It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary 2020, #10

I would be dishonest if I’d not wondered this last couple of years why I continue blogging. All I’m posting are book and film reviews, and they’re not even reviews per se, but often turn into mini-rants about various things triggered by the book or film I’m supposedly reviewing. I firmly believe the author is not dead, and if an author says shitty things on social media – hello, JK Rowling! trans women are women! – then reviewers have every right to take those things into account when reviewing their work. The New Criticism only worked when the author was effectively anonymous, and in these days of social media, personal branding and self-marketing, that just isn’t true anymore. The New Criticism is dead, long live the Old Criticism! Context matters, an author’s politics matter… more so in genre, where fans organise into tribes behind authors based on those author’s politics, even if they’re all writing the same old genocidal right-wing space opera…

I should also mention I’ve deleted my account on Goodreads – long story; one day I may share it – so I can no longer cross-post my reviews there. Which seems to be where most people saw them – at least, when I received push-back, it was from people who’d seen my reviews there. Of course, “push-back” usually meant an author telling me how I should review his book. Repeat after me: reviews are not for authors. As an author myself, I understand the thrill of a reading a positive review, but it is not something I can or should police. On Goodreads, that line has become somewhat blurred.

Bone Silence, Alastair Reynolds (2020, UK). This is the final book of the Revenger trilogy, which I seem to remember was intended to be YA but certainly doesn’t read like YA. The story is set millions of years in the future, after the Solar system has been broken up into hundreds of thousands of habitats, among which are “baubles”, which are alien vaults which open up on occasion and can be raided for mysterious artefacts worth much money. By Bone Silence, the Ness sisters captain the most feared ship in the Congregation, but are determined to solve the mystery of the many civilisations which have risen and fallen in the Congregation over millions of years at strangely increasing intervals. Then are the “quoins”, used as currency, but which are now exhibiting strange behaviour… And the various alien races in the Congregation, whose motives and objectives are unknowable… And… and… The previous two books, Revenger and Shadow Captain set up several pretty interesting mysteries, and it would not be unreasonable to expect this final book in the trilogy to explain them. And it tries to. But it doesn’t do a very good job. The explanation for the increasing gaps between successful cycles of civilisation in the Congregation is a bit, well, mundane, and the means of discovering it sacrifices real understanding of the universe for cheap thrills. There’s a great deal of build-up in this trilogy, and the mysteries it sets up are fascinating… but the final instalment does not deliver. For the Ness sisters, yes; but not for the reader who is keen to explore the story’s universe. That doesn’t mean these are bad books. Reynolds is a reliable pair of hands and usually delivers good science fiction. These are among his better books, but not among his best.

The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (1977, UK). The more I explore Adams’s oeuvre, the more remarkable it becomes. Adams, of course, is best known for his debut, Watership Down, one of those novels which became a cultural phenomenon and continues to be popular today. That’s a difficult act to follow. Adams’s subsequent books sold well but never reached the heights of Watership Down, and few of his books are now in print. Watership Down was followed by a Bronze Age fantasy, Shardik, which reads partly like something already covered many times by genre fantasy and partly like a somewhat sideways approach to fantasy by someone unfamiliar with the genre. And then we have The Plague Dogs, Adams’s third novel, a novel that in precis seems relatively straightforward. Two dogs used in animal research, anthromorphised as the rabbits were in Watership Down, escape the lab and manage to survive in the wild. But this all takes places in the Lake District, and most of the dialogue is written in dialect, including that of some of the animals encountered by the two dogs, Snitter and Rowf. It doesn’t help that the laboratory is called Animal Research (Scientific and Experimental) or ARSE, and that The Plague Dogs actually reads like it might have been intended as a comedy. But not a black comedy. A black comedy would be ironic, and The Plague Dogs is far from ironic. Adams was a singular talent, with an oeuvre worth exploring even now, more than a decade after his last book. His career clearly declined after the mid-1980s, but his books after Watership Down are, I’m discovering, worth reading.

And Go Like This, John Crowley (2019, USA). Crowley occupies a position on the edge of genre – but also highly regarded outside genre, yet highly regarded by some within genre. And yes, most of his output has been identifiably genre. As a prose stylist, he’s one of the best and his Ægypt Sequence is a major literary achievement. Earlier explicitly genre works are also among the top genre works produced during their time. In recent years, Crowley’s career seems to have flat-lined somewhat. Despite the acclaim of the first three books, the final book of the Aegypt Sequence was published by a small press. His last three books from William Morrow, a non-genre publisher, were… variable. I thought Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land was excellent, but was not so impressed with either The Translator or Four Freedoms (although I note the first is out of print but the latter two are not, which is fucked up). I have yet to read Ka: Dar Okaley in the Ruins of Ymr, which I believe is straight-up fantasy. And Go Like This is a collection of Crowley’s most recent short fiction, including two novellas published by Subterranean Press, and which I bought at the time. This is good short fiction, and certainly a better collection than his last, Totalitopia, although some pieces here are more successful than others. There’s something measured, but also slightly bucolic in a peculiarly American way, and which achieves cleverness without seemingly trying for it, about Crowley’s prose, such that reading it is always a pleasant experience. Crowley doesn’t write prose to just carry a story forward, he writes prose to treasure. That’s why I buy his books when they are published.

The Fires of Heaven, Robert Jordan (1993, USA). The fifth book of the Wheel of Time, and it seems Jordan is now fully onboard with the concept of a plot stretching over more than half a dozen books. Which, on the one hand, means not much happens to actually advance that plot; but, on the other, things are actually starting to get moving. Which means, er, Rand al’Thor has brought the Aiel over the Spine of the World because the false Car’a’carn has already left the Waste and started razing cities. Meanwhile, Elayne and Nynaeve are hiding out in a travelling circus. Min is stuck with the stilled ex-Amyrlin Seat and ex-Keeper, and they’re trying to find out where the rebel Aes Sedai have set up shop. It all feels a bit like the middle of a chess game that started out one move away from Fool’s Mate, and has been on the run ever since. It doesn’t help that the villains are turning even more pantomime, and the quirks Jordan uses to identify each character – Nynaeve pulling her braid, for example – have gone way beyond annoying. All the major characters are written like slightly dim teenagers – I don’t understand women, wail the men; you need to boss men about if they’re to be any use, declare the women – and yet they’re supposed to be the leaders in a struggle to save the world. Rand has gone from shepherd to king, with no underpinning for the psychological change. It’s a major failing in a series which has little technically to recommend it. Some of the world-building is interesting, but the plotting is erratic, there’s a lot of padding, and the prose is barely competent at best. Even so, the piss-poor characterisation is probably the series’ biggest handicap. I’ll continue with my reread, of course, because I want to finish the damn thing. And for all the lumpen prose and clangingly duff characterisation, the 880 pages of The Fires of Heaven were actually a quick read.

The First Time Lauren Pailing Died, Alyson Rudd (2019, UK). Every now and again, I check the kindle deals page on the Amazon website. If I see a book going for 99p I have in storage but have not read, or fancy reading again (since it was likely many years since I last read it), I generally buy it. Same too for books that look like they might be interesting, even if I know nothing about the book or author – although I do read the excerpt, just to give me an idea. The First Time Lauren Pailing Died was explicitly likened to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book I’d enjoyed. And appeared to tell a similar story to Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, a novel which had turned me into a fan of Erpenbeck’s writing. So The First Time Lauren Pailing Died had much to live up to. The fact it fails to do so doesn’t make it a bad book, just not as good as the Atkinson or the Erpenbeck – although, to be fair, those are high bars to clear. As Lauren grows up she often sees silver beams of light, like beams of sunlight, through which she can see alternate versions of her own life. But then she dies in an accident at the age of thirteen. And then the novel follows her family as they deal with their grief and lead their lives. It also follows a Lauren who survived the accident, moved to London, joined an ad agency, married one of its founders… And a Lauren who married a childhood sweetheart, but then wakes up one day after a nap and can remember events from her other lives… The one constant in all three lives is the mysterious disappearance of her father’s boss when Lauren was young. And it’s that which drives the plot. Unfortunately, it’s a weak engine for what is a nice piece of speculation of lives lived in alternate realities and the Many Worlds Hypothesis. Lauren’s narrative is a good read, but making it all about the disappeared man leads a to a weak ending.

Episodes, Christopher Priest (2019, UK). I’m not a huge fan of Priest’s work. Something about it leaves me cold. Mostly. He’s a very clever writer and I treasure that cleverness, but he’s also a writer whose work I can take or leave. I was drawn to Episodes because Priest provides a “before” and an “after” for each story, in  which he discusses how it came about, and what happened as a result of its publication. The stories are from the length of Priest’s career – the earliest was originally published in 1972, the latest in 2017. Some have never been collected before. The stories are… surprisingly gruesome. Obviously, they’re well-crafted… but there’s still something in their careful prose that leaves me mostly unaffected. The annotations to the story are interesting, and certainly add value to the collection. Which is not, I hasten to add, by any means a bad collection. Priest is one of the UK’s best science fiction writers, and he has written a number of excellent novels, and excellent stories too, although only one or two, ‘Palely Loitering’ for example, included here qualify. Episodes is going to appeal more to fans of Priest’s writing than others, and while I can’t call myself a fan, I did think the collection good. Annoyingly, my paperback copy was bound with only 344 of 368 pages – so it was missing the last story and the end of the penultimate story. I pinged Gollancz on Twitter, but no response…