It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Recent readings

I’ve been reading a lot for review recently – not just SF Mistressworks, but also Interzone, Vector, and Daughters of Prometheus. But I do occasionally read for pleasure as well – although the reads don’t always turn out to be pleasurable…

ON THE BEACH,  Nevil ShuteOn The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957), is apparently a classic and is often claimed for science fiction since it depicts a world immediately after a nuclear holocaust. The Albanians started it all off, the Egyptians then attacked NATO, and NATO thought it was the Soviets and so the nations of northern hemisphere wiped each other out in Mutually Assured Destruction. Now the last few humans, in southern Australia, pass the few months remaining to them. A lone US nuclear submarine has survived the destruction of the US and made itself available to the Royal Australian Navy. When a series of signals in Morse code – mostly unintelligible, but occasionally a clear word comes through – is detected coming from the west coast of the US, the USS Scorpion is sent to investigate. Much of the novel describes the Australians coming to terms with their impending doom – nuclear fallout is drifting south across the equator, and no one will survive when it reaches them. The USN captain pretends he still has a family back in New England, the RAN officer aboard the submarine and his wife plan for the future of their young baby, Moira, the young woman who is paired off with the USN captain, drinks and parties a lot and falls in love with the captain, and the scientist who’s tracking the drift of the fallout starts racing fast cars, culminating in a fierce race in which most of the drivers die in crashes. The prose is clunky at best, though Shute draws his characters quite well. It’s easy to see why the book is so well-regarded, though it wasn’t as smooth a read as I’d expected. Happily, it’s better than the film adaption – which starred Gregory Peck as the USN captain, Ava Gardner as Moira (as an Australian with an American accent), and Fred Astaire as the car-racing scientist. You’d think the book would adapt well, but Stanley Kramer managed to make the whole thing extremely dull.

meaulnesLe Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier (1913), was one of my father’s Penguin paperbacks, and I thought it looked interesting enough to be worth a read. It’s framed as the reminiscences of François, who attended a village school in the Sologne run by his father. A new boy appears at the school, Augustin, but he runs away one day and stumbles across a wedding party at a small chateau. He is mistaken for one of the guests, and has a magical time. However, the wedding fails to take place, and Augustin leaves and returns to the school – but he cannot remember the location of the chateau, and desperately wishes to meet the sister of the bridegroom once again as he had fallen in love with her. The “lost domain” drives Augustin – le grand meaulnes of the title – but even when the MC of a travelling circus proves to be the bridegroom from the wedding, he is still no closer to finding the girl of his dreams. Eventually, François stumbles across the location of the chateau, makes friends with the young woman, and informs Augustin of his discovery. But Augustin has been on another quest, and things have changed… There’s a nicely elegiac atmosphere to Le Grand Meaulnes, though that’s hardly surprising in a story which covers both lost childhood and lost love. The writing in the translation I read was very good throughout and while the story was very slow to start, it was worth reading. A classic.

Dark Eden by Chris BeckettDark Eden, Chris Beckett (2012), was shortlisted for the BSFA Award but did not win, and has now been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Set on a rogue planet travelling through, I think, intergalactic space, the novel plays out Cain and Abel among the 500 descendants of a single couple who were marooned there. The story is told by several narrators, in a strangely-random debased English – some words have devolved, but others haven’t. So the various words for local flora and fauna have remained unchanged, but the annual celebration of the landing has become “Any Virsry”. The inhabitants of the planet are also suffering from severe inbreeding, with many of them having deformed feet or severe hairlips. John Redlantern, however, is perfectly normal, although he is a good deal more thoughtful than everyone else. When he realises that the valley in which they live can no longer support further growth, he tries to persuade the elders to sanction a search for more living space. They reject his proposal because they believe they’re to wait for rescuers to appear… as they have been doing for nearly 200 years. Things come to a head, John is exiled and takes with him a small group of teenagers. But then his enemy back in the main colony foments hatred against John and his followers, there’s a clash, and John is forced to take his small colony across the frozen waste which surrounds the valley in search of a new valley in which to live. There’s an almost Biblical inevitability to the story of Dark Eden, and some members of the cast do play their roles with all the thudding predictability of characters from the Old Testament. But where Dark Eden does shine is in its presentation of its old story. The setting is a small work of genius, and beautifully described, and the integration of the characters in the setting is handled with real skill. It’s no surprise Dark Eden has appeared on the shortlists of the UK’s two most-prestigious science fiction awards.

jamiliaJamilia, Chingiz Aïtmatov (1958), I bought for my 2012 world fiction reading challenge, but I never managed to complete the challenge after getting bogged down in both Orham Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear. But Jamilia is a slim work, more of a novella than a novel, so I picked it up one day earlier this month and read it on my way to and from work. It’s blurbed as “the most beautiful love story in the world” and, well, if it isn’t, it comes very close. It’s set in Aïtmatov’s native Kyrgyzstan sometime during the Second world War. The men have all gone off to fight, leaving the women, old men and boys to run the village and bring in the harvest. When Daniyar returns from the fighting, but his family are no longer alive, he is tasked with assisting the narrator’s family – especially transporting the grain by cart to the nearby town, along with the narrator and the narrator’s sister-in-law, Jamilia (whose husband is away fighting). Over several trips, Jamilia and Daniyar fall in love, but their relationship is forbidden as Jamilia is still married. The writing is simple but effective, although the translator has bizarrely mixed up Islamic oaths and Christian ones, which seems a pretty fundamental mistake to me. A fascinating little novella. Worth reading.

emptyEmpty Space, M John Harrison (2012), is the third and final book of Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, the first of which, Light, marked his return to science fiction after many years away. I’m not sure there’s any value in giving a précis of the plot, since in parts it’s wilfully opaque – as it has been throughout the entire the trilogy. Suffice it to say that some of the plot-threads from the preceding two novels do see some sort of resolution in this book. Harrison’s future is dirty and enigmatic, but it is also full of small inventive touches. The prose is like the roiling quantum foam of the strange physics it describes. Though the section set in the very near-future, featuring Anna Waterman, the widow of the physicist Michael Kearney from Light, reads more like the sort of literary fiction in which fantasy is injected sideways into the real world – much like Harrison’s earlier The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life; the narratives set on the worlds bordering the Kefahuchi Tract use the language of science fiction with a facility few genre writers can match. An alien installation, dubbed the Aleph, threads its way through the story, stitching together the various narratives as it manifests the strange physics emanating from the Tract. Strangely, though aliens are frequently mentioned in the book – and the tramp freighter Nova Swing’s cargo consists of mysterious alien “mortsafes” – they are entirely off-stage, or implied to have existed only in the deep past. Not every character is human, but the template of every character certainly is. Having finished Empty Space, but I can see the resolution and how it comes together, but I’m not entirely sure what has been resolved. It’s like the strange physics which informs the story – the effect is visible, the cause is unknowable and the process often seems to follow rules of its own. I think I shall have to reread all three books to get a real handle on it.

warriorThe Mark of the Warrior, Paul Scott (1958), is likely to remind genre readers of at least two books, even though it is set in India in 1942 and is about officer-cadets being trained for combat in the region. Major Craig is a veteran of the war in Burma – while he made it out of the jungle, as did most of his company, he did lose his second in command, John Ramsay. And now Craig has been assigned to an Officer’s Training School near Pune, as has Ramsay’s younger brother, Bob. Craig sees in Bob Ramsay the same thing he saw in John Ramsay – “the mark of the warrior”, a natural soldiering ability coupled with what are probably sociopathic tendencies. Certainly, young Ramsay proves to be the best cadet at the school – so much so that when the design of a final exercise is made into a cadet competition, Ramsay wins it by presenting a scheme both he and Craig know will prove the only useful one to those destined to fight in the region. Instead of previously setting up combat set-pieces on the nearby plains, Ramsay’s scheme involves an attack on a fortified position in the jungle thirty miles to the north of the school. Those who have read Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai trilogy are going to find a lot in The Mark of the Warrior which seems familiar, and given that Scott’s novel beat Dickson’s The Genetic General into print by a year, you have to wonder… On the other hand, it’s not all that likely a US sf author would stumble across a novel by a British mid-list literary writer within a year of its publication. Nevertheless, the Dorsai seem to owe a lot to Ramsay. As does Orson Scott Homophobe’s Ender, though not having read that book, I’m not sure how close any resemblance might be. Genre comparisons aside, Scott’s novel is a minor work. It’s well-written, and the characters of Craig and Ramsay are drawn extremely well. I said of Scott’s The Bender when I read it that it would make a good British film, and the same is true of this one. It’s time for adaptation is long past, however; though perhaps the story could be updated to the present day without too much difficulty.

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Festive activities

Christmas is over for another year, and life can now return to what passes for normal. Once again, I was in Denmark for the festivities, but this year it was wet and windy rather than the usual deep snow. There was a lot of eating involved, and a lot of walking. The day after Boxing Day, we went to see David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the cinema (English with Danish subtitles, fortunately). Though I’ve not read the book, I have seen the Swedish version of the film. To be honest, I’m not sure which of the two versions is the better.

The flight back from Denmark was… interesting. On the approach to Manchester Airport, the plane was thrown around by turbulence and we almost touched down… before the captain decided to abort and up we went for another go around. Fortunately, the second attempt was much smoother and we landed in one piece. I first flew in 1968 and I’ve flown at least once a year since, and that was the first time I’ve ever been in an aircraft that took more than one attempt to land. Having said that, I’ve never been a big fan of air travel – and less so these days than I used to be. All that “security theatre” is just unnecessary palaver – how many terrorists has it actually caught? We certainly know it failed to catch two bombers… And while airlines seem to want us to believe that air travel has become easier and more convenient, the reverse is actually true. Also, budget airlines appear to hold their customers in complete contempt. They ask you to queue at the boarding-gate for an hour but don’t provide anywhere to sit. Aircraft are not buses – and given all the hoops passengers are forced to jump through before boarding at present, they never will be. The entire industry needs over-hauling.

Santa brought me some books and some DVDs: William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters and Tariq Ali’s Shadows Of The Pomegranate Tree, the first book of the Islam Quintet; and Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition, Fringe Season 3 and Caprica Season 1 Volume 2. I read the two books before returning to the UK. Of Men and Monsters was better than I expected, though I’m in two minds whether it belongs in the SF Masterwork series. Shadows Of The Pomegranate Tree is set in Moorish Spain in 1500 CE, and chronicles the Spanish Catholics’ campaign to wipe out Islam and its practitioners on the peninsula. It’s strong stuff, though Ali’s frequently inelegant prose didn’t do the book any favours. I’ll probably read the rest of the Quintet at some point, but I’m not going to dash out and buy them immediately.

I’ll also read a number of books during the holiday – in fact, I was averaging one a day. The books were Engleby, Sebastian Faulks (2007), which was a definite improvement on the longeur-packed On Green Dolphin Street. A working-class scholar at Oxford University fancies a female student from afar, but one day she disappears and is never found. It’s not difficult to work out what happened to her, though it’s hard to tell if Faulks thought the reveal was an actual plot twist. The final third of the book is a character-study of the narrator, which not only means Engleby is not a murder-mystery novel but also means it’s unsatisfactory as either murder-mystery or literary fiction.

The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry (2009), I remember seeing an approving review of in the Guardian by Michael Moorcock when the book was published. As a result, I’ve kept an eye open for a copy in charity shops ever since. It is… an odd beast. The story seems better-suited to a comic or graphic novel and, as a result, doesn’t work all that well as prose. A clerk for the Agency, a huge detective agency which seems to be the most important company in a 1950s-style city, is promoted to detective when the detective whose reports he files disappears. He soon ends up out of his depth in some weird conspiracy between the Agency and a villain based in a carnival, and it’s all to do with the way the Agency actually operates. The missing detective is called Travis S Sivart, but nothing is actually made of the fact that the name is a palindrome. It makes you wonder why the author bothered.

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell (2006), is Mitchell’s fourth novel, and is told entirely in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy living in the eponymous Worcestershire village in 1982. He’s being bullied at school, his parents’ marriage is on the rocks, and an act of petty revenge leads to a tragedy. Everything in the book struck me as a little clichéd, but perhaps that’s because I remember the early eighties quite well. Mitchell handles his narrator’s voice with skill and it’s a very readable story, but it all felt a bit soap-opera-ish in places. It’s not as successful as Cloud Atlas, though it is better than his first two novels, Ghostwritten and number9dream.

Of course, in the weeks leading up to Christmas the postie was also busy. Since my last book haul post, the following books have landed on the mat:

These are the aforementioned Christmas goodies.

Some first editions: White Eagle Over Serbia is for the Lawrence Durrell collection. The Dragons of Springplace and Impact Parameter I bought in the recent Golden Gryphon 50% off sale.

A few sf paperbacks. I used to correspond with Mike Shupp, and I’ve always wanted to read his Destiny Makers quintet, but it’s taken me a while to find decent copies. Now that I have the first book in the series, With Fate Conspire, I can make a start, although I still need to find a copy of the third book, Soldier of Another Fortune. Eye of Terror is Barrington Bayley’s only Warhammer 40K novel, and by all accounts is especially mad – even for him. The Chessmen of Mars almost completes my set of 1970s NEL editions of the John Carter books – because, of course, I have to have a set that all looks the same, and the ones I already had were NEL paperbacks from the 1970s. City of Pearl is November’s belated read for the reading challenge. I doubt I’ll read it before the end of the year, but never mind.

My father owned quite a large collection of Penguin paperbacks. I found an invoice in one, and discovered that he’d actually ordered them direct from the publisher. This was back in the mid-1960s. Though he read and admired all the Penguin books he bought, for the past few decades his reading had mostly been thrillers. Some of his books I want to read myself so I’ve started bringing them home a few at a time, and so… Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier; Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, a short story collection by Malcolm Lowry; Clock Without Hands, The Member of the Wedding and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, all by Carson McCullers; Albert Camus’ The Plague; Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister; and The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner.

The Revenge for Love and Radon Daughters I found in charity shops. Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a swap from readitswapit.co.uk. With Luck Lasting is Bernard Spencer’s second poetry collection, and while it’s an ex-library book it’s in excellent condition and doesn’t appear to have ever been booked out.

Finally, two books for the space books collection. Falling to Earth is the autobiography of Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden. It’s signed. The Story of Manned Space Stations was ridiculously cheap on eBay – about £3.50 compared to £18.99 on Amazon.