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Reading diary 2021, #2

Something of a first here – some Swedish fiction. Sadly, read in English. But given how bad the appalling translation of The Millennium trilogy was, and the simple prose of Still Waters, I’m tempted to try both series of books in Swedish…

The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley (2017, USA). I was a big fan of Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, but was put off her later works after failing to finish The Mirror Empire. But she continued to get good notices and this, her first novel for the newly-formed Saga imprint – as of 2017 – is explicitly science fiction. And, yes, okay, so the sf novel after this, The Light Brigade, was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year and I had a brainfart one day and saw The Stars are Legion for 99p on Kindle and thought it was the Clarke-nominated novel… The Stars are Legion is set aboard an organic starship the size of a small planet which is part of a large fleet. It’s not clear whether they’re moving, or stopped, or where they’re going. The two protagonists have a plan which will allow them to refurbish an abandoned and dying starship which has the unique ability to leave the fleet. One of the protagonists has lost her memory – deliberately, it seems, in order to safeguard the plan. As with Hurley’s other fiction, this is brutal stuff, with a body count that can probably be measured in five figures, if not more. The world-building with all the organic technology is cleverly done. But the novel really comes into its own when Zan – that’s the one who’s lost her memory – is left for dead and dumped down a tube leading to the starship’s lower levels. She has to climb back up, passing through vast internal spaces, each with their own populations and flora and fauna, in order to reach the surface. The battles and various political machinations I found less interesting. Oh, and the book is entirely populated by women. There isn’t a single male character in it, or in, it is implied, the entire fleet. Even though I bought The Stars are Legion by accident, I enjoyed it and thought it a lot better than I’d expected. I think I’ll stay away from The Mirror Empire and its sequels, but I’m now more keen than before to read The Light Brigade.

The Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson (2005 – 2007, Sweden). I read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (AKA Män som hatar kvinnor) back in 2012, and I’ve seen both the Swedish adaptations of all three books, starring Noomi Rapace, and the Hollywood adaptation of the first by David Fincher, starring Rooney Mara; and even though it may jeopardise my standing in Sweden I actually prefer the Fincher film. But then, that’s part of the problem with this trilogy. The first book is an excellent thriller about the accidental uncovering of a serial killer. But as the two sequels dig into Lisbeth Salander’s past, so the entire thing begins hurdling one shark after another. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander develops an interest in advanced mathematics, as you do, despite never finishing school. After six months of reading, she manages to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem using only the mathematics that had been available to Fermat. FFS. At the end of the book, she is shot in the head and buried alive by her estranged father. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, she is in hospital, recovering from brain surgery to remove the bullet, and the only ill effect seems to be she can no longer remember her proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Sigh. The idea of a secretive department in the Swedish intelligence community which went rogue is interesting, but Salander is such an over-powered and implausible protagonist the novels don’t so much teeter on the edge of suspension of disbelief as joyfully dive into the depths of WTF. It didn’t help that the translations were terrible – I don’t mean I compared the original Swedish text to the English text and found it wanting – but they’re so clumsy and ill-written the translator did an Alan Smithee on them. It wasn’t just the lumpen prose, but also details which made it plain the translator knew very little about Sweden or its society. There was, for example, a mention of Myorna which implied it was a clothing shop, when in fact it’s a chain of charity shops. There were also a number of continuity errors – Lisbeth Salander’s height varied from 4 foot 11 inches to 124 centimetres (!). The tattoo of a wasp on the side of her neck apparently was 25 cm long, which would mean she had a neck like a giraffe. The books use Fröken throughout for Miss, but the word is pretty old-fashioned and rarely used these days. Every single red wine in all three novels is described as “robust”. Most of the frobt doors in the books open inwards, when here the reverse is true. The novels also do that thing where people entering a country have their luggage searched, which has not been in common in Europe since the 1980s (Sweden joined the EU in 1995 and the Schengen Area in 2001; the books were published 2004 – 2006, but had been written over a ten-year prior to that.). I’m reliably informed the original Swedish version are much better, but if I’m not really convinced by the story I don’t think better prose is going to make me like or admire this trilogy.

XX: A Novel, Graphic, Rian Hughes (2020, UK). I bought this mistakenly thinking it was a graphic novel, and remembering Hughes’s name from the excellent Dare from 1990, which, yes, was thirty years ago (and yes, I have a copy) and was probably not a good reason to shell out for a first edition hardback but it looked interesting… And it was not what I expected at all, it’s an actual prose novel, but it’s also really good. Jodrell Bank receives a “Signal from Space”, and after some investigation discovers it is the DNA of billions of aliens, of millions of alien races, encoded. Meanwhile, an alien spacecraft has crashed into the Moon, and the astronaut sent to investigate finds a (barely) live alien, which dumps its memories into her brain. Back on Earth, an AI start-up, whose lead programmer (of a team of two) seems to have implausibly built half the computer systems mentioned in the novel, gets involved and discovers a way to a) create AIs from memes, which represent the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries (the 20th Century one is called XX, as in the novel’s title, which, given the story, seems a strange choice of title), and b) thoroughly explore the “Grid”, which is a virtual representation of the aliens in the Signal from Space, including digging through its layers to uncover its history, and so the history of the universe. It all gets a bit cosmological, and the hacker character’s skills and experience are hardly plausible… Not to mention that the story is basically resolved through his genius and the implanted alien memories in the astronaut’s head… But I did enjoy the ride. There’s lots of typographical tricks used throughout the novel, as well as a number of “found documents”, including a mock-up of a serialised novel from an invented Golden Age sf magazine… which reminds me of a book by someone or other that did something similar… Recommended.

Exile’s End, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2020, USA). I’m a big fan of Gilman’s fiction. Her Isles of the Forsaken duology is a superior fantasy, but she has also spent a lot of time exploring her “Twenty Planets” universe – in two novels, two novellas, and several short stories. And now three novellas. A member of a believed-to-be-extinct race, the Atoka, turns up to a museum 700 years after the race were reputedly wiped out. This person wants to reclaim some of the museum’s Atoka artefacts. A small community managed to escape and survive on a distant world, and they want what belongs to them. Unfortunately, there are, as far as the museum is concerned, two problems. First, the main artefact, a painting of a young woman, has been adopted by the museum planet’s people and is central to their history of settling the planet. Second, the Atoka would periodically destroy all their possessions, and start again from scratch. It’s an argument perhaps more topical than it would have been, say, twenty years ago. While there have been repeated calls for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece for several decades, for example, it’s only in the last couple of years that historical statues have been toppled by members of the general public who find them, and what they represent, offensive. The artefacts of Exile’s End are closer to the Elgin Marbles than Edward Colston’s statue, but they are all symbols of imperialism and colonialism. Gilman stacks the decks by making it plain the Atoka remnants will destroy the painting, thus manufacturing opposition to giving it back. But Gilman works through her argument carefully and clearly, and provides sufficient grounding for the position of the Atoka. Unfortunately, the Twenty Planets have only STL travel between worlds, meaning interstellar journeys separate origin and destination by decades. Which means there is a weird break in chronology in the novella, as its resolution takes place so many years later than its opening. The end is… fitting, but I do wonder if the story really needed it, and could have ended before everything arrived at the Atoka’s current home. Still, I would not be unhappy to see this on a few award shortlists next year. Gilman is under-appreciated. The novella can also be read for free here on tor.com.

Still Waters, Viveca Sten (2008, Sweden). I watched the TV adaptation of this – called Morden i Sandhamn – and bought my mother the book for Christmas, and then spotted the ebook was only 99p so I decided to give it a go myself. I couldn’t actually remember the plot of the TV episode based on this novel, although bits of it seemed familiar. But then about halfway in, I suddenly remembered who the murderer was. Oh well. But I’m fairly sure there’s an entire subplot that never made it into the TV adaptation. Sandhamn is the only village on the island of Sandön, which means “the sand island”, because it’s known for being sandy rather than rocky, as all the other islands in the Stockholm archipelago are. Thomas Andreasson is from Sandhamn, but currently works for the Stockholm police in Nacka. When a body washes ashore at Sandhamn, and the victim has no connection to the village or island, it’s initially thought to be an accident. But then the victim’s only living relative, his cousin, is murdered, and it’s starting to look like something strange is going on… The book pushes one theory of the crimes for much of its length, before more or less stumbling over the real motive, and murderer. The prose is basic at best, and I wonder how much of that is down to the translation. Annoyingly, everything has been translated from metric to Imperial (for the US market, obviously). It made for an entertaining piece of television but felt a bit slow for a novel of 448 pages. There are currently ten books in the series. If the Swedish prose is as simple as the English prose, I’m tempted to try one in its original language…

On, Adam Roberts (2001, UK). This was Roberts’s second novel, and it’s now twenty years old, which I suppose explains some aspects of it – but I really could not understand what this novel was supposed to be about or how it was meant to explore its central premise. Tighe lives on the worldwall, a seemingly infinitely tall vertical surface, on which humanity ekes out a precarious existence on “shelves” and “ledges” and “crags”. Tighe’s village lives in abject poverty. And yet there are marginally more prosperous towns nearby, one of which charges a toll to climb the ladder to reach it. Tighe’s father is prince of the village, although this title is apparently meaningless, and his grandfather is the head priest. Tighe’s parents disappear, and he is taken in by his grandfather but soon realises the man is petty and venal (as if religious leaders are never that…), and after various arguments and such, Tighe… falls off the village ledge. This is usually a death sentence. However, several miles below, Tighe lands on a partially deflated balloon belonging to a small empire occupying several ledges. Tighe is badly injured but recovers, and is pressganged as a kite-pilot in the imperial army. The empire invades a neighbouring state, which apparently guards a door through the worldwall. The invasion goes badly, the empire is defeated, and Tighe is captured and made a slave. He is purchased by a man who takes him further east, a man who repeatedly rapes one of his female slaves, and kills and eats another of his male slaves. Tighe is rescued by a mysterious man in a silver flying craft – centuries more technologically advanced than the people on the worldwall – who explains the world to him – which has been pretty obvious for more than two-thirds of the book – and plans to use Tighe, through the machinery implanted in Tighe’s brain, to return the world to its former state. It’s all complete nonsense. Roberts provides appendices explaining the set-up, but they’re so dull it’s hard to believe he expected anyone to either read them or believe them. There’s no justification for the poverty and cruelty endemic on the worldwall, and certainly none for the cannibalism and casual rape. The door through the worldwall, and the occasional theological discussions, are complete red herrings. The invasion achieves nothing except subject Tighe to jeopardy and deprivation. I’ve always found Roberts’s novels a bit hit and miss, but the general consensus on this one seems to be it’s a substantial miss. It tells a pointless story set in a horrible world, and shows all the amoral disregard for cruelty and violence of the worst grimdark.


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Reading diary 2021, #1

In 2020, I read 105 books by 75 authors. Seventeen of them were rereads. Forty-five percent were science fiction, thirteen percent were fantasy, and nine percent were mainstream. Just over half (52%) were by male writers and 38% by women writers. The remainder were either non-fiction, graphic novels or had more than one author. I apparently didn’t read any anthologies. The authors were from the UK, US, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, France, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, Russia and Sweden.

Some of the books below I finished last year. Some of them I read this year. Usually, during the Christmas holiday I read a book a day but, thanks to the pandemic, I spent Christmas on my own and didn’t feel much like picking up a book. It wasn’t until the second week of January, which I’d booked as holiday, that I started reading again… and I managed six books over ten days… And I seem to be maintaining that reading pace.

London Rules, Mick Herron (2018, UK). The fifth book of the Herron’s soon-to-be-televised Slough House / Jackson Lamb series, and it’s more of the same – offensive incompetents who manage to out-perform the best of MI5, chiefly, we are supposed to believe, because Lamb’s leadership is not hamstrung by all the politicking that goes on among the organisation’s upper echelons. A series of weirdly ineffective terrorist attacks persuade the Slow Horses that some unknown actor is following a playbook put together by the British government in the 1920s to destabilise nations which either threaten the British Empire or need a little persuading in order to “join” the British Empire. The whole thing is intended to embarrass HMG, but, of course, the current shower of shits in charge of the UK have proven HMG is immune to embarrassment – and indeed that neither blatant corruption nor outright lying to the public is unacceptable, never mind  indirectly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, through their policies before and the pandemic now. Herron’s thinly-disguised caricatures of UK political figures are more annoying than amusing. It all seems very middle-class – the nudge-nudge-wink-wink offensiveness, the cynical acceptance of injustice, the commentary-free amorality… Still, only one more to go.

The Kon-Tiki Quartet 4: Iterations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2020, UK). The final novella and the story comes full circle, in a number of ways. Earth has sent a ship containing copies of the personalities of the scientists who worked on the project to colonise an exoplanet . They’re decanted into bodies created by “somatic printers” on arrival. The protagonist discovers that the local fauna produce a substance which, when processed, allows humans to read each other minds. This is liable to change human society on the exoplanet. Unfortunately, a group of militant eco-terrorists have infiltrated the colony and attempt to seize control. Their coup fails, but another set of copies of them heads back to Earth, which has suffered climate crash. This fourth book starts as the bad guys and good guys arrive in orbit about Earth. Both descend to the surface, to Norfolk, where the original starship was launched 200 years previously. In the two centuries since launch, Earth has regressed, with people barely capable of speech enslaved by “Long People”, who prove to be the original eco-terrorists who have stretched their lifetimes by printing new bodies for themselves when the old ones run down. But the printers too are running down, and each new generation of printed body suffers from “transcription errors”. This is solid science fiction of a sort that’s been around since the 1970s. The villains are perhaps a bit pantomime, but it makes a nice change that the protagonists are just plain ordinary and it’s not the universe at stake.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – The Martian Menace, Eric Brown (2020, UK). Apparently, there are several of these The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes novels published by Titan Books. I’m not a Holmes fan, but Eric is a friend of many, many years and I do like his books. The Martian Menace is an expansion of a novella, The Martian Simulacra, published back in 2018 by NewCon Press. In that novella, a mashup of Doyle and Wells, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are flown to Mars to solve the murder of an important Martian philosopher. But it’s all a ruse, as the Martians are replacing important individuals (only the British ones are named, of course, as this is Edwardian fiction; much like in US genre fiction) and replacing them with robots indistinguishable from the originals. But Holmes and Watson escape this fate with the help of an enterprising young woman from the resistance (comprised of humans wise to the Martians’ plans and the Martian enemies of those Martians who have been welcomed on Earth). The Martian Menace takes this story, and then does something very clever with it. Dragging Moriarty into the story is perhaps a no-brainer. Brown positions Moriarty as the architect of the Martians’ plot, but only by creating a multitude of simulacra of him… and it is the fate of the original Moriarty which proves to be the driver behind the plot of the novel and the enabler of its resolution. Reading this novel was an odd experience. It was as if the novella were two-dimensional, and the novel suddenly added a third dimension. Perhaps read from fresh, without knowledge of the novella, The Martian Menace would read as an inventive take on Sherlock Holmes meets Wells’ Martians. But having, read the novella, the novel went from the familiar to a quite unexpected place. I enjoyed it more than I expected.

The Stone Sky, NK Jemisin (2017, USA). The final novel in the Broken Earth trilogy, each book of which won the Hugo Award for best novel in three successive years. The first, The Fifth Season, was a worthy winner, but I’m not so convinced books two and three were. To be fair, neither 2017 nor 2018 had particularly good shortlists. There were perhaps a couple of books more deserving on the 2018 shortlist, but the 2017 one was pretty awful. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. The Broken Earth trilogy is a good trilogy, and while the second book, The Obelisk Gate, does the usual treading water thing, The Stone Sky is very much a conclusion, and actually takes the story in a direction not hinted at in earlier volumes. It also deliberately positions itself as far-future science fiction, while still presenting its ideas as fantasy tropes. In hindsight, I suspect the trilogy is a good candidate as a future genre classic. It does interesting things with narrative in the first book, the worldbuilding is excellent, it makes a series of important points about race and slavery, and it manages to build up to a big, if not entirely plausible, idea that provides a fitting capstone. Essun, and her daughter Nassun, both powerful orogenes who can control the obelisks, make their way independently to Corepoint, a research station/city in the middle of the ocean on the other side of the planet to the Stillness. Both have the same aim – stopping the cycle of seasons (by returning the Moon to its orbit) – although at the prompting of different factions of stone eaters. A narrative thread set in the past reveals the origin of both the obelisks and the stone eaters. It’s all fascinating stuff, and if the villain of the piece, as revealed in the final chapters, takes a bit of swallowing, there’s no denying Jemisin’s ambition. And, to be fair, she nails it. I still don’t think all three books deserved to win a Hugo, but I do think the trilogy belongs in the “canon” of great sf works.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson (1962, USA). A US classic, I’m told, but other than the title, I knew nothing about it. A copy popped up for 99p on Kindle, so I thought it worth a go. The novel opens with the sort of declarative introduction used by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, a US literary technique, I think – in which the novel’s narrator reveals she is eighteen, has a somewhat warped view of the world, is despised by the inhabitants of the village in which she lives, and resides alone with her older sister in a large house on the outskirts. It’s gradually disclosed the family were poisoned some years previously, and the older of the two women was charged but then acquitted. A male cousin comes to visit, and gradually takes over the women’s lives, incurring the resentment of the younger. And eventually changing their situation profoundly, although perhaps not in the way he wanted. Is it a classic? I’m not sure… The central twist is obvious a handful pf pages in, and doesn’t really add much to the narrative. The narrator’s worldview is… individual. But the book still feels it belongs on a straight line from Catcher in the Rye, and Salinger’s novel is not a book I hold in high regard. I suspect it’s a novel I simply don’t have the cultural baggage to fully appreciate – which is something a lot of US critics and commentators should acknowledge, particularly in genre, as they seem to think the entire planet shares their worldview, sensibilities and culture. I may share a language with US citizens, but that’s all I share.

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951, UK). This is one of those books  where one element of the story has entered public consciousness and actually drowned out the actual, well, story of the book. So everyone knows about the triffids, ambulatory plants which can kill by means of a whip-like stinger. Most people who haven’t read the book probably assume the triffids are alien, but the book actually suggests they were created in a Soviet laboratory. I’ve seen a couple of adaptations of the novel, and I had still forgotten that the entire plot, and menace of the triffids, is predicated on a global outbreak of blindness, caused by lights in the night sky (conveniently forgetting that half the planet would not be in darkness), initially blamed on a comet, but later implied it might have a human technological cause. The protagonist is not blinded because he was in hospital with his eyes bandaged, and the story is basically his survival story, along with the other few who were not blinded, and the various factions the sighted people have separated into. And all the while avoiding the triffids. I did at first wonder why the two things – blindness and triffids – when one or the other on their own would have provided sufficient drama. But the triffids are too easy to avoid by sighted people, and blindness alone wasn’t enough to cause human civilisation to collapse in such a short time-frame. The Day of the Triffids is definitely a book of its time – not just the sexism, but the comfortable middle-classness (so much so, one character in the book can “translate” from working-class to middle-class; this is, I hasten to add, British class, not American, and the two are not the same), and the relative ease with which the survivors manage to build sustainable communities. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it condemnation of fascism, but this novel, like many of Wyndham’s novels, is a pretty good example of a “comfortable catastrophe”.  I enjoyed it, but it was a much lighter read than I’d expected, and it’s certainly a well-known historical sf novel… but one for those eager to explore the history of the genre, including those novels some would have you believe are not genre…