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Reading diary, #51

With a TBR in the low four figures, it’s reached the stage where I’ve owned books for decades without having got around to reading them. This is, quite obviously, pretty dumb. So for several years now I’ve been trying to plan my reading, making a list of the books I intend to tackle in the coming month… But then, of course, the new shiny drops through the letterbox, and sometimes its lure is a little too strong and so it supplants one, or more, of the books on the TBR… Which is certainly what happened twice in the half a dozen books below.

Her Pilgrim Soul, Alan Brennert (1990, USA). I picked this up at Kontur in Uppsala last month, and ended up reading it on the train from Manchester Airport after stupidly leaving the book I had been reading on the plane. To be honest, I’d not been enjoying that book – it was The Music of the Spheres, and the writing was pretty bad – so it was no great loss. I was annoyed, however, about losing the 100 Yugoslavian dinar note I’d been using as a bookmark. (Um, I see there’s one for sale on eBay, from a seller located not all that far from Manchester Airport – they’re asking £1.40, although the market price appears to be 99p…) To be honest, I thought I might have read Her Pilgrim Soul before, but on reflection I think I’ve read some of its contents before – likely in one or another of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best SF anthologies, which I used to buy for many years. It’s a collection of well-crafted stories, a mix of science fiction and fantasy, most on the light side of either genre (but not the lighter side), and most not especially memorable. It’s been more than a month since Kontur, and I can remember very little about the contents of Her Pilgrim Soul. A good collection, I suppose, but in a way that has no lasting impact and leaves only a vague impression. Fiction, of course, should do more than that; but most manages much less.

The First Circle*, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1968, Russia). I suspect I like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer more than I like actually reading his writing. If that makes sense. I’d no real desire to read Solzhenitsyn until seeing Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (see here), and when I saw a copy of The First Circle, and immediately linked it to Sokurov’s The Second Circle, a favourite film, then I was suddenly keen to read Solzhenitsyn. And now I have read him – this book, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year (see here) – I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. True, I’m not reading him in the original Russian, so any infelicities in prose and style are more likely the fault of the translator, but… Well, the two books by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read so far are blackly comic works about the inhuman excesses of Stalin’s regime. And, well, I knew that, I knew Stalin was, and still is, the worst despot this planet has ever seen, responsible for a vast number of deaths, more perhaps than many historical epidemics. He killed more Russians in WWII, for example, than the Germans did. The First Circle, which is quite a hefty novel, covers three days among the inmates, and others linked to them, of Mavrino Prison, which is actually a secret penal laboratory staffed by politicial prisoners and others pulled from gulags and labour camps. Compared to others in the Soviet prison system, they have it cushy. But not as cushy as the family of the prison head, which includes his son-in-law, a young and upcoming diplomat, who foolishly telephones a doctor about to leave for Paris and warns him not to hand over some medical data to the West as he had threatened. The authorities were, of course, listening in… but they can’t identify the caller. Fortunately, some of the Mavrino inmates, and some of the equipment they’ve built, could help the MGB… The contrast with the lot of the prisoners and the diplomat’s family is stark, as is the contrast between those in Mavrino and their previous experiences in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn manages to find the nobility, and venality, in his prisoners, and paints them vividly as people. But the endless reiteration of bureaucratic cruelty – epitomised, if not literalised, by the treatment of the diplomat in the Lubyanka after his arrest – does pall on occasion. The First Circle, despite its short narrative timeframe, is surprisingly rambunctious, but less philosophical than I had expected – although, to be fair, most, if not all, of the references to Russian literature were lost on me. I still like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, and I still have another of his novels on the TBR, but I’ve yet to make up my mind about his actual writing.

Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks, Paul Kincaid (2017, UK). A housemate lent me a copy of The Wasp Factory back in 1987, and while it was certainly a memorable book, it wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t until I joined the British Science Fiction Association a year or two later that I discovered Banks also wrote science fiction – and I can remember finding a hardback copy of Consider Phlebas in WH Smith soon after, but at the time I would never have considered buying a book in hardback. Later, Banks was GoH at Prefab Trout, the second convention I ever attended, in September 1989, and I can remember a review of Canal Dreams in the programme booklet which described the novel as “a taunt thriller”. I think by that point I’d read Banks’s earlier novels – probably borrowed from Coventry City Library – the mainstream ones at least, but possibly also Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. I’m pretty damn sure, however, that the first Culture novel I actually bought was Use of Weapons, which was launched at Eastcon, the 1990 Eastercon, in Liverpool. I bought the hardback and Banks signed it for me. I stil have it, of course. From that point on, I purchased all of his books in hardback as soon as they were published. (However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I managed to track down first edition copies of the books before Use of Weapons.) So I guess you could say I am/was something of a fan. And yet, all those decades of reading him, but so few of his books seemed to manage the quality I expected of them – I enjoyed them, I appreciated them… but it always felt to me like he could do much better. I knew I was being unfair, but I could never help myself. And yet…. after reading Paul’s book on Banks’s novels, it occurs to me that my problem with Banks is that he rewarded careful reading but his prose was so effortlessly readable that I likely never gave his fiction the depth of reading which generated the most reward. And I reached this conclusion because Paul, a friend of many years, writes about Banks’s novels so well, so readably, that I want to go back to Banks’s books immediately and reread them and discover in them all the depth and goodness identified by Paul which I plainly missed… and knowing full well that I will also hugely enjoy the novels because they were always were, above all, hugely enjoyable. So, Paul, job done. (Although I’ll need more convincing about Transition, I think…)

The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967, USA). Okay, I admit I bought this novel – at this year’s Eastercon – because of the dreadful cover art. Comparisons with, and references to, The Martian proved inevitable, although the book itself is set on some random alien desert world. Humanity has spread out among the stars and pretty much conquered everyone it meets, most of whom also happen to be human, but nice and fluffy and progressive compared to Earth’s bigoted, racist and sexist conquerors. On one such world, the protagonist of The Killing Thing, Tracey, visits an open-cast mine and sees an experimental mining robot. It kills its inventor, and is taken by Earth’s military establishment for study. On Venus. Where it escapes. And now Tracey is the sole survivor of a ship that tracked the killer robot to the random alien desert world, and he’s stuck on its surface in a lifeboat with limited fuel and supplies, and must hold out until rescue arrives, while the robot hunts him down and tries to kill him. If it weren’t for the background material – most of which is, quite frankly, offensive – The Killing Thing would be padded out beyond boredom. As it is, it still reads like a short story bloated beyond its natural length. I’d had a quite high opinion of Wilhelm’s fiction based on previous stuff by her I’d read, but that opinion took a bit of a beating reading The Killing Thing. When I restart SF Mistressworks – soon, I hope – then I’ll bung a more comprehensive review of this book up there. For now: not a good work from a usually good writer.

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (2016, Israel). Once upon a time fix-up novels were pretty common in science fiction. Authors would take a bunch of stories, lash them together with a crude framing narrative, and then the whole thing would be presented as a novel. Some were more successful than others… but the fix-up is still an ugly, lumpy and lop-sided beast of a narrative form. Central Station, although presented as a fix-up novel, and on plenty of novel award shortlists, strikes me more as a collection of linked stories, although there is a story arc which progresses throughout it. I remember one or two of the stories appearing in Interzone and, at the time, I wasn’t especially taken with them. But given the success of this “novel”, and because several people have told me the stories work better together than they did in isolation, I decided to give it a go. And… it still doesn’t really read like a novel. But the individual stories do benefit from being in a collection. Alone, they felt incomplete, unresolved, whereas the novel shows that the resolution is merely cumulative and deferred. The title refers to space port in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and the stories are focused on a handful of families who live in the environs. There’s no date – it’s the future of a century or two hence – which occasionally leads to weird inconsistences in the setting, a feeling that tropes are deployed when needed rather than being integral, or natural, to the background. The prose, happily, is uniformly good, which means the stories are a pleasure to read. But if each individual story feels slightly unresolved, the novel, as a novel qua novel, manages not to feel that way. I don’t think Central Station is as adventurous, or as challenging, as some commentators have claimed, and it probably says more about the way we now view awards, than it does the book itself, that it’s appeared on so many shortlists – I mean, Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, those were genuinely challenging sf novels. But, on the other hand, Central Station is a well-crafted piece of science fiction, with visible writing chops in evidence, and such books seem all too rare in the genre these days…

The Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer (1940, UK). I’ve no record of when and where I bought this paperback, but I remember buying half a dozen or so secondhand Heyer paperbacks when I was in Great Malvern for a Novacon. That was back in 1997… So, um, two decades ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read The Spanish Bride, or if that was indeed when I bought the book, given that I’ve read all the other Heyer books I own – all thirty of them –  and some I’ve even read multiple times. I suspect it is because it’s a war novel, rather than a frothy Regency romance or eighteenth-century adventure. If the cover doesn’t make it plain, the first chapter certainly does, as it describes the Siege of Badajoz in quite gruesome detail. In fact, as a novel of the Peninsular War, The Spanish Bride does a pretty good job. Its hero, Brigade-Major Harry Smith of the Light Division, is perhaps a bit too much of a paragon – if not in his intent or actions, certainly in his ability to avoid harm – and its eponymous heroine is also far too chirpy and accepting and… well, only fourteen when she marries to Smith… and it’s hard to read the book without that fact floating about in the back of your mind. Heyer makes an excellent fist of describing the Spanish landscape, and while the blow-by-blow accounts of the various battles seem both accurately- and carefully-phrased, I often had trouble picturing the progress of the fighting. I wanted to see maps, or wargaming tableaux, or something that indicated how the oft-professed tactical genius of the various English officers actually manifested. I know Heyer for her Regency romance novels and, skeevy sexual politics of the time (or of her depiction of the time) aside, I had expected that element of The Spanish Bride‘s plot to be uppermost. But it isn’t. It is, as I wrote earlier, a war novel. If anything, “English officer marries underage Spanish hidalgo heiress” is merely subplot. And yet, having said that, Heyer’s prose has a clarity and wit few these days can match, and it’s readily evident here. The Spanish Bride is not a fun book, but then I don’t think it was intended to be. It’s almost cefrtainly going to be the Heyer novel I reread the least number of times – assuming I ever do reread it, which is unlikely – but I’m nonetheless glad I did read it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130

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Books, glorious books

My book reading has slowed somewhat this year, but it seems so has my book buying. So I’m still managing to chip away at the TBR. Which has been joined by the following books over the last couple of months…

The Escort Carrier Gambier Bay means I now have all twenty of the Anatomy of the Ships books on warships (plus one about the RMS Queen Mary). And no, I paid nowhere near the silly price currently shown on Amazon. They were originally published in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the series was expanded, and some of the earlier ones republished in new editions, in the early 2000s. The grey cover design means this is one of the original series. I missed buying This Brutal World when it first came out last year, and second-hand copies immediately started going for silly money. Happily, the publisher decided to reprint. Hostages of Ultralum is the sixteenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series to be published in English. I wrote about it here. Several years ago, Midland Publishing (a company associated with Ian Allan, if that name means anything to you) published a series of “Secret Projects” books about military aircraft – from the US, UK, WWII Germany, Japan and, I think, France. I bought several of them, but they got increasingly harder to find. It looks as if they’ve now kicked off the series again, and, annoyingly, they’re numbering the volumes. But I actually bought Britain’s Space Shuttle because the subject interests me… and who knows, I might get a story or two out of it.

I recently pre-ordered the fourth novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass Quartet, and added Project Clio to my order, despite having sworn off buying and reading more Baxter after finding the Proxima/Ultima diptych disappointingly juvenile. Oh well. The red book in the middle is a really hard to find Lucius Shepard, The Last Time, which I found going for less than half its usual price on eBay. The slipcover is, bizarrely, made of clear plastic. Finally, Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks is a book I wanted from the moment Paul Kincaid first mentioned he was writing it. I thought Banks an excellent writer, although he often disappointed me – but not enough for me to stop buying his books, all of which I have in first edition, some signed.

These two are charity shop finds. I discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) perversely through a film – François Ozon’s adaptation of Angel. But I could never find a copy of the book, and was never that engaged in reading her to buy the book new. Whenever I stumbled across copies of her novels in charity shops, I’d buy them and read them. I’m now considerably more of a fan of her writing, and I’m sort of wavering now about buying the rest new… Oh well. The Paperchase was just a random find. I know the author’s name from Far North, which was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and which I didn’t really like, and Strange Bodies, which seemed to be ignored by most sf awards and was actually pretty bloody good.

These three books were my only purchases at Kontur, the Swedish national convention in Uppsala (see here). I bought them from Alvarfonden, a charity that sells donated books at Swedish cons. I’m not entirely sure why I bought any of them. The Final Circle of Paradise I’d never heard of, but I’d like to read more of the Strugatsky brothers’ fiction, if only because of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (I was disappointed by Roadside Picnic when I finally got around to reading it, as everything had been translated into US idiom and that ruined it for me). I’m sure I’ve heard approving things about The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, but I can’t remember where. Or how long ago. Alan Brennert writes middle-of-the-road well-crafted sf and fantasy stories, and I’m not really sure why I bought Her Pilgrim Soul. But I did.

I’ve been buying volumes from Newcastle Publishing Company’s Forgotten Fantasy Library when I can find them, although they’re getting harder to find. Annoyingly, the series doesn’t seem to have a consistent design, or even size. The Food of Death by Lord Dunsany is the third book in the series and the sixth I own (of twenty-four). Son of the Morning is by yet another pseudonym of Mark Barrowcliffe. The fantasies he writes under the name MD Lachlan are very good, and I’ve heard good things about this Mark Adler book too. I won it in the raffle at the last York pubmeet.

Last of all, some recent sf… Well, okay, The Chrysalids is hardly recent, but the SF Masterwork edition is new, and, astonishingly, I don’t recall ever reading Wyndham at novel length (only a collection of dreadful short stories, the cover art for which was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Battlestar Galactica Viper fighter). I see Penguin are still paying Amazon more than Gollancz do, as a search of the title returns the Penguin edition first and no mention of the SF Masterworks edition… I thought Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind very good (see here), so planned to buy Dreams Before the Start of Time when it was published. Which I did. Central Station seems to have won, or been nominated for, lots of awards, so it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I think I’ve read some of the stories which form it, but perhaps they’ll appeal to me more as part of a novel. Proof of Concept is s new novella from my favourite sf writer, so of course I was going to buy it. I wrote about it here. Adam Roberts was foolish enough to make a wrongheaded prediction about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, I bet him a fiver he was wrong, he was wrong, and generously included a copy of The Thing Itself with the £5 note he sent me in payment. I’d been wanting to read it, so that proved a happy accident.


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Onwards to Uppsala

The weekend of 26 to 28 May saw me in Uppsala, Sweden, for Kontur 2017, this year’s Swecon. The Guests of Honour were Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley and Siri Pettersen. It was my third Swecon and my fourth Nordic con. And, I fervently hope, not my last of either. I’d previously attended two Swecons in Stockholm, but since Uppsala is pretty close to Arlanda Airport, closer than Stockholm in fact, and it sounded like a really nice town, I signed up for Kontur.

In Manchester Airport, I bumped into Luke Smith, who was also on his way to Uppsala. It turned out we were on the same flight to Sweden. And the same flight back. We hung out together until our flight was called, and then met up once we’d landed in Sweden. After making our way through immigration and customs, we headed for Sky City and the airport’s main train station. Neither of us had travelled on the Swedish railways before (I’d used the Arlanda Express on my previous visits), which proved our undoing. I bought a ticket from a machine, Luke bought his from the counter. We went down to the platform. A SJ train pulled in. Luke’s ticket, it transpired, wasn’t valid on it, but mine was. But mine wouldn’t be valid on the next train, which Luke could catch as he had a UL ticket. So we ended up travelling to Uppsala on separate trains…

Kontur 2017 took place in the Clarion Hotel Gillet on Dragarbrunnsgatan, right in the centre of town and about a ten-minute walk from the railway station. We arrived there just after two pm, which made it about ten hours (taking into account the hour’s time difference) of travelling door-to-door. Not too bad. It takes about six hours from Sheffield to Glasgow. After checking in, I showered and changed, and then headed down to the first floor, where the convention was due to take place. The conference facilities at the Clarion Hotel Gillet are laid out in an L-shape, with a large bar area occupying the angle. Unfortunately, it had no comfy chairs for chilling out, only stools and chest-high tables. Programme items took place in rooms along both arms of the L. There was also a dealers’ room, containing some Swedish small presses and a woman who made fancy dragons out of paper; a room for the Alvarfonden, which sells secondhand UK and US books; and a games room.

At previous Swecons, I’d attended far more programme items than I typically do at conventions. In part, I think that was because of the venue, the Dieselverkstaden, which didn’t really have an area where you can just hang out (Swecon 2018 is back there, by the way). The bar at Kontur, however, because everyone had to pass through it from one wing to the other, was good for socialising. So I actually only made two programme items… and those were the ones I was moderating. Oh, and I went to the closing ceremony as well.

Both of my panels were on the Saturday. The first was “Make Art not War: Sentience and Narrative in science fiction”, with Ann Leckie, Karolina Fedyk and Markku Soikkeli. I thought the panel went quite well, even if it was my first go at moderating. Ann talked about Ancillary Justice, of course, Karolina is a neuroscientist and spoke about neuroaesthetics , and Markku mentioned the AI in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy which makes art out of found objects. My second panel was “Environmentalism and science fiction”, with, once again, Markku, plus Christin Ljungvist and Saara Henriksson. (Markku, incidentally, moderated the one panel I was on at Swecon 2016.) This panel didn’t go as well as the other one. I’d done my research, so I knew what the other panellists had written, even if it was only available in Swedish or Finnish… But environmentalism is a subject I know little about – enough to be dangerous, I suppose… We asked the audience for examples of environmentalist sf, and ended up writing twenty or so titles up on the whiteboard, but the discussion jumped about a bit without reaching any sort of point. I asked a member of the audience afterwards if he’d thought it was any good. “No,” he said. So much for my second attempt at moderating a panel…

I like city centre conventions because you don’t have to be confined to the hotel. And Kontur was slap bang in the middle of Uppsala. On the Friday night, a group of us went to a Lebanese restaurant beside the river for dinner. Anders also took me to a nearby Irish pub to try one of their beers. And on the Saturday night, Steve Savile dropped into the con as he lives in a nearby town, as did George Berger, who lives in Uppsala, so half a dozen of us went to Bastard Burger (yes, really) for dinner, which was just down the street from the hotel. There was also a supermarket in a shopping centre next to the hotel, where I could buy dairy-free sandwiches (as the hotel bar didn’t have any).

Later that night, Jukke Halme staged his famous quiz, although this time the format was slightly different. Three contestants were volunteered, and each had to answer a number of questions in three rounds: Call My Bluff, a fan version of Jeopardy, and Charades. The questions were, of course, fiendishly difficult, especially the “Fanopardy” round on a past Swecon (only three people knew the answers to the questions: one of them was Jukka, the other two were in the audience). After the quiz, I joined people downstairs in the hotel’s main bar, and stayed there until closing time.

On the Sunday, Tobias, with his son in tow, showed me around Uppsala. We drove out to Gamla Uppsala, which is pretty much just a small museum, five huge barrows, a small cafe and a church. We’d planned to eat in the cafe, but they had nothing I could eat. So we walked up to the top of one of the barrows, where we had a good view of the surrounding countryside. We popped into the gift shop in the museum, where I saw some bottles of mead – but it was alcohol-free, disappointingly. Tobias suggested getting some food from a supermarket and then having a picnic at Uppsala castle. So that’s what we did. We sat in the gardens, looking over the Botanical Garden.

Back at the hotel, we made the closing ceremony, and then people began drifting across to the Bishop’s Arms, where the dead dog party was being held. The Bishop’s Arms is an “English pub”, although more like the sort of English pub you’d find in Dubai than Durham. It was so committed to the theme, it even played Manic Street Preachers over the PA in the toilets. The beers on offer were very good, although most were considerably stronger than I’m used to. As the evening progressed, people drifted away to catch their trains, but there were still quite a few of us left when the bar closed around eleven o’clock. We headed into the town centre, but couldn’t find anywhere still open. Fortunately, it turns out Swedish hotels sell bottles of beer (and wine) at the reception desk after the bars have closed. So we hung around in the hotel lobby, drinking, for another hour or so.

After our lack of success with the trains on the Friday, Luke and I were determined to get it right for the trip from Uppsala to Arlanda Airport. We failed. We bought our tickets from the same machine, so we were definitely going to be on the same train… but we should have looked which train was departing for the airport first and bought tickets for it. We had to wait over an hour for a SJ train…

The trip home was uneventful – other than me leaving the book I was reading on the plane by accident, although, to be honest, I was more annoyed about losing the 100 Yugoslavian Dinar banknote I was using as a bookmark than the book itself. My plane was supposed to land five minutes before the hourly train from Manchester Airport to Sheffield, which obviously I could never have caught, but the landing was delayed by twenty minutes, and then there was a massive queue in Immigration, and I missed the next one, so had to wait an hour for the one after that. The worst part of every journey abroad is the final leg home from the airport by rail. There is only one train an hour from the UK’s third busiest airport (and the busiest outside London) to the country’s sixth largest city, and they’re only seventy kilometres apart! British railways are shit, and it’s all due to privatisation. In virtually every case in this country where nationalised industries have been privatised, the privatised service or utility has proven much worse. Privatisation doesn’t work. But the Tories push it because it’s a way for them, and those who own the Conservative Party and its MPs, to make more money. It’s a form of theft.

Anyway, Kontur… was an excellent convention. My first tries at moderating panels weren’t entirely successful, but never mind. Hopefully, I’ll have further opportunities to improve. I had a great time chatting with friends, and making new ones. I met up with some people I’d known only online in person for the first time – hi, George. If I name everyone I spoke to or hung round with over the weekend, I’d probably miss someone out. But certainly Sunday night and Monday morning were spent saying, “See you in Helsinki!” to a lot of people. Swedish fandom reminds me of why I joined fandom in the first place – there’s a similar atmosphere to the UK cons I remember from the early 1990s. Okay, so people don’t actually talk about genre all the time, at least not in the bar, but there’s a genuine sense of community, and an international community, which British cons no longer seem to have. I don’t think that’s due to the fact Swecon is typical three to four times smaller than a UK Eastercon, so perhaps it’s simply because of the way Swedish fandom works – and how it integrates with Nordic fandom.

I only bought three books, and they were from the Alvarfonden – Her Pilgrim Soul, The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and The Final Circle of Paradise. I didn’t want to buy too many, not just because I’d have to carry them back in cabin baggage (memo to self: remember to take a suitcase to go in the hold for Worldcon75, so I don’t have to worry about buying too many books), but also because I’d bought too many books in May already.

Finally, I leave you with a photo I took in the abovementioned supermarket. It shows an entire aisle filled with varieties of crispbread. Välkommen till sverige!