It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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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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Movie roundup 2020, #1

This year, I’ve decided not to continue with my previous years’ practice of writing a few hundred words about half a dozen films in a post. Instead, I’ll keep it to a sentence or two per film, and post my Movie roundups less frequently. Hopefully, that’ll force me not to rely on easy content and actually write blog posts that are a little meatier, like, you know, actual criticism. I used to do it once, you know. But about science fiction, not movies. And I’d like to do it again.

Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK). I make no apology for it: Alien is one of my favourite films and one of the best movies, to my mind, the genre has produced. Forty years on, and the film still holds up really well, although some of the physical effects looks a bit cheap by modern CGI standards. But still a ground-breaking film.

Tag, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Extremely weird Japanese film about a schoolgirl who finds herself in a series of violent encounters, like a high school massacre, and it’s all to do with levels in a video game – which is not spoilery as it’s pretty easy to guess. Quite gory in places, and sort of fun when it’s not being too weird.

Heroes of the East, Lau Kar Leung (1978, China). Not really China as this is a Shaw Brothers movie, from Hong Kong, which in 1978 was a British protectorate. It’s notable for pitting Japanese martial arts against Chinese ones, but it’s pretty clear where the film-makers’ sympathies lie (clue: it was made in Hong Kong). As a 40 year old kung fu movie, it’s not bad; as a wu xia movie, bearing in mind the current state of the genre, it leaves a lot to be desired. Still worth seeing, but with the right expectations.

Shelter, Eran Riklis (2017, Israel). Taut thriller in which a Mossad agent babysits a Lebanese informant undergoing plastic surgery in Germany. The US and UK press and governments are happy to parrot the propaganda of the Israeli regime but there are plenty of Israeli – and Palestinian – creators in cinema and literature who give much more nuanced, and accurate, views on the situation. Worth seeking out.

Terminator: Dark Fate, Tim Miller (2019, USA). In which the protagonists of a 1984 cult film – that’s 36 years ago, by the way – are dragged out of retirement, as are the actors who played them, in service to a plot that retcons the retcons of the franchise. And possibly the retcons of the retcons of the rectons too. If this were a book they would say, “trees died for this”. Arnie displays surprising gravitas but he still can’t fucking act.

Lost and Found, Melvin Frank (1979, USA). Dreadful seventies “lit fic” movie in which neurotic US academic marries forceful UK secretary after they have a series of semi-humorous encounters while holidaying in the Alps. Marriage does not go as expected. No shit. There are thousands of novels written on this same subject, one or two of them might even be worth reading. The same is likely true for movies.

Cider with Rosie, Philippa Lowthorpe (2015, UK). Surprisingly late adaptation of a 1959 book, which I studied at school. Which makes me sound older than I am. I read it in the late 1970s, okay? It’s all West Country post-WWI bucolicism, which proves to be less a celebration of a lost way of life than an elegy to it. Surprisingly effective and affective.

Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria (2019, USA). Not intended as a J.Lo vehicle, but she plays a major role and steals the film. After the 2008 financial crisis shrinks their client base, a group of lap dancers start rolling brokers. It’s basically criminal but I’ve no sympathy for the brokers, they’re the scum who impoverished everyone and still walked away with seven-figure bonuses. They belong in jail. Certainly more than the women in this film who stole from them. Smart thriller.

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans, Dominic Brigstocke (2019, UK). The Horrible Histories schtick – jokey versions of UK history for kids, with jokes and songs – has been going now for a while and quite successfully. This is their first try at a feature film and it’s well, more of what they do. It’s pretty much the legend of Boudicca, centred around a useless Roman teenager who upsets Nero and finds himself posted to Brittanica and the daughter of a Celtic chieftain whose father has been ripped off big-time by the Romans. The relationship is a children’s TV staple, there’s plenty of comedy through the use of anachronisms, and it all climaxes with the Battle of Watling Street. Not that much is known about Boudicca – no one knows how or when she died, for example – but the film makes a feature of its research. For all that it’s a comedy, this is smartly-told actual history.

Shoot First, Die Later, Fernando DiLeo (1974, Italy). Typical giallo police procedural from the title right through to the story’s climax. Corrupt detective discovers there’s a line he won’t cross – drugs, of course – but it’s too late, they have him by the short and curlies. Bodies start to turn up, and the detective gets increasingly desperate as he tries to hide his complicity. But his father, a tough old police sergeant, becomes suspicious… I’ve said before that gialli are an acquired taste, and some stand out more than others… but many are little more than Italian takes on US B-movies. Which, sadly, this one is.

Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember when this film was released and the idea of screen that displayed a single colour for 79 minutes, while voices told the story of the film… struck me as unreasonably pretentious and a waste of whatever government money was involved in the making of it. Having since, to my surprise, become an enormous fan of Jarman’s works. and having now watched Blue – several times, it must be said – I love it. I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice all day. And the shade of blue on the screen – International Klein Blue – is weirdly relaxing. It’s a bit like listening to an audio book in bed with the lights off, but the blue is more peaceful than a darkened room. The more Jarman I see, the more I think he can do no wrong.

The Designated Victim, Maurizio Lucidi (1971, Italy). Giallo take on Strangers on a Train. Ad exec wants to sell out (and head for South America with his mistress) but wife refuses to sell their share. In Venice, he meets a louche aristocrat who proposes a deal: he will kill the wife if ad exec will murder aristocrat’s brother. And when ad exec refuses, aristocrat murders his wife anyway and frames ad exec. Very much a 1970s Italian thriller, not helped by the aristocrat’s uncanny resemblance to Russell Brand.

El Angel, Luis Ortega (2018, Argentina). Borderline accurate treatment of twenty-something serial killer Carlo Robledo Puch, active in Argetina in the early 1970s, and played with an impressive lack of affect by Lorrenzo Ferro. Puch and his fellows were petty criminals, who robbed shops and nightclubs, but Puch was clearly a psychopath and was eventually indicted for eleven murders and seventeen robberies. Plus assisted rape and attempted rape. These were not nice people, and the film is very clear about that.

Bedelia, Lance Comfort (1946, UK). US novel about a woman with a succession of husbands who died suspicious deaths, by the author of the novel from which classic noir Laura was adapted, transplanted to the UK thanks to the author’s poor treatment by Hollywood over her previous novel. Those were the days. The transplant works fine, although the Yorkshire accents are suspect, and Margaret Lockwood shows she should have had a much bigger career; but it’s all a bit clichéd and the thin gloss of Englishness can’t save a standard noir plot.

1917, Sam Mendes (2016. UK). “Fake single take is remarkable achievement”. Which is sort of what all the reviews said. Which is a bit like praising Tobey Maguire for his building-swinging abilities in Spider-Man. Not a patch on Dunkirk, and everyone comes out of it a bit too, well, nice. I mean, we all know most of the officers were inbred halfwits with about as much military sense as the Empress of Blandings. That’s what most of the poetry says, that’s what most of the novels set during WWI says. 1917 feels a bit like the cinematic equivalent of a Jessie Pope poem, and given the current situation in the UK its timing, and possible motive, is somewhat suspicious.

Draug, Klas Persson & Karin Engman (2018, Sweden). Low budget horror film set in eleventh century Sweden, in which a member of the king’s guard and his adopted daughter, a shield maiden, head for the deep forest to track down a missing missionary. They suspect pagan rebels, but the culprit is far less earthly. Atmospheric, and good turns by most of the cast. The final twist isn’t much of a surprise but the trip there more than pays off. Worth seeing.


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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.


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Looking backwards from the year 2020

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I moved from the United Arab Emirates to the United Kingdom; in the second decade, I moved from the UK to Sweden.

As the second decade of the century opened, I was living in Sheffield, and once again employed by the company I had originally moved to Sheffield to work for. I had started writing short fiction again, after a hiatus of a decade or so. I widened my reading, continued to buy too many books, regularly saw bands perform live in Sheffield venues, and watched films from two DVD rentals services, my own DVD purchases, and terrestrial and cable television.

In 2010, my favourite books of the year were mostly literary, or new books by favourite genre authors, such as Gwyneth Jones and Bruce Sterling. I also discovered my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows. Five of my short stories saw print, and I continued reviewing books for Interzone – and also interviewing authors: my interview with Bruce Sterling in Interzone #221 I still considered the best interview I’ve done.

I began writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book of the Apollo Quartet, in 2011 and also edited my first anthology, Rocket Science. I had made an effort the previous year to read more books by women writers – successfully – but in 2011 I took it one step further and created the SF Mistressworks blog, which reviewed science fiction books by women writers published before 2000.

Rocket Science was launched at the Eastercon in 2012. I decided to launch Adrift on the Sea of Rains at the same time… which meant I had to publish it myself in order to have it available in time. So I started up my own small press, Whippleshield Books. I published Adrift on the Sea of Rains in signed limited hardback, paperback and ebook editions. Reading-wise, I raved about Katie Ward’s Girl Reading. Sadly, she has yet to publish anything else. In films, I continued to explore the cinemas of other countries.

My interest in space had been rekindled in the first decade of the century, and eventually led to Rocket Science and the Apollo Quartet, but in 2013 I discovered a new interest – I call them “enthusiasms” – which was… deep sea exploration, undersea habitats and saturation diving. This fed into both my reading and my writing. The second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, published in early 2013, was very much an exploration of Apollo-era space technology, as the first novella had been. But the third book, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, published in late 2013, included a narrative strand featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste, directly from my latest enthusiasm. Neither novella proved as successful as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which in 2013 won the BSFA Award and was nominated for the Sidewise Award. 2013 was also the year I “discovered” Malcolm Lowry, who became a favourite writer. It was also the first year I began attending Nordic conventions.

I don’t remember 2014 being a particularly memorable year. I had signed up to attend Loncon 3, the Worldcon taking place in the UK, but ended up so pissed off with sf fandom I sold my membership and didn’t attend. I’m not even sure I can remember what prompted my change of heart. I made a serious attempt to read some well-regarded genre fiction so I could vote for the Hugo, but nothing I liked made it to the shortlists. This was not entirely surprising – my tastes have never aligned with those of the Hugo voters and I adamantly refuse to be tribal about the writers whose books I like. I worked on the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, this one intended to be novel-length, All That Outer Space Allows. I also had a story published in a literary magazine, and one of my stories was the cover story for a Postscripts anthology.

I can’t remember how I got involved with Tickety Boo Press, a small press based in Northumberland. I was asked to edit a self-published sf novel its owner had bought. For a fee. I did so – but the writer rejected most of my structural suggestions. Somehow I managed to accidentally sell a space opera trilogy to Tickety Boo Press. I’d written the first book, A Prospect of War, in the late 1990s, spent much of the early 2000s rewriting and polishing it… and it came very close to being picked up by a major sf imprint. (I note that A Prospect of War’s flavour of space opera is currently very popular.) I sold A Prospect of War and its sequel, A Conflict of Orders, to Tickety Boo Press, who published them in May and October of 2015. I would deliver the third book, A Want of Reason, in 2016. The books were published in signed limited hardback, paperback and ebook. At least they were supposed to be. The ebook sold really well and was well-received. I signed about forty hardback copies of A Prospect of War. No paperback ever appeared. Nor did any of the editions have ISBNs. Although a hardback edition of A Conflict of Orders was available for sale on Tickety Boo’s website – and I know several people who ordered one – it never actually existed. So I stopped working on A Want of Reason. One day I may get around to finishing it. I’d like to. In 2015, I published the final book of my Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, which was subsequently honour listed by the Tiptree Award (now the Otherwise Award). I also attended my second Nordic con, Archipelacon, in the Åland Islands.

Oh, and Adrift on the Sea of Rains was published in Spanish, A la deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias, in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Ignotus Award the following year.

In 2015, I also published my second anthology, Aphrodite Terra. I’d originally planned to launch it at Loncon 3, but, of course, I didn’t attend the convention. And I was, I admit, disappointed by the apathy shown by the genre community to the book when I put out a call for submissions. However, I wanted to submit All That Outer Space Allows to the Arthur C Clarke Award but it wasn’t eligible as it was self-published. The award agreed that if Whippleshield Books published someone else’s fiction, as well as my own, then it wasn’t a self-publishing press. So I pushed out Aphrodite Terra, and All That Outer Space Allows was accepted for the Clarke. It wasn’t shortlisted, of course. Annoyingly – and insultingly – when the Clarke Award opened itself to self-published books a year or two later, the only example of a “self-published” book it used as justification was Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which had been published by a major sf imprint anyway.

A year or two earlier, I’d submitted a story to a Tickety Boo anthology of hard sf – on invitation, I seem to recall. But the book kept on getting delayed. I gave them a reprint story when they complained of a lack of submissions. A new editor took over the anthology – and promptly sent my reprint back. I decided in 2016 to publish a selection of my hard sf space-based stories in a collection, Dreams of the Space Age. I asked Tickety Boo if I could include the story I’d submitted to them. They said fine, the anthology was sure to be out before my collection. The anthology has never appeared. My collection did. And on its acknowledgements page it lists the story ‘Red Desert’ as having been previously published in a non-existent anthology. Ah well.

As well as Dreams of the Space Age, which includes a previously unpublished story (the Yuri Gagarin Robinson Crusoe on Mars mashup), 2016 was bracketed by two pieces of published fiction. The first was a story in Interzone, to date my only story published in the magazine, although I’d been reviewing books for it since 2008. The story was titled ‘Geologic’ and was inspired by my deep sea exploration enthusiasm. At the end of the year, I added a pendant to the Apollo Quartet, Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, which makes it a quartet of five parts. It was partly in service to a joke: the Worldcon had announced the best series Hugo Award, and any series which had an instalment published in the previous year was eligible. So I wrote something to make the Apollo Quartet eligible. Except the total word count had to be over 250,000 and the Apollo Quartet didn’t come anywhere close to that, so it was a meaningless gesture. But Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum did allow me to throw several more references into the quartet.

I also attended IceCon in 2016, the first ever sf con held in Iceland, in Reykjavik. I felt somewhat obligated to do so given I’d instigated it – at a Swecon I’d jokingly told an Icelandic fan he should organise a con in Iceland. Several other people have since claimed credit for the suggestion – all credit to the organisers, of course – but it was definitely me. (I also attended IceCon 2 in 2018, and plan to attend IceCon 3 in 2020.)

In early 2016, a team-mate at work left and the major project he had been working on was dumped on my desk. That pretty much defined my 2017 and 2018. It was an important project, and a lot of people were involved. When I got home each evening, I didn’t have the energy to do more than watch films or read books. Likewise on the weekends too. My blogging sort of dropped off, devolving to a series of Reading diary and Moving pictures posts. I did regularly visit Scandinavia for conventions, however – mostly Sweden and Denmark – and made many friends in Nordic fandom.

It didn’t take long for me to realise I’d got myself stuck in a rut. I mean, I had a good job and I worked only four days a week… But I seemed to be spending most of my time just buying stuff on eBay and Amazon, and by “stuff” I mean books, films and games, not all of which I really wanted. It got sort of ridiculous. I’m a big fan of the Traveller RPG and have been for many years. Collecting items published for the game is more or less understandable. Collecting back issues of role-playing games magazines that contained articles for Traveller is perhaps a bit excessive. Collecting 1970s and 1980s science fiction boardgames by GDW, SPI and Avalon Hill is definitely excessive. Especially since I never bothered playing them. I have, for example, among a couple of dozen other games, John Carter: Warlord of Mars, a sf boardgame by SPI from 1979. I remember seeing the game when I was a teenager. I’ve never played it.

Anyway, the big work project completed in September 2018, and I decided it was time for a change. I’d been joking since the Brexit Referendum in 2016 that my Brexit Plan A was “move to Sweden”, and I had in the years since my first visit to the country in 2013 had a look at job opportunities there in my field. Most were contract work, and I didn’t fancy making the move for 6 months of work, and then flailing about looking for my next job. But shortly after the big project at work finished, I found an advert for a job online in Sweden, applied for it… and they offered it to me. In Uppsala. In Sweden. Of course, I said yes. Brexit Plan A unlocked. (I’d visited Uppsala in 2017 for Swecon and really liked the city… but had never expected to end up there.)

I was one of a team of three at my job in Sheffield. All three of us handed in our notices within a week. One team member moved to the multinational which owned the company we worked for (I later heard he moved back), another moved to Germany, and I moved to Sweden. Our manager was not very happy…

In March 2019, I left the UK with a cabin bag and a 26 kg suitcase and flew to Sweden. I left behind 85 boxes in storage, most containing books. The move itself was… an adventure. Never resign your job and move to another country just before Christmas. You effectively lose a month of your three-month notice period. I still managed to sell enough stuff – books, mostly – to finance my move to Sweden: to dealers, to a local secondhand bookshop, on eBay… DVDs I didn’t want, or could easily replace, I gave away to friends through Facebook. I sold enough to pay for: Pickfords collecting everything that was going into storage, a month of storage, house clearance, taxi to the airport, overnight stay at airport hotel, flight to Sweden, train to Uppsala… The only thing it didn’t cover was my first month in an apartment hotel in Uppsala, which is where I stayed while I was looking for somewhere to live. (Sweden has no landlord culture, which is good, but makes it difficult to find somewhere to rent.) 5 March 2019 was my last day at work. 6 March, I travelled to Leeds to meet my mother and say goodbye. 7 March, the house clearance guys did their stuff. 8 March, I flew to Sweden. 11 March, I started my new job.

In hindsight, I’m surprised it all went so smoothly. Planning your move to another country Just-in-Time is probably not smart. It certainly impressed the guy I’d hired to clear my house. After he’d accepted the job, and also after he’d cleared my house, I received a series of rambling drunken SMS messages from him, in which he admitted to admiring me for planning my move so well but then segued into some holiday he’d had in Manila and all the prostitutes he’d had sex with. Or something. It was very weird.

Anyway, in March 2019, I moved to Sweden and started a new job. And a new life. So to speak.

Welcome to the 2020s.


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Reading diary 2019, #13

This is the last post of reading from last year, which is why it features seven books instead of the usual half-dozen. And is a bit, er, long. Sorry. I’ve set my reading challenge in 2020 to 120 books, twenty lower than last year but still nearly ten more than I managed in 2019. Hopefully, I’ll also blog better in 2020 about books than I did in 2019.

It’s sometimes hard to know what to write when you think of yourself as a genre commentator – I’ve been described as a “critic” but it feels like a label that’s only deserved when you make use of actual critical tools, and I’ve never studied those tools nor been trained in them, and have only read a little on the subject… Yes, I know, in the twenty-first century we don’t like experts and everyone is also an expert in everything. But science fiction is a thing that interests me – not so much how it works, because it’s been bent and twisted and shaped in so many different ways it would be like studying the workings of a stick which can substitute for every single tool in a regular DIY person’s toolbox. Your average stick can do a lot of different things, you know.

Science fiction has a well-documented history, comprised in part of the actual texts which form the corpus of science fiction. So there’s plenty there to interrogate. I’m not so good on individual texts – even my book reviews turn into mini-rants on one tangent or another – but I find the tropes science fiction has invented endlessly fascinating, especially since they seem to have weathered a century essentially unchanged while the world has changed greatly around them. That, I think, is  what I’d sooner comment on, and I must one day get back into the habit of doing.

But, for now, here are the last books I read in 2019, a year of many changes personally, none of which were actually reflected in my reading.

The Greenlanders, Jane Smiley (1988, USA). I’ve no idea why I decided to read this. I must have seen an approving mention of it somewhere, because it’s not the sort of fiction that usually crosses my path or appeals to me. It is pretty much straight-up historical fiction about a community in Greenland during the early decades of the second millennium. And it’s written in a style appropriate to the material. Which means it is has a sort of saga-like approach to its story. While this gives the prose verisimilitude, it does mean that no sooner have you begun sympathising with a character then they are killed off. And then characters mentioned in passing several chapters earlier appear and occupy centre-stage in the narrative. It’s not like it’s even focused on a particular family, even over several generations, which would limit its cast and make it more manageable. It is actually a about a community, spread across several steads, into which people from other steads, often distant, are married or adopted. It gives the narrative a meandering character, which certainly suggests the annals of a mediaeval Greenlandic community, but makes for a difficult read for those expecting a story. I can’t vouch for the verisimilitude or historical accuracy, although it seemed very like what it would have been like to me based on what little I know. It’s an excellent novel but it is, to be honest, a bit of a slog, and it’s hard to feel any real empathy with any of the characters given they don’t stay around very long. Worth reading, but with caveats.

The World of Null-A, AE van Vogt (1948, UK). This was a reread, although I forget when I originally read it, probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I’d always wanted to finish the trilogy – of which this is the first book – and last year stumbled across copies of The World of Null-A and The Players of Null-A at Fantasticon in Copenhagen and bought them (they were very very cheap, very very very cheap). I have all three books – in the nice NEL editions from the 1970s – and have had them for many years, but they’re in storage at present. Having found cheap copies of the first two, I thought it worth giving them a go. That was a mistake. I mean, I know what van Vogt’s fiction is like. I have, after all, read enough of it. Admittedly, that was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was a teenager. But every book I’ve read by him since I turned, say, thirty, has been awful – except perhaps rereads of the handful of his books I continue to think are not absolutely awful, such as The Undercover Aliens. Gilbert Gosseyn is in the city to take part in the Games, in which thousands participate, all overseen by a giant computer brain. Players are given jobs depending on how far they reach in the Games. But it turns out Gosseyn’s life is a complete lie – someone has implanted memories in him that are simply not true. And given that on the night before the Games start all laws in the city are temporarily rescinded and people lock themselves away in groups for safety… but Gosseyn’s identity can’t be established so he’s forced out onto the streets, where he meets a young woman and the two look out for each other… But it turns out she’s the daughter of the president, and it’s all a plot as the president is trying to destroy the giant computer brain, because there’s some secret galactic empire that wants to invade the earth… And Gosseyn was more or less grown to order to foil the secret galactic empire’s plans because… he has two brains! Or is it minds? I forget. And all this is wrapped around some guff about non-Aristotelian, or “null-A”, logic, which seems to be basically non-binary logic, or fuzzy logic. But, of course, binary logic is for computers, not people, so it’s not entirely clear what van Vogt is going on about. But then, that’s true of a lot of Golden Age science fiction: it’s complete bollocks, written by people who had no idea what the fuck they were wittering on about, but it managed to impress the shit out of poorly-socialised thirteen year old boys. And from such was a genre born. The really scary part of all this is not that the writers actually believed the shit they were peddling, or even that some were quite cynical about it – hello Elron and that evil “religion” you invented! – but that many adult fans were just as impressionable as those thirteen year olds. Van Vogt famously based his writing on the advice given by a how to write book – and there’s another genre entirely dependent on gullibility – chief among which was that scenes should be 800 words long and end on a cliff-hanger. Van Vogt took this advice, well, literally. And reading his books is like watching a magician pull a series of increasingly unlikely series of creatures out of a hat when you actually turned up to see a drag queen lipsynch the hits of Rihanna. I connected with a few of van Vogt’s novels as a young teenager, which mistakenly led me to believe he was an author whose oeuvre I should explore. And during the 1970s and 1980s, I bought and read his books. They were readily available in WH Smith during that period. But reading his books now, nearly forty years later… I’m slightly embarrassed at having been taken in all those years ago. He was an appalling writer, and the level of his success is mystifying. That people continue to champion him tells you more about them than, well, you really want to know. He’s a lot like Asimov in that respect. Although, to my knowledge, he was not a serial sexual harasser; but who knows… there were a lot of really fucking horrible people, fans and pros, in the first few decades of US science fiction – google the Breendoggle – and even now the recent death of an author popular since the 1980s has seen an outpouring of appreciation that conveniently forgets he was last “famous” for some sexist articles in the SFWA Bulletin that saw the entire organisation re-structured and its newsletter revamped. But that’s an argument for another day, and not one for a review of a van Vogt novel. The World of Null-A is typical van Vogt and really quite bad. This is not surprising. One for fans of van Vogt, I suspect. And if you’re a fan of van Vogt, I can only ask… why?

Murder Served Cold, Eric Brown (2018, UK). Crime fiction, bizarrely, is likely more technology-dependent than science fiction. The mobile phone has, for example, pretty much killed half of the standard crime novel plots… And who needs private detectives when you have the internet? Which makes it more difficult to come up with interesting stories for current-day crime or mystery novels. So some writers have chosen to write historical mysteries, and so bypass the issue. Such as these by Eric Brown, the Langham and Duprée series, which are set during the 1950s. As a conceit, it works fine, and Brown handles the period extremely well. But… Well, it does seem all a bit cosily familiar. I mean, it’s not “chocolate-box England” by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly a time and place that has been extensively colonised –  particularly by those who were present during that time and place – although not always with fictions that gave any real indication of what the period was actually like. The advantage of a series such as  Brown’s is that it offers twenty-first century commentary on 1950’s sensibilities, and it’s to this series’s credit that it judges the mix to a nicety. This book, the sixth of the series, sees the protagonists investigating the theft of an expensive painting at a country house, which then leads to murder. The crimes are solved relatively easily, but what makes Murder Served Cold (the titles are a joke that has overrun its course) more interesting than others of its type is that it comments intelligently on social mores of the time. It’s the secondary characters who carry the meat of the story, and that strikes me as something a lot of crime writers with flagship characters seem to forget. Brown uses his story to discuss a variety of topics that were around in the 1950 but still reflect on twenty-first century society. It’s a clever trick, and it works well – although I suspect not all readers will recognise what’s going on. The protagonists’ politics, for example, is diametrically opposed to that of their client, and while relations remain amicable there is political commentary in there. It’s nice to see a 1950s-set novel with a 21st century spin. I mean, there were lots of excellent novels written and published in the 1950s, but there are a lot of 21st century novels set in the 1950s which do little to engage with the mores and politics of that time. I hope this series continues.

Mission Critical, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (2019, UK). Strahan is something of an anthology engine. For the past decade and more, he has been churning them out with impressive frequency. When people look back on the first two decades of the twenty-first century, their view of science fiction may well be defined by Strahan’s anthologies. Certainly a similar process has taken place in previous decades with other editors. In the main, Strahan’s editorial work has been excellent – and that includes the collections he has edited for authors. Strahan edited the New Space Opera series of anthologies, which did much to define a subgenre that had been bent out of shape several times since its origin. In Mission Critical, Strahan attempts to tackle hard sf and the anthology’s strapline is “from our world, across the Solar System, and out into deep space to tell the stories of people who had to do the impossible”… but the contents don’t actually match this. There are some big names in the book, and it’s hard not to suspect their stories were accepted because of their names even though they weren’t quite on topic. True, names sell anthologies, but themes are a waste of time if they’re ignored because a BNA wrote a story that didn’t fit. I don’t know this, obviously. It’s just that some of the stories feel like they’re stretching the brief beyond breaking point. As it is, Mission Critical proves sadly forgettable. I can’t actually remember any of the stories in the anthology, and that’s a month after I read it. I look at the table of contents, and if I  remember the story it’s because it’s linked to a universe the author has used in other fiction – Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story, for example, reads like an offcut from her novel Dark Orbit, and while I’m a huge fan of her fiction this didn’t feel like a new and exciting entry in the universe. The way Mission Critical has been promoted, I was expecting near-future hard sf – and there’s Allen Steele, who writes exactly that, there on the TOC, even though I think he’s pretty poor – but then you have a Xuya story from Aliette de Bodard, and she’s good but how in fuck does a Xuya story qualify as “near-future hard sf?” So, a mixed bag… that comprehensively fails its brief and likely succeeds best the further (de Bodard) from its brief (Steele) it is. Anthologies these days are a waste of space. They’ll only work if they’re cheap enough to be offered as tasters. Shelling out the same amount as you would for a novel for a dozen short stories of variable quality and even more variable appeal is a mug’s game.

Hereward, James Wilde (2011, UK). Hereward the Wake is an English hero, so it’s somewhat surprising he’s not been dragged out of obscurity in these days of Brexit. Oh wait, he was fighting against the King of England. But no! The king was a foreign invader, William the Bastard of Normandy! Perfect material, you’d have thought. Unless it might offend the Queen, she is after all nominally descended from William the Conqueror. Or maybe it’s the institution, the British Throne, that should never be attacked. I don’t know. Brexiteers are just plain stupid, so who knows what goes through those defunct cells in their skulls. Hereward opens with its eponymous hero on the run after being accused by his father of the murder of his wife. It’s all to do with the successor to Edward the Confessor, who had no heirs. Hereward overheard something which jeopardised plans to put Harold, Duke of Wessex, on the throne after Edward. Hereward escapes to the Continent and spends many years as mercenary working for Flemish noblemen. But William the Bastard’s invasion pulls him back home – William’s sobriquet might refer to his birth, but is apparently an accurate representation of his character – where Hereward becomes something of a guerrilla, harrying the Norman occupiers. It’s an interesting period of history – only a thousand years ago! – with some fascinating historical characters, and Wilde handles his… information well. But the book is written in that commercial prose style that relies heavily on cliché and stock phraseology, and it turns what could have been an interesting commentary on English identity into an historical potboiler. True, that’s slamming the book for not being what it had no intention of being, although for me it would have made it a better read. Wilde’s research is spot-on, and evokes the period well, but for me the prose was just too commercial. Disappointing.

Paris Echo, Sebastian Faulks (2018, UK). I read Birdsong twenty years ago – I forget why I decided to do so – and I’ve sort of followed Faulks’s career ever since, possibly because his books were available in the subscription library I joined on my move to Abu Dhabi in 1994 and his name was familiar from Birdsong. None of his novels have matched that one, and in fact many have been disappointing in one way or another. But, as British middle-brow literary fiction authors go, he’s at least better than Ian McEwan. Paris Echo is middling Faulks. It presents an interesting slice of history – Paris under the Nazis – and comments on collaboration and its impact on people and families of the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer much in the way of plot as a substrate for this discussion, and in fact seems more concerned with the intersection of the lives of two immigrants in Paris, a female American academic and a teenage Moroccan who has had himself smuggled into the country, than the actual story the characters are intended to be springboards for. But the Maghrebi teenager’s experiences  are all very anodyne, and the US academic is a bit of a blank slate, and the two narratives run along side each other but do not influence each other to any degree which sort of renders it all a bit moot. There’s some good historical stuff in here, but there’s sadly little in the way of plot and the two protagonists are somewhat thin. Faulks has written some good stuff during his career, but this is not one of them.

Children of Dune, Frank Herbert (1976, USA). The reread of the Dune series continues, and now that I’ve finished the Children of Dune I have the somewhat daunting prospect of God Emperor of Dune next on the list. To be fair, I remember enjoying that book on previous reads. But it is big. Children of Dune, however… follows on directly from Dune Messiah, but the two children born at the end of that book, Leto and Ghanima, are now nine years old. Herbert conceived all three books as one since he was interested in exploring how a messiah figure might bend a society out of shape and what might happen after the fall of said messiah. Despite claims to the contrary, I suspect the first book was conceived alone and the story arc of the trilogy imposed later. But certainly, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune follow a story arc that proceeds naturally from the end of Dune. Paul Atreides’s children are both the future of Paul’s empire – and the enemy of its current regent, Alia – and so a threat to all those who would wrest power from the Atreides. But Leto and Ghanima have their own plan for the future, the Golden Path, based in part on their vision of possible futures and what they think is best for humanity… It’s been interesting during this reread seeing what I find in the novel when compared to my memories of earlier reads. Leto’s transformation, which ends the book and sets up God Emperor of Dune, obviously. Plus Alia’s take-over – Abomination! – by the Baron Harkonnen. But in Dune Messiah, Paul Atreides, now the Preacher, had come across as something of a cipher, but here he is much better characterised. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are not so well-drawn. There’s lots of politicking going on, as one of the old emperor’s daughters arranges for the assassination of Leto and Ghanima so her son can take the throne. But the twins have foreseen it all and… well, one of things that does annoy about Children of Dune is that the two protagonists are nine years old but behave like adults (and not just in dialogue, since Leto experiences “an adult beefswelling in his loins” at one point, which is totally WTF but also, are there cows on Arrakis?). True, the twins are “Pre-born” so they have genetic memories going back generations – although it’s not really clear how they manage to stay sane, despite frequent attempts in the text to explain it. Herbert’s views on government are also extremely annoying – at one point, Leto states that good government “does not depend upon law or precedent, but upon the personal qualities of whoever governs” – it’s even repeated as part of a chapter heading  – which is complete bullshit; but exactly the sort of meretricious bullshit that science fiction fans and creators seem to believe, and have done since the genre’s beginnings. But then space opera is a right-wing mode of fiction, and even its left-leaning creators write the same tired old right-wing crap – which makes them little different to actual right-wing writers. Herbert was no Heinlein or Pournelle, of course, but he was American, so even if he was left-wing his politics would still be to the right of mine. Certainly, the whole Dune series is all about an authoritarian empire, with a rich and powerful nobility lording it over serfs, who have no freedom of movement (something Brits will shortly lose, and you have to wonder how many actually know what that means) – and if Herbert’s empire is not actually fascist, it does love its giant architecture, as both the Imperial Keep and Temple are apparently single buildings the size of small towns (they were built remarkably quickly, given their size). In fact, in Children of Dune, the furniture somewhat overwhelms the story. Clearly Herbert wanted his trappings of imperial rule to impress but it’s like the fleet of a million battleships – it’s too much, it just generates questions – practical questions (how did they build them? where did they get the crews?) – all of which detract from the intended effect. But that’s a common failing of space opera. Children of Dune closes off the original trilogy, but it struck me on this reread that, although it’s a better put-together book than Dune, with better prose, Children of Dune‘s story detracts from the first book’s universe and story… Not, it has to be said, in an especially damaging way, since most people don’t even bother to read the sequels. Their loss, of course; and those who actually liked Dune, it makes you wonder why they even bother reading novels that start series… I’m undecided about Children of Dune, and the final shape of the trilogy, but I’m looking forward to reading God Emperor of Dune.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Moving pictures 2019, #34

This is it, the last Moving pictures post for 2019. Only #34, compared to #69 in 2018 and #70 for 2017. Let’s see what 2020 brings.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino (2019, USA). This is apparently Tarantino’s last film as he’s said he won’t make anymore. Many have also called it the best movie he has ever made – or at least a triumphant return to form. I’ve never been much of a fan of Tarantino or his work. He chooses excellent cinematographers, but his stories are cobbled together from strings of clichés, often with bizarre swerves in the final act. His dialogue can be good, however. Anyway, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about an ex-TV cowboy looking to restart his moribund career, which involves various parodic encounters with Hollywood archetypes. He is driven around town by his old stunt double, who now acts his chauffeur and dogsbody. Both characters are well-drawn, the only well-drawn ones in the entire film, in fact. The important element in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is that the TV cowboy lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Tate, of course, was famously murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. And this is where Tarantino introduces his swerve: the TV cowboy foils the murder. What I don’t understand, however, is the point of the film. It’s alternate history, but alternate history introduces a change in order to explore the consequences and ramifications of that change. Tarantino doesn’t do that. His change, his “jonbar point” (a horrible coinage), is meaningless. It comes at the end of the movie – a long movie – and its trivial impact is quickly dispatched with some voice-over narration. I mean, if you’re going to do alternate history, at least do it. Here it’s just a cheap gimmick, and that detracts from what has gone before.

La Chiesa, Michele Soavi (1989, Italy). The film opens with a troop of Teutonic knights slaughtering a village and burying the bodies, not all of which were dead, in a mass grave. Supposedly because they were devil-worshippers. They then build a massive cathedral on the site. As you do. Cut to the 1980s and the cathedral is now apparently in the centre of a bustling European city. It’s the new librarian’s first day at work – and who knew cathedrals have libraries? somewhat ironic for institutions that have spent much of their existence suppressing knowledge – and down in the catacombs he meets an artist restoring the cathedral’s frescoes. Which sets in motion a chain of events that results in various mediaeval technology mechanisms sealing the cathedral and trapping all those inside it, after the librarian finds a seal in the floor in the catacombs, manages to open it, and releases all that mediaeval evil (ugh, not a phrase that trips lightly off the tongue). Which promptly causes everyone locked inside to go mad and see demons, and engage in sex or violence or both. For a piece of schlocky Italian horror from the 1980s, this was considerably better than expected. According to Wikipedia, the film had quite a convoluted genesis, and the director was keen to make something “more sophisticated” than the usual run of giallo horror. I’m not sure that he succeeded in doing that but La Chiesa is a pretty good horror movie of its time and reminded me in places of the Hammer House of Horror TV series. Worth seeing.

The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (2017, Norway). The Ash Lad is like Cinderella, but male. And stupid. Mostly. Basically, everything he touches he fucks up. But he’s also incredibly lucky, and amiable with it, so everything turns out right for him in the end. He picks things up, mostly rubbish, and hangs onto it because he doesn’t understand why people would have thrown it away. And it proves to be just what he needs to get past various obstacles thrown in his path. In the invented fantasy country of the film – I don’t think it’s supposed to be an historical representation of a real Nordic country, as it all looks a bit identikit West European high fantasy… Anyway, the kingdom is cursed: if the princess is not betrothed by her eighteenth birthday, bad things will happen. An arrogant prince from Denmark turns up to ask for her hand – the Swedes and Norwegians have an… interesting opinion of the Danish – so she runs away. Meanwhile, Ash Lad has accidentally burnt down the home he shares with his father and two brothers, and so has gone off to make his fortune in order to make good on the destruction he has wreaked. His brothers follow to keep him from harm. But he ends up rescuing them from various fantasy encounters. And also rescuing the princess. Of course. The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King looked good, although perhaps a little too CGI-dependent, and it was all very amiable and the story ran along well-established rails. The characterisation of the Danish prince was amusing. It was perhaps a bit generic, although that wasn’t helped by the version I watched being dubbed into American English rather than keeping the original Norwegian soundtrack and providing subtitles. But if you like films that straddle the line between Western European high fantasy and fairy-tale… this is way better than anything by Uwe Boll.

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Sergio Martino (1971, Italy). Edwege Fenech, a French-Algerian actress, made a number of giallo films, and was probably as popular a leading lady in that genre as Barbara Bouchet, if not more so. True, gialli were not known for the calibre of their acting, but certainly Fenech (and Bouchet) had more screen presence than many other giallo leading ladies of the time. Fenech plays the title role in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – the “h” apparently added after a threatened lawsuit by a real Mrs Ward (hm, maybe I should try the same every January…) – the wife of a US diplomat in Vienna sent a series of blackmail letters by a serial killer. Wardh is afraid her ex-lover is the killer, and turns to her new lover to help her. You can guess where this is going… Well, perhaps not, as there are twists within twists. Like many giallo films, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh treads a fine line between sexploitation and female agency – although Fenech’s character triumphs here, and all the male characters are revealed as either venal or stupid. There are several dream sequences, however, each a sort of cross between soft porn and horror, which seem designed more to titillate than present Wardh as a kick-ass heroine. And a party sequence which seems like it comes straight from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Giallo is an acquired taste, although the more you’re exposed to it, the more you begin to appreciate and enjoy it. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is a stylish thriller, albeit very much of its time, and if the level of acting is not all that impressive – although Fenech is generally worth watching – and the dialogue often cringe-worthy, it’s well-framed and well-shot. A good example of its type.

Ad Astra, James Gray (2019, USA). I’ve heard so much bad press about this film, I’m tempted to like it just to be contrary. Which is sort of how I went into it. And there are things to like… but also things to dislike. But the hate the film has received seems odd given its content. It presents a convincing portrait of its world, which is not so unusual in these days of CGI – but it’s a hard sf world and it sticks to it pretty much throughout. Okay, so the lawlessness of the Moon is the usual libertarian sf bollocks but that’s hardly a blocker as people have been writing stupid shit like that since the 1940s. The opening scenes set on the space antenna are visually spectacular, although I’m not entirely sure such a structure could actually exist, you know, a tower stretching into the upper atmosphere, or perhaps hanging from orbit. But then protagonist Brad Pitt is pushed from pillar to post by Space Command when it turns out his father, who disappeared decades before during a Grand Tour, may be responsible for the “power-surge” (er, what?) which caused lots of damage in the inner Solar system. Space Command sends Pitt to the Moon, then Mars, and along the way he learns more about his father’s mission. There’s a flatness to Pitt’s character – literalised in his ability to maintain a low heartbeat even under stress – that’s echoed in the presentation of his world, a sort of distant but realistic portrayal of an inhabited Solar system a century or so hence (although I think the film is set only a few decades from now). I accept that a well-realised hard sf world will likely blind me to deficiencies in plot, but when sf cinema (Hollywood’s version of it, at least) seems to be dominated by movies that display little or no rigour in world-building and nonsensical plots (see below), I see no problem with my opinion. Ad Astra may be your usual “daddy issues” movie – although expecting Hollywood to produce anything else these days seems to be more of a fantasy than much of its output. I hate “daddy issues” films but Ad Astra worked quite well for me – perhaps because of my aforementioned blind spot – and while it’s by no means a great film, it does make me wonder at all the hate that’s been directed at it. I think it’s a better movie than that suggests.

Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams (2019, USA). That’s it, the end of Star Wars. Until the next trilogy. Because I don’t see Disney giving up on such an enormous cash cow, not until they’ve absolutely milked it to death, or fucked it up so bad its fandom has turned completely toxic and the latter seems to be already happening to some degree. I’m not a Star Wars fan, or even a SWEU fan, although I have fond memories of the original trilogy and have enjoyed some of the tie-in movies. But this “final” trilogy is a poor thing indeed, especially its last installment. The whole thing reeks of bits and pieces cobbled together, inspired by visuals which actually fail willing suspension of disbelief. That last is, of course, pretty much Abrams’s career in a nutshell: he makes movies that look good but the eyeball kicks do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. And in the case of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker neither does the plot. There’s this secret planet of a race that’s supposed to have died out – the Sith – which has a fleet of millions of star battleships, with no indication of how and where they were constructed or indeed where their crews came from. And the planet can only be reached if a person is in possession of one of two navigation maguffins – Sith wayfinders – because of course a conspiracy to control the galaxy, which has already succeeded at least once before, would only have two navigation maguffins to reach its secret home world. Which is also a profound misunderstanding of how physics or cosmology work, FFS – and proves to be pretty much meaningless anyway because everyone ends up there for the final big battle. Gah. Why bother? It’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker because the material is not actually up to it. The hand-wavy relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren that seems to ignore time and space is the only thing that works in the movie, because – and no, “love” is not some magical force that transcends space and time, and anyone who believes that should not be put in charge of a ride-on mower, never mind a billion-dollar franchise – because the presentation of their Force-linked relationship in the trilogy actually works quite consistently and fits within the universe. There are some nice set-pieces in Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and the light sabre battle between Ren and Rey on the wreck of Death Star 2 is impressively spectacular, if over-long. But movies are more than a series of eyeball kicks – perhaps someone should tell Abrams – and Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker fails on every other movie metric. It retcons some of the incidents in The Force Awakens. Badly. Carrie Fisher’s CGI “performance” is actually distracting – she deserved to be there as much as anyone, if not more so than most of the cast, but the footage they used makes her comes across as flat and unconnected to the story. Hollywood proved its point: it can place deceased actors in movies… but it also proved the results are unsatisfactory. At present. (Star Wars is a safe laboratory to test it out because fan service. This is not a good thing.) A blow-by-blow account of the deficiencies of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker would be as long as the film itself. Unfortunately, one thing this new trilogy has revealed is that fandom is happy to find the things it wants in the films whether they exist or not. And that includes sophistication. These are commercial space opera movies, made it would seem with an eye chiefly on the visuals, “what looks good”. Whether or not anything in it a) fits in the universe, or b) makes fucking sense, is of no consequence. Writers working in the SWEU were given a bible; it seems the directors of this new trilogy should have been given one too.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Best of the year 2019

I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.

Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.

books
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.

1 Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.

2 Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.

3 The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.

4 As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.

5 The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.

Honourable mentions: Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.

films
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.

1 Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.

2 The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.

3 Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.

4 Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.

5 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.

Honourable mentions: War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.

music
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.

However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.

1 Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.

2 Scars II (The Basics), Panopticon (2019, USA). One of my favourite tracks on 2018’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness double album was an acoustic track called ‘The Itch’ whose lyrics were a savage attack on Trump and Republicans. Scars II (The Basics) is an entire album of acoustic songs, including ‘The Itch’, although it’s the only one with that lyrical content.

3 Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.

4 In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.

5 Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.

Honourable mentions: Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.