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Fools like us

So a well-respected literary author goes and writes a novel that everyone knows is science fiction, and that everyone knows he probably knows his science fiction, but he decides to claim that not only is his novel not science fiction it actually covers ground not covered by science fiction and perhaps this is a ripe area for exploration by literary authors…

Do I really need to say who, what book and the specifics of his argument?

Naturally, he was roundly condemned by science fiction writers, critics and readers – some more than others – but, just as naturally, their condemnation was as damaging and misguided as said literary author’s misguided, but likely entirely self-serving, remarks had been.

As genre fans, we’ve been there before, perhaps too often to count:

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is not science fiction:
I don’t have a problem with this. I don’t even think of them as “tourists”, as some do. They’re approaching genre tropes from an entirely different direction, they don’t have the history, they don’t have the context; and, sometimes, that’s exactly what the trope needs to shine new light on it, to view it from a fresh perspective.

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is entirely their own invention:
This one is pretty much indefensible. Who these days would write a story without bothering to research it? “Hey, I’ve just written a novel about artificial people and no one else has ever done that before” is just so lacking in self-awareness, it makes its utterer a perfectly legitimate target of every critic and pundit in existence.

True, literary authors sometimes make a complete fucking hash of their science fiction tropes – see Spaceman of Bohemia on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. On the other hand, some novels published as sf make a complete fucking hash of their sf tropes – see Sea of Rust on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist.

It could be argued any such complaints about either of the above points are invalid unless the critic has read the book in question. Which is bollocks. It’s not the work itself being criticised, it’s the trope’s origin or history, as given by the literary author, that’s under discussion. And you don’t need to read through 100,000 words of jewel-like, or whatever, prose to know that.

I actually like it when literary authors make use of genre tropes in their fiction. They have a tendency to deconstruct the trope because they’re not invested in its history and prior usage. Sometimes, that manifests as “re-inventing the wheel”, but even so they frequently bring a new approach to something that has probably been deployed uncritically in genre circles for decades. And most genre tropes need a critical re-appraisal. All those fucking robots… I mean, it’s the twenty-first century and we’re still writing uncritically about a metaphor for slavery?

Which neatly brings us back to the not-so-cunningly disguised novel which kicked off this blog post. I freely admit I’ve not read Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us, and have no plans to do so. I gave up on his fiction after 2005’s Saturday, although I did mistakenly read Solar (2010) some years later. I probably should have given up on his fiction back in 1997 or 1998. I don’t need to read Machines Like Us. There’s been an extensive publicity machine promoting the book. Because McEwan is a writer who gets that treatment, whether or not his books deserve it. A cynic might even suggest the whole “I’ve done AI better than the entire corpus of science fiction” thing is just part of the marketing strategy.

I have also read other genre works by literary authors who claimed not to write genre, or were reluctant to accept the label when called out on it, and I admire their books: Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc and Nunquam, John Fowles’s A Maggot, Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks… But then it’s not like I need to reel off titles as there are no end of highly-regarded novels which make use of genre tropes but are never identified with the genre.

As I said, I don’t have a problem with that.

It’s nice when they give the nod to genre – as Michael Chabon has done, as Margaret Atwood eventually did, as Doris Lessing has done, as Michel Faber has done… There are some blindingly good genre works available from those four names alone, none of which were published as genre. Genre is not a private club, it just has some members who are a little more… invested in it than others, and they can be somewhat over-protective.

But then the publicity machine for Machines Like Us comes along, and it’s like we’re back in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s like genre is still a ghetto of its own making, but this time it’s someone outside who’s shoring up the walls. It feels like a step backwards because it is a step backwards. Genre writers are forever handicapped by being seen as genre writers.

But literary fiction is just a genre, I hear you cry. Except, well, it’s not. No one really sees it as that. True, it often doesn’t sell as well as actual genre fiction – science fiction and fantasy. It has the prestige genre fiction lacks (and any claims that genre fiction doesn’t need that prestige are just reverse snobbery), and occasionally there’s a break-out literary fiction novel which knocks an author up a level, like McEwan’s Atonement, not that advocates of literary fiction would use anything as crass as units sold as a metric of quality…

There is genre fiction, there is category genre fiction, there is fiction written within the tradition that is genre. There is also fiction that might look like any one of those three, but has only a passing knowledge of them. That neither invalidates it nor makes it inferior. It is what is in the fiction which defines it. But it is also the ur-text which defines it. And ur-text has as much loyalty to genre as any individual trope does.

Having been so in the past does not make it so now or in the future. Which is a horribly vague way of saying that some tropes have actually been handled better by non-genre writers. Alternate history is an excellent example. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a superior example. But even populist novels, such as Len Deighton’s SS-GB, often seem more exemplary of the sub-genre than alternate history novels published as category science fiction.

We should be applauding how genre tropes are used, not where they are used. Had McEwan written something truly groundbreaking with Machines Like Us, then yes, fold it into the genre conversation. It seems he hasn’t, so that’s pretty much academic. But when the genre can co-opt, for example, The Underground Railroad, and even include it on genre award shortlists, what’s the problem with the genre conversation incorporating non-category genre works?

Fault them for their quality, as you would a genre work. Not for their choice to use genre tropes.

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Reading diary 2019, #4

The first book in this post I read before leaving the UK, but I’m not sure why I didn’t include it in an earlier Reading diary. Two of the books I read on my Kindle (well, one was a reread), and the remaining three I brought with me in my 26 kg suitcase.

I’ve been avoiding the English Bookshop here because I don’t want to buy new books just yet. Once I’ve read most of the two dozen I brought with me, then I’ll start buying some more. Although there are a couple of new books I want in hardback… like the last Bernie Gunther novel… and the new one from Nina Allan…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals, Part 1, Yves Sente, Peter Van Dongen & Teun Berserik (2018, Belgium). Unlike the Adventures of Tintin, with which the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer are closely linked, Blake and Mortimer survived the death of their creator. Edgar P Jacobs set up a studio to continue the series, and it’s been churning them out ever since. And, to be honest, the studio’s stories have been better than Jacobs’s ever were. Until, it seems, this one. Sort of. The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals is a sequel to one of Jacobs’s most famous stories, The Secret of the Swordfish, which was pretty much a Yellow Peril narrative. To be fair, The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals soon leaves Jacobs’s invented Asian evil empire – actually called the Yellow Empire – behind, and focuses on real Chinese history, specifically the Communists and Kuomintang, both of which are after a recently discovered artefact from third-century BCE China. As is a warlord who plans to use it to declare himself emperor. Mostly, this is all good stuff, but while dragging in the Yellow Empire slots the story into the Blake and Mortimer universe, and gives continuity to the characters, it leaves a bad taste and the book would have been better for ignoring it. One of the good things about the series has been that it has changed with the times. Tintin’s earlier adventures are racist as shit, and because The Adventures of Tintin ended with Hergé’s death, there are no new stories to offset those early works. Because Jacobs founded a studio to continue the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, we have new stories – more, I think, than Jacobs actually wrote – which have kept pace with sensibilities (and have also become increasingly sophisticated in their stories). If you like Tintin, then you should be reading the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer. There are twenty-five of them, so you’ve got some catching up to do.

To Play the Lady, Naomi Lane (2011, USA). Someone recommended this to me a long time ago, but it was only available on Kindle and at that time I didn’t own one. But now I have one. And To Play the Lady was cheap. So I bought it and, er, read it. And I wish I could remember who recommended it. Because it wasn’t very good. The background is a bit identikit, and there’s doesn’t seem to have been much thought put into it. The protagonist is a complete Mary Sue, and accrues powers as the story progresses. Which is not to say the story doesn’t have its good points. Provincial aristocrat’s daughter is sent to the palace to be a maid of the queen, but she’s a bit of a tomboy and has been taught all sorts of unfeminine things. Her origin brings her into conflict with the other maids – all the daughters of peers of the realm – and her abilities at riding and archery cause problems because they’re not exactly ladylike. And it also turns out she has a rare magical talent and has to be individually tutored by the royal sorcerer… Sigh. There’s a breezy tone to the narrative, which is fun, and having a queen’s maid as the focus of a story gives an interesting perspective, but… Jenna Mallory, the protagonist, is so Mary Sue-ish it gets annoying quite quickly. The book is the first in a series, and the second book, To Serve the King, appeared in 2016. So if this is a trilogy, the final book is not likely to appear until 2021. I may well give the second book a  go, but I’m in no great rush to do so.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1965, USA). It probably doesn’t need to be said that this was a reread. I last read Dune in 2007 and blogged about it here. But I didn’t bother with the sequels on that reread, and since the Gateway ebook collection of all six Dune books was only 99p, I decided to buy it and work my way through all of them. Starting with, er Dune. It’s a book I know well, so I was more interested on this reread in how it compared to what I remembered. And yes, the writing is still pretty terrible for much of its length – especially in sentences that contain the phrase “terrible purpose” – but the worldbuilding is still among the best the genre has produced. However, my reading was focused on the scenes. And… the ones I remember liking rang a bit false, such as the time Duke Leto and Paul fly out to see a spice harvester in action. But other scenes I hadn’t liked, like the banquet scene, I much preferred this time around. What I hadn’t forgotten was the casual misogyny and homophobia, which very much made the book a product of the 1960s. I’d also forgotten how slipshod was Herbert’s worldbuilding: some things he’d made an effort to disguise, but in other places he’d simply slotted the Arabic word straight in. There didn’t seem to be much logic to it. Fifty-five years after it was published, Dune remains popular – Denis Villeneuve, movie flavour of the month in some genre circles – is currently filming an adaptation. In two parts, if rumour is to be believed. And there may well be a television series following on from the movies. But while there is a certain timelessness to the universe of Dune, Dune the novel is very much a book of its time. Had it been re-invented each decade, perhaps it would be an even bigger property that it is. Although I suppose the awful Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson sequels and prequels could be considered “re-inventions” but they’re pretty shite. If I had a Swedish crown for every time I’ve heard someone say they’d read Dune but not its sequels, or that Dune is the best of the series and the rest are not worth reading, well, I’d be living in a Swedish palace. A small one. And yet it’s completely untrue. Frank Herbert conceived the first three books as a single story, so all three really need to be read in order to understand the point Herbert was trying to make. And I’ve always maintained the writing improved, at the sentence level, as the series progressed. This is hardly controversial – the more Herbert wrote, the better he got at it. I’m hoping that particular conviction will survive my reread. We shall see. But the take-away from this reread: the best-loved scenes disappointed, but the scenes I’d not liked as much previously read much better than I’d expected.

Forcible Entry, Stewart Farrar (1986, UK). I’d been after this books for years, although I forget why, when a copy popped up on eBay. The book was only ever published in hardback, and the hardback was published by Robert Hale, which no doubt explains why it had proven so hard to find. Unfortunately, I lost the auction on eBay for the book… but found a copy for less on abebooks.co.uk from a seller in Australia. (I see there’s now a copy on Amazon going for £590. I paid nowhere near that.) And, after all that, was it worth it? I understand most of Farrar’s fiction revolves around witchcraft and Wicca – I believe he practiced it himself – and certainly a coven of witches makes an appearance in Forcible Entry. But the story is mostly about parapsychology research, particularly telepathy and astral projection. Matthew is a professional photographer and dying of cancer. He also volunteers as a test subject at a parapsychology study run by the university. Which is where Sheila, an attractive young woman, works as an office manager. The two prove to be gifted at astral projection. On one such trip Matthew, knowing he is dying, steals Sheila’s body. So while his real body dies of cancer in hospital, Matthew takes over Sheila’s body and feigns amnesia to cover any mistakes he might make in his impersonation (he had been studying her for weeks beforehand). However, Sheila had been an unwitting agent of the CIA investigating an organisation that wants to use people with parapsychological abilities for nefarious reasons. But not everyone is convinced by Matthew’s impersonation of Sheila – especially her American boyfriend, who involves a coven of witches to undo the possession – and when Matthew is forced to kill to defend his secret… It’a an interesting premise, and Farrar’s prose is readable and unremarkable. I’m surprised the book is not better-known – or rather, surprised it never made it to paperback, because there’s certainly a market for it. But then, I don’t think many of Farrar’s novels made it to paperback, so it seems his chief readership was library borrowings. There were a couple of other Farrar novels offered by the seller on eBay who was selling Forcible Entry, and one or two of them looked interesting. But I’m not going to go out of my way to track down his books, although if I see one going cheap I might give it a go.

With Fate Conspire, Mike Shupp (1985, USA). Back in the 1990s, I corresponded online with Mike Shupp. We were members of an online sf novel writing group, although both of us were using the group chiefly as motivation. Anyway, Shupp had published a five-book series, The Destiny Makers, between 1985 and 1991, but nothing else. And nothing since that online sf novel writing group – he was working on something new, and it looked good, but it hasn’t appeared in the years since. To be honest, I suspect With Fate Conspire is not a book that would see publication today. Not because it’s bad – it isn’t, it’s actually quite good. But it makes zero concessions to its readers, and it’s often a struggle to figure out what’s going on. Partly that’s because the plot is about time travel, and partly because it’s set on an Earth 90,000 years from now which is very different. But Shupp further complicates matters by fracturing his narrative. Tim Harper is a Vietnam vet physics student who gets caught in the field of a time machine sent from the future. He figures out how to use it, and travels back to the time it was sent, 90,000 years from the present-day. It’s a world in which some ten percent of the population are telepaths and they are strictly apolitical after two world wars caused by their interference in national affairs. But where Harper ends up is in the last stand-out against a world-state, and they decide to use the time travel technology to change the past and maintain their independence. With Fate Conspire does not make this easy. The narrative jumps about, and does not even mention some of the more important plot elements, and reading the book is a struggle to figure out what’s going on. I don’t have a problem with this, but I suspect present-day editors would. With Fate Conspire is definitely a book a written by an engineer. Happily, I have all five of the series and I brought them with me to Sweden. The next book is titled Morning of Creation. Expect it to appear in a blog post sometime in the next month or so.

Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh (1932, UK). This was one of a bunch of Evelyn Waugh novels my mother found me in charity shops. In Harrogate. Where they obviously have a somewhat different class of customer to Sheffield. Although, to be fair, it’s a rare charity shop that will keep 1950s Penguin paperbacks on their shelves. And they were pretty tatty copies too. Black Mischief is set in the invented African island-nation of Azania. There are two African language-groups, one native to the island, the other invaders several centuries earlier. Plus Arabs, legations from assorted European nations, churches from the major religions, and a variety of hangers-on and chancers. The current ruler dies and his son, only just down from Oxford, takes the throne. And is determined to drag his country into the twentieth century (the fourth decade of it, at least). Waugh lays out the history of his invented country with impressive clarity. The story then shifts to London and Basil Seal, a character from Waugh’s earlier novels, a dissolute upper class wastrel, who happens to know the new emperor of Azania and fancies getting out of London. So he travels to Azania, hooks up with emperor, and is made Minister of Modernization. He’s in it for what he can get, of course, but he’s out-matched by pretty much everyone else in the country. Had Black Mischief been written a few decades later, it might have aged better. Because it’s horribly racist. It’s not just the language, it’s the treatment of races other than English. Waugh mocks the English quite heavily; and the French too. Especially their legations. But his treatment of the Sakuyu and Wanda relies on racial caricatures, as does his characterisation of Youkoumian, an Armenian Jew. Perversely, the one non-English character who isn’t treated racistly is the new emperor, who comes across as woefully naive, if well-intentioned, and the sort of over-educated naif so beloved of Oxbridge comedies. Not one of Waugh’s best.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Reading diary 2019, #3

After years of resistance, I have finally succumbed – although it was, of course, more a matter of practicality than choice. I have started reading ebooks. I bought two dozen books (a mix of paperback and hardback) with me to Sweden, but the vast bulk of my collection went into storage (85 boxes!). And I’m not really sure when I’ll see them again. There’s an English Bookshop here in Uppsala – it’s well-known across Scandinavia – but books in Sweden are expensive. And until I get my ID card and a permanent address, I can’t buy books online… So: a Kindle. I’ve ended up buying ebook versions of books I already own – such as Shadow Captain and Crimes Against Humanity below – because my copy has gone into storage, but there are also books I’ve wanted to read for a while which are only available on Kindle. So it’s all working out quite well.

MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood (2013, Canada). I bought this with me in my carry-on luggage and I started it on the plane. To be honest, I’m not sure why I bothered reading it. It’s the third book of a trilogy and I didn’t much like the preceding two books, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Which is not to say that I don’t like Atwood’s fiction – Alias Grace is an excellent novel, and I’ve thought other books by her were very good indeed. But not the MaddAddam trilogy, which reads like really badly-done sf that’s striving for satire but misses every time. The surviving Gardeners from The Year of the Flood have more or less settled down, with the Crakers (a race of genetically-engineered pacifist and dimwitted herbivorous humans created by Crake) and Snowman, who was also part of the project with Oryx and Crake. The two Painballers from the previous book are still at large, and the Gardeners have no desire to fall into their clutches. But MaddAddam is mostly about Toby – and her lover, Zeb, half-brother of Adam, founder of the Gardeners, and his various adventures in the US prior to the release of the virus which killed off most of humanity. And it’s all so very, well, obvious – a dystopian neoliberal US that has been a mainstay of science fiction since cyberpunk. Atwood enlivens it with some jokey branding, but half the time the brands are embarrassingly bad, as if any marketing department on the planet would come up with such crass brands as AnooYoo, and so on. On the other hand, the sections where Toby tells the Crakers slightly mythologised stories about Zeb are quite funny. Which is another reason why I’m not especially keen humorous science fiction for a start, and yet the MaddAddam trilogy doesn’t seem to know whether it’s humorous or serious. It’s impossible to take seriously, which suggests the latter intent; but it’s not comic enough to qualify as the former. Ah well.

Shadow Captain, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). This is the sequel to last year’s Revenger, Reynolds’s first attempt at YA fiction. And, to be honest, other than the fact the two protagonists – one of which is the narrator – are teenage girls, it doesn’t much read like YA. The story is set in, I think, the Solar system many many millennia hence. The planets have been broken up into hundreds of thousands of worldlets, many of which have black holes at their cores to provide gravity. There have been successive waves of civilisation in the system, although no one knows what causes them to die off or be re-ignited. There are aliens present, semi-integrated into society, but apparently no FTL, so no real explanation of where they come from. And there are lots of alien artefacts – it is, in fact, the hunt for alien artefacts on uninhabited worldlets, some of which are protected by forcefields which periodically turn off, and which are know as “baubles”, which drives the plot of the trilogy. In Revenger, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness joined the crew of a spaceship hunting for artefacts. They are “bone readers”, which means they can connect telepathically to hardware, still functioning, in giant alien skulls, and which are used by spaceships as a form of FTL communications. By the end of Revenger, Adrana and Fura have beaten dread pirate Bosa Sennen and taken her ships. In Shadow Captain, they need to find a way to let everyone know that Sennen is dead and the two sisters have no plans to follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, they get involved with a gangster on a minor “wheelworld” while trying to resupply, and end up in no better a situation than when the book began. Along the way, Reynolds introduces a pair of mysteries which are likely to form the plot of the final book of the trilogy – the aforementioned waves of civilisation, and the possibility there may have been many more abortive waves; and the likely existence of some planetary object which swings into occupied space at intervals and wreaks havoc. There’s a distinctive flavour to Revenger and Shadow Captain, a sort of Dickensian steampunk aesthetic, which is appealing – although it does slip in a few places, where some technology exists without anything seemingly underpinning it. And the baubles are pretty damn cool. Reynolds has used something similar before, in Diamond Dogs, and it’s an idea that has always appealed to me (see John Morressy’s Under a Calculating Star and the movie Galaxy of Terror). The third book, currently titled Bone Silence, is due in January next year. I plan to buy a copy.

The Pyramid, William Golding (1967, UK). I’m not sure what to make of Golding. Here’s a writer who’s chiefly known for his debut novel, but went on to write a further fourteen or so books, all of which are generally highly-regarded but nowhere near as popular or well-known as his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Which, to be honest, I read at school, as probably did many UK schoolchildren. But I stumbled across three of his books in a charity shop a couple of years ago and decided to give him a go. And I was extremely impressed by the first one I read, Rites of Passage. And the second (well, third) novel by him I read was The Inheritors, which was odd, and an odd choice of subject, but very good. So I asked my mother to keep an eye open for his books in charity shops, and she found me three more, of which The Pyramid was one. And… it’s not at all what I expected, based on what I’d previously read by him. It’s set in the 1920s in a small town near “Barchester”, although if there are any other references of links to Trollope’s series they’d be lost on me as I’ve never read Trollope. The protagonist of The Pyramid, Oliver, is a young man due shortly to study chemistry at Oxford. Before he leaves, he wants to make out with the nubile receptionist from the doctor’s surgery next-door, who, it is implied, has a “reputation” (it is later revealed she is fifteen). Oliver succeeds – and it’s quite clearly rape, and described as such later, although the narrative seems to brush it off. Oliver returns home a few years later during his time at Oxford, and ends up involved in a local play, where he plays a gypsy violinist (as he plays the piano and violin) and a spear-carrier. But it all goes comically wrong. The final section is set decades later, when Oliver returns home as an old man, and learns the truth about some of inhabitants of the town he knew as a child. I’m not entirely sure what Golding is trying to say with The Pyramid. The various sections are linked by Oliver and place, and some shared characters, but otherwise seem not at all connected. The protagonist is not at all likeable, and his treatment of the teenage girl – and the narrative’s – has not aged well at all. The preoccupation with social class – the title refers to “the crystal pyramid” of social class – reads oddly to a twenty-first century reader, even a British one. To be honest, Waugh writes about class much much better than Golding does here – perhaps because the only intelligent way to write about class is as satire. In all, The Pyramid feels like a minor work, but I’ve more of his books on the TBR and I plan to read them.

The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh (1948, UK). I also asked my mother to keep an eye open for books by Evelyn Waugh – I forget why; I think I’d just watched the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, fancied reading some of his novels and found a couple in charity shops myself… Anyway, I asked her to look out for them, and the next time we met up, she gave me a carrier bag containing a dozen of them. Which was considerably more than I’d expected. Quite a few of them were tatty Penguin paperbacks from the 1950s, which I didn’t mind as these were books I planned to read and pass on. I bought four of them with me to Sweden, including The Loved One. Which is a thin novel, of no great consequence. It’s set in Hollywood during the 1940s, immediately post-war, I think. The protagonist, Dennis Barlow, is a Brit, who worked for a major studio but was let go. He now works for a pet burial service. Which is a career the rest of the British expat community think is diminishes their standing among the Angelinos. This is especially the opinion of Sir Ambrose, who works at the studio which once employed Barlow. And also lets Sir Ambrose go, by simply giving his job to a relative of a manager (this is why employment laws are a good thing). Meanwhile, Barlow has met Aimee, a beautician at Whispering Glades, an upmarket cemetery that could only ever exist in California. And maybe in Florida. Barlow woos Aimee using poetry by assorted great poets which he claims to be his own verse. But then Aimee learns where Barlow works, and she has as low an opinion of the pet burial service as Sir Ambrose. The Loved One is mildly amusing, and Whispering Glades is certainly a good satirical creation, but the Barlow and Aimee are too much the naifs and the rest of the cast are all pretty much caricatures. Still, even second-tier Waugh is pretty damn good prose.

Crimes Against Humanity, Susan R Matthews (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book back in the late 1990s (I reread it and reviewed it for SF Mistressworks a few years ago; see here). There’s been quite a gap in the novels’ publication history. The books were originally published by Avon, who dropped Matthews after the opening trilogy and two standalone novels. She was then picked up by Roc, who published a further two Under Jurisdiction novels before dropping her. The next novel in the series came out from Meisha Merlin, who went bust shortly afterwards. That was in 2006. And it wasn’t until 2016, when Baen started publishing her, starting with two omnibus editions containing the six Under Jurisdiction novels, that we started to see new entries in the series: Blood Enemies (see here), Fleet Insurgent (a collection; see here), and now Crimes Against Humanity. This novel follows on from the preceding ones – and it’s get to be quite a  complicated story arc by this point – with Kosciusko settled in Gonebeyond space, and the nine Benches deciding torture is a Bad Thing so they no longer need their military torturers. One of whom hates Kosciusko – for being slapped down in the past after abusing bond involuntaries, because Kosciusko is so much more skilled than him, and because Kosciusko’s actions have pretty much resulted in him, in all torturers, losing his job… So a wealthy capitalist, with lots of fingers in illegal pies, including in Gonebeyond space, and especially including slavery, uses the torturer in a plot to kidnap Kosciusko. It all comes to a head during a raid against the slavers and the rescue of the unsold slaves they abandoned. The plot involves infecting Kosciusko with a tailored virus. Unfortunately, it spreads to all the Dolgorukij (Kosciusko’s race). The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and Matthews does her usual where she throws the reader straight in at the deep end. The narrative has to bend itself over backwards considerably more these days to make Kosciusko a sympathetic protagonist – I mean, even back in the 1990s a torturer as a lead character was a hard sell, but these days, post-Gitmo, post-rendition, post-Bush, it would be almost impossible… Except maybe not, as there’s a shit ton of crap science fiction out there which normalises shitty US tactics like torture. Crimes Against Humanity plays it heavy on taking responsibility and the inappropriateness of forgiveness for such crimes; but it also comes down hard on slavery. Which makes the novel feel more contemporary in sensibilities and not a novel that should have seen print 20 years ago. I do like these books, and the story’s by no means finished, but I’m not sure if there any new books in the pipeline.

You Must Remember Us…, Leonard Daventry (1980, UK). I latched onto Daventry years ago when trying to put together a list of forgotten British sf authors, and found a copy of his best-known novel, A Man of Double Deed (see here), the first book of the Keyman trilogy, the second and third books of which don’t appear to have been published in paperback in the UK, only in the US, and the hardback editions were published by Robert Hale, copies of whose books are as rare as rocking-horse shit these days (apparently because most of their sales were to libraries). My copy of You Must Remember Us…, Daventry’s last novel, was published by Robert Hale, and I was extremely lucky to find a near-mint condition copy on eBay for around £20 a year or two ago. It was one of the books I brought with me to Sweden. And… it’s not very good. The earth has managed to destroy itself, and a last starship has escaped from the UK. The carefully-selected crew, however, didn’t make it to the launch site in Wales in time, so those aboard are whoever was available at the time. And they’re sort of muddling along, managing to keep everything running, for the ten-year journey to Alpha Centauri (the means propulsion is left vague). En route, they come across a deserted alien spacecraft, and four of them explore it but find nothing except a line of enigmatic symbols. The ship then vanishes. Some time later, members of the crew begin to develop extremely fast-growing, and fatal, tumours. There is only one cure: they have to transplant their brains into robot bodies. This doesn’t go down too well, and only fifteen of the crew make the change. They then sleep for twenty years. And when they wake up, they’re orbiting an Earth-like planet inhabited by a Neolithic humanoid people… who see the robot crew as gods. It’s all very British, and surprisingly old-fashioned for 1980. A Man of Double Deed had a flavour all its own, but You Must Remember Us… feels very ordinary. Brains transplanted into robot bodies is a relatively common sf trope, and has been around for a long time – ‘Helen ‘O’Loy’ from 1938, for example – and even made appearance in the execrable Legends of Dune series by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson. These days, of course, it’s not an actual transplant that’s used, more a downloading of the consciousness – the mind as software – such as in Jennifer Pelland’s very good Machine. Daventry’s novel doesn’t add anything to the trope, and I’m not really surprised it never made it into paperback and has been pretty much forgotten. I’d still like to read the rest of the Keyman trilogy, however.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Reading diary 2019, #2

I should do another book haul post but, well, the new books are all in boxes. And who knows when I’ll see them again… Meanwhile I’ve bought myself a Kindle and I’ve loaded it up with ebook versions of some of my recent purchases so I can actually get to read them even though they’re going straight into storage. The following half dozen books, however, were read old school, ie, paper. I’ll be taking a few paperbacks with me, of course, but space and weight is limited.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar, Dunya Mikhail (2018, Iraq). My mother lent me this and I think it was one of her friends who either recommended it or lent it to her. It is, to be honest, not usual reading material for either of us. I don’t think anyone needs to be told that ISIS, AKA Daesh, are nasty pieces of work – especially with Shemima Begum all over the UK news last month. (For the record, she’s a British citizen and has every right to return to the UK, and revoking her citizenship is disgusting, never mind illegal; but that’s the scumbag Tories for you.) The Beekeeper of Sinjar is specifically about the Daesh genocide of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group from the region, whose monotheistic religion is distinct from the Abrahamic religions. Daesh would slaughter the men and elderly, and sell off the women at slave markets to Daesh members. A number of the Daesh described in the book were either American or Russian. The title refers to a man who still lives in the area, and helps Yazidi women escape their Daesh captors. Sometimes it’s just a matter of paying off the Daesh man holding a woman captive, other times the women have to be spirited away and smuggled across the border. The book is structured as a series of telephone conversations between US-based Mikhail and the beekeeper, during which the beekeeper often tells the stories of the women, and occasionally, men he has rescued. It’s harrowing stuff. And let’s not forget, Daesh is Blair’s and Bush’s legacy. Unfortunately, The Beekeeper of Sinjar suffers by being quite badly written. Partly it’s the nature of conversations – although the poetry excerpts add little – and the book never really gives a clear idea of what the Yazidi are (I had to look them up on Wikipedia to learn they have their own religion, for example). Certainly, the story in The Beekeeper of Sinjar needs to be told, but I think I would have preferred something more like reportage than Mikhail’s attempt to humanise events.

The Final Solution, Michael Chabon (2003, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I continue to read Chabon. I find his particular style of over-egged prose not to my taste, and as it’s as evident in The Final Solution‘s 127 pages as it is his longer works. The story is relatively simple, although it tries for cleverness – as Chabon often does – and while it doesn’t rely on an explanatory essay, like Gentleman of the Road (which, I must admit, I did enjoy; see here), the point of The Final Solution hinges on the reader realising something that’s not in the text – although the book’s title is a bloody great huge signpost. In 1944, a retired detective, who is clearly Sherlock Holmes, although he’s never named as such, is dragged into one last case to find the missing parrot belonging a mute German Jewish boy staying at a nearby vicarage. The bird’s disappearance coincides with the murder of another of the vicarage’s lodgers, and it’s surmised he was trying to steal the parrot – which has a habit of reeling off long strings of numbers in German, which many think are code – but was  himself robbed of the bird. Chabon handle his Holmes quite well, although Holmes’s irascibility often makes him more annoying than sympathetic, and his approach to the mystery make the plot anything but straightforward. Not a bad light read, but Gentleman of the Road was better.

Boneland, Alan Garner (2012, UK). This is third book in a trilogy begun with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a book I remember from my childhood as a quintessential English fantasy, completed nearly half a century after the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, was published, because Garner had grown to dislike his characters. Boneland is also not a children’s book. The protagonist is Colin, the boy from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but he has forgotten all the events of that book – in fact, he can’t remember anything that happened to him before the age of thirteen. He’s now a radio astronomer, working at Jodrell Bank, and living in a hut in a nearby wood. He’s hugely intelligent, but has problems socialising. He visits a psychotherapist, and she more or less teases him into being sociable with him. It’s a relationship that feels like to belongs in a genre novel from fifty years ago – and not a genre novel like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. There’s something of the fell of a mouthpiece character to her – certainly, she seems to carry more weight in the story than her role would indicate. Colin’s story is crosscut with that of a shaman living in the same area  thousands of years previously. Both are protecting something, although neither seem entirely sure what. Boneland is not an easy read. Even by the end, it’s not entirely clear what role each of the main trio of characters play. But the writing is really good – Garner is a master at writing about landscape – (but it’s also very talky) and though it’s only a thin novel of 149 pages, there’s a great deal in it. It probably needs a reread.

Without a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal (2013, USA). This is the third book in Kowal’s Regency fantasy series, and while – being a huge fan of Georgette Heyer and having read a number of US Regency romances – I had thought it’d take some convincing for me to accept a US-written Regency-set novel, and a genre one to boot, but I have to admit Kowal has done an excellent job on these. She has the dialogue down to a tee, and the prose is not far behind. She manages the sensibilities well enough that a British reader can find no cause to complain, and she incorporates real world history in such a way it adds to the plot. (Although I read a couple by US writer Fiona Hall, a pseudonym of Ellen Pall, back in the 1990s that did something similar and weren’t bad.) Anyway, 1816 – not 1916, as the backcover blurb claims – did indeed suffer climate abnormalities, due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 (not to be confused with Krakatoa, East of Java, which is actually west of Java, and happened in 1883). The extended winter has meant the coldmongers – who use magic to chill things, and are all children, much like sweeps, because of the perils of their occupation – can find no work, and are being blamed for the unseasonal weather. It turns out the coldmongers are planning a march to protest their poor lot, but an unscrupulous peer intends to escalate it into a full-blown rebellion so he can unseat the current prime minister (I think; I can’t check as the book has gone into storage). Protagonist Jane, and her husband David, get dragged into the plot due to a family connection and their sympathies for the coldmongers. It ends with the pair of them held in the Tower of London for treason but, of course, they can hardly be hanged as there are two books following this one. That’s probably Without a Summer‘s chief fault – the jeopardy is meaningless, because the two leads are sure to be found innocent and restored to their former position. Still, a fun read, and I plan to get the sequels.

Mission Child, Maureen F McHugh (1998, USA). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this novel. It had neither a plot nor did it need to be science fiction. And yet it was good. Janna is a teenage girl at an “appropriate technology mission” in the far north. Although the local culture resembles Inuit, the people of the region seem to be descended from northern Europeans. A local tribe wipes out the mission, and only a handful of people escape, including Janna and her husband. They trek to to another tribe, with whom they share kinship, but are never made entirely welcome. Then the tribe that attacked the mission attacks this other tribe, and again Janna and her husband escape. But he dies during the escape, and Janna makes it alone to a coastal city, where she is put in a refugee camp. She is mistaken for a man and chooses to impersonate that gender for reasons of safety, although later she decides she is transgender. Janna, now Jan, moves to another city and links up with another tribal person who’s a bit of wideboy, full of semi-legal schemes and deals. Jan gets a job as a technician, brings over a shaman from the refugee camp, and ends up as his helper when the wideboy is murdered after dealing in something high tech he stumbled across. Jan eventually falls out with the shaman and sets off travelling. He ends up on a tropical islands, whose inhabitants are descended from a mix of Indian and Chinese settlers, where he hires out as a bodyguard. But his employer is killed in a raid (this part of the book was originally published as a short story, I believe), and so Jan takes his employer’s daughter to her grandmother on another island, and ends up settling down there. He ends up helping offworlder medics when a plague strikes the islands as he is immune to the disease thanks to a medical implant he was  given back in the first chapter. For all that the novel is about the impact of high tech offworlders on the cultures of Jan’s world, there’s no good reason I could see why the novel needed to be set on another world, or even sf. Certainly it gave McHugh free rein in envisaging cultures to make her various points, but it does all feel a bit, well, arbitrary. Which is not to say Mission Child is a bad novel. Far from it. McHugh was definitely one of US science  fiction’s more interesting writers during the 1990s (she has not published anything in long-form since 2001), and I should probably give her short fiction ago (there are two collections to date, both published this century). Mission Child is a bit of a puzzler: a book that is clearly genre, but doesn’t really need to be, but works so well as genre it seems churlish to complain it didn’t have to be genre.

Brideshead Revisited*, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK). There are many who consider this the finest novel written in English literature. I can’t agree, although it is very good. But I’m not even sure it’s Waugh’s best novel. I thought Sword of Honour better, to be honest. But then, Brideshead Revisited is not a satire, and even Waugh admits he over-wrote it in places. Which is not to say the prose is not good, because even over-written Waugh is fucking classy prose, and way more impressive and readable than, say, Chabon, who I also find over-writes. But Brideshead Revisited suffers from an odd structure, which the television series simplified (and I saw the TV series long before I read the novel), and an extended chronology that covers far more time than there are chapters. It opens with Charles Ryder in uniform during WW2 finding himself back at Brideshead, the seat of the Flyte family, old Catholic aristocracy. Back in his university days, Ryder had made friends with Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son. He had become a friend of the family, but fell out with them when they tried to control Sebastian’s drinking with a strategy he felt would make things worse. (It did.) Years later, married and with children, he bumps into Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and begins an affair with her. The two decide to marry once their individual divorces go through, but the estranged father returns to the family seat to die and everything changes. The framing narrative – Ryder in WW2 – provides only a prologue and an epilogue, and the title too, of course – but the way Ryder lives his life throughout the 1920s and 1930s but the narrative only deals with his interactions with the Flyte family… not to mention the faint smell of fawnication over the aristocracy that pervades the novel, and the fascination with Catholicism (which does, to be fair, result in one of the novels’s best comic scenes), makes it all a less likeable read than it should be. That it succeeds is totally down to Waugh’s prose, even if it is more florid than usual (although I read the later edition, in which Waugh toned it down somewhat). Some of the characters are close to caricatures – especially Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche and Kurt – but Waugh handles his female characters surprisingly well. Brideshead Revisited is a definitely a book worth reading, but if you had to read a single Waugh novel I wouldn’t recommend it as the one to read. Having said that, I now want to watch the TV series all over again. And I’d like to see the 2008 film adaptation too.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Reading diary 2019, #1

I seem to be slacking on the reading from this year. My excuse is sorting all my shit out – that’s a few thousand books, for a start – before I move to Sweden… This will be the third time I’ve moved to another country, and it never gets any easier.

The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, Robert Goddard (2013 – 2015, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s novels for years – I think I first came across them when I was living in the UAE – and found them to be light undemanding thrillers, sometimes a little formulaic, sometimes a little too implausible – but quick and easy reads. The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, collectively known as the James Maxted trilogy, or the Wide World trilogy, are historical thrillers, not contemporary like his usual fare, and take place just before, during and after the peace talks in Paris which resulted in the Treaty of Versaille in 1919. The story opens when the father of James ‘Max’ Maxted, who is part of the British delegation in Paris, is found dead, seemingly by suicide after jumping from a high roof. Max smells foul play, and heads off to France to uncover the truth… which drags him into a mystery stretched over three books, and which initially seems to be about catching the ex-head of Kaiser Wilhelm’s intelligence bureau, now on the loose and with an extensive network of spies for sale to the highest bidder, before abruptly swerving halfway through the trilogy toward a family secret, located in Japan. So it all reads a bit like two stories welded together into a single trilogy. It doesn’t help that the hero is apparently killed off in book two – he isn’t really; I mean, no one writing commercial fiction would do something like that. But the two main plots sit uneasily together, and The Ways of the World has to tie itself in knots to kick off the first plot without hinting at the second. Goddard’s prose is easy to read, and his research is generally pretty good. The characters are perhaps somewhat broad-brush, but that’s hardly unexpected. But at least in this trilogy he’s managed to avoid his usual tendency to wrap up his story a bit too quickly. But if you want to read a book set in Japan in the early twentieth century, read Yukio Mishima. One for Goddard fans.

The Ninth Rain, Jen Williams (2017, UK). I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy (of the secondary world variety), and what few fantasy novels I read after the turn of the century did little to change my opinion. Grimdark is fucking horrible, and while the recent trend toward more inclusive fantasies is an excellent move, and long overdue, many of the resulting novels seem very derivative. But friends of mine are big fans of Jen Williams, so I  thought I might at least give her a go. And the good news is, there’s an interesting world on display here, and a plot that moves from start to finish without excess flab. On the other hand, the characters are all a bit stereotypical: the prettyboy playboy who’s also excellent at combat (and a super-strong vampire to boot); the slightly absent-minded curious one who’s also massively wealthy; and the underdog with special powers, which increase as the novel progresses. Eight times in the past, nasty aliens, sort of a cross between Giger’s xenomorphs and giant insects, have invaded the world, and been beaten off by the Eborans – really long-lived and good-looking and a bit decadent, so sort of like elves, but their tree-god, whose sap they lived off, died after the last invasion, so now they drink blood, so sort of like elf vampires… Anyway, said tree-god would provide a host of magical feasts to fight the invaders – these are the “rains”. It looks like the aliens might be gearing up for another invasion, but there are no Eborans to fight them, and no tree-god to provide magical warbeasts. Which the reader gradually learns as the plot takes the central trio all over the world researching the whys and wherefores of the aliens. To be honest, I really didn’t like the start of the fell-witch character’s narrative, in which women, often young girls, who exhibit the power are abducted and treated worse than slaves by an organisation that forces them to use their power to develop a popular drug. But the rest of the story made up for it. I’m not a fan of fantasy as a genre, as stated above, but I do sort of like ones that feel like science fiction, such as The Fifth Season. And The Ninth Rain. (The ordinal numbers in the titles are obviously just coincidence.) I enjoyed this book, I’ll probably even read the rest of the trilogy.

Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh (1942, UK). This was the first of Waugh’s WWII satires, published in 1942, so during the war, but, unlike Sword of Honour (see here), it’s a sequel of sorts to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, and follows some of the characters introduced in those novels. Basil Seal, something of a reprobate, discovers a way to make money by dumping an incorrigible trio of East End kids on rural aristos as part of the evacuation programme. Another character joins the military and finds himself engaged in work of little or no use to the war effort – which, to be fair, Sword of Honour covered much better (admittedly, that book was written post-war). A week or two after finishing Put Out More Flags and I can’t honestly say I remember much of the plot. The characters are very much the same as in the earlier books, the only difference is the war, the run-up to it, and its early years. For all his faults as a human being – he was apparently a nasty piece of work – Waugh can bloody write. His characters are unsympathetic for a number of reasons: they’re the epitome of entitled British upper classes, usually incredibly stupid and thoughtless, and amazingly selfish. It’s only the fact Waugh’s prose is so enjoyable, and his eye for comedy, that make the books enjoyable.

The Girl King, Mimi Yu (2019, USA). This was a review book for Interzone. It’s hardly my first choice of reading material – see above – but the pickings were slim and the plot summary sounded like it might be worth a go. In a fantasy world clearly inspired by Chinese history, the oldest daughter of the emperor, who is very much a martial tomboy type, is passed over for the throne and instead married off to a cousin she hates. Before the ceremony takes place, she tries to change things so she’ll be seen as a better heir than her cousin – but they plan to kill her. She escapes. And hooks up with the last of a race of werewolves, except he’s not sure about his powers. And it’s all to do with a magical city hidden in the magical “Inbetween”, because the cousin wants the city’s powers for himself. And… the two protagonists, the tomboy and her sister, who turns out be a villain, are both teenage, so is this supposed to be YA? I can no longer tell the difference between YA fantasy and fantasy. I am not, I admit, well-read in the former, but those YA fantasies I have read seemed little different to the fantasies I used to read back in the 1980s and 1990s. I mean, while I never bothered with David Eddings’s novels – at least not until trying Pawn of Prophecy this century (see here), and being hugely unimpressed – I could’t help noticing that they’d been rebadged as YA not so long ago. But that may have just been a cynical marketing ploy to reach a bigger audience. The Girl King is published by Gollancz, an imprint with a lot of history in science fiction, but that means nothing as these days it seems to be mostly buying YA-friendly fantasy properties. Anyway, see the next Interzone for the full review.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133


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Best of the year 2018

I usually do these posts in early December, which is not exactly the end of the year. But I’ve been so busy the last few weeks, I’ve not had the chance – which means this best of the year actually represents what I read, watched and listened to in all of 2018. This is likely the best way to do it.

And what a year it was. The Big Project at work finally ended in September. I applied for a job in Sweden, was offered it, and accepted. I made five visits to Nordic countries during the twelve months: twice each to Sweden and Denmark, once to Iceland. I beat my 140 books read Goodreads challenge by ten books. I watched 547 films new to me, from 52 different countries, forty-nine of them by female directors. I didn’t do much listening to music, I have to admit and I only went to two gigs: Therion in February and Wolves in the Throne Room in June.

And then there was Brexit. Yes, we had the referendum two years ago, and 17 million people – around a third of the actual electorate, so not a majority – voted for something very very stupid and self-destructive, in response to a campaign that told outright lies and broke election law. None of which is apparently enough to consider Brexit a travesty of democracy. And just to make things even worse, the last two years have demonstrated just how useless and incompetent the UK’s current government is, and how committed they are to destroying the country’s economy and perhaps even ending the union. Their latest scam is giving a £14 million contract to a ferry company that owns no ferries and has never operated any ferries previously. The whole lot of them should be in prison. Who knows what 2019 will bring? Will the government see sense and revoke Article 50? I think it unlikely given how racist May is and how committed she is to ending freedom of movement. Her deal will likely be the one that goes into effect, and it’ll be voted through because no deal is an unthinkable alternative.

But me, I’ll be out of it. Living in another country, a civilised country. I can’t wait.

This post, however is, as the title cunningly suggests, my pick of the best books, films and albums I consumed during 2018. (Position in my Best of the half-year post is in square brackets for each book, film and album.)

books
1 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). [-] My father had a sizeable collection of Penguin paperbacks he’d bought direct from the publisher in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve no idea why he bought them, but he certainly read them. After he died, I took a couple of dozen of them for myself. Including two by Faulkner. And it’s taken me a while to get round to reading one of them… And I loved it. It tells the story of a family from three viewpoints, and from them you have to piece together exactly what happened. It’s set in the Deep South at the beginning of the twentieth century, so of course it’s very racist. But that feels like something Faulkner wrote because overt racism was endemic in that place and at that time (and still is now, to be fair), and not a sensibility of the author that has leaked through into the text. I now want to read everything Faulkner wrote.

2 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK) [1]. Being knocked off the top spot, which is where this book was in my best of the half-year, by William Faulkner is no bad thing. The Smoke is genre, and was published by a genre imprint, but it’s not a book that invites easy description. It does some things I don’t think I’ve seen genre novels do before, and it crashes together ideas that really shouldn’t work on their own, never mind side by side. It’s set in alternate mid-twentieth century, where “biophotonic rays” have radically altered the world. Animalistic homunculi created by the rays have spread throughout Europe, and a secular group of Jews turned the ray on themselves and now lead the world in technology by a century or more. The Smoke is a story about a man whose mother has been reborn as an infant in order cure her of her cancer, a treatment pioneered by his ex-girlfriend’s father… The Smoke reads like an unholy mash-up of so many things that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. In fact, it rises above them.

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2018, UK) [3]. This is where the top five sort of gets all Schrödinger, because this novel and the two below might well have, on any other day, been swapped out for one of the honourable mentions. But I’ve kept The Rift here, in the same spot it occupied in my best of the half year, because Allan’s two previous novels never quite gelled for me. They felt like fix-ups, but without a framing narrative or much in the way of a link between the constituent parts. But The Rift is coherent whole, from start to finish. It has an interesting plot, which it not only fails to resolve but presents several possible mutually-exclusive endings all at the same time. A woman’s sister reappears several decades after mysteriously vanishing and claims to have been living on an alien world. Is she telling the truth? Is she indeed the long-lost sister? Or was the sister murdered years before by a spree killer? Everything about the story confounds a One True Reading, which is its strength.

4 Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima (1962, Japan) [-]. I bought this on the strength of Paul Schrader’s film about Mishima, although I was aware of how Mishima had died. The novel is the first of a quartet, and details the illicit affair between the son of a wealthy family with the daughter of much less wealthy aristocratic family. They have been friends since childhood, but he grew irritated with her affections and so convinced her he could never love her. But now she has been affianced to an Imperial prince, and the two conduct an clandestine affair. The writing is crystal clear, and even though set in a culture not my own, and a history of which I know only a few small bits and pieces, Mishima makes everything comprehensible. I’ve seen historical novels set in Britain by British writers that are larded with footnotes and info-dumps. Mishima was writing for a Japanese readership, obviously, but it’s astonishing how he makes his narrative flow like water.

5 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK) [-]. I’m a huge fan of Gentle’s fiction, and buy each of her books on publication. And it continually astonishes me she seems to go out of print almost immediately. I bought 1610: A Sundial in a Grave back in 2003. But for some reason, it sat on my bookshelves for 15 years before I finally got around to reading it. Possibly because it’s a pretty damn large hardback. And… I loved it. It’s that mix of fantasy and historical Gentle does so well, better in fact than anyone else. There’s a slight framing device, but the bulk of the story is the journal of a seventeenth-century French adventurer who has to flee France when a faked-up plot to kill Henri IV actually does just that. He ends up in a plot in England by Edward Fludd to kill James I, along with the sole survivor of a Japanese mission and a sixteen-year-old crossdressing sword prodigy he believes to be male but with whom he falls in love. It’s brilliant stuff – thick with historical detail, visceral and smelly and real. The novel’s fantasy content is also fascinating, a sort of reworking of ideas from the White Crow books, but thoroughly embedded in the history.

Honourable mentions: Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada), a fascinating study of a Mennonite girl, by a Mennonite writer, in a Mexican colony, inspired by the excellent film Stellet Licht, I will be reading more by Toews; Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK), intriguing historical novel set in early New York, paints a portrait of a fascinating, if horrifying, place; If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK) [hb], any other year and this might have made the top five, the sort of liminal sf the British do so well, historical and alternate history, not unlike Ings’s novel above; The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France) [hb], a contrived plot but a fascinating lesson in semiotics and Roland Barthes, cleverly mixed into real history; The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK) [hb], a book that has grown on me since I read it, an elegy on both the Matter of Britain and genre fantasy, that is a more intelligent commentary than 99% of actual genre fantasies; Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK) [2] [hb], autobiography by Green, written because he thought he might not survive WWII, but he did, a fascinating and beautifully written look at life among the privileged in 1920s Britain; Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA) [5] [hb], a semi-utopian community created around an aircraft factory in the late years of WWII and how it fell apart once the war was over, beautifully written.

films
1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska 2015, Poland) [1] No change for one of the most bizarre films I watched in 2018, and I watched a lot of bizarre films. Carnivorous mermaids in 1980s Poland. Who join a band. In a nightclub. With music. It is entirely sui generis. It also looks fantastic, the mermaids are scary as shit, and the music is pretty good – if not technically entirely 1980s. I watched a rental of this and love it so much I bought myself the Blu-ray.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK) [2] No change here either. And the fact I love this film continues to astonish me. I’m not a Nolan fan but something about this – the cinematography, the sound design, the total absence of plot… appealed to me so much, I bought myself a Blu-ray copy after watching a streamed version. Perhaps it’s because the hardware features so heavily in it and I love machines. I’m not sure. It’s one of the most immersive films I’ve ever watched. Perhaps that’s it.

3 Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden) [-] Three girls discover a magic seed that transforms them into boys, and they get to experience life as the other gender – and they’re each in a position to appreciate the advantages of being male. This film just blew me away with its treatment of its premise, and then did more by turning the stereotype – girl becomes boy becomes bad boy – into something meaningful.

4 Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria) [-] A film which comprises a series of vignettes in the life of the eponymous woman, all of which are inspired by, and set up to resemble, paintings by Edwin Hopper. It sounds like something that belongs in a modern art museum, and it probably should be there, but it is also a beautiful piece of cinema. There’s something about the look of the film – attributable to Hopper, of course – which makes something special of it. It also made me more appreciative of Hopper’s art.

5 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway) [3] Comparisons with Carrie are both inevitable and do this Norwegian take on the story an injustice. When something is a thousand times better than something it might resemble, why forever harp on about the resemblance? De Palma’s film is a blunt instrument compared to Trier’s, although to be fair to Trier he does push the religious angle quite heavily. But Thelma looks great, and its lead is very impressive indeed.

Honourable mentions: to be honest, I’m not sure if some of these should not have appeared in the above five – that’s the peril of choosing a top five, especially when you’ve watched so many bloody good films, or just so many bloody films… Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China) [-] although not associated with any “generation” of Chinese film-makers, this film exhibits all the hallmarks of the Sixth Generation: a semi-documentary feel, disaffected youth, narrative tricks… and it does it like a master of the form; Vampir Cuadec, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain) [4] I loved this experimental film so much I tracked down a 22-film collection from Spain of Portabella’s works and bought it, this particular film is a heavily-filtered re-edit of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula that turns cheap commercial horror into avant garde cinema; India Song, Marguerite Duras (1975, France) [5] my first Duras and such a remarkably different way to present a film narrative, sadly her movies aren’t available in UK editions but I would dearly love to see more; Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal) [-] I love Sembène’s films and this might be his best, the story of the hapless eponymous man who spends money he doesn’t have and chases down the paperwork he needs to cash it in, even though it’s not his, a beautifully pitched comedy; Stellet licht, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico) [-] precisely the sort of film that appeals to me – slow, beautifully shot, and a slow unveiling of the plot; War and Peace, parts 1-3,  Sergei Bondarchuk (1966-1967, USSR) [-] movies as they used to make them, a cast of tens of thousands, more technical innovations than you could shake a large stick at, and the widest screen on the planet, and despite there not being a single decent 70 mm print in existence what remains is more than sufficient to show this was a remarkable piece of film-making… and I’ve not even seen the final part yet; Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA) [-] why not a Disney animated movie? I’ve been working my way through them and this is one of the best, despite the mawkishness and frankly dubious message.

albums
Frighteningly, I only bought ten albums in 2018. Music really seems to have drifted out of my life. Which is a shame as, well, I like it a lot. But I generally have a fast turnover in music and will move onto something new quite quickly. I’m not one of those people who can listen to the same album over and over again for years. But I do have my “classics”, albums I return to again and again. And that list, of course, is always evolving…

On the other hand, my album picks each year tend to be from albums published during the year as I don’t “discover” older music as much as I do books or films.

1 No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland). I liked Kontinuum’s previous album, Kyrr, especially the track ‘Breathe’, but No Need to Reason is much much better. In places, it’s a bit like mid-career Anathema, although deeper and heavier. In other places, it’s a bit post-metal, or a bit rocky, or a bit, well, heavy. It’s probably that melange of styles that appeals to me the most – all filtered, of course, through a metal sensibility.

2 Slow Motion Death Sequence, MANES (2018, Norway). Frank Zappa once wrote that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and certainly I’ve yet to find a way to explain in print why some music appeals to me and some doesn’t. I don’t, as a rule like EBM, but MANES might well be classified as that – although, to me, they come to it with a black metal sensibility because they were once a black metal band. They changed their sound, quite drastically, yet for me something of their origin remains in the mix. I’ve no idea if that’s true or exists only in my head. I do know that MANES approach to electronica, and their occasional use of heavy guitar, seems very metal to me and I like it a lot.

The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018, USA) I’ve been following Panopticon since stumbling across one of their albums which mixed bluegrass/folk and atmospheric black metal, and over the past few years I’ve seen them – well, him, as it’s a one-man band – grow increasingly sophisticated in his use of the two musical genres. And here he’s at his current best – the folk sections are excellent and fade naturally into the black metal and vice versa. I’ve been impressed by all of Panopticon’s albums, but this one was the fastest like of them all. Everyone should be listening to them.

Currents, In Vain (2018, Norway). Ten years ago, I suspect this may not have made my top five. It’s good – because In Vain are good, But their previous albums were better, and this feels less musically adventurous than them, which is perhaps why I think it less successful. It’s solid progressive black metal from someone who has made the genre their own, but nothing in Currents is as playful as tracks on earlier albums. I liked that about them. Good stuff, nonetheless; just not as good as previously.

The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018, USA). Some bands are easy to categorise, others require such detailed tagging that they might as well be in a category all their own. Entransient are sort of progressive rock, but they’re a little too heavy to be just rock, and yet their music is not intricate enough to be metal. Some might call that heavy rock. But Entransient feel like they have elements of metal in their music, even if they mostly make use of non-metal forms. One of the tracks on this album has harmonies you would never find on a metal album, and yet works really well. Entransient give the impression they aren’t trying very hard to be anything other than what they want to be. They’re just writing songs down the line they’ve chosen… But they seem to be operating in a much bigger, and more interesting, space than they might have imagined.

Hopefully, my changed circumstances in 2019 will have me watching less films, reading more books, and listening to more music. And buying less books too, of course.


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Reading diary 2018, #21

Another eclectic bunch of books read. Only one recent genre novel (and one old one). The rest are mainstream.

A Winter Book, Tove Jansson (1971, Finland). Jansson apparently came to adult fiction late. She was in her fifties before she wrote her first novel that wasn’t children’s fiction. She also wrote a number of short stories. A Winter Book is cobbled together from a previous collection – not translated into English, IIRC – and a number of uncollected stories. They’re grouped thematically, and many deal with childhood in some way. Except for the ones that are about old age. Those who have read other fiction by Jansson will know what to expect. She’s very good at describing  the world she knew – pretty much every story she wrote drew on her own life. So we have stories set in Finnish winters, and stories that take place among the islands during the summer. It’s all very smooth and effortless storytelling, although some stories are more interesting than others. And yet, the collection itself doesn’t exactly linger. I read it more than a month ago and I’d be hard-pressed to describe any of the stories in it. Perhaps it’s that smoothness. Worth reading, though I suspect fans will get more out of it than I did.

Marune: Alastor 993, Jack Vance (1975, USA). I’m not sure why I picked this one off the shelves for a reread, given that previous Vance rereads haven’t gone so well. But I had fond memories of his Alastor Cluster series, and if the books were going to go back into storage I might as well remind myself of those fond memories. And… Marune: Alastor 993 was a much better book than I’d remembered it. Or rather: I’d remembered it as middling Vance, but it was a better put-together narrative than Star King, which I’d remembered as good Vance. The plot is one Vance has used several times: the amnesiac who has to research his origin and background, and discovers that his amnesia was deliberately induced in order to improve his rivals’, or enemies’, lot. Of course, the book’s real charm lies in the bizarre society the amnesiac belongs to. And, of course, his experiences away from his people have given him a broader outlook, which allows him to think past his family’s customs and traditions, and so he takes his rightful place as head of the family and overcomes his rivals and the family’s enemies. Although his amnesia does get in the way at times… Vance wrote two other Alastor Clusters books: Trullion: Alastor 2262 and Wyst: Alastor 1716. I might give them a reread before they go into storage.

The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I’m a big fan of Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, which is easily one of the best first contact sf series ever written – and certainly contains one of the genre’s best-written villains in Elizabeth Weatherall – not to mention thinking Duchamp’s short story ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ is a bona fide genre classic… So any new work by her is a cause for celebration. Except, she’s not always an easy read, and not because her prose is especially hard. There are lots of things in The Waterdancer’s World to like, but I still struggled to read it. It doesn’t help that its narrative is formed from multiple journals, all from different times during the history of the world Frogmore, because some of the narratives were way more engaging than others. There are also excerpts from a “galactic encyclopedia”, which is never a good way to info dump, and in many cases the info wasn’t actually necessary. But I’m a big fan of bending and twisting forms of narrative, so I can’t begrudge Duchamp’s experimentation. Of the various narratives, the journal of Inez Gauthier, the privileged daughter of the head of Frogmore’s occupation forces, is the most interesting; but the eponymous character, who doesn’t actually appear all that often, is the most fascinating person in the novel. There’s a fierce intelligence to Duchamp’s fiction – which is surprisingly rare in science fiction, the only other examples that spring to mind are Gwyneth Jones and Samuel R Delany – but Duchamp’s fiction seems much more, well, researched than those two. In the case of The Waterdancer’s World that has the unfortunate effect of making the sf feel a bit old-fashioned – not in sensibilities, they’re thoroughly twenty-first century; but in the whole look and feel… At times, I was almost visualising sets and costumes from Out of the Unknown, a British sf TV anthology series from the 1960s. Still, it’s all good stuff. I still have Duchamp’s latest to read on the TBR.

Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh (1930, UK). My first Waugh. I hadn’t realised when I decided to work my way through Waugh’s books quite how old they were. I’d known he was writing during the 1940s and 1950s, but it seems much of his fame rests on the novels he wrote in earlier decades satirising the “bright young things” of 1930s London. I do enjoy fiction from that period, although I prefer post-war, but I have at least something to which I can compare Waugh… And the obvious candidate is Henry Green, whose fiction I like a great deal. And who Waugh himself takes a few potshots at in his novels (perhaps not in this one but certainly the one below). Waugh is generally considered one of the best novelists the UK has produced but on the strength of Vile Bodies I’d say Green was better. Vile Bodies, which is apparently a sequel to Decline and Fall (which I also have), opens with the characters crossing the Channel from France, and then getting into various upper-crust scrapes in London. One long-running joke involves the dim-witted father of the female lead, whose less-than-illustrious fiancé wants to marry her, doesn’t have enough money, so he approaches the future father-in-law several times for help. There’s also a trip to a motor race to support a race driver friend, in which an air-head aristocrat socialite finds herself taking the race driver’s place and disappearing off into the wild blue yonder out of control. It’s all very obvious and yet all very cleverly done. And well-written, if not up to Green’s standards. I’ve got most of Waugh’s oeuvre to read, thanks to my mother, and I shall work my way through them. But it’s not looking like he’ll ever become a favourite.

Sword of Honour, Evelyn Waugh (1965, UK). My second (old) Waugh – and it’s also about the Second World War (did you see what I did there?). I’d been hoping to sneak this onto my Goodreads challenge as three books, as Sword of Honour is an omnibus of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. Except it isn’t, as Waugh rewrote the trilogy as a single novel shortly before his death. So it goes down on the challenge as a single book. Anyway… The novel charts the war experience of Guy Crouchback, scion of an old Catholic aristocratic family now fallen on hard times. He has spent the between-war years in Italy and speaks the language fluently. But he’s a bit of a wet, and the British are so thoroughly incompetent they’re incapable of taking advantage of his language skills. The nearest he gets is serving in Croatia near the end of the war. In fact, if there’s one thing that comes across in Sword of Honour it’s how useless the British were. We like to pretend we won WWII, but we didn’t. Not really. The Soviets did. And the Americans. Initially, we just fucked up big time. That’s what Dunkirk was. A major fuck-up. And even after all that, we still had a country run by upper-class twits and it took a while for the competent middle-class to get control. Reading Sword of Honour makes Brexit seem a lot more understandable – or rather, the fucking hash our government has made of Brexit. And yet Sword of Honour was meant to be a satire. It’s based partly on Waugh’s own war experiences, although he makes a Crouchback a much more likeable protagonist than Waugh himself apparently was. Because was by all accounts he was a nasty piece of work – a total snob and arrogant and a good candidate for being shot by his own men. Waugh gives Crouchback a better, if more ironic, future in his rewrite of the trilogy, but it’s still an essentially cheerful novel for all that it takes the piss mercilessly out of the British armed forces during wartime. I thought it a great deal better than Vile Bodies, not just because its subject matter I found more interesting but because it didn’t feel so overdone. Recommended.

How to be Both, Ali Smith (2014, UK). It’s probably time to accept I just don’t get on with Smith’s novels. Admittedly, I’ve only read two, but I can’t say I enjoyed either. Which is odd, because you would think her style would appeal to me. It’s copiously-researched, often turns on little known history, is written present-tense and without speech marks for dialogue… but it’s also often – at least in those books I’ve read – pretty close to stream-of-consciousness and that’s never a style I could deal with at length. It doesn’t help that the actual plot of How to be Both is wilfully obscure. I mean, yes, I grew up on genre fiction, and it privileges plot, but I like literary fiction, and that privileges, well, any number of things but plot is rarely one of them. I’ve not had the training to be fully appreciative of Smith’s fiction, even though I’ve read any number of literary authors and appreciated what they’ve tried to achieve. I suspect this will be the last novel by Smith I’ll read. She’s just not for me.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133