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Reading diary, #45

The reading further afield thing hasn’t quite kicked into gear yet, with an almost entirely UK set of books in this post – and a lone bande dessinée from Belgium (which is, ironically, about a British writer: William Shakespeare…).

blake_24The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 24: The Testament of William S., Yves Sente & André Juillard (2016, Belgium). I’ve been picking these up as Cinebook publish the English translations, and if that’s not a testament to their quality, then I don’t know what is. Perversely, they’ve improved considerably since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. In most cases, the originator does it best – Hergé refused to let anyone continue the Tintin series after him; but the Asterix and Obelix series is generally considered to have declined now that both Goscinny and Uderzo are dead. But Jacobs’s stories for Blake and Mortimer were very much of their time – even offensively so: the villains for several stories is the “Yellow Empire”, ffs – and the science fiction elements were complete bollocks. Since the Edgar P Jacobs Studio has been producing the books, they’ve turned into clever alternate history conspiracy thrillers – such as this one. The William S. of the title is the Bard himself, and the story revolves around two societies who have been feuding for decades over who actually wrote the plays and sonnets. One believes it was indeed Shakespeare; the other believes it was the Earl of Oxford. But a clue hinting at vital evidence proving the claim of one of the societies is unexpectedly discovered in Venice, and, since there’s a huge bequeathed fortune tied up in the answer, the race is on to puzzle out the hidden location of the evidence, and either publish it or destroy it. Good stuff.

a_romantic_heroA Romantic Hero, Olivia Manning (1967, UK). I’m a big fan of Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, and always pick up her books when I spot copies in charity shops… which is where I bought this collection of her short stories (her second collection, apparently). I’d not read her short fiction before, only her novels, so I was interested to see how it compared. And, initially, not so good… the two opening stories, written in the 1930s feature two children of impoverished middle class parents (in a collapsing marriage) who live on the coast of Ireland. Fortunately, things pick up quite dramatically, and some of the following stories are excellent, with some lovely prose and sharply drawn characters. One features the semi-autobiographical characters from the Balkan Trilogy; another is set in Cairo during WW2, but I’m not sure if the characters appear in the Levant Trilogy. The stories in A Romantic Hero stretch from the 1930s to the 1960s (and a couple from the 1930s were re-written in the 1960s), but there’s no discernible change in Manning’s writing with each decade. Perhaps some of the earlier ones seem less individual, more like other fiction of the time; but still well-written. A good collection. Worth reading. Although, annoyingly, the book doesn’t have a table of contents.

cover_truth_largeA Thread of Truth, Nina Allan (2006, UK). I’m still in two minds about Allan’s work. I think that what she does is very interesting, I just don’t think it succeeds that often. On a prose level, she is an excellent writer, one of the best currently writing in UK genre fiction, and her ability to blur the lines between genres, narratives and even characters is both a clever and worthwhile schtick. A Thread of Truth is an early collection – her first, in fact – and is a nicely-produced hardback by Eibonvale Press (who do very nice books, it must be said). I found the stories… mixed. Allan’s prose is very good, but I’m not always convinced by her research. Some of the settings she describes are clearly based on personal experience – she knows these places and does an excellent job in conveying to the reader. But in the title story, the narrator enrolls on a Surveying and Land Management course at university because he wants to be a quantity surveyor. Er, that’s not what quantity surveying is. Every now and again in Allan’s fiction I stumble across things like that, and they spoil the story for me. Two of the stories in A Thread of Truth are actual science fiction, although neither to my mind pull it off especially well. ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ is set on an alien planet, where a team are studying a troop of local creatures which resembles dragons. And ‘The Vicar with Seven Rigs’ reads like mimetic fiction, until the penultimate page where it’s revealed it takes place in a future UK where travel between planets is routine, as if the narrator had sideslipped into an alternate reality. Neither worked for me.

poseidons_wakePoseidon’s Wake, Alastair Reynolds (2015, UK). If there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s when publishers completely redesign the covers of a trilogy for the last book. As Gollancz did for the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Now the design for Poseidon’s Wake is a very attractive design, but it’s not the same as the two earlier books, Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Argh. And after all that… Poseidon’s Wake proved a disappointing end to what had promised to be a good sf trilogy. The story picks up several decades after the events of On the Steel Breeze. the holoship Zanzibar is now just a belt of rocks orbiting Crucible, the settled planet orbiting 61 Virginis (I think). And then the world receives a message from Gliese 163, a star system some seventy light-years distant, which reads only “Send Ndege”, Ndege being the woman who was responsible for turning the Zanzibar into rubble by playing around with the Mandala and accidentally triggering it. So Crucible sends a mission to Gliese 163, which includes not Ndege but her daughter, Goma, and several others. En route, Goma’s uncle, Mposi, the head of the mission, is murdered, and the evidence points to a Second Chancer (ie, religious extremist) in the team. The ship arrives at Gliese 163 and discovers… that the three taken by the Watchkeepers are still alive – well, two of them are, Eunice Akinya and the uplifted elephant, or Tantor, Dakota – and Eunice was the source of the message. Because she’s fallen out with Dakota. Who now rules a colony of thousands of Tantors in Zanzibar, which was not apparently destroyed but sent on a near-lightspeed journey to Gliese 163. Oh, and there’s a waterworld superearth whose oceans is dotted with thousands of two-hundred-kilometre-diameter metal hoops, whose apexes are almost out of the atmosphere – and the world is protected by a belt of hundreds of artificial moons in complex orbits. This was all built by the Mandala-builders, and is perhaps a clue to their history and technology… so obviously everyone is keen to go and have a look at it. Including the Watchkeepers. But the moons will only let organic intelligences through… I remember enjoying Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze (read in 2012 and 2014, respectively), but this was all a bit meh. The characters were mostly unlikeable, and it was hard to figure out if they were meant to be likeable. One character is set up as a possible murderer, but he’s paper-thin and not at all convincing. Even Dakota, the uplifted elephant – and since uplifted even further by the Watchkeepers – doesn’t really come across as an alien intelligence. The prose is sketchy, with very little description (except of planets and stars and suchlike), which I didn’t like. And the book’s big takeaway is that apparently the universe doesn’t offer meaning, life has no meaning – and I’m sorry and everything, but I pretty much figured that out when I was about eight years old. There’s an interesting discussion about intelligence without consciousness, made in reference to the Watchkeepers, who apparently are no longer conscious. Because a feed-forward intelligence is not conscious, and a feedback intelligence, given enough resources, can simulate a feed-forward intelligence… except if A is superior to B, why use more resources to simulate B than A requires? It is, in somewhat apposite words, completely illogical. I didn’t take to Poseidon’s Wake, but no doubt others will.

book_enclaveThe Enclave, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). So I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds (see here), which was the first of four sf novellas from NewCon Press. And when I saw who had written the other three, I decided I wanted them too. The Enclave is actually the third, but I’ve not read the second yet. I read Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind last year (see here) and thought it very good. In fact, it reminded me of Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years or so. Despite that, I hadn’t really known what to expect on opening The Enclave. Happily, it is good, although I’ve yet to decide if it’s good enough to be nominated for an award (although given how few novellas I read in their year of publication… On the other hand, I wouldn’t nominate an unworthy novella just because it was the only one I’d read that year). The title refers to a ghetto in, or near, a UK city, in which live migrants and UK citizens who have refused to be chipped. (It’s not entirely clear what this chipping entails or means in the story, but given The Enclave is set in the same world as Charnock’s novel A Calculated Life, I imagine it’s explained there.) Caleb is a twelve-year-old boy who walked from Spain to the UK with his mother, hoping to find his father who had left earlier. But somewhere in England, he lost his mother, was picked up by Skylark and sold into indentured labour under Ma Lexie. So now he lives in a shack on a rooftop in an enclave. Ma Lexie sells “remade clothes” at a street market, and has three boys to do the sewing for her. But Caleb has an eye for fashion and so Ma Lexie boots out her old overseer and puts Caleb in charge. The story is told first-person, initially from Caleb’s point of view, then from Ma Lexie’s, and finally again from Caleb’s. The characters are convincing, the setting is an all-too-frighteningly-likely consequence of Brexit and the rise in institutional racism in the UK, which means the whole chipping thing does tend to dilute the politics. I’ve never really taken to first-person narrative – it’s always struck me as the weakest, and the one writers with poor imaginations most frequently employ. A first-person narrator who is a Mary Sue (of any gender) is a complete waste of time. Happily, neither Caleb nor Ma Lexie can be accused of that, and the use of first-person here allows Charnock to confine the narrative only to what the narrators know. Although well-written, I’ve a feeling The Enclave could have been stronger, made more of a meal of its setting, said something trenchant about UK politics of the last twelve months. Other than that, bits of The Enclave reminded me, of all things, of Kes, especially the end. And there’s a slight hint of Keith Roberts to it, which is, of course, a plus. I think I probably will end up nominating it next year.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Fresh month, fresh books

The start of a new month and so time to place an order with a large online retailer of books (and other stuff). Last month’s purchases were mostly catching up with books published in 2016 I’d not got around to buying last year. This month, it’s widening my reading to include authors from some countries I’ve not previously tried. Plus a few favourites.

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Three British writers. I read the first book of Ali’s Islam Quintet, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree back in 2011, and though I enjoyed it I never got around the reading further. Hence book 2, The Book of Saladin. Snowdrift is a new collection from Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, it must be said. Back in the UAE, I read several books by Tremain, but stopped when I returned to the UK. No idea why. I thought it was time I started reading her again, so The American Lover.

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Some fiction from around the world. The Captive Mind is from Poland, not the Czech Republic, as I mistakenly tweeted a week or two ago. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is from Albania. The Conspiracy and Other Stories is from Estonia. And A River Called Titash, from Bangladesh, is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted.

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The latest Blake and Mortimer. Volume 24, to be precise. I actually think this series has improved since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. The plots are much more closely tied to the real world. This one, for example, is about a rivalry between two societies who disagree over the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

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Non-fiction. Now that I have volume 19 and volume 20 I have complete set of Wings of Fame. All it took was patience. And I’m patiently waiting to complete my set of Heinemann’s Phoenix Editions of DH Lawrence’s books. Sadly, this copy of Studies of Classic American Literature is ex-library, and was not described as such by the seller on eBay, but it’ll do for now.

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Finally, some science fiction, old and new. Naked to the Stars / The Alien Way is #31 in Tor’s series of back-to-back novellas from 1989 and 1990. That’s why I bought it, not because I’m a fan of Dickson’s fiction (okay, so the Dorsai trilogy is still kinda pulpy fun). At the Speed of Light and The Enclave… Well, I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds because I like Al’s fiction… and then I saw it was one of a set of four novellas published by NewCon Press, and the last one was by an old friend, Neil Williamson… and I’ve read one of Anne Charnock’s novels and it was very good and I’ve seen Simon Morden tweet that he was keen to get the science right in his novella… so I went and bought the other three. The Memoirist, the fourth novella, has yet to be published, however.


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A weight of words

With Fantasycon and a quite successful trawl of the local charity shops, there’s a few more books than usual joining the collection. Here they are:

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After finding books seven and eight of CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers in a charity shop, I needed to get a copy of book six, The New Men. This one I bought from eBay. As I did Windows in the Sea, which is signed (although since all the copies I found on eBay, on either side of the Atlantic, were signed, I suspect that means little). Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper I won in the raffle at the recent SFSF Social. And I stumbled across the topic of Trapped Under the Sea somewhere online and it sounded fascinating – so I bought the book.

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My Fantasycon purchases. Sunburnt Faces and Astra were both freebies. There were a number of books free for convention members to take, but most were epic fantasy. I did, however, persuade several people to pick up copies of David Herter’s excellent One Who Disappeared (which I already owned). I’d been meaning to buy I Remember Pallahaxi for a while after reading Hello Summer, Goodbye several years ago. In the end, I decided to get all three Coney books published by PS Publishing’s Drugstore Indian Press. Flower of Godonwy is a DIP original. I flicked through Rave and Let Die and was pleasantly surprised to see I was in it – or rather, a review of my Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (in point of fact, the second edition paperback of my novella uses a quote from Adam’s review on the front cover). The Heir To The North is Steve Poore’s novel, and he’s someone I’ve known for many years. I first saw chapters from this back when I was a member of the local sf and fantasy writers’ group. When Dave Barnett described the plot of popCult! at a local SFSF Social, I knew I’d have to pick up a copy. So I did.

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Some graphic novels: I’ve been waiting for ages for 2000 AD to publish their run of Dan Dare – I remember bits and pieces of it from reading it back in the 1970s and 1980s – and now, finally, we have Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 1. I’ve been buying The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer since the Cinebook editions first appeared (after stumbling across a volume of an earlier attempt to publish them in English, about twenty years ago in Abu Dhabi). The series is now up to number 21 with Plutarch’s Staff. Valerian and Laureline I also stumbled across in Abu Dhabi – again a handful of volumes from the series were published in English. I then started reading it in French, but Cinebook started publishing English translations a few years ago, and it’s now up to volume 10, Brooklyn Line, Terminus Cosmos.

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I had a bimble about the local charity shops recently, and someone seems to have got rid of a bunch of classic literature. Result. I still have Sokurov’s Dialogues With Solzhenitsyn to watch, but I thought I might try reading him first – so I was chuffed to find a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I once tried reading For Whom The Bell Tolls but gave up halfway in; perhaps I’ll have more luck with The Old Man and the Sea (it is, at least, short). I keep an eye open for Nabokov’s books, but Invitation to a Beheading is apparently a Russian novel from the 1930s not published in English until 1959 (and not translated by Nabokov either). After watching Out Of Africa recently, I thought I might give Blixen a go, and promptly found Anecdotes of Destiny in a charity shop. Whenever I see books in the Crime Masterworks series, I buy them, irrespective of condition, as I just want to read them. Margaret Millar’s Beast In View is one I’ve not seen before. I’ve seen the film of Naked Lunch, but the only Burroughs I’ve read is The Soft Machine. Updike’s three Rabbit books are on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You list, so A Rabbit Omnibus was an economical find. And I’ve read most of McEwan’s books, although nothing since the disappointing Saturday – but I do have Solar on the TBR… and now Sweet Tooth


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Reading diary, #16

It’s pretty much a done thing by now that 2015 is the year of watching movies rather than reading books. And there’s a resolution for next year – make 2016 the year of reading books. Instead of slapping another DVD in the player of an evening, pick up a book instead. I have so many books I want to read, and since you can’t just take a pill and so magically be in a state of having read them, it takes an investment of hours and often days to get from first page to last. I need to invest that time – 15 minutes each way on my daily commute, and 45 minutes to an hour last thing at night, isn’t really enough.

Meanwhile, I continue to make lists… of books to read, books to buy, books read, books bought… and while on the purchasing side, the fun is often in the hunt for a decent copy of a title, or the surprise find in a charity shop, the damn things do exist to be actually read. And here are a few wot I have done so of late:

01_frankensteinFrankenstein*, Mary Shelley (1818). All these years and unbelievably I’d never actually read Frankenstein. I thought I knew the story, of course – who doesn’t? But that was from the films, and all they’ve done is lifted the central premise of Shelley’s novel and built their own interpretations of it out of that. I read Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound many years ago, and from that I was aware part of Frankenstein took place at the North Pole. But there was plenty – the bulk of the book, in fact – I knew little or nothing about. Like the fact it’s structured as a series of nested first-person narratives, opening with letters from an arctic explorer who rescues a man from the ice. That man proves to be Victor Frankenstein who, once recovered, proceeds to tell his story – how he worked himself into a breakdown at university, building a creature from parts (none of which are named, nor their origin specified), and which promptly escapes. And then Frankenstein completely forgets about his eight-foot-tall monster for a year, and is only reminded of it when his youngest sister is murdered and a beloved family servant is accused of the murder. He then meets the monster, which tells its story… the murder was an accident, but it feels Frankenstein owes it and must make it a mate. So Frankenstein heads off to London, and then north to the Orkneys, but after making a start on a female monster, he suffers a change of heart… so the monster murders his best friend and Frankenstein is arrested for it… Frankenstein is a lot richer a story than film adaptations have led me to believe, but it’s also – and likely this is a product of the time – less rigourous than expected. The entire Frankenstein narrative, we are supposed to believe, is being told to Walton, and yet reads like, well, like a novel. The same is true of the monster’s narrative, especially the part when he spies on the cottagers (not what you are thinking: it is from spying on a family in a cottage he learns to speak French, and to read and write it). Not to mention actual correspondence from Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s childhood sweetheart, embedded in Frankenstein’s narrative. The prose reads somewhat overwrought to modern eyes, everything dialled up to eleven – Frankenstein doesn’t have friends, he has soulmates he loves deeply. The lack of narrative rigour also takes some getting used to. But the hardest part is untangling all the subsequent versions of the story knocking about in your head in order to fit in the original source text.

plutarchs_staffThe Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 21: Plutarch’s Staff, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2014). Only two more and the series is complete. Well, there’s two more left that were originally penned by series creator Edgar P Jacobs, but who knows how many more the Jacobs Studio will produce. But since I like the series, that wouldn’t, of course, be a problem. And I actually like the non-Jacobs titles more than the Jacobs ones. Chiefly because they’re more modern, although set in the past, and a good deal cleverer. This one is set during WWII, and details how Blake and Mortimer came to be friends and colleagues. They had met before – in The Oath of the Five Lords (see here) – but had then gone their separate ways. As Plutarch’s Staff opens, Blake is a RAF squadron leader flying Seafires for the Fleet Air Arm, and Mortimer is working at a secret research establishment in a Scottish glen hidden beneath an artificially-generated cloud. But Jacobs’s more-than-problematical villains, the Yellow Empire, are waiting in the wings, ready to pounce once WWII has ended. Although they’re not above helping things along. Sente and Juillard drag in quite a bit of history – including a visit to Bletchley Park – and manage to cleverly slot Jacobs’s weird alternate history into our history. Good stuff.

v_bombersV Bombers: Valiant, Vulcan and Victor, Barry Jones (2001). Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent was controlled by the Royal Air Force. We had the Bomb, and it would be delivered by an aeroplane. Then the Americans and Russians started building ballistic missiles, and Duncan Sandys’ infamouse White Paper was published, declaring that the UK no longer needed jet aircraft as it would all be missiles from then on. As a result, the Royal Navy wrested control of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with its Polaris missile submarines. And here we are, more than half a century later, no one has dropped a nuclear bomb in anger since 1945, and the UK is currently preparing to spend billions to upgrade its Trident missiles because… Er, I’m not sure why because. Are we supposed to believe no one will take us seriously as a nation if we don’t have nuclear weapons? Does the bomb prevent us from being invaded? Invaded by who? Anyway, fifty years ago, during the Cold War, there was a known enemy, and the word “deterrent” had a real and palpable meaning. The British aircraft industry was in a really strong position coming out of WWII, with a huge number of firms, all at the cutting edge of aeronautical technology. Back then, the government could put out a tender for a new bomber or fighter and several British firms could compete for it. And the end result would be a world-beater. Unlike now, when we just buy some hugely expensive US aircraft that doesn’t work properly. The V-Bombers – so-called because the first, a stop-gap aircraft built by Vickers, was named the Valiant in a competion among company staff – were three jet bombers explicitly designed to carry nuclear weapons. And iconic-looking planes they were too. Then it turned out anti-aircraft missiles could reach the altitude at which they flew, so they ended up being used as low-level bombers. But they weren’t designed for that and it shortened their operational lives. The Valiant was retired pretty quickly (although it did drop a couple of test nuclear bombs), but the Victor and Vulcan went on to serve as tanker aircraft. Vulcans were also used in the longest bombing run in history, flying from the UK to bomb Port Stanley during the Falklands War. Anyway, this is a pretty good history of all three, although it focuses mostly on their design, testing and introduction into service.

a_girl_in_the_headA Girl in the Head, JG Farrell (1967). I like British postwar fiction, but there’s one particular type of story I’m not a fan of: the comic male midlife crisis novel. So guess what JG Farrell’s third novel is. Boris Slattery claims to be a Polish count, but he’s improverished, ends up in the invented seaside town of Maidenhair Bay, where he marries Flower Dongeon, whose house he now shares with his brother-in-law, father-in-law and her grandparents. He works as a maitre d’ in local restaurant, is friends with a Spanish boy who is staying with the family, and has sex with the underage daughter of the local stationmaster. And then the Swedish Inez comes to stay, and he begins to obsess over her. The story is told as first person, but there are interludes about Boris’s arrival in the town which he tells referring to himself in the third person. There are also some pages of typographical trickery, for no good reason that I could see. Despite being a comic male midlife crisis novel, there are things to like in A Girl in the Head, and plenty to admire. The comedy is very low-key and handled deftly. Farrell’s prose is excellent, and surprisingly insightful for the type of novel. In which respects, I guess, that makes it one of the better books of its type. Although, admittedly, Farrell is always worth a read.

brooklynValerian and Laureline 10: Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1981). This is the second installment of the two-parter begun with Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopiae (see here). There have been a series of strange manifestations in 1980s Paris, and so Valerian has been sent back in time to investigate. Laureline, meanwhile, is off to Cassiopiae to figure out what triggered it all. The first part of this series managed an impressively noir-ish air, and juxtaposing that with Laureline’s space opera narrative worked really well. But one of the things it managed well was a sense of mystery, and this second part dispels that because it, well, it resolves the mystery. In the 1980s, this leads to a meeting in Brooklyn between the heads of the two corporations driving the plot; and in the future, Laureline tracks down the two scavengers who inadvertently kicked off everything when they stole four religious symbols. The Valerian and Laureline series has always been among the smartest of bandes dessinée, and while the art is wonderfully glib and matter-of-fact, it’s the facility with genre displayed in the stories which is the series’ real charm. These are very, very good, and if you’re not reading them – why not?

ancillary-mercy-coverAncillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (2015). And so one of the most-lauded science fiction trilogies of the last couple of years, if not of all time, draws to a close. Was it worth the accolades it accrued? Did it deserve all those awards? Of course, as is always the case, much of it comes down to timing. Harry Potter became a global phenomenon because it appeared at just the right time. And certainly the timing was right when Ancillary Justice was published. Space opera was stuck in a rut, if not actively regressing – and Ancillary Justice was something different. Something visibly different. That thing with the default female pronoun, for example. Which doesn’t quite make sense in its professed use, but is certainly striking enough to generate buzz. Using “she” does not mean the Radch language is ungendered, nor does it mean female is used as the default gender. It’s a writerly trick, and a pretty effective one, but it makes little sense in terms of world-building. As for the plot… I wondered where the trilogy’s story arc was going after Ancillary Sword seemed to get stuck down a side-plot. Only it seems the side-plot is the actual plot of the trilogy and Ancillary Justice was pretty much prologue. And yet, despite all that, Leckie pulls a resolution out of left-field, to leave things not only neat and tidy but also with a giant jumping off point for any future novels. Ancillary Mercy is also a very talky novel, and a lot of the prose is spent on analysing people’s emotional states, little of which actually advances plot or world-building. These are interesting novels, and reasonably good ones, but I’ll be disappointed if this final book is all over award shortlists next year. Still worth reading though.

dan_dare_1Dan Dare: The 2000 AD Years Volume 1, Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Gerry Finley-Day & Dave Gibbons (2015). I remember bits and pieces of these from back in the late 1970s, although it wasn’t until a year or two later that I actually subscribed to the comic. But from the bits I did read, I seemed to remember it being quite good. I was wrong there. Reading the stories from start to finish in one volume really does show how bad they were. The art was often good, despite the limitations of the pulp printing process, but the scripts are uniformly awful. Admittedly, a lot of the Hampson Dare stories were pretty bad – and 2000 AD’s version bears no comparison with the Eagle original – but at least Hampson never had Dare say things like, “He’s stronger than a super-nova sun!” Nor did he rip off sf novels, like the one story in this volume which is pretty much Lem’s Solaris. Every time I buy one of these 2000 AD reprint omnibuses, I end up poisoning a little more of my childhood. Nostalgia only works from a distance, it does not hold up to scrutiny. Which is ironic, given that over half of the West’s various entertainment industries seem to be geared towards delivering nostalgia. But hey, there are all those people with rose-coloured lenses grafted onto their eyeballs and they’ll happily shell out for the latest cultural trigger to remind them of their lost childhood (as their bodies slowly fall to pieces and bits of it stop working as well as memory once insisted they did). Which obvs includes, er, me. As I’ve grown up I’ve developed powers of discrimination, and it’s not a superpower, it’s a consequence of maturity and age. And I wish a few more people would exercise that power. And yet, and yet… we are slaves to our lost youth, and I know damn well I’ll be buying volume 2 of Dan Dare’s 2000 AD years when it’s published, even though I know full well it’ll be shit. Because that’s an acceptable price to pay when your mortality weighs heavier on you with each passing day and those golden years of childhood come to be seen as more than just time spent in bodies that simply worked but also in minds that saw everything with uncritical wonder – and this has got a bit maudlin, so I’d probably best stop wittering on.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 118


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Retail therapy

There are many different forms of retail therapy. Some people buy shoes, some people buy clothes they wear once and then abandon in their wardrobe. I buy books, often hard-to-find secondhand books – and, yes, it may well take me years before I get around to reading them, but never mind. Here is the latest batch…

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Two books about aircraft. I pick up copies of Wings of Fame when good condition ones appear on eBay. I now have all but four of its twenty-issue run. The Handley Page Victor was one of the most iconic-looking of the Cold War bombers, and there were quite a few that looked pretty iconic. I remember seeing a simulator at some RAF exhibition many years ago. Urban Structures for the Future, on the other hand, is architecture – futurist architecture from 1971, in fact. I saw it on eBay and couldn’t resist.

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And from the air to beneath the sea. Project SEALAB is a 1966 junior book about the US Navy project to study living at the bottom of the sea, which ended in tragedy with SEALAB III. I wrote about it here. Diving for Science is, as the cover states, a history of deep submersibles, and Farming the Sea is about living, and farming of course, underwater.

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Two more installments in a pair of Cinebook series, both translated from the French. The Septimus Wave follows on from an earlier book, The Yellow “M”. Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia, however, is the first of a two-parter. They are volumes twenty and nine in their series respectively. I wrote about both of them here.

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Sisters of The Revolution I backed on kickstarter, and though it took a while to appear it looks like it was worth the wait. It’s an anthology of femininst sf by women writers, and it contains a few favourites. Hearing Voices is an anthology of fiction reprinted from Litro magazine and includes my story of Space Age fashion and Apollo astronauts, ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’. The Language of Power is the fourth – but not the last, one hopes – in Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. I noticed copies were getting a bit scarce so I thought it time to pick one up.

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Despite the fancy cover design, Poseidon’s Wake is the final book of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. The Lady from Zagreb is the tenth Bernie Gunther book from Philip Kerr, who’s now churning out novels like a machine. Gilead is a signed first edtion.

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And while I’m at it – this, Gollancz, is not how you do a trilogy. Two books that match and then… seriously?


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Reading diary, #7

Another catch-up on what I’ve been reading of late, before this blog turns entirely into a film blog or promotional posts for All That Outer Space Allows or A Prospect of War (damn, I went and mentioned them, damn). Er, anyway, I do still read books and here are some of them.

realspacecowboysThe Real Space Cowboys, Ed Buckbee, with Wally Schirra (2005). I picked up a signed copy of this a few years ago, but never got around to reading it. It’s pretty much a hagiography of the Mercury Seven, based chiefly on conversations and interviews with them in years prior to publication (many of them had died before this book was published – Grissom in 1967, Slayton in 1993, Shepard in 1998 and Cooper in 2004). Nonetheless, it’s well-presented – which Apogee Books are generally good at, even if sometimes their editing leaves a little to be desired – and makes for an interesting read. Buckbee started out in NASA public affairs, before becoming director of the US Space & Rocket Center and then US Space Camp. He knew all the astronauts personally, and much of the book is presented as a conversation among the Mercury 7. Not a bad read.

StainedStained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer (1969). Bulmer was a prolific sf author with, according to Wikipedia, over 160 novels published under his own name and assorted pseudonyms. The reason for that huge output is because Bulmer was a complete hack. As is evidenced in Stained-Glass World. It’s a bit of a tired set-up, workers living in a lawless urban wasteland a century or more after society has collapsed, the rich living it up in their glass towers and enjoying a life of drugs and debauchery, and somewhere in the background is a police state but there’s little in the book to support it, or indeed the entire world as presented. The plot is thin at best, and somewhat confused – there’s a group of “Uppers” down among the workers, hunting for “Joy Juice”, which is apparently extracted from workers under the influence of another drug. None of this makes sense. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of description of urban decay and ruins, and some especially dumb future slang (a Bulmer speciality, I suspect). Avoid.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I saw the Visconti film adaptation of this back in October 2013, and liked it enough to think it worth reading the novel on which it was based. Which is, according to Wikipedia, “considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature”. The story takes place in the 1860s on Sicily, during the unification of Italy. It’s about the Salina family, particularly the head of the family, Prince Fabrizio, who represents the old order, and his nephew and putative heir, Prince Tancredi, who first joins Garibaldi’s Redshirts and then the army of the king of Sardinia (who goes onto become king of Italy). While the family is holidaying in their palace at Donnafugata, Tancredi meets Angelica, daughter of the local mayor (a successful and corrupt local landowner), and marries her. When Fabrizio is asked to join the new kingdom’s senate, he refuses and recommends the mayor, as he considers him more in tune with the coming times. There’s a Lawrentian atmosphere to much of The Leopard – especially when Prince Fabrizio goes hunting while at Donnafugata – but it’s also a much more political novel than anything Lawrence wrote. Now I want to watch the film again.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). According to an accompanying press release, David Hartwell of Tor approached Gilman and “asked her to write a science fiction novel based on [my] enthusiasm for her short fiction”. Which does make you wonder why Gilman’s excellent fantasy duology, Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles, were published by ChiZine. Still, self-serving promotional press release aside, Dark Orbit is a short-ish sf novel set in Gilman’s Twenty Planets – as are some of her novellas, such as ‘Arkfall’ and ‘The Ice Owl’ – and I read it to review for Interzone. On the whole, I liked it, and it did some interesting and clever things… but I didn’t think it quite as successful as the aforementioned fantasy novels.

Prisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthews (1998). This is the second book of Matthews’s Jursidiction series, and while it didn’t read as well this time around as I remembered, it’s still part of a superior sf series. I used to buy Matthews’s books as soon as they were published. It’s a shame her career seems to have gone down the toilet. I reviewed the book on SF Mistressworks here.

stalinsgoldStalin’s Gold, Barrie Penrose (1982). In 1942, HMS Edinburgh sank in the Barents Sea after being attacked by German warships. She was part of a convoy which had delivered munitions to Murmansk for the Russians, and was carrying back five tons of gold bullion in payment. For fifty years, the wreck – and the gold – sat in 800 feet of Arctic water, too deep for anyone to salvage. But, by the late 1970s, thanks to North Sea oil, the technology existed to recover the bullion. This is the book of the successful expedition to retrieve it. A Keighley-based salvor put together a consortium with sufficient cash and resources to get the contract from the Ministry of Defence to recover the gold. What distinguished his proposal from others was that he planned to use saturation divers, rather than explosives and submersibles. Given that the MoD had designated the wreck of the HMS Edinburgh a war grave, it gave him the advantage (as did a mole he had in the ministry). An Aberdeen-based diving company, Wharton-Williams, provided the divers and equipment, a German shipping company, OSA, provided the ship, and Decca Racal provided the navigation and sensing gear. The consortium would get to keep 45% of the gold, the British govenment would take 37% and the Soviet government 13% (the Russians also had a pair of observers onboard). Penrose spends a third of the book describing the convoy and ensuing battle during which HMS Edinburgh sank. The remainder of the book focuses more on the Yorkshireman, Jessop, and is light on the technical aspects of the salvage. The writing is also pretty poor. There is, in fact, a British television documentary on the whole thing, “Gold from the Deep”, and some of the quotes Penrose uses seem to have been lifted straight from it (the documentary is available on Youtube here – a poor quality transfer, though).

islanddrmoreauThe Island Of Dr Moreau, HG Wells (1896). Although Wells wrote over fifty novels, most people likely only know him for four – The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and this one, The Island Of Dr Moreau. The edition I read was, as pictured, the SF Masterwork hardback – and it took me less than half a page to spot the introduction was by Adam Roberts. Anyway, the story is relatively straightforward – the narrator’s ship collides with a derelict (until the twentieth century, derelicts were surprisingly common, with several hundred floating around the world’s oceans and seas). The narrator is the only survivor and is picked up by a ship delivering animals to an unnamed island. Also aboard this ship is a man called Montgomery, who lives on the island as assistant to a scientist with a shady past, Moreau. The ship dumps the narrator, Prendrick, on the island with Montgomery, and so Prendrick learns of Moreau’s experiments on animals, making them into “Beast Men”. It’s all a bit handwavey – there’s no explanation of how the Beast Men are made intelligent enough to speak or overcome their animal natures. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong – coincidentally while Prendrick is there, and coincidentally, he’s the only survivor. To be honest, I thought Wells laid it all on a bit thick. Prendrick’s outrage and horror crops up on almost every page, and the Beast Men don’t feel especially nuanced. Not Wells’ best, although the central premise is certainly memorable.

val9Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia, Jean-Claude Mezières & Pierre Christin (1980). This is book eight in the long-running Valerian and Laureline (Valèrian, Agent Spatio-Temporel) series. It is also a pretty smart piece of work… which is more than you can say for most science fiction comics. Valerian is in 1980s Paris investigating some strange manifestations, while Laureline is in the Cassiopeia constellation looking into the possible source of the phenomena. The two communicate telepathically, and share their findings… but this is the first of a two-parter so what they find doesn’t really help explain what’s happening. However, where Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia is particularly good is in the noir-ish feel to Valerian’s investigation in Paris. It’s especially effective when contrasted with Laureline’s adventures on alien worlds. It’s hard to believe this is thirty-five years old. I can’t think of a UK or US sf comic from the same period of comparable quality – not even 2000AD back then was as good as this.

septimusThe Septimus Wave, Jean Dufaux, Antoine Aubin & Étienne Schréder (2013). And this is the twentieth book in the also long-running Blake and Mortimer series. Although linked with Hergé’s Tintin – the first Blake and Mortimer story appeared in the Tintin Magazine, and the comic uses a similar ligne claire style – series creator Edgar P Jacobs chose not to prevent its continuation after his death. He died in 1987, and only actually wrote and drew half a dozen of the Blake and Mortimer books. The series was restarted in the 1990s and has been going strong ever since. The Septimus Wave is a sequel to an earlier Jacobs title, The Yellow “M”, in which evil scientist Septimus brainwashes series villain Colonel Olrik into committing a series of crimes. But Septimus is now dead, and Mortimer is experimenting with Septimus’s equipment – except he’s not the only one. And there’s something else riding piggyback on Septimus’s “Mega Wave” generated by Mortimer and the others. Apparently, some of the post-Jacobs entries in the series have upset fans by being a bit too clever or something, and while The Septimus Wave is by no means the best of the new Blake and Mortimers I do like the fact they’re a bit more sophisticated than Jacobs’ own stories.

hewhoHe Who Shapes / The Infinity Box, Roger Zelazny / Kate Wilhelm (1965/1971). The Zelazny won the Nebula for best novella, and I’d like to say I’m mystified as to why – but this is a science fiction award from the mid-1960s, so perhaps complaints about quality are beside the point. And, well, it’s by Zelazny, who is allegedly one of the genre’s great prose stylists… But there’s fuck-all evidence of it in ‘He Who Shapes’, just a piece of sixties sexism tricked out with some handwavey conceit. Everyone smokes like chimneys and what little non-central-conceit extrapolation is weirdly limited – computer-driven cars! huge skyscrapers! suicide epidemic! Anyway, Render is a Shaper (spot the cunning pun there? My aching sides), which means he can therapeutically direct patient’s dreams undercarefully-controlled conditions. But then a woman blind from birth who is already qualified as a psychiatrist asks Render to help her become a Shaper. He initially refuses, but then agrees to use his talents to help her acclimatise herself to “sight” – or rather, what she would “see” in the dreams she would be directing should she become a Shaper. Nonsense. And Render starts to fancy her, and so finds himself trapped in one of her dreams. Rubbish. ‘The Infinity Box’ is even weirder, and seems to spend much of its length in search of a plot. A widow moves into a neighbours’ house while they’re on holiday, and the narrator finds himself drawn to her, so much so he begins to experiencing what she is experiencing, and even manages to briefly control her. It also turns out the woman is a photographer and sees the world very differently to everyone else – she can see the entire lifetime of everything she looks at. While nicely written, and Wilhelm handles the narrator’s relationship with his wife well, the two elements of the plot don’t actually fit together, and the implausibility of both badly affects the story’s credibility. There are two possibly good stories here but Wilhelm managed to produce a single confused one out of them.

projectsealabProject SEALAB, Terry Shannon & Charles Payzant (1966). A lucky find on eBay. At the time this was written and published, SEALAB III had yet to take place, so the book ends on an optimistic note… Which is unfortunate as SEALAB III was a disaster – while struggling to fix a leak in the habitat, which was on the ocean bottom 600 feet deep, prior to occupying it, one of the divers died, possibly as a result of sabotage. It was enough to stop the programme. And this despite SEALABs I and II being very successful (and Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter was involved with the second one). Project SEALAB is a somewhat simplistic run-through of the two habitats (well, it is a “junior” book), but it’s copiously illustrated with photographs, which is pretty cool. Incidentally, there are a pair of US Navy films on the two projects, and they’re available online – SEALAB I here and SEALAB II here.


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2014 reading diary, #4

The good news is I’m sticking to my New Year’s resolution to alternate my fiction reading between women and men writers; the bad news is that since I finished my reading for the Hugo – and what a pointless exercise that proved to be! – since then my reading’s been a bit all over the place.

ghosts-doing-the-orange-dance-hc-by-paul-park-1622-pGhosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) With a title like that, I’d expected this to be literary fantasy, something Park does really well. It actually proved to be meta-fictional literary science fiction – something Park does even better. Park looks back over the history of his family – the title refers to a painting by his relative, which may or may not depict a UFO visitation – trying to draw links between some of the stranger people in his family tree, and various strange events which may or may not have had anything to do with them. It’s impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction – Park mentions his A Princess of Roumania, for example, among many other details which feel autobiographical. The introduction by John Crowley and the afterword by Elizabeth Hand play into the same conceit. Of course, I bought the signed, limited edition… but a note on the limitation page says the signatures were “culled from other sources”. Huh? They’re not real signatures? Or is that another meta-fictional joke? Anyway, highly recommended.

astronaut-wives-clubThe Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel (2013) Read for research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows. This is the only book published to date on the wives of the early astronauts, although Life Magazine did run a series of articles on each of the Mercury 7 wives back in the 1960s. There is also, as far as I’m aware, only one autobiography by the wife on an astronaut – The Moon is Not Enough (1978) by Mary Irwin, wife of Apollo 15’s James B Irwin (yes, I have a copy). Having said that, several of the wives wrote or co-wrote their husbands’ biographies, such as Rocketman by Nancy Conrad (2005), Moonwalker by Charlie and Dotty Duke (1990) and Starfall by Betty Grissom (1974). The wives of the Apollo 11 astronauts also appear in First on the Moon (1970), the first book about the mission (see here). Koppel’s book is not especially insightful, and often borders on the banal, but I spotted no obvious inaccuracies, and it at least gives a more human portrayal of the astronauts than their own books do – but that’s hardly surprising, given they all had egos as big as the Moon. As far as the Apollo Quartet is concerned, The Astronaut Wives Club will be treated much like Wikipedia – a good place to start, but I’m going to have to look further afield if I want to dig deeper. All the same, it was worth reading, and I hope it’s merely the first book on a group of people who need to be written about more.

visforvengV is for Vengeance, Sue Grafton (2011) I’ve always much preferred crime novels which feature female protagonists, and my two favourite women PIs have always been VI Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. I used to like Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books until I realised the plot of every one was exactly the same. But, Kinsey Millhone… In this one, a gangster is trying to turn legit, a process that accelerates after he meets the bored wife of a Hollywood lawyer (who has discovered her husband is having an affair with his secretary). Meanwhile, the gangster’s not-so-smart brother is causing irruptions by behaving like, well, a gangster. Millhone gets dragged into it all when she witnesses a shoplifter in action and reports her to store security, said shoplifter being part of a state-wide operation run by the aforementioned gangster. The Millhone books are framed as reports given by Millhone to her client, although the narrative is presented as your typical crime novel – including sections not in Millhone’s POV… which sort of spoils the framing conceit. But never mind. I liked this entry in the series much more than the preceding few. Dante, the gangster trying to go straight, was sympathetic; I liked the narrative of Nora, the lawyer’s wife; and the various subplots came together pleasingly at the end.

bettertoBetter to Have Loved, Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary (2002) Also read for research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows. This is sort of Merril’s autobiography – it was compiled by Pohl-Weary from an aborted attempt by Merril to write an autobiography, her letters to various well-known sf names, and the introductions to some of her books (her collections and the anthologies she edited). Merril started out in the Futurians, an influential New-York-based group of fans in the 1940s, writing pulp fiction for hire, chiefly crime and westerns. They weren’t a very pleasant bunch in those days – at one point, they reformed the Futurians specifically to exclude one person they felt wasn’t much fun – but they were very close-knit, often kipping over for months at a time at friends’ houses. Merril was certainly outspoken, and these days she’d probably be described as “poly” – neither of which in those days endeared her much to her fellow fans and writers. Some of the gossip Merril drops in is horribly fascinating – such as, for example, when Frederik Pohl was an editor early in his career he’d buy his friends’ stories and keep 60% of the fee; or that, later, when Merril was an influential editor, writers would approach her and beg to be included in her next anthology, and they’d tell her they wouldn’t even accept a fee. Merril moved to Canada in the 1960s, and eventually took Canadian citizenship. She comes across as one of those opinionated but interesting people you’d probably dislike on meeting. Worth reading.

Dictionary_of_the_KhazarsDictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavić (1988) I’ve fancied reading this for years, so when I stumbled across a copy in a charity shop I snapped it up. But after all that… I’m not a big fan of weird fiction or magical realism – although when it’s kept low-key, I’m happy to read it. I thought Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana excellent, for example; which led me to think I might enjoy fiction by other Balkan fabulists. But this one just didn’t work for me. I thought the structure clever and interesting, and some of the stories which make up the dictionary entries were quite good. But often Pavić pushed the fantasy too far, and it spoiled it for me. The book is structured as three “dictionaries” – they’re not, they’re more like glossaries – which cover the conversion of the Khazar people to one of the Abrahamic religions. There’s a Christian dictionary, a Muslim one and a Jewish one, and each claims the Khazars converted to their religion. The dictionaries comprise biographies of important people and stories which illustrate their lives and/or their connection to the Khazars. The stories are… fantastic. Some of the details are amusing, like the person who saved up all their Tuesdays so they could use them at once; others, for me, just felt like a whimsy too far. I guess I like a lot of realism in my fantastika. Which is no doubt why I much prefer science fiction. Ah well. Back to the charity shop it goes, and I can cross Pavić off the list of authors I’ve always wanted to read.

sovietsfNew Soviet Science Fiction, Helen Saltz Jacobson, ed. (1979) I spotted this on eBay, discovered Macmillan had in the late 1970s published a short series of Soviet sf anthologies and novels, and immediately thought, ooh I can collect them. But just to see if it was worth doing so, I bought this cheap ex-library copy of New Soviet Science Fiction…. And yes, it was totally worth it. Now I’m going to have to find a decent copy to replace mine. And buy all the other books in the series too. The contents include fiction by Ilya Varshavsky, Kirill Bulychev, Dmitri Bilenkin, Gennady Gor, Vladen Bakhnov, Anatoly Dneprov, Vladimir Savchenko, Mikhail Emtsev and Eremei Parnov, and Vadim Shefner – with several of them contributing more than one piece. The Savchenko was good, a nice black comedy with a very Russian atmosphere. Some of the others feels like they’ve been translated too diligently into American English vernacular – I mean, what’s the point of reading Russian sf if it reads just like US sf? Annoyingly, the book includes no prior publication details, so I’ve no idea how old some of these stories are.

mancrazyMan Crazy, Carol Joyce Oates (1997) An author I’ve heard much about without actually ever getting around to reading. I stumbled across a copy of this book in a charity shop, so I bought it and… The narrator is a teenage girl with an absentee father and a drunken mother. She’s white trash, moving from place to place, although only within a relatively small region, eventually getting into drinks, drugs and dalliances with inappropriate men…  and eventually ending up in a biker cult. The control of voice is impressive, as is the way Oates builds up her story through a series of small vignettes (none really qualify as short stories, and some are shorter than flash fiction). But none of the cast likeable – even the man who becomes the sugar daddy of the narrator’s mother isn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart… although his fate is hardly deserved. This is a bleak novel, which I was not expecting. I’m still not sure if I really liked it.

fivelordsThe Adventures of Blake and Mortimer 18: The Oath of the Five Lords, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2012) I’ve been impressed with a couple of Sente’s scripts, more so than I have anything written by series creator Edgar P Jacobs – chiefly because Sente manages to stitch his stories into real history. And so he does in this one, and it’s particularly effective. The story is essentially a murder-mystery. The titular lords are a secret society, created decades before to safeguard a pamphlet written by TE Lawrence but which he was never allowed to publish. Someone is bumping off the lords and stealing their portion of the pamphlet. It’s up to Blake and Mortimer to learn the identity of the killer/thief before the pamphlet is all together lost and the five lords all murdered. It’s not a very complex mystery, though Sente still manages a few bits of sleight of hand with his clues. I thought this one of the better entries in the series.