty

One rule I always try to follow is to not buy more books each month than I read. That way, the TBR gradually reduces. Unfortunately, I’ve been failing more often than not so far this year – plus one in April, plus three in May, plus two in June… On the other hand, I’m four books ahead of schedule in my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018.

Anyway, below are the latest additions to the collection, not all of which will stay on my shelves once read.

The last couple of years, Swecon has had a better dealers’ room than the Eastercon. In respect to secondhand books, that is. Secondhand book dealers no longer seem to have tables at Eastercons anymore, but the Alvarfonden (and there’s that “the the” again) is always present at Swecon. I am, of course, loath to buy too many books at Swecon, because of carrying them back from Stockholm in my cabin baggage… but half a dozen paperbacks – or in this case: four paperbacks and one hardback – is more than manageable. Spaceling and The Exile Waiting I bought to review for SF Mistressworks, although I’ve enjoyed work I’ve previously read by both authors. The Third Body I purchased after reading the blurb: “The conflict between men and women begun in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries long since had flowered into naked hatred and complete separation. Now both sexes had their own nations, each a passionate enemy of the other. Now sexual pleasure was taboo, and the act of coupling for reproduction was part of a contest for domination, with death to the loser”. Um, yes. I usually pick up Jeter’s novels when I find them, and Seeklight, an early work, is hard to find in good condition and for a reasonable price. This copy was both. The View from Another Shore is a 1973 anthology of non-Anglophone science fiction. I read it way back in the early 1990s, a paperback copy lent by a friend, but when I saw it in the Alvarfonden I thought it worth having a copy of my own.

Three for the collectibles. They Fly at Çiron I found on eBay for a good price. Two Trains Running is a not an especially hard book to find, but I wanted a signed copy… and eventually found one on Abebooks. And Forcible Entry I’ve been after for years, but it seems it never made it to paperback and the hardback was published by Robert Hale, the bulk of whose sales were to libraries, making copies of their books really hard to find. (There’s currently a copy of Forcible Entry on Amazon priced at £590!) But a few weeks ago three books by Farrar popped up on eBay from a single seller. I ended up in a bidding war for Forcible Entry, but then discovered a copy had also appeared on Abebooks – from a different seller, obviously – so I bought that one… and the one on eBay went for more than I’d paid for my copy. One of the other Farrar novels looked quite interesting, but I was sniped on that too. Bah.

The Delany is The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. I already have this in a tatty paperback, but I couldn’t resist a nice hardback edition. Nasa has been churning out histories of its various programmes for years, and I have several of them – This New Ocean (Mercury), On the Shoulders of Titans (Gemini), Apollo Expeditions to the Moon (Apollo), Living and Working in Space (Skylab), Stages to Saturn (Saturn V) and now Moonport, about the launch facilities at Cape Canaveral. Most of the books are now available as POD paperbacks but, of course, I want the original hardback editions. Some aren’t that difficult to find in hardback, but Moonport is one of the really difficult ones. Previous copies I’ve seen were priced around $400 or $500. This one I bought on eBay for… £25, from a charity shop somewhere on the south coast. Result.

Three collections. I don’t have much time for Kevin J Anderson’s fiction, but under the imprint WordFire Press he has over the last few years published a bunch of stuff by Frank Herbert that was previously unpublished. I’ve no idea what the stories in Unpublished Stories are like, or if any of them are also included in the comprehensive Herbert collection published by Tor four years ago (which I own and have yet to read). Ad Statum Perspicuum by F Paul Wilson and Legacy of Fire by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, volumes 13 and 14 in Pulphouse Publications Author’s Choice Monthly, bring the total I now own up to twenty. Only nine more to go.

Some new releases. It seems Mézières and Christin have allowed someone else to continue their Valerian and Laureline series, and Shingouzlooz Inc is, I hope, the first in a new series. I liked it (see here). Buying Time is a pseudonymous work by Eric Brown, although plans to keep his identity a secret pretty much fell at the first hurdle when the publisher plastered his real name all over the publicity material. I forget why I had Levels: The Host on my wishlist, althuogh I bought it because the price had dropped below £2. I believe it’s a rewritten version of an early nineties sf novel,  republished by a small press, perhaps even Emshwiller’s own imprint. Emshwiller is the son of Ed and Carol Emshwiller, both well-known names in twentieth-century science fiction.


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The Bone Clocks and Slade House, David Mitchell

Despite being shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize, David Mitchell’s novels are not like most other literary fiction novels for two reasons: first, characters from one book often appear in other books; and secondly, many of his novels feature genre tropes and situations. In his debut, Ghostwritten (1999), one of the narrators proves to be a disembodied spirit who can move from body. Cloud Atlas (2004), has two of its six sections set in the future: one a near-future dystopian Korea, the other a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. While it’s not unusual for literary fiction authors to visit genre shores, Mitchell has shown a greater appreciation of, and a better facility with, gene tropes than most of his peers. But then he is a fan and has publicly said as much. And in The Bone Clocks, and its pendant novel, Slade House, he has for the first time told an actual genre story, albeit in the language of literary fiction.

The Bone Clocks is structured as six novellas, most of which are told from the point of view of Holly Sykes. The novel opens in 1984, Holly is a teenager, grief-stricken at the recent death of her younger brother. She decides to run away from home, and makes it halfway across Kent before running afoul of the story’s villains. These villains harken back to earlier novels by Mitchell, particularly The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). That novel introduced the idea of secret immortals amongst us, and it is a war between two such groups which forms the backbone of The Bone Clocks. (You wait for a novel about secret immortals, and three come along at once: as well as The Bone Clocks, 2014 also saw the publication of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, while Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life appeared in 2013.) The Horologists are body-hopping serial reincarnators. Their enemies, however, the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, “decant” souls in order to extend their lives. The process is fatal to the decanted souls. Over the course of The Bone Clocks Holly has a number of run-ins with the Anchorites, beginning with that trip across Kent as a fifteen-year-old, and finishing in a post-Crash Ireland in 2043.

Unlike Cloud Atlas, the six sections of The Bone Clocks are not nested, but follow on chronologically one from the other. Like that earlier novel, however, they also display an excellent control of voice. The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes’s story and she’s an engaging and convincing character. Having said that, the Anchorites are a bit pantomime, enfant terrible literateur Crispin Hershey initially reads too much like a pastiche of a well-known UK author but soon rounds out, and the immortal Marinus never quite convinces. But these are minor gripes. The Bone Clocks handles its settings with impressive assurance and, more than any other of Mitchell’s novels, this is an insightful book.

Mitchell has said he intended each section of the novel to be a different genre – such as, 1980s social realism, war reportage, fantasy and dystopia, among others. It’s a given most of the really interesting genre fiction is being written in the area where genres meet, and Mitchell makes good use of the interfaces – the sudden irruption of fantasy into Holly’s adventures in Thatcherite Britain creates a shockingly effective introduction of The Bone Clocks’ underlying fantastical plot. In fact, those sections featuring this violent introduction of genre into literary fiction actually work better than those sections which are pure genre. Perhaps it’s a consequence of expectation; perhaps it’s simply the stark contrast between the two modes.

Slade House, on the other hand, makes no secret of its melding of genre and non-genre, although it tries to wrongfoot the reader by presenting its genre elements as “dream-like”. If the novel were a film or television series, it would be called a “spin-off”. Less than half the size of The Bone Clocks, Slade House echoes that novel’s multi-part structure – each set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015 – but takes place entirely in and around the eponymous residence. Each section is told from the point of view of a different person. The eponymous house is home to Norah and Jonah Grayer who, while not associated with The Bone Clocks’ Anchorites, have been using a similar method to extend their lives. Slade House’s narrators are the pairs’ victims.

In each section, the narrator investigates Slade Alley (for a variety of reasons), discovers a small iron door – an interdimensional “Aperture” – which gives entry to Slade House’s grounds, is initially taken in by the illusion woven by the Grayer twins… and is then consumed by them. This act is usually presaged by the sight of a portrait of the narrator at the end of a line of portraits on the main staircase – which is, to be honest, a somewhat cheesy horror film cliché. Slade House presents enough detail to invoke the year in which each section is set, but given that Slade House itself is timeless, this makes for an odd disconnect, often making the detail feel superfluous. Nor is it helped by the last but one section – 2006 – consisting chiefly of a history lesson of Norah and Jonah Grayer, and an explanation of the workings of the house and its grounds. It comes as no surprise to learn that the final section, set in 2015, is about the defeat of the Grayer twins – after the explanation, where else could the narrative go?

Fans of Mitchell’s fiction will have fun spotting characters from other of his novels, a number of which make an appearance in Slade House (as indeed do several in The Bone Clocks). I’ve yet to be convinced this actually adds value, given that the “shared universe” in which all of Mitchell’s novels are set is not a shared universe as the term is understood in genre fiction, but a much less rigorous use of the technique. In other words, they feel more like “Easter eggs” than a structural part of each book’s universe.

Unlike some genre fans, I have no problem with literary fiction authors “dabbling” (not my choice of word) in science fiction and fantasy. On the contrary, the more the merrier – and the lack of knowledge of genre traditions and history can actually prove an advantage to a writer. True, the results often feel a little old-fashioned to veteran readers of genre fiction, and a lack of confidence in deploying genre tropes can lead to unnecessary and clumsy exposition… David Mitchell, however, is a genre fan, he knows what he’s doing. And it shows.

Mitchell also knows what he’s doing when it comes to non-genre fiction. Genre writers make few concessions to their readers – they assume they know how to parse their stories and how genre tropes operate. They also trust their readers to understand the need for exposition. But there’s a limit. Up to this point, the writer needs to explain; and no further. Literary writers usually miscalculate this point and feel a need to explain those things which genre readers either already know about or are happy to take on trust. Likely this is because such writers are not entirely confident with how genre stories and tropes work, and they’re also unsure their readers will understand.

It’s clear Mitchell trusts his readers, both non-genre and genre – evident not only from his oeuvre, but also from his level of success. We need more writers like him. Both inside and outside the genre.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #261, November-December 2015.


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Reading diary 2018, #10

The reading has been a bit all over the place for the past few months – Clarke Award shortlist reading notwithstanding (see here) – and pretty much comes down to me grabbing whatever book looks like it won’t be too taxing. And that’s despite having half a dozen reading lists from which to choose… Oh well. And I really ought to start reading more classics.

Unlocking the Air, Ursula K Le Guin (1996, USA). This is a collection of Le Guin’s mainstream stories, and though it pains me to say it, I think her genre fiction is much better. Which is not to say her mainstream stories are bad, because they’re extremely well-crafted. And it’s not as though I only appreciate genre stories… because I find a lot of current genre short fiction unreadable, and I like the mainstream short fiction of Helen Simpson, Malcolm Lowry, Rose Tremain, Karen Blixen, and many others. But I didn’t much enjoy another of Le Guin’s mainstream collections, Orsinian Tales, which are linked stories set in an invented town. There is no such linkage in Unlocking the Air. The stories originally appeared in a variety of publications, from The New Yorker to Playboy to, er, Asimov’s, between 1982 and 1995. The one from Asimov’s, ‘Ether, OR’, is borderline genre. The title refers to a town in Oregon, which seems to change location at random intervals, on the coast some times, inland at others; and the story is told from the viewpoints of a number of the residents of the town. Another story is pure mainstream and recounts a daughter taking her mother to an abortion clinic. The stories are feminist, which comes as no surprise; most are told from a female point of view, although not all: ‘The Professor’s Houses’ is about a male professor and the doll house he works on ostensibly for his daughter. The collection all feels very… worthy – well-written stories making important points, but just a bit dull. Ah well.

Author’s Choice Monthly 9: Heroines, James Patrick Kelly (1990, USA). I don’t know if I’ve ever read any of Kelly’s fiction before. None of his novels, certainly. But didn’t he write some stories about toy dinosaurs or something – was that him? They were quite good, I seem to recall. But then, they might not have been by him. Anyway, the four stories (it also includes three poems) in this collection were deliberately chosen, Kelly explains in his introduction, because they have female protagonists. He points out that although there were many women writing genre fiction in the first half of last century, not all of whom disguised their gender, but almost all of whom wrote stories and novels with male protagonists. This isn’t actually true, of course, and though Kelly namechecks CL Moore as one who didn’t – he mentions ‘No Woman Born’ – there were plenty who used female protagonists. Anyway, Kelly presents these stories in honour of those writers. In ‘The Curlest Month’, a divorcée has an affair with her therapist, trying to recover from the death of her little daughter, and who seems to watch to contact her… In ‘Faith’, a single mother puts an ad in the paper and meets a man who can talk to plants. ‘Crow’ is set after some sort of apocalypse – an epidemic, IIRC – in which a young boy and girl meet a woman who plans to use an old ICBM to reach the Moon. She’s clearly deluded. Of the books in this series I’ve read so far, this is definitely one of the stronger ones. I’m not going to dash out and hunt down something else to read by Kelly, but neither will I go out of my way to avoid his fiction. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Summerland, Hannu Rajaniemi (2018, UK). With the disaster that is Brexit looming over the UK, some popular culture has been harkening back to those rose-tinted good old days when we all pulled together like in, er, World War II… Er, WTF? How exactly does WWII map onto Brexit? Anyway, the fact Brexit is bending UK culture, as well as the economy, out of shape is a given, but it seems to have manifested a bit oddly in genre fiction, Yes, I know Rajaniemi is Finnish, but he’s been a resident of the UK for a number of years, and his career has been chiefly with English-language publishers. And if he’s a Finnish writer, then Geoff Ryman is a Canadian writer, Lisa Tuttle and Pat Cadigan are both American writers, Tariq Ali is a Pakistani writer, Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer… Um, that’s starting to fall apart. But never mind. Anyway, with Summerland and Simon Ings’s The Smoke, we have two very strange, and not so very different, approaches to science fiction, a very British form of science fiction, in fact, that owes much more to HG Wells than it does to the US tradition. Explicitly so in Summerland, as the man who looms over the entire plot, Prime Minister Herbert Blanco West, is in fact a thinly-disguised HG Wells. The novel is being sold as a science fiction spy story, and it’s true that its central plot could have come from a Le Carré novel, but, as a spy novel, I don’t think it’s entirely satisfactory. Fortunately, the rest of it is very satisfactory indeed. The world-building is especially good, and Rajaniemi has cleverly worked out not just the technological ramifications of Summerland‘s central premise but also the social ones. I think this one will do much better than The Quantum Thief; it’s much more approachable, for a start.

Valerian and Laureline: Shingouzlooz Inc, Wilfrid Lupano & Matthieu Lauffray (2017, France). The creators of Valerian and Laureline, Mézière and Christin, ended the series in 2013 with the twenty-second volume, Memories from the Futures (see here). Then there was Luc Besson’s disappointing film adaptation. But now we apparently have the pair’s – that’s Valerian and Laureline, of course – further licensed adventures, which makes a point of attempting to be as much like the original as possible. And they pretty much succeed. Except, like the Edgar P Jacobs Studio picked up The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer from Jacobs himself, and actually starting to do a better job of it, with cleverly-plotted stories based on secret history instead of 1930s racist techno-fantasies, so this new Valerian and Laureline is much more twenty-first century than the later volumes by Mézière and Christin. For a start, the two are on a mission to apprehend a robot who is running multiple virtual tax havens in his main processor and so enabling rich people to break no end of Galaxity laws. But then the plot quickly complicates, with the Shingouz turning up having accidentally sold the Earth of three billion years ago to a voracious water pirate, Laureline having her likeness pirated and sold across the galaxy, and Valerian having to supply meat from an endangered species to a chef for a gangster’s banquet in order to… Lupano, the writer, manages to keep all his balls up in the air, and then deal neatly with them one by one. Lauffray’s art is a little more kinetic than Mézière’s but just as detailed. I like this a lot, and I hope it’s the first of a long series.

Passing for Human, Jody Scott (1977, USA). I was, when I started this, expecting something not unlike Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States, a novel I like very much (see here). However, Passing for Human is a decade older, and it reads like it. If anything, the one book it reminded me of was Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge – and it even explicitly references Vidal’s novel at one point. There’s a pair of sequels, I, Vampire and Devil-May-Care, only the first of which was published by The Women’s Press (but since the third book wasn’t even published until 2016, nearly a decade after Scott’s death, that’s hardly surprising). All three books are about Benaroya, an alien who uses a number of different bodies to infiltrate Earth, well, Los Angeles, in order to defeat an evil alien entity bent on destroying the planet. But Benaroya doesn’t have much idea intially on how to be human… There’ll be a review up on SF Mistressworks some time soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).


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Reading diary 2018, #9

I try to alternate my reading between male and female authors – or, at the very least, ensure that by the end of the year I’ll have read roughly the same numbers of each. But it doesn’t always work out 50:50 on a monthly basis, so here we have four male authors and only one female. But two of the books were short collections, squeezed in and around my Clarke Award reading (see here).

The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter (2017, UK). Baxter, of course, wrote the official sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine, The Time Ships, back in 1995, so I guess and official sequel to The War of the Worlds was always on the cards… even if shitloads of other people have had a bash at an unofficial sequel – of which the best is probably the graphic novel Scarlet Traces by Ian Edginton and D’israeli. The Massacre of Mankind is set decades after the events of the original book, and is narrated by Julie – the character played, I think, by Julie Covington in Jeff Wayne’s version. She’s a journalist and suffragette, and when she’s contacted by the narrator of Wells’s novel, now a recluse in Italy, she gets dragged into preparations for a fresh invasion from Mars, a much bigger invasion. The Martians target Britain and create a zone fifty miles across in the Home Counties, and those caught within it are left to struggle without technology… so the Martians can harvest them as and when needed (they’ve already imported two slave races from Mars). The British build a massive trench around the Martian zone, but every attack is thwarted. Then a third invasion arrives, targetted at major cities around the globe (Baxter focuses on New York so he can do a Great Gatsby type thing). This time germs are not going to do the trick. To defeat the Martians, Earth needs something else. Something, or someone, perhaps from another planet… On the one hand, Baxter took Wells’s story in a direction I had not expected and the early twentieth century ambience did not feel, er, paper-thin. On the other, the prose is functional at best, and some parts do read a bit juvenile. I’m not sure how it reads as a sequel to Wells’s novel, given I’m more familiar with Baxter’s work than I am Wells’s. It did all feel a bit in places like it wanted to have its cake and eat it too, but given it kept me reasonably entertained for a couple of days – although a part of me thinks a sequel to a Wells novel should do more – I can’t complain over much.

Author’s Choice Monthly 5: Into the Eighth Decade, Jack Williamson (1990, USA). Williamson had an enviable career – I’m not sure what that “eighth decade” refers to since he was 82 when the book was published, which would put him in his ninth decade; and his first story was published in 1928, which would put his publishing history in its seventh decade… But never mind. This collection features his most famous story, ‘With Folded Hands’, and it hasn’t aged well. It starts off reading like it’s set in the 1940s – men in fucking hats sf, in other words – before abruptly revealing there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of other worlds populated by humanity. The premise of robots so keen to help humans they effectively nanny them into uselessness could be read as a juvenile right-wing commentary on the welfare state, but only by idiots. Sadly, there are many of them about it. The remaining stories are… forgettable. ‘Jamboree’ has no plot, it’s a squib about an out-of-control AI that kills kids when they reach a certain age. More nanny state commentary. Sigh. In ‘The Mental Man’, a man interfaces with a computer and becomes god. And in ‘The Happiest Creature’, a criminal is rescued by a flying saucer, but they can’t keep him so they return him after extracting a promise not to murder again which they know all too well he has no intention of keeping. The ending comes as no real surprise. Given that Williamson was being published for pretty close on a century – well, eighty years, his last stories were published in 2008, two years after his death – I’m surprised he chose the weak ones on display here. Okay, so ‘With Folded Hands’ is perhaps his most famous – and likely his most anthologised, so why repeat it? – but the others are hardly a good testament for a career, at that time, 62 years long. Still, it’s part of a set.

Author’s Choice Monthly 11: Skyrocket Steele Conquers the Universe, Ron Goulart (1990, USA). As is this one – part of a set, I mean. I read a Goulart novel once, it was one of his Chameleon Corps ones, I think. It was shit. And the five stories in this collection are probably worse. Goulart describes himself in the introduction as a hack – he made the choice many years ago to churn out crap to make a living, and it shows in the five stories in this collection. The protagonists are mostly hack writers. One is consumed with jealousy over the success of a writer he considers less talented – and he’s been forced to write pulp to pay the bills – but then he meets a time-travelling lit student from the late twenty-first century who tells him his novels are considered classic in the future. The twist ending is easy to guess. The title story refers to a plot by the Nazis in the early 1940s to replace FDR with a robot replica when he visits Hollywood. The plot is foiled by a screenwriter. To call this fluff would be doing fluff a disservice. The others are little better. There’s a strong thread of piss-take running through the stories, but it’s spoiled by an equally powerful whiff of “my pulp fiction is as good as your high-falutin’ litrachur yah boo sucks”, which is a bad smell in any decade and a sadly prevalent one in science fiction.

The A26, Pascale Garnier (1999, France). Mention of Garnier popped up on Twitter – I don’t remember who it was who RT’d it into my TL – but the description sounded interesting and I liked the look of the Gallic Editions paperbacks (there are eight, including The A26). So I bought one. It was… not what I expected. And sort of good. An aged brother and sister live alone in a house that is a dump – the sister hoards, and refuses to leave the house, after an event during WWII. The brother has been diagnosed with a fatal illness – cancer, I think – and has months to live. He retires from his job at the local railway station. And murders some people. Sort of accidentally, certainly unpremeditated. Meanwhile, the titular road is mentioned in passing as it is being built nearby. That original tweet described Garnier’s fiction as Ballardian, and I can sort of see the resemblance, but it reminded me more of some of the French noir Jacques Tardi has adapted. I wasn’t blown away, but I might try some more.

The Exchange, Gwyneth Jones (1979, UK). I’ve had this for years, decades in fact, but only recently realised I’d never actually read it. I remember someone – Brian Ameringen of Porcupine Books, I think – tracking down copies of Jones’s three YA novels from the late 1970s for me after I mentioned them at Mexicon 4 in Harrogate in 1991. And then later that same year, I met Gwyneth Jones at Wincon 2 in, er, Winchester, and she sent me signed copies… so I have two of each. Oh well. And embarrassingly it’s taken me all this time to read this one. Debbie and Claire are sixteen years old and best friends. Except Debbie fancies Michael Grey but is too shy to admit as much, and her friendship with Claire beings to suffer. Which is badly timed as the two are going to spend the summer in Paris with a French family. At the airport – I’m not sure where the story opens; Manchester, I think, as Jones is originally from there – they miss their flight after hiding out when all their friends come to see them off – including one or two unwelcome friends. So they decide to hitchhike to the South Coast and catch the ferry across. They spend a week in Nottingham, working as chambermaids for next-to-nothing at a “hotel” that is little more than an old folks’ home, before doing a runner. When they reach Brighton, after several adventures on the road – and considerably less had they made the same trip today – they get work as cooks in a girls’ riding school for overseas students… before eventually coming clean to their parents over the phone, and finally leaving for France. The novel is told entirely from Debbie’s POV is pretty much about her friendship with Claire, the way it began to unravel at the start of the summer, how it hung together precariously as they made their way south, and the eventual confessions which healed it just before the left for France. I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s a very late-1970s novel, and some of its sensibilities have not aged well. But Debbie is drawn with impressive detail, and nothing in the plot seems in the remotest implausible. I was, to be honest, expect it to be fantasy, as I seem to remember Jones’s other YA titles from the late 1970s are fantasies: The Influence of Ironwood, Dear Hill and Water in the Air. Although I may be misremembering the first two.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, Clarke Award special

Last year’s Clarke Award shortlist was a bit pants, to be honest, and I’ve yet to even read the winner, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book whose reputation seems to have waned somewhat in the year since it won. I suspected this year might prove a bit more interesting as there were several novels published last year that I thought worthy of the award. Happily, one of them did make the shortlist. But a lot of expected titles did not – such as Nina Allan’s BSFA Award-winning The Rift (see here).

For the record, the shortlist is as below. I was more than happy to see Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time on it as I’ve been championing the book since I read it late last year (see here).

I’ve now read five of the novels. I’m not bothering with Borne – although I’ve heard good things about it – because I didn’t take to Vandermeer’s Annihilation and life’s too short and all that. The Charnock, of course, I’ve already read and rate highly. The other authors were completely new to me – and at least three of them are, I believe, debuts. Anyway, I ordered me some copies, and read them, and… Oh dear. That shortlist looked good on first impression, but it really didn’t survive scrutiny…

Gather the Daughters, Jennie Melamed (2017, USA). This has been described a post-apocalyptic dystopia but it’s nothing of the kind. A small religious community ekes out an existence on an island off the coast of the “wastelands”. The novel is told through the narrative of several girls in the community – all aged about twelve or thirteen, and yet to go through puberty. Once they have done so, they will be married off and bear children. A fair few of which may prove to be “defectives” and killed at birth, if they survive it. Melamed tries hard to suggest this is a consequence of whatever apocalypse it was, epidemic or nuclear war, which turned the rest of the world into a wasteland. But it quickly becomes apparent that the girls are being abused nightly by their fathers, and that the community was set up specifically for that end. It also becomes patently obvious that there is no “wastelands” – the world outside has not changed. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the premise of M Night Shyamalan’s film The Village. So, a group of religious nutjobs founded a community which would allow them to abuse their daughters and treat their wives as chattel. Oh, and euthanise their old people when they no longer proved useful – and they’re not all that old, to be honest, late thirties, perhaps. I don’t know what world Melamed lives in, but these are all illegal and hugely immoral in the real world. I know the US loves its nutjob religious communities and let’s them get away with, well, murder… but the island in Gather the Daughters is only plausible if there really had been an apocalypse. To make matters worse, Melamed completely fails to comment on the world she has built. In crime fiction, the reader witnesses a murder, but then the murderer is brought to justice. The moral consequences of murder are shown. Melamed doesn’t bother. She normalises child abuse and misogyny. She treats the monsters she writes about with total seriousness but makes zero reference to its morality. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the writing is terrible, the worst kind of creative writing programme prose. You know the phrase, “kill your darlings” that writer instructors like to parrot? If Melamed had done that, Gather the Daughters would have been a third its size. When I saw Gather the Daughters on the shortlist, I thought it looked interesting (after I’d thought, “shouldn’t it be Gather Your Daughters?”). Having now read it, I have to wonder why it was shortlisted.

Sea of Rust, C Robert Cargill (2017, USA). Some time in the near-future, robots became commonplace, and then somehow developed sentience. But then the owner of a robot died with no heirs, so the robot, now ownerless, argued for its emancipation. And succeeded. But then it, and thousands of other robots, were destroyed by an EMP set off by a nutjob church. The robots responded by somehow overcoming their “Robotic Kill Switch” – yes, it’s really called that; and don’t get me started on the hash Cargill makes of Asimov’s Three Laws, or the stupid random number generator – and slaughtering the church members. So kicking off a genocidal war. Sea of Rust opens decades after that war, after all the humans have been slaughtered and only robots remain, and two AI “mainframes” – yes, they’re really called that; and they fill entire skyscrapers! – are fighting each other and trying to assimilate all the free robots. The narrator of Sea of Rust is Brittle, a female robot, although not really gendered at all, who scavenges for parts in the Rust Belt in order to trade for parts specific to her model so she can keep on running. I really don’t know where to start with this book. The characters are all robots yet behave like human beings, even using expressions like “I knew it by heart” or “anger left his face”. They’re gendered but there’s no reason for that given in the text. The computing seems to be based on 1990s PC technology, except for mention of a “core”, which is something they all have but the book does not bother to explain (probably because it’s made-up bollocks). And they use “wi-fi”. But not to talk to each other. For that, they use speech, you know, actual sound waves. And how the wi-fi works without routers, satellites, or even an internet, is left unexplained. The plot pretty much rips off Mad Max, with a few bits from The Matrix thrown in; and the whole thing reads like Cargill couldn’t be bothered to research any of the details of his world. Every other chapter, pretty much, for the first third of the book is a history lesson – and they’re just as unconvincing as his robot characters. I have no idea why this was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. This is a book that wouldn’t have looked out of place 35 years ago (mentions of wi-fi aside), but I refuse to believe it was the best category sf novel published last year (it’s the only book on the shortlist from a British genre imprint).

American War, Omar El Akkad ( 2017, USA). It is the late twenty-first century and three of the US’s Southern states have seceded from the Union. A low-grade war now rumbles between them and the rest of the country. Rising sea levels have already drowned most of the coastal areas, and what remains of California and Texas are now part of Mexico. Sarat Chestnut was born in Louisiana, but when a suicide bomber kills her father, she, her twin sister, older brother and mother move to a refugee camp near the border with the North. All the time I was reading American War, I had trouble getting my head round it. It paints the secessionist states as the good guys – and the invective against the North in the book is really quite nasty – and yet not once does it mention the South’s racial history. The secessionists have also committed terrorist attacks against the Northerners – and yet are still painted as the side of good. The reason for their secession is their insistence on using fossil fuels after a total ban. It seems such a feeble excuse for a war – especially given the importance of Southern character, and how it relates to the war, in the narrative. It’s like El Akkad wanted the US as it now exists to be the bad guys – incarceration without due process, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, all of which the North uses routinely in the novel – but because it was a civil war, he had to make the South the good guys. Despite the fact the last war the South fought was to keep the right to own slaves, despite the fact they were forced to stop segregation only some two generations ago, despite the fact their racist mindset is seeing a resurgence since Trump took power… Anway, Sarat survives a massacre at the refugee camp by Northerner militia, and so is recruited into an underground southern army. She becomes a sniper, and is responsible for the death of the general leading the Northern army (it’s not an “assassination” when you’re at war, incidentally). She is later captured and incarcerated at a Guantanamo-like facility, and tortured, for seven years, although her jailers clearly don’t know what she’s done. When she is eventually released, she is desperate for revenge, so desperate she does the unthinkable… which is pretty much explained in the prologue. And yet… and yet… it works. The excess of detail in the prose is annoying at first, but soon drops away as the story picks up. Perhaps Sarat reminded me over much of Radix from AA Attanasio’s novel of that title, but El Akkad has done his homework and invented a mostly credible world for his story. And, to be honest, the novel improved as it progressed. It did feel like it wasn’t sure of its targets – and a story such as American War definitely has targets – so much so it actually rendered its commentary mostly toothless. Perhaps it was just because I read American War after Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust, but I thought it deserving of its place on the Clarke Award shortlist. I don’t think it deserves to win, but it at least deserves a chance at winning.

Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař (2017, USA). If there’s one thing I hate it’s books which feature space exploration where the author can’t be arsed to get the details right. There is a vast amount of documentation out there, in books and on the internet, on the subject. How fucking difficult is it to get it right? It is, for example, “space” and not “Space”. FFS. A spacecraft shot into space on top of a rocket is not necessarily a “space shuttle” and, in fact, especially not if it’s not reusable. And if a comet enters the Milky Way eighteen months ago, then it actually entered it 29,998.5 years ago as the Sun is 30,000 light-years from the edge of the galaxy. And to reach Earth in 18 months, that comet would have to be travelling at 2.3 light years an hour, or 13,521,700,000,000 mph. It’s not fucking rocket science. Well, you know what I mean. In fact, the novel drops clangers throughout its space-set narrative: describing vacuum as tightening around the narrator “like bathwater”, confusing vacuum and zero gravity, seeming to think spacesuits only use pure oxygen on EVA and then to prevent decompression sickness… Fortunately, the novel’s other narrative is far better. Jakub Procházka has been selected as the first Czech astronaut. The aforementioned comet has left a cloud, named Chopra, “between Earth and Venus” – well no, between the orbits of Earth and Venus, since the distance between the two planets changes as they orbit the Sun. Anyway, the Czechs have decided to send the first crewed spacecraft to Chopra. Procházka is an astrophysicist and the person chosen for the mission – it seems stupid to send one person, especially given the size of the spacecraft, JanHus1, as it is described. En route an alien appears in the spacecraft and tells Procházka it wishes to study “humanry”. It’s not certain whether the alien is real or an hallucination, but given that so much of the space-set narrative is complete bollocks I’m inclined to go for hallucination. (At one point, Procházka sees a frozen Laika float past – which would be difficult as Sputnik 2 disintegrated on re-entry in 1958, five months after Laika’s death.) Interwoven with the JanHus1 mission are chapters on Procházka’s childhood and life and marriage. The son of a secret policeman, who died shortly after the Velvet Revolution, he and his grandparents, who raised him, were shunned by their neighbours. They moved to Prague, Procházka went to university, and became a world expert on cosmic dust – hence his selection for the mission to the cloud. These chapters are interesting and, I assume, much better researched than the other narrative. However, they do make you wonder what the point of Spaceman of Bohemia is. Why not write a novel about growing up in post-Revolution Czechia? Why all the guff about the cloud and the alien and the space mission? Which ends with Procházka being implausibly rescued by a space shuttle from a secret decades-long Russian space programme. Which he causes to crash on re-entry but he manages to survive… before returning home incognito to exorcise some ghosts from his past, which, er, had bugger-all to do with the space mission. The earth-bound narrative is good, a novel in its own right. The space mission is complete bollocks – badly-researched, pointless and dull. If it had not been for that – and given it’s so badly done, how the hell did the book make the shortlist for a science fiction award? – Spaceman of Bohemia would be a bloody good book.

It’s probably also worth noting that this year’s shortlist is one UK author and five US authors (both El Akkad and Kalfař moved to North America as teenagers and are resident in the US). This is not unusual – science fiction has been dominated by the US since the genre’s beginnings, and the Clarke Award shortlists have, since the award’s inception in 1987, mostly reflected this: it was last entirely British in 2008, and has included non-British authors in its shortlists for most years (although some non-British finalists have been resident in the UK).

I suspect I’m now going to have to read Borne, given how disappointed I was with three of the above. I think Dreams Before the Start of Time should win, as it’s a thousand times better than the Melamed, Cargill or Kalfař, and though it’s much better than American War I would not be overly disappointed if El Akkad won. I’ll reserve judgement on the Vandermeer until I’ve read it. Who do I think will actually win? I suspect the Kalfař is a good bet. It’s very literary and, despite the complete fucking hash it makes of its space mission, stylistically the best-written of the lot. But the Clarke tends to have a love-hate relationship with literary sf, lionising it one year and then giving the award to a hackneyed piece of pulp sf the next. Sadly, I don’t think Charnock will win, because I think the book is really good and I’m usually completely out of step with these things. The El Akkad would be my next guess, even if its attempts at relevance are badly mangled. The Cargill and Melamed should not stand a chance. But I’ll probably be wrong on that. Out of step, you see.