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Reading diary, #55

It might look I had a run of books by male authors, but in amongst these were several sf novels by female writers, which I plan to review on SF Mistressworks soon-ish. As it is, there are two books by a single writer, Eric Brown, who’s a friend of many years: a novella and a short collection.

Exalted on Bellatrix 1, Eric Brown (2017, UK). This is the final book in the Telemass Quartet, in which obsessive father Hendrick chases after the body of his young daughter, who has been put in stasis until a cure for her condition can be found, and who has been kidnapped by Hendrick’s ex-wife. And she is apparently just as warped as she’s been subjecting her daughter to increasingly desperate remedies, none of which have worked. But this is the fourth novella of a quartet, and Brown rarely fails to deliver some sort of uplifting closure to the agonies through which he puts his protagonists. In this one, Brown uses a setting he’s used many times in the past, an artists’ colony. Hendrick’s ex-wife has taken their daughter to the eponymous planet, where they’re hoping the reclusive, but advanced, alien inhabitants, the Vhey, will cure her. The end result is something in which the quartet’s story arc feels almost incidental. The novella focuses on the head of the colony, who is a nasty piece of work, and whose wife died in mysterious circumstances, and who plans to make use of the secret of the Vhey. Although not in the way Hendrick’s ex-wife is expecting, and not in a way that will save the daughter. Of the four novellas, this was probably the least satisfying, chiefly because it feels a bit warmed-over in places. Also, annoyingly, the previous three books used Roman numerals in their titles, but this one uses an Arabic number 1.

Revenger, Alastair Reynolds (2016, UK). This is, I think, supposed to be a YA novel – or at least YA-ish. The narrator is a teenage girl, in a planetary system populated by billions of space habitats, and which as been colonised in waves over billions of years. It is, it must be said, a pretty cool piece of world-building. Except… it’s all a bit steampunk. The spacecraft use light-sails to travel around the system, the technology is all brass and clockwork, except for magical tech artefacts left behind by aliens from earlier waves of colonisation… One of which are the skulls. Although the alien race whose skulls they were has long since vanished, and all that remains of them are bones, the technology inside their skulls remains active, and they’re all plugged into some sort of FTL comms network. Some teenagers can eavesdrop on this network, and send signals. Both Fura Ness and her sister Adrana have this knack. Adrana, the older of the two, persuades her sister to join her in running away from their financially-ruined father and making their fortune as skull readers. They join the crew of a ship that raids “baubles”, abandoned repositories of ancient alien tech (perhaps the baubles were habitats in the distant past, it’s never entirely clear). The baubles are usually secure behind impenetrable shields, but the shields occasionally drop for short periods, and some people are able to predict when these windows of opportunity will occur and how long they will last (again, it’s never made entirely clear why the shields should do this; because plot, I guess). Unfortunately, at their first bauble, the ship is attacked by a semi-legendary pirate, Bosa Sennen, who takes Adrana to be her skull-reader, and kills everyone else. But Fura hid, and survives. She vows revenge on the pirate, but her plans are derailed when her father has her brought back home and has a doctor halt her ageing so she will remain under-age and under his control. To me, that was the most horrifying part of the whole novel – Fura imprisoned by her age and society. Of course, Fura breaks free, joins the crew of a ship, engineers an encounter with Bosa Sennen and, well, there are no real surprises at the climax. As I said, the world-building is cool, but it’s never really convincing – and the baubles reminded me of something, A Deepness in the Sky perhaps? – and I didn’t really like the faux Victoriana. Fura makes for a good protagonist, but I thought the violence over-done. There is, I believe, a sequel called Revealer, due next year or the year after. I’ll buy it, of course.

The Paperchase, Marcel Theroux (2001, UK). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and having been impressed by the last Theroux novel I read, Strange Bodies, I bought it. It’s not science fiction in the slightest, more of a family drama slash mystery. The narrator is a UK-based American, who is surprised to discover he’s been left his uncle’s house on a New England island in a will. The uncle was a celebrated writer, who faded away and became a recluse. The narrator leaves his job at the BBC and goes to live in the house – it’s a condition of the will: he only gets to keep it if he lives in it. And something about the papers left by his uncle, and the stories, and histories, of his neighbours, persuades the narrator there is a deeper story here – a mytsery about his uncle’s death, or his life. From a variety of unrelated facts, and assorted residents of the island, and friends of the late uncle, the narrator figures out the secret at the heart of the family. The problem is the prose, and the narrator, is so laid-back the revelation doesn’t really have the impact it should. True, it’s not especially earth-shattering, and very personal, but it’s the point of the novel so I’d expected something with more consequence. There’s a nicely digressive tone to the narrative, and the characters are well-drawn (and mostly likeable), but I polished this off about as quickly as I would a commericial crime novel and I had expected more of it.

Strange Visitors, Eric Brown (2014, UK). This is the eighth volume in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of short collections. The contents in this one were originally published in a variety of venues, but, as is usually the case with collections, one story is original. It is not, to be brutally honest, Brown’s strongest collection. ‘Life Beyond…’, a piece of Simakiana, hews so closely to Simak’s patterns the plot is obvious from the first page. ‘Steps Along the Way’ is a post-human story about a twentieth-century human reincarnated thirty thousand years later… just to set up a surprise reveal ending (I suppose I should have liked this one, given its plot, but I thought it weak). ‘Myths of the Martian Future’ is one of those sf stories where every character in it is an alien of some form. It felt lighter than its tone suggested. ‘The Scribe of Betelgeuse V’ felt more like Dr Who story than an Eric Brown one. But without Dr Who. Its tone suited its lightness. ‘The Rest is Speculation’ is set during the last days of planet Earth, and reads more like a travelogue than a story (and the header in the book is incorrect as it gives the title of the following story). Which is ‘The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador’, a HG Wells / Sherlock Holmes mash-up, and succeeds as that if not entirely as a Holmes mystery. ‘Bukowski on Mars, With Beer’ was written for “bizarro fiction” anthology Vivisepulture (which also contained my Nazi occult flying saucer story, ‘Wunderwaffe’). I don’t know enough about Bukowski to feel qualified to comment on this story. ‘People of Planet Earth’ is one of those stories based on one of those silly ideas that wants to be both shocking and humorous, but fails at both. Finally, I was prepared to be disappointed by the collection’s only original story, ‘P.O.O.C.H.’, if only because of its terrible title. And prepared to hate it when I read that P.O.O.C.H. was an acronym for “Personal Omni-Operational Correctional Hound”, but… The premise is daft – giving convicted felons robot dogs programmed for bad behaviour in order to make them better people – but Brown draws his protagonists well and does a good job navigating the emotional landscape of the story. And yes, I also got to feel smug about being a cat person. It’s easily the best story in the collection.

The Quarry, Iain Banks (2013, UK). This was Banks’s last novel and is about a man dying of cancer, so questions about art and life were inevitable after Banks announced he had terminal cancer. The novel is actually narrated from the point of view of the dying man’s son, who has, I think, Asperger’s Syndrome. It is, like most of Banks’s non-M novels, a story based around a family secret, but the secret in this case is actually pretty irrelevant. A group of people who shared a house during their student days have returned to the house, where the oldest of their number now lives, and is in the end stages of terminal cancer. There is mention of a videocassette – the group fancied themselves as avant garde film-makers at university – which none of them want to see the light of day, but neither dying Guy nor his son Kit, know what’s happened to the tape. Meanwhile, a few home truths are aired, a few minor secrets from the past are let out of the bag, and the mystery of the identity of Kit’s mother is occasionally floated past the reader, only for it to be dealt with in passing at the end. The scene where the group view the sought-after videocassette is also pretty much a damp squib. The novel is narrated by Kit, and I don’t know enough about Asperger’s or autism to just how accurately or effectively he is portrayed. Other than that, Banks always wore his politics on his sleeve, and they’re out in full force in The Quarry. It’s far from his best novel, mainstream, science fiction or both, although it does come across as an angrier novel than his earlier ones (except perhaps for Complicity) – but that’s hardly surprising given what the Tories have been doing to the UK since 2010. Banks’s death makes The Quarry a more uncomfortable read than it would have been otherwise – the politics were clearly intended to make for uncomfortable reading for some, but the cancer aspect of the plot, sadly, overshadows it. Still, it’s a Bank novel, so it’s a given that it’s worth reading.

Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany). After reading The End of Days, I knew Erpenbeck was a name to watch. So I tracked down her previous books and read them, and they were good. And now we have her latest, actually published In Germany in 2015, but the English translation is new this year. A retired professor in Berlin, and who grew up in East Germany, one day stumbles across a camp of African refugees in Alexanderplatz. He follows their story in the press as they are moved to a tent city in another square, and then split up and placed in temporary accommodation – mothballed schools and sanatoria – while the Berlin senate makes a decision on their fate. The professor decides to document the plight of these refugee men – from Libya, Ghana, and Niger, chiefly. There is a group of them in an old nursing home near his house, and he is allowed to interview them. As he gets to know them and their stories, so he realises that the narrative written by European governments and press about the refugees is both inaccurate and incomplete, in much the same way the powerful in Germany fostered a desire for unity and imposed their own narrative on the union of East and West. There are contrasts also – the initial easy acceptance of East Germans by West Germans, which soon soured, not to mention the expectations of the East Germans based on myths of the West propagated through Western culture. This is a book that properly interrogates its topic, and it pulls no punches. Right wing press and governments have traded on people’s racism and xenophobia to whip up anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that has no basis in fact – because people scared of strangers are easier to control and are less likely to notice when their rights and property are taken from them just so some oligarch can earn more money than he could possibly spend in a thousand lifetimes. They’re the ones we should be scared of, the oligarchs; they’re the ones we should hate – not the poor sods driven out of their homes by wars created by inept US foreign policy and British arms sales, or the economic depredations of Western corporations chasing profits, and organising violent regime changes, in the developing world to offset their decreasing margins in the developed world…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary, #54

I’m slowly picking up on my reading, partly I think because I really enjoyed a recent reread of Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy. I mean, I’d remembered the books as good, but I’d been starting to forget what reading good intelligent sf was like. Although not all of the sf I’ve read recently would qualify as that…

The Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair (1973, USA). Okay, I admit it: I bought this because of the cover art. It was at the Eastercon, and it was like a quid. And I knew I could review it for SF Mistressworks (when I resurrect the blog, that is). I’d previously read a collection by St Clair, and some of her other stories in various women-only anthologies, but I think this was by first novel by her… And it wasn’t at all what I expected. In fact, it read more like Doris Piserchia than the St Clair I’d expected. The story is set after a plague – world-wide possibly, US-wide certainly; it’s hard to tell with US sf novels – in a California which has returned to a tribal agrarian culture. Sort of. The protagonist, Sam McGregor, is a bit of a rebel and doesn’t understand why the young men of the tribe must always dance under the instruction of the android Dancer. So he’s sent on a Grail Quest, which means driving down the coast in search of some sort of epiphany. Instead, he begins to relive the lives of people from earlier times, including a dead young woman being autopsied, and the inventor of the androids. To be honest, not a single bit of this novel made the slightest fucking sense. McGregor meets up with the daughter of the android inventor, who also appears to have something to do with “bone melt”, the disease which basically depopulated California, or the US, or the world. St Clair seems to have no clear idea of her story or what she wants to say. The result is a novel that doesn’t read so much as if St Clair made it up as she went along but more like a novel she couldn’t be bothered to turn into sense. It was her last.

Valerian and Laureline 18: In Uncertain Times, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2001, France). Our two heroes are still wandering the galaxy after the loss of Galaxity and, well… When a graphic novel opens with a plot diagram that makes Primer look like a straightforward narrative… Because Galaxity’s disappearance was caused by God, who lives on Hypsis with His layabout son and Whose fortunes have been declining because humans no longer worship Him… But making Galaxity never exist means Earth will now be destroyed in the 27th Century, which is even worse. So God has to go back in time and sort of undo things, along the way preventing a multinational corporation from building for themselves a godlike creature. And this somehow involves Valerian and Laureline, because Laureline’s origin (revealed in the very first book in the series) is pivotal. Or something. One of these days I’m going to have read this series in one long binge – or at least the story arc that began with Galaxity’s disappearance in volume 11, The Ghosts of Inverloch. It’s good stuff, and fascinating sf, but I’m starting to lose track of the story-arc… And there’s no way Besson could have adapted these last few volumes.

Phoenix Café, Gwyneth Jones (1997, UK).. This is the final book of Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, after White Queen and North Wind (see here), and, as can be seen, just as well-served as those books by Gollancz’s art department. The story is set a century after the events of North Wind, and the Aleutians are preparing to return to the home world. They have the Buonarotti Device, and they’ve fitted it to their worldship. Unfortunately, it seems the Device doesn’t really work for humans – they can certainly travel somewhere else instantaneously, but their time at their destination has all the concreteness of a dream. Fortunately, it works perfectly well on Aleutians. (By the time of Spirit, Jones’s last published novel, and also set in the same universe, the problem seems to have been solved for humans.) The Gender Wars have pretty mcuh split humanity into two antoginstic blocs: Women (Reformers) and Traditionalists (Men). Men believe in traditional gender roles, and keep their women veiled. The Reformist agenda is less clear. The protagonist is Catherine, a “descendant” of Clavel (the Aleutians are serial reincarnators) engineered before birth to be human. Which presents a problem: because the serial reincarnation is partly learned and requires the total immersion in the Aleutian chemical communication medium, and Catherine obviously lacks the biology to read or generate such communication. In North Wind, Clavel was Bella a half-Aleutian/half-human hybrid, but as Catherine, who is fully human, Clavel can finally atone for the rape of Johnny Guglioli in White Queen, which kicked off three hundred years of Aleutian rule, and arguably led to the Gender Wars and the destruction of the environment. Like the other two books in the trilogy, Phoenix Café is a darker novel than I remembered it. There’s a hardness, almost a brutality, to the way the characters treat each other and themselves, and in places it makes the book a difficult read. And yet, there’s a fierce intelligence in the novel too, a sense that there’s far more going on than appears on the page. Gwyneth Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and I consider her one of the best this country has produced, but it’s good to remind myself of that at times by rereading her books.

Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK). The novel opens with a middle-aged woman entering a London railway station (I don’t think it’s named) and finding a dead pigeon. She picks up the corpse, takes it into the ladies’ toilets, washes it, and then wraps it in brown paper. She’s not entirely sure why. And after she bumps into the young woman she is there to meet (she was in service with her family as a nanny), she throws away the dead pigeon. But then she goes and retrieves it from the bin. The young woman is there to meet up with a bunch of friends who are all heading for the south of France on the boat-train. However, thick fog has closed down the station, and no trains are running. So after the party has gathered, they head into the station hotel to wait for the fog to lift. At which point, the ex-nanny is taken ill (it’s not clear if she’s just had too much to drink or is genuinely ill). Meanwhile, the party settles down in a suite, and the banter begins – mostly focusing on two women and their relationship with the young playboy who’s funding the trip to the Riviera. The fog still hasn’t lifted by five o’clock, and all the commuters have turned up to find their trains home aren’t running. So the management seal off the hotel while the station concourse fills up with angry workers. Green’s prose is beautifully done. There’s very little in the way of exposition, and what there is comes naturally from the characters. The prose is sparse and clear, and often dispenses with definite articles or pronouns in a Modernist style. The characterisation comes purely from the characters’ words and deeds. Green neither shows nor tells. It’s up to the reader to plot what’s going on, to figure out the relationships between the characters, to work out the story-arc (and, to be fair, there usually isn’t one), and to make sense of the situations Green documents. I stumbled across this omnibus of three of Green’s novels in a charity shop and was intrigued by the description of him as “the best English novelist alive” (by WH Auden, in 1952). His prose is indeed superb, and I greatly admire its clarity and its refusal to compromise. The Modernism reads a little quaint these days, and I’d sooner novelists experimented with structure rather than grammar, but every writer worth their salt should try a Green novel at least once.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA). According to my records, I received this book as a Christmas present back in 2008. I’d read Chabon’s multi-award-winning The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that year, and thought it good. So I’m a little surprised it’s taken me nearly nine years to get around to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Maybe I was put off by its size – 643 pages in this paperback edition. And, to be honest, the history of comics, or fiction about early comics history, doesn’t really interest me. Which is a shame, because The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is actually really good, much better in fact than The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The eponymous duo are not comicbook superheroes but the creators of a comicbook superhero, The Escapist, who is as successful as Superman during the 1930s and 1940s. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is also about Jews in New York – particularly when Europe was fighting WWII – and American Nazis, and Kavalier’s family back in Prague after the country was invaded by Germany… It’s also about stage magic – Kavalier is an amateur magician and escapologist – and real magic – the story opens with a plot to move the Golem from Prague – and broken dreams – Clay’s great love is the actor who plays The Escapist first on radio then in a film serial, but Clay chooses a “normal” life instead. I’m not entirely convinced by Chabon’s prose. There are occasions when it seems over-egged – actually, most of the time it seems over-egged. Although it’s always very readable. A prose stylist, he is not. But the story he tells is completely engrossing (okay, the whole Golem plot-thread was completely unnecessary). Such as Kavalier’s war service in Antarctica – a completely bizarre detour, but entertaining and interesting. I don’t get the comicbook history elements – or rather, while they come across as convincing, they don’t seem like plausible precursors of the comics I read as a child in the 1970s. But then, back then, I read US comics infrequently, and UK comics followed the anthology model – either WWII-set, or comical (as in Beano and Dandy). Do you know how weird it was for a British kid of the 1970s to read a comic that contained only a single strip and it wasn’t even complete? Which I guess seems like an odd aspect to notice, given the other elements in the novel. But I have no equivalent experience in those areas and am more than willing to accept the authority of Chabon’s narrative. Which all sounds a bit like cavilling, when I don’t mean it to. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was really very good indeed, and any infelicities in the prose style were offset by the novel’s breadth and depth. Recommended.

Solar, Ian McEwan (2010, UK). You know that old story about the bloke who buys some biscuits in a cafe, then sits at a table with a complete stranger. He eats one of his biscuits, and then is shocked when the other man takes one of the biscuits? McEwan turns that old chestnut into six-pages of over-baked prose in Solar. He later admits it’s a variation on an urban legend, the Unwitting Thief; but then so many parts of this books feel like variations on urban legends. McEwan also thinks airlines serve food on flights between London and Berlin – I didn’t think they bothered anymore for journeys of less than three or four hours, but perhaps I’m wrong. The protagonist is a womanising scientist who has been trading on his Nobel laureate for much of his career. He’s not so much a product of his time as a product of McEwan’s time, because he reads like a lecherous and sexist pig. His marriage is failing, his current job feels like a waste of time, and then he accidentally causes the death of his wife’s lover and frames his wife’s ex-lover for it, and uses it as a springboard to boost his own career. There’s some solid argument for anthropogenic global warming and against all the dumb climate change deniers, but everything esle in the novel is sadly quite bad. The protagonist is unlikeable, the female characters are badly drawn, elements of the plot seem to have been lifted from snopes.com, and there are assorted rants against “postmodernism” – which it is not: McEwan is just ranting against critics of male white privilege. I was much impressed by McEwan’s earlier novels when I read them back in the 1990s, but this century I’ve found them increasingly disappointing. Saturday, in fact, I thought awful. I only continued to read him out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. But after Solar, I purged my TBR of McEwan’s novels and I’ll no longer bother reading him. Life is too short.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #53

Apparently, I still read science fiction – or rather, most of my reading is still science fiction. Which is odd, given my opinion of the quality of much of it. But then two of the books below were rereads and by my favourite sf writer. Make of that what you will.

White Queen, Gwyneth Jones (1991, UK). I’ve been meaning to reread this book, and its two sequels, for a long time, but in the continual chase to main a positive TBR balance (ie, reading more books than I buy) I usually don’t find time for rereads. But then I agreed to write something about Jones’s aliens for a critical work, not just because I welcomed the opportunity to write about Jones but also because it would force me to do that long-put-off reread. And so it did. And… White Queen was not only better than I’d remembered it, but also a good deal nastier than I’d remembered. True, I’m a different reader now than I was twenty-five years ago – who isn’t? – when I last read the book. I can see how some of the characterisation was of that time… but it does read differently now. The word “whore”, for example, is thrown around a lot more than you’d find in a novel of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The characterisation also seems not as I remember it – the aliens are better drawn than the humans, basically. Some time hence, a decade or two, aliens land secretly on Earth. These are the Aleutians, so called because of their original landing place. They resemble humans, but have no noses, a single gender, and bio-technology based on “wandering cells” from their own individual bodies. Johnny Guglioni is an engineer/journalist, or eejay, (one of the novel’s less impressive neologisms), who has been infected with a virus which can degrade coralin, the “living clay” on which all modern electronics are based. He becomes involved with the Aleutians through Clavel, one of the three Aleutian “captains”, in an invented African country. Braemar Wilson is a tabloid television journalist who thinks Earth cannot survive an encounter with superior aliens, and who seduces Johnny as a means of gaining access to Clavel. Then the Aleutians reveal themselves to what they think is the world government, an international conference on women’s rights taking place in Thailand… The Aleutians are one of sf’s great alien races without a doubt, thoroughly convincing with the minimum of hand-waving. And the novel has plenty of the latter, as the plot soon congregates around a FTL drive, or instantaneous transportation method, invented by eccentric engineered genius Peenemunde Buonarotti, and which features in later stories and novels set in the same universe, notably Spirit and the stories in The Buonarotti Quartet. It seems an odd hook on which to hang the narrative up to that point, although it does handily lead into Johnny’s Christ-like redemption – and I have to wonder if that was the point of it all. It was Jones’s ‘Forward Echoes’, published in an issue of Interzone in late 1990 which made me sit up and take notice of Jones’s fiction (perversely, a revised edition of the story, ‘Identifying the Object’, in a chapbook collection of the same title, doesn’t give me that same jolt), and ‘Forward Echoes’ is about the first contact with the Aleutians in an African country. White Queen is an extension of it… and yet it’s not my favourite Jones novel, which is Kairos. But rereading White Queen after so long reinforced my admiration of Jones’s prose and made me realise how very very good she is at depicting the alien (and, on reflection, that ties in quite well to the fracturing of reality which is one of the strengths of Kairos). Jones is one of my favourite writers, and still, to my mind, one of the best science fiction writers this country has produced. And being at an age when rereading old favourites  usually ends up poisoning the well of my childhood, it’s heartening– no, it’s a delight… to discover my appreciation of Jones’s writing not only remains undimmed but has probably been strengthened.

Totalitopia, John Crowley (2017, USA). A new collection by John Crowley! Time for celebration. Except, well, this is a collection of essays and columns and a couple of stories, plus an unpublished piece of fiction… although, to be fair, I’ll pretty much take any Crowley I can get. (And I wonder when the Incunabula anniversary edition of Little, Big is going to appear, it’s been going on a decade since I paid for it). There’s a review of Paul Park’s fiction, focusing on his Princess of Romania quartet and his last “novel”, All Those Vanished Engines. Much as I admire Crowley’s fiction, for me Park is the best sf novelist the US has produced – although Crowley is more than qualified to write about him. The fiction is a little too Americana for my tastes – much as I love All That Heaven Allows, fiction that evokes a similar atmosphere leaves me cold. The columns are good, and while their subjects may not necessarily appeal, they certainly act as good inspiration for pieces I want to write myself – I really must write something about why All That Heaven Allows is my favourite film, for example; I mean, I listen to death metal, I write science fiction… and my favourite film is a 1950s melodrama. Go figure.

The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016, UK). This was the first of three books I took with me to Finland to read during the trip, and during whatever downtime I might have during Worldcon75. I pretty much finished the novel before the first day of the con was done. Which I suppose is a testament to its readability. I had high hopes for The Power. At one point, it seemed a serious contender for the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist this year, and while the Shadow Clarke Jury ended up split on the book, and it never even got a look in with the actual jury, it did sound interesting enough to be worth a punt. But, oh dear. The central premise is brilliant: young girls develop the ability to generate electricity like electric eels, and the scaffolding to back it up is well-built (Alderman namechecks Peter Watts in her acknowledgements). But this is then used in service to a feeble cross between a transatantlic thriller and a BBC euro-thriller plot. There are three main narratives: a young woman in the East End of London, who witnesses her mother’s brutal murder, and ends up taking over her father’s gangster empire; the ex-athlete trophy wife of the Moldovan president, who desposes him and turns her country into women’s state; and an American orphan, who proves have the strongest power of all, and who starts up a religion with herself in the Christ role. The entire book is framed as a novelisation of “historical events” written a millennia or so later in a world in which women are the dominant gender. It’s not very subtle. I enjoyed the book, but I found it disappointing as the three narratives were such obvious ways of treating the concept, and made it all feel more like a techno-thriller than a commentary on its premise. I gave the book away after I’d finished. I hope the person I gave it to is more impressed than I was.

Retribution Falls, Chris Wooding (2009, UK). This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award and was seen as an odd choice at the time. Having now read it, I’m even more mystified. It’s a steampunkish sf adventure story with 1970s sexual politics. And while one word in the preceding sentence qualifies it for the Clarke Award, the rest should have immediately disqualified it from the shortlist. The title refers to a semi-mythical town populated by pirates. Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay, a Millennium Falcon sort of equivalent in a world where there are powered aircraft who use an invented gas, aerium, to improve their lift. So they’re sort of a cross between zeppelins and aeroplanes, but are treated like steampunk spaceships. And it’s totally unconvincing. Then you have the crew, who are the usual bunch of RPG-session misfits (or Firefly-inspired character writing, which I guess is the same thing), who get inadvertently embroiled in a plot which reaches all the way up to the highest levels of society… Yawn. The book was, according to the author, written to be fun, which is fine in and of itself. But when the only two named female characters are a) undead and b) a ruthless pirate captain who turns out to be the jilted lover of the hero… Oh, and let’s not forget his current girlfriend, who’s been sent to a convent by her upper class father… All the other female characters are whores or nuns. Well, this is not a book that should have been published in the twenty-first century, never mind shortlisted for a major genre award. Seriously, what the fuck were they thinking? It’s not even like the plot is hugely original, as the way it unfolds is pretty much obvious from page one. Retribution Falls reads like a write-up of a dudebro session of a derivative RPG game. The genre is better than that, the Clarke is way better than that. Avoid.

Around the World in Eighty Days*, Jules Verne (1873, France). I have no idea if I’ve read this before – I don’t think so, but it’s hard to tell since I’ve seen versions of the films enough times over the decades to know the story. Except, well, they’re not the story. I don’t think any of the movies I’ve seen – I can think of two, off the top of my head, one starring David Niven and the other Steve Coogan – are at all faithful to the book. Yes, Phineas Fogg accepts a challenge to travel around the world in eighty days. Yes, he thinks he’s failed, only to discover that by travelling east he has gained a day. Yes, he has adventures along the way, and even rescues a young woman who becomes his wife at the end of the book. But in the novel, he meets her in India, when he rescues her from suttee. And I don’t recall a Scotland Yard detective on Fogg’s trail for much of his travels – he believes Fogg stole £50,000 shortly before leaving London. And the final section, in which a desperate Fogg, Passepartout, Fix and Aouda race across the USA to catch a ship to Liverpool… the big set-piece is driving a train over a damaged bridge at high speed so the bridge doesn’t collapse under it. Much of the prose is larded with geography lessons, and while Verne’s didactism is one of the more charming aspects of his novels, here it seems overdone. True, I’m coming at the book more than a century later, as a member of a society considerably better-informed about world geography, and a highly-educated member of that society with an interest in other countries… So much of the exposition was superfluous as far as I was concerned. Further, Fogg’s characterisation as unemotional and po-faced hardly made him a sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps Verne intended this so the reader would indeed think Fogg was the bank robber, but it only made him feel like he had zero depth. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced, from what I remember, that the film adaptations are especially superior. The book is, I suspect, the best version of the story. Which is a bit of a shame.

North Wind, Gwyneth Jones (1994, UK). I can’t remember if White Queen was initially presented as a standalone, I can’t remember when I first read White Queen if it was sold as the first book of a trilogy – although judging by the gap between it and North Wind, I suspect not. The story of North Wind opens a century later, long after all those mentioned in White Queen have died – although the Aleutians are, of course, serial reincarnators. Everyone now knows the Aleutians arrived in a generation ship – less of a hardship for serial reincarnators, obvs – and the events of White Queen have pretty much passed into legend, especially among the Aleutians, who remember it as a significant epic, The Grief of Clavel. The opening of North Wind turns the tables on White Queen, this time having a human rescue a naive Aleutian, rather than vice versa, when a backlash against the aliens takes place, and all but Bella, the “librarian”, among the Aleutians are killed in, again, Africa. Bella – “he” to himself and other Aleutians, but “she” to humans – is rescued by human Sidney Carton (the name explicitly taken from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities). Since White Queen, Earth has been embroiled in several Gender Wars – the Women are not all women, the Men are not all men; reformers and traditionalist are mentioned throughout as better labels – and this has made things more difficult for the Aleutians, and the halfcastes, who are humans who surgically alter themselves to resemble Aleutians, and consider themselves reincarnations (of, obviously, cultural icons of Jones’s own formative years, like Jimi Hendrix, who is of course also heavily referenced in Jones’s Bold As Love novels). In North Wind, Carton’s rescue of Bella, and her/his subsequent escape from his “care”, eventually leads into a hunt for Buonarotti’s mythical FTL drive… I couldn’t honestly tell you if North Wind is better than White Queen. I suspect the distinction is irrelevant. White Queen is a more memorable narrative, but it has the advantage of kicking off the series. North Wind has a more coherent narrative – but one of the strengths of the series, novels and short stories, is that a lack of narrative coherence is a side-effect of FTL travel, or rather, the narrative deliberately obfuscates in order to evoke the experience of FTL travel. I had forgotten how good this trilogy was, so I’m grateful for being prompted into rereading them. I should reread them more often, regularly perhaps. On the other hand, I had forgotten how badly Gollancz had served these books with cover art. Jones has recently rereleased the novels herself on Kindle, and she may well have updated them. Which is really annoying, as I’m not a fan of ebooks and would much sooner read hardcopy, paperback or hardback. Next up, Phoenix Café, the original 1997 Gollancz hardback…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #52

I’m still trying to pick up the pace of my reading, but I’ve not had all that much success so far. I’m managing to keep ahead of my TBR – ie, I’m reading more books each month than I buy, although I’m not buying as many as I have done in the past – but I’m still more than a dozen books behind in my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books by the end of the year.

Valerian and Laureline 17: Orphan of the Stars (1998, France). The volumes in the Valerian and Laureline series have been forming an extended narrative for a while now. Initially, each was an unconnected story, then there were a couple of two-volume stories, but since the disappearance of Galaxity after the past was changed, the duo’s narrative has been more serial than series. The volume prior to this one, Hostages of Ultralum (see here), saw Valerian and Laureline rescue the Caliphon, the brattish young son of the Caliph of Iksaladam, a fabulously wealthy planet, from kidnappers, and in this book he’s still with them, and they’re still being pursued by the kidnappers. The three are now in the Asteroids of Shimballil, a belt close enough to the star system’s sun for the asteroids, each with their own atmosphere, to be habitable. The duo are trying to find a treatment for the Caliphon’s behavioural dificulties, but they need money… and after meeting a producer of popular entertainments, Laureline agrees to act for him for the money. Like many of the other tomes in the series, Orphan of the Stars takes satirical pokes at various things – in this case, the aforementioned entertainments industry (ie, the film industry), but also academia. I’ve yet to see Besson’s film, and I think I’ve missed its run at the cinemas, but from the reviews I’ve seen it seems to mangle an important aspect of the series, the relationship between Valerian and Laureline. Given that the relationship has developed and changed over 22 volumes, it’s no surprise the film fails to get a handle on it. But, more importantly, it also seems to me, the movie fluffs the books’ humour. It’s not just satire and piss-takes of contemporary culture which feature in the series, but also the banter between the two principals. Laureline is definitely the competent one, and has been since around volume three or four, and the two are in a relationship, but there’s a give and take between the two, between Valerian’s misplaced protectiveness and Laureline’s competence, it sounds like the movie has bungled. But I guess I’ll know that for sure when I finally get to watch it.

Living, Henry Green (1929, UK). What to say about Henry Green? At one point, he was considered by some as “the best English novelist” and – a phrase I quite like – as the “writer’s writer’s writer”. According to Wikipedia, he was always more popular among other writers than the reading public and “none of his books sold more than 10,000 copies”. From the 1950s onwards, his star faded – he died in 1973 – and by the 1980s, he was mostly forgotten… only to be rediscovered in the early 1990s, and omnibuses of his nine novels (three per omnibus) have been in print ever since. And yes, he is every bit as good as his admirers have/had it. Living, his second novel, is set in and around a Birmingham iron foundry in the 1920s – Green actually worked as the managing director of his family’s engineering firm in Birmingham – and focuses on a handful of its employees, including the London-based son of the company’s owner. The prose is modernist, and uses definite and indefinite articles sparingly. It takes a bit of getting used to, but Green’s writing is so good it’s highly effective. The dialogue is also written in dialect – although I could never quite make it sound Brummie in my head – which also takes a while to get used to. In terms of plot, there’s not a great deal, just the lives of its central characters, and how they cope with changes to the company’s fortunes. But reading Green just makes me want to push the envelope of my own writing. I don’t want to come up with cleverer plots, or more engaging stories, I want to sharpen my narratives, improve my word-choices, write the best damn prose I can, so that I too can be as lucid, as economical, and yet as lyrical, as Henry Green. Highly recommended.

Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK). This book was, in a roundabout fashion, my introduction to the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor – or rather, I learnt of her writing thanks to this book. Well, thanks to François Ozon’s adaptation of it, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed many years ago for videovista.net. I liked the film so much, I kept an eye open in charity shops for books by Taylor… and it’s taken till now before I finally stumbled across a copy of Angel (after first finding and reading Blaming and A Wreath of Roses). And the first thing I noted about Angel the novel was its differences to the film adaptation. The plots are pretty much identical – opening in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, working-class teeenager Angelica Devereux, Angel, writes a florid romance novel, publisher takes a chance on it, book is a success, Angel goes onto become a successful – if critically mocked – writer, falls in love with Esmé, an impoverished upper-class painter, who marries her for her money but cheats on her, he is wounded in WWI and dies in an accident soon after, her books are by then no longer popular, and she lingers on in poverty… The film has Esmé’s work re-evaluated after his death, so he becomes critically lauded, while Angel’s books continue to be seen as trashy potboilers. The film also makes Angel more of a figure of fun, and so more sympathetic, than the novel, although they make use of the same events. In that respect, in that Angel is an unsympathetic character, and not played for light laughs, the book is a tougher read than the film is a viewing. But Taylor’s prose is so very good, reading it is never a hardship (which is not say Ozon’s direction is bad, although he does film it in a very artificial, almost pantomime, style, which suits his treatment of the material). I’ve now read Angel, but I’ll continue to keep an eye open for Taylor’s novels – and I have her Complete Short Stories on the TBR…

Home Fires, Gene Wolfe (2011, USA). I picked up a copy of the signed and numbered PS Publishing edition of this novel for much cheapness a couple of years ago, although not being an especially big fan of Wolfe’s fiction I’ve no real idea why I did so. His The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a classic work of sf, The Book of the New Sun is a remarkable work but its sensibilities have not aged well, and everything else he has written I’ve found more or less meh. Except his short fiction – that I really don’t like at all, bar one or two stories. But Wolfe has a reputation for tricksiness and cleverness, as if the two things are the same, and his profile within genre remains extremely high, even if few people seem to read him these days. Home Fires does nothing to change my current opinion of Wolfe. It’s set a century or so hence. Skip Grison is a wealthy lawyer in his fifties. Twenty-something years before, he contracted (civil partnership) with Chelle Sea Blue (yes, really), who then left Earth to fight the Os. She is due to return home. Although she has been away decades, it has only been a handful of years for her. He is worried for their partnership, although he still loves her dearly. As a present for her return, Skip arranges for Chelle’s mother to be resurrected – ie, a brain scan of her is imprinted onto the mind of a volunteer. Skip and Chelle then go on a cruise on a sailing ship (the cover art depicts a motor cruise liner with masts and sails badly photoshopped on top, which is annoying). Things happen aboard the sailing ship – hijackers seize it, attempts are made on the life of Shelle’s mother, Wolfe plays his usual wordgames with the reader… But it all seems a bit, well, a bit feeble. Some of the puzzles presented in the narrative are easy enough to solve, and are indeed explained, but don’t seem to add much to the story. Those which are left unexplained, add even less. I can live with the mix-n-match worldbuilding, and while the old-fashioned sexual politics are uncomfortable they don’t actually overwhelm the narrative, but… it all feels like a pointless exercise. It doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like half a puzzle with no reward for solving it. I had expected some intellectual gratification from identifying the puzzles and then solving them, or failing to solve them, but to be honest I didn’t really care. Home Fires reads like a forgettable sf novel with a heavy reputation it doesn’t deserve hanging over it. Avoidable.

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, Jacques Tardi (2017, France). The first Tardi I read was The Arctic Marauder, and I liked its Verne-esque steampunk-ish flavour very much. So I continued to read his bandes dessinées – or rather, the Fantagraphics English translations of them. He’s probably best known for his The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, made into a film by Luc Besson, or perhaps for providing the production design, and the actual style of the art and animation, of the steampunk April and the Extraordinary World (see here). But Tardi’s graphic novels actually cover a variety of genres, from war to thriller to crime. And Fog Over Tolbiac is this last, an adaptation first published in French in 1982 of a noir novel by Léo Malet. (Tardi has adapted nine of Malet’s Nestor Burma novels to date, but Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge is the first to appear in English.) Burma is a private detective, who receives a letter one day from a man he knew twenty-five years before when both were anarchists. But the man has been murdered, and Burma finds himself trying to puzzle out the murder, its link to an unsolved robbery in 1936 on the eponymous bridge, and Burma’s old friends from his anarchist days at the “vegan hostel”. It’s a bit thin as a mystery, to be honest, though I suspect that’s an artefact of adaptation, but Tardi’s art is eminently suited to the material, both the story and the less-than-competent Burma. To date Tardi has published thirty-one bandes dessinées, of which around fourteen or fifteen have so far been published in English by Fantagraphics. After a hiatus of several years, brought about by illness, Fantagraphic seem to be back translating Tardi’s work… and I’ll continue to buy them.

Nomansland, DG Compton (1993, UK). Compton is a science fiction writer I admire a great deal. I think his prose is far far better than 99% of genre writers, living or dead, and his relatively low profile is not only due to the quality of his prose (many sf readers consider such prose either irrelevant or a hindrance), nor the fact his last novel was published in 1996 and only the SF Gateway has any of his books currently in print (as ebooks and omnibuses), although he does have one novel in the SF Masterworks series… but chiefly because the bulk of his fiction has a very British flavour and a lot of it is really quite miserable. Nomansland displays both these last two qualities, despite being set in an invented, and unnamed, European country, and because the world of the novel is forty years into the “Attrition”, an epidemic which causes pregant women to reject male embryos. In other words, only female babies have been born for nearly half a century. Nomansland also uses another common Compton technique – the double unsynchronised narrative, which is probably not the best way to describe it, but refers to paired narratives which differ in ways other than just POV. In Nomansland, one narrative is loosely-coupled third-person, set forty years after the Attrition, and focusing on scientist Dr Harriet Ryder-Kahn, who has just discovered a cure for MERS, Male Embryo Rejection Syndrome, but is being blocked from publication by her bosses at the Ministry of Science. The second narrative begins some ten years after the start of the Attrition, when Harriet is a young girl, and is first-person. It traces her history up to the 40-years-after narrative. There’s an elephant in the room in this story, and it takes two-thirds of the novel before anyone even mentions it: the world is a much nicer place now there are so few men (they’re still in charge, but they’re hugely outnumbered by women, and dying out). So the question becomes, is it worth actually curing MERS? Isn’t it better to leave the population as it is? Of course, the men – and few of them in this novel are painted in a flattering light – would like their own kind to be back in charge, but… I’m entirely sympathetic to the view a massively-majority, or entirely, female population would turn the planet into a much more pleasant place; and I can think of no good reason why men should be re-introduced, given a solution to reproductive needs. For all the crap we’re fed in the right-wing press about vile behaviour by other cultures, most of it is more a product of toxic masculinity than it is actual culture. In Nomansland, Compton is also clearly sympathetic, but he tries to present a balanced view and often undermines his point. MRA types will object to the characterisation of the male characters, but fuck ’em, they have no opinions worth treating seriously. If there is a problem, it’s that Compton is, if his fiction is any indication, somewhat misanthropic, and so even his female characters are far from sympathetic. Ryder-Kahn, for example, is fixated on publication, and does not seem to understand the impact of her cure. Nomansland is by no means one of Compton’s best, although my admiration for his writing remains undimmed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Reading diary, #51

With a TBR in the low four figures, it’s reached the stage where I’ve owned books for decades without having got around to reading them. This is, quite obviously, pretty dumb. So for several years now I’ve been trying to plan my reading, making a list of the books I intend to tackle in the coming month… But then, of course, the new shiny drops through the letterbox, and sometimes its lure is a little too strong and so it supplants one, or more, of the books on the TBR… Which is certainly what happened twice in the half a dozen books below.

Her Pilgrim Soul, Alan Brennert (1990, USA). I picked this up at Kontur in Uppsala last month, and ended up reading it on the train from Manchester Airport after stupidly leaving the book I had been reading on the plane. To be honest, I’d not been enjoying that book – it was The Music of the Spheres, and the writing was pretty bad – so it was no great loss. I was annoyed, however, about losing the 100 Yugoslavian dinar note I’d been using as a bookmark. (Um, I see there’s one for sale on eBay, from a seller located not all that far from Manchester Airport – they’re asking £1.40, although the market price appears to be 99p…) To be honest, I thought I might have read Her Pilgrim Soul before, but on reflection I think I’ve read some of its contents before – likely in one or another of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best SF anthologies, which I used to buy for many years. It’s a collection of well-crafted stories, a mix of science fiction and fantasy, most on the light side of either genre (but not the lighter side), and most not especially memorable. It’s been more than a month since Kontur, and I can remember very little about the contents of Her Pilgrim Soul. A good collection, I suppose, but in a way that has no lasting impact and leaves only a vague impression. Fiction, of course, should do more than that; but most manages much less.

The First Circle*, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1968, Russia). I suspect I like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer more than I like actually reading his writing. If that makes sense. I’d no real desire to read Solzhenitsyn until seeing Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (see here), and when I saw a copy of The First Circle, and immediately linked it to Sokurov’s The Second Circle, a favourite film, then I was suddenly keen to read Solzhenitsyn. And now I have read him – this book, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year (see here) – I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. True, I’m not reading him in the original Russian, so any infelicities in prose and style are more likely the fault of the translator, but… Well, the two books by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read so far are blackly comic works about the inhuman excesses of Stalin’s regime. And, well, I knew that, I knew Stalin was, and still is, the worst despot this planet has ever seen, responsible for a vast number of deaths, more perhaps than many historical epidemics. He killed more Russians in WWII, for example, than the Germans did. The First Circle, which is quite a hefty novel, covers three days among the inmates, and others linked to them, of Mavrino Prison, which is actually a secret penal laboratory staffed by politicial prisoners and others pulled from gulags and labour camps. Compared to others in the Soviet prison system, they have it cushy. But not as cushy as the family of the prison head, which includes his son-in-law, a young and upcoming diplomat, who foolishly telephones a doctor about to leave for Paris and warns him not to hand over some medical data to the West as he had threatened. The authorities were, of course, listening in… but they can’t identify the caller. Fortunately, some of the Mavrino inmates, and some of the equipment they’ve built, could help the MGB… The contrast with the lot of the prisoners and the diplomat’s family is stark, as is the contrast between those in Mavrino and their previous experiences in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn manages to find the nobility, and venality, in his prisoners, and paints them vividly as people. But the endless reiteration of bureaucratic cruelty – epitomised, if not literalised, by the treatment of the diplomat in the Lubyanka after his arrest – does pall on occasion. The First Circle, despite its short narrative timeframe, is surprisingly rambunctious, but less philosophical than I had expected – although, to be fair, most, if not all, of the references to Russian literature were lost on me. I still like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, and I still have another of his novels on the TBR, but I’ve yet to make up my mind about his actual writing.

Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks, Paul Kincaid (2017, UK). A housemate lent me a copy of The Wasp Factory back in 1987, and while it was certainly a memorable book, it wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t until I joined the British Science Fiction Association a year or two later that I discovered Banks also wrote science fiction – and I can remember finding a hardback copy of Consider Phlebas in WH Smith soon after, but at the time I would never have considered buying a book in hardback. Later, Banks was GoH at Prefab Trout, the second convention I ever attended, in September 1989, and I can remember a review of Canal Dreams in the programme booklet which described the novel as “a taunt thriller”. I think by that point I’d read Banks’s earlier novels – probably borrowed from Coventry City Library – the mainstream ones at least, but possibly also Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. I’m pretty damn sure, however, that the first Culture novel I actually bought was Use of Weapons, which was launched at Eastcon, the 1990 Eastercon, in Liverpool. I bought the hardback and Banks signed it for me. I stil have it, of course. From that point on, I purchased all of his books in hardback as soon as they were published. (However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I managed to track down first edition copies of the books before Use of Weapons.) So I guess you could say I am/was something of a fan. And yet, all those decades of reading him, but so few of his books seemed to manage the quality I expected of them – I enjoyed them, I appreciated them… but it always felt to me like he could do much better. I knew I was being unfair, but I could never help myself. And yet…. after reading Paul’s book on Banks’s novels, it occurs to me that my problem with Banks is that he rewarded careful reading but his prose was so effortlessly readable that I likely never gave his fiction the depth of reading which generated the most reward. And I reached this conclusion because Paul, a friend of many years, writes about Banks’s novels so well, so readably, that I want to go back to Banks’s books immediately and reread them and discover in them all the depth and goodness identified by Paul which I plainly missed… and knowing full well that I will also hugely enjoy the novels because they were always were, above all, hugely enjoyable. So, Paul, job done. (Although I’ll need more convincing about Transition, I think…)

The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967, USA). Okay, I admit I bought this novel – at this year’s Eastercon – because of the dreadful cover art. Comparisons with, and references to, The Martian proved inevitable, although the book itself is set on some random alien desert world. Humanity has spread out among the stars and pretty much conquered everyone it meets, most of whom also happen to be human, but nice and fluffy and progressive compared to Earth’s bigoted, racist and sexist conquerors. On one such world, the protagonist of The Killing Thing, Tracey, visits an open-cast mine and sees an experimental mining robot. It kills its inventor, and is taken by Earth’s military establishment for study. On Venus. Where it escapes. And now Tracey is the sole survivor of a ship that tracked the killer robot to the random alien desert world, and he’s stuck on its surface in a lifeboat with limited fuel and supplies, and must hold out until rescue arrives, while the robot hunts him down and tries to kill him. If it weren’t for the background material – most of which is, quite frankly, offensive – The Killing Thing would be padded out beyond boredom. As it is, it still reads like a short story bloated beyond its natural length. I’d had a quite high opinion of Wilhelm’s fiction based on previous stuff by her I’d read, but that opinion took a bit of a beating reading The Killing Thing. When I restart SF Mistressworks – soon, I hope – then I’ll bung a more comprehensive review of this book up there. For now: not a good work from a usually good writer.

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (2016, Israel). Once upon a time fix-up novels were pretty common in science fiction. Authors would take a bunch of stories, lash them together with a crude framing narrative, and then the whole thing would be presented as a novel. Some were more successful than others… but the fix-up is still an ugly, lumpy and lop-sided beast of a narrative form. Central Station, although presented as a fix-up novel, and on plenty of novel award shortlists, strikes me more as a collection of linked stories, although there is a story arc which progresses throughout it. I remember one or two of the stories appearing in Interzone and, at the time, I wasn’t especially taken with them. But given the success of this “novel”, and because several people have told me the stories work better together than they did in isolation, I decided to give it a go. And… it still doesn’t really read like a novel. But the individual stories do benefit from being in a collection. Alone, they felt incomplete, unresolved, whereas the novel shows that the resolution is merely cumulative and deferred. The title refers to space port in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and the stories are focused on a handful of families who live in the environs. There’s no date – it’s the future of a century or two hence – which occasionally leads to weird inconsistences in the setting, a feeling that tropes are deployed when needed rather than being integral, or natural, to the background. The prose, happily, is uniformly good, which means the stories are a pleasure to read. But if each individual story feels slightly unresolved, the novel, as a novel qua novel, manages not to feel that way. I don’t think Central Station is as adventurous, or as challenging, as some commentators have claimed, and it probably says more about the way we now view awards, than it does the book itself, that it’s appeared on so many shortlists – I mean, Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, those were genuinely challenging sf novels. But, on the other hand, Central Station is a well-crafted piece of science fiction, with visible writing chops in evidence, and such books seem all too rare in the genre these days…

The Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer (1940, UK). I’ve no record of when and where I bought this paperback, but I remember buying half a dozen or so secondhand Heyer paperbacks when I was in Great Malvern for a Novacon. That was back in 1997… So, um, two decades ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read The Spanish Bride, or if that was indeed when I bought the book, given that I’ve read all the other Heyer books I own – all thirty of them –  and some I’ve even read multiple times. I suspect it is because it’s a war novel, rather than a frothy Regency romance or eighteenth-century adventure. If the cover doesn’t make it plain, the first chapter certainly does, as it describes the Siege of Badajoz in quite gruesome detail. In fact, as a novel of the Peninsular War, The Spanish Bride does a pretty good job. Its hero, Brigade-Major Harry Smith of the Light Division, is perhaps a bit too much of a paragon – if not in his intent or actions, certainly in his ability to avoid harm – and its eponymous heroine is also far too chirpy and accepting and… well, only fourteen when she marries to Smith… and it’s hard to read the book without that fact floating about in the back of your mind. Heyer makes an excellent fist of describing the Spanish landscape, and while the blow-by-blow accounts of the various battles seem both accurately- and carefully-phrased, I often had trouble picturing the progress of the fighting. I wanted to see maps, or wargaming tableaux, or something that indicated how the oft-professed tactical genius of the various English officers actually manifested. I know Heyer for her Regency romance novels and, skeevy sexual politics of the time (or of her depiction of the time) aside, I had expected that element of The Spanish Bride‘s plot to be uppermost. But it isn’t. It is, as I wrote earlier, a war novel. If anything, “English officer marries underage Spanish hidalgo heiress” is merely subplot. And yet, having said that, Heyer’s prose has a clarity and wit few these days can match, and it’s readily evident here. The Spanish Bride is not a fun book, but then I don’t think it was intended to be. It’s almost cefrtainly going to be the Heyer novel I reread the least number of times – assuming I ever do reread it, which is unlikely – but I’m nonetheless glad I did read it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Reading diary, #50

Oops. I appear to have missed a number. I went straight from Reading diary, #47 to Reading diary, #49. I could have gone back and corrected the numbering, but I can’t be arsed. So this forty-ninth post is numbered fifty, and it’ll just have to carry on from there. All together now: deal with it.

The Memoirist, Neil Williamson (2017, UK). This is the fourth and final novella in NewCon Press’s new series of novella quartets (I wonder where they could have got that idea from?). These first four are straight-up sf, so I will admit to some surprise at seeing Neil Williamson’s name, since he’s not known for straight-up sf. But, thankfully, The Memoirist certainly qualifies as that, and even better, it’s a pretty damn good piece of straight-up science fiction. A ghost writer is hired to write the memoirs of the lead singer of a long-since defunct rock band that had a Moment a couple of decades previously. That Moment was at a near-legendary gig in a small club, of which no recordings or footage exists. And yet the myth of the gig overshadows what meagre impact the band itself ever had. In this world, ubiquitous “bees” provide 24/7 surveillance… but it seems that mythical gig triggered something which led to a new type of “bee”… and to say any more would give the plot twist away. I’ll admit I thought the mystery dragged out a little, but the way the plot then shifted into left-field more than made up for it. I enjoyed this, a good piece of near-future sf, almost McLeod-esque in places, with an interesting premise and an in interesting, and nicely oblique, approach to that premise (okay, it was a little Espedair Street too, but that’s hardly a complaint). Good stuff.

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, Ismail Kadare (2000, Albania). So I went looking for novels from countries I’d not read literature from before, and came up with this one. Kadare has won several international prizes, and been mooted as a Nobel laureate a number of times. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is his eleventh book, and his entire oeuvre – of novels, at least – appears to have been translated into English. Mark Gurabardhi is an artist in the provincial town of B—– and, well, things happen. Beginning with a bank robbery. People also tell each other stories, and each chapter is followed by a counter-chapter which expands on that story, as if it were the plot of the novel (but the counter-chapters are not a single narrative). Some sections of the novel deal with the old Albanian mountain code of Kanun, blood vendettas that go back generations, so far no one remembers what they were actually about, and how they’re in danger of kicking off again now that Hoxha’s communist regime has collapsed. Much as I enjoyed Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, it didn’t blow me away. I’m glad I read it, but I doubt I’ll read anything else by Kadare. But at least I can cross Albania off the list.

Project Clio, Stephen Baxter (2016, UK). I remember seeing this at the 2016 Eastercon in Manchester, but I own so many Baxter novels and novellas already, and had been badly disappointed by the last few I’d read, that I’d decided to give Project Clio a pass. But then recently I placed an order for the final novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass quartet and this novella sort of accidentally fell into my basket… It reads a little like Baxter had watched Danger: Diabolik, or any number of similar films, once too often, and while it’s a lot of fun it does read somewhat compressed and elided. It’s a carry-on from two earlier stories, which I have not read, even though I own the collection, Universes, in which the stories appear, which does mean Project Clio throws the reader in at the deep end since it assumes prior knowledge of the characters and set-up. There’s mention of Brutalist architecture in the novella, but I can’t work out if it’s approving, because being unapproving of Brutalist architecture would of course be unforgivable. The novella ends with a bit of a Dr-Who-style finish, which didn’t work for me. I liked the use of 1960s iconography, and the piss-takes of 1960s cultural artefacts, but the plotting did feel more like that of a television episode than an actual novella.

Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA). I’m still not entirely convinced by Robinson’s books, but they’re so beautifully written I’m prepared to forgive them much. Lila is written from the point of view of the wife of John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead and the patriarch depicted in Home. She was stolen as child, a neglected child, by a woman who calls herself Doll (and who gave Lila her name), and subsequently dragged about the Midwest looking for work. This was during the Great Depression, and anyone who has read Steinbeck, or even seen the film of The Grapes of Wrath, will have some idea of the abject poverty these people experienced. Eventually, Lila fetches up in Gilead as a young woman, and slowly, in much the same way a wild animal would, begins to explore the small town and its inhabitants. She starts working in the pastor’s garden, in return for his unprovoked acts of kindness toward her, and the two sort of drift together until he asks her to marry him and she says yes. While both Lila and Ames are drawn with an impressive amount of sensitivity – and Ames is clearly a remarkably, perhaps a little too remarkably, sensitive man for his time – and the interactions between the two are beautifully-written… but there’s that leap from friends who know very little about each other to marriage that seems somewhat ungrounded. I really do like Robinson’s prose – it’s deceptively simple – and I also really like the gentle pace of her novels, and the depth to which she explores her cast and their various interactions. But… they do also feel like they’re missing an edge, a bit of bite to temper the smoothness. The depiction of Lila’s childhood during the Great Depression is too bland to do the job. It means Robinson’s novels can feel a bit too, well, too pleasant. But still worth reading.

vN, Madeline Ashby (2012, Canada). According to my database, I bought this at the 2014 Fantasycon for £1. So it’s taken me nearly three years to get around to read it. I seem to recall it being quite well-received at its time of release, but, to be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed. The title refers to von Neuman machines, although in this novel they’re actually AI in humanoid bodies thatare faster, stronger, etc, than humans. They’ve integrated into society such that the story opens with a man, his vN wife and vN child (vN children are identical copies of their parent – created by both female and male vN; and, in fact, all vN come in a limited number of “models”, each one identical to the original vN of their line). In order for the child vN, Amy, to “grow” along a similar time-frame to a human child, her parents have been limiting her “food” intake. But when her vN grandmother, Portia, turns up to her kindergarten graduation and goes berserk, Amy eats her. And so grows almost immediately to adult size.  And goes on the run… The problem with vN is that the vN over-balanced the world-building, and Amy was a completely unconvincing character. The vN are so physically superior to human beings they made no sense unless they were non-sentient. But they’re AIs, and supposedly not dangerous because they have a “failsafe” (sort of Asimov’s Three Laws rolled up into one maguffin). Except Portia has overriden hers. And it’s likely Amy will be able override hers too. But since the entire novel is told from Amy’s POV- and she’s a very implausible five-year-old – we can only guess at what this might actually mean to society at large. If you want to read a book about robots and humans, Machine by Jennifer Pelland is much better. There’s apparently a sequel to vN, titled iD. I’ll not be bothering with it.

Blood Enemies, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book, An Exchange of Hostages, back in the 1990s when it was published. so I was pretty disappointed when Matthews’s original publisher, Avon Books, dropped the series after the original trilogy. It was then picked up by Roc, who published a further three novels before dropping it. A seventh novel was published four years later by Meisha Merlin, who went into administration shortly afterward. And now, eleven years later, we finally have the next book in the series, published by, of all people, Baen. Which at least explains the shit cover art. Happily, Baen are also rereleasing the earlier books in omnibus editions, which is just as well as Blood Enemies follows straight on from the previous book, 2006’s Warring States, and would be hard to follow without knowledge of the preceding books, despite Matthews’s lengthy introduction. Kosciusko had sent his freed bondsmen off into the Gonebeyond, but when he tried to follow them he found himself stuck on Safehaven. Meanwhile, Cousin Stanosz, an agent of the Malcontent (the Dolgurokij Combine’s unofficial secret service), has been investigating a series of brutal terrorist attacks on Gonebeyond colonies. He thinks Kosciusko’s brother is involved, and so impersonates Kosciusko to visit the brother in the company station he inhabits in Gonebeyond, travelling there in the bondsmen’s ship. Except Kosciusko manages to escape his house-arrest and tracks his b0ndsmen to the company station, inadvertently ruining Cousin Stanosz’s plan… This book is better-written than I remember the earlier books in the series being, and Kosciusko seems to have settled down as a character. But a lot happens in its 256 pages, and the constant referring back to events and people in the earlier books does tend to confuse in places. The Under Jurisdiction novels don’t have quite the same level of shine as they did back in the late 1990s and, while the genre has moved on in the eleven years since Warring States, although it has moved in much the same direction as the Under Jursidiction books were sort of heading… Blood Enemies still doesn’t feel much like a 2017 science ficiton novel. The world-building is strong, but it’s not the focus of the narrative. Nor are the characters’ emotions. Which does make it feel, when compared to present-day sf, as though everything in Blood Enemies is slightly off-centre. I’m not all that interested in the current sf narrative style, to be honest – world-bling and feels and word salad – but Blood Enemies reads like it’s trying to catch up rather than do its own thing. Having said that, I still intend to continue reading the series.

1001 Boks You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #49

I seem to have made up for the last post’s male heaviness, so to speak…

Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). A lot of people whose opinion I respect had said approving things about this book, and yet within less than a year after its publication conversation about it seemed to fade away. Nonetheless, it remained on my radar, and when I placed an order with Aqueduct Press – an excellent small press, by the way – I included it; or it may have been that I wanted this book and waited until there were others before ordering it, I forget which. Either way, that order also contained Flesh and Wires (see here) and A Day in Deep Freeze (see here), so it was a good purchase. All of which makes it a little embarrassing it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Necessary Ill. And, even more embarrassingly, I loved it. I don’t think it’s perfect, and at least one of the reasons I love it is because one of its elements fits so badly. It’s by no means a beautifully-written book, although its prose is generally better than average for sf, and its world-building does feel a bit hit and miss in places. But it’s premise has so much going for it, that I couldn’t help liking the book. At some point in the future, some babies are born neuter. They’re considered freaks, and those that do make it to adulthood disguise themselves as gendered people (those that haven’t had gender surgically forced on them as kids, that is). By the time the novel’s story starts, there’s a secret colony of them living deep in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The earth is also in serious trouble, thanks to a failing climate and scarce resources, and cannot handle its current population levels. Some of the neuters engineer plagues, which they release throughout the US, in an effort to cull the population. Jin is one such “spreader”, and is the chief character of the novel. While travelling about Texas, carefully spreading one of its plagues, Jin tangles with a man who seems to know a lot about the spreaders, and who appears to be behind an anti-neuter movement which is gathering steam. Meanwhile, Sandy, a young woman rescued by another neut, is now living with the neuts in their underground home. The plot spends a while exploring the world and the chief characters – but it’s all good stuff – before turning into the redemption of Jin, and by extension, all the neuts. This is done through a feature film about Jin, lightly fictionalised, and made by all the neuts who have infiltrated the film industry (inasmuch as they’re disguised as gendered people). The secret world of the neuts is handled really well, and if some of the science behind the plagues doesn’t quite sound like it could be true, it’s all presented with sufficient scientific grounding to be plausible. I think this book will make it into my top five for the first half of 2017, and might even make it to the end of year one.

Valerian and Laureline 16: Hostages of Ultralum, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1996, France). I do love this series, but not every album in it is all that memorable. And this, er, is one of the unmemorable ones. Ultralum is an important mineral used to fuel spaceships, but it only exists in areas of high spatio-temporal instability. Valerian and Laureline are still bouncing around after a previous album saw Galaxity, the pan-galactic peace-keeping organisation for which they worked, wiped out of existence and out of memory. There are a few references in this story to earlier albums, but from what I remember the plot was pretty thin and it felt more like the series was treading water than anything else. Plot-wise, that’s disappointing, but there are other aspects to the series which appeal – not least the mordant wit, which felt sadly lacking in the trailer for Besson’s film, although, to be fair, that focused on the visuals because that’s what modern audiences appear to want. But one of the strengths of the Valerian and Laureline series has been the shift in emphasis from Valerian to Laureline, and it would be a crying shame if the film characterised Valerian as the omni-competent hero and Laureline as his decorative sidekick. Because, to be honest, I had thought we were better than that. Still, this is Besson, so who knows. Mézières is apparently happy with the film, although as the illustrator I’d expect him to be concerned chiefly with the visuals. But I may be doing him a disservice – and Besson too, of course. We shall see. Meanwhile, the comics are readily available and definitely worth reading. Up to volume 17, at least.

Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson (2001, UK). I bought this when it was published 16 years ago, but I seem to have missed reading it and it’s only now I’ve finally got around to it. The novel opens with six prologues, each of which is based around one of the main narrative’s major characters. I’ve never been a big fan of prologues, but I like books that play around with narrative structure… And six introductory prologues strikes me as an interesting structural choice, even if their content doesn’t add all that much to the plot. Which concerns a pair of government projects, one in the UK and one in the US, based around some sort of neurological mapping technology, which could allow governments to control, and program, the thoughts of their citizens. Elements within the US security apparatus want control of the technology – and have already run a hugely illegal, and unsuccessful, test on human beings on a Native American reservation. In the UK, the research is being performed by a company owned by a mysterious Russian scientist (whose chain of identity changes forms one of the six prologues). When a test on a human subject is sabotaged, leading to a Dr Manhattan-like series of events, and infecting main character Natalie Armstrong with a more powerful version of the Mappa Mundi software… it kicks off a transatlantic techno-thriller plot that reminds me a little of a Cronenberg film, and in which the science-fictional technobabble floats uneasily on a well-realised real-world setting. The two main characters, Armstrong and half-Cheyenne FBI agent Jude Westhorpe, also felt a little good to be true. I suspect I’d have been more impressed with Mappa Mundi had I read it in 2001 (it made the Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love, and rightly so), but Robson’s subsequent novels have all been very good indeed and she’s one of the authors whose books I buy as soon as they’re published – even if it takes me sixteen years to get around to reading them…

Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (2015, UK). I forget why I read the first of Rowling’s pseudonymous crime novels (her disguise had been rumbled before I read it, so I knew it was by Rowling). Possibly it was because my mother had a copy and asked me if I wanted to read it and I said, go on then. And then she got hold of the second book in the series… And now the third… The prose is a little better than average for the crime genre, but not quite good enough to be called literary. And the crime elements are not especially well put together or convincing, perhaps about as poorly done as you’d expect in a literary novel. So the Cormoran Strike novels fall uneasily between two stools, without being quite good enough to be one or the other. Having said that, they’re easy reads, and the two protagonists – Strike himself, and his business partner, Robin – are engaging characters. In this one, an old enemy of Strike’s sends Robin the leg of a young female murder victim by courier, and clues suggest the perpetrator is an enemy from Strike’s past – two men he investigated when in the RMP, and a stepfather he hated. Rowling drags out the mystery for far too long, sending Strike and Robin up and down the country in search of clues. Meanwhile, Robin’s relationship with her fiancé hits a rocky patch – as the fiancé thinks Robin and Strike are attracted to each other (Rowling has been doing a Mulder/Scully thing with them). Oh, and the reference to Blue Oyster Cult in the title? (I spotted it immediately, I’m a BOC fan.) The entire book is filled with references to the songs and lyrics of Blue Oyster Cult. As a fan of the band, that was a draw, but I can’t see it being the same to those who aren’t. It’s not like the references add anything to the plot that could not have been done by a fictional band (and, let’s face it, Rowling could hardly write worse lyrics than some of Sandy Perlman’s). Of the three Strike novel so far published – and more will undoubtedly appear – Career of Evil was more likeable than its predecessors, but less satisfactory as a crime novel. I suspect that may be the series’ future…

Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK). New science fiction from my favourite sf author? That went straight onto the wishlist the moment it was announced… Two scientists from different fields, and with opposing views on how to conduct their science, join forces to run an experiment in a recently-discovered “void”, a hollow space deep in bedrock, in which they plan to make changes to “information space” and so instantaneously relocate their facility to an exo-planet. In the facility are the IS scientists and a “crew”, a group of reality TV stars who have been involved in several television interstellar mission simulations. The main character, Kir, is a young woman who grew up feral and now has an AI embedded in her skull. The Information Space thing reminds me of Buonarotti Drive from Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, and may in fact be the same thing. Proof of Concept starts out as an exploration of two incompatible groups of people living in a facility sealed off from the outside world, and in which tensions are heightened after a series of deaths – heightened to the point where the experiment is jeopardised. But then the experiment has also been dangerously compromised, and is not quite what it’s been presented to be. Reading Proof of Concept reminded me of all the reasons why Jones is my favourite sf author – that clear clinical prose, the knotty ideas, the sense there’s so much more to the story that’s not being told… Jones sketches in her near-future lightly, but there’s more than enough there to ground the story, even if current taste is for an excess of detail. She also pitches the readers straight into the story, which can leave readers floundering a little. But Jones’s fiction has always required work from the reader – as should all good fiction – and if Proof of Concept feels a little thin in places, it nevertheless has an interesting protagonist in Kir, and a fascinating idea, Information Space, at its core. More, please.

Monsieur d’Eon is Woman, Gary Kates (1995, USA). I have no idea how long I’ve had this book. I sort of found it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it. (Um, according to my database, I bought it cheap on eBay in 2005.) Anyway, I found it in a pile of books while I was doing a little light tidying in the study. I’d heard of the Chevalier d’Eon, of course, and thought I knew the basic details of his story… But apparently not. Kates bases his biography chiefly on d’Eon’s own writings – which, he is careful to point out, often contained fabricated and/or embroidered details (and in some cases, Kates provides historical evidence that d’Eon had lied in his autobiographical writings). The popular story has it that d’Eon was a spy for Louis XV, and he infiltrated the Imperial Russian court purporting to be a woman. After a period in England, he returned to France, adopted a female identity, and lived out the rest of his days as the Chevalière d’Eon. He claimed to have been born female, but brought up male because his father needed a son or they’d lose the family holdings. But on d’Eon’s death, it turned out d’Eon was male. Much of this history was fabricated by d’Eon himself. Kates maintains that d’Eon got himself in such bad favour with Louis XV, and yet was privy to so many embarrassing secrets, that the only way to neutralise d’Eon was to make him a woman – by royal decree. The book explains the historical and political background to d’Eon’s life and adventures, but it’s never quite clear why everyone thought a gender-change was suitable. Or what triggered the rumours he was really female. What is clear, however, is that d’Eon was an astonishing person, widely-read, learned, a gifted diplomat, a prolific author, and a minor war hero. He led a peculiar life – the first half as male, and a spy/diplomat for the French king; the second half in exile as a woman. Some of the details on d’Eon on his Wikipedia page are contradicted in Monsier d’Eon is a Woman – especially the bit about the Russian court. Kates maintains d’Eon invented the cross-dressing element years later (although he was indeed sent to the Russian court by Louis XV). A fascinating book about a fascinating person.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 129