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Reading diary 2020, #9

It seems my last Reading diary post upset a few people. I’m not in the slightest bit bothered, of course, because those people are the selfsame ones whose opinions I said I didn’t care about and, er, it’s that which has upset them.

But back to the books. This post includes another Clarke Award nominee. I’m not sure if I’ll read the others. Two I would certainly like to, but there’s something about ebooks… well, I’m reluctant to buy them when they’re priced the same as the paperback edition. I mean, at least you get an object for that money with the paperback. As yet, the three nominees I’ve yet to read have not been on offer on Kindle. I may bite the bullet at some point, but when there’s so much else to read I’m not in a rush.

Meanwhile, I’ve been doing quite a bit of comfort reading – mostly Georgette Heyer, er, when they’re available for 99p on Kindle; although I’m also enjoying novels by Alice Chetwynd Ley – which I don’t bother writing about here. Of the books I have written about below… One was a reread by a favourite writer, although I’ve no idea when I originally read it. One was by another favourite writer, but I found it bitter and disappointing. One is, as mentioned earlier, a Clarke nominee. One was by a writer I’d been meaning to read for many years but had never quite got around to (one of their novels looked interesting, but reviews were lukewarm). And one is another instalment in a series I’ve enjoyed, although I found this one a little disappointing.

Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados). This was a freebie, or rather a “BONUS BOOK!”, as a strip of paper tucked into the book informed me. I’d ordered a copy of And Go Like This by John Crowley from Small Beer Press (this was not the John Crowley first edition I accidentally ordered twice, by the way), and they included Redemption in Indigo free of charge. All of which is incidental. I was pleasantly surprised by Redemption in Indigo, although to be fair it has had mostly positive reviews. It’s not my favourite type of story – it is, in fact one I generally avoid. The book is structured as a tale told about a woman in a Senegalese-inspired fantasy world who leaves her husband, is gifted with the power of chaos, learns some important lessons at the hands of the god who previously held that power – as does he, of course – before giving the power back and finding contentment. The story is overtly told, and the identity of the narrator is part of the world-building. There’s nothing especially remarkable about either the story or the world-building. While the prose harkens back to older styles of story-telling, it’s a mode that’s been used quite a lot in fantasy fiction. Fortunately, Redemption in Indigo succeeds because it has bags of charm. Its story is not always nice – horrible things happen – but it feels pleasant, and it makes for an enjoyable read. This is a nice book, despite its plot, and the genre needs more of them.

The Jewels of Aptor, Samuel R Delany (1962, USA). I know I’ve read this before – I’ve certainly had the Sphere paperback edition pictured for several decades – so it was probably back in the late 1970s or early 1980s. And having now reread The Jewels of Aptor, nothing pinged any memories. Oh well. A poet and a sailor sign aboard an expedition to rescue the Goddess Argo’s sister from Aptor, a distant continent of horrors and monsters. They are joined by a four-armed boy who is telepathic. Once Geo and Orson and Snake have explored some of Aptor, it’s clear the continent was once technological and suffered an unspecified “atomic” disaster. Quite how this exists alongside a mediaeval style civilisation on Leptor, which is where Geo, Orson and the Goddess Argo are from, is never explained. Perversely, if the book has a flaw, it’s that it has too many explanations. Whenever something happens, Geo and Orson speculate on what it might mean, or what is being planned. Most of the time they’re wrong; most of the time, it reads more like the author is trying to figure out the plot. But for a work by a nineteen-year-old, this is a better novel than by some current authors twice Delany’s age when he wrote it. Yes, it’s an early work, and the plotting is a bit hit and miss, but the beginnings of the language are there, as is the singular approach to the genre. When I think about what Delany has written over the years… He was a genre stalwart and award winner but has since moved out to the edges of genre, and yet has continued to be one of the real innovators in science fiction, both as a writer and a critic, and more people in genre should pay attention to him.

The Doves of Venus, Olivia Manning (1955, UK). I’ve been a fan of Manning’s writing since reading her The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy (they were adapted for television as Fortunes of War). Manning spent World War II outside the UK after her husband was first posted to Romania… followed by Greece, Egypt and Palestine. She then returned to England, where she remained until she died in 1980. And The Doves of Venus is clearly written by someone who had tasted better and now found the UK miserable and close-minded. I can sympathise. The book is set in the 1950s but is partly based on Manning’s own life in London during the 1930s. An eighteen-year-old young woman tries to make her own way in London. She meets a man, much older, whose wife has left him, and enters into an affair. Her lover’s wife comes back. She makes friends with a woman at work and they visit the friend’s rich uncle in the country. And so a small group of people sort of circle about each other, meeting up unexpectedly, some living hand-to-mouth, but others rich but parsimonious… and I suppose part of the problem with this novel is that its cast is too small for its story, and the way they keep on bumping into each other seems wildly implausible in a city the size of London. The protagonist, Elsie, is well-drawn and refreshingly independent, especially so given the period (and this was written in the 1950s too), although she’s woefully naive when it comes to her lover (albeit not entirely implausibly). But the 1930s casts a shadow over The Doves of Venus its purported setting can’t overcome. I’ve read other novels set in London during the 1930s, set in the same group of people to which Manning belonged, such as Lawrence Durrell’s Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), and it bears more resemblance to The Doves of Venus than, say, many of the films I’ve watched that were set, and made, in 1950s Britain. There’s also that bitter air to the novel, the feeling of constraint and close-mindedness, that is hard to get past. Manning’s books apparently received mixed reviews on release, with The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy generally highly regarded and other books less so. I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring, even if it is variable, and the aforementioned trilogies certainly giver her a huge amount of credit. One for fans.

Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2019, UK). I’ve now read half of this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. And… oh dear. One nominee is a space opera du jour, also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula (which it did not win), and spends more time on world-building and its protagonist’s love life than it does on plot or ideas. Another is a near-future B-movie, poorly-written hackwork filled with recycled tropes. And now, Cage of Souls… Tchaikovsky is scarily prolific, banging out novels in a range of genres and subgenres with inhuman rapidity. He previously won the Clarke in 2016 for Children of Time, and the BSFA Award this year for its sequel, Children of Ruin. I’ve read the first, but not the second. His other books have been fantasy or steampunk. Cage of Souls is, at least, quite well-written – certainly above average for the genre, but not really stand-out prose – but unfortunately it also reads like a novel Robert Silverberg could have written in the 1970s. It is bizarrely old-fashioned. It is set during the final days of Earth, when only a single city, Shadrapar, remains. So who the stranger in the line, “How can I describe to you, a stranger who will never know it, the place of my birth?”, is something of a mystery. The characters have mostly contemporary names, and are pretty much exclusively European. There are very few women in the cast, and they’re chiefly defined by their attractiveness. The words “man” and “mankind” are used to refer to humanity. And the plot assumes that after hundreds of thousands of years of civilisation, humanity will have regressed to something like late nineteenth-century USA, or, er, early twenty-first century USA. The narrator is sent to the Island, a prison located in the middle of distant swamp, where the inmates are treated worse than slaves, and could be killed by the guards for no reason – the Marshal even murders one of each new intake of prisoners simply to prove that he’s a hard bastard. I honestly thought we’d got this sort of nonsense out of our system. Yes, there’s all those self-published mil sf and space operas, but who takes them seriously? Except recently there have been announcements about new space operas by established writers, and it’s the same tired old genocide in space shit. Is it the times? The US and UK are currently led by half-witted corrupt incompetents who make Nero look “strong and stable”, and both have dismally failed to contain the pandemic, with catastrophic consequences… So the genre starts churning out mindless genocidal crap as some sort of antidote? Seriously? Sf is, I admit, a US mode of fiction, but we are under no obligation to accept uncritically its specifically American tenets. Having said that, it wasn’t until two thirds into this novel I realised Tchaikovsky was riffing off Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and while I have to applaud the ambition – and my feelings toward Wolfe’s fiction are conflicted – the comparison does Cage of Souls few favours. I looked at the full submissions list for the Clarke Award and it took me no more than five minutes to find a dozen books more interesting than those on the actual shortlist. I’ve not read much Tchaikovsky but I’d consider him a safe pair of hands – and he did win the BSFA Award this year – but I have to wonder why Cage of Souls was picked for the shortlist because it doesn’t feel at all like twenty-first century science fiction.

Valour and Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal (2014, USA). This is the fourth book in a, to date, five book series about a married pair of “glamourists” in the early eighteenth century. Or, in other words, Austen with magic. Or maybe Heyer. Except… while the husband’s patron is the Prince Regent, the tone doesn’t really match Heyer’s Regency novels. On the other hand, they’re lighter, and more overtly romantic, and less wittier, than Austen. Still, they’re fun. In this instalment, David and Jane Vincent are visiting Italy, chiefly to work with Venetian glassmakers. Their ship is attacked by corsairs while travelling from Trieste to Venice, but it all turns out to have been part of a scam to steal the pair’s secret of invisibility. Kowal manages a mostly English feel to her prose, although the level of emotion is obviously aimed at a contemporary US audience rather than a British one (and certainly not a UK audience of Austen’s or Heyer’s times). However, something about Valour and Vanity never quite gelled for me. Perhaps it was the fawning depiction of Byron, or the excessive interiority, or the overly-complicated convolutions of the plot, or the flatness of the supporting cast. Having said that, to get to book four before delivering a duff instalment is a notable achievement. I’m obviously going to pick up the final book, and I hope more will appear.


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Reading diary 2020, #8

I was briefly tempted to review all six books on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, as announced in mid-June, given there’s been a tradition of commentary throughout the award’s history. Of course, there is no guarantee I’d finish reading the books by the time the winner is announced in September. Once upon a time, the Clarke Award used to generate interesting, if occasionally controversial, shortlists. While you might not have agreed with every book nominated, the shortlist generally included books otherwise unknown that were worth reading. But things seem to have slipped these last few years. Not just the presence of Sea of Rust on the shortlist in 2018, which was quite frankly hackwork… I mean, when you remember bad nominees of the past, such as Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three in 2012, it was at least a novel in conversation with the genre, and Bear is an accomplished craftsman… Some of the more recent nominees, unfortunately, can claim neither.

The Clarke commentary no longer takes place. An attempt to reinvigorate it several years ago with a shadow jury was loudly condemned by US fans who plainly didn’t understand what a shadow jury is and equally plainly hadn’t bothered to find out. Despite all claims to the contrary, fandom is not a community. Once upon a time, it was an emergent phenomenon of the stories’ existence. Now it’s just a part of the marketing machine, and, happily for the publishers, it costs them nothing. Five stars means less than one star. Giving a book five stars just makes you a fucking mug. And everything is dominated by the US, a nation which seems congenitally incapable of recognising that other countries exist and they do things differently there (yes, I know, that’s a time-based reference, not geographic one; but never mind). True, science fiction is an American mode of fiction, and the single largest market for its creations, so its dominance is hardly surprising. But us non-USians, while we may appreciate the genre output of the US – the stories, the novels, the films, the TV series – we don’t actually give a shit about what US fans think. Science fiction fandom is not one giant global family. It never has been. And it never should be. Vive la différence.

All but one of the books below were nominated for genre awards. One won. Deservedly, I must admit. ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ was on the Nebula novella shortlist in 1966 (the award’s first shortlist), but lost to joint winners ‘He Who Shapes’ and ‘The Saliva Tree’. Space Opera was nominated for the Hugo in 2019. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein won the BSFA Award in 2020. The Last Astronaut has been nominated for the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. And Borne was on the 2018 Clarke Award shortlist. Strandloper is non-genre, and was not, as far as I can discover, nominated for any awards. You’d expect some top-drawer reading out of that bunch of accolades. A shame, then, to find it wasn’t the case.

The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1965/1966, USA). I’m pretty sure I first read this on a family holiday in Paris in the early 1980s. I have a memory of buying Delany’s collection, Driftglass (the Panther/Granada paperback edition), from an English-language bookshop in Paris, chiefly because I’d taken the 1977 Sphere paperback of The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star with me to read during the holiday. While both ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ and ‘Empire Star’ had stayed with me during the nearly forty years since, ‘Empire Star’ more than ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, it must be said, I’d never bothered to reread them. Until now. And this despite being a big fan of Delany’s fiction and non-fiction. True, some of his output is hugely dated. But some of his output is brilliant precisely because it is dated. The two novellas here have aged extremely well, and while the clever Moebius-strip narrative of ‘Empire Star’ I’d remembered pretty much accurately over the last four decades, I’d forgotten how good was ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’. An anthropology student is sent to study the eponymous song, the only original piece of art created by the Star Folk, the degenerate survivors of a convoy of generation starships, who were beaten to the rest of the galaxy by progress. The story behind the song is pretty much handed to the student on a plate, but it’s an interesting story, and not at all what the reader would have expected. ‘Empire Star’ has a simple plot: Comet Jo, a plyasil farmhand in a “simplex” asteroid-based community finds a crystallised Tritovian and is told to take it to Empire Star to deliver a message. And that’s what he does. Along the way he meets people who have previously interacted with him at different points in their lives, and learns about the Lll, the only enslaved people in the galaxy and the galaxy’s greatest builders, and the war fought over them and their emancipation. I’ve long considered ‘Empire Star’ one of my favourite novellas – I reread it early this century, I seem to remember – and on this reread, my admiration of it remains undiminished. Read both of these novellas, they’re worth it. But definitely read ‘Empire Star’.

Strandloper Alan Garner (1996, UK). This was inspired by the real life story of William Buckley, a giant of a man – between 6ft 5 inches and 6ft 7 inches, apparently – and an ex-soldier, who at the turn of the nineteenth century was transported to Australia for 14 years for carrying a bolt of cloth he maintained he had not known was stolen (British justice – the envy of the world, eh?). Shortly after arrival in what is now Australia, he learnt the penal colony was being moved to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and escaped. He was taken in by the Wathaurong People and spent thirty years living among them. The protagonist of Strandloper – also called William Buckley – is transported for “lopping” the local squire’s oaks, and sedition – the latter based on a piece of paper, a “tract”, containing passages from the Bible, chosen by the squire’s son, the semi-literate Buckley had been using to practice his writing. Buckley survives passage to Australia and, like his namesake, escapes and lives among one of the local peoples. Strandloper is a disconcerting read. There is no clear sense of time running through the narrative. The dialogue is given in local dialect, and for the first section consists mostly of local nonsense words used in songs and pagan practices. The end result is a short book, only 200 pages, which packs quite a punch. I’m reminded of Golding’s Rites of Passage, although that may simply be because they share an historical period. Yet now I think about it, both novels have an impressive immediacy, in Golding’s case generated by the use of journal entries as the narrative… and the fact Garner manages it using a (relatively) straightforward omniscient POV narrative is probably the greater achievement. Previously, I had only read Garner’s children books, and enjoyed them, and a Young Adult I found less satisfying. But Strandloper is good, and persuades me to hunt down more of his adult fiction.

Space Opera, Cathrynne M Valente (2018, USA). This was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2019. Its genesis is simple, and explained by the author in an afterword. A US genre author discovered the Eurovision Song Contest and was much taken with it. A fellow author persuaded them to use it in a science fiction novel. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. The US does not compete in Eurovision. People in the US have no idea what Eurovision means… and it means different things to different countries. In the UK, it is considered somewhat risible, with a side-order of resentment. In Sweden, there is a month-long televised Melodifest merely to pick the song to represent the country. Valente decided to appropriate Eurovision for a US audience and base it all on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She failed. Not only are the references a weird mishmash of UK and US that make no sense, embedding UK cultural elements in US cultural movements, but the whole thing is a litany of megaviolence and genocide from start to finish… While Eurovision was indeed created to help rebuild links between the war-torn nations of Europe after WWII, it does not celebrate the death and destruction which occurred between 1939 and 1945. Nor does it boast of the weaponry, tactics or bodycounts of the various competing nations. Valente also chose to model her prose on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I am not, I admit, a great fan of Adams’s novels, although I’ve read them and, when I was young, enjoyed them. But Adam’s books at least contained ideas and riffed off them. Valente’s does not. Adams’s jokes were carefully set up, and then left quickly behind, to crop up again when least expected. Valente belabours her jokes, sometimes with almost Fanthorpe levels of repetition. You end up skipping pages, trying to find the narrative. To be fair, I tried reading a Valente novel once before, Palimpsest, and ended up throwing it against the wall because it was so overwritten. And I admire Lawrence Durrell’s prose! I managed to finish Space Opera, but it was a slog. I can only recommend people avoid it. Especially if they’re fans of Eurovision.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (2019, UK). Reading this proved interesting after reading Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ a couple of months ago. Chiefly because I have read many of the books written by both subjects. However, where Jones’s Joanna Russ persuaded me to reread Russ’s oeuvre, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein does not do the same for Heinlein. But for a different reason. When I read Joanna Russ, I felt as though I’d missed important points in in Russ’s fiction. When I read The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Mendlesohn’s criticism opened up his books for me in interesting ways but didn’t substantially change what I remembered of them from my own readings. Admittedly, I read the books several decades ago, but Mendlesohn’s argument didn’t strike me as sufficient grounds to track down copies of the books and reread them (I binned most of my Heinlein paperbacks years ago). Don’t get me wrong, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein is a fascinating read in its own right, and an informative study of Heinlein’s fiction. It is a worthy winner of the BSFA Award (even though one of the other nominees contains a critical essay on my Apollo Quartet…). I’m not entirely convinced by some elements of Mendlesohn’s analysis – for example, Mendlesohn fails to point out that Wyoming pretty much vanishes from the narrative of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress once she’s married (she becomes a hairdresser); I also thought the novel’s code-switching was cack-handed at best. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I read a few years ago for the first time, so it’s relatively fresh for me. Other books, as mentioned above, I read back in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think the only one I’ve subsequently reread was Stranger in a Strange Land ten years ago. And now I’m starting to persuade myself perhaps I should try rereading them… Perhaps that’s the difference between The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein and Joanna Russ. The latter inspired me to read and reread Russ more urgently than the former did for Heinlein. Nevertheless, both critical works are definitely worth reading.

The Last Astronaut, David Wellington (2019, USA). Hmm, near-future novel about a mission to an asteroid that has just entered the Solar System. But this is several decades from now and the US space programme is dead, so they have to drag an astronaut out of retirement. This sounds right up my street… There’s a follow-up to Oumuamua thirty-five years from now, but this one is considerably bigger. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have a space programme after their Mars mission ended in tragedy. But they cobble together a mission, crewed by 1) the geek who discovered the asteroid and realised it as was decelerating, b) a young xenobiologist, c) a Space Force pilot of the X-37 drone (that’s the same one being flown now, by the way), and d) the ex-astronaut captain of the Mars mission with all her baggage. But they’re overtaken en route by a corporate mission – who describe NASA as “the enemy” – and then spend very little time analysing the asteroid before following the corporate team inside. In a tweet, I characterised this book as being “a mashup of Rendezvous with Rama and Prometheus, with none of the sense of wonder of the first and all of the baffling stupidity of the second.” To be honest, I was being generous. The central premise of The Last Astronaut is that the asteroid is a space-based life-form, whose life-cycle requires it to crash on habitable planets in order to breed. Which makes not the slightest bit of sense. How did they evolve if they required Earth-like worlds in order to reproduce? And, apparently, the asteroid creature rapidly generates interior flora in order to feed its rapacious young… except, where does it get the energy from to grow that flora? Not to mention the asteroid creature’s ability to accelerate rapidly using solar sails. This is a sf novel written by someone who has done a little bit of research but not actually applied any intelligence to their premise. It doesn’t help the prose is the sort of bland simplistic prose of techno-thrillers, the characterisation is single-note throughout, and the Mars mission commander is repeatedly labelled a murderer throughout the book despite doing the only thing possible to save the Mars mission. Wellington has tried to update his presentation by including “interview” excerpts of the main cast (although some, I think, seem to have taken place after their deaths), and adding an “excerpt from author’s foreword to the 2057 edition” by David Wellington. I read The Last Astronaut in mounting disbelief – its complete failure to present a believable near-future, its reliance on present-day tech, its pantomime corporate villains, its hokey premise, its weirdly small cast for the story it told, its complete lack of originality… How it ended up on the shortlist of a major genre award is a fucking mystery.

Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (2018, USA). I don’t get it. I read Annihilation and, okay, Ballard did it first and Ballard did it better, but I thought Annihilation quite good, and VanderMeer is one of the good guys and his Wonderbook is a damn sight more useful as a writing tool than 99% of the how-to-write books out there. But reading Borne, I’m reminded of The Book of Phoenix and the Binti novellas by Nnedi Okorafor, both of which read like they were written by a teenager, but Okorafor has a PhD in English, and if you know that much about writing fiction, why would you deliberately write something bad? And Borne – which, it must be said, has been highly praised – did not seem to me to be very good at all. There’s this post-apocalyptic city, and a five-storey flying bear, yes, really, and a woman called Rachel who finds some sort of biotech creature which grows and grows and can imitate all manner of things. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, nor gives you any reason to continue reading. It doesn’t help that the prose is so lazily written, such as the narrator witnessing an invisible person make a gesture, or crashed helicopters having “wings crumpled”. I read Borne and I didn’t see any reason to get invested in the story. It felt like a half-a-dozen pet images on endless recycle. I thought Annihilation was good but didn’t bother with the sequels. Borne is apparently the first in a trilogy but I definitely won’t be bothering with the sequels.


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Reading diary 2020, #7

I used to be quite disciplined about making time to read, but since I’ve been working from home I’ve been finding it harder. Some books are easier to read than others, of course, and if I limited myself to those I might perhaps get more reading done. But I like difficult books, and I find them more rewarding to read. I just need to be a bit more, well, disciplined about making time to read them…

Raising the Stones, Sheri S Tepper (1990, USA). This is the second book in the Arbai trilogy, although it might as well be a standalone as knowledge of the previous book, Grass, is not needed, and any references to it in this one barely affect your understanding of the story. I’m not entirely sure when it takes place – clues seem to suggest several thousand years after the events of Grass, although human society seems pretty much unchanged. Which is part of the problem. Tepper’s targets are plain – abundantly so – which means the societies she depicts have to hew closely to present day ones, or rather ones derived from those extant at the time of writing. And Tepper was never afraid to push something into implausibility in order to make a point. So, on the one hand, we have the peaceful agrarian settlements of Hobbs Land, who have found themselves building temples to alien gods (actually some sort of alien fungus), but since it makes them happy and productive, where’s the harm in it? Meanwhile the patriarchal sexist slave-owning violent (seriously, they couldn’t be made more worse) Voorstodders, inhabitants of a region on another planet of the system, have triggered the final stages of their plan to attain apotheosis by killing all the unbelievers. Tepper was not one for subtlety and there’s certainly an argument the sf audience is incapable of processing subtlety – just look at the current crop of genre award winners… For me, Tepper’s novel are like a brick in the face, but I’d sooner there were writers like her than the books appearing on award shortlists these days. I plan to read more Tepper. You should too.

Panic Room, Robert Goddard (2018, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s thrillers since stumbling across one of his books in the 1990s when I lived in Abu Dhabi. They’re easy reads, and generally quite entertaining – although there’s always something about them that never quite fits together, as if they’re 90% of a well-plotted thriller. In this one, a newly-fired high-end estate agent is hired by his lawyer ex-wife to do a valuation on a billionaire’s retreat in Cornwall. He finds evidence in the house of a panic room, but it’s sealed. This somehow catapults him into a conspiracy involving the billionaire’s theft of huge amounts of money from the US corporation which bought his company, some secret project that has been running for years out of Switzerland, and the suspicious death by drowning of a teenage boy decades before… Goddard keeps the mystery going quite entertainingly for three-quarters of the book, but his resolution spirals off into the sort of science fiction no self-respecting sf author would use. Still, it’s a Goddard novel, you should know what you’re getting when you open the book.

A Sea-Grape Tree, Rosamond Lehmann (1976, UK). I’ve been meaning to try something by Lehmann for several years as she’s one of the more prominent British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. (She was also an anti-fascist.) I’m a big fan of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor and Olivia Manning, who were active from the 1920s through to the 1970s, and Lehmann’s career covered pretty much the same period. But she also had a twenty-year hiatus between 1953 and 1976, and A Sea-Grape Tree was her first novel after that – and by all accounts something of a change of style, despite making use of characters from earlier novels… So perhaps it wasn’t the best book to choose as an introduction to Lehmann’s works. On the other hand, it was on offer. The novel takes place among the British expat community on a Caribbean island – and I use the term “expat” deliberately. I am myself a migrant, although I grew up as an expat. To me, the difference is plain: a migrant integrates, an expat does not. In A Sea-Grape Tree, it is the 1930s and a woman has recently arrived on the island and been accepted into the expat community there. It turns out someone she knew earlier in her life – the details of which are the subject of an earlier Lehmann novel – endear her further to the local expat community. This is a novel about larger-than-life characters and their interactions within a constrained community. It feels… weirdly like it was written at the time it is set, rather than 40 years later. I’ve no idea what to make of it, given that it’s generally acknowledged to be a complete change of style for Lehmann. I suspect I’ll have to read more by her. There were a number of British women writers active in the first half of last century who also agitated for women’s rights and/or against fascism, and how many present day writers can say the same? There’s a heritage to be proud of, and to build on. We should read more of those writers. I know I plan to.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar (2019, Israel). Originally published in F&SF, but then as a stand-alone by JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. The story is set several centuries hence, after climate crash and wars have depopulated the earth. The narrator, who lives in, I think, what is currently Israel, is invited to New Atlantis, which proves to be an archipelago that was once the United Kingdom. Much of the story is a travelogue, but once she arrives in London, she’s taken to see the time-vault whose discovery prompted her journey. The story is filled with references to other sf works – including the chapter titles – but, to be honest, Tidhar has written better. For much of its length, the narrative feels like it’s treading water, holding off the reveal on what a “time-vault” actually is. Unfortunately, the path the story takes is well travelled, and while spotting Easter Eggs can be fun, it’s not enough to maintain interest. Tidhar seems to have three modes: genre piss-take, genre Easter Egg hunt, and the interface of Jewish and Nazi history. When he’s working in the first and last, he produces good material; less so the middle one.

Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). Major déjà vu reading this, as the first section is basically the novella The Enclave, which was published in 2017 and won the BSFA Award (I seem to remember voting for it, too). Three years later, and child slavery and human trafficking is not what I want to read about in a sf novel, but then Bridge 108 abruptly flips POV to that of an undercover immigration agent and we get some actual commentary on the world being described. I understand that to write from the POV of a child slave would mean the narrative accepting the situation – but it also normalises it. Science fiction, especially US science fiction, which this is not, I hasten to add, has an extremely bad habit of normalising the worst excesses of humanity in pursuit of “drama”. It’s s complete bollocks stance. If you write a fascist story with no commentary, you’re writing exactly what a fascist would write. Your personal politics are irrelevant. Charnock presents a UK in which refugees end up living illegally in “enclaves” alongside legal residents who do not have implanted chips, but then shows these enclaves are breeding-grounds of illegality and immorality. Sadly, too many people are like those fuckwits who voted for the Tories and now clap for the NHS. Or worse, voted for Brexit and now clap for the NHS – that £350 million a week would be fucking useful now, you hypocritical morons. British – and American – politics are perhaps extreme examples, but something similar exists in science fiction: authors saying, “look at me! I’m left-wing!” and then they write the most fascist space opera you could imagine. The genre is inherently right-wing, but they take it to excess. They’re a blight on the genre, and there are far too many of them and they’re far too popular. The Sad Puppies were right that the heart of science fiction had been colonised, but were too stupid that to see that it was their stories which had done so. They looked only at the politics of the writers. Had they based their argument on the politics of the stories, perhaps they might have kept their mouths shut.

Red Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson (2018, USA). Robinson’s first book was first published in 1984, and there are many sf reviewers and voters these days who won’t read him for that reason. It’s true that Robinson writes a particular type of science fiction, but after nearly forty years he’s got pretty damn good at it. Better than some random debut author, anyway. Not every Robinson book has impressed me, although he has consistently produced work that I think speaks more to science fiction than many sf writers. Red Moon is… mostly a good sf novel. It reads, in parts, like off-cuts from the Mars trilogy. And the whole set-up does seem somewhat… accelerated for being set thirty years from now. Red Moon is definitely techno-utopian, and I’d sooner see sf like that than some jack-booted interstellar slavery space opera, which is all too sadly common these days, but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticise its vision or the points Red Moon makes. A US engineer who works for a Swiss firm delivers a qubit-entangled phone to the head of the Chinese settlement about the south pole of the Moon. Except the Chinese official dies seconds after meeting the engineer, who himself is rendered seriously ill, and he’s charged with murder by poison. It’s all about factions within the Chinese government, and partly related to the daughter of one minister who is the figurehead of a movement to seek justice for internal migrants within China. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here, mostly to do with China’s recent history and its government; but there’s also a lot about the colonisation of the Moon – not just by the Chinese, but also the Americans and a group of techno-utopian freethinkers who run their own lunar colony (whose precepts I don’t think actually work because they rely on defined identities). I think Robinson’s timeline for the novel is somewhat unrealistic, although I can see how his story forced him into that situation. And I can disagree with the political arc of the story. I likely can’t say this enough: Red Moon is a novel about politics, and the politics in the novel are laid out for discussion. Unlike far too many sf novels where the politics is baked into the world-building, and a rejection of the politics is by definition a rejection of the entire novel. Red Moon is not the best novel Robinson has written, but is ample demonstration of why his novels are worth reading. Each new one has added something to the genre ur-conversation, whether you like them, or agree with them, or not.


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Reading diary 2020, #6

You know that thing where you accidentally scheduled a post, even though you hadn’t finished writing it? I seem to have done that with this Reading diary, which is why it briefly appeared a couple of weeks ago. And then I sort of forgot to go back to it and finish it off, so the blog went into an unplanned hiatus for a few weeks. I think after two months of working from home, it’s starting to wear me down. I’m looking forward to getting back into the office.

The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK). Well, this didn’t go where I where I expected it to. Adam Roberts is an excellent person, and probably the best genre critic currently active in the UK, and while he writes enormously clever science fiction it is not always to my taste. But The Real-Town Murders has a heroine called Alma and is all about Hitchcock, and I’ve been a huge Hitchcock fan for many, many years, so this was a book I wanted to read. And yes, it starts out like a locked-room mystery, not that Hitchcock made many locked-room mysteries – maybe in Alfred Hitchcock Presents?- but The Real-Town Murders then goes off down a completely different path, which resulted in a very different novel to what I had been expecting to read. Alma is a private detective in a UK where most of the population live in a virtual world and rarely experience “the Real”. A bit like now, I expect. Except for the virtual world. She is called in to solve how a dead body appeared in the boot of a car at an automated factory even though there is complete footage of the car being made and at no time could a body have been placed in it. Alma is led to believe this may have been accomplished by teleportation. And if teleportation were real, then people might start returning to the Real because travel will have become as trivial there as it is in the virtual world. Except, it’s not teleportation (the solution is not hard to figure out, to be honest). And Alma finds herself being harassed by various arms of the government’s security services, which jeopardises the life of her partner, who had been infected with a hacked disease linked to Alma’s DNA and only Alma can prepare a a treatment when the disease threatens to kill her partner every four hours or so. So, not really a murder-mystery. And the plot makes so many swerves, despite being essentially a fugitive story, that at times it’s in danger of burying its ideas. Nonetheless, I liked it. There is apparently a sequel.

A Very British History, Paul J McAuley (2013, UK). It’s almost certainly the case McAuley is one of the best hard sf writers the UK has produced, and yet I find it difficult to connect with his fiction. He should be a favourite author, he writes precisely down the line I appreciate most in the genre. But many of his novels have left me cold, and I can’t work out quite why I finish his books more annoyed than satisfied. This collection, which was, and still is, free on Kindle, although I’d apparently bought the signed limited edition when it was launched at an Eastercon, which is of course currently in storage, the book that is, was I thought a perfect way to explore McAuley’s fiction and perhaps understand why I didn’t connect with it. A Very British History is subtitled “The best science fiction stories of Paul McAuley, 1985 – 2012, so it’s an excellent career retrospective. And the one thing the collection really displays is that McAuley writes to market. Perhaps that’s too severe a way to describe it. It’s more that he writes the sort of science fiction, mostly of the hard variety, that is fashionable at the time of writing. He cuts his cloth to suit what seems to be the “in” thing. He writes with a distinctive voice, and his prose is never less than good, but in the space of half a dozen stories, or novels, his readers can be bounced from far future sf set aboard a vast unimaginably old artefact to neoliberal capitalism in near-future space to cyberpunk-recast-as-fairytale. The reason I don’t connect with McAuley’s fiction, it seems, is because I can’t determine an identity behind it. It sounds like the harshest of criticisms, and I apologise, but it’s not. If you read three unrelated McAuley novels in a row, it would be like reading three novels by three different – but similar – authors in a row. It’s a good trick, and it has resulted in some excellent science fiction, but it doesn’t work for me. One thing notable about the stories in this collection, a consequence of the twenty-six years they cover, is that while some of the sensibilities embedded in them have not aged well (although better than many of McAuley’s contemporaries), the science fiction in the stories has remained timeless. McAuley has been praised throughout his career for ideas and his ability to present them, and it’s true they’re a major factor in the appeal of his fiction. But that lack of consistency of identity behind his work has always proven a stumbling block for me.

Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK). Adams is best-known for Watership Down, an excellent novel about rabbits. Two years after that book’s massive success, he published a… straight-up fantasy novel. It wasn’t published as such, of course. If anything, Penguin tried hard to pretend Adams had pretty much invented fantasy with their marketing for the novel. But Shardik is set in an invented land, at a technology level not far above Bronze Age, and is about a giant bear considered to be a god, or an avatar of a god, by a race of people. So it’s basically a fantasy novel. It just happens to be better written than is typical for genre fiction. The title refers to an ancient god of the Ortelgans, personified as a giant bear, who was kept on an island inhabited by priestesses. But the empire fell, the capital Bekla was conquered, and a new empire rose in its place. Shardik died and did not reappear. Generations later, a giant bear appears on the island the Ortelgans, now simple hunter folk, settled on after the fall of their empire. And they see it as the second coming of their god, and use it to take back Bekla and re-establish their empire. But they are not the people they once were. The novel mostly concerns Kelderek, the hunter who discovers Shardik, becomes his priest, and then the priest-king of Bekla. But it’s an empire doomed to failure, and Shardik escapes after an attempt on its life. Kelderek goes after him, and the two travel about the country – there’s a handy map, of course – both sinking further and further from what they were as the book progresses. Kelderek encounters enemies he made while priest-king, and evil people he helped create. It’s all a bit grim, and Adams has this weird trick of referencing culture that would be known to a well-educated Brit in the 1970s, which does sort of kill the immersion. You do not, after all, except to see a mention of Shakespeare in a secondary-world fantasy novel. I suspect I wanted to like Shardik more than I did. It felt like it didn’t try hard enough to be a fantasy, even though the world-building was generally good. The quality of the prose, however, was a definite bonus.

The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK). I read The Green Man’s Heir last year and enjoyed it very much. To be honest, I’d been wanting to read some of McKenna’s fantasy for many years but had never got around to it. The Green Man’s Heir was on offer at the time I bought it, and while I’m no fan of urban fantasy I’d certainly enjoyed its Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders story. The book proved successful enough to warrant a sequel (which has been nominated for the BSFA Award, but lost out to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, which is also a sequel, as indeed was every book on the shortlist.). In an afterword, McKenna writes that The Green Man’s Foe had originally been a completely unrelated story, but had never been finished. But the story proved ideal as a sequel for The Green Man’s Heir, so she rewrote it as such. In this novel, carpenter and son of a dryad Daniel Mackmain is asked to project manage the conversion of an old mansion into a boutique hotel – because there is something weird going on in the attached woodland, and it may be tied in with the house’s history and its link to early twentieth-century British occultism. McKenna introduces a cast of believable and appealing characters, and lets her mystery develop over the length of the novel. There are some odd tonal changes as the story develops – is it a ghost story, an occult story, or does it all plug into the mythology developed in the first book? The answer is, well, all three, and the three aspects at times interfere with each other. It’s also much more Midsomar than the first book, although that is almost certainly a consequence of its location, a Cotswold village. And at times it felt a bit like a British detective series from the 1980s. But they’re minor quibbles. This is entertaining stuff, put together by someone who knows what they’re doing. The cast are likeable, the mythology works, and it all feels like a series with legs. More, please.

Billie’s Kiss, Elizabeth Knox (2002, New Zealand). I think this was on offer, but I’m not entirely sure what it was about the blurb which persuaded me to buy the book and read it. Something about “an Edwardian twist on The Tempest”, and a feeling the novel was sort of magical realism set some 100 years ago in the Shetlands. I knew nothing about the author, or even her most famous book, The Vinter’s Luck. Having now read Billie’s Kiss I can say many of the things its blurb promised it is not, although that does not make it a bad novel. Billie lives with her sister and brother-in-law. She is illiterate (actually dyslexic), a bit of a free spirit, and has been unable to find a situation of her own. Her brother-in-law is hired by a soap magnate, Lord Hallowhulme, who owns one of the Shetland islands, to catalogue the book collection in his castle there. Billie accompanies the couple. As the ferry approaches the island’s jetty, something in the hold explodes and the ship sinks, filling fifteen people. The magnate’s brother-in-law, Murdo Hesketh, a half-Swede who had served with the army in Stockholm but now works on the island, decides to investigate. This is by no means a murder-mystery. It’s the story of the Hallowhulme and Hesketh families, and the story of Billie, an innocent who gets caught up in pretty much everything that’s going on. It’s not an easy plot to summarise, and probably not worth the effort of doing so. Despite not being the book I was expecting it to be, I enjoyed Billie’s Kiss. The prose was generally good, if a little over-wrought in places, as indeed were some of the characters, and one or two of them tended a little toward pantomime. But it handled its time and place well, and Billie proved an interesting protagonist. Worth reading.


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Reading diary 2020, #4

I don’t need to self-isolate to read books, in fact I pretty much self-isolate every weekend anyway: a trip to my local supermarket on the Saturday, and perhaps a visit to the återvinningsrum, but other than that the front door remains locked. This is not – or has not been – necessarily a good thing: I should get out more, you know, go for a walk in the woods next to my apartment building, for instance. Instead, I read books. Such as these…

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds (2018, UK). This is a belated follow-on to 2007’s The Prefect – now re-titled Aurora Rising – and while the story is standalone, it makes several references to the events of the previous novel. And uses pretty much the same cast. A figure pops up giving speeches suggesting the various habitats of the Glitter Band should leave the Panoply, which is the implant-driven direct democracy system the habitats have been using for a couple of centuries. Reynolds is not being very subtle here – it’s clear what he’s writing about. But, there’s this universe hanging over the story, all that world-building documented in a dozen or so other novels… The main plot seems to be people whose implants suddenly boil their brains and kill them, and the Panoply – also a police force – is desperately trying to track down the cause and so prevent further deaths. Of course, the two – Glexiteer and brain-boiling implants – are connected, but only because Reynolds apparently has so little faith in democracy he built a backdoor into the “demarchy” he invented for his novels, sothat a powerful elite can alter the outcome of certain votes (which does sort of plug into all the conspiracy theories regarding the 2016 Referendum). Anyway, the two are indeed linked, and through the aforementioned backdoor,  which all feels somewhat too convenient when the climax hits. Some nice set-pieces, but story feels like two plots bolted together and the villains are somewhat pantomime.

Journey to the Center (now re-published as Asgard’s Secret), Brian Stableford (1982, UK). I think I read this many years ago, but under its UK title, which would be, er, Journey to the Centre. DAW never published books two and three of the trilogy, although they were published in the UK. And have been subsequently rewritten and published under new titles by a US small press and the SF Gateway (as ebooks). Throughout the 1970s to 1990s, Stableford reliably produced mid-list science fiction with UK sensibilities albeit mostly for, strangely, US publishers like DAW. This book is fairly typical. An adventurer makes his living hunting through the mysterious levels of the world Asgard – which may comprises levels of shells all the way to the centre, some of which could be occupied. It’s a great conceit, and Stableford makes good use of it. I’m reminded of the Kriakta Rift from Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow (1981, a favourite sf novel) more than I am Iain M Banks’s much later Matter (2008). The novel is a standalone, but leaves many questions about the world unanswered. Hence the sequels. Which I want to read. I suspect I will have to go for the ebook versions.

The Heiress of Linn Hagh, Karen Charlton (2012, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon, and  it was only a quid, so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a crime novel set in Regency England. I’ve always liked novels set in Regency England, such as, er, Heyer, and the occasional Signet and Zebra romance. And the late Kate Ross did write four really good crime novels set in Regency England. Anyway, I bought it, I read it. I think I have less of a problem with the setting and character than many of those reviewing it on Goodreads. The lead was a real historical character and the author admits she wrote him more like a twentieth-century detective than was likely true for the time. But that’s your “suspension of disbelief”, and I duly suspended it as required. Sadly, the book suffered from bad writing and inconsistent plotting. On the whole, I thought Charlton managed the period quite well, and her protagonists were not entirely reliant on cliché, but the poor prose discourages me from reading the rest of the series.

84K, Claire North (2018, UK). Between Jarman’s visions of a post-Thatcherite UK and North’s vision of a post-Austerity UK, I’m not sure I can either tell the difference or see much that distinguishes them. That the Tories have been systematically robbing the UK since 1979 is historical fact. How genre writers have responded to that – at least, the few that actually bothered – is a different matter. UK sf writers of the 1970s built the government’s incompetence into their worlds; later sf writers had plainly drunk too much Tory Kool-Aid (bar a few notable exceptions). But that’s an argument for another time. 84K reads like a cross between 1984 refashioned for a twenty-first century audience and a 1970s consumerism-gone-made satire. Which, sadly, makes it feel like a book out of its time. It has a point to make, and it tells its story well, but it feels mostly like the target at which it’s aimed no longer exists. North is a writer to be treasured, and if not every book she produces hits its mark, she has the virtue of actually aiming at something. I thought The Sudden Appearance of Hope much the better book, for all that 84K ought to be the more relevant book and so more impactful. I will however read more books by North because she is clearly worth it.


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Reading diary 2020, #2

Although I’m reading less books since my move, it feels like I’m reading more. Partly I suspect that’s because I do around 70% of my reading on my Kindle, and it’s difficult to judge the size of ebooks – physically, I mean. But I’m also no longer “making up the numbers” by reading short non-fiction books about aircraft or spacecraft or any other of the various “enthusiasms” I’ve had – those books are all in storage. Which I suppose means the number of books I’m reading now is closer to my actual reading figures – although, to be fair, I don’t read on my commute to work, which I used to in the UK.

Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). This is the last Bernie Gunther from Kerr we’ll see as he died before it was published. He did finish it, however, although the novel as published includes a eulogising introduction by Ian Rankin. I’ve been a fan of Kerr’s fiction for many years, and have made no secret of it, and it’s never pleasant when a writer you admire, and whose books you like a great deal, dies. And not simply because the series must come to an abrupt end. (Without meaning to sound mercenary, others could write additions to the series – it’s been done before, with varying degrees of success and acceptance.) Metropolis, unsurprisingly, doesn’t read like the last book of a series, although it does cover the start of Bernie Gunther’s police career (which, if you know the series, isn’t as contradictory as it sounds). Unlike the other books, or at least the ones published after the original Berlin Noir trilogy, there’s no split narrative, with one narrative thread continuing Gunther’s story in the decades following WWII, while the other is set further back in time and covers a case or incident related to, or which provides a perspective on, the later narrative. In Metropolis, Gunther is a new detective in Weimar Berlin, who gets involved in two serial killer cases – the first kills sex workers (many women resorted to sex work to make ends meet), the second disabled WWI veterans who beg on the streets of Berlin – all of which is tied in with the rise of  Nazism, the excesses of the Weimar Republic, and provides plenty of back-placed hooks which tie back into the characters (most of them real) and events (most of them real) that Gunther encounters in earlier novels (which are, obviously, set later). Kerr’s Gunther novels started out good, and pretty much stayed good for the entire 14-book series. Which is quite an achievement. The title of Metropolis is a reference to Lang’s film, which the novel mentions – Gunther is even interviewed by von Harbou, who is researching what clearly becomes M – but the link is forced at best and the title is more a reference to the city of Berlin itself. Happily, it seems Bernie Gunther – and his author – ended on a high note as Metropolis is definitely one of the stronger books in an abnormally consistently good series.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 4: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). Whenever I mention the League of Extraordinary Gentleman I receive a blank look, and then I explain there was a movie adaptation with Sean Connery and there’s some glimmer of recognition. But, really, the film is awful and shouldn’t be considered in the same breath as the graphic novels from which it was adapted. By my count, there’ve been six previous volumes, and three spin-off volumes (the Nemo books). The last three books were actually one split into three, Century: 1910, Century: 1969 and Century: 2009, which is why The Tempest, the seventh graphic novel, is number four. For those who have never encountered this particular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they’re a group of fictional characters with, well, extraordinary abilities from Victorian/Edwardian literature. The original members were Mina Harker (from Dracula), Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyll, the Invisible Man and Allan Quatermain (from H Rider Haggard’s novels), but also featured Professor Cavor, Fu Manchu, Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty and HG Wells’s Martians. Subsequent volumes continued to mine and mashup proto-genre stories in many and clever ways. The Tempest, despite the ten-year gap, follows on directly from Century. As the title suggests, it centres around Prospero, and other fantastical Shakespearean characters, although it’s not unashamed to incorporate characters and institutions from other science fiction properties, such as TV21 – both Spectrum and World Aquanaut Security Patrol make an appearance. There are other dimensions to the pastiche – MI5, for example, operates a group of “J-series” secret agents, each of whom are modelled on the actors who played James Bond in the 007 movies, including Woody Allen. Some of the art is also clearly an homage to Jack Kirby’s. And it’s not all art – the book is split into six “issues” (was it published as a mini-series? I don’t know), each of which have cover art that spoofs well-known comics, and include an introduction and a letters page (written and collated by “Al and Kev”). The introductions are mini-essays on renowned British comic artists, such as Leo Baxendale and Frank Bellamy, and the letters pages are Viz-like spoofs in which it’s made clear the letter-writers are as fictional as the comic’s characters (or are they?). The story itself is told through a series of strips, echoing British comics’ anthology nature, some of which are colour, some black and white, and some 3D (glasses are included). This is a graphic novel that not only celebrates the works from which its characters were taken but also the British comics industry and its output. It is not just a graphic novel about the Blazing World – named for Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 proto-sf novel, and a sort of sanctuary for the series’s many characters – and the threat to its existence, but also a celebration of British comic history, told in a voice familiar likely only to those who have read British comics. I loved it. It wasn’t just the “spot the mashup”, or the somewhat convoluted story and its cast, but the fact it echoed my own experience of comics, British comics, although not entirely as, since I’m more than a decade younger than Alan Moore, it doesn’t quite map onto my comic-reading, which was Beano/Dandy to war comics such as  Warlord, Victor and the Commando Library, to 2000 AD and Star Lord and Tornado… to books without pictures. Ah well. The Tempest is a great piece of work, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an excellent series from start to finish. I find Alan Moore’s work stretches from the sublime to the indulgent, but this series is definitely the former. Recommended. But start from the beginning.

The Pawns of Null-A, AE van Vogt (1948, Canada). There’s a Brian Aldiss story called ‘Confluence’ which is little more than amusing dictionary definitions of phrases from an alien language. One phrase is defined as “in which everything in a book is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it”, and its converse, of course, is “in which nothing in a book is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it”. The Pawns of Null-A fails both definitions. I have no idea what van Vogt thought he was writing about and nothing in the novel makes the slightest bit of sense. It is nominally a sequel to The World of Null-A. Gilbert Gosseyn prevented the conquest of Earth by the Greatest Empire in that novel, but in this one he finds himself bouncing around the heads of various characters in the Greatest Empire in an effort to either stop it or prevent it from defeating the League of Galactic Worlds. Gosseyn finds himself caught in a trap and transported into the brain of the heir to the Greatest Empire’s leader. He surmises some other powerful player is doing this in order to hone Gosseyn as a weapon, but the reader is bounced from one unexplained situation to another, with a remarkable level of faith in the reader’s attention, certainly to a greater extent than any modern-day author would be able to get away with. Gosseyn stumbles across a planet of “Predictors”, who seem to be chiefly responsible for the Greatest Empire’s victories, but since Gosseyn – and by extension van Vogt – seem to have little idea what’s going on, there’s little point in the reader trying to figure it out. Damon Knight famously performed a hatchet job on this novel’s prequel, The World of Null-A, but later retracted it when he learnt van Vogt documented his dreams and used them as plots. That’s not an excuse. It’s an explanation, certainly, but “oh he plotted while he was asleep” does not suddenly make a book no longer open to criticism for shit plotting. I loved van Vogt’s novels as a teenager, but virtually none have survived adult rereads. And with good reason: he was a fucking shit writer. Damon Knight was right. He just wasn’t honest enough – something which has plagued the genre since its beginnings. The Pawns of Null-A is badly-written, has no real plot to speak of, and its past popularity should be considered an accurate indictment of past sf fans’ taste…

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA). This is the third book in the Adventure of the Athena Club series and, I am led to believe, the final book, although nothing about all three novels struck me as “trilogy” and I would be happy for the series to continue. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen above, Goss has repurposed well-known fictional characters from Victorian and Edwardian literature, but to a different purpose. First and foremost, her story is female-led and female-driven. She has had to invent characters in order for this to be the case. Such as Dr Jekyll’s daughter Mary, the leader of the Athena Club; or Catherine Moreau, the puma woman from the HG Wells novel. This is not a weakness but a strength. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these books are not entirely straightforward, and are framed as penny dreadfuls, explicitly written by Moreau, of the Athena Club’s adventures, in much the same way as the Sherlock Holmes stories were framed as the diary of Dr Watson. Although the books’ definition of penny dreadfuls seems to owe more to the anonymous female-authored books of Regency circulating libraries than it does actual Victorian pulp fiction. Not that the interpolations by the cast, which is all nicely meta, fit either. I’m a big fan of breaking the fourth wall, even if it’s fictionally. Having said all that… I don’t like the titles of these novels, but I love the stories they tell. This one has the Order of the Golden Dawn attempting to turn Britain into, well, pretty much what Johnson’s government has sort of been working toward. It plans to replace Queen Victoria with a compliant clone, and Queen Victoria was far more revered in the late nineteenth century than Queen Elizabeth II is now, and then turn Britain into an “England for Englishman”. Happily, this is derailed pretty quickly – not by the Athena Club, but by the female members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, who had their own plan: resurrect Tera, High Priestess of Isis, who died 5,000 years ago and was mummified, and she will take over the British Empire and remake it according to her desires. While those desires include such un-Victorian things as female emancipation and gender equality, the Athena Club oppose it on principle (no tyranny is ever benevolent, no matter how well-intentioned). The title refers to Tera’s power, which is considerably more than mere hypnotism, although the actual “mesmerizing girl” is the Athena Club’s maid, Alice, who has the same power, albeit a great deal weaker, and whose disappearance kickstarts the plot. I do like the series’s use of its characters – Van Helsing is a villain, Count Dracula is not, Ayesha is head of the Alchemist’s Society – and if there’s some occasional padding, and the plots don’t always quite fit together, never mind, they’re an interesting, and much-needed, take on the literature they pastiche.


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Reading diary 2020, #1

I think I’ll continue with this format, documenting the books I’ve read half a dozen at a time. But this year, I’m going to write up each book shortly after finishing it. At least, that’s the plan…

The Man in the Darksuit, Dennis R Caro (1980, USA). I picked this up from Fantastikbokhandeln, a secondhand genre bookshop that opened recently here in Uppsala. I’m not sure what prompted me to purchase it. The cover boasts an approving quote from Philip K Dick, but I’ve never really a fan of Dick’s writing. So it can’t have been that. The title sounded intriguing, but the backcover blurb reads more like the book is a piss-take… undercover reporter saves heiress from kidnapper and so uncovers galactic conspiracy, in the sort of language that implies it’s all very funny and witty and tongue-in-cheek. And it’s not, it’s really not. It reads a bit like Ian Wallace and a bit like Ron Goulart, and neither of those are really writers to admire. The titular character is the villain of the piece and his suit bends light around him so he’s effectively invisible. But the novel is more concerned with failed reporter Bos Coggins, who seems to have had a surprisingly successful career for a “failed” reporter, and Muffie Bernstein, the heiress he “rescues” in the opening chapters and who takes a shine to him and pretty much drives the plot thereafter. I have to wonder what was going through the editor’s mind when they chose to buy and publish this book. I mentioned Ian Wallace earlier, who had a career through the 1960s and 1970s, but whose novels at least made an effort at discussing science-fictional ideas and in fact used the genre as a springboard for a discussion on all manner of subjects. The Man in the Darksuit is a an attempt at farce, and while it shows a familiarity with sf tropes, it chooses to pastiche more general tropes, which renders its presentation as sf pretty moot. It is also clearly so popular, not a single secondhand copy is for sale through Amazon. A book to avoid.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005, USA). Scalzi is something of a lightning rod for science fiction and, while I find very little to disagree with in his public persona and what he chooses to champion, he’s no poster-boy for the best of what the genre can produce, and has, in fact, built a career on resolutely commercial science fiction of a type that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, albeit with 21st century sensibilities. Of course, science fiction is global, but Scalzi’s version of it is entirely parochial. And that’s woefully evident here. Old Man’s War is about a middle-class old man in Middle America who chooses to throw it all away – a comfortable retirement, that is, and eventual death; not that everyone, even in the US, gets the first – in order to fight for the Earth Federation in some sort of undefined war. And “undefined war” is the key to this novel. The protagonist, John Perry, knows nothing about the universe beyond Earth, or indeed what he’s signing up for by joining the Colonial Defense Force. His ignorance about the universe – imposed on Earth, incidentally, by the authorities – is the average American’s ignorance about planet Earth writ large. It turns out humanity is one of many races settling the galaxy – the science and background of which are hand-waved away quickly – but that has led to competition for habitable planets and Earth is in a war to maintain its own colonies. All of which are apparently only populated by emigrants from “developing” countries such as… Norway. Er, what? I mean, even imagining a programme in which India and Bangladesh only are allowed to send settlers offworld because, by implication, they’re failing as Earth-bound nation-states, but the US is not allowed to because… Present history, and orange buffoon in the White House, aside… even in 2005 this was a bad take. Old Man’s War is US exceptionalism writ large. And it doesn’t get any better. Characters lecture one another – the lecture on orbital elevators is dull and irrelevant – and then a love interest is – literally – manufactured, and this is used to drive the second half of the plot, despite somewhat dubious ethics. However… Old Man’s War has an engaging voice, and its story must have felt so comfortable to US sf readers of 2005 they probably wondered why they hadn’t read it a dozen times before in previous decades… Sadly, the book’s charm does not cross the Atlantic. It’s a bit like a Big Mac, a triumph of marketing over content, something that non-Americans see as an exemplar of US culture – or US sf culture, in this case – but Americans see as emblematic of culture as a whole, but of course there’s more to culture than just the US… Scalzi strikes me as a nice guy, I probably agree with 75% of his sensibilities, but that doesn’t make Old Man’s War a good book or worth recommending. It is, in fact, pretty awful. I won’t be bothering with the sequels.

Crimson Darkness, William Barton (2014, USA). I’ve been a fan of Barton’s fiction for many years – he’s American, by the way – ever since reading the collaborations he wrote with Michael Capobianco back in the 1990s. At one point, we were even corresponding. His last traditionally-published novel was 1999’s When We Were Real, and he has self-published ever since. On the one hand, this is almost a crime as he’s one of the best sf novelists the US has produced; on the other, Crimson Darkness is pretty much unpublishable in its current form… I’m describing it badly. Crimson Darkness is an excellent sf novel. It’s also a much harder read than most sf readers will accept. It’s a bravura piece of world-building, it takes no prisoners, and so creates a narrative that bounces from obtuse to obscure. No traditional publisher would touch it in its current form, but by self-publishing Barton allows us to decide for ourselves. This is complicated by a number of issues: one, it’s a big novel, 200,000 words; two, it’s the first in a series of, to date, three novels, with possibly more to come; and three, it’s supposed to be backed up by an online reference, particularly for the conlangs used in the novel, but that online reference is still “under construction”. I can’t fault Barton for his ambition, or indeed for failing to meet those ambitions. Been there done that, myself. Crimson Darkness is part Bildungsroman and part Secret-of-the-World story. A prince of a defunct kingdom bounces around various nations, gets embroiled in revolutions, witnesses great social and industrial change, but is also puzzled by the nature of his world. There’s a lot of discussion of the conlangs Barton has invented for the series, a lot of descriptive prose, which Barton does well (despite a tendency to use “it’s” when he means “its”), and an astonishing amount of detail in the worldbuilding. This is what Neal Stephenson should be like. As I said earlier, a bravura piece of worldbuilding. But also an engaging narrative. I’ve been aware of Barton’s self-published novels for a number of years, but they were only available on Kindle and until last year I didn’t have one. I now have access to a whole bunch of stuff he’s published since When We Were Real (since re-published by Barton himself in a preferred form), including preferred versions of earlier traditionally-published novels. His works are not easy reads, not the simplistic deathless prose and well-worn tropes of the more successful self-published sf authors. Obviously. I wouldn’t be reading them if they were. But for those who like intelligent sf, this is the real stuff.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik (2018, USA). I received a copy of this as part of the Hugo Voters Pack as it was shortlisted for the award in 2019. (I didn’t read it in time to vote, but I don’t vote anyway – why should I vote for the least worst of half a dozen books I don’t think are any good?). I’ve not read anything by Novik before – she was the GoH at IceCon 2 in 2018 in Reykjavik, which I attended, but her best-known series, the Napoleonic wars and dragons one, is not the sort of thing that appeals to me. Spinning Silver, and the earlier Uprooted, which was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016, were, I understood, retellings of fairytales, and while that does appeal to me a great deal more, it’s a genre that’s very much in the shadow of Angela Carter, a writer I greatly admire. Having said that, it’s a genre open to many different approaches, and one that’s good at reflecting the concerns of the time, and place, it was written. And so it proves with Spinning Silver, which actually bears little resemblance to the Rumpelstiltskin story on which it is supposedly based. The story is told – chiefly – from the viewpoints of three young women – and, to be fair, on the occasions when it uses other viewpoints, it weakens the story, if they’re necessary it’s because plot. Anyway, one is the daughter of a moneylender, who takes over her ineffectual father’s business, and proves very effective at it, and is only identified as Jewish a quarter of the way into the novel. Another is the plain daughter of a local earl who is unlikely to marry well. And the third is the abused daughter of a farmer who becomes the servant of the moneylender’s daughter… And the moneylender’s daughter – although she’s pretty much the moneylender by this point – attracts the interest of the Staryk , who are sort of winter elves, and Novik builds her story, which isn’t much of a retelling out of these three young women, and it works really well. If there’s a flaw to the novel, it’s that it feels like its story should be an allegory – but the Jewish experience, although it takes a while to be revealed, is explicit in the narrative – and so you have to wonder what point Novik is trying to make if it’s not about the treatment of Jews in Slavic Europe (which the book’s world is a thinly-veiled version of), or indeed Europe entire. Which is not to say the book has to be about that, or that there’s an expectation it is… it’s just that retellings of fairytales generally carry a different payload to the original fairytale, and in Spinning Silver that’s not actually apparent. Nonetheless, worth reading.

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019, USA). I will not be surprised if this appears on a few shortlists later this year. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good book, merely that’s it’s being pushed a lot… and being talked about a lot. However. Plot first. The Teixcalaani Empire asks Lsel Station, a small space-based polity on the edges of the empire, for a new ambassador. It seems the old one has died – murdered, the new ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, discovers shortly after arrival on the Teixcalaani capital world (which is one giant city). It turns out there’s a bit politicking going on, both on the capital world and on Lsel Station, none of which Dzmare is aware of, even though she should be carrying an “imago” of her predecessor, ie his memories and a copy of his personality, in her own head. First, a popular general is trying to seize the throne. Second, Lsel Station is trying to prevent impending annexation. Third, the Teixcalaani emperor is trying to safeguard his succession, using Lsel imago technology. And, on top of all that, it turns out there are powerful aliens lurking out past Lsel Station and Lsel wants the empire to keep it safe from them. With all that going on, it comes as something of a surprise to find that A Memory Called Empire spends more time on interiority than it does on plot or action. Or on worldbuilding – and there is a lot of worldbuilding. And it is, in the main, done quite well – except all the Teixcalaani words in the prose are italicised. Who still does that? Italicising non-English words in an English text is so twentieth-century. The end result reads a lot like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, albeit without the advantage of being first or using Leckie’s default gender trick – but fans of that trilogy will no doubt love this novel. The publisher seems to think fans of Le Carré and Banks will love it too, but comparisons to their oeuvres is one hell of a stretch (Dzmare could be a character name from a Culture novel, but that’s about it). In A Memory Called Empire‘s favour, it has a remarkably low bodycount for a space opera, in the high three figures. Space opera as a subgenre relies heavily on well-used tropes and worldbuilding-blocks (to coin a phrase), but there is also one type of space opera that makes a feature of its worldbuilding. A Memory Called Empire falls into the latter category. That makes it interesting, and a better read, than the majority of space operas, but it’s also plain most of the book’s energy has been invested in the worldbuilding… and the romance which forms the emotional core of the novel. As a result the science-fictional elements feel paper-thin – the infrastructure of the capital city, for example, is supposedly controlled by an AI, but the book presents this as little more a big computer, and the controlling “algorithm” for the AI even forms a minor unconvincing subplot. The central murder-mystery isn’t actually much of a mystery – the murderer confesses freely to Dzmare, knowing he won’t be prosecuted – and the offstage threat is so far offstage it only seems to impinge on the plot when the writer remembers it. This is a novel that is essentially all about the worldbuilding. The writer clearly revelled in it, and hopes the reader will too. And, in general, they’ve done an excellent job. A Memory Called Empire is not a great novel, or arguably a good novel, but it is the first novel – long overdue – in a form of space opera which needs to be more prevalent. It is an example of a model of space opera which could have appeared in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and would have made space opera a better subgenre, but which was pretty much squashed at the time. Instead of The Risen Empire or Spirit: the Princess of Bois Dormant, we’ve ended up with the Expanse and assorted clones. Sigh. A Memory Called Empire won’t make any of my award shortlists, but I’d sooner it was a typical example of 21st century space opera rather than something worth remarking on…

Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). I had wanted to buy a copy of this at the Worldcon in Dublin last August, but the handful of copies available in the dealers’ room had gone by the time I went to buy one. Fortunately, I recently found a copy in The English Bookshop here in Uppsala (albeit for somewhat more money). I’ve read most of Tidhar’s fiction – perhaps not all of the short stories, but there are so many of them, but certainly the longer works, especially the novels. So the self-referential elements of Unholy Land came as no real surprise, although the extent of them does feel greater than usual. So much so, in fact, that one important plot point, I think, is based on the first Tidhar story I ever read, some fifteen years ago, and whose title escapes me, but it was about a person browsing Hebrew pulp novels and stumbling across a novel which should not exist, or something. Which is, sort of, a fair description of Unholy Land itself. The starting premise is that Europe’s Jews accepted the British government’s offer of a homeland in east Africa (an actual historical suggestion, but the Zionist Congress rejected it in favour of historical Israel, although the first Aliyah to Palestine took place forty years prior to the Balfour Declaration). The novel is set in the 1980s, and the Jewish homeland, Palestina, is under constant attack by the African tribes who once lived in the territory it now occupies. The irony is thick here. A Jewish writer of pulp detective novels, resident in Berlin, returns to his home in Palestina on a visit. Except he has not been living in the Berlin of the same history as Palestina, and there is in fact a multiverse of alternate realities which can be accessed by certain people – in the writer’s case, unconsciously – and something is happening which jeopardises Palestina’s alternate reality… Not only does Unholy Land offer some seriously good worldbuilding and alternate history, but it also goes all meta and begins to deconstruct its own story from within its narrative. That’s so cool I’ve even done it myself. Tidhar has said he considers Unholy Land one of the best piece of work he has produced – so far – and though I take everything he says with a pinch of salt, having known him for several years, he may well be right in this case. It’s surprising how few awards picked up on Unholy Land. Well, no, it’s not really surprising – popular vote genre awards these days are entirely tribal and no longer fit for purpose, and Unholy Land is a genuinely good book.