It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

I saw this meme on David Hebblethwaite’s excellent blog (and he picked it up from The Broke and the Bookish), and I thought: that’s a good idea, my turn now. It Doesn’t Have To Be Right (It Just Has To Sound Plausible) has been running since 2006, originally on but on for the past couple of years. Each year, I’ve put together a list of the best five books I’ve read that year – a habit which even predates my blog, as I used to do it for an APA I was in for a good many years. So those best of lists for each year were the obvious place to look for books for this meme.

This list of ten books are not my favourite books of all time, but they are books I liked and admired a great deal during the years 2006 to 2011. They’re also quite indicative of what it is in fiction that I like and admire. They’re in no particular order.

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
This has been a touchstone work for me for a number of years. Mercurio’s highly-detailed prose is something I try for in my own writing, though I do wonder if in Adrift on the Sea of Rains I’ve gone even further than Ascent does. The story of a Soviet pilot leading up to the Korean War and during the years following, Ascent paints a bleak picture of a driven man who, despite numerous setbacks, still ends up playing an important, but secret, role in the USSR’s space programme. Although its central character, Yefgeni Yeremin, is invited to train as a cosmonaut, this is not the cheerful gung-ho can-do-ism normally found in fictional treatments of the Space Race. Ascent is not a science fiction novel, and Mercurio is not a science fiction author (although he did write and produce the science fiction television series Invasion: Earth), but I felt Ascent could be read as sf – and I wrote as much here.

2 The Jewel In The Crown, Paul Scott (1966)
I vaguely recall watching the television adaptation of this when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, though all I can remember is Art Malik, Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James. When I stumbled across all four of the Raj Quartet books in a charity shop for 69p buy-one-get-one-free, I thought they’d be worth a read. And when I got around to reading The Jewel In The Crown I discovered that Paul Scott was precisely the sort of literary writer whose fiction I enjoy a great deal. There is an impressive control of voice on display throughout The Jewel In The Crown, and the collage of testimonies from which it’s put together create an impressively rich and detailed portrait of life in the invented Indian city of Mayapore. After finishing The Jewel In The Crown, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I collect in first editions (although I’ve yet to find an affordable copy of this book in first edition). I wrote about The Jewel In The Crown here.

3 Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011)
I used to read fantasy quite a lot – not as much as I read science fiction, but it was probably my second choice in terms of reading material. I worked my way through most of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, tried the first book of Steve Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and ploughed my way through sundry other well-known fantasy novels. And then I completely gave it up – or rather, gave up on it. It was all rubbish. Everything was the same, there had been no real invention in it since the 1970s. It was all magic systems and thinly-disguised role-playing-games’ campaigns. But I knew the name Carolyn Ives Gilman – I’d liked her debut, Halfway Human, which was sf – and the description of Isles of the Forsaken did sound like something out of the ordinary in fantasy terms. And so it proved. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel where two of the major characters escape imprisonment by the villains. Their route takes them along tunnels and inside the mountain overlooking the city, where they find themselves in some sort of vast otherworldly library built around an apparently bottomless well. It’s an astonishing moment in a fantasy novel that is very much unlike all the other fantasies currently available; and it’s one of only a handful of books in the genre that I consider worth reading. I wrote about it here.

4 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
I’ve been a fan of Sterling’s writing since the 1980s, and have bought each new book by him as it was published. Not all made my top five list for their year of publication as I sometimes felt his propensity to throw out ideas on every page occasionally made uneven reads of his novels. The Caryatids, however, seemed to me like a welcome return to form – more than that, it was one of the first science fiction novels which read like a truly twenty-first century science fiction novel. The world Sterling created in The Caryatids felt like one that was reachable from the present day – or rather, felt like one that was inevitable if nothing was done in the present day to halt things like Climate Change or the collapse of capitalism. I was happy when I was asked to review the book for Interzone, and even more chuffed when I was told I’d also be interviewing Sterling. The interview is in Interzone #221 March-April 2009, and I think it came out quite well. I reprinted the review on my blog here in May of this year. Incidentally, I still don’t understand why there’s been no UK edition of this novel.

5 Spirit, The Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)
I’ve long maintained that Jones is the finest British writer of science fiction currently being published – although she’s not had a novel published since this one. There have been three collections since 2008, and she continues to write short fiction – and, of course, there are the YA books she writes as Ann Halam… although the latest of those, a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island, will only be published in the US. Spirit is perhaps the closest Jones has ever come to writing space opera, and the end result is characteristically Jonesian but also seems in part to carry the flavours of several other well-known sf authors, from Samuel R Delany to Iain M Banks. The story is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but the ending recasts Dumas’ tale of revenge as something less vindictive and more redemptive. I wrote about it here but the review’s cake-based conceit wasn’t as effective – or made as much sense – as I’d thought when I wrote it. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

6 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Three years ago was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and in order to celebrate it I decided to read the (auto)biographies of the three astronauts involved – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – and review the books on my Space Books blog. I also read and reviewed several other books about the mission. Carrying the Fire not only proved to be the best of the three (auto)biographies, but also the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Collins was always characterised as the most introspective and erudite of the three “amiable strangers”, so it’s no real surprise that Carrying the Fire is so readable and so well-written. It also feels far less self-aggrandising than is typically the case for astronaut autobiographies – the nature of the job in those days demanded the sort of people who have big egos. Recently, of course, we lost one of the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, on whom the most attention regarding the lunar missions has focused, despite his retreat from public life afterward. My review of Carrying the Fire is here.

7 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928)
My father was the DH Lawrence fan in our family. On a trip to the US, he dragged my mother to Taos to see the chapel where Lawrence’s ashes are interred. But, despite a shelf full of books by and about Lawrence in my parents’ house, I’d never tried reading him. And then, for some reason I no longer recall, I decided I ought to have a go. So of course I picked Lawrence’s most famous – and infamous – novel. And I loved it. Like Lawrence, I’m a Nottinghamshire native, and though the Eastwood dialect he writes is much broader than the Mansfield dialect I heard throughout my childhood years, it’s still familiar. So there was an immediate geographical appeal to the book. But when Lawrence was writing about nature and the countryside, his descriptive prose really shone for me (Lawrence Durrell, a favourite writer, is also an excellent writer of descriptive prose). The characters of Mellors and Constance were also drawn much more effectively than I had expected. I so enjoyed Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that on subsequent visits to charity shops I picked up copies of Lawrence’s other books, and now have most of them – and I plan to slowly work my way through them. Incidentally, the best film adaptation I’ve seen so far of the book is Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley. It’s French-language, which is initially odd, but it does seem to capture the book much more effectively than any other adaptation.

8 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
There is a trio of books by a writer whose personal views I find odious which riffs on Golden Age tropes and attempts to do something 21st century with them. I read the first two shortly after they were published – and before I knew what the author was like – and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t actually very good. David Herter’s first novel, Ceres Storm, plays similar games with those tropes, but it is beautifully written and very, very good. Of course, Herter remains mostly unknown whereas the previous writer now churns out best-sellers. Such is the way things work. Evening’s Empire was Herter’s second novel, and it is not science fiction. It sat unread on my bookshelves for a decade, and when I finally read it I wondered why it had taken me so long. It starts off as a (John) Crowley-esque fantasy before taking an abrupt left turn into something strange and wonderful. The main character is working on an opera based on Jules Verne, and that in turn inspired me to pick up and read Verne’s two best-known works, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth… but I don’t think I’ll ever really be a Verne fan.

9 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
If Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction in the UK currently still writing, then Compton is the finest sf writer in the UK who is no longer writing (and hasn’t been published since a pair of near-future crime novels published in the mid-1990s). He’s perhaps best known for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), which was adapted for cinema by Betrand Tavernier as Death Watch in 1979. Compton started out writing crime novels in the early 1960s, but branched out into sf in 1965 with The Quality of Mercy. British sf of that period was far better-written than its US equivalent, chiefly because it was less orientated toward, or had fewer roots in, pulpish action-adventure. Writers such as Arthur Sellings, Keith Roberts, Rex Gordon, Michael G Coney or Richard Cowper – not to mention the New Wave authors – could write rings round their American contemporaries. Even those who banged out hackwork for US publishers with impressive regularity – Brian Stableford, EC Tubb, Edmund Cooper, Ken Bulmer, etc. – were better prose stylists than the big Hugo winners like Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert or van Vogt. Compton was the best of the lot. His books read like snapshots of the 1960s and 1970s now, but they’re beautifully observed snapshots. They are the embodiment of sf novels set in the near-future that are really about the time they were written. Synthajoy‘s science-fictional content does not especially convince, and its central premise is unlikely to generate sense of wonder… but it’s a wonderfully-written portrait of a woman who is driven to crime by the behaviour of her husband, the inventor of the eponymous psychiatric technique. I wrote about it here.

10 Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010)
I think I’ve always had a somewhat utopian bent, and that’s only grown stronger in recent years. Science fiction has its occasional spats over pessimistic versus optimistic stories, and while I can hardly claim that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is optimistic, I have grown increasingly annoyed with the default futures far too much recent sf employs. It’s all grimly corporate and capitalist near-fascist states which only perpetuate the myth of self-actualisation through money, power and material possessions. I’d like to see that change. Yes, I know there are utopian science fictions available, but it’s the default nature of this horrible US-led invented future that I’d like to see disappear. Red Plenty, however, does not depict a communist future, a USSR which outlasted the capitalist West. It’s actual a dramatised history of events during the first half a dozen decades of the USSR. But it’s beautifully done, and it’s easy to see how the soviet system promised so much more than it ended up delivering. It presents the USSR as a dream of utopia. The fact the dream failed should not invalidate the attempt. Read Red Plenty and then tell me the American Dream is the only sustainable future. Who knows, twenty years from now we may be mocking sf novels that don’t depict the USA as a repressive and misogynist theocratic oligarchy…

special extra 11th book: Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Mietz (1961)
This list is supposed to be ten books – it says so in the title of the post – but I really wanted to include this book… not because it is well-written, or because it’s the best book ever published on its subject. It is, as far as I can discover, the only book published on its subject. And it’s a subject which came to fascinate me when I learnt of it in 2010. That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the first – and until only recently – visit by human beings to the deepest part of the oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Like the Apollo programme, the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste was a triumph of brute engineering, and that’s one of the reasons I find it so interesting. It’s also inspired some of my fiction. I wrote about Seven Miles Down here.


Bookjoy: more Compton

Synthajoy was DG Compton’s fourth science fiction novel. Previously, he had written half a dozen crime novels under the name Guy Compton. So it should come as no surprise that Synthajoy is as much a crime novel as it is a science fiction novel.

Thea Cadence has been incarcerated in the Kingston, a clinic designed to rehabilitate criminals using the Sensitape process. Thea’s husband, Dr Teddy Cadence invented Sensitape – or rather, he invented the concept. The device itself was invented by Tony Stech, his business partner. Sensitape is, as the name suggests, recorded emotional states which can be played into a person’s mind, and thus directly affect it. At the Kingston, Thea is undergoing Sensitape treatment in contrition as her sentence for a crime.

Cadence had been inspired to invent Sensitape while attempting to cure Stech’s father of an increasingly common condition called UDW, Uncompensated Death Wish. He failed to prevent the man’s death, but Sensitape did subsequently make UDW extremely rare. In fact, Sensitape was a great success. But the recording made of a couple making love, Sexitape, was an even bigger success. Cadence, however, always dreamed of artificially creating the emotions on a Sensitape, i.e., deliberately programming the effect required. He called this process Synthajoy.

Thea drifts in and out of her memories as she is being treated. Though she did not defend herself during her trial, she does not consider herself guilty of the crime. She resists her rehabilitation treatment. And in between periods of introspection and rebellion, she relives – or explains to her nurse – the history of Sensitape and her involvement with it. In this way, facts pertinent to the crime of which she has been charged are revealed.

Thea murdered her husband.

An early Sensitape session in which she was the guinea pig gave her a revulsion for her husband’s body. He found sexual companionship in the arms of another woman – the one from the Sexitape, in fact. Thea meanwhile had an affair with Tony. Who later committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. During her trial, the prosecution claimed it was jealousy that had led to the murder. They did not know of Thea’s relationship with Tony, nor did she tell anyone of it.

Synthajoy is a carefully-plotted ramble through Thea’s consciousness and history. She is hiding the truth from herself as much as she is from her prosecutors and rehabilitators. And it is only as she reveals her past that the truth about Tony’s suicide and the murder of Dr Cadence are uncovered. Unlike later novels, Synthajoy is a single-hander, and told entirely from Thea’s point of view. She is intelligent, educated, middle-class, and beautifully real. Unsurprisingly, the writing is a joy to read:

It is extraordinary to watch my hands. They smooth and fold, now so neat and expert, so accomplished now that they act without mind, without my volition … Hope is like a fever, a heat engendered by battle, and it leaves a deadly chill behind it. My arms ache. My hands tingle and creak. (p 50)

Also, unsurprisingly, the book is very firmly British, and very firmly a novel of the late 1960s / early 1970s. (It was first published in 1968). Those characteristics, as much as the writing, are the essence of Compton’s appeal. His novels are fiercely intelligent and beautifully crafted, but it is their finely-tuned sense of time and place, the way the central ideas are so well integrated into the real world, that makes them stand out.

There are ideas that Compton returns to again and again. The abuse of technology is an obvious marker – and one that demands a story set in as close an analogue of the real world as is possible. And yet… It seems odd that Compton should begin his writing career in crime, writing novels in which the purpose of the story is to explain a death. Yet his science fiction novels typically feature epidemics of unexplainable deaths – UDW in Synthajoy, Gordon’s Syndrome in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (see here), and the Disappearances in Ascendancies (see here).

In his three decades of writing science fiction, Compton never won an award, despite being published regularly in both the UK and the US. The Steel Crocodile was shortlisted for the Nebula in 1971, but lost out to Ringworld (an extremely popular book, but nowhere near as well-written). He appeared on the Locus Award shortlist three times, and in 2007 the SFWA made him an Author Emeritus. Yet he was possibly the best British sf writer of the 1970s. At a time when US authors of the 1950s dominated the field on both sides of the Atlantic – Asimov, Smith, Herbert, Heinlein – Compton was one of a handful of British sf writers writing sf novels so much more intelligent and well-crafted than those of their contemporaries. It’s a shame they appear to be mostly forgotten, and it’s the likes of Foundation and Stranger in a Strange Land which dominate lists of so-called genre classics. Perhaps the re-issue of Compton’s back-catalogue as ebooks through the SF Gateway (Compton’s entry is here), and The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe‘s appearance in the SF Masterwork series in October 2012, will see Compton receive the recognition he deserves.

The following novels by Compton are currently available on Kindle via the SF Gateway. If you own such a device, you should buy them immediately: Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966), The Silent Multitude (1966), The Quality of Mercy (1967), Synthajoy (1968), The Steel Crocodile (1968), Chronocules (1970), A Usual Lunacy (1978), Windows (1979), Ascendancies (1980), Scudder’s Game (1988), Nomansland (1993), Justice City (1995) and Back of Town Blues (1997).


That was the year that was

I said last year that 2009 was a year to remember for reasons both good and bad, but 2010 proved to be both a little better and in one respect the worst year ever. My father died of cancer in September after two months of illness. I miss him. My writing achievements mean little in the face of that. Especially since my father supported and enjoyed my writing – and yet never saw my story from Catastrophia praised in a national newspaper.

For the record, six of my stories saw print in 2010 – one each in Jupiter, Catastrophia, New Horizons, Alt Hist, and two in M-Brane SF. I also had my first poem published, also in Jupiter (it was actually a quartet of poems).

During 2010 (to date), I read 170 books, 42% of which were science fiction, 18% were literary fiction, and 6% I read to review on my Space Books blog. I reviewed seven books for Interzone, one for Vector, and six for SFF Chronicles. I managed to curtail my book purchases this year, but I then decided to browse local charity shops on a regular basis… As a result, I spent less on books in 2010, but seem to have bought almost as many as I have in previous years. Oh well.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), I picked as one of my top five books of the first half 2010, and wrote then that I expected it to make it onto my end of the year top five. And so it has. It is a cleverly-plotted historical detective novel, an astonishing piece of literary impersonation, and it is, as you’d expect from Crowley, beautifully written. Admittedly, I’m no expert on Byron – his poetry or his life – but Crowley certainly convinced me. After the disappointment that was The Translator, this is Crowley on top form.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1974). While I’ve read several of Compton’s novels over the years, 2010 was the year I came to really appreciate his fiction and added him to my list of “collectible” authors. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is often considered the best of his novels, and it’s certainly true that it’s very, very good. It’s perhaps a little dated these days but, for me, that was part of its charm – I love its 1970s aesthetic. It’s a book that’s wonderfully sardonic, with a pair of expertly-drawn characters, and prose that’s a joy to read. I wrote about it here. I even wrote about the film adaptation of it, by Bertrand Tavernier, here.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928). My father was a big fan of DH Lawrence and often tried to persuade me to read his books. But it was only this year that I picked one up… and was immediately captivated. I’ve since bought an omnibus of two novels and three novellas, a short story collection and a poetry collection (from charity shops, of course). I plan to read more. There’s little I need to say about Lady Chatterley’s Lover as most people know of the book – although, to be fair, what they think they know of it may not be what the book is actually about. The dialogue has not aged well, but some of the descriptive prose is lovely writing, and the character studies of Constance and Mellors are superbly done. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, incidentally, was another book from my top five for the first half of the year.

Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard and Robert S Dietz (1961). This year, 2010, was the fiftieth anniversary of the only manned descent to the deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. And Seven Miles Down is the only book written specifically about that descent. It makes it into my top five because it’s a fascinating subject, and because I think Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh’s achievement should be honoured. I wrote about it here.

Troy, Simon Brown (2006). This is the third book from my halfway through the year list to make it into this final top five. Which, on reflection, doesn’t say much for my choices in reading matter during the latter half of 2010. To be fair, I did read a lot of good books, but none struck me as good enough to make this list. Troy, a collection of genre and non-genre stories based on characters from the Trojan Wars, kept its place because the collection’s theme is cleverly-handled, and the stories are varied and beautifully written. I’d like to read more by Brown.

Honourable mentions: the Bold as Love Cycle, Gwyneth Jones (the first quintet of my summer reading project; see here; more to follow soon); the Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp (the second quintet of my summer reading project; write-up to follow soon-ish); The City & The City, China Miéville (multi-award winner with fascinating premise; my review here); The White Bird of Kinship trilogy, Richard Cowper (thoughtful 1970s sf); The Desert King, David Howarth (a biography of ibn Saud; sort of like Dune without the worms…); One Giant Leap, Piers Bizony (the best of the books celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11; my review here); Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (loved the first half, but not so keen on the second); Surface Detail, Iain M Banks (a new Culture novel; enough said).

Each month, I receive six rental DVDs from LoveFilm and two or three to review for VideoVista, so I’ve not bought as many as I have done in past years. I still managed to watch 210 films or seasons of television series, however, some of which were re-watches. Among the TV series I watched were Fringe, Mad Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Flash Gordon.

Cargo, dir. Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009). I know some people weren’t as impressed with this film as I was, but I thought it the best sf film of the year. It should have been on the Hugo Award shortlist. Okay, so it borrows heavily from other well-known sf films – or, perhaps, more charitably: it deploys tropes originally used in other well-known sf films. But it uses them cleverly, and they are all germane to the plot. The special effects and production design are also notably good. I reviewed Cargo for the Zone here, and loved it so much I went and bought a proper copy of the DVD.

Secret Ballot, dir. Babak Payami (2001), was, I think, the first Iranian film I’d ever watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed its deadpan black humour. It’s similar in many respects to Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, one of my favourite films, so perhaps I was predisposed to like it. It made my halfway through the year list, and confidently remained in place for the end of year top five. In it, a young woman travels around a remote island off the coast of Iran, trying to persuade people to vote in the upcoming election. She’s accompanied by a laconic soldier who has seen it all before. It’s a very funny film.

The Bothersome Man, dir. Jens Lien (2006), is another film that made the halfway through the year list. It’s also funny. A man commits suicide and finds himself in a city in which everything is bland and comfortable and washed-out. Everybody is nice to him, but no one seems to care about anything. While there may be something utopian in this, it’s also clearly hellish. Or, at the very least, purgatorial. So he tries to escape. His first attempt, a re-enactment of his suicide, is hilarious. Eventually, he thinks he may have found a route out. But, of course, films such as this can never end happily. It’s not Hollywood, after all.

For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I watched a number of documentaries about the Apollo programme during 2010, but For All Mankind was the best by quite a margin. And Eureka! have done it proud with their DVD release. Reinert personally chose, and had restored, the NASA footage he used, and he was careful to chose footage that had not been seen before. The end result is a documentary which gives a very real feel for the programme, for its accomplishments and for those involved in it – especially the astronauts. Some of the film taken by the Apollo astronauts while in space is, more by accident than design, quite beautiful. If you watch only one documentary about those mad years during which the US put twelve men on the Moon, make it For All Mankind.

There’s Always Tomorrow, dir. Douglas Sirk (1956). I suppose it’s no surprise to find a Sirk film on this list. He is, after all, one of my favourite directors. Unfortunately, few of his films are available on DVD – and of those, Eureka! have done an excellent job on their releases of There’s Always Tomorrow and A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But the former just pips the latter. Fred MacMurray plays a toy company owner who tries to inject some excitement into his solidly middle-class life when he is visited by ex-employee Barbara Stanwyck, now independent, successful and glamorous . MacMurray’s family has become a prison, and he is desperate for release. But it is not to be. The film’s final scene, after Stanwyck has turned him down, as he leaves for work and his kids wish him well through the banisters of the staircase… That final shot of MacMurray seen through those bars is a perfect illustration of why I rate Sirk’s films so highly.

Honourable mentions: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke remains one of the most interesting directors currently making films), King Lear (with Michael Hordern in the title role; the best of the six BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays I watched during 2010), Mad Men season one (has been praised by many; while good, I often found its heavy-handed 1960s sexism and racism hard to take); Frozen Land (grim, yet gripping and blackly humorous, film from Finland).

Several of my favourite bands released albums in 2010, and some of them even toured to UK too. I also discovered several new bands. I saw 21 bands perform live, and bought 27 CDs – 4 of them as limited edition CD/T-shirt deals.

Curse of the Red River, Barren Earth (2010), is the debut album by a Finnish metal supergroup side-project, featuring members of Amorphis, Moonsorrow and Kreator. The music is heavy doom/death metal with 1970s proggy bits – sort of like Opeth, but heavier (if that’s possible), and with strange, almost hippy-ish acoustic sections (there’s a flute in there somewhere, for example). It’s also quite brilliant. This one went on the top five the first time I listened to it. It’s about time they toured the UK. (Band website).

Vine, The Man-Eating Tree (2010), is another Finnish supergroup, as it contains the drummer from Sentenced, the guitarist from Poisonblack, the bass player from Reflexion, the keyboards player from Embraze, and the vocalist from Fall of the Leafe. The latter, in fact, Tuomas Tuominen, is the reason I’d been looking forward to this debut album – Fall of the Leafe was one of my favourite bands (they disbanded a couple of years ago), and Tuominen has a very distinctive voice. Vine includes a metal cover of The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’, which shouldn’t work, but actually does. Amazingly well, in fact. (Band website).

We Are The Void, Dark Tranquillity (2010), is the latest album by a band that has been a favourite of mine for many years. I’d describe it as a return to form, except they’ve never been off-form. Nonetheless, I was impressed when I heard the first track they released from the album (see here), with its deliciously creepy riff, and the rest of the album is just as good. Definitely one of their best albums of recent years. (Band website).

Escaping The Abyss, Fornost Arnor (2009). I saw an ad for this in Zero Tolerance magazine, and the description intrigued me enough to buy a copy. It’s Fornost Arnor’s debut album and was released on their own label. It’s an atmospheric mixture of black and progress metal, with occasional acoustic parts. It’s exactly the sort of complex, varied and technically-proficient metal that I really like. They’re currently recording their second album. I’m looking forward to hearing it. Incidentally, this is the second year running a self-released album has made it into my top five – last year, it was DesolatioN’s Lexicon V. (Band’s MySpace page).

The Never Ending Way of Orwarrior, Orphaned Land (2010), was a long-awaited album. Orphaned Land’s last release, the excellent Mabool, appeared in 2004, and they’ve been promising this follow-up ever since. It finally arrived this year, and it was worth the wait. I saw Orphaned Land live this year for the first time too, with Amorphis and Ghost Brigade, and they were easily the best act of the night. (Band website).

Honourable mentions: Engines of Armageddon’s self-released debut album; The Light in Which We All Burn, Laethora; Persistence, Crystalic (also self-released); Encounter the Monolith, Martriden.


Watch Death Watch

So I managed to get hold of a copy of Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation – La mort en direct, or Death in Full View, or Death Watch – of DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. And I watched it last night.

The book was published in 1974 (I wrote about it here). The film was released six years later in 1980. It was directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and starred Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow, and Thérèse Liotard (and a young Robbie Coltrane). Although the movie’s director is French, and the cast is international, it was filmed in Glasgow in English.

I think Death Watch is the first film by Tavernier I’ve seen. I was, of course, more interested in how it was adapted from the novel than in it as a film per se, but even so some parts seemed curiously inept. The editing is especially noticeable, featuring abrupt cuts which badly impact the flow of scenes. The cast also appear to be improvising… but after a night on the town and so suffering from bad hangovers. Some of the dialogue is not so much banal as downright phatic. In one scene, television producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) picks up Roddy (Harvey Keitel) in his limousine. After settling into the car, Roddy asks with a smirk, “Did your handkerchief die?” Vincent gives an embarrassed laugh, and fiddles with the handkerchief poking from the breast-pocket of his jacket. Dialogue in books, plays and films rarely approaches realism because so much real-life dialogue is wasted breath.

The film also shifts the story from the title character, Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schenider), onto Roddy, the man who has had his eyes replaced by television cameras. The novel presents Roddy’s narrative in first-person, and Katherine’s in third-person, but Katherine is very much the subject of the story. She has to be for the ending to work. Focusing the film on Roddy makes it unbalanced. It is through Roddy’s eyes that we explore Katherine’s character, which means we should be looking out through them (as we do in the book). We should not see Harvey Keitel’s gurning mug plastered across the screen… Not that I’ve ever understood how Keitel manages to appear in so many well-respected films. He can’t act.

The film follows the plot of the book reasonably closely, although several scenes have been left out. Katherine is told of her fatal illness by a doctor – her reaction to this, and her husband’s response, are both treated quickly. Which makes her decision to run away, and so avoid appearing as contracted on the eponymous television programme, seem somewhat abrupt. She visits the Depot, a street market, and buys a disguise. She escapes her minder from the television studio (Robbie Coltrane), and spends the night in a church dormitory. This is where Roddy befriends her, and perhaps is one of the few scenes in the film in which Keitel does a good job. Together they go on the run, eventually making their way to Katherine’s ex-husband Gerald (Max von Sydow).

Few films are better than their source texts. Death Watch is not one of them. It is only when von Sydow appears on screen that the film feels as serious as its subject matter demands. Nor has Katherine’s character been built up enough to fully explain the choice she makes which ends the film.

Having said that, Glasgow makes suitably grim backdrop – although I felt the book deserved to be set in a town filled with Brutalist architecture. Its world felt grey and slab-faced, which Glasgow certainly isn’t. A couple of scenes were staged cheaply, and it shows in the sparseness of the set-dressing and extras. The acting is mostly good, but von Sydow is, as usual, excellent, and Keitel is, as usual, terrible. I’m glad I watched the film, but it’s not a patch on the book.

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Another book haul post

I’ve been very good recently – not only have I not added greatly to the To Be Read pile, but I have also pruned my collection of a few hundred paperbacks. Well, they were just sitting there, taking up shelf-space. I was never going to read them again; and some of them are readily available in charity shops and the like, so should I want to reread them I can easily pick up copies. So now I have a bit more room on the book-shelves. Which, of course, shall soon fill up. But only with deserving books…

Anyway, since the last one of these posts I have bought only the following books:

The new Banks, Surface Detail, which I plan to read soon-ish; the latest in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, Field Grey; and an omnibus edition of The Secret History Volume 1 by Jean-Pierre Pécau, Igor Kordey and Leo Pilipovic, a graphic novel detailing the exploits through human history of four immortals each gifted with a powerful magic rune.

Two non-fiction books: the title of the first pretty much describes its contents: Convair Advanced Designs. It’s about planes. The second, MoonFire, is a re-issue of Norman Mailer’s 1971 book about the Moon landings, Of A Fire on the Moon, but as a coffee-table tome by Taschen, with many, many excellent photographs. There’s a signed limited edition which costs around £600, and a “Lunar Rock Edition” priced from 60,000 to 480,000 Euros (because each of the 12 copies includes a piece of Moon rock). Mine is the bog-standard £27.99 edition. If you buy only one coffee-table book about Apollo, this looks to be the one you should get.

Here’s a pair of 1960s novels by a pair of forgotten British science fiction writers: Implosion by DF Jones, and 98.4 by Christopher Hodder-Williams. Look at the awful cover art. They don’t do cover-art like that anymore. I’ll be posting reviews of them here, just as I did for No Man Friday (here) and A Man of Double Deed (here).

Finally, a trio of first editions: The Insider by Christopher Evans; Johnnie Sahib, Paul Scott’s debut novel; and Twice Ten Thousand Miles by Frances Lynch. Yes, that last one is a romance historical novel, and the reason I purchased it is because Frances Lynch is a pseudonym of DG Compton. I’m quite looking forward to finding out how the perennially pessimistic and sardonic Compton handles romance historical fiction.


Smelling of roses

If DG Compton’s other novels are as good as Ascendancies, I shall continue to track them down and read them. Of course, I’m not saying this from a sample of one. Ascendancies is the sixth book by Compton I’ve read (see here and here for two of them) . But it is the most confounding. It is an odd book. Beautifully written, well observed, tightly plotted, but… odd. Its central conceit remains a mystery, and its title seems like an afterthought. Nonetheless…

Ascendancies is, like The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and The Electric Crocodile, a two-hander. The two in Ascendancies are Caroline Trenchard and Richard Wallingford. Caroline’s husband has recently passed away, and Wallingford is the insurance agent tasked with ensuring the death is as reported. Because in the 1986 of the novel (which was published in 1980), the UK is experiencing a number of unexplained phenomena. One of these is “Disappearances”. First there is “Singing”, a sound as of heavenly choirs, seemingly coming from all directions. This is accompanied by a cloying smell of synthetic roses. And after every Singing, people are found to have vanished. No one knows what happens to them, or where they go.

The other phenomenon is “Moondrift”, which falls from… somewhere, at irregular but frequent intervals. It can be burnt as fuel, or used as plant food. As a result, the UK is prospering – so much so that people now legally work only three days a week.

Wallingford is employed by the Accident and General Insurance Company, who have insured the life of Caroline’s husband, Havelock. But they won’t pay out if Havelock has simply Disappeared. Hence Wallingford’s visit to Caroline’s house… where he discovers that a body has been substituted for the allegedly deceased. However, instead of reporting the matter, he agrees to defraud the AGIC, taking forty percent of the £100,000 policy. Which act draws the stolidly lower middle-class Wallingford and the bohemian upper middle-class Caroline together in a relationship that is not quite a relationship, and which is never entirely suitable (as Compton is fond of telling us).

Ascendancies charts the progress of the two’s affair, and that is all. When the story is over, neither Moondrift nor the Disappearances have been explained. All we’ve done is watch Wallingford and Caroline overcome their prejudices and draw close together, and then split apart as the final hurdle proves insurmountable. And “watch” seems an apposite verb as there’s much in Ascendancies which smacks of a BBC drama. Without consciously doing so, the story becomes for the reader an early 1980s Play for Today on BBC1, not unlike The Flipside Of Dominick Hide.

Partly this is because Compton’s dialogue is amazingly sharp. But it’s also there in the way he draws his characters, which is chiefly through that sharp dialogue. And also, some of his characters feel dated – especially Havelock’s circle of bohemian friends and hangers-on. As a result, the story itself seems far more 1980 than 1986. But it is beautifully-written, and those two central characters are drawn with superlative skill.

And the title? It is referenced twice in the novel. It apparently refers to a game of oneupmanship which two of the characters admit to playing. Caroline admits to playing it, although it’s hard to know exactly how it is played. Nor what playing it actually achieves. It is, like the Disappearances and Moondrift, just another part of the world of Ascendancies that Compton refuses to explain.


Look what the postie brought

Book haul time again. It’s been a month since the last one, so once more you get to see what new items I’ve added to my already-groaning bookshelves. Instead of a single photo, I’ve broken it down this time into several pictures.

First up is a trio of non-fiction books: Personal Landscapes by Jonathan Bolton, a study of British poets in Egypt during the Second World War (poets such as Lawrence Durrell, Keith Douglas, John Jarmain, Terence Tiller, Bernard Spencer, and others); a signed copy of A Short History of Lyme Regis by John Fowles, for the collection (see here); and Seven Miles Down by Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz, the only book written about the bathyscaphe Trieste‘s descent to the floor of Challenger Deep fifty years ago (see here).

Next up is four first edition genre novels. On the right is a signed and numbered slipcased edition from Kerosina Books of DG Compton’s Scudder’s Game, which also includes Radio Plays. In front of it is A Usual Lunacy, also by DG Compton and signed, and published by Borgo Press. Next is Colonel Rutherfords’ Colt by Lucius Shepard, for the Shepard collection (see here). Finally, Phillip Mann’s The Eye of the Queen, which completes my Mann collection (expect a book porn post on his novels soon).

Here are a couple of old British sf novels which were listed on my British SF Masterworks list (see here). No Man Friday by Rex Gordon I’ve had for a couple of months, but A Man of Double Deed by Leonard Daventry is a recent purchase. Expect reviews of both to appear on this blog soon. In fact, I intend to review most of the books on my British SF Masterworks list, the hard-to-find old and obscure ones almost certainly.

This is In Arcadia, a signed and numbered chapbook published in 1968 by Turret Books. It contains the eponymous poem by Lawrence Durrell, and music by Wallace Southam. The pair did two such chapbooks – I’ve had the other one, Nothing is Lost, Sweet Self, for a while (see this Lawrence Durrell collection post here).

And finally, here are four books for the Space Books collection. Sky Walking is astronaut’s Tom Jones’ memoir (no, not that Tom Jones, another one; the name, well, it’s not unusual). First Landing is a sf novel about the, er, first landing on Mars, by Robert Zubrin, an expert on the topic. Mars Underground by William K Hartmann is also about settling the Red Planet but is non-fiction. And last of all, Reflections from Earth Orbit by Winston E Scott is another astronaut autobiography. All four books are signed.


A Mini-haul

If you’re looking for first editions of out-of-print sf novels, the best place to look is Andy Richard’s Cold Tonnage Books. He also usually has a table in the dealers’ room at the Eastercon. I just ordered a bunch of books from him. and here they are:-

From left to right: In the Valley of the Statues, a collection of short stories by Robert Holdstock, who wrote chiefly science fiction before Mythago Wood was published. He will be missed. Then, Wulfsyarn by Phillip Mann, a UK-born New Zealand-based sf author, whose last published novels were the A Land Fit For Heroes quartet from 1993 to 1996. His novels are certainly worth checking out. Next, Colin Greenland’s debut novel, a fantasy, Daybreak on a Different Mountain. And finally three DG Compton novels: Nomansland, Ascendancies and Farewell, Earth’s Bliss. After reading The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (see here), Compton has joined my list of collectable authors.

I can feel especially good about these purchases because not only are they excellent novels, but this week I also managed to sell three George RR Martin A Song of Ice and Fire paperbacks and five Robert Jordan Wheel of Time paperbacks on eBay.


The Continuous DG Compton

The first book by David Guy Compton I read was Justice City back in 1996. I picked it as one of my ten best books that year, and described it then as “excellently written, believable characters, and a crime plot that depends on its political dimension as much as it does on the psychology of its cast”. It wasn’t until six years later that I read another Compton, Chronicules. While not a comforting book to read, I did review it (see here), and noted that the prose was “a joy to read”. Last year I read Scudder’s Game, and only last month The Electric Crocodile. The more of Compton’s novels I read, the more I appreciate his writing. Yes, they are grim and misanthropic, and most have a very 1970s atmosphere – but that, I suppose, is part of their appeal.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – also known as Death Watch and The Unsleeping Eye – is perhaps Compton’s best-known sf novel. It was originally published in 1974, and adapted into a film titled Death Watch by Bertrand Tavernier in 1980. I’ve not seen the film, although I certainly plan to find a copy. In the novel, the title character is diagnosed with “Gordon’s Syndrome” and told she has four weeks left to live. A successful television programme, Human Destiny, has found success broadcasting the final weeks of terminal patients, and they want Katherine to be a subject – for a large sum, of course. But she refuses. The producers of Human Destiny had been planning to try out some new technology on her: one of their reporters, Rod, has had his eyes replaced with television cameras. (His eyes still look the same, so Katherine would never know she was being filmed every moment.)

The novel is set in the future, and it’s a very 1970s future. I remarked on this in my capsule review of The Electric Crocodile and, I have to admit, it’s an aesthetic I find appealing – all that Brutalist architecture, the huge antiseptic data processing centres, the clunky technology… The society of Compton’s future is also a product of the book’s time of writing. It’s a future not much different from then, but not much like now. People live in huge blocks of flats, and die only of old age… except for notable exceptions, such as those who feature on Human Destiny. Mortenhoe works as an editor for a publisher – or rather, she manages a computer system which writes romance novels. Yet this old school Labour future also has its rich and privileged – everyone is provided for, but there’s still the fabulously wealthy. And from Compton’s characterisation of one such rich character in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, it’s plain where his sympathies lay.

In fact, if there’s one thing that stands out in Compton’s novels it’s his sympathies. The technology or technological innovation around which Compton bases his stories – in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, it’s Rod’s camera-eyes; in The Electric Crocodile, it was the supercomputer which allowed a self-proclaimed scientific “elite” to dictate the direction of human progress… It’s the misuse or abuse of this technology which is the plot-engine of the novels; and the fuel on which that engine runs is outrage. Rod’s camera-eyes represent an infringement of Katherine’s privacy of unthinkable levels. Every aspect of her life will be held up to public scrutiny and, possibly, probably, ridicule. She will have no secrets. Technology has robbed everyone of their secrets.

Much like the other Compton novels I’ve read, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a character study of its protagonists – the eponymous “heroine”, of course; and Rod the cameraman. The sections told from Rod’s viewpoint, however, are in the first person. As in The Electric Crocodile, Compton often repeats scenes from each character’s viewpoint, although the disconnect between what they experience is not so marked as it is in that earlier novel. While Rod is a bit of an everyman – he has a failed marriage in his back-history, and his ex-wife makes several appearances – Katherine is extremely well-drawn. She loves her current husband, but their marriage is perhaps best described as “comfortable”. She is not adventurous – but in order to escape the Human Destiny production team, she disguises herself as an indigent. And her decision to do so fits in wholly with her character. She is wholly ordinary, but extraordinary in small ways.

The writing, as in other Compton novels, is excellent. Of those British sf writers who were popular during the 1970s, Compton is perhaps the best prose stylist. Some may have been more popular, Bob Shaw, for example. Some of them may have had a steady career writing books for US publishers, such as EC Tubb or A Betram Chandler. But Compton was, I think, the best writer of the lot. Having said that, his books are very British, and very miserable. So it’s no surprise his novels have been mostly forgotten. Which is a shame. But I certainly plan to read more by him.


Shiny Happy Science Fiction

Back in July I listed 20 British SF Novels You Should Read. One of the titles on that list was Chronicules by DG Compton. Here is a review of it, offered in part as an antidote to all those blog posts about science fiction being doomy and gloomy. If miserable sf gives us books such as this, and happy optimistic sf gives us the likes of, well, Asimov… then I know which one gets my vote. Read it and wince.

DG Compton’s Chronicules has one of the all-time great opening sentences:

About twenty years before this story begins – give or take a few years, the Simmons s.b. effect being untried and seriously (not that it mattered) inaccurate – the desolate silence on Penheniot Village, at the top of Penheniot Pill which is a creek off the small harbour of St. Kinnow in the county of Cornwall, was shattered by the practised farting of young Roses Varco.

But then the book was originally published under the title Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil, so this is not entirely unexpected. Neither title – the original unwieldy one, nor the later more science-fictional one – actually provides much clue to the story. If anything, both are somewhat misleading. (Weirdly, the later title was slightly altered for publication in the US to Chronocules.)

According to the blurb, Chronicules is a grand adventure through time. It isn’t. Nor is it a cutting-edge discussion of temporal research. The time travel bookends the actual story, which is more concerned with life in an artificial research village in a Britain slowly falling apart. Further, there’s a nastiness to Chronicules of which only the British seem capable. Americans don’t do it, don’t cut and belittle their own creations. Irony may be a high-minded alternative, but it doesn’t have sarcasm’s scalpel-like edge: wielded inexpertly, irony is at best blunt-force trauma.

A lack of sarcasm in a novel is not necessarily a bad thing: a writer being unnecessarily cruel to his or her own characters often seems like torturing defenceless children. And in Chronicules, Compton has loaded the odds in his favour: his chief protagonist is mentally retarded. Which only emphasises the novel’s intrinsic cruelty. Further honing the blade is the setting’s custom of public nudity: Compton dwells cuttingly on the physical unsuitability of various characters showing their sagging flesh and dangly bits. There are some quite disturbing images, certainly enough to turn you off nudism.

The characters are well-drawn, and wholly unlikeable. Varco, the central character, is entirely ineffective, and those characters which do have some impact on the plot have more hang-ups than positive qualities. Compton’s future UK is miserable and reads almost prophetically like the Britain of the Tories during the eighties. While some science fiction novels may attract through their settings – Banks’s Culture, or Varley’s Eight Worlds, for instance – Compton’s near-future UK only repels. In fact, the only thing to really like about Chronicules is its writing. The prose is a joy to read.

Finally, the last page of Chronicules, after the end of the story, in the Arrow paperback edition I read is headed “Other Arrow Books of interest:”. It is otherwise blank…