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Reading diary 2018, Clarke Award special

Last year’s Clarke Award shortlist was a bit pants, to be honest, and I’ve yet to even read the winner, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book whose reputation seems to have waned somewhat in the year since it won. I suspected this year might prove a bit more interesting as there were several novels published last year that I thought worthy of the award. Happily, one of them did make the shortlist. But a lot of expected titles did not – such as Nina Allan’s BSFA Award-winning The Rift (see here).

For the record, the shortlist is as below. I was more than happy to see Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time on it as I’ve been championing the book since I read it late last year (see here).

I’ve now read five of the novels. I’m not bothering with Borne – although I’ve heard good things about it – because I didn’t take to Vandermeer’s Annihilation and life’s too short and all that. The Charnock, of course, I’ve already read and rate highly. The other authors were completely new to me – and at least three of them are, I believe, debuts. Anyway, I ordered me some copies, and read them, and… Oh dear. That shortlist looked good on first impression, but it really didn’t survive scrutiny…

Gather the Daughters, Jennie Melamed (2017, USA). This has been described a post-apocalyptic dystopia but it’s nothing of the kind. A small religious community ekes out an existence on an island off the coast of the “wastelands”. The novel is told through the narrative of several girls in the community – all aged about twelve or thirteen, and yet to go through puberty. Once they have done so, they will be married off and bear children. A fair few of which may prove to be “defectives” and killed at birth, if they survive it. Melamed tries hard to suggest this is a consequence of whatever apocalypse it was, epidemic or nuclear war, which turned the rest of the world into a wasteland. But it quickly becomes apparent that the girls are being abused nightly by their fathers, and that the community was set up specifically for that end. It also becomes patently obvious that there is no “wastelands” – the world outside has not changed. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the premise of M Night Shyamalan’s film The Village. So, a group of religious nutjobs founded a community which would allow them to abuse their daughters and treat their wives as chattel. Oh, and euthanise their old people when they no longer proved useful – and they’re not all that old, to be honest, late thirties, perhaps. I don’t know what world Melamed lives in, but these are all illegal and hugely immoral in the real world. I know the US loves its nutjob religious communities and let’s them get away with, well, murder… but the island in Gather the Daughters is only plausible if there really had been an apocalypse. To make matters worse, Melamed completely fails to comment on the world she has built. In crime fiction, the reader witnesses a murder, but then the murderer is brought to justice. The moral consequences of murder are shown. Melamed doesn’t bother. She normalises child abuse and misogyny. She treats the monsters she writes about with total seriousness but makes zero reference to its morality. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the writing is terrible, the worst kind of creative writing programme prose. You know the phrase, “kill your darlings” that writer instructors like to parrot? If Melamed had done that, Gather the Daughters would have been a third its size. When I saw Gather the Daughters on the shortlist, I thought it looked interesting (after I’d thought, “shouldn’t it be Gather Your Daughters?”). Having now read it, I have to wonder why it was shortlisted.

Sea of Rust, C Robert Cargill (2017, USA). Some time in the near-future, robots became commonplace, and then somehow developed sentience. But then the owner of a robot died with no heirs, so the robot, now ownerless, argued for its emancipation. And succeeded. But then it, and thousands of other robots, were destroyed by an EMP set off by a nutjob church. The robots responded by somehow overcoming their “Robotic Kill Switch” – yes, it’s really called that; and don’t get me started on the hash Cargill makes of Asimov’s Three Laws, or the stupid random number generator – and slaughtering the church members. So kicking off a genocidal war. Sea of Rust opens decades after that war, after all the humans have been slaughtered and only robots remain, and two AI “mainframes” – yes, they’re really called that; and they fill entire skyscrapers! – are fighting each other and trying to assimilate all the free robots. The narrator of Sea of Rust is Brittle, a female robot, although not really gendered at all, who scavenges for parts in the Rust Belt in order to trade for parts specific to her model so she can keep on running. I really don’t know where to start with this book. The characters are all robots yet behave like human beings, even using expressions like “I knew it by heart” or “anger left his face”. They’re gendered but there’s no reason for that given in the text. The computing seems to be based on 1990s PC technology, except for mention of a “core”, which is something they all have but the book does not bother to explain (probably because it’s made-up bollocks). And they use “wi-fi”. But not to talk to each other. For that, they use speech, you know, actual sound waves. And how the wi-fi works without routers, satellites, or even an internet, is left unexplained. The plot pretty much rips off Mad Max, with a few bits from The Matrix thrown in; and the whole thing reads like Cargill couldn’t be bothered to research any of the details of his world. Every other chapter, pretty much, for the first third of the book is a history lesson – and they’re just as unconvincing as his robot characters. I have no idea why this was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. This is a book that wouldn’t have looked out of place 35 years ago (mentions of wi-fi aside), but I refuse to believe it was the best category sf novel published last year (it’s the only book on the shortlist from a British genre imprint).

American War, Omar El Akkad ( 2017, USA). It is the late twenty-first century and three of the US’s Southern states have seceded from the Union. A low-grade war now rumbles between them and the rest of the country. Rising sea levels have already drowned most of the coastal areas, and what remains of California and Texas are now part of Mexico. Sarat Chestnut was born in Louisiana, but when a suicide bomber kills her father, she, her twin sister, older brother and mother move to a refugee camp near the border with the North. All the time I was reading American War, I had trouble getting my head round it. It paints the secessionist states as the good guys – and the invective against the North in the book is really quite nasty – and yet not once does it mention the South’s racial history. The secessionists have also committed terrorist attacks against the Northerners – and yet are still painted as the side of good. The reason for their secession is their insistence on using fossil fuels after a total ban. It seems such a feeble excuse for a war – especially given the importance of Southern character, and how it relates to the war, in the narrative. It’s like El Akkad wanted the US as it now exists to be the bad guys – incarceration without due process, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, all of which the North uses routinely in the novel – but because it was a civil war, he had to make the South the good guys. Despite the fact the last war the South fought was to keep the right to own slaves, despite the fact they were forced to stop segregation only some two generations ago, despite the fact their racist mindset is seeing a resurgence since Trump took power… Anway, Sarat survives a massacre at the refugee camp by Northerner militia, and so is recruited into an underground southern army. She becomes a sniper, and is responsible for the death of the general leading the Northern army (it’s not an “assassination” when you’re at war, incidentally). She is later captured and incarcerated at a Guantanamo-like facility, and tortured, for seven years, although her jailers clearly don’t know what she’s done. When she is eventually released, she is desperate for revenge, so desperate she does the unthinkable… which is pretty much explained in the prologue. And yet… and yet… it works. The excess of detail in the prose is annoying at first, but soon drops away as the story picks up. Perhaps Sarat reminded me over much of Radix from AA Attanasio’s novel of that title, but El Akkad has done his homework and invented a mostly credible world for his story. And, to be honest, the novel improved as it progressed. It did feel like it wasn’t sure of its targets – and a story such as American War definitely has targets – so much so it actually rendered its commentary mostly toothless. Perhaps it was just because I read American War after Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust, but I thought it deserving of its place on the Clarke Award shortlist. I don’t think it deserves to win, but it at least deserves a chance at winning.

Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař (2017, USA). If there’s one thing I hate it’s books which feature space exploration where the author can’t be arsed to get the details right. There is a vast amount of documentation out there, in books and on the internet, on the subject. How fucking difficult is it to get it right? It is, for example, “space” and not “Space”. FFS. A spacecraft shot into space on top of a rocket is not necessarily a “space shuttle” and, in fact, especially not if it’s not reusable. And if a comet enters the Milky Way eighteen months ago, then it actually entered it 29,998.5 years ago as the Sun is 30,000 light-years from the edge of the galaxy. And to reach Earth in 18 months, that comet would have to be travelling at 2.3 light years an hour, or 13,521,700,000,000 mph. It’s not fucking rocket science. Well, you know what I mean. In fact, the novel drops clangers throughout its space-set narrative: describing vacuum as tightening around the narrator “like bathwater”, confusing vacuum and zero gravity, seeming to think spacesuits only use pure oxygen on EVA and then to prevent decompression sickness… Fortunately, the novel’s other narrative is far better. Jakub Procházka has been selected as the first Czech astronaut. The aforementioned comet has left a cloud, named Chopra, “between Earth and Venus” – well no, between the orbits of Earth and Venus, since the distance between the two planets changes as they orbit the Sun. Anyway, the Czechs have decided to send the first crewed spacecraft to Chopra. Procházka is an astrophysicist and the person chosen for the mission – it seems stupid to send one person, especially given the size of the spacecraft, JanHus1, as it is described. En route an alien appears in the spacecraft and tells Procházka it wishes to study “humanry”. It’s not certain whether the alien is real or an hallucination, but given that so much of the space-set narrative is complete bollocks I’m inclined to go for hallucination. (At one point, Procházka sees a frozen Laika float past – which would be difficult as Sputnik 2 disintegrated on re-entry in 1958, five months after Laika’s death.) Interwoven with the JanHus1 mission are chapters on Procházka’s childhood and life and marriage. The son of a secret policeman, who died shortly after the Velvet Revolution, he and his grandparents, who raised him, were shunned by their neighbours. They moved to Prague, Procházka went to university, and became a world expert on cosmic dust – hence his selection for the mission to the cloud. These chapters are interesting and, I assume, much better researched than the other narrative. However, they do make you wonder what the point of Spaceman of Bohemia is. Why not write a novel about growing up in post-Revolution Czechia? Why all the guff about the cloud and the alien and the space mission? Which ends with Procházka being implausibly rescued by a space shuttle from a secret decades-long Russian space programme. Which he causes to crash on re-entry but he manages to survive… before returning home incognito to exorcise some ghosts from his past, which, er, had bugger-all to do with the space mission. The earth-bound narrative is good, a novel in its own right. The space mission is complete bollocks – badly-researched, pointless and dull. If it had not been for that – and given it’s so badly done, how the hell did the book make the shortlist for a science fiction award? – Spaceman of Bohemia would be a bloody good book.

It’s probably also worth noting that this year’s shortlist is one UK author and five US authors (both El Akkad and Kalfař moved to North America as teenagers and are resident in the US). This is not unusual – science fiction has been dominated by the US since the genre’s beginnings, and the Clarke Award shortlists have, since the award’s inception in 1987, mostly reflected this: it was last entirely British in 2008, and has included non-British authors in its shortlists for most years (although some non-British finalists have been resident in the UK).

I suspect I’m now going to have to read Borne, given how disappointed I was with three of the above. I think Dreams Before the Start of Time should win, as it’s a thousand times better than the Melamed, Cargill or Kalfař, and though it’s much better than American War I would not be overly disappointed if El Akkad won. I’ll reserve judgement on the Vandermeer until I’ve read it. Who do I think will actually win? I suspect the Kalfař is a good bet. It’s very literary and, despite the complete fucking hash it makes of its space mission, stylistically the best-written of the lot. But the Clarke tends to have a love-hate relationship with literary sf, lionising it one year and then giving the award to a hackneyed piece of pulp sf the next. Sadly, I don’t think Charnock will win, because I think the book is really good and I’m usually completely out of step with these things. The El Akkad would be my next guess, even if its attempts at relevance are badly mangled. The Cargill and Melamed should not stand a chance. But I’ll probably be wrong on that. Out of step, you see.

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Reading diary 2018, #4

A mixed bag this time around, although I’ve used that excuse before. I read what interests me. If I’m swayed by fads, it’s for one book or two. I read books by friends – but I have a lot of friends who write a variety of types of fiction. Which doesn’t always mean that I automatically like it. The one thing I demand is quality of prose, and I’m happy to read books from any genre that is well-written. The only problem is that different genres seem to rate prose differently. Which is bollocks. I’ve seen reviews of YA novels rate the writing as “excellent” when it’s barely functional. If it’s not up there with the classics, then it’s hardly good. If your book is still admired for its prose 100 years later, then it might be considered excellent. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

The Ghost from the Grand Banks, Arthur C Clarke (1990, UK). Of the Big Three sf writers of the last century, I read more Heinlein than I did Clarke or Asimov. The last I always thought a piss-poor writer, and for some reason Clarke never clicked with me. You’d have thought he would, given he tackles the sort of subjects I enjoy in my sf, and he was very much the hardest, in sf terms, of the three. So you’d also think The Ghost from the Grand Banks, which is about something that has interested me for the past few years, would go down well. It didn’t. The title refers to the wreck of the Titanic, and the novel is basically a rewrite of Cliver Cussler’s Raise the Titanic!, without the implausible thriller-type histrionics, or exclamation mark, and with a series of lectures on, er, Mandelbrot Sets instead. Clarke even has a dig at the film adaptation of Cussler’s novel. The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is rapidly approaching, and two groups of people decide to raise the wreck to mark it. Since the wreck is in two parts, they’ll each raise one part using different methods. A British consortium plans to use glass spheres to float the forward part of the wreck, and a Japanese-American group will freeze the stern part in an iceberg, which they will then shoot to the surface using rockets. This is a book that revels in its use of future technology, and yet manages to get most of it wrong. It’s an occupational hazard of near-future sf, I admit, but most such novels are written such that they’re readable years later. Clarke didn’t appear to care. And perhaps with good reason: he’d sell boatloads, and if the book was out of print 12 months later, he had plenty of other properties pulling in the cash. It’s not that Clarke stinted on his research, more that it all feels re-used – as if he’d done it for another project and decided to get extra mileage out of it by writing this novel. Which is pretty bad. The characterisation is paper-thin, the plot is obvious, the science is mostly incidental, and the computer technology described is completely off-base… Not one of Clarke”s best. Missable.

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock (2013, UK). This was Charnock’s debut novel, but I’ve jumped about a bit in reading her books, having read her latest most recently. However, she doesn’t stray from her shtick, so I’d a good idea what to expect. A Calculated Life provides the setting of Charnock’s novella, The Enclave, which is good, but suffers from not knowing the setting, as revealed in A Calculated Life. A flaw I have now rectified. In the near-future of A Calculated Life, which seems to be set after some sort of climate crash as Lancashire now has a Mediterranean climate, “simulated humans” are relatively common in the workplace. They’re force-grown, and genetically-engineered for certain traits. The main character of A Calculated Life is Jayna, one such simulated human. She works for a private company in Manchester, predicting economic and social trends based on seemingly unconnected events. She is very good at it – much better than “bios” and earlier models of simulants. But driving her ability is an obsession to learn as much as possible about people… and so she begins to secretly break out of her carefully prescribed life. This involves several trips to an enclave, as sort of working class suburb of Manchester which the government has pretty much abandoned – a sort of a cross between a ghetto and a barrio. Charnock paints a convincing portrait of a late-twenty-first century Britain which has responded to a drop in population due to climate change (rather than due to Brexit, although climate change will inevitably follow). The world-building is very low-key – and if only more sf writers did it so – to the extent it takes a while to figure out what is what. There’s enough that is the same, and enough that’s very different, to keep the reader comfortable as they slowly learn what’s what. The writing is good, clear and neither showy nor flashy, but this is not a long novel, only 208 pages. It does make it feel a little insubstantial. It’s good, but, happily, each new book by Charnock is better than the last. Her most recent, Dreams Before the Start of Time, will be getting the #1 slot on my ballot at the BSFA Awards (I’m especially happy it made the shortlist). Charnock is proving to be a name to watch, although I think she has something much more substantial than what  she was written so far yet to deliver. If you’ve not read her yet, why not?

The Assassinators, Philip Boast (1976, UK). Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I read four books by Boast that were sort of deep history occult/religious thrillers set in and around London: Resurrection, Deus, Sion and Era. I really enjoyed them. But as far as I could discover, they were the only four books like that Boast had written (and Era, published in 2000, was his last). His other novels appeared to be historical fiction, also set in and around London. But recently I stumbled across mention of his first novel, The Assassinators, described as a straight-up thriller. So I found a cheap copy on eBay, bought it, and… Um, it’s not very good. The writing is pretty poor, in fact. A self-made millionaire decides the world is over-populated and it will lead to catastrophe in a decade or two. So there needs to be a cull – in fact, the UK’s population needs to be reduced to around thirty million. So he arranges to poison the water supply in Merton Regis, a south coast town mostly populated by OAPs (I think I’ve been there, but it was called Eastbourne; horrible place). The plan, of course, does not go as, er, planned. The thugs he hired to poison the water tank screw it up. They put the poison in successfully enough, but leave clues which lead back to the industrialist. Whose wife has also learnt of the plan and is against it, straining their already-strained marriage. Meanwhile, the industrialist has vivid dreams about a post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by a nucealr war brought on by his plans to cull the world population. The Assassinator is not a great book, and in places reads like it’s set much earlier than its publication date – by at least a decade or two. I still like Boast’s last four novels – and I ought to reread them one of these days – but this was an inauspicious start.

Devices and Desires, E Arnot Robertson (1954, UK). I already have a novel by a British postwar novelist titled Devices and Desires. That’s by Susan Ertz and it was published in 1972 (see here). Robertson’s book predates it by almost two decades… but it’s also the sort of story that would have been told two decades earlier. Hebe is a thirteen-year-old girl who, with her father, helps refugees cross Europe post-WWII. The book opens in Bulgaria, where they are helping a group of four refugees cross through Macedonia into Greece – during the Greek civil war – and so onto France and Spain. But Hebe’s father is accidentally shot by andartes – Greek resistance fighters – and so she is forced to lead the group on by herself. After entering Macedonia, they stop for food at a remote farm, and end up staying for several days. In fact, it gets easier to stay than to continue on. But when a “helobowie” – a Greek expat returning to his home village to show off his new-found affluence – turns up, it attracts the attentions of the andartes, and only Hebe and one of her refugees escape. Hebe is reluctant to accept help, because any well-meaning aid agency will immediately send her to a “displaced persons” camp, and she has her own plans. I had no real idea what to expect when I bought Devices and Desires. Robertson was a name on a list of postwar British women writers I planned to work my way through – I’m already a fan of a few, such as Olivia Manning and Elzabeth Taylor – and I admit I picked Devices and Desires because it shared its title with that Ertz novel. But. I liked it. It paints a vivid portrait of the Balkans, it’s careful to set out all the various factions as objectively possible, and it shows a pragmatic, but compassionate, attitude to the problem of refugees. Though it’s set in the decade following WWII, in lands still suffering from the war’s effects, both politically and economically, there’s little in it that dioes not apply today. Refugees deserve our compassion – and ours more than anyone else’s, since we’re the ones causing the refugee crisis in the first place. It’s quite simple: if you don’t want brown people flowing across your borders, don’t bomb the shit out of their homes or keep the various factions in their wars supplied with weaponry and ammunition. It’s a problem with a very simple solution. Unfortunately, that solution means multinational companies foregoing profits. Which will never happen. Devices and Desires is at least set post WWII, and during a civil war precipitated byt the invasion of Greece, and the withdrawal of the invading forces. Robertson’s prose is very much of her time, but I like that style of prose. Hebe is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Devices and Desires is not the most gripping novel ever written – it can be slow in places, and the interiority occasionally overwhelms the plot – but the characterisation is assured and the setting is described well. I’m tempted to try more by Robertson. Which was the whole point of reading postwar British women writers in the first place.

Dun da de Sewolawen, Christina Scholz (21018, Austria). I was completely clueless reading this until I later discovered that it was based on the language invented by French prog rock band Magma. When I looked them up, I had a brief moment of déjà vu… and I wondered if it had all been explained to me beforehand but I’d forgotten. If so, I had, er, forgotten. But my ignorance actually enahnced the reading. I found out about it afterwards, and that was interesting. Anyway. the story is a sort of Le Guin-esque coming-of-age piece, which partly uses the world and language of Magma. It’s set on a world colonised by humans, but which had previously be inhabited by a long-dead race. And the humans are slowly integrating some of the culture ofthat long-dead race – through the artefacts they discovered – into their own culture, most noticeably words from Magma’s made-up language, Kobaïan. The writing is polished – had I not known, I’d never have guessed English was not the author’s first language – and most of the unfamiliar terms are parseable from context. It’s a simple enough story, told in first person, that uses unfamiliar vocabulary to add a gloss of strangeness… but what makes it for me is that the strangeness exists independently of the story’s world. It is googleable. It was something I used when writing the Apollo Quartet, that as much as possible “invented” in the three novellas and one novel had an independent existence outside the story. You could look them up in Wikipedia. And that’s true here of Kobaïan and its concepts. For me, it gives an added dimension to the prose. And that pushed Dun da de Sewolawen from a nicely-written Le Guin-esque sf story to something a bit more than that. It also made me want to listen to anything by Magma. Which I have yet to do.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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The BSFA Award

I’ve been a member of the British Science Fiction Association since the late 1980s, and attending Eastercons, on and off, since 1990. So the BSFA Award is the one genre award I’ve been most involved with as a voter. They’ve changed its workings over the years and, to be honest, I’ve yet to be convinced the current system works all that well. But then I’m not convinced popular vote awards are especially useful. I think the British Fantasy Society has it almost right – a popular vote to pick the shortlists, and then a jury to decide on the winner (and they can pull in an extra nominee if they feel a work deserves it). On the other hand, The BFS Awards have way too many categories. At least the BSFA Award keeps it nice and simple: best novel (published in the UK), best “shorter fiction” (novellas to flash fiction, published anywhere), best non-fiction (from blog posts to academic tomes, published anywhere) and best artwork (no geographic restriction either). This year, the shortlists look as follows:

Best Novel

I’ve read the first two, and in fact nominated them for the longlist. The Charnock was initially ruled ineligible as 47North is Amazon’s publishing imprint, but I argued the point on Twitter and the committee decided 47North was actually transatlantic and so the book qualified after all. I’m pleased about that. I’m in no rush to read the Leckie, as it’s apparently more of the same. The Hamid is a surprise. It’s also been shortlisted for the Man Booker, and I’ve not heard anyone in sf circles talking about it on social media. I guesss I’ll have to get me a copy.

Best Shorter Fiction

I’ve read the Charnock, and I thought it very good. There’s nothing from Interzone here, which is a surprise… Or maybe not. The most active voters these days seem to be those who use social media, and both Strange Horizons and tor.com are popular among them – but not Interzone, which is old school tech, ie paper. The Thompson I’ve seen praised a lot. The others I’ve heard nothing about.

Best Non-Fiction

I like the grab-bag nature of this category, but it can end up a bit of a dog’s breakfast at times. Here we have a book of criticism, two series of blog posts, a critical article in a book and a review in an online magazine. I’ve read the Banks book, and it’s very good (I might well have nominated it for the long list; I don’t remember). Adam Roberts is a frighteningly intelligent and witty critic (and writer), but to be honest I really couldn’t give a shit about HG Wells and all the books he wrote. I followed the Shadow Clarke (and was much amused at US fans’ mystification at the concept of a shadow jury), and I plan to follow it again this year. The final nominee… well, the only article published by Strange Horizons that I’ve seen mentioned several times is ‘Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift’ by Erin Horáková, so I’d have thought that more likely to have been chosen. I’ve not read the Ghosh book reviewed by Singh – my mother is a big fan of Ghosh’s fiction, but the only novel by him I’ve read is his 1996 Clarke Award winner The Calcutta Chromosome – but Singh’s review does look like an excellent piece of criticism.

Best Artwork

  • Geneva Benton: Sundown Towns (cover for Fiyah Magazine #3)
  • Jim Burns: cover for The Ion Raider by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)
  • Galen Dara: illustration for ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons)
  • Chris Moore: cover for The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
  • Victo Ngai: illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (Tor.com)
  • Marcin Wolski: cover for 2084 edited by George Sandison (Unsung Stories)

There’s not much you can say about Best Artwork – you either like the nominated piece, or you don’t. But another Jim Burns cover for an Ian Whates novel? Really? Burns does great work, he’s one of the best genre cover artists this country has produced, but I’d sooner see more adventurous art in this category. We also have a short story, and the art illustrating it, on two shortlists. It’s a lovely piece of art, but… I have a lot of trouble myself thinking of candidates to nominate for this category, so I guess it’s unsurprising the people who voted for a story would also vote for its accompanying art. And voting on the long list requires hunting down each piece in order to decide whether or not it’s worth a vote… Perhaps in future, the BSFA can provide a page with thumbnails of all the longlisted art?

So there you have it… Four shortlists, the winners to be decided at Follycon in Harrogate at the beginning of April. I’m going to have a go at calling the winners. I think The Rift will take best novel, Greg Egan best short fiction, the Shadow Clarke jury best non-fiction, and… okay, I’ve no idea who’ll win Best Artwork. Probably Jim Burns. Again.


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New Year spend

Christmas comes but once a year, but you can click on the “buy” button or wander into a bookstore on any day of the year…

To start, some Christmas presents. Having been impressed by Charnock’s other novels, especially Dreams Before the Start of Time (see here), I’m looking forward to reading her debut, A Calculated Life. I “discovered” Henry Green only a year or two, but I’m steadily working my way through his oeuvre; Pack My Bag is an autobiography, written because Green didn’t think he’d survive WWII (he did). I bought the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season, because it was on offer for £2.00, and thought it quite good; so I bunged The Obelisk Gate on my wish list.

Further additions to some bandes dessinées series I’ve been reading for several years. Volume 20 The Order of the Stones and Volume 21 The Time Opener are actually the end of the Valerian and Laureline series; there’s a volume 22, but it looks more like a B-sides sort of collection. Orbital 7: Implosion is the start of a new two-part story, although it does follow on from Orbital 6: Resistance.

Some recent science fiction. I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first one, An Exchange of Hostages, so I was pleased when they started again recently; Fleet Insurgent is a collection of short stories and novelettes set in the universe. Not every novella tor.com has published has been to my taste – in fact, most of them haven’t been – but Acadie is good solid contemporary sf, with a neat twist; also, the author is a friend and I like his writing. The Smoke is Simon Ings’s last novel, and I’m reviewing it for Interzone.

A selection of first editions. A few years ago I started reading some examples of post-war fiction by British women writers, and I’ve been a fan of the writing of both Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor for several years, but I’ve always wanted to try something beyond the handful of writers I read back then – hence, Devices & Desires by E Arnot Robertson, not to be confused with, er, Devices & Desires by Susan Ertz (see here). Many years ago I read a handful of novels by Philip Boast – they were all very similar, with plots based around secret histories of the UK, chiefly secret religious histories, but I really liked them and fancied reading more by him; The Assassinators is his debut novel and was a lucky, and cheap, find on eBay. Eye Among the Blind was Rob Holdstock’s first novel, and I’ve been intending to pick up a first edition copy for ages… so I was especially happy to find a signed one. The Two of Them I found cheap on eBay from a UK-based seller.

Some charity shop finds. I’ve never read any Ali Smith, although I’ve heard many people speak approvingly of her work; Autumn even looks like it might be genre. I keep an eye open for McCarthy’s novels when I find them, so Suttree was a happy find. And while I can take or leave Clarke, The Ghost from the Grand Banks is about underwater exporation, so it’ll be interesting seeing what Sir Arthur made of it.

I’m not sure how to describe this one. I found it on eBay, from a German seller, and since I’m a fan of James Benning’s films I couldn’t resist it. Although titled (FC) Two Cabins by JB, it seems to include essays on other works by Benning and not just that one. I didn’t pay anywhere near the price currently being asked on Amazon…


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Reading diary, #57

I’ve got a few of these posts to get out before I complete documenting my 2017 reading. The books below were all read two months ago, but I’ve been a bit crap at writing them up. I’ve been a bit crap at finishing books, in fact, and have got into the bad habit of picking up a new book before reaching the end of the current one… and then having to go back and finish it later. I’ve got piles of books scattered around the living-room which only need me to read the last twenty or so pages so I can put them back on the shelves (or send them off to the charity shop). I think I’ll make that a resolution for 2018: only pick up a new book when I’ve actually reached THE END in the one I’m reading. And if that means carrying two books on my daily commute, so be it.

Anyway, November 2017’s reading consisted of…

Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain). This is the sequel to Nocilla Dream, which I read and thought very good last year – see here. There is a third book, Nocilla Lab, although I can find no information on when Fitzcarraldo Editions plans to publish it, or indeed Mallo’s most recent novel, Limbo. Like the first book, Nocilla Experience is split into numbered sections, 112 in total, some several pages long, others no more than a sentence or two. They are a mix of fiction and fact, or, such as in the case of the snippets of dialogue from Apocalypse Now, found documents. The main narratives all deal with obsession – a man who is trying to eat every box of corn flakes he can find with a sell-by date the same as his ex-wife’s birthday; another who turns bubblegum stuck to pavement into tiny paintings; a third man runs a restaurant that serves up found objects instead of food, although they’re presented as food… It’s a fascinating literary experiment, although I’m not entirely sure how it’s supposed to fit together – or if indeed it’s meant to. And, for some reason, much as I liked it, Nocilla Experience didn’t quite appeal to me as much as Nocilla Dream did. But I’m still looking forward to the third book… and I wonder if there are any Spanish writers inspired by Mallo – the “Nocilla generation” – who have also been translated into English…

The Silver Wind, Nina Allan (2011, UK). I’m still not sure if that’s “wind” as in what you do to a clock, or “wind” as in the movement of air. And I heard the author read one of the stories from this linked collection at a Fantasycon in Brighton several years ago. But there’s a fob watch prominent on the cover, and the six stories inside are all about time – so much so, watches and clocks are repeatedly called “time machines” – and there are definite hints that travel through time takes place in some of the stories. But each story also features variations on a small cast of characters, suggesting alternate universes more than time travel. It all makes for an unsettling read, a mosaic narrative which refuses to remain constant, which refuses to settle down. While the plots themselves are little different to those you might find in a series of literary fiction short stories, the fact the world in which they take place seems to rest on shifting sands gives them a fantastical atmosphere. It’s something Allan does in most of her fiction, but in The Silver Wind, because of the small cast and the interweaving of lives and stories, it’s much more obvious. Good stuff.

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood (2009, Canada). This is the sequel to Oryx & Crake, and now apparently the second book of a trilogy, followed by MaddAddam, which I also own. I read Oryx & Crake a couple of years ago and, to be honest, I don’t recall much of the plot. I do remember finding it all very unconvincing and Atwood’s neologisms quite cringeworthy. That last is still true in The Year of the Flood, but the world it describes seems much better made. But brutal. Horribly, stupidly brutal, in fact. It’s cruel in a way that only science fiction and fantasy can manage, a scale of brutality that needs an invented world to achieve. Atwood seems to revel in the gore in parts of this novel, and I’m not interested in such fiction. I don’t want to read books that normalise psychopathic behaviour, and far too much science fiction does that. On the other hand, the “sermons” which introduce each section of The Year of the Flood are hilarious. It is, I think, a much better book than its predecessor, but it is also disappointingly violent. I don’t know when I’ll get to MaddAddam, but I suspect it’ll take me a while.

Prussian Blue, Philip Kerr (2017, UK). This is the twelfth novel in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, begun back in the early 1990s with his Berlin Noir trilogy. Since returning to the series in 2006, Kerr has been banging them out one a year, with no discernible loss in quality. And over the twelve books, we’ve seen Bernie survive WWII, bounce around South America, Cuba, Germany, and now it’s the mid-1950s and he’s a concierge at a small hotel on the Riviera. Each of the Gunther novels has followed the same template – what Bernie is doing now, and how he gets himself out of the bad situation he seems to have got himself into, and a narrative set at some point before, or during, the Second World War, when he worked for various iterations of the Berlin police. In Prussian Blue, a face from the past turns up and blackmails Bernie into murdering a woman in England, so he goes on the run. That face from the past was Bernie’s criminal assistant during an investigation into a murder in Obersalzberg, Hitler’s mountainside retreat in Bavaria, which he had to solve in a week before Hitler arrived to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Unfortunately, Obersalzberg, administered by Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Borman, is rife with corruption, and there is no shortage of suspects. Just make matters worse, Borman doesn’t much care if the crime is solved, just as long as he has someone he can put in front of a firing squad. Which he soon finds. But Gunther also has a suspect. Unfortunately, the murder is linked to the millions Borman and his cronies are ripping off from the Third Reich. And while Borman’s brother, who hates him, is waiting in the wings to bring him low, he and Gunther have been out-manoeuvred.  Worth reading.

Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). I forget who originally recommended Charnock, but I read her Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (see here), and was impressed enough to want to read more. Which I now have done. Although it has taken me pretty much exactly twelve months. But it was worth the wait. Dreams Before the Start of Time is… an ensemble piece. There are a group of people, related by blood or marriage or just friends, and they’re living their lives in London and Shanghai over the next few decades, beginning several years from now. The story opens with a young woman deciding to become a single mother, but using a sperm donor. Her friend, on the other hand, has a one-night stand, and decides to keep the consequences. As the years unfold, attitudes to the means of conception, gestation and child-rearing change as technology progresses and sensibilities reflect new social mores. A sf novel like this in direct opposition to the Atwood above – the world has not ended, there are no sexual assaults, no mega-violence, no violence, in fact. There needs to be more science fiction like this. Of course, it helps that the writing is really good – good enough for me to pick the novel as one of my top five books of the year – see here. I was given Charnock’s A Calculated Life, her debut novel, for Christmas. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Final Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Ladrönn (2017, France). Jodorowsky keeps on coming back to the Incal. This is hardly a surprise as it’s been his most successful title – although Incal spin-off the Metabarons has probably appeared in more media incarnations. In Final Incal, the multiverse is in danger when an evil machine intelligence creates a plague and the only defence is to convert everyone into a robot… Three iterations of John DiFool all meet up between universes, in the hunt for their lover, Luz, and the means to save the multiverse from destruction. But only one of them can complete the task. The artwork, by Ladrönn, is very good indeed. Apparently, Moebius did start work on the project, but only completed the first part, so Jodorowsky had Ladrönn redo it from the start. The story is the usual Jodorowsky weirdness, although it’s starting to feel a little recycled by now. This was an astonishing piece of sf in its day, and it continues to make for good reading decades later. But I have to wonder whether these returns and extensions to it are doing it any favours. I guess I’ll find out when I get around to reading Deconstructing the Incal

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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2017, the best of the year: books

2017 has been a bit of a parson’s nose of a year – or do I mean a curate’s egg? One or the other. Both the UK and the US continued their downward spiral into fascism and economic ruin, and as a result social media became really quite depressing at times. But it’s not like I have alternative sources to find out what’s going on – I gave up on newspapers years ago, and I’ve not knowingly watched a news broadcast since the 1990s.

I made a few attempts at starting writing again, but they came to nothing. I stopped reviewing too – so SF Mistressworks went on hiatus; and I’ve not had a review in Interzone since early 2016. That was down to the day job. Things have improved there over the last few months, so I hope to start reviewing again in 2018.

On the other hand, during 2017 I attended three Nordic conventions – in Uppsala, Helsinki and Copenhagen. One of them was even a Worldcon. I had a great time at all three. I plan to attend more next year.

One area in which 2017 was much like 2016 was in the culture I consumed. More films, but less books – in fact, this blog pretty much turned into a series of Moving picture film posts during the year (68 of them to date). As in previous years, I signed up to the Goodreads challenge, but I lowered my target by ten books to 140… and it looks unlikely I’ll make it. Ah well. However, I did read some very good books and watched some very good films, and discovered a few excellent writers and directors new to me.

This year I’ve decided to split my best of the year into three parts: books first, then films, and finally music. So, moving on…

books
As of the time of writing, I’ve read 123 books, down on last year’s 149. I’ll blog the actual stats on the books I read in a later post, as this post is about the best books I read during the year. Two are science fiction, and four are by female writers. There are also five nations represented – I think that might be a first for me. The figure in square brackets is the book’s position in my best of the half-year post here.

1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus) [1]. During a discussion on Twitter early this year about female literature Nobel laureates, I realised I’d read very few. So I decided to pick up books by a couple. Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, writes non-fiction composed from interviews with those affected by the topic she is writing about. As the title indicates, in this book it’s the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich spoke to those who lived in the area, and those who stayed, as well as people who worked at the power station, or were involved in fighting the disaster or cleaning up afterwards. Despite its subject, Chernobyl Prayer is a very poetic book. It’s also frightening, heart-breaking and affirming. It”s not without its detractors, people who claim Alexievich has not been entirely accurate in representing her interviewees, although I have to wonder how many of those critics only spoke up after she was awarded the Nobel. I’ve since picked up a copy of Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, but I’ve yet to read it; and I certainly plan to read more by her.

2 Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany) [-]. Erpenbeck has been a favourite since I read her The End of Days last year (and that book took my number one spot in 2016’s best of the year). Go, Went, Gone is not genre, as that one was, but straight-up mainstream (or literary fiction, whatever label you prefer). It’s about a retired professor in Berlin, who decides to interview some refugees being housed near him and so gets dragged into their lives and stories. It’s a subject important to our time – there are refugees flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa, many from situations in their homelands we Western nations have created with our warmongering and economic plundering, and the least we can do is treat them like human beings, with dignity and compassion, and show that we have built societies that welcome all. While Go, Went, Gone documents Berlin’s failings in this regard, Germany still manages a fuck load better than the UK, which puts immigrants in detention centres and treats them worse than criminals. What I love about Erpenbeck’s fiction is her distant and yet clinically sharp prose, and it’s on fine form here. An important topic, beautifully written.

3 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh) [2]. Ritwak Ghatak’s A River Called Titas is one of my favourite films, so I was keen to read the novel from which it was adapted. And it’s every bit as good. However, unlike the film, it tells several stories about the Malo fisher folk of the Titas river (in what is now Bangladesh). The movie follows one particular story, that of Kishore, whose young bride is kidnapped the day after their wedding. She washes ashore at another village, but cannot remember the name of her husband’s village. Many years later, with son in tow, she tracks down her husband – only to discover he had gone mad as a result of her kidnap. The novel weaves this story in and around many others, from several villages along the Titas, a tributary of the Meghna River, one of the three rivers which forms the Ganges delta. A River Called Titash is also an ethnographic document – Mallabarman was born on the Titas, although he worked as a literary editor in Kolkata, so he knew what he was writing about. The book is as good as the film – and that’s high praise from me.

4 Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK) [-]. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read by Charnock, but this one, despite its unwieldy title (yes, I know), I thought especially good. It follows a family through the next century or so as they each decide how to have children and treat their offspring. It’s not the most dramatic of plots, but I’m frankly fucked off with science fiction insisting brutality, genocide and mega-violence are necessary in every story. It’s possible to write dramatic genre fiction that doesn’t have a high body-count, or normalise fascism or villanise certain ethnic groups… And this novel is the perfect example of how to do it. It’s not even as if it’s optimistic, although I’m not sure such an adjective applies. It just is. It’s not only that I thought Dreams Before the Start of Time a very good book, but also that it’s a type of science fiction I think we need more of. Why not tell stories that do not create false enemies of the Other, or slaughter the Other, or in any way demonise the Other? Instead, let’s have stories like Dreams Before the Start of Time. Oh, and make them as well-written as it too.

5 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA) [3]. Friends had recommended this a couple of years previously, and I’d added it to an order from publisher Aqueduct Press not too long afterward. But it took me until 2017 to get around to reading it, and then when I opened it I was hooked. Okay, it posits a post-catastrophe world and it advocates genocide – per se – for certain groups, which does seem to contradict my comments above. But in Necessary Ill, Taber creates a group of villains – the neuts – who are way more sympathetic than the people they target – ie, American men prone to, or capable of, violence. On the other hand. the novel is clear that the plan is flawed and that those who prosecute it are also flawed. The society of the neuts is really well drawn, and while the prose in Necessary Ill is no more than slightly above average for genre fiction, the world-building is cleverly done. Despite its premise it proved to be one of the most optimistic sf novels I read in 2017. More, please.

Honourable mentions: The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic) [4] off-kilter story of an anarachist utopia founded in Brazil, and its failure; Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK) [5], third book in the sf/spy thriller trilogy that isn’t a trilogy anymore, won the BSFA Award this year; Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK) a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK) an accompanying text for an exhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA) the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of GileadParty Going, Henry Green (1939, UK) a party heading for the South of France are trapped in a London railway hotel by the weather, characteristically sharp prose from Green; Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK) the story of  a young woman who becomes a best-selling romantic novelist but never manages to live in the real world; This Brutal World, Peter Chadwick (2016, UK) excellent book of photographs of Brutalist buildings; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA) epic history of comics told through the lives of a US Jew and a Czech Jew who escapes to the US prior to WWII; Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain), the second book in Mallo’s trilogy of fiction cleverly mixed with fact.


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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.