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Reading diary 2020, #9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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My BSFA ballot

I’ve now posted my votes for the BSFA Award – the deadline is midnight 31 January. And only works on the longlists here can be nominated.

In previous years, members of the BSFA simply nominated works in each of the categories they felt deserving of an award – initially as many as they wanted, but then restricted to four choices – and the final shortlist comprised those works with the most nominations. This year, a first round of nominations (again, four per person per category) produced the longlists linked to above, and now the second round of nominations will lead to the shortlists. Which will then be voted on at the Eastercon at the end of March. It’ll be interesting to see what effect this new process has on the award. Certainly, anyone that didn’t get their act together in December last year, and so didn’t get their chosen works onto the longlists, has now missed their chance. I suspect a few works that might have proven popular with the BSFA membership have missed out as a result. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Carter Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ – the novella, not the collection – was eligible, but no one nominated it for a longlist (I didn’t read it until after the longlists were published, or I might have done).

Anyway, there are longlists. And I have selected my four choices for each category which I think deserve to be on the shortlist. The novel category wasn’t too difficult, although I was determined to avoid easy picks. I suspect, for example, that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora might make the final cut, although I didn’t think it his best. The longlist certainly helped when it came to the art category – instead of trawling across the internet for suitable works, I had only to look at the longlist (and yes, I did nominate four pieces for it myself, so it’s not like I didn’t do some trawling across the internet). My non-fiction candidates are exactly those I nominated for the longlist. The short fiction category… Well, I worked my way through all those that were available to me, and even went so far as to buy a copy of Wylding Hall from PS Publishing – which was certainly worth it as it has made my ballot.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my nominations from the longlists for the BSFA Award shortlists (in alphabetical order):

novel
1 A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
2 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
3 Glorious Angels, Justina Robson (Gollancz)
4 Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

I expect the Hutchinson to make the shortlist as there’s been a bit of buzz about it – and deservedly so. The Robson might make it on name recognition – she’s been shortlised four times before – and I think Glorious Angels is less polarising than her Quantum Gravity quintet might have been. The Tchaikvosky will, I think, lose out to KSR, which would be a shame. The Atkinson is a long shot – a few people have recommended it, but despite Life After Life I don’t think she has much traction among BSFA members.

short fiction
1 Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing)
2 ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978’, David Herter (tor.com)
3 ‘Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space’,’ Sammy Kriss (The New Inquiry)
4 A Day in Deep Freeze, Lisa Shapter (Aqueduct Press)

The Hand was recommended and proved a good call – but it’s a PS novella, so not free to read. That might count against it. The Shapter is my own nomination for the longlist – but again, it’s from a small press and can’t be read for free online. A shame as it’s really very good (so is the Hand too, of course). Both the Herter and the Kriss are free to read online. I’ve been a fan of Herter’s fiction for many years, and only wish he were more prolific. The Kriss is… a beautifully judged piece of trolling, and award-worthy for that reason.

non-fiction
1 ‘What Price, Your Critical Agency?’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
2 Rave and Let Die, Adam Roberts (Steel Quill Press)
3 ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews’, Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)
4 My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (Rutgers University Press)

Maureen Kincaid Speller and Jonathan McCalmont are some of the best fan-writers we have in the UK (even if both would dispute the label). (And I see no good reason to nominate a piece of US fan-writing for this UK-based award.) The two pieces above are important elements in a conversation which I think deserves to be read by more people in genre. Adam Roberts is one of our best genre critics, and I don’t want him to pack it in. The Wosk caught my fancy on a certain very large online retailer one day, and it’s a fascinating piece of work, if focused more on media sf rather than written sf.

art
1 cover of Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction, Luis Lasahido (Tachyon)
2 cover of Wolfhound Century (2015 edition), Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)
3 cover of All That Outer Space Allows, Kay Sales (Whippleshield Books)
4 illustration for ‘Songbird’, Vincent Sammy (Interzone # 257)

Four lovely pieces of design, covering a variety of styles. If the cover of a certain self-published novel appears in my list of four, it’s because I think all four quartet covers are excellent but it’s only this last which is eligible – and all four covers are brilliantly done, relevant to each book, and yet each one a simple but highly effective design. But then I do like that sort of stuff a lot – as does my sister, of course – and was fascinated by a visit at Christmas to Finn Juhl’s House at the Ordrupgaard Museum.


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Awards time again

This is not a post listing what 2015 works of mine are eligible for genre awards. I disagree with the practice, I think it badly distorts the award-space, and it’s bending the entire field out of shape thanks to the stupid wrangling over who and what each of the awards actually represent. I’ve refused to post lists of my eligible works in the past, and I see even less of a reason to start doing it now.

However, I do vote in awards – well, one of them: the British Science Fiction Association Award. And I’ve been doing so for over twenty years. This year, there’s been a change to the process. Voters have until 31 December to nominate four works in each of the categories – novel, short fiction, non-fiction and art – in order to make up a long list. During January, voters will get to nominate four works from that long list to generate the short lists. Which will be voted on, and awarded, at the Eastercon in Manchester on the weekend of 25 to 28 March 2016.

Eligible works must have been published during 2015. Novels must have been published in the UK – unless they’re ebook only, in which case country of publication is irrelevant. There are no geographical restrictions on short fiction, non-fiction or art.

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According to my records, I have read only nine genre novels published during 2015. One of them I would like to nominate – Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit – but it has yet to be published in the UK and so is ineligible. Of course, there’s no reason why I can’t nominate a book I’ve not read – I have until the end of January to read it, after all.

One novel I suspect will appear on a lot of ballots is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. It’s certainly been one of 2015’s high-profile releases. And Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the genre’s best authors. The book has received a great deal of praise. But. It didn’t work for me. For all the work he put into designing the ecology of his generation starship, the characters were completely flat and, despite the interesting commentary on narratology in the AI narrative, it all read to me like Californians in Spaaace. However, there was another generation starship novel published during 2015, by an author better known for writing epic fantasy: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While the narrative set aboard the spaceship was a little too trad to me, the spider-based civilisation which forms the core of the novel’s story was fascinating and brilliantly done. Children of Time will be taking one of my slots.

Then there’s Ancillary Mercy, the final novel in the Imperial Radch trilogy. I found this disappointing. I liked the first book, Ancillary Justice, very much – but it seems that was pretty much a prologue to the actual plot. Which, as resolved in Ancillary Mercy, was unsatisfyingly small-scale. There was also far too much talking about each character’s emotional state, to the extent it often overwhelmed the narrative. I won’t be nominating it.

David Mitchell’s Slade House was Mitchell being clever, which he does well, but was pretty slight – not to mention deploying a few too many horror clichés, or indeed being structured such that one entire section was pure exposition. Ilka Tampke’s Skin had much to recommend it, particularly its depiction of Roman Britain, but although not marketed as YA it read like it had been put together following YA story patterns – to its detriment. The less said about Christopher Fowler’s The Sand Men, the better. Claire North’s Touch was based on an appealing premise – so appealing, in fact, it seems to have spontaneously appeared half a dozen times in the past couple of years; something in the water? – but its weak plot scuppered it. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was much, much better.

Among the 2015 books on my TBR are Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, the final book in Alastair Reynold’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy, Poseidon’s Wake, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, and Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden. I also plan to keep an eye on the recommendations of several other people, and if anything they mention takes my fancy then I’ll read it. For this first round of the BSFA Award at least, it’s worth putting in a speculative vote – ie, for a book you’ve not read but think might be award-worthy – rather than letting the vote go to waste.

As for short fiction… Every year, it gets to this time of year and I realise I’ve not been reading the short fiction published in various places, so I go and skim-read all the various magazines until I find something which takes my fancy. This year, however, I have at least one dead cert: A Day in Deep Freeze by Lisa Shapter, a novella published by Aqueduct Press. That will be getting one of my slots. There’s also a David Herter story on tor.com, ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978‘, and I’m a big fan of Herter’s fiction. But we’ll see what comes of my high-speed trawl through 2015’s genre fiction over the next week or so…

I have two candidates for non-fiction – My Fair Ladies by Julie Wosk, a study of “female androids, robots and other artificial Eves”; and Adam Roberts’s Rave and Let Die, if only because I don’t want him to give up his genre criticism. Jonathan McClamont has written some excellent ‘Future Interrupted’ columns in Interzone during the year. Likewise Nina Allan and her ‘Time Pieces’ column. And there was an extended conversation back in July across the blogosphere, about science fiction and criticism and the history of science fiction, prompted by an article by Renay published by Strange Horizons, ‘Communities: Weight of History‘… which then led to ‘The Weight of History‘ by Nina Allan… which then intersected with Jonathan McCalmont’s ‘What Price Your Critical Agency?‘ and resulted in Maureen Kincaid Speller’s ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews‘. In a genre space in which corporate marketing and support network advocacy is bending fandom out of shape, this is an important sequence of articles, and some, if not all, deserve nominations.

Finally, there’s art… another category I tend to look for suitable nominees at the last minute. One of my nominations will go to Kay Sales for the cover art to All That Outer Space Allows, not only because it’s a lovely piece of design but because I think the cover designs for all four books (the second editions of the first two, plus three and four) are striking and worthy of an award. Interzone has continued to publish some excellent interior illustrations for its stories. I particularly liked Richard Wagner’s illustration for ‘The Worshipful Company of Milliners’ by Tendai Huchu and Vincent Sammy’s illustration for ‘Songbird’ by Fadzlishah Johanabas, both in #257. I’ve had a quick look at my bookshelves, and online, for cover art from genre books published in 2015… and failed to find any which particularly stood out. Except, perhaps, the cover art to Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, which is by Luis Lasahido. But I shall continue to look, in the hope I find enough candidates for my ballot before the end of the year.


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On writing and how to

I’m probably the last person who should be giving writing advice, which is as good a reason as any for a blog post on the topic. If you want to know how to write short stories which are guaranteed to sell, look elsewhere. I suspect no one else really knows either, they’re just not honest enough to admit it. “Hey, it worked for me – sure it’ll work for you!” Yeah right. If you’re looking for rules on writing readable saleable fiction, I’m the wrong person to ask. If that makes me a dilettante, then so be it. I’m interested in fiction, I’m interested in how fiction works, and I’m interested in using that knowledge to create fiction which does something different. At least, that is, within my chosen genre.

It often seems wannabe writers can’t make a move without bumping into some “rule” or other: “show, don’t tell”, “prose must be transparent to let the story shine through”, “there are only seven plots”, “use a three-act structure”… They’re all bollocks. Fiction, least of all science fiction, is not a programming language. It doesn’t need to be compiled, and it won’t break the reader if, for example, you chose not to use quotation marks around dialogue.

And no one knows why some fiction succeeds and some doesn’t. It is not true that good novels will always see print (never mind sell by the boatload). There are a lot of excellent novels that have never been published, there are a lot of bad novels that have seen print (and some have even been phenomenally successful). There are also a lot of hugely popular novels which garnered a raft of rejections before someone eventually took a chance on them.

As for posterity… Dickens was a hack, an unashamedly populist writer – he even let his readers choose how one novel ended. And Jane Austen was allegedly neither the best writer of her generation nor the most popular – but her novels have endured, while the others are forgotten. Mary Shelly wrote seven novels, but it is her debut, Frankenstein, which is remembered two hundred years later by most people.

Science fiction should be willing to stretch the boundaries of narrative and genre. That it usually doesn’t is a result of the fact it is, at heart, a form of pulp fiction. It had its beginnings in pulp magazines, and though it has at times tried to throw off its origins – the New Wave being the most celebrated attempt – the basic form usually ends up prevailing. And not necessarily for the right reasons.

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It’s a long-accepted truism science fiction readers are more open-minded, more willing to accept the Other, than readers of other genres… Or are they? Has sf become a victim of its own success? Its most prevalent models have proven so popular across most media that all forms of science fiction are assumed to be of that type. It’s an easy argument to believe – the Sad Puppies certainly fell for it – but it’s not in the slightest bit true. Science fiction is a broad church, and it’s long been my contention that those who take the trouble to admire, and understand, how the genre operates will make better use of the tools available to a writer.

So it’s all very well just blithely introducing FTL into a science fiction text, because the story requires several different locations and the genre insists they be separated by light-years. Except… Firefly put all its worlds in a single planetary system. Not, it has to be said, a particularly plausible solution, but at least it was an attempt to address a common sf stumbling block: space is big, hugely mind-bogglingly big. There are remarkably few science fiction novels which take account of that – notable examples being the current fad (see below) for generation starship stories, such as Aurora and Children of Time.

But if Whedon failed to interrogate the tropes he deployed – no real surprise there – there’s no reason why other writers cannot. There is no GREAT BIG BOOK OF TROPES which must be obeyed. There are no rules which dictate how tropes should be deployed. No matter what some people might insist. Making use of them the same way everyone else has done is just lazy writing, cheap shorthand for complex objects (as is hiding those tropes under a thin veneer of metaphor – but that’s a rant for another time). Each trope certainly exists for a reason, and it makes for much more interesting fiction, to me, if it is the reason that’s interrogated.

The big point about writing, the thing that drives all others, is that you get out what you put in. But your readers probably won’t. There are tricks you can use to trigger a specific reader response, but sooner or later your readers will spot those tricks and they will no longer work. So you might as well write something which meets your own objectives and not those of some mythical reader. The market does not exist, it’s an emergent phenomenon – so it’s no good writing “to the market” because there’s no such thing. And should you decide to try – well, by the time you’ve written your novel, the fad is likely over, unless you’re uncannily good at trendspotting. You can only write to please yourself and hope it pleases others…

It’s not like I’m one to talk. The Apollo Quartet has sold in total some 3000 copies over 3.5 years, of which just over half were sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I was surprised during a conversation at Fantasycon 2015 to be told the Apollo Quartet is held in high regard. It often feels like “regard” should have a number attached and I know – from tracking my own sales – what that number is for the Apollo Quartet. Certainly among my friends and acquaintances, the four books have their fans. But not every review of them has been complimentary or fulsome.

I wrote each book of the Apollo Quartet to deliberately not be what readers of the preceding book had praised. People liked that Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary, so I wrote The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to be a science fiction puzzle narrative. With each book I tried to push the boundaries of narrative and narrative structure. I made a number of artistic decisions which readers have questioned – not just the lack of quotation marks, but also the lack of closure, the refusal to spell out acronyms, the use of inference to link two narratives… the choice by myself to make the reader work to understand the story. I didn’t intend the Apollo Quartet to be light reading, and that dictated how I approached writing it.

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There is, now I think about it, another reason why I’m a poor choice of person to write about writing science fiction: I can’t stick to the point, and I’m not entirely sure if this piece is in any way helpful. Writing advice is a poisoned chalice at the best of times – success is too individual for any particular technique to be held up as a general guideline. (I’m assuming a basic facility with language, of course). Having said that, one piece of advice I can give: get yourself a sympathetic group of beta readers. They will tell you what works and what doesn’t. Don’t just bang your novel up on Kindle, unseen by anyone else. (And don’t get me started on self-published 99p science fiction novels – that’s a rant for another day.)

There’s an unspoken compact between writer and reader. You can either stick to it… or have a bit of fun with it. Personally, I think the latter makes for more interesting fiction. Unfortunately, the former is more likely to result in successful fiction. You pays your money and you takes your choice…


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Reading diary, #11

There are a couple of books in this post which likely deserve full-on reviews, but I don’t do that any more (not unless they’re associated with a “reading project” or something, or for a venue such as Interzone or SF Mistressworks), so you’ll have to make do with this. I’ve also decided to institute a new feature and, as I do in my Moving pictures posts, asterisk those books which can be found on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list (I’m using the 2013 list, as that was the first one I found). To date, I’ve read 115 books on the list, including the one asterisked below, and to be honest there are a number I don’t think I’ll ever bother reading… But others look they might be worth a go – as indeed was Henry Green…

children_of_timeChildren of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015). I sort of read this by accident. I bought it at Edge-Lit 4, and on the train ride home I finished the book I’d taken to read during the journey there and back, so I started Children of Time. And since I’d started it, I decided to continue reading it. Which I think makes it one of the very few books I’ve actually bought and then started on the same day. The elevator pitch for this novel didn’t sound all that appealing, and the author is better known for a ten-book fantasy series, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a polished sf novel with several neat twists on the generation starship story (it seems to be the generation starship’s year, with this and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora). The world the ship plans to colonise, and the only possible candidate its crew have found, unfortunately turns out to have been terraformed and colonised millennia earlier. By spiders (the result of a human seeding programme that went wrong). The novel alternates between events on the ship and the development of the spider civilisation – and the latter narrative is absolutely fascinating. Tchaikovsky puts a few spins on his generation ship tropes, although it soon devolves into a well-visited territory. Which was a little disappointing – but on balance the spiders more than make up for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this on the BSFA Awards shortlist next year.

Skin, Ilka Tampke (2015). I reviewed this for Interzone. I picked the book as one of my choices based on the one-line description in the email sent out to reviewers. It turned out to completely different to what I had expected. It’s a Celtic historical fantasy that sort of hovers on the border of YA and adult fantasy. Bits of it worked really well, but the narrator was such a special snowflake it sort of spoiled things for me.

lovingLoving*, Henry Green (1945). According to the back cover of the Picador omnibus paperback I own which contains Loving, Green is “the most neglected writer of our century”. The book was first published in 1978, and that may well have been true then, but he has apparently seen something of a revival in recent years – there’s a 2005 edition of the same book, but with an introduction by Sebastian Faulks rather than John Updike; and Green has a number of other novels in print. Which is all, I suppose, beside the point; suffice it to say I knew only Green’s name and nothing about his oeuvre when I started Loving. Perhaps I’d expected something not unlike Olivia Manning’s novels, she was after all a contemporary, and I do like Manning’s fiction. Loving, however, proved to be entirely different; and excellent for reasons that make it nothing like Manning’s books. It’s set belowstairs in a large house in rural Ireland during World War II. Not only are the staff worried about the war, but also about their own situation in an neutral country should the Germans invade. And, of course, there’s the house to manage, and their employers to wait upon. The novel opens with the death of the butler, and chiefly follows Raunce’s efforts to get himself promoted into the vacant position. Green makes no concessions to his readers, the characters and their relationships have to be inferred from the narrative, much of which is dialogue. Science fiction may over-rely on dialogue to carry its stories, but it never does it with the skill and control of voice Green manages. I’ll definitely be reading more of his novels.

Godsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978). This is one of several paperbacks I bought from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon, with the intention of reviewing them on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. I liked it.

auroraAurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (2015). I’ve been a fan of Robinson’s work for many years, and, so I was told, this was one of his best, even better than 2312. So, of course, being completely contrary, I enjoyed it, thought it quite good, but… not as successful as 2312. The story follows the arrival of a generation starship at Tau Ceti after 170 years in flight, and is told by the vessel’s AI as a study in narratology and a sort of experiment in making the AI more human. The narrative focuses on Freya and first follows her as she goes on a wanderjahr through the twelve biomes which make up the ship. Then there’s the attempt to colonise a moon of one of Tau Ceti’s exoplanets. But that goes horribly wrong, and leads to a civil war on board between those who want to terraform another moon and those who think they should return to Earth. Freya is the de facto leader of the latter faction, and the final section of the book details the ship’s return to Earth and Freya’s experiences once there (those who flew back hibernated for the trip, using a technique in the feed beamed to them from Earth). As a thought experiment on how some elements of a generation starship might operate, Aurora makes for a fascinating read. There’s some handwavey stuff – not least the narrating AI – and many of the mechanical issues are glossed over. However, where the book fails for me is in its human side. Although a number of different cultures are present on the ship, everyone acts like twenty-first century Californians, displaying the sort of liberal individualistic sensibilities more likely to be found on the western seaboard of the US than in the seventh generation of a generation starship’s passengers. For example, there are complaints people are not free to have children as and when they want, but you’d think something like that would have long been accepted. And then there’s the violence between the “stayers” and the “backers”, which for a group of 1200 people who have known only the biomes, didn’t ring true. I was, however, amused that Freya and the others clearly returned to the Earth of 2015 – there were a few backhanded digs at social media and an indirect mention of hipsters. I’m still in two minds about Aurora. The setting is very clever, but the characters are thin and unconvincing; and like 2312, it’s all about making the Earth a fit place to live – because there’s nowhere else in the universe we can do so.

her-smoke-rose-up-foreverHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990). When I first started reading Tiptree back in the late 1970s – it was Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, originally published in 1973 but my edition was the 1978 paperback – I knew “he” was a woman, but from what I’d read somewhere I thought the pseudonym was in order to protect the author’s career with the CIA. It never occurred to me Ali Sheldon used it because she was a woman. Now I know better, of course. In the early 1980s I bounced out of Tiptree’s Brightness Falls From the Air, and never quite got back into reading her. Well, at least not with the same fervour as before. I’ve reread Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home over the years several times, not to mention the odd story in various anthologies, but it wasn’t until Her Smoke Rose Up Forever appeared in the SF Masterworks series – deservedly so, I might add – that I really decided to give her a reread in earnest. I would normally review this book for SF Mistressworks, but I’ve already got a review lined up by someone else; and besides, I’ve probably reviewed half of the contents in reviews of other anthologies anyway. For the record, not every story in here shines, but a number of them so do very brightly – ‘The Screwfly Solution’, personal favourite ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’, ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, even ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ (a story which has haunted me since I first read it decades ago). There are stronger collections in science fiction out there, but not many.

the_danger_gameThe Danger Game, DHF Webster (1978). The author joined the Royal Navy in the nineteen-fifties as a diver, then ran a salvage operation for a while, but that eventually folded due to a lack of contracts. He was employed as a manager for a booze merchant in his home town of Bradford, when an old Navy buddy contacted him and asked him if he’d be interested in working in the North Sea, as the industry was desperate for qualified divers. The Danger Game is about Webster’s years as a commercial diver, and given some of the things he describes the title seems apt. During the early sixties, things were very different, and a lot of deep dives were done on air – 200 feet deep, that’s about seven atmospheres, on air. Nitrogen narcosis, “rapture of the deep”, was not only common, it was expected, and divers frequently surfaced with little or no memory of the final tasks they’d performed. The same was true of the bends, pretty much everyone suffered from it several times, usually because of mistakes with the air supply requiring a quick trip to the surface, or because the wrong tables were used. But they had decompression chambers on deck, so a few hours sealed in one of them and they were right as rain. Although lots of divers perished, it seems a miracle the entire industry wasn’t shut down it was so dangerous. But, of course, because oil. Anyway, a short and reasonably informative read, although likely of worth only to those interested in the subject.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 115


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Books do furnish a room

I may be putting up these book haul posts less frequently, but the book collection seems to grow at its usual pace. I take care to purchase fewer books each month than I read, so the TBR is being slowly whittled down. But the book-shelves are still double-stacked, and the spare room has books piled all over the floor. I’ve dumped lots of books I knew I’d never get around to reading at the charity shop; and I’ve foisted off quite a few genre books at the York and Sheffield socials, but I still need to have a big clear-out… Anyway, here are the latest additions.

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Some new science fiction. Children of Time and The Last War I bought at Edge-Lit 4, where, of course, A Prospect of War made its first appearance in hardback. Aurora was purchased from a certain online retailer. I’ve already read Children of Time and Aurora, and they’ll both appear in my next Reading diary post.

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Some mainstream(-ish) paperbacks. The War of the End of the World was a book I’d planned to read for a fiction-in-translation reading challenge back in 2012. The challenge foundered about halfway through the year, but some of the books I’d picked I still fancied trying. It’s taken me until now to buy a copy of this one. The Bone Clocks and Kolymsky Heights I bought in Harrogate, using a book voucher given to me by my employer, while in the town to hear Val McDermid interview Sara Paretsky at the Crime Festival. The Davidson was recommended by a number of people a couple of months ago, and though I kept an eye open no copies had appeared in my local charity shops. Collected Stories I bought after reading Jonathan McCalmont’s reviews of Salter’s short fiction on his blog, Ruthless Culture.

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This was my prize from the Edge-Lit 4 raffle: six HP Lovecraft books in flash new hardback editions from PS Publishing. Given some of the other prizes, I think I did exceedingly well.

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A pair of deep sea books. Ocean Outpost, a study of undersea habitats, was cheap on eBay. Discovering the Deep, a glossy coffee-table book thick with science, is a new publication.

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Some genre paperbacks: Skin is an ARC, I’m reviewing it for Interzone; Wolves was on a couple of award shortlists last year; I’ve been a fan of Hanan al-Shaykh’s writing for several years, so I’m looking forward to reading her spin on One Thousand and One Nights; and The Saga of Eric Brighteyes is the second book in NewCastle Forgotten Fantasy series, which I bought because of course I really need to start collecting another series of books… Actually, it was cheap on eBay, so it’s not like I went out of my way for it.

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A new Lawrence Durrell book. From the Elephant’s Back is a collection of previously-unpublished essays and letters was published by the University of Alberta. The Silkworm is the second pseudonymous crime novel by JK Rowling. I thought the first a bit meh, but my mother found this copy in a charity shop and after she’d read it she passed it on to me.