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Reading diary 2018, #19

After last month’s all-female roster, only one woman writer this time. I’m currently also 12 books ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018, and will probably meet the target before the end of November.

Ghost Frequencies, Gary Gibson (2018, UK). This is the first of the fourth set of NewCon Press novellas, and the second quartet to have an overall title, which is “Strange Tales”. It’s as apt a description as any. The story of Ghost Frequencies is hardly new – I’m pretty sure even Dr Who has covered it – although Gibson has given it a nice twist. But, I think, mostly, the good thing about Ghost Frequencies is that it all adds up. The story neatly folds back onto itself and it all makes sense. Which is not something you can normally say of ghost stories. A project to use quantum entanglement to send messages instantly between a lab in the UK, sited in an old haunted manor house, and California, has yet to show meaningful results and is about to be closed down. Then a team of parapsychologists turn up to investigate the manor’s alleged ghost. And weird things start to happen, witnessed by the quantum project’s lead researcher. And it’s all linked to the ghost and the murder of a young woman decades before and the owner of the manor house and backer of the quantum project, a billionaire who grew up there… And it all slots together, in a way that is actually rational. It’s a neat take on the ghost story and satisfies my science fiction brain. Gibson doesn’t usually write short fiction, but this is a well-plotted and nicely-written novella, so perhaps he should try it more often.

The Lake Boy, Adam Roberts (2018, UK). The NewCon Press novellas are not numbered but I think this was the second one published from this quartet. In one respect, this novella was a first for me. About halfway in, I was very surprised to discover myself as a character. A Mr Sales makes an appearance, and then a disappearance. But I hadn’t been killed off, as I initially thought, just abducted by aliens and then returned. However, Roberts introduces the character as “Mr Sales from Leeds”, which is close but I’m actually from the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire (or, as Dr Who recently named it, the Peoples’ Republic of South Yorkshire). That aside, The Lake Boy is an accomplished pastiche of nineteenth-century fiction which reminds me, more than anything else, of John Fowles’s A Maggot, which is, yes, I know, set in the eighteenth-century. But it’s that whole thing about telling a science fiction story from the POV of people who don’t understand that it’s science. It’s livened up a bit with the protagonist’s Sinful Past and her Unnatural Desires. I normally find Roberts’s fiction somewhat hit-and-miss – some I bounce off, some I really like – and this one definitely fell into the latter category. Worth reading.

Ancestral Machines, Michael Cobley (2016, UK). Mike is a friend of many years – I believe we first met at the first convention I ever attended, Mexicon 3 in Nottingham in 1989. So, on the one hand, that’s a long enough friendship to survive a negative review; but on the other, it feels somewhat off to tell a mate he’s written a bad book. In fact, most people I know won’t review books by friends – but, seriously, your friendship must be pretty fragile if it can’t survive someone’s opinion over a piece of fiction, FFS. Which is by no means a cunning lead-in to saying that Ancestral Machines is a bad book. Mike can write – he’s especially good at writing descriptive prose, which is unusual in genre writers – but Ancestral Machines definitely suffers from too much Banks and not enough Cobley. I mean, it was obvious from the first book of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy, Seeds of Earth, that Mike was ploughing a Banks furrow, but he made it enough of his own it didn’t matter. Unfortunately, Ancestral Machines reads like he tried a bit too hard. The book opens with two AIs, very much like Minds, discussing what will become the plot. Then you have the crew of a tramp spaceship, who are either the most inept or the unluckiest ever, because everything they do fails. They get dragged into the story when their ship is stolen. There’s a BDO in the form of an artificial planetary system of two hundred worlds, which can travel between galaxies and whose inhabitants are in thrall to a handful of evil alien overlords called Gun-Lords, who are actually sentient alien weapons who have taken over host bodies. The whole BDO is set up as the arena for brutal wargames, often with death tolls in the millions, and a league table of the victors. The AIs and the freighter crew end up involved with an attempted rebellion against the Gun-Lords, who are set to steal lots of worlds to put in their BDO. It’s all a bit of madcap dash from one set-piece to the next, and the plot seems to teeter on the edge of falling over for much of the book’s length. The banter didn’t always work for me, and the characters seemed a tad generic, but there’s some good space opera invention, and if the ending is a bit pat, it’s not an easy one. I’d sooner space operas didn’t feel the need for mega-bodycounts, but at least in Ancestral Machines the evil bastards get their just desserts.

The Quantum Magician, Derek Künsken (2018, Canada). I read this for review in Interzone (I wasn’t quick enough to get the new Anthony Burgess book, sadly). Given the title and plot, comparisons with Rajaniemi are inevitable – and The Quantum Magician, even though I didn’t really take to The Quantum Thief, doesn’t come off quite so well. The protagonist, Belisarius Arjona, is a homo quanta, a member of a genetically-engineered race who can disable their subjective consciousness in order to not collapse wave functions. And other superhuman stuff. Sigh. Arjona, however, grew disillusioned with the scientific research station where his people live, and became a con man. And now he’s been approached by members of the Sub-Saharan Union, who have invented a fantastic new stardrive and want to get their fleet through the stable wormhole controlled by the Puppet Federation to their home planetary systems. The puppets, like Arjona, were genetically-engineered, but as a slave race neurochemically fixed to worship a race of “Numen”. But they overthrew their masters and now keep those few who survive as captive gods. Arjona comes up with a complex plan which involves a member from each of the genetically-engineered human races but basically ends up as full-on frontal assault on the fortress guarding the wormhole entrance. As far as I know, I’ve never read anything by Künsken previously, but something about the puppets definitely tickled my sense of déjà vu – although I can’t work out where from. There’s some good stuff in The Quantum Magician, particularly in the worldbuilding, but the con which forms the plot isn’t really a con as such – this is no science fiction Ocean’s 11, for all that it wants to be – and the resolution is a bit of a letdown. Anyway, full review to appear in Interzone soon.

Moonwalker, Charlie & Dotty Duke (1990, USA). I went through a phase about ten years ago of buying signed autobiographies by astronauts. I’d read them, and other books about space exploration, and review them on a blog, A Space About Books About Space, where I last posted a review in May 2013. That’s more or less where the Apollo Quartet came from. I’m still interested in the subject, although I’m no longer so zealous about buying the books. And I still have a number of them to read. Like this one, Moonwalker, by the LMP for Apollo 16. You expect certain things from astronaut autobiographies, such as how something they invented proved vital to the programme, or iconic to the US Space Race. But not from Duke. He loved every minute of it, and says so repeatedly. He also admits it pretty much destroyed his marriage. That is until some years after he left NASA when his wife joined some weird Christian sect and the two discovered God. Moonwalker is at least cheerfully honest. You have the opening section where Duke describes his early career, and admits he was a bit of a screw-up. Then there are the NASA years, when he was clearly having a ball, culminating in Apollo 16’s time on the Moon. And then you have his post-NASA career as, first, an unsuccessful mall developer and then as a Coors distributor… before finding God. When people claim to pray to God and he responds, I call bullshit. If you think you are hearing from God, then you are delusional. Both Dotty and Charlie Duke claim to do so in Moonwalker. They leave their decision-making to God – well, Jesus, as apparently their particular brand of Christian weirdness means accepting Jesus as the Son of God (and why the fuck do I keep on using init caps on this nonsense?) – anyway, they basically leave things to fate and when it pans out the way they’d hoped, OMG, IT’S JESUS! HE’S REAL! OMG! Gordo Cooper’s autobiography Leap of Faith was spoiled by his insistence that UFOs were real, and the same is true here: Moonwalker would be a more interesting book if the Dukes had not chosen to document their religious conversion. But on Apollo 16 alone, it’s a quite good read.

Such Good Friends, Lois Gould (1970, USA). This was the result of some drunk eBaying after watching the adaption of the novel by Otto Preminger, which isn’t, to be honest, a very good film. But reading up about the story on Wikipedia persuaded me it might be worth a punt, and I found a copy for a couple of quid – a tatty hardback – on eBay from one of those big secondhand clearance sellers and, well, bought it. And it is indeed much better than the film. The Wikipedia entry describes it as “stream-of-consciousness” but it really isn’t. It’s very much fixed in the POV of its protagonist, Julie Messinger, whose husband – NY magazine art director and illustrator of a best-selling children’s book – is in a coma after an adverse reaction to the anaesthetic used in his operation to remove a mole. As friends and colleagues gather to donate blood and comfort Julie, so she slowly learns of her husband’s constant philandering. And each medical intervention in the comatose man’s condition only makes his situation worse. The film plays the story as a black comedy, stressing the incompetence of the doctors and hospital – in fact, in the movie, the coma is caused by a surgeon nicking an artery during surgery. But in the book, the doctors do their best – if only because it will reflect well on them. For all the book wasn’t exactly an intentional purchase, so to speak, it was a pretty good read. There’s not much information on Gould on Wikipedia, but if I stumble across one of her other novels I might well give it a go.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary 2018, #17

Well, my reading didn’t speed up as expected, chiefly because I picked up a 700+ novel – the Goss – and then followed it with a novel by Iain Sinclair. And the latter, despite taking on my trip to Iceland, has taken me over a week to finish… but then it’s pretty dense stuff.

European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss (2018, USA). I enjoyed the first book of this series enough to pick up the second book… And, yes, it’s more of the same. Having said that, the central conceit does seem to be wearing a bit thin, and even though Goss has been hard at work roping in all manner of characters from Victorian horror fiction, she’s rung so many changes on them they might as well have been invented by her in the first place. In summary: in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (see here), Mary Jekyll brought about the creation of the Athena Club – Diana Hyde, Justina Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau, Beatrice Rappaccini, plus housekeeper Mrs Poole and maid Alice – while assisting Sherlock Holmes solve a series of murders in Whitechapel… which ended up being linked to Adam Frankenstein (ie, the Monster) and the Society of Alchemists. In this second book, Mary’s old governess, Mina Harker (yes, that Mina Harker), asks for help to rescue Van Helsing’s daughter (yes, that Van Helsing and, er, his daughter) from a Viennese asylum, where she has been incarcerated after an experiment to turn her into a vampire. It’s all because Van Helsing and his cronies want to seize power in the Society of Alchemists – current president: She, AKA Ayesha – because their experiments in transmutation have been banned. The Athena Cub end up fighting Van Helsing et al. With the help of Count Dracula. Who is a good guy. I love the conceit, and Goss handles it marvellously. She drags in Victorian monsters willy-nilly and then gives them a place in the setting which fits perfectly. The way the narrative is interrupted by conversation between the characters, who explicitly refer to the narrative as a narrative – is cleverly done. But. The prose is all so very light and commercial, and at 720 pages this story is too long. Goss can write, I know she can because I’ve read some of her short fiction. But European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman reads like an airport bestseller or a book to read on a train journey. The prose doesn’t try hard at all. I like the characters and I like the story, but this novel could have been so much better. I hope the third book in the series remembers that picking the right words and putting them in the right order is as important as telling the story.

Landor’s Tower, Iain Sinclair (2001, UK). While I’ve been aware of Sinclair and his fiction for many years, I’ve never tried to reading any of it. Until now. And having now read Landor’s Tower… I’m in two minds. It’s good. Very good. And I like Sinclair’s pot pourri approach to using fiction and non-fiction, throwing in real people as characters, mixing up invented characters in real events… He does it really well, and that melange of fact and fiction, well, I’ve always found it a heady mix in book-form. But… Landor’s Tower leaps all over the place, seeming to tell a dozen different unlinked stories at the same time. It is, ostensibly, about a Victorian eccentric who built a monastery in a remote Welsh valley, based on an earlier legend. But the narrator of the book – a novelist and film-maker called Norton, who is a clear stand-in for Sinclair – bounces around the central premise, while ostensibly researching it for a project, through encounters with a variety of characters. Such as Prudence, of Hay on Wye. Who might or might not be the victim of the quarry murder, re-enacted by Karporal, or maybe real. As he was trying to solve the crime. There’s a fevered, almost hallucinatory, tone to the narrative, which makes it hard to navigate the actual story. Parts of it are brilliant – and not just because I recognised the names involved – but because they read like documentary. But then the narrative would make an abrupt swerve and, despite reference to earlier passages, I’d wonder what the fuck was going on. I wanted to like Landor’s Tower – I’m a big fan of the works of both Patrick Keiller and Adam Curtis, and this novel reminded me majorly of both. But. I felt like I was coming in halfway through a series.  Had I read more by Sinclair, perhaps reading his works in order, or seen some of his films – because this novel feels like one part of a large cross-platform work – then I suspect I might be a fan. But on its own, Landor’s Tower felt like the wrong introduction to an author’s oeuvre, an author whose work I might well esteem. I need to be serious about reading Sinclair’s novels, or it’s not worth bothering. I have two of his books on my TBR, but I’m going to ditch them and see if I can find a copy of his first novel. Then I will try reading them in order.

Inside Moebius, part 2, Moebius (2018, France). This is volumes three and four of the French release of Inside Moebius, the six volumes of which, for some reason, Dark Horse have decided to publish in English as three books. Personally, I don’t much care if it’s six books or three books, although at least doubling them up makes them a little more substantial. Which is more than can be said for their plots. And it’s especially true in this middle volume. As before, it has two iterations of Moebius wandering about “Desert B” (a pun on désherber, slang for giving up smoking, a desire to do which triggered the Inside Moebius project in the first place), along with a group of Moebius’s characters. There are lots of puns and in-jokes – and Dark Horse helpfully provide a glossary of the puns – but little in the way of plot. But then it’s not like there’s all that much need for plot anyway. Moebius is exploring his creative impulse, and using his characters and iterations of himself to do so. Oh, and bin Laden. The artwork is all over the place, some of it crude, some of it as detailed as any of the work he did, for example, in The Incal. Jean Giraud was clearly a singular talent, and a seminal one in the field of bandes dessinées, and there is good insight into his work in Inside Moebius. Which pretty much means it’s one for fans. Those expecting some sf story will be sorely disappointed.

Case of the Bedevilled Poet, Simon Clark (2017, UK). I think this is the first of the second set of NewCon Press novellas, but I bought all four at once so I’ve not been reading them in order. Not that it makes any difference, as I found the first three I read not very satisfying, and this one unfortunately is much the same. It was also full of typos, and one page completely mixed up the characters’ names. But that’s by the bye. The story is set in London during the Blitz. A man, a minor poet from Yorkshire who now works as a screenwriter for a government-sponsored film unit, a protected occupation, is attacked one night by a soldier on furlough, who threatens him for his supposed cowardice with words that sound more like an eldritch curse. Things start to happen that convince the protagonist he is indeed cursed by something or someone supernatural. Then he stumbles across two old gents in a pub who claim to be Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – their story is they’re real and Conan Doyle only adapted their case histories – and they offer to take on the protagonist’s case. There’s far too much here that doesn’t fit together all that well. Being hunted by some sort of demonic soldier, fine. During the Blitz? Okay, it’s a bit much, but never mind. But then throwing in Holmes and Watson? It’s too much. It weakens a story that was already strong enough on its own. Setting it during the Blitz allows for some good descriptive passages, although it’s not essential for the plot to work; and there’s a bittersweet ending to the Holmes and Watson elements, but I’m not convinced the latter was needed. Unfortunately, this does have the effect of making Case of the Bedevilled Poet feel like a short story padded out to novella length. The fact I’ve found all four of these novellas unsatisfactory is likely chiefly down to the fact it’s not my preferred reading genre. Fans of dark fantasy or horror will probably get much more out of them then I did. But at least they make a nice set.

Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Melissa Scott (1985, USA). This is the first book of the Silence Leigh trilogy, followed in 1986 by Silence in Solitude and in 1987 by The Empress of the Earth. It was later released in a SFBC omnibus edition, The Roads of Heaven. But that’s a pretty naff title for the trilogy, even if it is, well, pretty accurate (it’s also used by the current small press Kindle omnibus). Because in the universe of Five-Twelfths of Heaven, it’s the music of the spheres which allows for interstellar travel. Starship have “harmoniums” (harmonia?) and it is the music they make which drives starships into orbit and pushes them into “purgatory” (ie, hyperspace) at velocities measured in “twelfths of heaven”. Most starships travel at a sixth of heaven, so five-twelfths of heaven is pretty quick. It’s also the speed of the ship, Sun-Treader, whose crew pilot Silence reluctantly joins when she finds herself trapped on a world of the Hegemon after her grandfather dies. Because her grandfather owned the starship she piloted, but her uncle had done a deal with a local merchant so the ship would need to be sold to cover grandfather’s debts and, as a woman, Silence has no legal standing… But Captain Balthasar of Sun-Treader agrees to act as her representative in probate court, and offers her a job afterwards. He needs a female pilot – and female pilots are very rare – because his engineer has fake papers, but if Silence enters into a marriage of convenience with the two of them they can get him proper papers. Polygamy, apparently, is okay, but not same-sex marriage. Silence agrees. Things go reasonably well, but then Balthasar is called to a captains’ meeting of Wrath-of-God, a major pirate combine, and it’s war against the Hegemon. But the attack fails, and Silence and her two husbands are captured by Hegemon forces, and put under geas. Except Silence manages somehow to break the geas – it seems she could well be a magus. And… well, spoilers. Obviously, the main draw of Five-Twelfths of Heaven is the mix of science fiction and magic. It’s  cleverly done. FTL is itself a metaphor, and Scott recognises this and chooses to use a metaphor typically not associated with sf instead. It works because she maintains rigour, her magic system has as many rules, and operates as logically, as some made-up “scientific” FTL drive would. Instead of computers churning out numbers, her pilots have to memorise Tarot-like symbolic diagrams. Instead of laws of physics, she writes about notes and chords and dissonances. Different words for the same things. And a good example why you can’t use tropes to differentiate between science fiction and fantasy. If I’d discovered Scott back in the 1980s, I think it likely she’d have become a writer whose work I sought out. She certainly is now. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy.

Irontown Blues, John Varley (2018, USA). Back in the early 1980s, Varley was one of my favourite science fiction writers, and I eagerly tracked down and read everything by him I could find. When he returned to his Eight Worlds universe in 1992 with Steel Beach, I was glad; and then again in 1998 with The Golden Globe… Although neither of those two books stacked up against The Ophiuchi Hotline or the many stories set in the Eight Worlds Varley had written previously. Rumours of another book, titled Irontown Blues, had been around for years, but it was only in, I think, 2016 that Varley confessed he was finally going to write it. I mean, you don’t want writers to keep on churning out the same thing over and over again, yet another volume in some interminable series – except, of course, when you do, such as EC Tubb’s Dumarest series (I’m sure everyone has their own favourite)… But it’s not like Varley over-stayed his welcome in the Eight Worlds, only four actual novels set there and each was standalone… To be honest, the other stuff wasn’t always as satisfactory – the Gaea trilogy, yes; but his Thunder and Lightning YA quartet was underwhelming. (Having said that, I do really like Millennium, the novelisation of the film of his short story ‘Air Raid’ (which was originally published under a pseudonym).) Anyway, Irontown Blues is… a cheat. Varley cheerfully confessed to retconning his Eight world universe in Steel Beach, and presented it more as a feature than a bug. And in Irontown Blues, the protagonist is Christopher Bach, offspring of Anna-Louise Bach, who is the protagonist of a bunch of stories set on Luna but not actually part of the Eight Worlds setting. At least, not until now. Bach (Christopher, that is) is a private detective with a love of 1940s noir – so much so, he acts the part and even lives in a suburb tricked out to resemble a noir version of a 1940s US city. His local diner is called the Nighthawks Diner. (But then Varley ruins it by naming his scumbag informant Hopper. Sigh.) Irontown Blues opens, as any story of its type would do, with a woman entering Bach’s office. She tells him she has been deliberately infected with a virulent form of leprosy, a heinous act in a society in which diseases are sometimes fads but are never infectious. Bach is tasked with discovering who infected the woman with “para-leprosy”. He doesn’t trust her, of course, and his attempts to find out who she really is take up half the story. When he does finally track her down, he’s kidnapped and kept prisoner. Before his kidnap, however, there’s a long flashback to the Big Glitch and the attack on the Heinleiners – the events of Steel Beach. Bach was involved and nearly died. The flashback is the reason for, well, the plot of Irontown Blues. And it’s all a bit weak, to be honest. Despite the resolution. Bach, however, is not the only narrator of Irontown Blues. The narrative is also split with his dog, a “Cybernetically Enhanced Canine” bloodhound called Sherlock. These sections are written in simplistic prose, with a deliberately simplistic attempt at humour. I freely admit I’m not a dog person, but even so these sections really didn’t work for me. I mean, there’s something old-fashioned – not, unfortunately, 1940s old-fashioned as Varley probably intended, but more 1970s original Eight Worlds stories old-fashioned – about Bach’s narrative; but Sherlock’s narrative does nothing to give the novel a twenty-first century feel. I admit that much of Varley’s appeal is nostalgia – I loved his work back when I was first exploring science fiction – so perhaps the most disappointing thing about Irontown Blues is that it doesn’t seem to be much of a progression from those earlier works. It could have been written by Varley thirty years ago. Varley has always been a resolutely commercial writer, much like his inspiration Heinlein, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do things better as the years pass – and Slow Apocalypse certainly proves he can – but there’s no evidence of that in Irontown Blues. There are some changes in order to update the setting, or to tie the Eight Worlds Luna and Anna-Louise Bach Luna together… But I’d hoped for something, well, a bit more clever, something with a bit more bang in its payload. And Irontown Blues is not that book. One for fans.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #16

The big work project is over! Hurrah! After two and a half years! It went live on 1st September, and while there’s been some clean-up going on, and I’ve been helping out, life work-wise for me is pretty much back to what it was before. Which, hopefully, means writing again. And reading more. It’s going to take a while to renew old habits, and lose new habits, like watching films all the time… But I’m hopeful that by the end of October my reading will have picked up. Meanwhile, a recent trip to Denmark gave me some good reading time and I polished off three books in six days…

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, Jacques Tardi (2012, France). One day, I will work out why I continue to buy bandes dessinées in English when I’m perfectly capable of reading them in (my schoolboy) French (with, I admit, the help of a dictionary). I mean, given the choice between men-in-tights superhero shenanigans out of the US and French sf comics, I know which I hugely prefer. And, okay, Tardi tends not to write genre, and I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB is actually biography, that of his own father, with some incidents from the life of the father of his wife, the singer Dominique Grange. Buying it in French would at least allow me to keep up to date with some of my favourite series, especially those whose publication history in English has been erratic at best. They’d probably be cheaper too. Anyway, I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB does pretty much exactly what it says on the cover. Tardi’s father served in tanks in the French Army during WWII, was captured early and spent pretty much the entire war in a prisoner of war camp. One thing the story illustrates is the stark difference between the treatment of French and British POWs and American POWs. We’ve all seen the movies and the cheap sitcoms, and POWs breaking out of their camps… but the French were so under-fed and mistreated they’d never have succeeded had they escaped. And, of course, once back home they were likely to be immediately reported to the occupying Germans… Recommended.

Author’s Choice Monthly 16: State of Grace, Kate Wilhelm (1991, USA). I’ve never been that much of a fan of Wilhelm’s fiction. She’s not a writer whose books I seek out. But I’ve found her novels to be generally good and worth reading, and I’ve no doubt about her stature in the genre (ie, it should be much higher). Not all of her work has been worthy of note but she’s generally produced stuff at a slight angle to what everyone else was doing and her prose was above average. I’m not sure this collection, selected by Wilhelm herself, according to some agenda which is not immediately obvious, does her reputation any favours. It contains half a dozen stories, and Wilhelm provides an intro to each which sort of acts as a very loose framing device. ‘The Book of Ylin’ uses spelling rules for some words based on English’s weirder bits of orthography, as illustrated by Shaw’s famous “ghoti”, which makes reading it a chore until it suddenly clicks, and then you wonder why Wilhelm bothered as it’s not a very amusing conceit. ‘The Downstairs’ Room’ reads like a reworking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, but doesn’t add anything to the original. There’s a welcome element of domesticity to the stories, something science fiction doesn’t cover very often, although Wilhelm has mined the territory in some of her novels. The stories stretch from 1963 to 1988, and there’s an impressive consistency to them. True, the earliest story, ‘Jenny with Wings’, is the least satisfactory, but then it doesn’t seem to do much and the resolution feels a little juvenile. One for fans.

Obelisk, Stephen Baxter (2016, UK). I continue to buy Stephen Baxter books and I’m not really sure why. Oh I know what I’m getting when I start to read one, which is, I suppose, a good enough reason for many to continue to read an author… But I like to be surprised– no, impressed… And that’s only going to happen if an author writes something so much better than they have done in the past, or a writer new to me writes something so much more, well, impressive than I had expected. Cf William Faulkner (see here). Baxter sometime does impress, but all too often his fiction reads a bit juvenile. At short lengths, he’s less likely to fall into that trap, so a collection like Obelisk should prove a more satisfactory read… But at novel length, especially when opening a series, such as the novel Coalescent, the first book of the Destiny’s Children quartet, he seems to shine, only for it all to descend into YA-like science fiction that just happens to throw around big ideas. And that, in microcosm, is sort of what happens in Obelisk. There are lots of fascinating ideas in the stories in the book, but there are some that read like YA, the opening story, ‘On Chryse Plain’, being a good example. It’s one of four stories, including the title story, set in the universe of ProximaUltima (see here and here), although to be honest I couldn’t really tell. Other stories are grouped as “Other Yesterdays”, “Other Todays” and “Other Tomorrows”. All but two were previously published. Two weeks after I finished the book, I’m having trouble remembering the individual stories – although Baxter has certainly written short fiction that stands out… There just aren’t any here. One for fans, I suspect.

Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK). I took this with me to read on my trip to Denmark and pretty much polished it off during the journey there. It was a much easier read than I’d expected, a very easy read, in fact, so much so I kept on thinking throughout that Spufford had attempted to write something like Golding’s Rites of Passage (see here) but hadn’t quite managed to nail down eighteenth-century prose, resulting in a much more readable prose style. Not, I  hasten to add, that I’m an expert on eighteenth-century prose, or indeed have read any books written during that century, like Gulliver’s Travels or Pamela. But Golding’s novel seems more, well, authentic than this one, although Spufford’s representation of life in 1746 New York is thoroughly convincing. A young man called Smith arrives in New-York (as it’s given throughout the novel) with a promissory note for £1000, effectively a banker’s draft, and an enormous sum in those days. He hands it over to a local merchant but is told it will take sixty days for the merchant to get together the money. So Smith has to hang around until then. He refuses to explain who he is, or what the money is for; which means most think he is a con artist and there will be no supporting credentials on the next ship. Which there isn’t. So he’s arrested. But then it turns up on the ship after that, so it seems he really does have £1000. Meanwhile, everyone has been speculating about what he is – he knows a lot about the theatre, so perhaps he’s an actor – and he’s fallen in with the governor’s private secretary, a gay man his own age, and started courting the merchant’s oldest and very prickly daughter. Spufford keeps the speculation on Smith’s identity and purpose going throughout the novel, which is an impressive achievement. But the real stand-out in the book is New-York of 1746, which feels like a living, breathing place, which, er, obviously it was. The plot is all that you would expect of a novel set then, all setbacks and set-pieces, hearts won, enemies made, lessons learned… The final revelation, when it comes, is a surprise but the foundation for it is plain to see in hindsight. I don’t think Golden Hill will make my best of the year top five but it certainly deserves an honourable mention. Recommended.

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon (1995, USA). I first read Chabon when his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was nominated for a sf award, but I think I might have seen the film adaptation of Wonder Boys before that. What am I saying? I have spreadsheets containing this information. I can check… So: I watched Wonder Boys on 4 June 2001 and read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on 15 March 2008. I did indeed watch the film before reading any of Chabon’s novels. Anyway, having now read Wonder Boys, I want to rewatch the film. Argh. The one thing that struck while reading the book was that most of the film’s cast had been badly-chosen. The narrator is a failed writer of GRRM-proportions who teaches creative writing at a Pittsburgh university. He was played by Michael Douglas. His gay agent was played by Robert Downey Jr. And troubled student James Leer was played by Tobey Maguire. None of them really fit the characters has portrayed in the novel. Which is basically about a weekend at the university during a writing festival, in which the narrator’s wife leaves him, his lover, the chancellor, tells him she’s pregnant, Leer steals the chancellor’s husband’s prize possession, a jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe and shoots their dog, and… well, shit happens, in that sort of slowly inevitable One Foot in the Grave way that ends up in farce. And overshadowing it all is the narrator’s current WIP, which shares the novel’s title, and which he has been working on for seven years, has grown to gargantuan proportions and he will likely never ever finish. Literary professors/authors whose lives are slowly, and comically, unravelling is pretty much a genre on its own, and is seen by many as emblematic of literary fiction as a whole. I disagree, of course. The only people who think lit fic is all middle-class professors lusting after nubile students, disappearing into a bottle, failing to finish their magnum opus, etc, are the people who generally only read genre and almost certainly have not read widely in literary fiction/literature. I’m still not sure what to make of Chabon’s work – this novel is a bit of a bloated cliché and he has a tendency to drop the odd bit of over-writing into his prose, but there’s a curious personality that shines through, one that’s keen to experiment with the stories he tells, and there’s something very likable about that.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955, USA). Just about every US science fiction writer has had a go at a post-apocalypse novel – and if it was during the first 75 years of last century, it was usually a post-nuclear holocaust novel. Several of the better ones have been by women writers, although, as is usually the case, the ones by male writers – Earth Abides, A Canticle for Leibowitz – have been more celebrated. But with Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth and Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, you have two of the best American post-nuclear war sf novels written in the first half(-ish) of last century. They should be the ones that are celebrated, not Stewart or Miller. But, no matter, we know sf is male-centric, and though we do our best to show this is a false picture, women writers have been immensely successful in genre fiction the last couple of years and that tends to overshadow the achievements of women genre writers of last century. Which it should not. In The Long Tomorrow, the US has turned Mennonite after a nuclear war, and an amendment to the constitution bans towns and villages over a certain size. Cities, you see, make good targets. Of course, the rest of the world has also probably devolved to an agrarian early twentieth-century society, so who’s going to attack the US? But never mind. Len and Esau are curious teenagers in a small New Mennonite farming community, who dream of bigger things, particularly Bartorstown, a mythical town of high tech. After witnessing the stoning of a man linked with Bartorstown, they run away. And end up at the town of Refuge, where they come into conflict with some of the townsfolk because they’re start working for a trader who wants to build an extra warehouse, which will break the aforementioned amendment. This is exacerbated by a rival town across the river which is taking advantage of Refuge’s inability to grow. And then farmers descend on Refuge and put warehouses to the torch, but Len and Esau manage to escape, with the help of an old friend who proves to be from Bartorstown… There’s nothing new in the future US Brackett depicts, drawing as it does on pretty much the entire history of American literature; but the events in Refuge are unexpected, and the arguments against holding back progress, while characteristically American, are handled well. The two leads are typical for sixty year old American sf – ie, white males from comfortable backgrounds – and in fact I don’t recall any POC being mentioned anywhere in the novel. I’m a bigger fan of Brackett’s planetary romances than I am her straight-up sf, although The Long Tomorrow was better than I’d expected. It’s now in the SF Masterworks series.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #15

I try to alternate my fiction reading between male and female authors, but I seem to be doing badly at that in 2018. Only two female authors in this batch of six books.

If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK). I bought this at the Eastercon last year – actually, I bought this and The Destructives, both signed, chiefly, I seem to recall, on the strength of Nina Allen’s review of this one. Despite that, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. What I got reminded me a little of Simon Ings and a little of Marcel Theroux, while being entirely its own thing. I don’t recall If Then being discussed much – other than by Allen, of course – but then it’s that sort of sf, like Ings, like Theroux, that the social media genre chatterers don’t seem to read or be interested in searching out. In the near-future, the UK economy has collapsed and bits of the country, including its people, have been sold off to various interests. This may well happen after Brexit. In the town of Lewes (it’s near Brighton, apparently), the inhabitants have been saved by the “Process”, which is some sort of algorithm which orders the activities of the town according to an undivulged rule-set, based on input from the people in the town, all of whom have been given implants. For all that this is supposed to be an optimally efficient way to run a society, everyone lives pretty much in poverty, and whatever their economic output is, they don’t see the benefits. (It’s implied the UK is in such a parlous state their output just about ensures their survival.) The main character is the town’s bailiff, James – he has a more intrusive implant, which he uses to operate the armour, a sort of steampunk mecha. This he uses when he has to evict people that the Process has decided are no longer required in Lewes. The first half of the book “IF”, details the set-up and shows James exploring his role and the whys and wherefores of the Process (although his wife, the local teacher, is more questioning), all triggered by the appearance of a simulacrum, a Process-created copy of a human being, an actual historical human, John Hector, who served as a stretcher bearer non-combatant during World War I. Eventually, James rebels and the role is given to another man. The novel then shifts, in a second section titled, er, “THEN”, to the First World War and Gallipolli. James find himself serving as a stretcher bearer in a squad commanded by Sergeant Hector. Except this isn’t the real Gallipolli campaign, or indeed the real WWI. It’s a vast re-enactment created on the south coast of England, designed to recreate the conditions which resulted in… and this is where things get really interesting, although some research is required to stitch it all together… the creation of an Odd John-like figure (cf Olaf Stapledon), called Omega John, who was John Hector. The real Omega John was created during the real WWI, and eventually invented the Process. But he has decided more like himself are needed, so he has re-enacted the Gallipolli campaign in order to “forge” a new Omega John from the simulacrum Hector. And this is all tied in with the ideas of Noel Huxley, who in the real world committed suicide in 1914 but in the novel served as a padre in Gallipolli, and nurtured Hector and helped his transformation into Omega John… If Then is a novel where it’s hard to tell where it’s going, and that disjoint in the middle as it switches from IF to THEN makes you wonder how de Abaitua is going to stitch it all together… but as the narrative circles back round on itself, and begins throwing out the ideas which underpin its story, it makes the journey there very much worthwhile. It’s a shame science fiction such as this seems to be mostly ignored, as it’s a damn sight more interesting, better written, and much more intellectually challenging than juvenile space operas with over-written prose which over-privileges “feels”. It’s If Then‘s sort of sf which should be appearing on shortlists.

Apollo, Matt Finch, Chris Baker & Mike Collins (2018, UK). Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, so expect shitloads of books and TV programmes and documentaries on the subject. There were more than enough for the fortieth anniversary back in 2009. And given how extensively documented Apollo 11, and the entire Apollo programme, was, and has been, documented, you wouldn’t think more books on it were needed… Except when Neil Armstrong died six years ago it was pretty obvious most millennials hadn’t a fucking clue he was. (I suspect this year’s biopic, First Man, will change that, however.) Among all the books we can expect for next year, I would not have thought a graphic novel depiction of the mission was, er, missing. But that’s what Apollo is. And, to be fair, they do a good job. Where necessary they stick to the technical dialogue, but there are a couple of flights of fancy thrown in as well, just to keep it from being dull. I didn’t detect any errors, so Finch, the author, and Baker, the artist, have clearly done their research. (And surely a colourist called Mike Collins can’t be a coincidence?) All things considered, this is not a bad addition to the huge body of work about Apollo 11.

Kon-tiki 1: Dislocations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK). Brooke and Brown have collaborated a number of times over the years, although mostly at lengths shorter than novella. I think the Kon-tiki Quartet might also be their first series together, rather than loosely-linked stories in the same universe. The quartet title refers to the first human expedition to another star, which will be crewed not by astronauts but by copies of them – ie, clones with their originals’ memories downloaded into them shortly before launch. Sean Williams & Shane Dix used a similar idea in their Orphans of Earth trilogy, although their avatars were initially software only. The chief character of Dislocations is a mainstay of British sf, although no longer as common as he once was: a self-pitying white male who is in love with someone unattainable, unhappy in his own marriage and unfulfilled in his career, despite being involved in something important, and who nonetheless manages to have a major impact on events. In this case, it’s the kidnap of the object of the protagonist’s desire, the project’s chief psychologist, by eco-terrorists. But the project’s security team don’t seem to be making much of an effort to find her, despite her kidnappers stating they will kill her if their demands are not met. Fortunately, the protagonist does their job for them. And it transpires the kidnapping was intended to hide sabotage within the project. No convincing explanation is given for the security team’s lack of action, however. It goes without saying the prose is polished and the characters well drawn. But it does all feel a bit, well, tired. The story takes place mostly at Lakenheath base, and despite a passing reference to events there last century, you’d have to be in your forties at least for it to mean anything. True, the Allianz, the eco-terrorists’ organisation, appears to have been inspired by Antifa, which makes them sort of relevant, and the earth itself is on the edge of a climate crash, which is certainly relevant… I enjoyed Dislocations, and I thought it a well-written novella, but it felt a little like a retread of older material, and in places actually reminded me of 1970s sf by the likes of Cowper and Coney – which can be considered both a compliment and a complaint. The second book of the quartet, Parasites, is already available, and I will of course be picking myself up a copy.

Uppsala Woods, Álvaro Colomer (2009, Spain). A friend’s blog persuaded me to give Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream (see here) a go, and I thought the novel excellent – and was intrigued by the fact it had inspired a “Nocilla generation” of writers in Spain. So I decided to see how this had manifested, and Colomer’s Uppsala Woods looked like the most interesting of the novels labelled as “Nocilla” I could find. Having now read it… I’m not entirely sure what Mallo brought to it, other than perhaps a circumspect prose style which uses excessive detail; and while I like that, I like detail, I write it myself, the story of Uppsala Woods proved to be something of a let-down. The narrator is an entomologist and his wife has been suffering from depression. He comes home from work one day and discovers she has tried to commit suicide by swallowing pills. This reminds him of an actual suicide he witnessed as a boy – a neighbour jumped off a seventh-floor balcony while he watched – and which traumatised him so badly he grew up into the weak-willed and indecisive human being he is now. There’s a lot of reflection on his self-perceived failings, and how it feeds into his response to his wife’s attempted suicide. It doesn’t help that the marriage had been failing, and he’s incapable of making the concessions needed to rescue it. In fact, he’s not a very nice person at all. And there’s a whiff of misogyny to the narrative which is unpleasant, not to mention a definitely old-fashioned view of suicide as a form of “lunacy”. I liked the prose style and thought it effective, but found the story disappointing and its sensibilities a little old-fashioned for me. I’d like to further explore the Nocilla generation, but I hope they’re better than Uppsala Woods. Incidentally, the English translation of the third book of Mallo’s trilogy, Nocilla Lab, is due in January next year, and I’m looking forward to it. Mallo has written other novels and I’d like to read them – but they’ve yet to be translated into English. Perhaps I should learn Spanish… I mean, there are those Cuban authors I’d like to read too…

Spin Control, Chris Moriarty (2006, USA). This is a loose sequel to Spin State, features many of the same characters, but its plot doesn’t follow exactly on from the earlier plot. There are references to earlier events, but Spin Control can be read without having read Spin State. That, however, is the least of its problems. And, to be fair, its major problem is hardly its fault, it’s something that recent events have made problematical. Because Spin Control is set mostly in Israel. And this is an Israel that’s back at war with the Palestinians. The treatment of the Palestinians is certainly sympathetic (if not overly lionised) – and the treatment of Americans, Moriarty’s nationality, certainly not – but there’s still that whiff of admiration for Israel that is endemic in US culture. Which is a shame, because there’s a pure science-fiction thread to the narrative that seems mostly wasted. On the one hand, you have a defector from the Syndicates (genetically-engineered sort of communist clones) who is taken to Jerusalem to sell his secrets to the highest bidder – Mossad, its Palestinian equivalent, or the Americans – and which drags in some of the surviving cast of Spin State. But it’s all a plot, of sorts, to uncover a Palestinian mole, called Absalom, within Mossad. On the other hand, told in flashback, there’s the story of that same defector as one of the survivors of a Syndicate survey mission to a terraformed world. But there’s something weird about what they find – not just the fact it has been terraformed, since most terraforming attempts by humanity have failed, but also because there are weird things happening in the DNA of the flora and fauna. And when the survey team all come down with a fever, they work out that it’s caused by a virus which is using biology as a “Turing soup”, a sort of computational engine seeking an optimal terraforming solution. However, there’s a side-effect to the fever… and when this is revealed… well, Absalom’s identity seems pretty trivial. The survey mission narrative is nicely done, even if first contact puzzle stories are a genre staple; and marrying it with a near-future spy thriller is a nice touch. The setting of the latter is handled well, and each side is treated sensitively, but time, and geopolitics, has imparted something of a whiff to the Israeli-set sections and it’s hard to read them in light of recent events, or indeed the reader’s existing sympathies in the situation. Moriarty has shown she’s not afraid of tackling difficult subjects, both sfnal and real-world, and she’s good at it. It’s a shame she’s not better known.

Possession, AS Byatt (1990, UK). I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book. I’ve a feeling my parents gave it me when they lived in the Middle East, and they moved back to the UK in the late 1990s… (Ah. I just checked and they gave it me in 2002… so after we’d all returned to the UK. See, keeping records is a good thing.) Anyway, it’s been hanging around in my book collection for over a decade. I watched the film adaptation several years ago – featuring two US actors, Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Brit and Aaron Eckhart playing a Brit character that had been rewritten as an American (but Trevor Eve plays the novel’s only American character) – and remember being unimpressed. There are films that are better than the novels they’re adapted from – such as, Marnie, The Commitments, and, er, All That Heaven Allows – but they’re rare. Possession isn’t one of them. The book is much superior, even if it dies “reproduce” much of its subject’s poetry, which is really quite bad. An academic, Roland Michell, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash comes across mention of a woman encountered by Ash, Christabel LaMotte, and decides to look her up. This brings him into contact with Maud Bailey, an academic specialising in the poetry of LaMotte. Together, they track down a series of letters between the two, which suggest not only that Ash and LaMotte had an affair, but that some of Ash’s later poetry was directly inspired by LaMotte, and uncovers consequences which impact Bailey and Michell themselves. The book is structured as a straight narrative in the present day, interspersed with correspondence and journal entries from various of the Victorian characters, and even poetry from Ash and LaMotte. Although published in 1990, the present-day narrative reads like it’s set in the early 1980s, which feels odd, and the only year mentioned, 1988, is implied to be some time in the future, The prose is by turns fussy and glib – and Byatt seems to enjoy describing domestic bathrooms in excessive detail – and while the historical bits appear extremely well-researched, something about the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte smells a little too coy and arch to really convince. It doesn’t help that Ash’s poetry, as reproduced, is pretty awful. LaMotte’s is not much better. True, I’m no expert on Victorian poetry – I much prefer poetry from the 1930s and 1940s – but the excerpts from Ash’s epic poetry are not impressive. Possession was widely lauded on publication and won the Booker Prize. Even now, it is held in high regard. It’s undoubtedly a clever novel, and makes an excellent fist of its conceit. The meta-fiction/palimpsest nature of the narrative is something that appeals to me, although such narratives run the risk of being boring in parts and Possession unfortunately fails to avoid that. I suspect it’s a consequence of the structure – over-dramatising such narrative inserts would probably impact their verisimilitude. As a literary fiction novel, I’ve read better; as an historical meta-fictional novel, I’ve read better. But it’s still very good. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #14

My reading has been all over the place these past few months. Sometimes I just grab the first thing I see, other times it takes me ages to pick a book to read, although these past few weeks it’s been more of the former than the latter. Having said that, I’m still ahead on my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018 – six books ahead, in fact, as I type this. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been reading more than in previous years, although there have been a few weekends when all I’ve felt up to doing – because of the heat – is just sitting down and reading. Or watching films.

Liminal, Bee Lewis (2018, UK). I reviewed this for Interzone. The back-cover blurb describes it as a “Gothic fantasia”, which basically means literary fiction that doesn’t want to be identified as genre and is too dark to be called “magical realism”. As it is, Liminal is a weird mix of fantasy au Mythago Wood and “grip-lit” à la Gone Girl. Interestingly, the main character is a disabled person – she lost a leg as a child in a car accident – and Lewis handles her well. She’s less successful with her male characters – the husband is supposed to be quite religious but that only manifests in outbursts of bizarrely misogynistic behaviour (which I guess is as good a description of religion as anything else). The genre aspects are quite good, but the thriller plot is too easily and too neatly resolved. Anyway, see my Interzone review for more.

The Trespasser, DH Lawrence (1912, UK). This was Lawrence’s second novel, published the year after The White Peacock. It was apparently based on the diaries of a friend of Lawrence, whose lover, a married man, committed suicide. It seems a bit, well, off, especially since the female lead in the novel is called Helena, which is not much different from Helen, the name of Lawrence’s friend. Helena is a young woman studying how to play the violin under Siegmund, a married man. The two enter into an affair, but the book pretty much focuses on a trip the two take together – partly by accident – to the Isle of Wight. They know that once the holiday is over they must return to their respective lives, and any affair between the two must end. On his return home, Siegmund realises his relationship with his wife and children has been forever tainted by his affair, even if they did not know of it (although his wife certainly suspected). Like the earlier novel – and some of his later ones – Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it’s describing the landscape. The dialogue, and the characters’ emotions, seem over-emphatic to modern readers, and though Lawrence had a good ear for dialogue it often jars with the over-emotional prose. I can understand why he’s no longer as popular, or as read, as he once was, but I still think he’s an important author in British literature, and it’s a shame he’s best-known these days for TV miniseries adaptations of his work.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989, USA). This was a reread, although I last read it twenty-five years ago. I’m not much given to rereading, and then it’s usually of books I greatly admire. But the blurb for Grass intrigued me (or re-intrigued me), and I couldn’t remember anything of the book from my previous read (and I’m generally quite good at remembering books I’ve read). So I grabbed it one weekend, and read it on-and-off over a couple of weeks. There is a type of sf which is quite common, in which a group of explorers or settlers must figure out the strange ecology of an alien world – not always directly affecting them, sometimes it’s historical. There are plenty of examples, both short fiction and novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘The Wind People’ (1959) to Stephen Leigh’s Dark Water’s Embrace (1998), and many both between and since. Tepper’s Grass is a good example of the type. On the eponymous world, a number of noble families live in country estates on the grassy plains, and their lives revolve around the Hunt. But this Hunt bears only a faint resemblance to the barbaric practice of chasing foxes on horseback (er, the hunters, obviously; the foxes aren’t on horseback) as practised in the UK. For a start, the hounds and mounts (but never “horses”) are native species of Grass, as are their prey, the “foxen”. All three creatures are likely intelligent – certainly the hunters are not in control during the Hunt. Meanwhile, a plague has taken hold on all the human-occupied worlds… except Grass. So Sanctity, the oppressive religion which pretty much rules all the humans, sends a family of Old Catholics as ambassadors to Grass, with the secret task of discovering if Grass is indeed immune to the plague. The Yrariers were chosen because they’re both Olympic champion horse-riders and Sanctity has heard about, but misunderstood, the Hunt on Grass. It wasn’t until I get to the end of Grass that I began to remember my previous read. And I suspect that’s because back then I also found the final section of the book over-dramatic. The puzzle presented by the hounds, mounts and foxen is interesting enough, not to mention the Arbai, and the plague, so there’s no real reason to start blowing shit up in the third act. I had definitely forgotten, however, how good Tepper’s prose could be. She famously started writing late – she was in her fifties when her first novel was published – so perhaps that explains why her writing was a cut above many of her peers. During the late 1990s, I read a whole bunch of Tepper’s novels – she was an author much-liked among the members of a sf APA I was in at the time – and if hr novels had a tendency, as I remember it, to get a little preachy at times, there was never any doubt that she was among the best the genre had to offer during that period. I really ought to read more of her stuff.

The Wind, Jay Caselberg (2017, Australia). I must admit, these novellas aren’t really convincing me that horror/dark fantasy is a genre that I’m missing out on. Fans of the genre will likely find more to like in them than I have done. It’s not as if the writing has been especially stand-out – and in this one it’s noticeably, well, not bad per se, just very, very ordinary. Gerry has just moved to Abbotsford to take over the local veterinary practice, which is mostly farm animal work rather than domestic pets. But the Dark Days are coming again, which seems to manifest as wind (as in climate, not as in farm animals alimentary processes), and an enigmatic red-haired young woman called Amanda. Like the Lotz, this is set in rural UK but doesn’t quite convince. The prose manages a good British voice, but there are odd details which don’t fit. Like the village shop, which resembles more something out of Open All Hours, or the use of “used cars” instead of “secondhand cars”. Or referring to Gerry as the “veterinary” instead of “vet” or “veterinarian”. The author is apparently an Australian living “in Europe”. They make a nice collectable set, these four novellas, with a lovely piece of cover art spread across all four books. But three novellas in and they’ve not been as memorable as the first and third series of novellas, both of which were science fiction.

The Inheritors, William Golding (1955, UK). It must be horrible to have had a distinguished career as a writer, but people only know you from your first novel. Which for Golding was Lord of the Flies; and even now 64 years after its publication, and 25 years after Golding’s death, if you asked anyone to name a novel by him they’d name his first novel. But to then follow Lord of the Flies with something as frankly weird as The Inheritors… Now, I know Golding was not that odd. I’ve read his Rites of Passage, which is brilliant, and I have The Spire on the TBR, but The Inheritors is by any yardstick an odd book. It tells of the end of the Neanderthals at the hands of the Cro-Magnons, and is told entirely from the point-of-view of the former. The main characters are a small group of Neanderthals, comprising a young male, an old male, an old woman, two young women, one of which carries a baby, and a young child. The old woman is described at one point as the young male’s mother, so it’s likely they’re all related. The old man dies – of pneumonia? – after falling into a river, and then other members of the family disappear under mysterious circumstances. The young male discovers some men have settled an island in a nearby river, but they are not men like himself – nor women, for that matter (Golding was an old school misogynist). The two survivors of the family hide out in a tree and witness the Cro-Magnons at work and play. It’s a novel in which very little happens for pages and pages, and what does happen is filtered through Golding’s idea of a Neanderthal worldview. It works because the prose is so good. There’s something about Golding’s writing that oozes authority, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. His prose is not lush, nor is it stripped back. But there’s a clarity and confidence to it that many writers would do well to emulate – especially in these days of MFAs and CWAs and creative writing courses. I can think of several recent highly-praised novels where if the author really had applied “kill your darlings”, the novel would be considerably shorter. Had Golding done the same to The Inheritors, it would be precisely the same length.

Thoreau’s Microscope, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction for many years, but he has not been especially prolific: three novels – this book claims The Roberts is a novel, but it’s really a novella – and only one collection all the way back in 1988 and another, What the Doctor Ordered, in 2013 (but also a new one, as well as this one, All I Ever Dreamed, this year). Having said that, these PM Press Outspoken Authors collections are odd beasts, as they contain a mixture of fiction and factual pieces, most of which are not that well-known. The title of this one refers to the collection’s longest-piece, an essay about Blumlein, his lung cancer, and a hike into the High Sierras with friends to name a mountain after Thoreau, and, er, Thoreau. Also included are ‘Paul and Me’, in which the narrator meets and makes friends with Paul Bunyan; ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f‘, written in the third person and almost impossible to summarise; ‘Fidelity’, which is not genre, about a Jewish couple who have twin sons and can’t decide whether to circumcise them; ‘Know How, Can Do’, about a worm given a brain graft, who gains sentience; and finally an interview with Blumlein. As an introduction to Blumlein’s short fiction, this is not a good place to start. The contents seem to have been chosen more because of their unusual nature than because they are representative of his oeuvre. Good stuff, but more for fans than casual browsers. Having said that, followers of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series will probably not be phased by the collection’s contents – and if it persuades them to try more of Blumlein’s fiction, then job done.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #13

The heat seems to have lessened a little, but we’ve still two months to go before summer is over, and even then heatwaves in October are not unheard of in these days of climate change. Having said that, two of the books below are slight cheats as they’re novellas. But then the Faulkner – famously described as a “difficult” book – I managed to knock off in three days…

Empery (Trigon Disunity 3), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1987, USA). And so we come to the third and final book of the Trigon Disunity, which also includes the first use of the word “trigon”, although the word “disunity” appears nowhere in all three books. The story opens several centuries after the events of Enigma. Earth is now the centre of the Affirmation, which includes several advanced human colonies discovered since the second book. But one political wing of the human race is determined to take war to the Mizari, the “Sterilizers” of Enigma who wiped out humanity back in the last Ice Age (which was then reseeded by a good energy alien, as also described in Enigma). When Empery focuses on the politics of Earth and the United Space Service, and the fight between those who think the Mizari no longer present a threat (their last attack was 60,000 years ago, after all) and those determined on a pre-emptive strike, it’s not bad. It’s less good, however, on the science fiction. The Mizari are the worst sort of Trek super-aliens, and the only really remarkable thing about Empery (which apparently means “absolute dominion”) is how long it drags out its story. It doesn’t at least rely on superhuman intervention by a, er, human being, as Enigma does. Nor is its “good” character a paragon as in Emprise. That the books improve as the trilogy progresses is no surprise, but the initial world-building is too big an obstacle for the story to overcome and the aliens are shit too. Best avoided.

Unpublished Stories, Frank Herbert (2016, USA). Stories generally remain unpublished for a reason, and smart writers make sure they never see the light of day, even after their death. Hergé refused to allow new Tintin adventures to be written after he died, and so the last Tintin book we have is an unfinished one. Edgar P Jacobs, on the other hand, placed no such restrictions on his Blake and Mortimer characters, and the  Edgar P Jacobs Studio has continued his series, producing, to be honest, better stories than Jacobs himself ever did. Then there’s all the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman… Frank Herbert died before completing his Dune series, leaving only cryptic notes explaining where he planned to go with the narrative after Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune. Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson used the existence of these notes as a mandate to expand Herbert’s universe, and it’s a crying fucking shame what they did to it. However, Anderson has done good in making available Herbert’s unpublished fiction. ‘Spice Planet’, an early draft of Dune, which was published in The Road to Dune, is a fascinating historical document and does Herbert’s career no harm. And I’m pretty sure the stories in Unpublished Stories, despite being generally not very good, are unlikely to affect Herbert’s reputation either. For a start, they’re pretty much all mainstream. He fancied himself as a thriller writer before turning to sf. And that’s what we have here, a collection of mainstream stories (only two are sf, and one of them appears in The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert too), some of which work and some of which don’t. The prose is no better and no worse than you’d expect for commercial fiction from the middle of last century, but nothing about the stories stands out. Which is likely why they were never published. They’re interesting historical documents, but likely of interest only to fans.

Cottingley, Alison Littlewood (2017, UK). The title of this novella, from NewCon Press’s second quartet of novellas, immediately signals what this story is about, who it is likely to feature, and what is likely to happen… Which means that when a writer uses a title that is, so to speak, a hostage to fortune, they’re going to have to work especially hard to confound expectations. Littlewood frames her story as epistolary, a series of letters between an invented character, Lawrence Fairclough, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or rather Doyle’s associate, a “Mr Gardner”. Fairclough describes how he and his granddaughter stumbled across a small group of fairies at a brook in a wood by their home. But these fairies are more like malevolent insects. When Fairclough finds the skull of one, typical fairy tricks such as souring milk and making food go off persuades his daughter to return the skull – and a fairy spits in one of her eyes, blinding it. The story, making many references to the fairies photographed by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, unfolds through several letters. We do not see Gardner’s letters and can only infer what he wrote from Fairclough’s replies. Fairclough has answers to all of Gardner’s questions – clearly he’s afraid it might be a hoax – but whatever evidence he has gathered disappears one by one (such as the skull). Cottingley suffers from the same problem as all epistolary novels: how to tell the story in a way that doesn’t read like reportage. Which means the letters don’t really read like letters. They’re too descriptive, there’s too much interiority, and they’re far too fixed on the theme of the novella. On the one hand, these quartets of novellas NewCon Press are publishing are handsome books; on the other, I’m not a fan of dark fantasy or horror, so I knew this particular quartet were unlikely to appeal to me. There’s still three to read, of course; and a fourth quartet being published even now – with novellas by Gary Gibson, Adam Roberts, Ricardo Pinto and Hal Duncan.

Body in the Woods, Sarah Lotz (2017, South Africa). I read Lotz’s The Three a few years ago on a trip to Finland for Archipelacon. It struck me as commercial light horror and I didn’t bother with the sequel (three, er, well, some guesses to what the sequel was titled). And while I enjoyed Body in the Woods, there’s nothing in it to persuade me to seek out further work by her. A woman living alone in a country cottage – her partner is working in Qatar on contract – is visited by an old friend. He has a body wrapped in plastic in the boot of his car. Years before the two had defined friendship as “helping to bury a body, no questions asked”, and he’s turned up to make good on that. After the deed is done, she begins to obsess over the identity of the victim, leading to several flashbacks explaining how the woman and man are linked, and her thoughts and fears are manifested as corruption in her garden – a nettle patch that refuses to die and expands, growing mould patches, etc. It is, like The Three, all very light horror and written in commercial and readable prose. There is one minor weirdness: occasional Americanisms which appear in the prose, even though the voice is very British (the author is British but resident in South Africa, which may explain that). I found Body in the Woods are more involving read than Cottingley, but the latter struck me as a better work.

The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975, revised 1985, USA). In a recent exchange on Twitter with Kev McVeigh, he wondered why McIntyre, a feminist sf writer and multi-award winner, was not as well known as Joanna Russ. McIntyre wrote a number of Star Trek tie-in novels, and so may have become associated with that rather than straight-up sf… Although a look at her bibliography on isfdb.org shows she wrote only 5 Trek novels (including novelizations of films II, III and IV), one SWEU novel, and, er, ten genre novels that aren’t tie-ins. The first of which was The Exile Waiting in 1975, although the version I read is the revised 1985 edition. It’s one of those sf novels which posits a world which includes slavery and children deliberately mutilated to make them more effective beggars. I really don’t understand why sf writers feels a need to populate their novels with either of these. True, these last twenty years we’ve seen technological progress increase inequality – please please please, someone make like Max Zorin and flood Silicon Valley – when you’d imagine technology would make things better for everyone equally. As someone once said – was it Bruce Sterling? – the market finds its own use for things; except it would be perhaps more accurate to say that Silicon Valley finds its own way to develop revenue streams from things that were otherwise free. (Multi-passenger Uber! Er, that’s a bus, you’ve just invented a bus. And so on.) But The Exile Waiting is 42 years old, revised 32 years ago, and what is about American sf that all roads lead to libertarian variations on the Great Depression? Mutilating kids? Seriously? Slavery? Really? It doesn’t matter that the protagonist of this novel is female and has agency, because the world in which she lives embodies the worst of US sf. At one point, she’s whipped because she sneaked her way into the palace, was caught and accused of stealing, and given no opportunity to explain herself. Anyway, a more extensive review of this should appear at some point on SF Mistressworks. I don’t think The Exile Waiting was typical of its time – in some respects, it’s an improvement on mid-seventies American sf – but in some areas it demonstrates remarkably little commentary on the tropes it uses, even in the revised edition, and even its above average prose can’t really save it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). When my father died he left behind a collection of around a hundred Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them he had ordered directly from the publisher – I found an invoice in one – and included works by DH Lawrence (the writer he admired most), Carson McCullers, JP Donleavy, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm Lowry, Raymond Chandler, Herman Hesse, George Orwell and, among others… William Faulkner. I kept many of the books for myself – and subsequently became a big fan of Lowry’s fiction. (I had already sampled Lawrence’s fiction, and found it excellent, earlier.) There was always the possibility I’d be enormously impressed by another author from his collection, although a read of two of McCullers novels showed it wasn’t going to be her. William Faulkner, on the other hand, what little I knew of him – early twentieth century author, American, wrote mostly about the South, his novels had quite pretentious titles, I couldn’t think of anything by him that been adapted by Hollywood… Well, I’d expected The Sound and the Fury to be a bit of a chore to read, and it was only a complete inability to brain early one weekday morning that resulted in me grabbing it to read next on my commute. So I was very surprised to discover the novel hugely impressive. The casual use of racial epithets – the racism itself, especially in the third section, narrated by Jason Compton, who is racist – is hard to take, although nothing in the prose persuades me that Faulkner held those views, and in fact he develops his black characters as carefully and as well as he develops his white ones. And, of course, this is a book that was written, and set, within living memory (just) of slavery and the American Civil War. US society, especially southern US society, is hugely racist, and if the language in The Sound and the Fury is offensive it is at least a legitimate product of its time. But one of the areas that fascinates me about literature is narrative structure, and there The Sound and the Fury has plenty to recommend it. It is divided into four parts, three dated 1928 and one dated 1910, and each part subsequently sheds more light on the story. The first is told from the point of view of Benjy, who has learning disabilities, and presents his 33 years of life in an achronological almost stream-of-consciousness narrative, with time-jumps signalled by changes from italics and back again, although not with any degree of rigour. The second section is set 18 years earlier and mixes a straightforward narrative with stream of consciousness, and is perhaps the hardest to parse as its narrative is mostly peripheral to the main story. The third section, set in 1928 again, is more straightforward and, as mentioned earlier, is in the POV of the racist brother of the protagonist of the second section. The final section takes place a day later than the third, and is omniscient, but chiefly features the family’s black housekeeper. With each section, the overall story becomes clearer. It is not, it has to be said, the most exciting of stories – Banks followed a similar philosophy with his mainstream novels, albeit without the modernism, but he usually made his central secrets a little too “exciting” and a little too implausible. The Sound and the Fury is pure modernist literature, and the prose is really very very good. Though the milieu doesn’t attract me, the approach to writing strikes me as every bit as interesting as that of Lowry. Albeit in a different way. A third of the way into The Sound and the Fury I decided I needed to read more, if not all, of Faulkner’s fiction. So I’ve ordered another of his novels. From eBay. Because, of course, I want editions that match the ones I have – ie, mid-sixties Penguin paperbacks. Sigh. But Faulkner: excellent. Possibly even a new favourite writer.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #12

This stinking weather. It has, however, meant I’ve been reading more than usual because it’s too hot to do anything else. Which is weird, because when I lived in the UAE, where it gets way hotter than this during the summer, I used to read loads – and everywhere out there had really effective air-conditioning. Every other Thursday, I’d take taxi out to the Daly Community Library – a room in a church centre attached to the Al-Khubairat English-speaking school – and check out four books. I’d usually finish one by the end of the day. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to do there. The TV was rubbish, I didn’t have the internet at home, the selection of DVDs for sale was poor (even the ones unapproved by the Ministry of Information I used to buy under the counter)… On the other hand, my commute to work was a 500-metre walk.

The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France). In 1980, Roland Barthes was hit by a van, and died a month later from injuries sustained in the accident. Binet supposes that Barthes was carrying a document wanted by several groups of powerful people – including the government of President Giscard d’Estaing. And some Bulgarian assassins. Who may or may not have been working for the Russians. A superintendent from the Renseignements Généraux, Bayard, is tasked with investigating the accident, and recruits a young semiologist professor, Herzog, to help him. The two discover the existence of the Logos Club, where members debate each other for advancement, and challengers lose a finger if their challenges are unsuccessful. Bayard and Herzog bounce around literary theory and semiotics, through a series of clever set-pieces and in-jokes, and it’s all to do with Roman Jakobson’s theory of language and its six functions – or, in this case, a mythical seventh one which allows the speaker to coerce the listener – which may have been in Barthes’ possession, and which politicians are keen to discover, especially French ones… Not only is The 7th Function of Language a fun and clever mystery novel, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of semiotics and the theories of Barthes, Foucault, Jakobson and others. A lot of the characters who appear are real people, and a number of the events in which Bayard and Herzog find themselves involved also happened in real history. As in his earlier HHhH (see here), Binet frequently breaks the fourth wall, although the process of writing the novel does not feature here as it does in the previous novel. I picked up a signed hardback of this book in a Waterstone’s promotion, but hadn’t planned on hanging onto the book once I’d read it. But I think I will. It’s an entertaining read and it’s made me want to read up on Barthes and Foucault and semiotics.

Moon Face, Alejandro Jodorowsky & François Boucq (2018, France). Jodorowsky seems to be on a roll. While he continues to contribute to a number of long-running properties – and in the case of the Metabarons appears to have licensed the property to others – he’s also churning out new stuff. Like Moon Face. On an island under a repressive regime, which regularly experiences tsunamis, there appears a man with somewhat undefined features, the Moon Face of the title, who can control the tidal waves. His appearance triggers a whole series of events, which eventually leads to the downfall of the island’s autocratic and arrogant rulers. At one point Moon Face prompts the rebuilding of a destroyed cathedral, and when a false messiah, tricked into appearing by a rebellious faction, destroys the cathedral Moon Face triggers a second rebuild and… Well, this isn’t an easy book to summarise. It’s thick with religious references and allusions, and while Jodorowsky pretty much always does that in his works, it’s far more in-your-face here than in other books. It doesn’t help that the villains are all a bit pantomime, which makes it all somewhat one-sided. Boucq’s artwork is lovely, however. And if Jodorowsky’s scripts feels a bit obvious in places with its religious – well, Roman Catholic – references and allusions, it doesn’t detract from the story as drawn.

Beatniks, Toby Litt (1997, UK). Litt began has career by stating that each of his novels would be titled alphabetically. so, obviously, Beatniks is his second book (but actually the fifth book by him I’ve read). He’s currently at “N”, and he started in 1996, so he’s not managing one a year. I first came across Litt with Journey into Space (2009), a generation starship novel. I seem to remember it wasn’t bad – the prose was better than most sf novels, but the science fiction itself was a bit old-fashioned. But I liked the idea of publishing books with alphabetical titles, so I kept an eye open for his books. He’s been a bit of a gadfly, as no two books have been the same. Beatniks is not atypical for UK lit fic. It’s set in Bedford, Litt’s hometown. A young woman is invited to a party, where she meets three people – two bloke and a woman – who refuse to acknowledge anything that happened after Dylan went electric. She can’t decide if they’re complete poseurs, but she fancies one of them so she tries to get them better. It all ends up with a trip to Brighton, where they learn a bit more about each other than they perhaps wanted to. It was hard to sympathise with the three “Beats” as they seemed to behave in a wilfully ridiculous manner. The narrator at least was sympathetic. But it all hung together entertainingly. A fast read, and enjoyable, and perhaps a little more memorable than some of Litt’s other books I’ve read.

The True Deceiver, Tove Jansson (1982, Finland). Jansson is of course best-known for the Moomins, but she also wrote a number of novels for adults, and in recent years they’ve been translated into English. In The True Deceiver, a young woman in a remote Finnish village – but Swedish-speaking, I think – organises her way into the life of an older woman who illustrates children’s books. Katri is something of an outsider in the village, partly due to her colouring, partly due to her independence and unwillingness to compromise that independence. She has a younger brother, who seems to have a learning disability, and works unpaid at a boat-builders. Katri persuades Anna, who lives in the “rabbit house”, named because she paints rabbits for children’s books, and who is also the richest person in the village, to allow her to help her, and then slowly takes over her affairs. She moves in, at Anna’s invitation, with her brother, but her plan is to stay on in the rabbit house after Anna has died, and provide for her brother. But Katri is scrupulously honest, and she ensures Anna is not being cheated by local merchants, especially the shop-owner. She is so honest, and so good at maths, that her advice is sought by people, even those who dislike her. There are levels of deception here, which is what the title refers to. Katri: to herself, the villagers, most of all Anna. Even Anna herself, although the victim of her deception is… herself. The prose is clean and clear, although it has a tendency to drift into a sort of story-telling mode, as if the author were directly addressing the reader. Given that the story is framed as if it were a fable, it seems appropriate, even if the contents are not especially fable-like. Worth reading.

Emprise (Trigon Disunity 1), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1985, USA). I don’t remember where and when I bought this trilogy, but I suspect it wasn’t long after they were published (these Legend editions were all published in 1988). I think it may have been at a convention, given that the third book, Empery, has “£1” pencilled inside the cover. Anyway, I’m pretty sure they went into storage when my parents returned to the Middle East in the early 1990s, and I didn’t see them again until I moved into my current address in 2004. So I’ve had them for around twenty-eight years, and they’ve sat on my book-shelves here for fourteen years before I’ve finally got around to reading them. And… Emprise was Kube-McDowell’s debut novel. And so too for the sequels, Enigma (below) and Emprey. I’ve read other novels by Kube-McDowell – The Quiet Pools (1990) and Exile (1992) – but Emprise is not very good. It opens with a history lesson, which is never a good sign. Apparently, in the 1980s a secret group of scientists discovered a way to render all fission weapons inert. And they used it. This led to a series of short wars, and a total backlash against science. Both of which we’ve managed during the past 30 years anyway, without rendering nuclear weapons useless. In a regressive US, a lone secret radio astronomer discovers a signal. From a spacecraft approaching the Earth at near light-speed. He passes the news onto a British colleague… and within a few short years, there’s an international organisation, led by the prime minister of India, set up to build a  spacecraft to meet the alien before it gets too close to the Solar system. When news of the alien breaks, it leads to a Church of the Second Coming, which believes the spacecraft contains angels. Anyway, the Earth spacecraft gets built and intercepts the alien… And its crew are human. From a colony apparently founded from Earth. By a technological civilisation which was wiped out by the last Ice Age. Publishing has changed in the thirty-plus years since Emprise was published, and debut novels these days are way ore polished than this one. A lot of the story is massively Americocentric, despitr not being set in the US. That church, for example: it becomes so powerful, it threatens to shut down the building of the spacecraft. There is no mention of any other religion. Indeed, the Indian PM’s religion is never actually named. If I had had all three books on my bookshelves, and felt slightly guilty for owning them so long without reading them, I doubt I’d have bothered with the sequels. Avoid.

Enigma (Trigon Disunity 2), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1986, USA). And avoid is not something I did, because I sort of felt I ought to complete the trilogy. Admittedly, they were fast reads – two days per book, pretty much – but they were also poor books. In this second one, the Earth has FTL ships searching for further colonies by those Ice Age Founders. And they’ve discovered a few, some now extinct. The novel is Merritt Thackeray’s story. He starts out as a student at a Government Service school, transfers to a Technical School, and ends up as a contact linguist on a survey ship. He’s an unlikable protagonist, and even Kube-McDowell’s attempts to make him sympathetic never really make him less annoying. At one colony, he disobeys orders and discovers the colony’s secret – that they were visited by the alien D’Shanna, who convinced them there was no point in existing any longer. Thackeray spends the rest of the novel hunting down the D’shanna… only to discover they’re not the villains. They’re energy beings from an alternate energy dimension, and one of them shows him the fate of the Ice Age Founders – they were wiped out by another alien race because one of the Founder’s colony ships had invaded their space. Enigma is better-written than Emprise, but not by much. However, it also introduces the trilogy’s big flaw: shit aliens. Who does energy-being aliens these days? They were a shit idea back in the days of the original Star Trek. The Trigon Disunity triogy is essentially a future history with Star Trek super-powerful aliens, and even for the 1980s it’s poor stuff. Especially for the late 1980s. New Space Opera was just starting to kick off, you had authors like Paul McAuley writing solid hard sf, not to mention the likes of CJ Cherryh, SN Lewitt or Susan Shwartz, among others…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131