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Winter festival come early

Yet more books. The mantlepiece, incidentally, has all sorts of bits and bobs on it and I couldn’t be arsed to clear it off for these photos. So you’ve got the landing carpet instead.

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After watching Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, I fancied reading more by the author, and so picked up cheap copies of August 1914 and The First Circle on eBay. I may have shot myself in the foot with August 1914, however, as only two volumes of the Red Wheel series are available in English, out of possibly eight volumes in Russian. Accommodation Offered I also found on eBay, and bought for my Women’s Press SF collection… but I’m not entirely sure it is sf.

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Chernobyl Prayer and The Appointment I bought after a dicussion on Twitter about female Nobel laureates for literature. I’ve already read the Müller – see here. I had a copy of Labyrinths many years ago but seem to have lost it, so I bought a replacement. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind I bought because Charnock was named alongside myself and Aliya Whitely and Nina Allan and a couple of others as writers to watch in a tweet, and I’ve now forgotten who it was who said it… I thought Nocilla Dream very good – see here – so buying the sequel, Nocilla Experience, as soon as it was published in English was a no-brainer. And I’ve always found Houellebecq’s fiction interesting, hence Submission.

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I contributed to the kickstarter for The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosenkreutz, although to be honest I’ve no idea why. But it’s a handsome looking book. Erpenbeck is a new favourite writer, and her books are readily available on eBay in hardback for low prices – which is good for me, if not for her or her publisher. Anyway, The Book of Words and The Old Child are two earlier works, currently published in an omnibus, but I’d sooner have them separate. They’re very short. I’ve already read The Old Child. It’s very good.

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Finally, some sf comics. I’ve been picking up the Valerian and Laureline series as Cinebook publish them in English. On the Frontiers is volume 13, which is just over halfway through the series. You should never return to childhood favourites, because it’s usually embarrassing to discover how fucking awful they were. I’ve always loved Dan Dare, ever since being given a reprint of two of Hampson’s Dare stories back in the early 1970s. Since returning to the UK, I collected all of the Hawk Publishing reprints of the Eagle Dan Dare stories. But I also have fond memories of Dare from the pages of 2000 AD – I even have a Dan Dare annual somewhere from that time. Hence, Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2. 2000AD’s Dare looks great – it was drawn by Dave Gibbons – but the various stories are the hoariest old sf crap imaginable. Oh well.

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Reading diary, #16

It’s pretty much a done thing by now that 2015 is the year of watching movies rather than reading books. And there’s a resolution for next year – make 2016 the year of reading books. Instead of slapping another DVD in the player of an evening, pick up a book instead. I have so many books I want to read, and since you can’t just take a pill and so magically be in a state of having read them, it takes an investment of hours and often days to get from first page to last. I need to invest that time – 15 minutes each way on my daily commute, and 45 minutes to an hour last thing at night, isn’t really enough.

Meanwhile, I continue to make lists… of books to read, books to buy, books read, books bought… and while on the purchasing side, the fun is often in the hunt for a decent copy of a title, or the surprise find in a charity shop, the damn things do exist to be actually read. And here are a few wot I have done so of late:

01_frankensteinFrankenstein*, Mary Shelley (1818). All these years and unbelievably I’d never actually read Frankenstein. I thought I knew the story, of course – who doesn’t? But that was from the films, and all they’ve done is lifted the central premise of Shelley’s novel and built their own interpretations of it out of that. I read Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound many years ago, and from that I was aware part of Frankenstein took place at the North Pole. But there was plenty – the bulk of the book, in fact – I knew little or nothing about. Like the fact it’s structured as a series of nested first-person narratives, opening with letters from an arctic explorer who rescues a man from the ice. That man proves to be Victor Frankenstein who, once recovered, proceeds to tell his story – how he worked himself into a breakdown at university, building a creature from parts (none of which are named, nor their origin specified), and which promptly escapes. And then Frankenstein completely forgets about his eight-foot-tall monster for a year, and is only reminded of it when his youngest sister is murdered and a beloved family servant is accused of the murder. He then meets the monster, which tells its story… the murder was an accident, but it feels Frankenstein owes it and must make it a mate. So Frankenstein heads off to London, and then north to the Orkneys, but after making a start on a female monster, he suffers a change of heart… so the monster murders his best friend and Frankenstein is arrested for it… Frankenstein is a lot richer a story than film adaptations have led me to believe, but it’s also – and likely this is a product of the time – less rigourous than expected. The entire Frankenstein narrative, we are supposed to believe, is being told to Walton, and yet reads like, well, like a novel. The same is true of the monster’s narrative, especially the part when he spies on the cottagers (not what you are thinking: it is from spying on a family in a cottage he learns to speak French, and to read and write it). Not to mention actual correspondence from Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s childhood sweetheart, embedded in Frankenstein’s narrative. The prose reads somewhat overwrought to modern eyes, everything dialled up to eleven – Frankenstein doesn’t have friends, he has soulmates he loves deeply. The lack of narrative rigour also takes some getting used to. But the hardest part is untangling all the subsequent versions of the story knocking about in your head in order to fit in the original source text.

plutarchs_staffThe Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 21: Plutarch’s Staff, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2014). Only two more and the series is complete. Well, there’s two more left that were originally penned by series creator Edgar P Jacobs, but who knows how many more the Jacobs Studio will produce. But since I like the series, that wouldn’t, of course, be a problem. And I actually like the non-Jacobs titles more than the Jacobs ones. Chiefly because they’re more modern, although set in the past, and a good deal cleverer. This one is set during WWII, and details how Blake and Mortimer came to be friends and colleagues. They had met before – in The Oath of the Five Lords (see here) – but had then gone their separate ways. As Plutarch’s Staff opens, Blake is a RAF squadron leader flying Seafires for the Fleet Air Arm, and Mortimer is working at a secret research establishment in a Scottish glen hidden beneath an artificially-generated cloud. But Jacobs’s more-than-problematical villains, the Yellow Empire, are waiting in the wings, ready to pounce once WWII has ended. Although they’re not above helping things along. Sente and Juillard drag in quite a bit of history – including a visit to Bletchley Park – and manage to cleverly slot Jacobs’s weird alternate history into our history. Good stuff.

v_bombersV Bombers: Valiant, Vulcan and Victor, Barry Jones (2001). Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent was controlled by the Royal Air Force. We had the Bomb, and it would be delivered by an aeroplane. Then the Americans and Russians started building ballistic missiles, and Duncan Sandys’ infamouse White Paper was published, declaring that the UK no longer needed jet aircraft as it would all be missiles from then on. As a result, the Royal Navy wrested control of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with its Polaris missile submarines. And here we are, more than half a century later, no one has dropped a nuclear bomb in anger since 1945, and the UK is currently preparing to spend billions to upgrade its Trident missiles because… Er, I’m not sure why because. Are we supposed to believe no one will take us seriously as a nation if we don’t have nuclear weapons? Does the bomb prevent us from being invaded? Invaded by who? Anyway, fifty years ago, during the Cold War, there was a known enemy, and the word “deterrent” had a real and palpable meaning. The British aircraft industry was in a really strong position coming out of WWII, with a huge number of firms, all at the cutting edge of aeronautical technology. Back then, the government could put out a tender for a new bomber or fighter and several British firms could compete for it. And the end result would be a world-beater. Unlike now, when we just buy some hugely expensive US aircraft that doesn’t work properly. The V-Bombers – so-called because the first, a stop-gap aircraft built by Vickers, was named the Valiant in a competion among company staff – were three jet bombers explicitly designed to carry nuclear weapons. And iconic-looking planes they were too. Then it turned out anti-aircraft missiles could reach the altitude at which they flew, so they ended up being used as low-level bombers. But they weren’t designed for that and it shortened their operational lives. The Valiant was retired pretty quickly (although it did drop a couple of test nuclear bombs), but the Victor and Vulcan went on to serve as tanker aircraft. Vulcans were also used in the longest bombing run in history, flying from the UK to bomb Port Stanley during the Falklands War. Anyway, this is a pretty good history of all three, although it focuses mostly on their design, testing and introduction into service.

a_girl_in_the_headA Girl in the Head, JG Farrell (1967). I like British postwar fiction, but there’s one particular type of story I’m not a fan of: the comic male midlife crisis novel. So guess what JG Farrell’s third novel is. Boris Slattery claims to be a Polish count, but he’s improverished, ends up in the invented seaside town of Maidenhair Bay, where he marries Flower Dongeon, whose house he now shares with his brother-in-law, father-in-law and her grandparents. He works as a maitre d’ in local restaurant, is friends with a Spanish boy who is staying with the family, and has sex with the underage daughter of the local stationmaster. And then the Swedish Inez comes to stay, and he begins to obsess over her. The story is told as first person, but there are interludes about Boris’s arrival in the town which he tells referring to himself in the third person. There are also some pages of typographical trickery, for no good reason that I could see. Despite being a comic male midlife crisis novel, there are things to like in A Girl in the Head, and plenty to admire. The comedy is very low-key and handled deftly. Farrell’s prose is excellent, and surprisingly insightful for the type of novel. In which respects, I guess, that makes it one of the better books of its type. Although, admittedly, Farrell is always worth a read.

brooklynValerian and Laureline 10: Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1981). This is the second installment of the two-parter begun with Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopiae (see here). There have been a series of strange manifestations in 1980s Paris, and so Valerian has been sent back in time to investigate. Laureline, meanwhile, is off to Cassiopiae to figure out what triggered it all. The first part of this series managed an impressively noir-ish air, and juxtaposing that with Laureline’s space opera narrative worked really well. But one of the things it managed well was a sense of mystery, and this second part dispels that because it, well, it resolves the mystery. In the 1980s, this leads to a meeting in Brooklyn between the heads of the two corporations driving the plot; and in the future, Laureline tracks down the two scavengers who inadvertently kicked off everything when they stole four religious symbols. The Valerian and Laureline series has always been among the smartest of bandes dessinée, and while the art is wonderfully glib and matter-of-fact, it’s the facility with genre displayed in the stories which is the series’ real charm. These are very, very good, and if you’re not reading them – why not?

ancillary-mercy-coverAncillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (2015). And so one of the most-lauded science fiction trilogies of the last couple of years, if not of all time, draws to a close. Was it worth the accolades it accrued? Did it deserve all those awards? Of course, as is always the case, much of it comes down to timing. Harry Potter became a global phenomenon because it appeared at just the right time. And certainly the timing was right when Ancillary Justice was published. Space opera was stuck in a rut, if not actively regressing – and Ancillary Justice was something different. Something visibly different. That thing with the default female pronoun, for example. Which doesn’t quite make sense in its professed use, but is certainly striking enough to generate buzz. Using “she” does not mean the Radch language is ungendered, nor does it mean female is used as the default gender. It’s a writerly trick, and a pretty effective one, but it makes little sense in terms of world-building. As for the plot… I wondered where the trilogy’s story arc was going after Ancillary Sword seemed to get stuck down a side-plot. Only it seems the side-plot is the actual plot of the trilogy and Ancillary Justice was pretty much prologue. And yet, despite all that, Leckie pulls a resolution out of left-field, to leave things not only neat and tidy but also with a giant jumping off point for any future novels. Ancillary Mercy is also a very talky novel, and a lot of the prose is spent on analysing people’s emotional states, little of which actually advances plot or world-building. These are interesting novels, and reasonably good ones, but I’ll be disappointed if this final book is all over award shortlists next year. Still worth reading though.

dan_dare_1Dan Dare: The 2000 AD Years Volume 1, Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Gerry Finley-Day & Dave Gibbons (2015). I remember bits and pieces of these from back in the late 1970s, although it wasn’t until a year or two later that I actually subscribed to the comic. But from the bits I did read, I seemed to remember it being quite good. I was wrong there. Reading the stories from start to finish in one volume really does show how bad they were. The art was often good, despite the limitations of the pulp printing process, but the scripts are uniformly awful. Admittedly, a lot of the Hampson Dare stories were pretty bad – and 2000 AD’s version bears no comparison with the Eagle original – but at least Hampson never had Dare say things like, “He’s stronger than a super-nova sun!” Nor did he rip off sf novels, like the one story in this volume which is pretty much Lem’s Solaris. Every time I buy one of these 2000 AD reprint omnibuses, I end up poisoning a little more of my childhood. Nostalgia only works from a distance, it does not hold up to scrutiny. Which is ironic, given that over half of the West’s various entertainment industries seem to be geared towards delivering nostalgia. But hey, there are all those people with rose-coloured lenses grafted onto their eyeballs and they’ll happily shell out for the latest cultural trigger to remind them of their lost childhood (as their bodies slowly fall to pieces and bits of it stop working as well as memory once insisted they did). Which obvs includes, er, me. As I’ve grown up I’ve developed powers of discrimination, and it’s not a superpower, it’s a consequence of maturity and age. And I wish a few more people would exercise that power. And yet, and yet… we are slaves to our lost youth, and I know damn well I’ll be buying volume 2 of Dan Dare’s 2000 AD years when it’s published, even though I know full well it’ll be shit. Because that’s an acceptable price to pay when your mortality weighs heavier on you with each passing day and those golden years of childhood come to be seen as more than just time spent in bodies that simply worked but also in minds that saw everything with uncritical wonder – and this has got a bit maudlin, so I’d probably best stop wittering on.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 118


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April book haul, part 1

The following books I bought between the last book haul post and Eastercon. I’ll include the books I bought in Glasgow in a post on the convention. Meanwhile… a few for the collection, a few for research, a few because they looked interesting… The usual, in other words.

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A pair of hard-to-find first editions for the Anthony Burgess collection: I read Honey for the Bears years ago in paperback, but I’ve yet to read The Worm and the Ring. The latter, incidentally, is the 1970 revised edition. The original version was withdrawn and pulped after a complaint that one of the characters was an obvious caricature, and copies of it are very expensive.

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A pair of women-only sf anthologies (see my post on the topic here). The Venus Factor is, I believe, the earliest such; and Daughters of Earth is the latest – at least until The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women is published this coming December. Daughters of Earth is actually a mix of fiction and non-fiction: each story is followed by an essay.

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While researching Soviet sf for my Gagarin on Mars story, I decided to pick up a few anthologies of science fiction from the USSR. The Ultimate Threshold and Path into the Unknown are from 1970 and 1966 respectively, and share no contents at all.

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The Feminine Mystique is research for Apollo 4 All That Outer Space Allows. Yup, I’m writing a hard sf novella and I need to reference a classic feminism text… Woman’s World I’d seen ages ago but only now bothered to buy. It’s billed as a “graphic novel”, but it’s not really – the prose has been put together using words cut from women’s magazines. So it’s like a novel-length ransom note, with a, er, plot.

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Finally, a handful of graphic novels. The Oath of the Five Lords is the eighteenth book in The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer series. It’s not an original Edgar P Jacobs book, but by Yves Sente and André Juillard. I think Sente writes cleverer stories than Jacobs did – this one is about TE Lawrence, and an anti-government pamphlet he wrote but was not allowed to publish. On the False Earths is the seventh book of Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin’s Valerian and Laureline series. It was originally published in French in 1977, and Cinebook are slowly publishing English-language editions – and about time too. They’re clever little science fiction bandes dessinée. The Underwater Welder I bought because of the subject, but I can’t say it really grabbed me. And while I subscribed to 2000 AD throughout my teens, I managed to miss the Halo Jones stories – but I’d always wanted to read them so I finally got hold of an omnibus edition, The Ballad of Halo Jones. I might well get a few more trade paperbacks of stories from the comic.


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Sf comics

It’s not just the Europeans and their bandes dessinées who produce science fiction in comic form. In my previous post (see here), I mentioned the UK’s anthology comics, such as 2000 AD or Starlord. There have been also many other sf comics and/or graphic novels published over the years. Here are the ones I own. Some are British, some are American, some are by British writers working for American publishers…

Ron Turner was a stalwart of the British comics scene, especially science fiction, with a career stretching from 1936 until his death in 1998. Rick Random, Space Detective, was created in 1953 for Super Detective Library, a collection of small comic books much like Commando and War Picture Library. Random appeared in 27 books between 1954 and 1957, but his adventures were later reprinted in a variety of venues, including 2000 AD summer specials. There was even an all-new story in 2000 AD in 1979. The book pictured collects ten of Random’s adventures, all but one drawn by Turner. No writing credits are given, but Harry Harrison is known to have written for the series.

Another important venue for sf comics in the UK was newspapers. The tabloids would often feature a number of strips,  some of which were ongoing serials. Jeff Hawke, who appeared in the Daily Express between February 1955 and April 1974, was created and drawn by Sydney Jordan. Titan Books published two of the stories back in the mid-1980s, but the above two are much more recent. They’re worth getting hold of.

Another excellent sf strip from a newspaper is the Daily Mirror’s Garth. This ran from 1943 until 1997, but it’s the Frank Bellamy version I remember best. He drew it from 1971 to 1976 (my grandfather subscribed to the Daily Mirror, and I’d read the strip whenever I visited him). In the mid 1980s, Titan reprinted two stories in individual volumes – The Cloud of Balthus and The Women of Galba (ignore the awful cover art). The Daily Mirror only published two Garth annuals, in 1975 and 1976 – both are shown. Given there are 165 Garth stories, it’s about time someone did a proper job of collecting and republishing them.

And then there’s 2000 AD, which has been publishing issues constantly since 1977. I used to subscribe to it back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and I have fond memories of many of the strips it featured. Which is what prompted me to buy the above. Robohunter is an old Titan Books reprint I bought back in the 1980s. The other two are more recent and were published by Rebellion, 2000 AD’s publisher. Sadly, it’s never wise to revisit things you loved when you were younger. The Stainless Steel Rat may be an improvement on the books, but that’s not saying much, and the adaptation misses out a couple of important plot points. ABC Warriors has its moments, but it’s really just a derivative mash-up of half a dozen war movies, with crap dialogue to suit.

Luther Arkwright is the work of Bryan Talbot, and appeared in a limited series comic in the late 1980s. It was collected as a trade paperback in the late 1990s, and a sequel Heart Of Empire was published soon after. It’s a New worlds-ish steampunky alternate worlds sf sort of thing, and it’s quite brilliant. Every self-respecting sf fan should own a copy. In fact, they should own copies of everything Talbot has done.

Also brilliant is Scarlet Traces and its sequel, The Great Game, a story set in Victorian Britain after Wells’ Martians have succumbed to the common cold. The British Empire has reverse-engineered the Martian technology and as a result maintained its technological and global preeminence. Later, Edginton and d’Israeli adapted Wells novel as a sort of prequel to their series.

Warren Ellis is British, but much of his work has been done for various US comics publishers. Several of the mini-series he has written are science fiction – such as the above. Ministry of Space, an alternate history story in which the British have a post-war space programme is especially good. Not shown are Ignition City and Anna Mercury, which a friend is currently borrowing.

Sf novels occasionally get the graphic novel treatment, although not always successfully – or rather, the project is not always completed. The silver book above is the graphic novel of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, drawn by Howard Chaykin, from 1979. It’s signed by Bester, Chaykin and Byron Preiss. It’s also only half of the novel’s story. A concluding volume was never produced. Empire shares a title with a Samuel R Delany novella, but the story Delany wrote for this Chaykin-illustrated story is not that ‘Empire’. Dead Girls is the first volume in an adaptation of Richard Calder’s novel of the same name, published House of Murky Depths. It originally appeared as a strip in the magazine Murky Depths, which has since ceased publication. The graphic novel will, however, continue. The edition shown is signed and numbered.

Jed Mercurio’s Ascent is one of my favourite novels, but sadly this graphic adaptation fails to capture what I like about the book. T-Minus is a comic-book potted history of the Space Race and is quite good.

Night And The Enemy is an illustrated short story, written by Harlan Ellison and illustrated by Ken Steacy. The Sacred and the Profane is a graphic novel, written by Dean Motter and also illustrated by Steacy, which first appeared in Star*Reach from 1977 to 1978. In the 1980s, Motter and Steacy rewrote, redrew and coloured it, and it was published in Epic Illustrated – which is where I saw it for the first time. (I used to buy issues of Epic Illustrated and Heavy Metal during the 1980s when I was passing through Schiphol, travelling to and from the Middle East.) The collected edition above is signed and numbered. It’s also very good.

I’m not entirely sure why someone decided a mash-up featuring Tarzan and another of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters was a good idea, but they went and did it. First Tarzan met Carson of Venus, and then he met John Carter of Mars. Not an entirely successful pair of literary experiments.

Recent years, perhaps triggered by the Disney film, have seen a surge of new John Carter adaptations, as well as omnibus editions of older versions. The two Dejah Thoris graphic novels aren’t too bad, though it would be nice if they could put some  clothes on her. The other two are quite poor.