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.


Where critics come from

From DH Lawrence’s ‘Pornography and Obscenity’, first published in 1929:

The only positive effect of masturbation is that it seems to release a certain mental energy, in some people. But it is mental energy which manifests itself always in the same way, in a vicious circle of analysis and impotent criticism, or else a vicious circle of false and easy sympathy, sentimentalities.

So, if you hate a book, you’re wanker. And if you like a book, you’re a wanker. Sounds about right to me…


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.

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Readings & watchings 7

Oops. The more alert among you might have noticed this post pop up a day or two ago while it was unfinished. That’s what happens when you click on the wrong button because you’ve not realised the time and have to dash off to work… Anyway, here is the full content I meant to post – books, films, you know the drill…

In-flight Entertainment, Helen Simpson (2010). Every five years, another collection of Simpson’s short stories appears. Reading her is a bit like reading a masterclass in literary short fiction, although the stories in In-flight Entertainment felt a bit inconsequential compared to earlier collections. Several of the stories were about climate change, and not exactly subtle – in the title story, for example, a man on a plane has to suffer a lecture on “why climate change is nonsense” from someone who clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about; meanwhile, an elderly passenger dies and is left in his seat for the remainder of the trip. Simpson is certainly worth reading, but nothing in this collection grabbed me as much as some of her earlier stories had done.

Halcyon Drift, Brian Stableford (1972), is the first book in the sextet variously named ‘Star-Pilot Grainger’ or ‘The Hooded Swan’, after either the narrator or the experimental ship which he pilots. This novel is typical of its time – it’s thin, for one thing. Grainger is a misfit, unemployable after crash-landing on an uninhabited world, rescued after several years and then sued by the rival who rescued him. Oh, and he’s got some sort of alien resident in his mind as well. Grainger is then recruited by the owner of the Hooded Swan, an experimental ship. Their first mission is to enter the eponymous drift, a dangerous region of space (the science explaining why it’s dangerous is nonsense, of course), and find a long-lost ship carrying treasure ahead of other ships. This is solid late 1960s / early 1970s space opera, with pointy spaceships (although not the Hooded Swan), space flight much like sea travel, and a a blithe disregard for plausibility. It’s a bit grimmer than most of its kind, however.

The Saturn Game / Iceborn, Poul Anderson / Gregory Benford & Paul A Carter (1989). No. 14 in the Tor doubles series published in the late 1980s. The actual contents themselves are from earlier. The Anderson was originally published in Analog in 1981, and appears to have been reprinted a number of times. I’ve no idea why: it’s complete rubbish. An exploratory mission to Iapetus from a huge research vessel in the Saturnian system comes a cropper. The crew of four are not trained scientists. In their strangely copious free time they play a fantasy role-playing game, and have done for so many years it’s threatening to spill over into real life. When their trip to Iapetus’ surface turns into a disaster, they must trek across the moon’s surface to safety – and only come close to success by fantasising it as a quest in their “game”. Anderson obviously had this neat idea of juxtaposing the twee fantasy RPG world with the hard sf story of visiting Iapetus. But he gets the details of the moon wrong, the prose tries too hard and often falls flat on its face, and I find it highly implausible such incompetent people would be let near a spacecraft in the first place. The second novella is original to the Tor double. In it, a mission to Pluto discovers life on the dwarf planet. Meanwhile, everyone on Earth thinks the whole thing is a scam by the sole astronaut – the only survivor of the crew of four – and the Project Pluto team on the Moon. Clearly much of the thought in this story went into the creation of the Plutonian ecology, because the story’s not up to much, the politics is simplistic, and the characterisation is poor.

No Truce with Kings / Ship of Shadows, Poul Anderson / Fritz Leiber (1989). No. 5 in the Tor doubles series published in the late 1980s. I’m wondering myself why I immediately read another Poul Anderson novella after finding the one above so poor. But I did. ‘No Truce with Kings’ originally appeared in F&SF in 1963. Which does cast a somewhat different light on it. The story takes place a couple of centuries after a nuclear war. A feudalistic state now exists on the Pacific coast of the US, but there has been a coup by a faction wanting to impose a more democratic society. They are helped by a pan-continental Order of Espers. Except the Espers aren’t really psionic – they just have fancy advanced technology given to them by undercover aliens… who have secretly engineered the coup because they want the Earth to have a supra-national democratic world state before it can be invited into some sort of galactic federation. Anderson makes out that feudalism is a better and more successful form of government than democracy. Rubbish. This novella is better than ‘The Saturn Game’, but not by much. The second novella, ‘Ship of Shadows’, is from 1969, and is Leiber trying to pull off a Cordwainer Smith story. The viewpoint character is amnesiac and has poor eyesight – so everything he sees is blurred and hard to understand. The Big Reveal is that they are all aboard a spaceship orbiting a dead Earth – although using the word “ship” in the title seems a bit of a giveaway to me. Confusingly-written, thin on plot, and mostly pointless. Not impressed.

Real-time World, Christopher Priest (1974), is Priest’s first collection, and holds up surprisingly well despite being thirty-six years old. The first four stories are very good indeed. The second half of the collection is less good, but the collection ends on a strong note with the title story, which may be a bit too consciously Ballardian but still works well. I wrote about one of the stories in Real-Time World on NextRead for their Short Story Month here. A new edition of the book, with added notes by Priest, is available from Priest’s own GrimGrin Studio here.

The One Kingdom, Sean Russell (2001), was May’s book for this year’s fantasy reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Yukikaze, Chōhei Kambayashi (2010), was originally published in Japanese in 1989, but this is the first English edition of the 2002 revised version. I reviewed it for Vector.

When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro (2000). Much as I like Ishiguro’s writing, it’s difficult to feel the same about his characters. In this one, Banks, a famous detective in the 1930s (in the style of Sherlock Holmes), is a pompous self-deluded idiot. He grew up in Shanghai but returned to the UK at age ten after his parents mysteriously vanished. More than a decade later, he visits Shanghai and imagines a) that he can rescue his parents from their kidnappers, b) resolve the war between the Chinese and the Japanese, and c) that the kidnap of his parents and the war are linked and so the solution to the first will bring about the second. Ishiguro’s consistency of voice is impressive, but the central conceit of the story felt like too much of a hurdle to suspend disbelief.

The City and the City, China Miéville (2009), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles here.

Child of the River, Ancients of Days and Shrine of Stars, Paul J McAuley (1997 – 1999), or the Confluence trilogy, is McAuley doing Baxter on Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun. Sort of. Confluence is an artificial needle-shaped world, dominated by a river running its length, and orbiting a black hole. The creators of Confluence – or rather, those who caused Confluence to be built – entered the black hole and so left the universe thousands of years before. Yama is discovered as a child floating in a boat on the river, but he’s plainly not one of the ten thousands races (mostly uplifted from animals) which inhabit Confluence. There’s very much a Wolfean vibe going on here, with McAuley using existing obscure words for all manner of objects, from fauna to types of boats. In the first book, Yama travels to the capital Ys, having adventures on en route and learning something about himself and his powers. In the second book, Yama learns more about Confluence, and the narrative contains great globs of Baxterian story – a bit like finding cubes of beef in a bowl of onion soup. The final book explains everything by looping in and out of Confluence’s timeline, sort of like a cross between Heinlein’s ‘By His Bootstraps’ and Baxter’s Timelike Infinity. This is good, inventive stuff, quality UK sf, but perhaps too rich a brew to read all three books one after the other.

Troy, Simon Brown (2006), is, as the title suggests, a collection of ten stories, each inspired by a character from the Trojan Wars. The stories are variously literary fantasy and science fiction – the most sfnal is ‘The Masque of Agamemnon’, co-written with Sean Williams and available online here (some of the others are on Simon Brown’s web site here).  They’re very well done indeed – I wouldn’t mind reading more by Brown.

Starfield, edited by Duncan Lunan (1989), is a bit of a curio. It was published by The Orkney Press, and is an anthology of Scottish science fiction. The contents are a mix of known names and unknown – the latter mostly are winning entries from the annual Glasgow Herald SF Short Story competition. There’s an early William King, a couple of short Alasdair Gray pieces, some Edwin Morgan poems (although I much preferred ‘VENJINSS’ by alburt plethora), and a long story by Chris Boyce from 1966, among others.

Starlight 2, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden (1998), is pretty much a snapshot of US literary sf and fantasy at the turn of the millennium. As were the first and third volumes in the anthology series. This one contains fiction by Robert Charles Wilson, Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Lethem, Angélica Gorodischer, Ted Chiang, Martha Soukup, and several others. While none especially stood out for me – except perhaps Raphael Carter’s Tiptree Prize-winning ‘Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation’ – this is a collection of well-written, polished genre fiction.

The Captain’s Doll, DH Lawrence (1923), is another from the Lawrence omnibus I found in a charity shop. It’s the best of the three novellas in the book – the other two are ‘The Ladybird’ and ‘The Man Who Died’. ‘The Captain’s Doll’ is set in Germany during the 1920s. Hannele is an impoverished German countess, who is having an affair with an English infantry officer, Captain Alexander Hepburn. She ekes out a living making dolls, and makes the eponymous one of Hepburn. Then Hepburn’s wife appears, and makes it plain she’s there to stop her husband’s philandering. However, she doesn’t realise Hannele is the other woman, but instead believes it to be Hannele’s friend. Then the wife dies in a suspicious accident. Hepburn returns to Britain, and a year later hears that Hannele has moved to the Tyrol and is engaged to an Austrian Regierungsrat. He travels there with mixed motives – he has sworn off women, but neither is he willing to let Hannele go. He meets her, is invited to her house for tea, and then the two go on a trip up the mountain to see a glacier. Lawrence excels at the interaction between his characters – here, the argument between Hepburn and Hannele as they tramp up the mountain is brilliantly done – although he does have a tendency to go off on introspective rambles which are often repetitive. In ‘The Captain’s Doll’, this latter tendency is not so obtrusive because the two main characters are, well, they’re a little bit odd. Good stuff.

Books of Blood VI, Clive Barker (1986). Barker is the master of padding. And it shows even in his short fiction. There are four stories in this slim book, but each one is about twice the length it needs to be. He’s one of those authors I’ve continued to read because I liked a couple of things he did – but there’s nothing in this collection remotely as good as them. The same could be said for his novels. Time for a purge of the book-shelves, I think.

Found Wanting, Robert Goddard (2008). And it was indeed. There’s an interesting idea buried in this – that the son of the woman who claimed to be Princess Anastasia grew up incognito in Denmark and founded a successful multinational – but having the main character be chased around Scandinavia while people explained the mystery to him is not a good way to tell the story.

Charlie Wilson’s War, dir. Mike Nichols (2007). I fail to understand why the US insists on trying to make something heroic out of ill-thought adventurism and blatant interference in other nations’ sovereign affairs. They’d be the first to cry foul if someone did it to them. In Charlie Wilson’s War, the titular Wilson is a good ole country boy congressman with control over the intelligence budget… which he uses to funnel money and arms to the Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet invaders. Of course, as soon as the Russians were kicked out, the Mujahideen turned into the Taliban. Which the people who knew something about the situation expected. But Wilson saw only the plucky Afghanis fighting the evil Reds. This is what happens when you give parochial cow farmers covert control of foreign policy…

La Cérémonie, dir. Claude Chabron (1995). Nope, still don’t get it. I know Jonathan McAlmont is a big fan of Chabron’s films, but I’ve now seen a couple of them – because Isabelle Huppert stars in them – and I can’t see the appeal. In this one, Huppert is the post-mistress in a small village, and a bit of a rebel. A young woman starts as the housekeeper of a well-to-do family in the village, but the woman is illiterate and goes to great lengths to disguise the fact. Resentment builds up, in part fuelled by Huppert’s character, and it all comes to a violent end. An interesting thriller/drama, and entertaining, but it often feels too clinical in places to really admire.

Gran Torino, dir. Clint Eastwood (2009). This was a surprise: Eastwood actually playing to his current strengths – i.e., in a role as an septuagenarian hard-ass. The racism in the film is harsh, and Eastwood’s character never quite redeems his bigotry – and it’s difficult to carry a film on an unlikeable protagonist, especially one who makes an effort not to be liked. There’s a weird subtext that it’s characters such as the part Eastwood plays which made the US great – as made concrete by the titular car – which doesn’t strike me as an especially edifying lesson for the history books. Nevertheless, Gran Torino is put together well, everyone plays their parts with skill, and it’s an easy film to like.

The Comedy of Errors, dir. James Cellan Jones (1983), is the third of the BBC’s Shakespeare collection, which I’m steadily working my way through. There were these twin boys, and they had as bonded servants another pair of twins. Except the pairs were separated – boy plus servant – at an early age. One grew up in Ephesus, and the other Syracuse. Both think the other dead. Then the one from Syracuse comes to visit Ephesus on business… It’s an obvious set-up for mistaken identity. Except both men are called Antiphone. And their servants are both called Dromio. And both pairs happen to be wearing exactly the same outfits. At which point, any sane person’s head will explode from an overabundance of implausible coincidences… Michael Kitchen was good as the Antiphones, and Roger Daltrey not too bad as the Dromios. The comedy manages to be both sly and obvious, but some of the language was horribly clunky. Not one of the Bard’s best.

The House Bunny, dir. Fred Wolf (2008), I added to my rental list after reading somewhere that it was funny and ironic. The review lied. It’s a typical brainless sexist Hollywood comedy. A sorority of losers succeeds by turning themselves into objects of male desire, helped by an ex-Playboy Bunny. Admittedly, Anna Faris as the Playboy Bunny played her mind-numbingly stupid character well, but what’s funny about a stupid Bunny Girl? It’s pandering to stereotypes. But then the entire film did that. Eminently avoidable.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, dir. John S Robertson (1920), and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene (1920), I saw these two silent films in one night in Sheffield Cathedral, with live accompaniment provided by the organist. Not your typical venue for a pair of silent horror films, but never mind. It was an excellent night out, although church pews are bit hard and tend to numb the arse cheeks after a while. Barrymore chews scenery like it’s a seven-course banquet in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; although that was pretty much the style of the time. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was all German Expressionist sets, weird camera angles, and creeping shadows. I’m glad I saw them – and the accompaniment was expertly done – but I’ll not be rushing out to buy the DVDs…

His Girl Friday, dir. Howard Hawks (1940), is another classic from some list of top 100 films – but I forget which. The copy I saw was a poor transfer, which was a shame. Dialogue doesn’t come much snappier than this, although the plot descended into farce when the main characters were trapped in the local prison. A very fast film – everything seemed to happen in quick succession. I can see why it’s a classic, and while it’s funny in parts, it all went a bit too farcical for me.

Magnificent Desolation, dir. Mark Cowen (2005), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

Revolutionary Road, dir. Sam Mendes (2008), is an adaptation of the novel by Richard Yates, which I’ve not read. And, in some strange way, this film’s literary origin told against it. The first two acts are optimistic, as Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet marry and set up home, then decide to jack it all in and move to Paris with the kids. But I knew it couldn’t last – books and films of this type never do. And so it proved, as everything started to go horribly wrong. The two leads were excellent, and the film evoked period extremely well. But it’s by no means a cheerful movie, even though it initially tries to represent itself as such.

The Red And The White, dir. Miklós Jancsó (1967), is another one of those foreign films I stuck on my rental list and can no longer remember why I did so. Happily, whenever I done this it’s always turned out well, and this one was no exception. The red and the white from the title are Russians, and the film is set two years after the October Revolution. Hungarian irregulars support the Reds in their battles with the Whites. This is not a film with a definable story-arc, or any kind of resolution. It’s brutal, but not gory, and was unsurprisingly banned in Russia for not showing the Reds as “heroic” (not that the Whites are heroic, either). Definitely worth seeing.

District 9, dir. Neill Blomkamp (2009), I’d been looking forward to seeing for a while. It was, according to many, one of the best sf films of last year. So I was surprised while watching it to find that I didn’t think it very good at all. The opening shots of the alien saucer over Johannesburg are effective, but then there’s an immediate break in tone as the main character, Wikus van der Merwe, is introduced. He’s a bumbling, self-effacing bureaucrat, and clearly a twit. But District 9 isn’t a comedy. It didn’t help that the story was initially framed as “found footage” – i.e., excerpts from newscasts and a documentary about van der Merwe which was being filmed as District 9‘s events unfolded – but every now and again, the PoV would pull back and cinematically break out of the framing narrative. And if presenting the story as an idiot comedy wasn’t enough, in the second half van der Merwe suddenly turns into some sort of action hero and the film into a standard Hollywood shoot-em-up. Not good. Very disappointing.

I Know You Know, dir. Justin Kerrigan (2008), is an odd film. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Repulsion, dir. Roman Polanski (1965), was Polanski’s first English-language film, a psychological horror film set in London and starring Catherine Deneuve. I reviewed it for Videovista here.

Blake’s 7 – Series 3 (1980). I have odd memories of bits and pieces of this programme from when it was first broadcast and, while I knew the general set-up and characters, I don’t think I could have described the plot of any individual episode. Series 3 is a case in point. Two new characters join the crew of the Liberator in this series, and I have quite strong memories of someone living in a spaceship hidden under the sea with a disguised hatch on the beach. Which proves to be the home of Dayna, as introduced in the first episode of this series. One thing I certainly hadn’t forgotten was how cheap Blake’s 7 was, with sets even wobblier than Dr Who’s, alien worlds that bear a remarkable resemblance to parts of the UK, and alien monsters that wouldn’t convince a two-year-old. The central characters are drawn well, Avon and Vila especially – both get some great lines – but the episodes themselves are mostly rubbish. As Blake’s 7 progressed through each season, it grew less plausible and more nonsensical, and some of the episodes in series 3 must have been the nadir. Still, it’s a piece, an important piece, of UK telly sf, was always watchable drama, and there were some good ideas in there every now and again.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil, dir. Sacha Gervasi (2009), I thought would appeal to me, given that I’m a metal-head. It’s a warts-and-all documentary on the titular Canadian heavy metal band who have been going for thirty years. Their fortunes have declined with the years, however – although, unsurprisingly, this film has improved them somewhat. Anvil! is very much like all those talent shows put together by Simon Cowell – it’s ordinary people parading their delusions which makes for the entertainment. Anvil! is not unlike Chris Smith’s American Movie in that respect. But it shouldn’t have been. It’s about a working band. They’re not Spinal Tap, and it’s misrepresentation to present them as though they were. Nor does Anvil! even try to engage with the music – despite the director claiming to be “England’s number-one Anvil fan” on first meeting the band in 1982, and having been a roadie for them on three tours. The film holds up the members of the band and characterises them as idiots, when they clearly do what they do for the love of the music. Other, more honest, documentaries have explored the tribal nature, both among the musicians and the fans, of metal music. I’d have thought the director of Anvil! was in a position to understand this. Perhaps it wasn’t entertaining enough. Perhaps he thought Anvil as Spinal Tap would prove more popular. I suspect he may have been right…

Cymbeline, dir. Elijah Moshinsky (1982), is another of the BBC’s Shakespeare adaptations. The thing about Shakespeare is that you already know the story, even if you know nothing about the play. The plot of Cymbeline is a case in point. An exiled noble, Posthumus, proud of his wife Imogen’s constancy (she’s King Cymbeline’s daughter), boasts of it to an acquaintance while in Rome. The Roman, Iachimo, doesn’t believe him, so they bet on it. Iachimo is off to visit Britain, and if he can seduce Posthumus’ wife, then he wins the bet. Of course, he cheats – hides in a trunk, has it carried into Imogen’s bedroom, and pops out in the middle of the night and notes whatever information he needs to convince Posthumus that he slept with his wife. Posthumus, showing a remarkable lack of faith in a wife he was only too happy to be boastful about, promptly goes mad. Shakespeare dresses this up with a pair of princes stolen at childbirth, who grew up believing themselves the sons of a woodman; and a war. Strangely, despite Cymbeline clearly being set in Roman Britain, the director chose to stage it in Elizabethan dress. Helen Mirren was excellent as Imogen, and Robert Lindsay as the conniving Iachimo. I must admit I’m enjoying working my way through Shakespeare’s plays, and these BBC The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare are superior adaptations.

The White Ribbon, dir. Michael Haneke (2009). There can be little doubt that Haneke is one of the most interesting directors currently making films. And good as The White Ribbon is, I have to wonder how far he can go. I knew this film would not have a resolution because it was a Haneke film. I knew that what was happening on the screen was not a story as such. It documents the events of a year before the outbreak of World War War in a rural German feudal village. Someone strings up a wire between two trees, and the doctor runs into on his horse, causing him to fall and break his collar-bone badly. The horse has to be shot. The baron’s young son is abducted and beaten. A farmer’s wife falls through rotten floorboards and into a threshing machine, which kills her. The midwife’s retarded son is tortured. There is a mystery here, but all attempts to investigate it prove fruitless. Instead, we’re shown what monsters the baron, the doctor and the local pastor are. As if the horrible events are reactions to the culture, the society, of the village which they have created. The White Ribbon is, like most of Haneke’s films, one which defies easy analysis. I rented this, but I suspect I shall be buying a copy of my own. Because it’s a film which needs rewatching.


Best Books of 2010 (the first half)

We’re halfway through the year (give or take a day or two) and I have, as usual, read a lot of books. Some of them impressed me more than others. The following five impressed me the most. I will, of course, do my usual best of the year post in December, and I suspect one or two of the books below might make that post.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this makes the final best of the year list – it’s one of those novels which leaves you with an itch to reread it. Not only is it a cleverly-plotted historical detective novel, but Crowley performs an astonishing piece of literary impersonation (not, I hasten to add, that I’m an expert on Byron; but Crowley certainly convinced me).

The Magus, John Fowles (1977). Fowles’ sheer readability always surprises me when I read his books. This one is no different. Fowles’ own characterisation of it as a “novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent” is unnecessarily harsh, although I suspect I would have appreciated the book a great deal more if I’d read it in my twenties. I’ve a feeling this one won’t make the final cut.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928). I certainly hadn’t expected to like Lawrence’s prose as much as I did on reading this. My previous experiences with 1920s writers had not been entirely encouraging. But I’ve since gone on to read three of Lawrence’s novellas, and I have The Rainbow and Women in Love lined up on the TBR.

The Turing Test, Chris Beckett (2008). This collection won the Edge Hill Prize last year, and Chris’ first novel, The Holy Machine, has just been republished by Corvus Press, so he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves. I wrote back in February that “his fiction feels more like it’s touching the edges of genre than actively engaging with it”, which is not a criticism.

Troy, Simon Brown (2006). Another collection of genre-ish short stories. The book’s title is descriptive: each of the ten stories is inspired by a character from the Trojan Wars. They are literary fantasy and science fiction, and very well-written. I wouldn’t mind reading more by Brown. Most of the stories in Troy originally appeared in Eidolon, an Australian sf magazine, and the collection was published by Ticonderoga Publications, an Australian small press.

Oops. No science fiction. Well, yes, the Beckett and the Brown are sf, but not entirely and certainly not heartland sf. And they’re collections, not novels. I did actually read a lot of sf novels during the first half of this year, but I seem to have lost the knack of privileging sensawunda over writing chops, so no matter how mind-blowing their gosh-wow special effects they seem to lack a certain something. I can no longer read sf as adventure stories. I’ve yet to work out if that’s good or bad…